Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Five)

“But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice, because this one, your brother, was dead and lives, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32, my translation). Perhaps a good sermon title might be “Some Celebration Required.” N. T. Wright suggests, “The point of the parables is then clear. This is why there’s a party going on: all heaven is having a party, the angels are joining in, and if we don’t have one as well, we’ll be out of tune with God’s reality” (page 184).

I wonder, however, what is the point of the party? In the first two parables, the joy seems to be over the one sinner who repents. We take that, in our individualistic cultural mindset, to be the end of the story. “I once was lost but now and found,” we sing, often with a tear in our eye and a catch in our throat. Popular American Christianity is captivated by the Evangelical assumption that it’s all about the individual sinner who is saved. But I don’t think that’s faithful to the text or helpful to our theology.

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Perhaps we can allow the end of this series of parables to inform the beginning. The lost son is found. He was dead and is now alive. There’s a wild party going on to celebrate the event. But there is still a son outside. There is still a son unreconciled. One son has perhaps returned, but the family is still not whole. The story cannot come to a happy ending as long as the community remains fractured.

Of course, there is rejoicing over the one found lamb, the one found coin, and the one found son. But what has really happened is that the coin collection is once again complete. The flock is full. Will the family be whole? Or will we on the inside settle for being found ourselves and giving little thought to those who still are lost? That’s a good reason for the third parable to be inconclusive and unsettled. The question is still in the air. The family is still on shaky ground.

I wish the NRSV had not over-determined the translation of Luke 15:32. The Greek text is much less specific than the translation. “But it was necessary to be glad and rejoice…” Necessary for whom? The text doesn’t say. It was necessary, perhaps, for the family to be whole again, but that can’t happen until the older brother is once again able to claim his connection to the younger brother. It was necessary because “this one – your brother – was dead and lives and was lost and is found.”

Celebration wasn’t required because the younger son had come to his senses and repented. Celebration was required because now the broken family could be made whole once again – if the older brother was willing to be part of the celebration. There was no question about the older son’s place in the household. “Son,” the father reminds him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, my translation). Of course, now part of the father’s “all” is the younger son.

God will not settle for a partial victory. God is not content with finding most of the family, but not all. If we are thinking practically, we know that the sheep-owner should have settled for the ninety-nine lambs who stayed at home. If we are thinking practically, we know that the woman should not have turned her house upside down for a coin that either would turn up on its own or could be replaced. If we are thinking practically, we know that the younger son made his own bed and should be required to lie on it.

But we meet a God who will not stop looking until all have been found, reclaimed, returned, and restored. God wants all of us, and God wants us all.

If we reflect the image and likeness of God in our lives and conduct, then neither will we Jesus followers be satisfied while lost sheep, lost coins, and lost children are still “out there.” I’m not suggesting that we should retain a colonial mindset, where we Christians have something to offer that everyone else should want. No, I think our calling is to understand that we are incomplete, that we are lost as long as we blithely settle for flocks made up of people like us.

I was part of a congregation that wrestled long and hard with what it means to be a “welcoming” community. The congregation reflected honestly on this question. When we say, “all are welcome,” is it really a question: “Are all welcome?” Framing the issue in this way sparked some deep introspection and honest confession. We welcomed those who looked and sounded like us, who brought something that we wanted, who came and stayed on our terms and didn’t kick up a fuss.

We weren’t looking for people who might make our community more whole and our lives fuller through their unique gifts and perspectives. Instead, we were like the Borg in the Star Trek franchises. As a long-time Trekkie, I remember the moment when I made the connection. “We are the Borg,” the mechanical voice from the Borg cube threatens. “Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

We were happy to welcome people who were willing to be assimilated to our congregational culture, habits, assumptions, preferences, practices, and traditions. Until we could engage in a welcome that moved beyond assimilation, we would continue to be content with incompleteness. I’m happy to report that the congregation made some real progress in moving from assimilation to open engagement. But it was not an easy process.

Would the older brother be open to new possibilities, to a change in the family system? Or was his condition for reconciliation really assimilation – the application of punitive power to the younger son to make sure the system was not threatened like this again? We don’t know how it went for the older son. Do we know how that goes for us?

The parable makes me wonder to what degree we are happy with a limited, familiar, comfortable community that leaves us as the powerful, the privileged, the positioned, and the propertied. Jesus’ critics advocated that the tax collectors and sinners should be segregated away from decent people. Those who crossed these boundaries were in danger of being contaminated by the outsiders and thus becoming one of them.

American cities remain just as segregated, if not more so, as before the days of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. “Segregation is a costly self-imposed error,” writes Heather Abraham. “It is not a natural phenomenon. It is government-subsidized and government-reinforced,” she continues. “Some of the documented ways segregation infiltrates our society include how it drives the racial wealth gap, undermines metropolitan GDP, drastically diminishes life opportunities like quality education and healthcare, and ultimately results in highly unequal health outcomes like shorter life expectancy and higher homicide rates for communities of color” (page 2).

We who live well because of White Supremacy and systemic racism can easily document those costs to communities of color and the individuals in those communities. But how often do we think about the cost to those of us who not only benefit from but continue to impose such segregating systems on other human beings? As part of the perpetrating system, we make ourselves less than fully human.

More than that, we have persuaded ourselves that we are complete by ourselves. We who live completely White lives state by our way of living that people of color and their communities have nothing we want or need. We have made Whiteness the be all and end all of existence and notice no deficit created by limiting ourselves to one skin tone and one cultural reality. If there are things from other communities and cultures that we desire, we do a Borg assimilation and simply appropriate them and make them ours.

If I apply a Christian biblical lens to this reality, I see that our White life does not reflect the character of God. God, as Jesus portrays God in these parables, is not content with a part of the flock or the piggy bank or the family. A part won’t do. God wants us all and wants all of us – and wants us all together.

I think this takes us once again to both the first and second lessons for this Sunday. It’s not often that all of the texts work together in such an effective way, so let’s be sure to take advantage of the intersection. We think about community as insiders vs. outsiders. That’s not how God thinks about or sees things. We are the ones who need to change our vision (that’s repentance, by the way).

Reconciliation doesn’t come immediately after repentance. It takes repair of the relationships and the community impacted by the brokenness. White Christians have always wanted to go straight to reconciliation and to skip the repentance and repair stages. Even if we make some efforts at confession and repentance, we’re still not willing to do the hard work of making reparations. Until we do that work, reconciliation is really just a word to make White people feel better about themselves.

