Versions of these kinds of complicated family dynamics exist throughout the world – always have, always will – but as for this particular Gospel story, that’s what it is. It’s a made-up story by Jesus about two lost brothers and their father. This is one of Jesus’ parables. As were the two parables that Jesus tells immediately preceding this: about a lost sheep and a lost coin.
Sheep may know they are lost, but they are certainly not repentant. Lost coins are completely clueless. And yet, when either is found, there is rejoicing. The scholar Amy-Jill Levin reminds us that in Jesus’ parable about the brothers and their father, no one has expressed sorrow at having hurt one another. No one has expressed forgiveness.[i]And yet there is rejoicing. Sort of. Two out of three. So what’s Jesus’ point? What’s his point in this trilogy of parables?
Don’t wait. Don’t wait until your offender “gets it.” Don’t wait until you have received an apology. Professor Levin says, “share a cup of coffee; go have lunch.” If creating a banquet for this other person is too much of a stretch, at least keep in mind that’swhere this is headed: a heavenly banquet, where all will be well, and all will be reconciled. In the meantime, if you cannot begin to reconcile, cannot even imagine doing it, know that some day you will, if not in thislife, then the next. In the meantime, don’t be mean. Move away from resentment… a right move which will help prepare the way in your own heart and maybe in the other’s. Jesus reminds us he’s come “to seek and save the lost.”[ii]All of us get lost periodically. Most of us, most of the time, cannot find ourselves without help.
[i]My inspiration is Amy-Jill Levine in her Short Stories by Jesus; The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (2014); pp. 25-70.
[ii]Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10.
Jesus spoke of people in four categories – they are either family, friends, neighbors, or enemies – and he tells us to love them all, including our enemies. Who is your enemy? This is someone who is out to destroy your life or destroy your vocation or reputation… or (more likely) someone who irritates you, who has a way of ruining your day, who is “not helpful to your program.” An enemy. And Jesus says to love our enemies and to forgive them. It’s a very tall order. Several thoughts come to mind.
Jesus tells us to “love our enemies,” notbecause it makes for more pleasant living, though that may be true. Rather, we love our enemies because our enemies can be our teachers, sometimes our best teachers. Our enemies can get us in touch with “our own stuff,” and like no one else can. Those outbursts or eruptions or emotional reactions that rise up in us. Where do they come from? And why are they sometimes so disproportional to the “offense” we have experienced from this other person? Our enemies expose us. They can be extraordinary agents for our own conversion. I’ll call this the “Velcro principle.” When the hooks of someone else’s “Velcro” sticks to our own “Velcro,” there’s something there in us, to look into, to open up, to offer to God. Our enemies can be our teachers.[i] Don’t hate them, love them, Jesus says.
Colossians 1:15-20; Matthew 6:7-15
Our first lesson, from the Letter to the Colossians, is sometimes called “the Creation Hymn,” how things came into being from the very beginning. The Son of God existed prior to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. What we experience in the human form of Jesus – using the language from Colossians – “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… All things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The Son of God had already lived forever, eternally, prior to his taking on human life as Jesus.
The best sense the Church has been able to make of this comes from experience. There is One God, the Creator of everything who, while remaining God, takes on human form: God the Son. This is Jesus, who grows, ministers, prays, dies, is resurrected, and returns to the life of God who has no beginning or ending. Jesus departs from earth. He ascends. He leaves us, not abandoned, but leaves us with another manifestation of the One God, whom Jesus calls “the Spirit,” the Spirit, another Person of the One God. It took the Church several centuries to find the language to try to describe the mysterious yet undeniable experience: that there is One God in Three Persons.
God took on human form in Jesus. How did God make this decision? I’m speaking here very anthropomorphically. How did God decide to become human? What was the “cost” to God to become human? The great Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, in his poem, “The Coming,” pictures God’s decision in a primordial conversation between God the Father and God the Son. The picture is of a desolated, hopeless, helpless earth.
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
“Let me go there.” And that was the decision.
