Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Tracks of God's Tears

Luke 19:28-44
by Daniel Harrell

The Palm Sunday outside Jerusalem ishen steeper than I thought it would be. Coming down off the Mount of Olives is a downhill run into the Holy City. And this being Holy Week, Jesus was definitely headed downhill. For the last leg of his journey into Jerusalem, he had two disciples round up a donkey colt. He did it like you’d expect a Son of God to do it, all wrapped in mystery and prophetic foresight: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.” The reason is found in Zechariah 9.  “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Jerusalem, for your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on the colt of a donkey.” Jesus staged his grand entry to make a Messiah statement.

Indeed there was great rejoicing when Jesus made his grand entrance here in Luke. And you’ll note that the people understood his statement. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” they sing. However you’ll also note that there wasn't a single palm. Instead, people took off their coats and laid them in Jesus path.  This was how people paid homage to kings back then, a gesture akin to taking off your hat for the national anthem. So technically, we should call today Coats Off Sunday. But since this is Minnesota in March, we’ll stick with the palms. They remind us of Florida.

Now I should say that, technically, we didn’t walk down the actual Palm Sunday road in Israel. We definitely didn’t stop by the village where Jesus got his donkey colt either. Nobody is sure of the location of Bethany or Bethpage. They’ve long since been covered by succeeding civilizations. One of the things about walking in the footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem is that you have to dig down deep to do it. But as with the colt, Jesus predicted this would happen too. Of Jerusalem he says, “not one stone within you will be left upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” This prophesy was violently fulfilled by a savage Roman assault. Had Israel received Jesus as king, things might have been different. This is why Jesus weeps.

There’s a church for just about everything Jesus did in the Holy Land. As you walk down the Palm Sunday road, just off to your right, is Dominus Flevit,  The Church of Jesus Weeping. As you would expect, it dramatically overlooks Jerusalem. And as you might not expect, it’s shaped to resemble a teardrop (though it takes a little imagination to see it).

This is one of two times Jesus cries in the Bible, the other time over the death of his friend Lazarus. You might wonder why Jesus only cries twice, but then the Bible never has Jesus laughing even once. If it had I assure you there would have been a church built to commemorate it, probably shaped like a smile.

As for the tears Jesus shed over Lazarus, he wipes them away by raising Lazarus from the dead. But Jerusalem gets razed to the ground. Jesus’ lament echoes the one Danielle preached about a few chapters back. That lament had Jesus bemoaning Jerusalem’s history of killing its messengers, prophets sent to call God’s prodigal sons home. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus said, a desire commemorated on the altar of the Teardrop Church. “But you were unwilling,” a rejected Jesus despairs, leaving Jerusalem to its own devices, and then sternly declaring “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This line comes from Psalm 118, and is commonly sung to welcome pilgrims to Jerusalem.

But again, you note that Jesus’ welcome committee changes “blessed is he who comes” to “blessed is the king who comes,” which you’d think would count as Jerusalem recognizing “the time of your visitation from God.” Their mention of peace on heaven is weird, its almost as if they sense peace on earth is impossible. Luke is clear that it wasn’t any city delegation that welcomed Jesus, but instead “the whole multitude of disciples.” The official response, represented here by the Pharisees, is rebuke. Jesus is told to tell his disciples to knock off the messiah worship. Such praise is reserved for Israel’s legitimate king. Jesus replies that shutting them up won’t do any good for then the stones would take up their praise. Jesus wasn’t just King of the Jews. He was King of Creation.
Sadly, Jesus’ royal welcome rapidly deteriorated into a bloody coronation. His crown would be thorns and his throne a cross. It’s a tragedy we recount every Good Friday. If Jesus’ intent is to establish his kingdom and gather his people, why do it as a chicken? Why allow yourself to be plucked and slaughtered? Why not a stone-cold display of brute force? Bring down the armies of heaven! Zechariah foretold a king humbly riding on a donkey colt, but read the rest of that prophesy, and you’ll find a humble King of Creation convincingly triumphant by way of fire and hurricanes, thunder and lightening. It’s easy to be humble once you’ve pounded your enemies into the dirt. But here, Jesus’ enemies pound him onto a tree. That’s not humility. That’s humiliation and humiliation doesn’t gain you much. Loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you run over.

