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Parables of Surprise

The Sunday Lectionary after feast of Cross in September offers various combinations of Epistle and Gospel readings that break the normal pairings – at least in the Greek tradition. Today’s readings, Ephesians 2:4-10 and Luke 16:19-31, offer an interesting juxtaposition: faith or works? Paul says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” But our Gospel passage today seems to focus only on whether the rich man showed kindness on Lazarus.

Chapters 15 & 16 in the Gospel of Luke are rich with parables – and all deal with what it means to be lost. After two short parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus turns to three big parables with human characters. As if to underline that these are human, all-too-human stories, each parable begins with the phrase ἄνθρωπός τις – there was a man, anthropos. The parable of the prodigal son we read every year before Lent. The parable of the shrewd manager we don’t read on a Sunday, but it also is a gem of a story. The third parable is the one we read today, the rich man and Lazarus.

Each story features central characters who are lost in different ways. Then in each story grace enters and reverses the plotline. Paul told us today: God “raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch that? It’s not just a promise of a future life; we’re already sitting with Christ in the heavenly places! The immeasurable riches of grace are a future promise, but the present is already a life lived in rich fellowship with Christ. This is precisely what happened to all the main characters in our parables.

The younger brother was lost in sin; but he repented, changed his mind, and entered life. The older brother was lost in pride and ego, but the door was opened to him also to join the celebration of life. And let’s not forger that Jesus’ favorite image for eternal life was a banquet! The father in the parable was not lost, but he also found redemption of sorts by showing kindness to both his sons. You don’t have to be lost to receive grace and redemption. The father found a deeper life through the redemption of his two sons. Profound!

The shrewd manager in the parable we don’t read on a Sunday was lost because of his dishonesty, but found redemption by using his dishonesty in a way that somehow met with Christ’s approval. Who ever said the Gospels are boring or irrelevant? Maybe Jesus was a capitalist after all! (Okay, I’m joking.)

In today’s parable, Lazarus is lost in poverty, hunger and invisibility. But he is raised from the dehumanized squalor of dogs licking his wounds to life in “the bosom of Abraham.” The rich man is lost in his self-absorbed luxury. Redemption of some sort comes to him too! He now sees Lazarus as if for the first time. Is it too late for him? The parable clearly indicates that it is; but he does try to prevent his five brothers from coming to the same end as he. Plus, he is in Hades. That’s not Hell. As a matter of fact, Hades was a Greek mythological concept: the place of the dead. Luke, the writer of this Gospel, was a Greek, not a Jew, so it is very possible that he inserted the language of Hades and made it a place of torment; whereas for the ancient Greeks it was not necessarily a place of punishment or torment. It’s highly unlikely that Jesus himself would have used the word Hades. He might have said, Sheol, and Luke turned it to Hades. Sheol in the Hebrew mind was not much different from the Greek Hades – not a place of torment, but a place of darkness and separation from God.

So all three of these parables with the ἄνθρωπός τις headline, have surprising elements. In each parable something takes place in and around grace that reverses “the way things are.” There’s a message there for us too. Never settle for the way things are. Our Lord is the master of surprises. So the entire question of faith vs. works is meaningless. Grace is the only thing that matters. And grace is unpredictable in its coming and in its effects. Prepare to be surprised – here in this life and in the life to come.


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The Truth About Repentance

 

I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.


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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.

silkroad

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.

prodigal-son

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.