A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Shifting Perspective

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt (1627). Retrieved from Wikipedia.


Grief is an unpredictable thing.  It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people.  Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss.  Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact.  All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to.  You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak.  After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.

The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind.  This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways.  In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently.  Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances.  I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death.  These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.

In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself.  Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness.  In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely.  So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one.  We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.

The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about.  Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss?  No, not really.  Life is not about getting money or stuff.  In our better moments, we all know that.  But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now.  I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing.  Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them.  We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.

But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages.  He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings.  I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need.  You’ve missed the point entirely.”

The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That one word, “life,” is super-important.  Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings.  Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.

This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America.  We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture.  Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society.  Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost.  The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity.  We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage.  We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.

Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption.  Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us.  They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy.  Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH.  And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing.  The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.”  That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another.  In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives.  Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.

This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found.  We remember that life is so much more than stuff.

The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance.  We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”.  Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.

I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while.  Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer.  From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be.  That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.

Another way is to keep a financial journal.  This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records.  The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month.  And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money.  At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc.  Where does your money actually go?  And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian?  Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants?  Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?

Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.

One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us.  For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it.  He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute.  Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.

Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially.  He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem.  This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself.  This farmer never stops to think about his wider community.  His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.”  Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.

The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared.  We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources.  That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.

Jesus is the Problem


I chuckle to myself sometimes when I drive around and I see bumper stickers and billboards with hokey slogans like “Jesus is the Answer” because that phrase makes me want to say something snarky like, “Could you repeat the question?”

I find that folks who resort to one-liners like that are too quick to boil down the deep, rich complexity of two thousand years of Christian tradition to a cheap, one-sided formula and I just don’t think you can honestly do that if you actually read the Bible and wrestle with the things it says.  When I think about the person Jesus of Nazareth and the kinds of things he said and did, I’m frankly puzzled and disturbed more often than not.  One of the things that keeps me engaged with Jesus as my Lord and Savior is the way that he challenges me time and time again to grow as person and to break out of old, destructive ways of thinking and living.  Most often, he does this by telling stories and asking questions of his audience.  So yeah, I laugh when I see signs that say “Jesus is the answer” because, frankly, the one I want to slap on the back of my car would have to say, “Jesus is the problem.”

Jesus is a problem.  If you actually read the gospels, you’ll see he’s that perpetual, prophetic pebble in the shoe to those who think they hold all power and know all the answers to every question ever asked.  It’s literally impossible to hang around Jesus for any length of time and not get your worldview seriously knocked off-balance in some kind of significant way.

And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is once again doing just that: knocking things off-balance as usual.

Today’s reading is all about Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.  What he has to say about it challenged people in his time and continues to challenge us in our own time, although in a slightly different way.

In the ancient world, the story Jesus tells about one friend begging bread from another friend in the middle of the night would have been heard, not as a story about prayer, but as a story about public protest.

In this story, a friend shows up at his friend’s house in the middle of the night, asking for bread, “Friend,” he says, “lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”  And the other friend says, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”

But, according to Jesus, this conflict is preordained to end in the first friend’s favor because “even though [the second friend] will not get up and give [the first one] anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Now, the key word in that last sentence is persistence.  In some older translations, the word they used was importunity.  But the original Greek word here is anaideian, which literally means “shamelessness”.  By behaving so shamelessly in public, in the middle of the night, the first friend is demonstrating the abject desperation of his situation and appealing directly to his friend’s moral character.  The second friend, on the other hand, is now honor-bound to respond because refusing to do so would cost him respect in the eyes of the village, and remember that respect in the ancient world was at least as valuable as money.  So, in the end, Jesus’ parable is really all about the character of the one being asked for bread.  Taken as a metaphor for prayer, this parable is about God’s character as the one being prayed to by believers.  The question ultimately being asked here is not, “How do I get my prayers answered?” but rather “Who is God?”