For modern Israelis, military might is vital to their security. A belligerent Lebanon and a violent Syria border their north. An increasingly Islamic Egypt churns to their South. A bellicose Iran threatens just over Jordan to the east, and resentful Palestinians smolder in both the West Bank and Gaza. What unites their enemies is the desire to wipe Israel off the map, a desire expressed by the fact Israel doesn’t even appear on Palestinian maps. Stoking Israel’s security concerns is the dark memories of Holocaust, a ghastly reminder of how the world hates Jews. Israeli law mandates that teenagers visit the Holocaust Museum three times so as to drive this reminder deep into their identities. The Museum somberly narrates the Nazi atrocity start to finish, from the vicious propaganda to the segregation and oppression, to the collectivizing and the ghettos, and ultimately to the extermination of six million people. Oddly, the Jewish teenagers there during our visit mostly seemed unaffected. They were too busy flirting and texting to worry about hatred.

Afterwards we made our way into Bethlehem, despite official US State Department warnings against traveling there that day. Bethlehem sits in the West Bank, where Palestinian protests flared. But as Christians wanting to see the manger, we ignored the warnings and went to Bethlehem anyway, which these days means crossing a heavily armed checkpoint into a city surrounded by a massive security wall, seen here from a distance. You must swap your Israeli guide for a Palestinian since each is not allowed in the others’ territory. Poverty and unemployment are rampant behind the walls, with strict limits on every movement blatant oppression, leading more than one of our traveling companions to take note of the irony: “Israel is doing to the Palestinians what Nazis did to the Jews.”

We visited a Palestinian Lutheran church whose pastor held out little hope for genuine peace. President Obama has come and gone, as have plenty of Presidents before him, and nothing really changes. The pastor was obliged to suggest everybody give Jesus a chance, but Christian quibbling over who runs the Church of the Nativity makes Jesus seem like a losing proposition too. And , it’s hard to see in Jesus anything but another losing proposition. And loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you crucified dead and buried.

I’m participating in a Bethel University theology and work initiative with a group of business and seminary professors. Given our own Innové project, I’m interested in the ways our faith as Christians can influence entrepreneurship and the marketplace proper. This is not as easy as it might sound. Too often influence runs the other way. So much of what matters to business runs contrary to the gospel, be it the primacy of shareholders over service, gluttonous profits, avaricious career ambition or the over-accumulation of capital. As I mentioned last Sunday with Jesus’ parable about an uncharitable rich man, to prosper financially is not a Biblical vice. But wealth does tempt us toward greed and injustice and extravagance, none of which bode well for our souls if the rich man’s eventual torment in hell is any indication.

Having just preached that parable as I sat in the theology and work conversation, I wondered out loud what Christian faith can noticeably contribute to the way we do business. The Bethel scholars offered up the Christian virtues of honesty and integrity and hard work, along with Christian concerns for service and fairness. And I agree. To believe in Jesus is to value all these things. But you can value these things without believing in Jesus. Is there anything else that is distinctive to Christianity? What about humiliation and loss? Although he was Almighty God, Jesus wore weakness as his human identity, riding in as king on a borrowed burro. Over and over again he stressed how the last shall be first and the humble exalted. He speaks of the importance of lost sheep and lost coins and lost sons and losing your possessions and even your life for the sake of the gospel. That is distinctive.

As far as I know there’s not a business plan on earth that puts loss in its mission statement. Loss is not a pathway to profit. Unless, of course, you buy the gospel. Our Innové judging commences this Saturday. What if we chose as our winners those social entrepreneurial projects deemed certain to lose? Granted, one of the mantras of the startup world is fail faster. Mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation—but you want to get through them quickly. Nobody makes mistakes their goal.  That would be ridiculous. As ridiculous as changing the world through death on a cross.

Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now it’s too late.” Too late and too bad. Embedded in Jerusalem’s name is the Hebrew shalom, a kind of peace that goes beyond the mere absence of enmity to include justice and righteousness and tranquility. This city was supposed to be heaven on earth. God’s own house was located there, the Temple where the Lord himself resided, making Jerusalem the nexus of holiness and humanity. But now the Temple would be ruined by the Romans, as the Babylonians had ruined it centuries before. The prophet Jeremiah cried over Jerusalem then, and Jesus wept now, the only difference being that unlike after Jeremiah, God’s house would not be rebuilt this time.