We don’t get beyond some initial repenting in the third parable. Perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs had to be made in that family system before real reconciliation could happen. And perhaps the Lukan author is challenging us to imagine what repairs we need to make in order for all of us to act like God’s family.

In the meantime, whenever sinners are welcomed, some celebration is required. I look forward to celebrating a bit once again this week, even as I wrestle with who does not yet have a seat at the table.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Four)

In each of the three parables in Luke 15, the “finder” takes the initiative. That seems quite straightforward in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin. The owner of the sheep leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes after the lost one. The woman is the only one in the second parable who can take any initiative. After all, coins do not call out to be located.

This perspective may be harder to support in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the younger son, after all, who has some sort of personal epiphany and heads for home. That being said, it is the father who sees him coming at a distance, who runs to greet him, who embraces him, restores his stuff, and throws a party. In addition, it is the father who comes out of the house during the party to encourage the older son to come in and join the festivities.

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The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the sheep owner. The protagonist in the Parable of the Lost Coin is the woman householder. The pattern remains consistent, I think, and the protagonist in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the father. Whether that was the case in Jesus’ original telling may be difficult to discern. But the structure and sequence of the Lukan narrative makes it clear, I believe, that the primary actor in the third parable is the father.

Trevor Burke also sees the father as the main actor in the parable. In addition, Burke argues “that this story is as much about a ‘prodigal father’ for his behavior is highly unusual and appears to be every bit as rash and unconventional as the younger and older sons” (page 219). But is the father’s “prodigality” a positive trait, or is it a negative and foolish trait like the wastefulness (see Luke 15:14) of the younger son?

Burke examines three “prodigal actions” of the father. The first is the distribution of his property to the sons. Remember, in response to the demand from the younger son, the father divides his property between them (see Luke 15:12). This was weird behavior on the part of the father. “Such an action would have been surprising to those listening,” Burke writes, “especially [since]…fathers were specifically cautioned against giving their inheritance to their offspring or to anyone else during their lifetime” (page 222). That wasn’t an ironclad rule at the time, but this premature distribution would have been regarded as strange, and perhaps foolish.

The father does not exercise authority or discipline over either son in the parable. The younger son blows off the old man and then comes running back when things get tough. The older son won’t do as he’s told and tells the old man off in front of God and everybody. The father is “prodigal” with his patience and property in both cases, in spite of and in disregard to the responses he gets from each of the sons.

The second scene of the father’s prodigality, according to Burke, is when the younger son returns. The father runs to the son, hugs him, and kisses him. Burke subscribes to the “old Middle-eastern men don’t run” line of thought, although not all commentators agree on that fact. But, in any event, “Once again the impulsive and reckless father in the heat of the moment acts out of character and breaks with the social norms,” Burke writes, “he does not do what the first hearers would expect him to do” (page 225).

The father’s extravagance takes on material form in the ring, the best robe, shoes, and the well-fed calf. No one would have seen this coming, in the context of the parable. The younger son may have wasted his inheritance on loose living. But the father outdoes the younger son’s extravagance by an order of magnitude and without a second thought.

The third scene of paternal prodigality, according to Burke, is the conversation with the older son. The father leaves the house, the party, and the guests, and thus risks embarrassing himself in the eyes of his invitees. He goes outside the house and absorbs the older son’s tirade where everyone in the village could see and hear them. In the face of all this dishonor, the father dialogues with the older son rather than disciplining him. “Evidently the maintaining of the relationship by his patience and compassion,” Burke writes, “is more important to the father than his own social standing, position or winning the argument” (page 227).

Burke wonders if the Lukan author is just oblivious to the social and cultural conventions of the period or if there is a point being made. Given a variety of evidence in the text, Burke concludes that the Lukan author “is fully cognizant of the expectations vis-à-vis parents and their offspring and draws on widely held cultural assumptions in order to affirm them” (page 228). The parable of the Prodigal is, therefore, not a product of cultural ignorance or misunderstanding.

But the Lukan author also has no problem with overturning social conventions and structures under the impact of the Good News of Jesus. The Lukan account, after all, is at its heart the story of the Great Reversal. Burke quotes Brendan Byrne’s assertion that the Gospel’s essential purpose is to bring home to people a sense of the extravagance of God’s love. And the Gospel account is filled with characters who perform extravagant gestures in response to God’s salvation (pages 228-229).

Who are these other “prodigals” in the Lukan account? Burke points to the massive and unconditional generosity of the “Good Samaritan” as one example. In addition, there is the extravagant love of the women who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. She does not stop expressing her devotion even when she is rebuked. Instead, she is the one who has offered prodigal hospitality to Jesus – precisely what Simon should have done as the host. Her actions demonstrate extravagant gratitude.

Those who accompany Jesus to Jerusalem put their most expensive and valued articles of clothing on the road as he passes. “Such a generous and unexpected action appears rash, hasty and spontaneous in the circumstances,” Burke observes, “but it is a no less appropriate response and expression of devotion to Jesus the Messiah who had come to deliver his people” (page 233).

The clincher in this argument, of course, is Zacchaeus in Luke 19. His promises of reparation are the definition of extravagant and prodigal. Most important, in my estimation, is the conclusion that Jesus brings to this interaction. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” The connection to the parables in Luke 15 is obvious.

Burke offers this summary. “When the father’s behavior in Luke 15 is viewed against this portrayal of the magnanimous actions of others (cf. Luke 9:17) in Luke, his actions are essentially a hermeneutical key for the rest of the Gospel since he is not the only ‘prodigal’ in Luke; rather, the author has a proclivity for portraying the conduct of a number of different people as also being ‘prodigal’ in order to get his point across” (page 234).

But, Burke then wonders, what exactly is the evangelist’s point being made by all this extravagance?

The father is an image of God in the third parable, just as the sheep owner and the woman are images of God in the first two parables. Burke suggests that “in the kingdom of God grace is always bestowed upon those who least warrant or presume upon it.” In addition, “in the divine scheme of things, no one gets what they deserve for God’s mercy is not contingent upon the actions of others.” In sum, the parable portrays “a God whose love surpasses all typical expressions known to humanity” (page 237).

Yes, here’s an obvious connection to the first reading. God’s ways are not our ways, thankfully…

Richard Swanson notes that this extravagance does not “count the costs” of loving. This parable, he argues, “is not a bland endorsement of hospitality and welcome, but an acknowledgment of the real risks that go with actual grace.” After all, we don’t know how anyone responds to the father’s extravagant love in the long run. We don’t even know how things might have gone at the breakfast table the morning after the party (although we might have some educated guesses).