God comes to us as a child of Bethlehem. We know him as Jesus, who grows up, like we grow up, and after many, many years, finds his voice and claims his power. He also prays. Jesus prays, enough so to catch people’s attention. This is God the Son in a very human way praying to God the Father. Very mysterious, and yet, clearly, this is what is happening… frequently.
The Gospel lesson appointed for today is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ question how to pray. Jesus gives us what we call “the Lord’s Prayer.”[i] What I find most revealing in the Lord’s Prayer is the opening word, the plural pronoun, “our.”[ii]“OurFather.” Consider the context:
- Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and Jesus’ prayer envelopes his disciples as if he and they are all one: the 1stperson, plural possessive pronoun: our. How to pray? Jesus says we begin like this: OurFather…
- Jesus here regards his disciples not as his servants, but as his friends. They are his peers. They share the same prayer. He doesn’t say, “My Father,” or “Your Father.” He says, “Our Father.”
- The name Jesus uses for “Father” shows a very tender, childlike, trusting intimacy. A better, sweeter translation of the Greek word would be “Papa” rather than “Father.” “Our Papa in heaven.”
- Jesus speaks as a human being, as human as you and I are, and as full of as many wonders and needs as the rest of us. His prayer isn’t just “heavenly”; his prayer includes our need for food – for daily bread – and this isn’t metaphorical. This is table bread. This is about sustenance.
- Just prior to this – the preceding verse – Jesus has said, “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.”[iii]So Jesus is teaching us to pray, but this is notabout the dissemination of information to God. God already knows our needs. God is God. This is about our trusted and tender relationship to God.
- And the rest is history. I mean, our ownhistory.
The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar, probably to most of us, perhaps too familiar to some of us for us to be mindful of its profundity. These are Jesus’ words, words which completely embrace us as if we, with Jesus, all belong to the same Father, the same Papa. You might inspiration for some meaningful meditation for Lent:
- Reflect on God’s “deciding” to become human, and its “cost” to God to be truly human and truly divine.
- Take R. S. Thomas’ haunting last line in his poem, “Let me go there.” Why? Why did God the Son say to the Father, “Let me go there?” Why did Jesus come?
- Why does Jesus pray? Jesus prayed and he presumed we would, also. He says to his disciples, “When you pray…” What does it mean to pray – to quote Jesus – when “your [heavenly] Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So why is Jesus praying? Why are we praying?
- And lastly, where I began with the Lord’s Prayer, with the plural possessive pronoun, our: “Our Father.” What does that pronoun “our” invite in terms of your relationship to Jesus and the God whom he calls Father. And if you get in touch with some resistance within you – resistance to that kind of intimacy with God – then pray about your resistance.
[i]Matthew 6:9-15. See also Luke 11:2-4.
[ii]The Greek word (ἡμῶν) literally means “of us”: i.e., “Father of us.”
Commemoration of John Cassian (360-435)
We remember today a monk named John Cassian, born in the mid-fourth century in what is now Romania. As a young man he was struggling as a follower of Jesus in a time when the church and world seemed to be falling apart. In many ways his world was not unlike our world today, minus the electronic technology. As a young man, John Cassian traveled to Bethlehem and later moved to Egypt to be formed by some of the great desert hermits.
At the heart of the desert spirituality was the conviction that we have been created in the image of God, and nothing will ever change that. “Original sin,” which we read about in the Book of Genesis, or our own subsequent collusion with sin, never coopts our “original blessing.”[i]We are created in the image of God. At our very core, our soul has the capacity and yearning to love God with the same kind of passion with which God loves us. The aim of the desertfathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, was to rid themselves of the anxieties, and distractions, and self-judgments that called their attention away from knowing and practicing the love of God with their our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
This Gospel passage appointed for today is about blindness – a blind man whose sight Jesus restores – however there’s more going on here than meets the eye. In the Gospel according to Mark, there’s a recurring theme of blindness – blindness as a metaphor – of people seeing but not understanding. They have sight, but they do not have insight or foresight. The “eyes of their hearts” are notenlightened.