In Jerusalem we walked where the Temple once stood, on the stones Jesus actually walked on himself. There are some religious groups who believe that if the Temple gets rebuilt then the Messiah will come and walk there again. Their fervor has led them to remake the Temple’s furnishings according to Biblical specs in preparation for that day. Standing in they way, however, is the fact that the Temple mount is under Islamic ownership. To try and build a Jewish Temple there and you ignite World War III. Not even Israel will allow that. The Roman Emperor Julian tried to rebuild it in 363 AD, but an earthquake halted construction. Apparently God wouldn’t allow it either. That’s because in Christ, the stone house of God gave way to a human body, The Lord in the flesh, which is another reason Jesus wept. “You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” meant Jerusalem did not recognize Jesus as God himself coming to visit in person.

But again, this is understandable. What kind of God comes to visit dressed like a vagrant and riding a donkey? Even his disciples dump him once they see how deadly serious Jesus was about humiliation and loss. Loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you crucified dead and buried.

If you’re going to win, brute force and muscle are the ways to do it. It's how the forceful Romans eventually burned Jerusalem to the ground. It's how the mighty Persians rolled in later and destroyed the Romans, followed by the stronger Byzantines who pounded the Persians. A few decades later Islam powerfully emerged and Arab armies took over the city, who in turn were beaten down by the more powerful Turks, who massacred all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants during their reign. Christians, under Pope Urban II, took offense and the Crusades commenced, leading to the slaughter of 30,000 Muslims and Jews in one battle. More Crusaders followed making Jerusalem a Roman Catholic stronghold until the tougher Ottoman Turks invaded and reduced the city to ruins once more. The Ottomans ruled for 400 years, and then the Egyptians moved in, and then the Russians and the French and finally the brutish British who made Jerusalem part of a colony called Palestine, named for the Philistines, Israel’s ancient enemy and a subtle reminder that Israel will always have its enemies. Jerusalem became the capital of a fortified Jewish state after World War II and the Holocaust, but there is no shalom.

Of course there's no Roman Empire anymore either, or Persian or Byzantine Empires for that matter. Muslims violently divide as Shiite and Sunni. The Crusades proved a colossal failure, and the Ottomans have been reduced to living room furniture. The British still have their Queen, but she’s only a force as far as the tabloids are concerned. And even Israel, while strong, won't last forever. No human civilization ever does. Someday Jerusalem will be reduced to ruin again and another civilization will be added to the pile. All earthly displays of power and might fade away, but 2000 years later, we still do Easter. Next Sunday we’ll  rejoice and shout and sing yet again about the victory of weakness and the power of  humiliation and acknowledge once again that loss truly is the way to new life, giving thanks that resurrection defeats death every time. It’s no coincidence that at the end of time, Scripture envisions heaven as a brand new Jerusalem, finally situated at the top of the pile. There’s no Temple there or any need for light, for the glory of God and the Lamb of God is all the light that you need. On that day every knee will bow and every coat will come off there will be no more crying. All will finally recognize that God didn't just come to visit. He came to stay.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How To Get It Through Your Head

wbgleason_1281819733_wbgleason_1281819724_wbgleason_1281818998_wbgleason_1281818986_wbgleason_1281807642_wbgleason_1281807633_wbgleason_1281807030_wbgleason_1281807011_wbgleason_1281806936_LazarusLuke 16:19-31
by Daniel Harrell

Hearing this parable about a super rich man and a desperately poor man unavoidably prompts a correlation to America’s current wealth inequality. One recent video making the rounds from a Harvard economist gloomily intones how the richest 1% of American’s own 42% of the entire country’s wealth, more than the bottom 97% combined. Notably, there is general agreement among those surveyed as to what an equitable distribution curve would look like—even though with the system unfairly skewed. But the perceived gap between this equitable ideal and reality pales as pocket change wen compared with the true state of things—an ugly inequality curve in which the poorest and middle class are a barely-indistinguishable line while the top 1 percent is, quite literally, off the charts. I thought about showing the whole video this morning but it’s rather depressing. And frankly, this parable is depressing enough. Even for Lent. 

