Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Holy Economics! (John 12:1-8)

When I was younger and I heard this story, I always heard the perfume described as “a pound of pure nard.” Well, I had no idea what nard was, but it rhymed with “lard,” so I had a vision of Mary spreading a pound of lard on Jesus’ feet. After which, all the dogs in Bethany followed him around for the next several days.

Makes a lot more sense to talk about a pint of perfume, anyway. We might wonder how good a perfume could smell if it comes in pints, but remember that in these times, there weren’t many perfumes. Even the kind of eau d’cheapo that comes in pint bottles would have smelled good to them.

Except, it seems, to Judas. He asks why this extravagant gift wasn’t made to the poor, instead of only to Jesus. John tells us he was probably asking because he figured to take a cut of the sale before distributing the money to the poor. Charity begins at home, of course. But we know that because John tells us – none of the other people present besides Jesus would have known the reason behind Judas’ question, and some of them might have thought it was pretty reasonable.

So Jesus responds to the question. Lay off Mary; she’s done a very wonderful thing. She kept this gift to give to me to symbolize something about me, to anoint me for my burial.

Many Christians throughout history have mistaken some of Jesus’ meaning here. Judas’ question seems to suggest that there’s some kind of conflict between a gift like Mary’s and giving to the poor. And according to his question, the conflict should be resolved in favor of the poor.

When Jesus answers him, it seems like he’s coming down on the other side. The poor you will always have with you, he says, but you won’t always have me. Many Christians use this verse to justify massive spending on elaborate church facilities or lavish lifestyles for their pastors. They’re giving their best to God, by giving to make his house or his representative flashier than other buildings or other people.

This seems like a weird idea in the mouth of Jesus. We wonder why he would say it, when most everything else he says talks about the need to help the poor.

The conflict resolves when we understand that the sentence about the poor always being with us is actually a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11. The poor will always be with you, God tells the Israelites, so I command you to help them in their need. Offering gifts to God doesn’t conflict with helping the poor, Jesus says to his listeners. They complement each other.

Now that makes sense to me, especially in our modern world. Although many of us may not be rich according to our standards, by the standards of most of the rest of the world, most of us are very, very well off. Something as simple as clean drinking water puts as ahead of many, many people.

And it’s not hard to give enough to help people in need when you have an abundance. Remember the rich folks showering money into the temple treasury when the poor widow gave her last two small coins. Despite their questionable motives, their lavish giving fed more people than the widow did.

But if we think we’ve given enough when we’ve given to help the poor, Jesus wants us to remember Mary. She gave her best, not just enough to help someone get by. We remember the widow, who gave everything, not just a little bit.

When I think about this, it makes more sense to me than it does at first. When we give to those in need, we’re obeying one of the greatest commandments. We’re showing love to our neighbors in need, which we know we’re supposed to do. Of course, there are two commandments to look at, though. The other one – the first one – is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

If we simply give only to show our love of our neighbors, we forget why we, as Christians, care about those people to begin with. They’re God’s children, like we are, and God cares for them just as much as he cares for us.

But if we give only to show our love of God, we neglect his children entirely. We have to be ready to give to folks in need, and we have to be ready to give our best to God. Doing both helps us honor God as well as show what we call Christian compassion towards those in need.

Doing anything else leaves us one commandment short.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Prodigiously Prodigal (Luke 15:1-2; 11-32)

Everybody knows why this guy is the prodigal son, right? Because he ran away, of course, since that’s what “prodigal” means.

But did you know that “prodigal” was originally a word that described his spending habits, rather than his travel habits? It’s related to the word “prodigious,” which means large or big. Originally, if I were giving something away lavishly, in large amounts or without any thought of running out, then I would be labeled “prodigal.” Sometimes we still use the word that way today.

When we look at our story with that meaning in our minds, something interesting happens to it. Junior is no longer our only prodigal – now his father becomes one as well.

Junior, of course, spends his money on “riotous living.” I imagine you have to spend both prodigally and prodigiously in order to qualify your standard of living as “riotous,” and I can’t imagine it pays well. Which is why he runs out of money. But look at the father now.

He gives his son a pretty substantial gift – if he only has two sons, then accord-ing to the inheritance laws of the time, the younger one is entitled to one-third of the estate on his death. A third is a pretty good chunk of the family business, especially if it’s all converted into cash, which is what Junior wants done.