Among the religious authorities in that part of the ancient world, they believed that God answered prayer based on a kind of merit system in relation to the Jewish Torah.  Only decent, established leaders with proper pedigrees and credentials would dare to approach the almighty God with a request.  Jesus, on the other hand, is turning that cultural expectation on its head.  He’s saying that it’s not the character of the person that determines God’s willingness to hear prayer, but the character of God.  God, according to Jesus, is not a bean-counting judge who’s “making a list and checking it twice” before deciding whether someone’s prayers are worth hearing.  Rather, the God that Jesus believes in is a generous, loving presence whose office door is perpetually open to any and every broken heart that comes knocking in the middle of the night, looking for some sign that they matter and they are loved.  God doesn’t care whether you have the right beliefs or the right morals.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you deserve love, you get it anyway because that’s just who God is.  God is love.  Full stop.  End of sentence.  Nothing else matters.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Deal with it.

So that’s what the parable means in the ancient world: prayer is about shameless audacity.  Prayer is not about the worthiness of the one who is asking, but the character the one who is asked.

Here in the modern world, Jesus’ parable on prayer has just as many challenging things to say to us, although in a different way.  Unlike the world of the ancient Middle East, our culture has been shaped by two centuries of industrial capitalism.  Our main question when it comes to prayer is, “Does it work?”

We’re obsessed with things working in the modern world.  We define reality by what we can observe and measure.  If you can’t see it or attach a number to it in some way, then it must not be real.  We are the only culture in the history of the human race to think this way.  Shouldn’t that strike us as odd?  Every other human civilization has left room open in their worldview for some kind of transcendent mystery.  Some parts of reality just can’t be measured.  Everybody else seems to get that but us.  So, statistically speaking, I think we enlightened, evolved westerners should at least ask ourselves the question: Could it be possible that we are actually the ones with the problem?

There can be no doubt that our means-ends rationality has taken us far.  We have made unparalleled leaps in the fields of science, technology, medicine, communication, travel, and exploration.  The modern mind has obviously been a blessing.  But we’ve also caused more death, extinction, pollution, annihilation, and oppression than any other culture in history, so we can’t stay high up on our pedestal for very long.  Without an overarching sense of meaning and mystery, we’ve managed to do a lot without knowing what it’s all for.  So I ask again: maybe ours is the culture with the problem.

When it comes to prayer, modern westerners have repeatedly come back to that rational question: Does it work?  And they’ve typically presented one of two possible answers.

On the one hand, you have some believers arguing that it absolutely does.  They say that prayer is like magic.  If you pray to the right person in the right way, you will get what you want.  If you don’t get the result you want, then you forgot to pray, or you didn’t do it right, or you didn’t have enough faith.  This is the ultimate form of “blaming the victim” when it comes to spirituality and suffering.  Needless to say, I think this “prayer is magic” philosophy is a pile of baloney.

On the other hand, there are lots of other modern folks who say that prayer is just a placebo: a psychological self-help exercise that just comforts people and brings communities together without making a real difference in the world.  I have to say that this perspective makes me just as uncomfortable as the “prayer is magic” approach because it too neatly divides reality into the material and the spiritual, with the material being regarded as the only part that’s really real.  In the five years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve walked with people and families through some really hard times.  I’ve seen some amazing things for which I have no logical explanation.  One might even call them miraculous.  On the other hand, I’ve seen good, devout people face unimaginable tragedy with seemingly unanswered prayers.  I’ve seen innocent children suffer and die under the deafening silence of heaven.  So, when it comes to the observable, measurable effectiveness of prayer, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all direct answer.  It’s ambiguous.

The place I come to when I hear Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that getting things done is not the point.  If we’re stuck in that place where we’re asking, “Does prayer work?” then we’re asking the wrong question.