Stony Brook University economist Noah Smith counters that much of America’s wealth inequality has more to do with age than class. Young people, he says, tend to have a lot of debt and not much by way of savings, accounting for their negative wealth and the reason they move back in with their parents. Moreover, the video’s  statistics don't include things like entitlements, or the value of one’s skills or education. Americans aren't as staggeringly unequal as the video makes out. But they are still very, very unequal.

Not that this is a new development. As Jesus illustrates, wealth inequity has been around for a long time. In fact, his parable also shows up in other reversal of fortune folktales circulating during his day. Wealth inequality isn’t solely an American issue either, of course. While in Israel we encountered poverty among Bedouin shepherds who plaintively positioned themselves at tourist stops, peddling locally-crafted cashmerey scarves made in China. Their sad roadside shanties clashed harshly with the opulent accommodations we tourists enjoyed each night. The fine linens and sumptuous feasting Jesus described translated for us into thousand thread-count linens and lavish dinner buffets. 

Now I should say that you work up quite an appetite walking in the footsteps of Jesus, but I’m sure that not even Jesus ate like we did. Jesus chose to be poor for the sake of solidarity with the homeless and hungry, with the least and the last. The irony wasn’t lost on us and I felt bad about it after my second slice of cheesecake. But even in the Bible, blessings of abundance are not solely reserved for the heaven. Though Scripture sternly warns against the temptations and tyrannies of wealth, to prosper is not a Biblical vice. Christian virtuousness promotes diligence at work, good stewardship of resources, getting an education, commitment in marriage and caring communities, all of which can contribute to economic and social advancement. The issue in Scripture is never that God’s people prosper, but that in prospering they ignore the plight of the poor. Blessings start getting treated as earned privileges. Hoarding for financial security’s sake displaces generosity toward those in need. Jesus takes selfishness personally. “I tell you the truth,” he cautions, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” 

As with last Sunday’s parable of the Envious Brother (otherwise known as the Prodigal Son), Jesus aims this Sunday’s parable at the Pharisees. Like the Prodigal Son, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus only shows up in Luke’s gospel. And among all Jesus’ parables, it’s the only one where the characters have names, Abraham being the patriarch of Judaism and Lazarus a fairly common name meaning “God has helped.” The Prodigal Son demonstrated obedience gone sour. Like the envious older brother, the obedient Pharisees couldn’t stand that Jesus hung out with sinners and got away with it. Here the comparably well-off Pharisees despised Jesus for giving preferential treatment to the poor. If prosperity is a blessing from God, what does that say about those who have nothing? Clearly they were sinners too.

Working all the years that I served at a downtown church, I got constantly barraged by requests for spare change from street people who had nothing. Wanting to be a good reverend, I started by putting money in everybody’s cup, but my generosity got jaded over time. Seeing the same people panhandling year after year, I began to ask myself whether dispensing change into a cup truly helped then get off the streets, or enabled them to remain there instead. Were they genuinely needy or just lazy and willing to lie? Then again, was I so righteous that I can even make such judgments? Shouldn’t my faith in God make my generosity tireless? How can I say I follow Jesus and then walk by unaffected? Yet if I give only in order to assuage my guilt, can it truly be called giving? And really, what good is a dollar? Shouldn’t I be willing to offer more given how much God has offered me? I did eventually spend four years hanging out with homeless guys on the streets. I got to know their names and hear their stories. But in many cases this only made matters worse. At least the sinners and tax-collectors Jesus hung out with always reformed their lives. The homeless guys I knew weren’t really that interested in that. Granted, I’m no Jesus, but still. As you can tell, this is why I moved to the Minneapolis suburbs.

It is possible that the Pharisees were hard-working clergy who got jaded by the demands of their work. Maybe they were underpaid and resented the fact that they’d sacrificed so much to serve the Lord. But I doubt it. Luke describes them as “lovers of money,” which was not meant as a compliment. That Jesus ties them to the rich man in the parable must have meant they were doing all right. Not that the rich man was a greedy materialist. He likely counted his riches as a blessing from God. Again, the issue was not his prosperity, but his cold and self-righteous heart. He probably had his reasons. Probably thought that Lazarus should go get a job. Probably figured there will always be poor people. What can you do? “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others;” Jesus told them, “but God knows your hearts.” The bottom line turns out to be the difference between being having money and loving it, which comes as a huge relief for most of us well-to-do Christians. Thankfully, none of us love money. 