Seems pretty wasteful to me, as well. Junior doesn’t want the money to start his own business, or buy land or travel to Rome or Athens to study with the great philosophers. Nope, he takes his check and heads for Vegas to get the party started. That might be a good idea if you’ve got six months to live, but here not so much.

It’s hard to believe that Dad didn’t know what kind of son he’d raised, and didn’t know what he’d do with a lot of money on his hands. And considering that Junior has just told him that he’d rather have the money than a father, the message is pretty clear: Giving this boy money is a Bad Idea. Wasteful, you might say, or “prodigal.”

I had an interesting conversation once with a man who insisted the father in the story wasn’t prodigal, because the father was supposed to represent God. Since God is flawless and prodigality is a flaw, the father couldn’t be prodigal! Actually, he had a series of long monologues which were broken up by someone trying to get a word in edgewise. So I’ll give my ideas here and win the argument, 12 years later.

Like I mentioned, I’m pretty much sold on the idea that the father is prodigal with his money. He gives extravagantly, and in light of what happens, he gives wastefully.

Does that mean he can’t represent God? Yes, if you insist that being prodigal is a flaw.

Most times, of course, it is. If I spend prodigally, like Junior does, then I run out of money. Using any resource without thinking about the future can cause shortages. Farmers ration their irrigation water, marathon runners ration their pace, etc., in order to make sure they have enough to finish what they started. But how about those resources we don't worry about running out of?

We don’t caution each other, “Don’t breathe so much. You’re wasting air.” Except maybe in Los Angeles, where good air sometimes is harder to find. Generally, when we’re not worried about running out of something, we don’t mind using a whole lot of it.

See the father’s prodigality now? He gives to his son like there’s no tomorrow. Not money – if he cared about that, he would have sent Junior packing and told him, “Wait till I’m really dead instead of just wishing I was.” No, he gives his love like he has some kind of endless supply of it, like he’s got so much he doesn’t even consider whether or not Junior’s really reformed or if he just got tired of being poor.

Does that sound like God? Yeah, I think it does. Among God’s infinities is surely his endless love, and he has shown us over and over again that he will give everything in order to win us with that love. Jesus first sacrificed to enter this world as one of us and then sacrificed even that in order to heal our broken relationship with God. If no one had listened to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning and she was the only one who believed, he would have given himself. If everyone turns away from God but you, he would have given himself.

And if you were to then turn away, but somehow come to yourself and realize you wanted to come back, you’d find him running towards you, wanting to welcome you home and shouting the good news of your return to any who would listen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Double Secret Probation (Luke 13:1-9)

The very first night I was on campus my freshman year, the dorm staff showed us the movie Animal House. Which probably shows you how they, at least, viewed what I was supposed to do the next four years. Or seven, as the case may be.

In any event, there is a place in the movie where mean, nasty ol’ Dean Wormer lowers the boom on the fun-loving party guys of the Delta Tau Chi fraternity. They’ve crossed the line, and because they were on what Dean Wormer calls “double secret probation,” he can now expel them. Since this is totally unfair, they decide to destroy the homecoming parade.

Dean Wormer also tells one kid that “fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” One horrifying rite of adulthood is admitting Dean Wormer was right about that.

But anyway, there’s something to this “double secret probation” that sounds like some of the ideas that Jesus is talking about in this passage.

Knowing what we do about the way people seemed to think of religion in those times, we can be pretty sure of a couple of things people were thinking when they started this conversation with Jesus. They probably thought that the people Pilate killed were somehow less religious, or maybe just worse people all around. They must have sinned more than other people to meet such an awful fate.

“Is that what you think?” Jesus asks them. “That’s not how it works. Are the people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell worse sinners than the people who weren’t killed? Repent or you will perish just like they did.”

Of course, Jesus wasn’t suggesting these people would literally die in a tower collapse or at Pilate’s hands. But it’s a safe bet none of those people thought they would die in the time and place they did, either. Nobody woke up and decided to skip going to work that day because they knew they’d die that afternoon.

They didn’t know – and neither do you and I know – when and where they would die. They did know, if they ever thought about it, that one day they would die. They were probably more aware of it than we are, because they encountered death more often.