On the one hand, it is grace that produces repentance, not the other way around. We see that in our parable. We see it as well in the story of Zacchaeus. Both the younger son and Zacchaeus may have come with mixed motives at best. The younger son may just have been hungry. Zacchaeus may just have been curious. Maybe he just loved a parade. It was the invitation of grace that made any change of heart and mind conceivable…and worth the risk.

“Perhaps the point is that the risks are as real as the love,” Swanson writes, “And then the point is that the love is indomitable. Perhaps. And indomitable love,” he hopes, “might indeed re-create the world.” As we hear this parable again, the question is there for us. Will God’s indomitable love in Christ re-create us? (Yes, that’s an obvious opening to the second reading –Yay!).

Resources and References

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Five)

Tom Long wrote a column on our text for The Christian Century in March of 2001. It is archived at the religion-online.org site and is worth reading right now. I want to hit a few highlights from Long’s thoughts and then add a few of my own.

Long notes that according to Jesus, in Luke 12:54-56, most of us are relatively incompetent when it comes to reading the signs of the times and discerning what God is really up to at any given moment. “Indeed,” Long writes, “Jesus says that most of us are far better at meteorology than theology.” Given the lack of skill most of us have in predicting the weather, that’s a pretty pathetic assessment of our theologically predictive capacities.

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As I noted in an earlier post, this is the prelude to our text for the third Sunday in Lent. “No sooner had Jesus issued this challenge,” Long continues, “than some in the crowd stepped forward. ‘Don’t say we cannot read the times. How about that terrible incident in the temple, the one where Pilate’s police slaughtered some innocent worshipers from Galilee?’”

Wrong answer! That’s not a sign of anything except for the cruelty of Pilate’s state-sponsored terrorism and colonial oppression. And don’t bother to bring up that sad deal in Jerusalem when the tower collapsed. That’s a building construction issue, not the opening salvo of Armageddon.

So, what are the signs we ought to see and heed? Long tells us that this is the purpose of the Parable of the Fig Tree. “Not the Hale-Bopp Comet, not invaders from space, not Clinton as King Belshazzar redux, not wars or rumors of war,” Long argues with references that date the text even without a byline, “ but instead the gracious and patient hand that reaches out to halt the ax, the merciful gesture woven into the fabric of life that stays all that would give up on the barren and the broken, the merciful voice that says, ‘Let’s give this hopeless case one more year.’”

The fig tree is not a sign of the end of the world as we know it. It is, rather, a sign that there’s a reason to keep tilling and tending, to keep nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. The things we identify as signs of the end might be the end of things we find important. But that doesn’t mean they tell us much of anything about the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and who relents from punishing.

Six months after Long’s article was published, planes were used as flying bombs to destroy the World Trade Center Towers. Life in the United States began to change as we responded to those attacks. It’s not just that we had to take off our shoes at the airport for years after. It’s not that we are limited to three-ounce containers for liquids on planes without intentional packaging. Those are just inconveniences.

The real change – and I think the real victory for the 9/11 terrorists – is that both American government and American citizens shifted from a stance of confidence to one of fear. The world has always been a dangerous place, and we Americans have been insulated from that danger for the most part. But 9/11 brought that danger into our living rooms. That was an end to the world as we knew it and the beginning of a far different world.

I think it’s easy to say in hindsight that we continue to live with the political, cultural, and economic consequences of a massive over-reaction. It will take historians decades more to chase all the threads of that over-reaction and their various impacts. For example, we shifted our attention away from natural disasters to “homeland security.” When Hurricane Katrina arrived a few years later, we discovered that we had gutted our capacity to respond to such an event. Hundreds and hundreds of people died who might have been saved if we had prepared differently.

My point is that we aren’t any better at reading the signs of the times now than were Jesus’ first-century listeners. We find, for example, the availability heuristic almost irresistible. That heuristic says that whatever is at the front of our minds tends to have the greatest salience regardless of the actual odds of something coming to pass.

Compare your chances of getting hit by lightning or dying in a terrorist attack. Then compare your responses to those possibilities. Lightning is the more likely killer, but (unless you’ve been in a violent thunderstorm recently) the terrorist attack is the more mentally available and therefore more frightening possibility.

What are the salient signs these days? The list of candidates is overwhelming. We’re not done with Covid-19, no matter how much we want to be done. The Russian bear is bombing the hell out of Ukrainian cities. And the Armageddon industrial complex has shifted into high gear with publications and predictions. Nuclear war is suddenly back on the table as an up-to-the-minute terror. Climate catastrophe is an oldie but a goodie. Inflation, deflation, gas and oil prices, the bankruptcy of the Social Security system (I’m old, obviously). I’m sure you can add another dozen items to the list.

We have a conflicted relationship with catastrophe and what it means. I love the insights in the film, Men in Black, about our human desire to deny real crises. Jay has just fired his weapon in full sight of some ordinary people, creating havoc and destruction that demand explanation. Kay reprimands him, “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public.”

“Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?!” Jay replies. “There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…” Kay is not having it.

“There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korilian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” Kay says, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.” That’s how we’d like to keep it for as long as possible. Blissful ignorance is the prerogative of the privileged and the fond fantasy of everyone else.

Then we’re faced with some real crisis, one that can’t be denied or ignored or explained away. And for a day or two, that’s the end! We’re all doomed. Of course, it doesn’t take long for us to get acclimated to the “crisis,” and life moves on.

Jesus tells us that the real battles in life aren’t about political inflection points or historic crises. Instead, the real battles are the ones that take patience, persistence, and perseverance. The real battles in life are the ones where you have to dig around the roots, spread a little manure, wait and watch and do it again – and again, and again.

There is a tree that marks the end of the world as we know it. It’s not a fig tree in an imaginary vineyard. It is, rather, a cross on Calvary. We’re on the Lenten journey toward that tree. We know how that story turns out. And we know the lifegiving fruit it produces.

So, it’s back to tilling and tending, nudging and nourishing the world in the places where we live and love and labor right now. It’s back to keeping on keeping on in faith, hope, and love. This is not glamorous work. It doesn’t produce immediate or even noticeable results. I am unlikely to remembered for my part in any of it, and the real problems won’t be solved in my lifetime. Jesus says, keep on digging.

As I dig, most of what I produce is going to be humus, not fruit. I mention that because I am often reminded of the common origins of the words “humus” and “humility.” I would commend to you a great little column by Brenna Davis at ncronline.org entitled “Humus, Humans, and Humility.” In that article, Davis notes that the words “humus,” “human,” and “humility” all come from the same Latin root. All are connected to the soil.