Just like the friend in Jesus’ parable, the question comes down to this: Who is God?  Prayer draws our attention to that same loving, open presence that envelopes us all, whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in it or not.  Prayer is not about you and it’s not about getting things done.  Prayer changes us, regardless of whether or not it changes our circumstances.  Prayer gets us out of our narrow-minded, modern rationality and helps us to grow in our awareness of the great mystery within around us.  Prayer opens our hearts and minds to hear and to trust in that silent, inner voice that continually calls out to us, saying, “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Offensive Samaritan

Landscape with the Good Samaritan by Rembrandt (1638). Image is in the public domain.


There are some passages of the Bible that people have read (or at least heard about) over and over again so many times that it’s hard to look at them with fresh eyes.  These passages bear the weight of certain cultural interpretations that aren’t easily discarded, even in the light of decent biblical scholarship.  This morning’s New Testament reading is one such passage: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The toughest part about writing a sermon on passages like this one is that people think they already know what it means, so they switch on a kind of theological autopilot in their heads and then zone out so that they only ever end up hearing what they already expected to hear in the text.  This is a dangerous theological habit to get into, although we all do it.  We tell ourselves the same old familiar stories again and again.  We never leave our spiritual comfort zone and so we rob the gospel of its radical power to touch and transform our lives.

Well, it just so happens that Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about leaving your comfort zone and being radically transformed.  We’re used to thinking of it as a tale about human kindness.  We think Jesus was just telling people to do nice things for each other.  We call people “Good Samaritans” when they go out of their way to help others in need.  Some states even have “Good Samaritan laws” that require citizens to assist a victim when a crime has been committed.

But is that what this story is about?  It is certainly a story that has human kindness in it.  The image of the Good Samaritan has endured as a symbol for kindness in the intervening millennia since the story was first told.  But is kindness the point of the story?  I don’t think so.

Kindness is hardly the first word that would come to mind for a first century Jewish person who was hearing this story.  Actually, the first word to come to mind would probably be, “Ugh!” or “Eww!”  For first century Jews, the only Good Samaritan was a Samaritan that stayed very far away.

Samaritans, from a Jewish perspective, were heretics and half-breeds.  They were the leftover dregs of society who had interbred and mixed religious practices with the invading Assyrians in the 8th century BCE.  Not quite Jewish and not quite Gentile, Samaritans held a particular place of disgust in the first century Jewish mind.

Even more than that, this particular Samaritan in question appears to have been a trader by profession.  He rode a donkey, carried supplies like oil, and possessed a considerable sum of money (at least 2 days’ wages for the average working man).  Traders were also looked down upon in the ancient world.  They were not rooted down by place or tradition and often went wherever the money took them.  Like tax collectors, they were expected to be cheats and thieves.

Finally, this trader Samaritan takes his wounded stranger to an inn.  This was even more despicable.  In those days, an inn was not what we would call a hotel, it was a seedy dumping ground for the scum of the earth.  Nothing good happened there.  No respectable person would be caught dead in an inn if they could help it.

So that’s a little bit of background for you.  I’m telling you this in order to flesh out just how uncomfortable and maybe even offended Jesus’ listeners must have been when they first heard this parable.  It involves a Samaritan trader who books a room in an inn.  That fact by itself would seem seedy.  In today’s terms, Jesus might as well have told a story about a cross-dressing drug dealer in a crack house.  That fact alone would make for a story that you wouldn’t want to tell in mixed company.  But does that bother Jesus?  Not in the slightest.

So, let’s turn and take a look at why Jesus felt the need to tell such an offensive story to his audience of listeners.

It begins with a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer.  Now, the word lawyer here is a little bit misleading.  When we talk about lawyers, we usually mean trial attorneys.  But in this case, the lawyer that Jesus was talking with was probably more like a biblical scholar: someone who studied and interpreted the Jewish Torah.  In today’s terms, this person might be a professor at a theological seminary.  On the scale of religious and social respectability, this lawyer would have been the polar opposite of the Samaritan trader.

So, this lawyer (i.e. seminary professor) has some serious doubts about Jesus’ credibility as a rabbi.  After all, Jesus was a working-class hillbilly with no formal education to speak of, yet people were flocking to him in droves to hear what he was saying.  This scholar probably saw it as his professional and religious duty to expose Jesus, the unaccredited snake-oil peddler, for the fraud that he was.