Just prior to this scene in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus miraculously feeds a multitude of people, and two different times. The disciples witness both of these miracles, but they are blind to what is really going on, twice. They miss the meaning. Jesus asks, rhetorically: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?”[i]
Mark uses a particular verb for seeing in this Gospel story and multiple times throughout his Gospel. The verb Mark uses for “seeing” is actually the verb for “perception”: which is observing something and then understanding correctly what it means.[ii]But the disciples don’t. They don’t get it. Repeatedly. They’re blind. Mark takes his inspiration from the prophecy of Isaiah, who writes recurringly about the Messiah’s coming to heal blindness, blindness of the heart to perceive and understand.[iii]
There are two ways we can hear this Gospel account appointed for today: This is a two-thousand year-old story about Simon Peter, James, and John who fished by trade on a lake in Palestine. This is history – rather patchy history – about how Jesus began assembling his inner ring of 12 apostles in the northern region of Galilee.
or:This Gospel story is autobiographical. Like Peter, James, and John, we each have been summoned by Jesus. Jesus has caught our attention, and we have followed him. This story gets us in touch with our ownstory. It’s part of the backdrop of why we’re here today.
Is this Gospel story about them, or is it about us, about you? The answer is “yes.”
On the one hand, we’re introduced to Peter, James, and John, who continue to figure into Jesus’ life and story. These three leave everything to follow Jesus. Sort of everything. Peter is married, and he doesn’t leave his wife. None of the three leaves his ego behind. That will become obvious. All three of these men are shown to have very mixed motives for following Jesus. Complicated. Sometimes quite duplicitious. Tradition has it that all three ultimately and willingly accept martyrdom for being followers of Jesus… but we’re a long ways from that when we first meet them here in their boats.
There is a scene in the Gospels where 12-year old Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.[i]And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious boy from Nazareth (which was a long ways from nowhere), and Jesus’ being sosmart. He dazzled them with his knowledge.
Something happens in the ensuing nearly 20 years, the “hidden years,” before Jesus begins his public ministry. When he emerges from his seclusion, he does great deeds of power, healing, and provision; however something else “astounds” the people. Astounds. They ask themselves, “Where did this man get all this?” And what are they talking about? It’s not just about Jesus’ powerful ministry; it’s not just about his knowledge. Jesus is now filled with wisdom. So we hear in today’s Gospel lesson: the crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[ii] Jesus is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iii] “Wisdom and knowledge,” which are cousins. Wisdom and knowledge are related, but they not one-in-the-same. Jesus was not born wise.
Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through ages of ages. Amen.
You will know the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” We have before us an icon depicting God, the Holy Trinity, whose description is beyond words. This icon was actually painted (or “written”) by our own departed brother Eldridge Pendleton.[i]The icon is in the school of Andrei Rublev, whom we commemorate today. Andrei Rublev, born around 1365 near Moscow, became a monk at a young age, and is generally recognized as Russia’s greatest iconographer.[ii]
Some of you may come from a tradition where icons – these windows to God – were very much a part of your own religious formation. For some of us, icons offer new and inviting ways to gaze on God and God’s company. For others of us, icons may seem to skirt the Old Testament prohibition against creating “graven images.” We read in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath…”[iii]However if we read the Scriptures backwards, that is, to take our experience of Jesus Christ, and then look backwards in the Scriptures, we have a new reading of the old. The New Testament Letter to the Colossiansbegins with a description of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God.”[iv]The actual Greek is, “He is the icon [eikon] of the invisible God.” Jesus puts a face, a body, a name, a heart, and hands to the otherwise “invisible God.” Jesus is the icon of the invisible God.
We don’t pray to the icons. We pray in their presence. Rather than always closing our eyes and folding our hands in prayer, we lift up the eyes of our hearts in the presence of an icon. Icons feed the imagination in a very good way. The word “icon” has, of course, been added to our online vocabulary and use. So be it. The ubiquitous use of “icons” in marketing only shows how powerful a “capturing image” can be. There’s no reason for the word “icon” to be completely coopted. We can share. Keep the traditional use of this word, icon, as an important word in the vocabulary of your soul.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!