Ancient Answers


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Who am I? Who are you?

 

A Nasruddin story

A neighbour came to the gate of Mulla Nasreddin’s yard. The Mulla went to meet him outside.

“Would you mind, Mulla,” the neighbour asked, “can you lend me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town.”

The Mulla didn’t feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however. So, not to seem rude, he answered:

“I’m sorry, but I’ve already lent him to somebody else.”

All of a sudden the donkey could be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard.

“But Mulla,” the neighbour exclaimed. “I can hear it behind that wall!”

“Whom do you believe,” the Mulla replied indignantly, “the donkey or your Mulla?”

I can’t help but think of this Nasruddin story when I think on today’s Gospel Parable of the Sheep and Goats. It’s so easy to say, Whom are you going to believe, Jesus, or what I tell you he meant? There are millions of Christians – whom I call “Rapture Christians” – who simply ignore the plain teaching of what Jesus says. How do they do this? They simply say it doesn’t apply to them. It applies to other people, or to another time and place! Nice and quick way to avoid the plain meaning. You can’t argue with people who simply refuse to accept what’s in front of them.

But it’s much worse than that. Most Christians in one way or another have substituted their own beliefs for what Jesus says. Most Christians – including Orthodox, Catholics and most Protestants – think the most important thing is what we say about Christ, rather than what he said!

But pay attention. The Lord will gather THE NATIONS! He says nothing about what they believe, what the religions of the nations might be. He will gather the nations and will separate them according to what they have done. Deeds – not creeds!

Look what Paul wrote in Romans ch. 2:

For he will render to every man according to his works… There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

“The Jew and the Greek” was just shorthand for saying everyone. If Paul were writing today, he might have said, the Jew and the Muslim, the Jew and the Buddhist…

The judgment is universal. Jews, Christians, Muslims, have similar ideas about God’s judgment. They might not agree on many things – but they do agree about judgment. And the bottom line is how we practice our faith! That is why Jesus said “the nations”.

41t4vjn9hzlI’ve been reading a book about Thomas Merton’s relationship to Judaism.

Merton: If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.

Martin Buber: I have “felt Jesus from my youth onwards as my great brother.” … “we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him.”

This is a provocative statement, even arrogant on the part of Buber, and it took a while for it to sink in. But when it did, I had no disagreement with it. And the Jesus who spoke to us today is Buber’s brother!

Buber quotes a tale told by Rabbi Hanokh:

There was once a man who was very forgetful. When he got up in the morning it was so hard for him to find his clothes that at night he almost hesitated to go to bed for thinking of the trouble he would have on waking. One evening he took paper and pencil and as he undressed noted down exactly where he put everything he had on. The next morning, he took the slip of paper in his hand and read: cap – there it was, he set it on his head; pants – there they lay, he got into them… and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well, but now where am I myself?” he asked in great agitation. “Where in the world am I?” He looked and looked, but it was in vain that he searched; he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us,” said the rabbi.

Where am I? I might have all my beliefs in place. I might think of myself as alright with God. I’m Orthodox, after all, I’m not a heretic. But where am I? Am I missing the most important thing? Jesus’ parable today tells me that I am where he is! I will find myself where I will find him: In you, in my neighbor, in the homeless, in the stranger, in the refugee.

That’s the true power of Jesus’ words – and his words shatter all our conceptions of what religion is. And that’s why he says, “the nations” – because our beliefs are not our own, they are the beliefs of our tribes and national/ethnic identifies. But Jesus shows us a higher identity – an identity of truly transforming power.

But I will give the final word to Thomas Merton:

The message of the Bible is that into the confusion of man’s world, with its divisions and hatred, has come a message of transforming power, and those who believe it will experience in themselves the love that makes for reconciliation and peace on earth.


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Don’t be prodigal in your prayers!

 

Among the most impressive civilizations in world history were the great Islamic societies of Central Asia, along what were called the Silk Roads. Great architecture and art, literature, technology, scientific and mathematical discoveries were among the trademarks of these societies – in sharp contrast to the common perceptions of Islam that are common in Europe and North America today.

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Great philosophers and teachers of spirituality and folk wisdom abounded in those societies. One of the most famous of these was Nasruddin (13th century). He was a popular preacher, but also something of a clown – the Muslim counterpart of the “fool for Christ” in Christian societies. Many stories about him have come down through the centuries are widely enjoyed to this day. I have used some of his stories in past sermons.

Statue of Mullah Nasruddin

Statue of Mullah Nasruddin

Mullah Nasruddin was invited to deliver a sermon. When he got on the pulpit, he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No” – so he declared, “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about,” and he left.

nasreddin_17th-century_miniatureThe people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked the same question, the people replied “Yes.” So Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time,” and he left.

So the people decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mulla to speak the following week. This time they were prepared for him. Once again he asked the same question, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half the people answered Yes while the other half replied No. So Nasreddin said “Let the half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the half who don’t,” and he left.

So today, those of you who know what the parable of the prodigal son is all about can teach it to those who don’t, and I can finish the Liturgy. Or, do you know what the parable is about? There’s always something new to discover in this beautiful parable that Jesus spoke and which we read two weeks before Lent begins.

Last week we witnessed two men in the Temple, the publican and the pharisee, and two sharply opposite ways of praying. Today also we witness sharp contrasts in how one can pray.

The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance. He wants to enjoy it now when he is young, not when his father dies and he will no longer be young. He wants to sow his wild oats, he wants to party. We also are impatient. In today’s world of instant gratification, waiting is unnatural. We want what is ours and we want it now! So we pray for things that we haven’t worked for. We pray for things that we are not mature enough to handle.

The son gets his inheritance and sure enough goes away to a foreign land and spends it all. He is hungry, he can’t even eat what is fed to the pigs! And his thoughts turn to his home. He rehearses what he will say to his father. He will grovel, he will ask to be treated like a slave.

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But the father pays no attention to his rehearsed speech. He instead turns to the servants and asks them to dress his son in the finest robe and prepare for a big celebration.

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How many of our own prayers are carefully rehearsed? We think that if use the right words, God will grant our requests. And this creates a problem for most of us. Because we don’t know what words to use, we don’t pray! So the father’s lesson to us today is to stop searching for fancy words, stop rehearsing! Just open your heart and be honest in your poverty of words and in your poverty of spirit.

The father in the parable does not listen to the rehearsed prayer of his son. He lifts him up; he doesn’t let him grovel. That’s how God receives us. God does not need long explanations or speeches. God is looking to dress us in royalty.

Lessons for us:

  • Don’t pray selfishly.
  • Don’t pray for things that you are not ready to receive.
  • Be patient for God to act in your life.
  • Realize when you’ve drifted far from God and your divine home.
  • Turn to God with open heart and honesty.
  • Don’t be prodigal in your prayers! Be simple.
  • Don’t rehearse fancy prayers. Prayer is an open heart!
  • Don’t grovel when God lifts you up.
  • Don’t think of yourself as unworthy. God sees you as worthy. You are worthy of mercy and love beyond compare.