I am reflecting on the reading, study, conversation, and reflection I have been doing over the last ten years in anti-racism literature. I have learned a lot. I have been challenged and changed by what I have learned. But what I have learned most of all is how very much more there is to learn, to experience, to unlearn, and to repent.

I have learned that humility is the only proper response for me at this moment, and that I have a lifetime of work still to do. I want so much to find real answers and solutions and responses that might help other people grow and change. And covertly, I also want people to see how smart I am about this stuff, but that’s a personal failing that follows me everywhere. I know I want “success” mostly for me and my comfort level. That won’t do. That’s not humility. I can’t continue to do this work without getting down and dirty, digging around my roots and adding more plant food to the mix.

This is what Jesus tells his listeners at the beginning of our text. Don’t be distracted by any thoughts that the work is just about over. It’s not. There’s a lifetime of repenting yet to do. Remember that repentance isn’t feeling sorry. It’s about a change of mind, an alteration of the path, a turning away from whatever doesn’t give life. Every day we start over with that repentance. And that’s the good news.

So, to coin a phrase, here’s your sign…

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Text Study for Luke 13:1-9 (Part Three)

Some interpreters and editions separate Luke 13:1-5 (“Repent or Perish” in the Nestle-Aland volume) from Luke 13:6-9 (“The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree”). I think that’s not a helpful separation, no matter how tempting it might be. The parable in verses 6-9 is intended to interpret and expand the teaching on repentance that comprises verses 1-5. “In its narrative context,” Levine and Witherington write, “the Parable of the Fig Tree…is a commentary on the two disasters in Judea; for Luke, the tree is an allegorical representation of the person who needs to repent” (page 365).

The Galileans who bled to death in front of a Temple altar in Jerusalem had no time to make amends for sins still “on the books” of their lives. They were here one moment and gone the next. The (Judean?) construction workers who died in the collapse of the Tower of Siloam had no time to satisfy their moral and spiritual debts. In a moment, their lives were over. The clock had run out. For them there were no more tomorrows.

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In light of that sudden and unexpected end, Jesus tells a story about a near miss and a second chance. The parable creates all sorts of interpretive speculation about tree planting and manure spreading. It has been used as an allegory since some of the earliest centuries of the Christian Church. Those allegories – many of which have imagined the fig tree as “unfruitful” Israel – are not particularly helpful to us and have been one more element in the anti-Judaism impact of the New Testament.

Let’s avoid that mistake, shall we?

The general tenor of the narrative in this stretch of the Lukan account is the theme of unexpected results. Let’s work our way backwards in the chapter. In the parable of the Narrow Door (Luke 13:23-30), the guest list is quite the opposite of what Jesus’ listeners might have expected. Nonetheless, the eschatological feast is standing room only, with guests from every point of the compass coming and eating in the Kin(g)dom of God.

In the mini-parables of the mustard seed and the yeast (Luke 13:18-22), the image is of something very small that produces large results. The Kin(g)dom of God is comparable to these surprising results. In the Healing of the Bent-over Woman (Luke 1:10-17), the woman had been imprisoned by her ailment for eighteen years. What hope could there be for her healing? Yet, Jesus spoke and laid hands on her. She stood up straight and began praising God.

It’s amazing what Jesus can do with second chances, eh?

Perhaps this is one of the ways to approach the text. Every day we live is a “second chance.” When we focus on the potential culpability of those who died in Jerusalem, Justo Gonzalez suggests, we are asking the question backwards. “The surprising thing is not that so many die,” he writes, “but that we still live. If it were a matter of sin,” Gonzalez continues, “we would all be dead” (Kindle Location 3238).

What, Gonzalez asks, does the parable mean? It means that those of who still survive “are living only by the grace of God, and that our continued life is for the purpose that we bear fruit” (Kindle Location 3245). But it means more than that. And here is where Gonzalez’ commentary gets really interesting.

“It also means that even our apparent blessing and abundance are not necessarily something of which we should boast,” he continues. “The tree that has produced no fruit receives special attention and added fertilizer, not because it is so good, but rather because it is so poor” (Kindle Location 3246, my emphasis). This tree has not been blessed with abundance. It has nothing to commend it to the landowner. So far, the tree has been a disappointment and is just taking up space.

Gonzalez suggests that to the casual observer, all the extra attention the tree will receive would be a sign that the tree is specially blessed. “This is what one would expect on the premises of the so-called gospel of prosperity,” he writes, “good things are a reward for faith and fruitfulness. But the truth is exactly the opposite,” Gonzalez continues. “The fig tree is receiving special care because it has yet to give the fruit it was meant to bear” (Kindle Location 3253).

This interpretation takes, for example, the self-serving bias of White supremacy and turns it on its head. “Could it be,” Gonzalez asks, “that the reason why some of us have been given all these advantages is that otherwise we would have great difficulty bearing fruit?” (Kindle Location 3261). Perhaps all our supposed “blessings” are “just so much manure, piled on us because otherwise we would be such lousy fruit trees?” (Kindle Location 3262). I get the sense that Gonzalez offers this interpretation knowing that white people won’t quite get it, at least not right away.

Most important, Gonzalez suggests – might our power, privilege, position, and property be a warning about impending doom lest we bear fruit? And could it be that bearing fruit means sharing our abundance with those who have less rather than accumulating our stuff as a means of self-satisfied self-congratulation (see Luke 16:19-31, again). Might our survival for one more day be the result, not of our great planning and foresight (and hoarding of the good stuff), but rather because the Tree Planter has decided to give us another chance?

The Second Letter of Peter carries forth this thought in verses eight and nine of chapter three (NRSV). “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

You may know, as a reader of my posts, that I am a Christian universalist and hold no brief for eternal conscious punishment. I don’t think the threat here is hell as punishment. It is, rather, the potential hell of complete self-awareness on the part of us who have not born fruit.

What will it be like to come to the end of my earthly life knowing that I used my “fruit” only for me and that now I am privileged to spend eternity with those who were deprived in this life because I wanted to have too much? Will that realization not be as much hell and conscious torment as anyone might need standing in the presence of the God of second chances?

It will be enough for me, I think. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what it means to ruminate over sixty-five years of regret and remorse. The prospect of facing up to all my failings in an instant, all the missed opportunities, all the losses of nerve, all the blissful and willful ignorance of the needs of others – that’s almost more than I can bear to consider at the moment.

This is one of the opportunities of our Lenten journey – to remember that we still have time to live fruitfully. Another way to think about this is that repentance requires repair before reconciliation. Richard Swanson points out that “Jewish faith recognizes that there is a solid, concrete reality to repentance and faith” (page 124). Feeling sorry may begin a process of repentance, but it is only a beginning. Repair is a necessary element.