Jesus says these things as religious and political opposition against him deepens. Telling parables like this didn’t help matters much. We’re all fans of fairness and poetic justice, but do we really need to be told how we get eternally recompensed for all the slights we commit on earth? And what’s with all the hellfire and torment? Turn or burn? Isn’t just feeling guilty bad enough? Jesus says that Lazarus would have been happy with a few crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. According to another statistic, we Americans throw away 40 percent of the food we produce—more than 20 pounds per person per month. That’s a lot of crumbs. 

In the end, Lazarus dies without so much as a proper burial, but that’s when things start looking up. He gets ushered up to Abraham’s heavenly dinner table while the dead rich man gets sent down to the furnace room. Turns out that is easier to thread a needle with a camel. Flames lick his body like the dogs licked Lazarus, and now he’d be as happy with a drop of water as Lazarus would have been with that crumb, anything to cool his blistering misery. Being a religious as well as rich, he appeals to Abraham for relief, but Abraham says sorry, you had your chance. Justice is justice. You reap what you sow. God knows your heart. What about grace? It’s too late for that. “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” Abraham explains, “so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” We couldn’t help you even if we wanted to.

Why would Jesus ever tell such a horrible parable? It’s not like the rich guy was asking to get set free. He just wants a lousy drop of water. And what’s with the vast chasm? Who put that there? For a Savior who’s all about love, Jesus sure comes off sounding awfully judgmental. Then again, God doesn’t even show up in this parable. He’s not passing judgment. He doesn’t really need to. Because whenever we hear this parable we judge ourselves. Like when we hear about the envious older son who snubbed his found brother’s welcome home party happening just inside the house. Or when we hear about the religious Levite and priest in the who scurry past the wounded neighbor right there in the roadside ditch, only to have a despised no-good Samaritan pick up the slack and make us look bad. Or here with Lazarus being right outside the rich man’s gate. Chances are they saw each other every day. The religious rich, the righteous brother, the Levite and the priest, each came within inches of doing the right thing. But by failing to do it, each might just as well have been million miles away. This is the judgment: We all come within inches of loving and helping and even forgiving others every day, yet by refusing to close these little gaps, for whatever reason, we create for ourselves an infinity of separation amounting to the distance between heaven and hell.

 Perhaps you’re heard the one about the difference between heaven and hell as the difference between two kinds of people gathered around identical soup pots and all in possession of identical long wooden spoons. The difference is that those in hell starve because they cannot get the spoons to their own mouths while those in heaven feed each other and are full.

Up to this point, Jesus’ morality tale was like those his audience had heard before. To the formerly rich man’s credit, he suffers his horrible fate; a fate he now wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. Now Jesus adds his own twist. He has the formerly rich man begging. He pleads for Lazarus be sent to his father’s house, “for I have five brothers who need to be warned, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham says they should just read their Bibles. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” According to yet another statistic, the average American owns four Bibles, and we keep buying more. The Bible still ranks as the country’s number one selling book, and we give it to children, probably because nobody reads it.

Why would we? Have you ever opened one? Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor and you’ll have all you need? Consider the birds and lilies and don’t worry about your life? The Lord knows what you need before you even ask? Simply seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness and everything will be yours? Trust in the Lord and he’ll give you the desires of your heart? It’s all very Biblical. It’s just not very realistic. Not even for people who don’t love money.