The fight that ensues between the two of them is a battle of words and wits.  It’s all about having the right questions and comebacks.  The lawyer starts off with a question, “Teacher,” he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In other words, “How do I live a life that’s really living, not just existing?”

Jesus answers his question with a question, “What does the Torah say?”  The lawyer then proves his competence by flawlessly quoting two commandments from the Torah, one about loving God and the other about loving one’s neighbor.  Jesus gives the lawyer a polite “golf clap” and says, “Bravo.  Right answer.  Do this and you will live.”  But the lawyer isn’t satisfied.  He’s proven his own competence, but he hasn’t yet stumped Jesus in front of his followers, so he keeps going:

“And who is my neighbor?”

This is an interesting question.  It’s all about how wide religious people can legitimately cast their nets of inclusion.  Different religious groups at that time had different standards by which certain people could join and others could not.  To use today’s terms again, the more conservative groups defined neighbor in narrow terms while the more liberal groups accepted a broader definition.  But there’s a problem with each of these definitions (the ancient scholar as well as modern liberals and conservatives) and it’s this: Asking the question about neighborliness in this way automatically assumes that the questioner is placing him/herself at the center of the circle (the center of the universe, in fact).  Everything else happens around and is related to him/her.  The lawyer’s question (“who is my neighbor?”) is an inherently self-centered question.

So Jesus, in response, tells this seedy, PG-13 story about a dirty, low-down Samaritan traveler who stays in inns.  He holds up the Samaritan as a moral exemplar over and against a priest and a Levite, two Jewish religious leaders.

At the end of the story, when all is said and done, Jesus knocks the ball back into the lawyer’s court with yet another question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  And this is where Jesus wins the argument.  He stumps the lawyer by forcing him to admit something he doesn’t want to admit.

The lawyer’s response is priceless as he is unable to even bring himself to name the dirty, rotten, low-down Samaritan as his own neighbor.  That would be unthinkable.  All the lawyer can manage to squeak out are the words, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Leaving the lawyer with an invitation to imitate his enemy, Jesus is basically saying, “Let that which you hate become your teacher.  Learn from what you despise.  Let it throw you off-center, off-balance, and out-of-whack.”

Again, the problem with both conservative and liberal models of neighborliness is that both of them place the questioner at the center as the subject/hero, differing only in how wide they prefer to draw their respective circles of inclusion.  Jesus, on the other hand, is inviting the Torah scholar (as well as all present-day culture warriors) to re-center their circles somewhere other than their own egos.

In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan trader is not just a passive presence who is worthy of inclusion in the lawyer’s circle of neighbors, but an active agent who becomes a vessel of kindness to another (presumably Jewish) person.  The disgusting, no-good, low-down, half-breed, heretic Samaritan is now at the center of the circle, graciously including Jewish people in his own circle of kindness.  The lawyer’s moral universe has just been thrown off-center and now he has to adjust in order to get his bearings.

In Christian theological terms, this is exactly what God does in Christ.  The incarnation throws the universe off-center as the divine Ground of All Being takes on our finite, fallen flesh.  God’s own center of gravity has shifted in order for God to be experienced with us, here in the ordinary stuff of this universe.  According to the Christian story, God is not content to stay enthroned in heaven but meets us here out of deep compassion and solidarity.  In this way, God is more than simply loving, God is Love, as it says in 1 John 4.

As Christians in the world, I believe that we too are called to reorient our lives as our own little selfish worlds are thrown off-center.  Christ invites us to dethrone ourselves from the center of the universe and live, as he did, for others.  In doing so, Jesus says, we render to God the only kind of service God is really interested in: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

As you go out into the world this week, I invite you to challenge yourself and ask what/who do I truly despise?  Who is your disgusting Samaritan? 

Let that which you hate become your teacher, let your world be thrown off-balance, and may you discover the Spirit of the God who is love living and breathing in you, in everyone you welcome, and in all who welcome you.