This Sunday and next, I’m doing two sessions of an adult forum on forgiving and being forgiven. It’s a classic example of the old saying that those who can’t do end up teaching. I’m hardly an exemplar of either being forgiven or forgiving. Thus, everything I say about repentance is directed first and foremost to me.

And I’m not sure I’ll get anywhere close to getting it right in this life. Frankly, it worries me (a bit). That being said, we’ll start our reflections on Sunday with the discipline of being forgiven. We’ll get to forgiving the next Sunday. But I want to start with the hard part first.

The French have a proverb which notes that “to forgive is first of all to accuse.” If someone forgives me for something, that person is convinced that I have done harm to that person. Otherwise, what is there to forgive? The corollary to that proverb, I think, is that “to repent is first of all to confess.” If I need to repent of a sin, then I have to acknowledge that I did something wrong. Otherwise, what is there to repent?

When I see myself as that fig tree, the first thing I must do is to acknowledge that I have born little fruit. If I had been fruitful, I wouldn’t need the extra time (or the manure treatment).

A brief note about that manure treatment. “Give me some time to dig around the roots and throw shit,” the gardener proposes in Luke 13:8. The final Greek word in the sentence is “kopria.” It really does mean “poop.” For example, coprolites are fossilized feces, dinosaur turds turned to stone by the passage of time. I mention this because most of my opportunities for growth are likely to be uncomfortable and/or unpleasant. Discomfort is likely a sign that I’m getting the treatment I need, no matter how much I might dislike it at the time.

How is the Lord digging around my roots and throwing shit at me to help me grow into the human I was created to be?

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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A Real Frame-Buster — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? What say you? That question never stops challenging us. Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Let the celebrations begin! Think confetti cannons and dancing in the streets. This is the day the disciples have longed to see. God’s rule is returning to Israel. The long night of exile and occupation is finally over.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah. Then Jesus explains what that means. Jesus says, “It’s necessary for the Son of Man to suffer horribly, to be declared deficient by the religious authorities, to be executed, and then to rise from the dead after three days.”

Excuse me, what? Just when it was going so well, too. In his head, Peter was already designing the announcements and business cards and letterhead. Can’t you just see it? “Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah.” And underneath, “Simon of Bethsaida, Chief Operating Officer.” Suffering? Rejection? Death?

There must be some mistake.

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What we have here is a real “frame buster.” As in, frame of reference. As in “does not compute.” What Jesus says doesn’t fit the way Peter sees the world, so Peter can’t see it.

Years ago, psychologists did a perception experiment. They showed people pictures of playing cards for just fractions of a second. These were normal playing cards with one exception. The scientists put a funny card – a red Ace of Spades – into the deck.

More than three-quarters of the test subjects didn’t see the funny card. A few noticed right away. A few more knew something was wrong, but they couldn’t say what it was. But most people didn’t – couldn’t – see what was right in front of them. They couldn’t see the red Ace of Spades because it didn’t fit what they expected to see.

A suffering Messiah is like that red Ace of Spades. It’s a real frame-buster. It’s no wonder Peter takes Jesus aside to set him straight. All this suffering Messiah business was just crazy talk. Everyone knew the Messiah was supposed to come and kick some Gentile booty! How was Jesus supposed to do that when he was despised and dead?

To be fair to Peter, no one could have seen it coming. And no one did. Except Jesus. Jesus announces the whole new world in Mark 1:15 – “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This whole new world requires “repentance.” You may recall from last week that this repentance is not about feeling sad and sorry for sins. This repentance means accepting a whole new way of seeing that whole new world. Marcel Proust said well. “The real voyage of discovery,” he wrote, “consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

That’s what repentance really is. It’s accepting all new eyes to see this whole new world.

It’s a lot to ask of stumbling, bumbling, fumbling disciples like Peter – and like me. Peter pushes back, and then he wishes he hadn’t. “You! You, you…Satan!” Jesus growls. “Get out of my face! You are clutching at your human framework rather than grasping God’s framework. Leave me alone!”

Satan? Now, that’s a bit harsh, Jesus, don’t you think? No, it isn’t. Testing Jesus’ identity, vocation, and mission is where this story started, remember? We heard it last week. In Mark 1:12, we heard that right after Jesus was baptized, the Spirit blew him out into the wild places. Jesus spent forty days with Satan, having his identity, vocation and mission tested to the limit.

It seems, now, that the testing wasn’t over. Peter gets the same boot in the backside Jesus administered to the Tester in the wilderness. A whole new world needs all new eyes.

The world under the powers of sin, death, and evil is, as Richard Swanson says, upside down. Jesus comes to turn the world right-side up. But we’re so used to seeing things upside down that a right-side up world looks terrifying at first. We’re good at seeing the world upside down. It’s all we’ve ever known.

A Dutch experimenter created a pair of “upside down” glasses in order to test how humans perceive things. He wore them for two weeks to see if he could adjust. For the first few days it was pretty awful. He couldn’t hit a teacup with hot water. He fell off his bike. He could barely manage the stairs. But it didn’t take long, and his brain adjusted. It flipped the images, and he began to function normally.

Of course, when he took the glasses off, his brain had to go through the adjustment process all over again. We can adjust pretty readily to an upside-down world. When the world is flipped right-side up, that seems uncomfortable and crazy and dangerous. But having our vision flipped is what repentance really feels like.

Jesus describes what it means to follow him into God’s whole new world. It will seem like everything has been turned upside-down, even though it’s right-side up. “If you want to follow me, then put yourself aside and carry your cross as I carry mine. What looks like saving your life is really losing it. And what looks like losing your life for me – and for the gospel – is really saving it.”

What we have here is a real frame-buster. Up becomes down, and down becomes up. Up until this moment, it’s been business as usual. In God’s whole new world, nothing can be the same. When frames get busted, it feels like crucifixion – and sometimes it is. That happens because our old ways of seeing and thinking and living have to die. Of course, that’s terrifying.

And it’s useless. Unless there’s something more.

Spoiler alert – Peter and the disciples really don’t get it until after Easter. God’s whole new world comes with a cross, a death, a burial, and an empty tomb. No one could really see the world right side up without that revolution of death and life.

Jesus’ resurrection is not just a new event in the same old world. Jesus’ resurrection is the whole new world. And a whole new world needs all new eyes.

I know it’s Lent, and we’re supposed to stick with the Cross for a while. But here’s another spoiler alert. God wins at Easter! And nothing can be the same after that. Following Jesus means seeing a whole new world with all new eyes. It means living as if the world is already right-side up.