There’s a small group curriculum put out by World Vision and Sojourners entitled Lazarus at the Gate and is advertised as an “economic discipleship guide.” The curriculum invites participants into a community experience where the goal is for each participant to make four individual commitments:
• Spend joyfully: Regularly give thanks for the blessing of wealth.
• Spend justly: Make one lifestyle change to consume more responsibly.
• Spend less: Make one lifestyle change in order to reduce personal consumption.
• Give more: Make a substantial gift to fight global poverty
At the end of the time together participants pool their saved money and give collectively to the poor. In this they work like a giving circle. If you’ve yet to do anything for Lent, this can be a good plan on a lot of levels. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve done it. I once asked a participant whether being in her Lazarus group and supporting each other’s economic choices also meant sharing information like salaries or current spending habits or personal budgets. If economic discipleship brings you closer to God, it should also bring you closer to your fellow believers. “Heavens no,” she replied. “That’s way too personal. And we only know each other from church.” It reminded me of an old letter once written to the recently deceased Dear Abby: “Dear Abby. I am a twenty-three-old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting pretty expensive and I think my lover should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.”

It’s said that to know someone’s financial statement is to know their values. Actually Jesus said that. “Where your treasureis, there your heartwill be also.” This being the case, divulging our pay stubs and budgets with fellow Christians might not only foster deeper obedience, but genuine intimacy too. But then I try to imagine it actually happening. I try to imagine it happening at say, a pastors’ conference, you know, among people who “aren’t in it for the money” and who supposedly read our Bibles all the time. I doubt that comparing salaries and personal budgets would make us closer. Envious and resentful and condescending, perhaps, but probably not closer.

“Father Abraham,” the burning man pleads, “I don’t think that reading the Bible will do it. Send them somebody risen from the dead. If someone shows up from the dead, then they will repent.” But Abraham replies, “Meh. Why bother? If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” People ain’t gonna change.

Of course Jesus tells this parable on the last leg of his journey into Jerusalem as he approaches the last days of this earthly life. Palm Sunday. Good Friday. Denial. Betrayal. Execution. He knows what’s coming even as he speaks. And knowing what’s coming is what gives this parable its power. Why bother if nobody listens and nobody changes? Because it bothers God. Despite our stubborn resistance to Scripture and obedience and his word, God stubbornly loves us and remains willing to do whatever it takes to bring us around. He may not have created the chasm, but he's determined to bridge it even if it kills him to do it. It is while we are yet money-loving sinners that Christ dies for us. It is for our sake that he rises to redeem us. It may be easier to squeeze a camel through a needle than to squeeze a rich man into heaven. But as Jesus said and shows, with God, everything is possible.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Prodigal

prodigal_son_rembrandtLuke 15:11-32
by Daniel Harrell

Most people recognize this parable of the Prodigal Son—prodigal from the Latin meaning irresponsibly extravagant. It is one of the most beloved stories in Scripture, if not in all of literature. Despite its familiarity, or more because of it, I’ve never preached a sermon about it. Its message of overwhelming, undeserved grace moves us to reconsider those moments when our own sin and shame would otherwise keep us from coming home, as well as those times when obsessive concerns for rightness and fairness threaten to overshadow the primacy of love. Seriously, what’s left to say? 

Well, I got a few things. The parable actually begins rather ominously enough. For any good Jew, to hear “A father had two sons” would have immediately churned up bad memories about Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob. Joseph and his colorful coat. David and his bag of rocks. All stories of conflict between older and younger siblings over preferential treatment which younger brothers in the Bible typically enjoyed. Here we go again.

An ungrateful jerk of a kid shockingly seeks his share of inheritance from his father—in effect wishing his daddy dead since inheritance only happens once pappy buys the farm. And this father consents to it? This would have meant him selling off assets, likely an actual farm with land and livestock, liquidating his investment portfolio, and then giving it all over to this scalawag of a son whom the father had to know was going to go off and blow it all on what Jesus calls “dissolute living”: drugs, booze, sex, the whole party manimal thing. And then after the money’s gone and the kid comes repentantly hang-doggin’ it back, the father welcomes him home no questions asked. He hardly even lets the kid apologize. So who’s the real prodigal here? Show me one parenting magazine that would ever commend such irresponsible child-rearing. Vanderbilt New Testament professor Amy Jill-Levine, a Jewish mother from Massachusetts, argues that the parable should be re-titled “The Absent Mother” because as any good Jew knows, none of this would have happened had the mother been present.