So, Jesus tells them, your death will be as unexpected for you as theirs was for them. You may be a good person, or a middling person, or a bad person. And none of that will have anything to do with when and how you die. Being a pious and proper person who says and does all the right things won’t lengthen your life, so don’t expect that you’ll have time to repent later. Do it now if you’re going to do it.

Otherwise, death will come to you like double secret probation came to the Delta brothers (Jesus didn’t use those exact words). You’ll suddenly be out of chances to repent, even though you thought you still had plenty of them.

Now, that sounds like a gloomy message – and probably sounded worse to the people who had a lot of repenting to do. They’d been busy making messes out of their lives, and even if they repented, why would God believe they might do anything differently now? They might not even have much time to get things turned around and make amends for what they’d done.

But Jesus also includes a word of hope, in the parable of the barren fig tree. God might be entitled to think of those people who’d been on the wrong path the way the man thought of his barren fig tree. Worthless, and basically taking up space that could be used by another tree than might bear fruit.

No, Jesus said. That’s not how God sees things. God has the gardener’s view, that if he takes some special care and attention to the tree, the next year it might bear some fruit. If he works with us, we may yet bear fruit even though we never have before.

According to the double secret probation view, God decides he’ll only wait so long before we prove ourselves worthless and then he’ll pull the plug on us. But according to the gardener’s view, God always seeks one more chance to help us grow.

In fact, if God were really going to cause lives to end based on whether or not a person was following him, he’d do everything he could to extend the lives of the people who weren’t following him. After all, they’re the ones who need all the extra chances they can get, aren’t they?

Jesus tells his listeners – and us, for that matter – that God has never given up on us, and is constantly trying to find a way to make us the fruitful and thriving image of God he’s always wanted us to be. The only question is when we’ll make the decision to start helping him work in us, and begin becoming those people.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Fox and the Chicken (Luke 13:31-35)

Well, now this is different. Did we read right? Are these Pharisees who are warning Jesus about a threat from Herod? Sure, Luke tells us more about the positive interactions Jesus has with Pharisees, but still, they’re Pharisees.

As in “Sadducees and.” As in those people who get snooty about who Jesus hangs out with, and about what he says about himself and about the law. But here they are, warning Jesus that Herod’s been asking about him, and he should get out of town before this Herod can finish the job his grandfather started in Bethlehem.

It’s not a made-up threat. Luke shows us that when Herod hears about Jesus, he gets philosophical. “He sounds like John the Baptist. I had him beheaded, but now there’s this guy. Somebody bring him in so we can talk.”

I can think of a couple reasons why they would do this. Maybe they’ve set a trap. They’ll tell Jesus the best route out of town and, oops! Someone told Herod about it and those darn soldiers had it guarded. Our bad, Jesus, we’ll try to do better next time.

Maybe they want to make Jesus look bad in front of his followers. Sure, they could say. He talks a good game about his power not being from this world and he can do some neat stuff, and he has all those great things to say about following God to the very end. But when push comes to shove and the soldiers are knocking on the door, he heads for the hills just like anyone else would. Some prophet.

Or, I suppose, they could be sincere. Not necessarily because they like Jesus, but because they’re tired of this non-Jewish king going around offing nice Jewish boys. That’s a habit they, as nice Jewish boys, don’t want him to pick up. In any event, they seem to have misjudged Jesus. Whew! Things are back to normal around here.

Jesus suggests they carry a message back to Herod, whom he calls “that fox.” Tell Herod, he says, that I’ll be casting out demons and healing for the next couple of days, and I’ll finish where and when God decides I should finish, no matter what Herod says.

That finish will happen in Jerusalem, where many prophets in Jewish history ended their careers and their lives. They spoke out against the injustice of the king and his nobles, against all the people who took advantage of others and then hid behind all the “proper” religious ceremonies.

How often, Jesus says, God would have gathered the people of Jerusalem up like a hen covers her chicks for protection. But they would never come to God for protection. They trusted their armies or their treaties with other nations or their political games.

Jesus creates an interesting juxtaposition – a word I learned in seminary that I’m supposed to use when comparing things that are the opposite of each other. He calls Herod a fox, and compares God (and himself) to a protective hen.

We don’t get the full impact of the difference, because we don’t have the same image of a fox that the ancient Judeans did. Like us, they saw the fox as clever and cunning. But we see that slyness used by the fox to escape pursuit. The fox outwits opponents who are more numerous or much stronger.