The powers that benefit from an upside-down world will not go quietly. Jesus declares that the suffering, rejection, and cross are “necessary.” Here’s what that means. When you live right-side up in an upside-down world, it will be uncomfortable and painful to learn to see right-side up. And when you live right-side up in an upside-down world, crosses will find you. You won’t have to go looking for them.

This would be even more terrifying if it all depended on me…and you. But it doesn’t. I think about how the Apostle Paul puts this to work in Galatians 2:19-20. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The beginning of the Christian journey is accepting the gift of all new eyes. Christ lives in me by faith, and I trust that gift of a whole new world. Because of that gift, I can accept the gift of all new eyes – repentance – every day. And I can be part of the struggle to live right-side up in a world still committed to being upside-down.

This Christian journey is a real frame-buster. And a whole new world needs all new eyes.

The journey takes place in my heart and mind and spirit. I am struggling against my own racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism and all the other “isms” that demand I see the world upside-down. Every day I need to say, “Satan, get out of my face.” Of course, I find that Satan is not in my face but is rather wearing my face. So, this is a real battle.

Perhaps you share that struggle. Living right-side up is challenging and sometimes painful. But, for my money, that’s where the real life is.

This Christian journey is a real frame-buster. The journey takes place in the world where I live. Jesus calls me to be an ally with the oppressed and an accomplice to real, earth-shaking, frame-busting change. That’s what taking up my cross looks like. I don’t have to build my own cross, remember. Following Jesus means the crosses will find me.

Part of that journey these days is about who Jesus is, and whose Jesus is. Look, Jesus is not white. Jesus is not a preview of John Wayne. Jesus is not the world’s greatest salesman. Jesus is not a liberal politician or a conservative one. Jesus is not a capitalist – or a socialist or a communist. Jesus is not a fairy godfather or godmother. Jesus is not a staunch defender of family values. Jesus is not my personal guarantee of wealth, privilege, and comfort. Jesus is not American. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, is not Christian.

Jesus is God among us – busting our frames, turning the world right-side up, and offering us new eyes for a whole new world.

Is that something you want to look into?

God Loves People I Hate–Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

3 Epiphany B 2021: Jonah 3:1-10, Mark 1:14-20

Five little words – that’s all it took.

Five Hebrew words. English is not quite that efficient. We need eight words to accomplish the same task. “Forty days more,” Jonah declares, “and Nineveh will be overthrown.” No silly stories. No strained analogies. No tired metaphors. No happy talk. Not even any attractive alliteration. The verdict has been rendered. The clock is ticking. Jonah is done.

The message is a direct declaration of doom. It contains no prescription for remedial action. It offers no hope of reprieve. The verb is in the passive voice. It specifies no actor. It is the bureaucrat-speak that fills our political discourse. “Mistakes were made.” “Shots were fired.” The message is designed to fail. 

It has precisely the opposite effect.

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Jonah seems unaware that the Lord likes a good joke. The word for “overthrown” can refer to destruction and demise. It more often refers to change, alteration, or even transformation! This verb, writes Philip Cary “can also—unfortunately for Jonah—mean conversion and being turned into something new.”

Who is fooling whom at this point? Does Jonah already know the LORD’s intention to spare Nineveh? Jonah later protests that he did know about this in advance. So, Cary suggests, it may be that Jonah manipulates the LORD’s message to have the most lethal implications and the least chance of success. Or is it that the LORD gives this bit of sermonic double entendre to the unsuspecting prophet who then feels used and cheated?

Or…do we witness both things at once, as Cary suggests. “There is room to wonder whether, in the very content of the message,” Cary writes, “Jonah was trying to pull a fast one on the LORD—and whether what actually happened was that the LORD pulled a fast one on Jonah.” The “old switcheroo” is a staple of comedy in all times and places. Is that what we witness in God’s word through Jonah to Nineveh?

Five little words – “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” It is the most effective sermon in history, as well as the shortest.

Not only do the hated Ninevites – and their pets and livestock – grieve and repent their sins. More than that, they trust the LORD to have mercy. “Who knows?” the great king wonders and hopes, “God may relent and change [God’s]mind; [God] may turn from [God’s] fierce anger, so that we do not perish.

Friends, that’s faith – trusting God for good in life and in death. Jonah is the patron saint of pious pagans, no matter how much Jonah hates the results.

Faith makes these pious pagans God’s friends. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways,” we read, “God changed [God’s] mind about the calamity that [God] had said [God] would bring upon them; and [God] did not do it.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

If Jonah’s five little words are challenging, my five little words feel disastrous. God loves the insulting insurrectionist and the unrepentant white supremacist. God loves the arrogant authoritarian and the sniveling sycophant. God loves the ignorant thug promoting toxic masculinity and the self-deluding conspiracy monger. God loves the privileged, the powerful, and the well-positioned, even as they move heaven and earth to defend their domains.

Dear Lord, that pisses me off to no end. I’m with Jonah on this one. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?” he protests in chapter four. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew,” he laments, “that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Isn’t this exactly what I told you would happen, Lord? I knew you’d go soft in the heart and soft in the head. I knew you’d fall all over your merciful self the second those stinking Ninevites made the first mention of remorse. Didn’t I tell you?

And now, I suppose, you expect me to love them too. Well, guess again, bucko!

I’m ready to charter a boat for wherever Tarshish is – if it’s a place where God hates the people I hate. I’m ready to live in Tarshish –where I’m always righteous and right, where those damn fools will get what’s coming to them. Buy me a ticket, pack my bags, renew my passport – I’m ready to go!

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Jonah’s quarrel is with God’s character, and so is mine. Jonah knows that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Lord, what is wrong with you? Why don’t you have higher standards? Why do you love the people I hate?

Perhaps like Jonah, I’d rather die than live in such a place of perversion. God understands that, and God agrees.

If I am to live in the land where God is in charge, my hate must die. My self-righteousness must die. My longing to punish must die. My self-absorption, self-justification, and self-idolatry must die.

If it’s all the same to you, Lord, I’d rather sleep in the hold of my escaping ship and let the world around me go to hell in a handbasket – or in whatever other container might be appropriate.

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,” we read in Mark 1, “and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” Turn around. Get a new mind and heart. Let go of my smug certainty and let God be God. Let go of my hate and let God be love.

Damn.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

I want to be clear. This lets no one off the hook. God’s love changes people. First and foremost, it changes me.