Prodigal Grace

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.
Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c.1663-1665). Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

The last one hundred and fifty years or so have borne witness to more technological and scientific advances than any other equivalent period of time in human history.  From industry to the internet, from the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk to the first moon landing at Tranquility Base, from outer space to cyberspace, we have traveled farther, communicated faster, and dug deeper into the mysteries of the universe than previous generations could have dreamed possible.

In all this time, perhaps the greatest mystery we have encountered is the mystery of each other.  Without a second thought, I can pull a hand-held device out of my pocket and initiate an instantaneous conversation with someone on the opposite side of the planet.  Compare this ability to explorers like Magellan, whose trip around the globe cost him his life, four out of five ships, and all but 18 of his 270 crew members.  Compare it to the life of the average peasant in medieval Europe, who would likely never travel more than 5 miles away from the spot where he was born.  Our experience of the world in the early 21st century is so much more connected and cosmopolitan than our ancestors thought possible.

But it hasn’t been an entirely utopian experience, of course.  This heightened interconnectivity has brought us into contact with people very different from ourselves.  These people talk, dress, think, and worship very differently than we do.  Our knowledge of the world has given rise to more questions.  The most vexing of these questions have to do with religion.  Once the average person became aware of so many different religions on this planet, and especially once they began living next door to people who practice these religions, how are we supposed to make sense of such diversity?  With so many varieties of belief and so many opinions about the ultimate nature of reality, surely someone has to be right while everyone else is wrong, right?

These questions have sparked an ongoing debate about who God is and what God wants that has lasted to this day.  It seems like there’s always some nut-case out there who is more than willing to stand up on national television and claim with unwavering certainty to have the one and only right answer about what God’s will is.  Too many people, longing for something to hold onto in these confusing times, are only too willing to buy into such easy answers.  As we have seen, time and again, these peddlers of snake-oil and easy answers can make their followers say and do the unthinkable.  In exchange for absolute certainty about the will of God, people are willing to hand over the money in their bank accounts, cut off relations to friends and family, and even fly airplanes into buildings.  The philosopher Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”  I like to pray a prayer I once saw on a bumper-sticker: “Lord, protect me from your followers!”

In these times of complication and confusion, the promise of absolute certainty feels like a virtue but turns out to be a vice.  As it turns out, the way we hold our questions with our values is far more important than the answers we come up with.

In Jesus’ time, there was a group of people who claimed to have all the answers.  They were the Pharisees.  Erudite scholars of the Torah, these well-respected citizens seemed to possess a monopoly on the truth market.  Their rabbis fielded questions of theology and ethics so well that they established themselves as defenders of the faith and guardians of family values.  Theirs was a world of black and white easy answers.  Faith and certainty went hand in hand with no room for mystery, doubt, or mercy.

You can imagine then that when Jesus came along, he really messed with their worldview.  We read in the opening verses of this morning’s gospel passage that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners.  The Pharisees were quite offended by this gesture, since eating with someone in that time and culture implied that you accepted that person just as he or she was.  From their point of view, Jesus was sending the wrong kind of message for an upstanding citizen and an acclaimed rabbi.  In response to their offended sensibilities, Jesus told them a story.  It’s the famous story we now know as the parable of the prodigal son.

The story begins with a fictional man with two sons.  One day, the younger of the two decides that he doesn’t want to sit around and wait for his father to die before collecting on his inheritance.  He asks for it ahead of schedule.  Basically, this move was his way of saying to his dad, “You’re dead to me.”  And his father, in spite of what must have been immense heartbreak over this rejection, acquiesces to his younger son’s demand.

The next thing we learn is that this son takes his share of the estate and burns out on the party scene of some far-away city.  But when the good times stop rolling, the son is hard-up for cash.  He ends up taking the most disgusting job possible for a young Jewish person: feeding pigs.  He was do hungry that even the hog-slop was starting to look and smell pretty good to him.