The Judeans, though, saw the fox’s cleverness used to get around any barriers put up to stop him from raiding their homes, crops and small livestock. The fox was sly, all right, but he was also ravenously destructive.

Jesus points out to the Pharisees who warn him that if Herod wants him, hiding now won’t do much good. He will depend on God, rather than on earthly power or escape plans or whatever. He will let God gather him up like that hen does, no matter what enemies he may face.

Jerusalem always wanted to cut a deal with the fox, somehow believing that this treaty, or this army, or this tribute would satisfy the enemy they faced and make him go away. In the end, that got the nation conquered, exiled and nearly destroyed.

Today, we might be tempted by the same kinds of things. This court case, or this law, or this government guideline will guarantee our rights and so our church won’t go under. This Christian movie will convince Hollywood to stop marketing trash as entertainment, and we won’t have to worry when we go to the theater.

But I can’t depend on the fox of our culture or our government to do anything other than what he always does – go along until it suits his purposes not to, and then turn on me. I can only depend on God’s protection, which it seems has a better track record anyway.

A persecuted, marginalized church took over the most powerful empire in its world in about 350 years, even though its people had no special rights. They clung to God for their protection, and they overcame.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Temptation (Luke 4:1-13)

Sometimes this story makes me really scratch my head.

I mean, the devil knows who Jesus is. He knows that while he’s in every way fully human, he’s also fully divine. And these “temptations” are as subtle as a flying mallet, so he’s got to know that Jesus will see through them as soon as he says them. I can’t fully see the point of going after Jesus this way.

But even though I don’t understand why the devil does this, I’m glad the story’s here. Because I’m not Jesus, and I don’t always see through these temptations, and getting the gist of them is a big help to me in figuring out how to deal with them.

First, the devil tempts Jesus to ease his hunger, great after forty days of fasting. Jesus, who will one day do some pretty impressive things with a handful of loaves and fish, could easily make food from even the rocks in the wilderness. He doesn’t need to be hungry or suffer one second longer if he doesn’t want to.

Jesus reminds the devil that he, as a human being, has spiritual needs as well as physical ones, and that ignoring the spiritual part of his existence is as dangerous to life as ignoring the physical ones. He didn’t just come to the desert to be hungry. He came in order to prepare himself for his ministry.

When we sacrifice for Lent, we sometimes focus on what we give up, rather than why we’re giving it up. Jesus’ response to the devil reminds us not to do that.

Next, the devil brings Jesus to a place where he can see the whole world, and invites him to ask for control over those kingdoms. All Jesus needs to do is worship him, and every bit of earthly glory and authority that the devil has will be Jesus’.

But Jesus knows that the devil’s control is not real. He has only the power given to him from God, which logically makes God the one to worship. Which makes sense – would you or I want to worship someone who says, “Hey, look at my power. Worship me and I’ll give it to you,” or would we want to worship whomever gave that someone his power? Duh.

Finally, the pair stands at the top of Herod’s new temple, high above the ground. The devil tells Jesus to prove he’s the Son of God, by showing how he would survive a fall from this spot without even a scratch. After all, scripture itself said that angels themselves would protect Jesus from harm.

But, Jesus said, the core truth of God isn’t something we should be trying to prove, or demonstrate to people for our own purposes. If he stepped off that roof, Jesus would essentially be saying to God, “Well, if you’re real, then I won’t get hurt doing this.” And God says, “Excuse me? If I’m real? Who do you think you’re talking to?”

You know, the devil is basically a one-trick pony – he suggests to Jesus the same thing he suggested to Eve in the garden, and the same thing he suggests to us today. You, he said to them and says to us, can know better than God knows what you should be doing. You can do what seems right to you, and not worry about whether or not it’s right in God’s eyes.

The devil’s vision of Jesus’ ministry is one of flash and bang, of amazing tricks that would make people say, “I’ve gotta see this!” It would point to Jesus as a master magician, or a showman who entertained them but never lead them anywhere. It’s a vision I might see in myself if I think more about the style of my sermon than its substance, and if I think more about my words and how they’re presented than about who my words should point to.

Thanks for the offer, Mr. One-Trick Pony, but according to Jesus, I need to be looking at what he wants me to do, what he wants me to be and why he wants that. I don’t need to look so much at what I want, because following that path hadn’t brought me anywhere I needed to be.