At the turning point in the parable, the good-for-nothing son—having deeply dishonored his father—ends up on his knees at a non-kosher pig trough where he comes to his senses: “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” Is this remorse? Christians tend to interpret this coming-to-his-senses moment as the roots of repentance—which is why the parable gets assigned to Lent. And Jesus does tell it in the context of two other parables about a found sheep and a found coin, the punch line of both being the finders’ inexpressible joy. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Joy is evident on the part of the father too. But repentance from the son? Not so evident. Of course lost sheep and lost coins can’t repent. But once we finally get to the story about a human being who can repent, it’s not obvious that the prodigal son does

Knowing daddy as he did, the son’s turnaround could be interpreted as just another dishonorable scheme. In this case: “run back to daddy and act religious.” He rehearses his lines: “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ Yeah, that should do it.” Now maybe I’m stretching it here, but I wouldn’t be the first. For any good Jewish audience, familiar with Old Testament patterns and human hypocrisy, suspicions of motive are always in play.

And then there’s the older son, a sanctimonious goody-two-shoes who still has a valid gripe. His resentment isn’t as much against his brother’s inexcusable behavior as it is against his father’s indulgence—a father who had never cooked him so much as a goat-burger for being the good boy he was. The father tries to comfort his firstborn by reminding him how “all that is mine is yours.” Really?  What comfort is that? Of course all you own belongs to me because my share of the inheritance is all you have left. Little brother has already squandered his. And still he gets a whole cow? Why does the baby in the family always get off so easily?

Fine, so maybe this story cuts simply too close to home. As you know, I am the oldest son. I am the good boy. I am the pleaser. I made good grades, did what I was told. Played by the rules. Went to church. Went on and became a minister for Christ’s sake. My little brother? He was always getting into trouble growing up. Problems in school. Questionable relationships. Jail time. Skipped church. My dad felt bad for him. Helped him start his own construction business. Made him a millionaire. Not that I’m bitter.

C’mon, says the dad. “This little brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. We have to rejoice!” The late Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen, contemplating this story through the aid of Rembrandt’s famous depiction, observed how “resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, because resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.”

The table for such envy is plainly set in the first two verses of Luke 15: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” There’s the resentment. Tax collectors were universally despised in Luke’s world for their dishonesty and exploitation. Sinners were all those whose behavior excluded them from the category of proper society—from the merely detestable to the outright criminal. These were prodigal people, not the kind you want sitting beside you in church. By contrast were the Pharisees. Good people. Well-mannered, devoted and righteous with strong reputations. They’re offended that Jesus so blatantly betrays social and religious protocol. He acts as if immorality has no consequences. Doesn’t he know that to coddle sinners only encourages them to sin more? How will they ever learn to do right?

 That Jesus flouts religious convention is irksome to be sure, but what really ticks off the Pharisees is how Jesus has become so popular for doing it. Here’s where the envy sets in. It’d have been one thing if Jesus had been a bad boy sinner himself, iniquity loves company. But instead he’s hailed as a wise rabbi and wonderworker, a paragon of virtue and a real peach of a guy, basically the sort the Pharisees had worked so hard to be like themselves. He’s stealing their lines and their thunder; hogging a righteous limelight they’d labored all their lives to secure, all by just dispensing love and hugs all around. No wonder they can’t stand this guy. Dang right they’re resentful and envious. They want him dead!

There’s another Jewish parable that never made it into the Bible that tells of a greedy man and an envious man who appeared before a king. The king said to the two men, “one of you may ask something of me and I will give it to him, provided I get to give twice as much of that same thing to the other.” Now, the envious man did not want to ask first, for he was envious of his companion who would receive twice as much. The greedy man did not want to ask first because he wanted everything that could be had for himself. The greedy man eventually prevailed upon the envious man to go first; but only because the envier had conjured up a malicious idea. He requested that the king pluck out one of his eyes—knowing that this meant his greedy companion would have both of his eyes plucked out.
Envy is as old as humanity itself. In the first utterance of the word sin in Scripture, a man had two sons; two brothers who come to grief over, of all things, an offering given to God. “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions. The LORD looked with favor on Abel, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry.” He killed his brother. Was Abel’s offering better or more generous? Or did the Lord just have a thing for shepherds? It’s hard not to suspect some favoritism at work here—the same kind of favoritism that unfairly parcels out beauty, intelligence, ability and opportunity to some but not all. Why doesn’t everybody receive the same? God’s response? “Thou shalt not covet.” Thanks a lot, Lord.