Finally, in a moment of desperation and clarity, the son selfishly cooks up a half-decent apology in order to get himself back into more stable living conditions.  And then he makes his way back home with his tail between his legs.  He wasn’t really sorry, mind you, he was just miserable enough that he would do anything, put up with any amount of humiliation, if it meant a warm bed and three square meals a day.

This is where the story gets really interesting.  Jesus says, “…while [the son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  Taken aback by this enthusiastic greeting, the son nevertheless begins his feigned apology speech, but his father never lets him finish.  He cuts him off by calling for his servants to bring a robe, a ring, and sandals.  He kills the fattened calf and prepares a celebration feast.  In this moment, we get a clear picture of this father’s true nature as a man overflowing with love and generosity for his children.

Most tellings of the story end here, with the prodigal son’s redemption via forgiveness.  But that’s not where Jesus ends the story.  He keeps going.

Enter the older brother, the father’s firstborn son.  He has been the dutiful heir to the estate.  He has his stuff together, so to speak.  He has always done everything right.  But he’s not the hero of this story, not by a long shot.

It turns out that this older brother, in his quest to be the perfect son, has severely misjudged the kind of person his father is.  When he sees the welcome that his younger brother receives, the older brother gets angry and shouts at his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.”  He thinks his father is a cranky old miser who demands absolute obedience without question.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Jesus’ cautionary tale about the older brother is a biting indictment of the leaders of the religious establishment in his day.  Like the older brother in the story, their devotion to certainty and obedience has led them to believe that their God is just as judgmental and small-minded as they are.

On the other hand, it is the tax collectors and sinners around Jesus, no strangers to imperfection and doubt, who have the keenest insight on the nature of reality.  Through Jesus’ acceptance of them as they are, warts and all, they are coming to have faith in the power of grace.

What is grace?  Well, a theological dictionary would define grace as “unmerited favor” but here’s my favorite definition of grace: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s how we end our sermons here every week.

But more than that, grace is one of the central religious values of our Presbyterian heritage.  In the 16th century, when established religious authorities once used guilt and fear to manipulate and control the people, the Reformers countered that there is nothing a person can do to garner favor with God.  Grace is a given.  It is God’s basic orientation toward human beings.  All we have to do is decide how we’re going to respond to it.

Will we, like the older brother and the Pharisees, storm off in a huff over the scandalous nature of grace?  Or will we, like the younger brother and the sinners, open our hearts to this undeserved love?  Will we allow it to transform us from the inside out, until we start to look like Jesus?

When I look around our world in the 21st century, I see a planet in desperate need of grace.  We’ve had more than enough of pompous, self-righteous fanatics who claim to hold all the right answers to life, the universe, and everything.  What we need now is a deep, abiding faith in the mystery of grace.

We need imperfect people, full of doubts and faults, whose lives have nevertheless been touched by the knowledge that they are loved, no matter what.  Such people know how to love in return.  Theirs is the only message that can successfully defend against the attacks of judgmentalism, fundamentalism, and terrorism.

Their scandalous message of grace, never popular or pragmatic, applies equally to liberals as well as conservatives, Muslims as well as Christians, North Koreans as well as North Americans.  Grace is the great equalizer.  Grace is the central value by which we know that we can never out-stay our welcome in the kingdom of God, and it is the enlivening force that empowers us to go out from this church this morning, saying to one another (and to the whole world):

“I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Just Do It

There are some living parables that simply tell themselves.  Neither illustration nor explanation is necessary.  Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and engage in a little pedantic theological overkill, just to make sure the point is driven home.

This article was sent my way by Matt Grove:

Highly Religious People Are Less Motivated by Compassion Than Are Non-Believers

Go ahead and read it.  Then compare the results of that study to the words of the Dude himself (with all due respect to Jeff Lebowski):

[Jesus said:] ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father* went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.  (Matthew 21:28-32)

Finally, here’s a video from Derek Webb, one of the only ‘Christian’ artists I can stand to listen to anymore: