In our gospel lesson today, Jesus once again – as is so often his custom – draws on natural imagery to illustrate spiritual truth. Here he contrasts “good trees,” those which naturally produce figs and grapes, with “bad trees,” those which naturally produce thorns and brambles. A “bad tree” cannot produce good fruit; good fruit only comes from “good trees.” Similarly, Jesus says, one whose heart is good will naturally and without effort produce good fruit, while one whose heart is evil will naturally produce evil fruit. The point seems obvious. The metaphor is clear.
But there are two things to note: First, there is a difference between trees and people: A “bad tree” cannot stop producing thorns and brambles and suddenly begin producing good fruit. Because of the type of tree it is, it is incapable of bearing fruit; it can only bear thorns and brambles. But that is not the case with people. A person with an evil heart can be transformed into one whose heart is good. That’s a key difference. Someone whose life is oriented towards evil rather than towards God can change! The gospel is all about repentance, forgiveness, conversion of life, and reconciliation. Sinners can become saints – and they do!
A juggler enters a monastery. He soon discovers that, unlike the other monks, he’s not good at typical monkish things: he can’t cook, he can’t sing, he has terrible handwriting. The only thing he can do is juggle, and what use is that? In despair, he goes one night to a statue of the Virgin Mary . . . and juggles—offering to her, as his prayer, the only thing he has.
The medieval French tale of the “Juggler of Our Lady” imparts a familiar lesson: God gives us gifts that God wants us to use and to offer back in prayer and worship. Our reading from Leviticus this morning gets at something similar: “When you enter the land I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest” (Lev 23:10). This section of the reading is from the oldest layer of this passage, and significantly is directed not at the collective, or to priests, but to the individual farmer. “I have given you, as a gift, this land—you shall give me, as a gift, the fruits of that land.”
I’m impressed this morning by the whole-hearted response of the Israelites to the Law that God gave them through Moses:
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice: ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’“ (v. 3)
And just a few verses later:
“Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.'” (v.7)
Something fascinating, and even outrageous is happening here in Acts, but it is nothing new. We have seen this before. We have seen it throughout Scripture, in Old and New Testament, in the story of Jesus, and the story of the prophets before him. Once again, we see it today in story of Paul.
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him… [he] said to them…’[from] now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God….
We often gloss over the significance of this, just as we miss the context, when we forget similar occasions when something like this happened.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.
“Jesus himself came near and went with [the disciples], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).
Stop and think about that. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This was the man whom these two disciples had chosen to follow, the man for whom these disciples had given up their jobs and left their families. His good news defined their reality. And suddenly he was gone, brutally executed, his body now missing from his tomb. Imagine how they must have felt.
I can imagine these two disciples, shocked and confused by the recent events, walking down the road. I can imagine them praying the words of our psalm this morning: “The cords of death entangled me; . . . I came to grief and sorrow” (Ps 116:2). I can imagine their eyes, taking in their surroundings but not really seeing them. Is it surprising, really, that they perhaps failed to see what was right in front of them?
But is there something more going on? After all, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus. The word translated as “kept” can also mean to hold, to seize, to restrain, to arrest. It’s a forceful word. The disciples don’t just fail to recognize Jesus; they are actively hindered from knowing that this man walking and talking with them is their Lord and teacher, risen from the dead. Disciples in other accounts may not recognize Jesus immediately, but only here are they kept from recognizing him. Only here are the disciples’ eyes made to be closed, to be unable to perceive the reality in front of them.
So what’s happening here? In the way the evangelist distinguishes seeing from perceiving, I am reminded of how Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explains the purpose of parables: “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk 8:10, quoting Is 6:9-10). This seems to be what is happening here. These disciples look at the man accompanying them, but they do not perceive him.
Whose voice aren’t we hearing?
This has been the question that rings loudly in my mind as I hear our Gospel lesson today. In it, we learn a lot about our characters: what Lazarus wanted in life, what the rich man is desperate for in the afterlife, and that Abraham cannot—or will not—give to the rich man what he desires.
“Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” the rich man begs (Lk 16:24). No, Abraham replies. There’s a chasm fixed between us, and no way across.
“Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house . . . that he may warn [my family]” (Lk 16:27-28). No. There’s nothing the dead can do for the living that the living can’t get from the law and prophets.
This story illustrates Jesus’s own statement, from just a few verses before, that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped” (Lk 16:17). The rich man’s reversal of fortune is because of how he lived his life. The remedy was there in front of him all along, in the law and the prophets. We have that remedy, too.
Today is the first Sunday in the holy season of Lent. ‘I hate Lent!’ So said Jonathan Swift. ‘I hate Lent, with its different diets and herb porridge, and sour devout faces of people who only put on religion for seven weeks.’ I actually like Lent. Many of my brothers would I think say the same. It’s a time to get serious. Not just giving up chocolate. The Jesuit James Martin wrote, ‘Don’t give up chocolate; give up being a jerk! It’s time to get serious about God and our lives. It’s a time to go into the desert of one’s heart to encounter God. A time for deeper prayer, repentance, silence and solitude. To look with unblinking eyes at the state of our lives, our relationships, our world.
The world we live in is a beautiful gift, God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s gift has been ravaged and broken. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Millions live in abject poverty and hunger. Our wars, as in the Ukraine right now, have and continue to kill and maim and disfigure millions. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world, God’s precious and fragile gift to us is torn and divided violently at every level.
This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of ‘diabolos’ or the devil. That Greek word ‘diabolos’ used in the New Testament, literally means, ‘the one who throws apart’. The work of diabolos is essentially to divide, to break up that which was one.
I find this passage from the prophet Jeremiah to be deeply consoling. We live in an age, and a culture where what goes in front of, or after your name is crucial. It matters hugely if you can add Dr., The Reverend, or Brother, in front of your name. It is equally import if you can add PhD, M.Div., or SSJE after your name. Success and happiness hang on titles and initials. People spend their lives, and enormous amounts of capital, chasing after a sense of self-worth believed to be found in them. And into this culture Jeremiah speaks a word of truth, and a promise of hope.
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you…
Clearly Jeremiah here was reflecting on his own sense of vocation and call. What is significant is that he roots the seeds of that vocation, not in titles or initials gained after years of training, but in a relationship. Jeremiah roots his vocation not in what he has done, but simply who he is, someone formed, known, and consecrated by God while still in his mother’s womb.
“By this we know.” We hear this phrase four times in our reading from the first letter of John this morning. Knowing is fundamental to this letter, as are three interrelated questions: what we know, how we know it, and what we are going to do with that knowledge. As we begin this season after the Epiphany, as we recall God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, these three questions can guide our own discovery of God in and among us now.
First, what do we know? From this first letter of John, quite a lot. We know that God is light. We know what love is. We know we belong to the truth. We know God lives in us. This is big stuff—the foundation of our faith, of our relationship with God and with each other. So big, though, that these truths can feel remote from our daily lives. What does it mean for you, here and now, to know that God is love, and that God lives in you?
Reflecting on how we learn, how we come to know, can help bridge these eternal truths and our daily, particular experiences. For John, we know by sense—by what we see, hear, and touch—by example, and by assurance from someone we trust. Each of these modes is familiar to us, and I’m sure each of us learns better in one way than another. I know I learn best by touch, by moving my body, and by holding, tinkering, and manipulating.
“Did you go home for Christmas?” That’s a question you’re likely to hear these days. “Were you at home for the holidays?” “Did the kids come home for Christmas?” It’s a common theme at this time of year. We naturally associate the holiday season with “coming home.” Retailers pick up on the theme, offering us images of families gathered before the fireplace or around the Christmas tree. “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays over the loudspeaker in the grocery store. The idea of being “home” for the holidays appeals to many of us.
But what does “home” mean, really? Is it a place we can return to, or is it more of a longing? For many of us, the word “home” summons up a whole range of things that are past and that cannot be retrieved. The house we grew up in belongs to someone else. Our parents may have divorced – or died. Our siblings may be scattered across the country. The neighbors we once knew have drifted away. For us, “home” isn’t a specific place anymore; it’s more like a whole set of longings… or a collection of special people… or a treasure chest of memories that combine to make us feel safe and loved.
Many of us love the idea of “coming home.” But for others of us, perhaps, “home” was never that fine a place to begin with. Home was the place where mom and dad argued all the time until they finally split up, or where unkind and even abusive words were spoken. For us, “home” wasn’t a place where we felt safe or loved. We’ve had to find our “home” elsewhere – with different people and in different surroundings.