We all know what envy feels like. You look around this Meetinghouse and can’t bear to behold what you imagine to be the full lives other people enjoy. Just look at their happy marriages, their successful careers, perfect children, good looks. They make you sick—and these are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Frankly, if you have to hear one more word about how their great their life is you’ll scream. Oh sure, you could rejoice in their happiness; but why do that when you can begrudge their existence and fuel your own misery? If only they could taste just a bit of your bitterness. Not that you’d ever pray for that to happen. OK, you might. And then when their misfortune finally hits, ha-ha, you can mask your perverse delight behind a façade of fake compassion. Though you never had anything genuinely positive to say during their good times, now that they suffer you are so there for them; not because you care, but because witnessing their pain close up brings such satisfaction. Sure, I’ll give up an eye if it means you lose two.

So it’s possible I’m being a little melodramatic here. I like being melodramatic. You judge yourself. After all, Lent is the season for self-examination. In Luke’s gospel, the tax collectors and sinners respond to the gospel. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the sinful brother comes from far away back to his father, whatever his motives. But not the older brother just out in the back yard. He refuses to step one foot in the door. No way he’s participating in that happiness.

“For most of my life,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. Maybe the question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by God?’ The question is not ‘How am I to know God?’ but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, one of at least two possible sites for Jesus’ empty tomb, competing branches of Christianity vie for control of a grave that is still empty. The Greek Orthodox control the empty tomb proper, filling it up with all manner of iconography and liturgical folderol, smells and bells. The Armenian Apostolic church has their ornate chapel off to one side, with the Roman Catholics off to another, candles and music and prayer chiming in each. The Ethiopian Orthodox have been relegated to one of the entry ways, with their own dimly lit protocols, and the Syriac Orthodox theirs. And then tacked on to the main shrine with a separate entrance, like some sort of add-on Ikea closet, sits this odd little Coptic Christian chapel staking out its territory. Inside when we walked by was a lone monk reading his newspaper by candlelight, his sole responsibility being to swat intrusive tourists trying to take pictures. 

On a hot summer day in 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from its agreed spot into a cooler part of the church. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, and eleven were hospitalized after the resulting brawl. In 2004, the Greek Orthodox monk left a Roman Catholic door open which was taken as a sign of disrespect leading to another melee. Then on Palm Sunday in 2008, a fight broke out over some other perceived liturgical slights requiring the Jewish police to come in and break it up. It’s been this way for centuries. Pious Christian brothers preaching the love of Jesus can’t stand each other. Their silliness is symbolized in an immovable ladder that leans against an upper window of the church for no reason. Somebody leaned it there a couple of hundred years ago, and there is remains since to move it would represent an infringement against one of the religious orders though nobody knows which one. Still, that ladder might be mine. When it rots every hundred years or so, the groups all chip in to replace it, just in case. Tension floats in the air like so much religious incense. Incensed being an appropriate word to describe the smoldering emotions. All I can say is that’s it’s a good thing the Protestants never became involved or things might really have got ugly. Ironically, or perhaps providentially, a Muslim family owns the keys to the church’s front door.

With the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus leaves a lot of tension in the air. This father’s love—God’s love—defies any anything commonly practiced by people. No father who truly loved his son would ever behave so foolishly, would he? And not just the father, but the shepherd who abandons a hundred good sheep to find a single stray? Isn’t losing a few just the cost of doing business? Or that crazy woman who upon finding her lost coin spent more money to celebrate finding the coin than the lost coin itself was worth. If this is love, it’s not a love that makes any sense. OK, so maybe if you’ve hit rock bottom and are forced to eat pig slop you can understand it, but that’s hardly the preferred strategy for getting people to Jesus. “Go screw up your life and then you’ll find out how much God loves you!” Seriously? Where’s the incentive to obey?

One New Testament professor I heard suggested how that fatted calf killed for party boy was probably one nurtured and raised by the obedient son. Can you imagine? The good boy carefully and diligently raises a calf as a 4-H project, tends to it and nurtures it as his own pride and joy. And then my dad takes it and gladly kills it to celebrate home that worthless, little no good piece of … 

How does God do that?