God’s love also changes the wicked Ninevites, at least in the Jonah’s story. This is not acceptance, acquiescence, or apathy. This love is the fire that requires repentance and burns away impurities. This is the love that embraces us as we are but cares too much to leave us that way. This is the love that tears down to build up, that breaks down to break open, that kills to make alive.

I am dragged into this kicking and screaming. Conversion is first of all the work of the Holy Spirit, the life-giving Flame of faith. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him,” writes Martin Luther. “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with [the Spirit’s] gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.”

The Holy Spirit brings a decisive break with the past. Think about the calling of those first disciples. It is worth examining the break that happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. In the ancient world, all social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” N. T. Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is.” The first disciples are presented as models and examples for us, and the picture is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Again, I want to be clear. The same Holy Spirit that calls me to let go of my hate calls others to do the same. No one is let off the hook.

God loves people who want to protect their privilege at the price of real justice. God’s love in Christ will kill that white male supremacy and make them alive – if they wish.

God loves those who treasure their treasure above their neighbors and do everything possible to protect it. God’s love in Christ will kill that greed and make them alive – if they wish.

God loves those who use fear and fanaticism, lies and lewdness, grievance and grandiosity to perpetuate their power. God will kill that spirit of deceit and make them alive – if they wish.

Five little words – God loves people I hate.

Real repentance is resurrection – new life beyond all that would keep us dead and buried. The result is trust in the God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. If I trust in that God who comes to us in Christ (and I do), then repenting my hate and embracing resurrection is the path to new life every day.

The Book of Jonah is the only book in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures that ends with a question mark. It does so, because in the case of Jonah, the issue hangs in the balance. Will Jonah’s hate be overthrown? We are left to ponder.

So, this message ends with a question mark as well. God loves the people I hate. Today, will I allow myself to be changed?

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021, Mark 1:14-20

Keep in mind the situation of the first listeners to Mark’s story. They were, perhaps, candidates for Christian baptism who had finished their instruction in the faith. Now, they were at the worship service where they would leave behind their former lives and follow Jesus. One of the first parts of the story they hear is this call to the disciples to leave everything behind and walk into the unknown future.

Before we jump to the call of the first disciples as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel reading, we need to stop at verses fourteen and fifteen. John was not “arrested,” as the NRSV translates it. John was “handed over.” If you hear a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own arrest and execution, then you have well-tuned scriptural ears. “Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being ‘handed over’ raises the specter of Jesus’ death,” Stephen Hultgren writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning,” he notes, “under the shadow of the cross.”

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“Notice how Jesus picks the moment to act,” N. T. Wright suggests. “As long as John was announcing the kingdom, down by the Jordan, Jesus could bide his time. But when John is put into prison, he knows it’s time to act” (Wright, Kindle Location 359). Mark constructs the narrative in this way. He will come back to John’s handing over later in the gospel. For now, the chain of events is enough.

John proclaimed the Coming One. Jesus proclaims that the appointed time has been and is being fulfilled. The reign of God has come near and is now at hand. The proper response is twofold: repent and believe in the good news. It doesn’t take long to get from these words back to our first lesson and the response of the Ninevites. The Greek grammar in this verse lends itself well to a “now and not yet” understanding of the coming reign of God.

“It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology),” Steven Hultgren writes. “It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.”

Wright suggests that the content of this repentance has a clear historical reality for Jesus’ first listeners. Wright says that Jesus’ call to repentance meant two things: “turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war,” and “calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God.” (Kindle Location 368-369). If this is the case (and I believe it is), then repentance is more than a sense of personal sorrow and regret and a promise to do better. It is a reorienting of one’s life around a new set of loyalties, agendas, and priorities – God’s loyalties, agendas, and priorities.

One could wonder aloud what sorts of repentance are being called forth from us today? I suspect we are called to repent the unholy alliance between white supremacy and American Protestant (not just Evangelical) Christianity that has determined power dynamics on this continent since Columbus arrived. I suspect we are called to repent the worship of neoliberal economic theories which make the “invisible hand” of the market more of a god than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect we are called to repent the sexism, genderism and heterosexism which make a particular kind of maleness into godness. Mary Daly was correct, after all, that if God is male then male is also god. There’s more to consider, but this is a start.

We Lutherans have something to contribute to the conversation at this point. Readers can’t help but wonder at the “immediate” response of the disciples to this call. Commentators speculate endlessly on the psychology and politics and personalities of the disciples that made this possible.

Theologically, we Lutherans would point to the gracious and life-changing power of the Word of the Gospel. “Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard,” Paul Berge writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even ‘immediately’ as pure gift.”

Berge points to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article in Luther’s Small Catechism to explicate this. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.” Just as the Hebrew prophets found the calling power of the Word irresistible, so do the disciples. Jonah may have been able to flee the first time, but the call of God will not be denied.

Hultgren suggests that the pivot to the call of the disciples “illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like.” It is worth examining what sort of break with past and parents happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. “Apart from pilgrimage, both geographical mobility and the consequent break with one’s social network (family, patrons, friends, neighbors) were considered abnormal behavior,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “and would have been much more traumatic in antiquity than simply leaving behind one’s job and tools.” (page 179). All social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is” (Kindle Location 348). If the first disciples are presented as models and examples for that imagined baptismal candidate (and for us), the picture presented is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

There is some disagreement about the economic situation which the first disciples were leaving behind. Larry Hurtado suggests, “the impression one gets here is that these four men were partners of small (or perhaps large!) businesses. They were in all likelihood ‘middle class’ economically, for the Zebedee brothers, at least, had employees in their family business (1:20)” (page 25).

Malina and Rohrbaugh disagree with Hurtado regarding the economic situation of the first disciples. “Mark, however, specifies that they left their father with the hired hands (1:20). This does not necessarily imply that these families were better off than most,” they suggest. “The tax farmers often hired day laborers to work with contract fishermen.” (page 180). So, the extra help may have been hired by their bosses rather than by their own company. This seems the more likely scenario.

While interesting, these economic details don’t impact the radical break from family and village that Jesus calls forth. Wright suggests that this part of the story connects us with the larger scriptural story of leaving family behind in response to God’s call. “The way Mark tells the story sends echoes ringing back through the scriptures, the larger narrative of God’s people,” Wright notes. “‘Leave your country and your father’s house’, said God to Abraham, ‘and go the land I will show you.’ Abraham, like Peter and the others, did what he was told, and went where he was sent. Mark is hinting to his readers that the old family business of the people of God is being left behind. God wants a new poetry to be written,” Wright concludes, “and is calling a new people to write it.” (Kindle Location 351)

“Jesus was now calling them to trust the good news that their God was doing something new. To get in on the act, they had to cut loose from other ties and trust him and his message,” Wright continues. “That wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now. But it’s what Peter, Andrew, James and John did, and it’s what all Christians are called to do today, tomorrow, and on into God’s future” (Kindle Location 374).

Last week we listened in as Nathanael was invited to come and see and thus to relinquish his prejudices and presumptions, his hollow hatred of the other. This week, we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words regarding discipleship – that when God calls a person, God bids that one to come and die.” That may be the literal case for some Jesus followers. It is certainly the liturgical and sociological case for all Jesus followers. Walking toward Jesus means walking away from our dependence and reliance on any other way to find meaning and purpose in our existence.

That is the real significance of our baptism. We return now to that baptismal candidate, hearing this story in its fullness as a preparation for the plunge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans in chapter six of his letter. It is, of course a rhetorical question. They know because Paul told them.

Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To walk in newness of life does not mean keeping all the old life as well. It means entering into the Resurrection here and now and living in that reality. Living in that reality means, among other things, extending the invitation to others who might be interested in dying and rising in Christ.

What is revealed in repentance? Repentance reveals the killing power of life without God. And it reveals a new path of faith, hope, and love for those willing to entertain the possibility.

References and Resources

A Time for Burning (Full Documentary). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMuguX7J42A3

A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORZvA4pQU4&feature=emb_title

Berge, Paul. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.

Hultgren, Arland. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-729-31-2

Hultgren, Stephen. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20-2

Hurtado, Larry. Mark.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources. https://nebraskasynod.org/learn/rare-resources.html.

Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen. https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/129874/

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).

Text Study for Isaiah 64:1-9

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I wonder if the audience for this prophetic word was suffering from exile-fatigue. We’re past the promises of Second Isaiah (although we’ll hear some of those encouraging words next week). The remnant has been returned to Judah, and the rebuilding has been underway for a while. The writer of Third Isaiah prays in the midst of the Persian colonial dominance of Judah and the lackluster restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. The excitement over being rescued is past. The novelty of returning has faded. Now it seems to just be one damned thing after another with no real end in sight.

The people perhaps are tired of muddling through, apparently on their own. “Look down from heaven and see from your holy habitation,” the prophet quotes them in Isaiah 63:15-16. “Where are your zeal and your might? The yearning of your heart and your compassion?” Gone, apparently, is the experience of God’s warm embrace for the exiles longing to return home. Is there anything worse than thinking you’ve been left on your own? “We have long been like those whom you do not rule,” they complain in 63:19, “like those not called by your name.” Lord, you are treating us no better than the un-chosen pagans among whom we have lived.

The supplicants are, perhaps, looking for the Lord in the wrong place. The text reminds me of an old joke (takes one to know one, right?). A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.(https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/04/11/better-light/).

These are the ones who pray, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The prayer in our reading today is for a direct intervention from God, a rending of the heavens and a divine confrontation with the powers that oppress God’s people. We Christians believe that this prayer is answered most directly in the baptism of Jesus, but that’s a conversation a few months away. The text here invites us to wait with hope for this intervention and in the meantime to confess and repent our part in the brokenness of our world.

It’s a pretty whiny and somewhat self-deluded prayer, I think. Perhaps the prophet repeats all of this poetry of self-pity to help the people hear just how pathetic they sound. In verses 5 through 7, they blame God for their condition. If only the Lord had not been so peeved, then they might have stayed on the straight and narrow. Even now, if the Lord would just calm down a bit, things will get better. In verses 10-11 the supplicants protest that they have suffered enough. The temple is still a pile of ashes, and Jerusalem is desolate. “After all this,” they plead, “Will you restrain yourself, O Lord?” Can’t you just let bygones be bygones?

It’s important to read the Lord’s response in chapter 65. The Lord is having none of it. The Lord was ready to respond, but no one came looking. They searched under the lamppost where they thought the light was better. The people made sacrifices to other deities. They consulted the dead in tombs and spirits in dark corners. They ate unclean food and told the Lord to stay away since they were already too holy for such company! (verse 5). In 64:12, the petitioners plead for the Lord to speak up. In 65:6, they get their wish. It’s always best to be careful what you ask for! “I will not keep silent,” the Lord responds, “but I will repay…

I think that perhaps Kristin Wendland is a bit too optimistic about this text as she writes on workingpreacher.org (2014), “The gospel reading assigned for Advent 1A includes the refrain to keep awake so that one will not miss the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33). The reading from Isaiah assures us,” she continues, “that God will be recognizable when God comes. For we have experienced God before.” The prophet includes a mention of God’s past great deeds in verses 2 and 3. But it seems that such signs of power are lacking now. God comes “Through signs of power,” Wendland continues, “but also as one who does not remember iniquity forever but turns to look with forgiveness — at all of us.”

That is certainly the punch line of the prayer in 64:9. But it is uttered by people who engage in revisionist history rather than repentance. We can look to God’s coming with hope but only if we are willing to look at ourselves honestly. It is only then that we can pray for healing. This text has that Janus-character which should be part of our Advent discipline (it is, after all, our Christian new year!). We look forward to God’s great intervention for the sake of all Creation. And we look inward at our own brokenness, how “we have all become like one who is unclean…

Corrine Carvalho writes on workingpreacher.org (2017), “Reading this passage at the beginning of Advent reminds us that we are not in control and that our relationship with God needs healing. Our sin too often manifests in our attempts to keep God in a box that we can manage, taming God’s power, but the poem reminds us that God cannot be contained. And thank goodness for that,” she concludes, “because that means that God’s grace can also not be contained or circumscribed.”

We cannot force the divine calendar or agenda. But we can make ourselves joyfully ready for the invasion of God’s grace and mercy. “At the beginning of Advent, then,” Carvalho declares,

this poem asks us to surrender. Stop fighting to be good or better. Stop worrying about being more righteous or enlightened. Stop thinking we alone can make Christmas special. Stop rushing past the hard lessons. After all, “We all fade like a leaf.” That is, until God claims us as sacred clay.

Stop rushing past the hard lessons – there’s a word for us in this moment. The temptation to write a revisionist history for ourselves, for our side, for our ideas, will be intense. We all will be tempted to rush past the hard lessons and fabricate easy ones. We are all terribly tempted to become legends in our own minds and then to blame God for not recognizing this sooner. Here at the beginning of Advent, we are called to wait. Not because waiting is a good in itself – it may or may not be. Instead, we wait for our past to catch up to us and for the power of the Spirit it takes to tell the truth about that past. Only then can we be freed for life in the future.

Resources

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253