Reflection on Holy Week

People Raising Their Hands during DaytimeWe have been walking the path with Jesus since we celebrated his birth a few months ago. We read the story of his baptism and how he brings light and love into the darkest places of the world. We heard stories of his love and compassion for those on the margins. We witnessed him challenge injustice. We have witnessed this challenge bring him closer to the cross…to the point where we are today.

This week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The story (Luke 19:28-44) leaves lots of room for questions. How we answer the questions says something about who we believe Jesus to be. How did Jesus know where to find the colt? Had he made previous arrangements for it? Had he been in the community before and seen animals at that corner? Did he have some sort of vision or message from God that told him the colt would be there?

Jesus is part of a crowd coming into the city. Throughout Luke, the disciples have not understood who Jesus is and yet here they are proclaiming Jesus is king. Why this moment? Are they simply contrasting him with Caesar and proclaiming Jesus as their political and military leader? Do they understand that Jesus is a different kind of leader? Do they understand that Jesus is not going to be in charge of this new kingdom? Jesus is just the messenger sent by God bringing a message of love, compassion, justice. Do they understand that this new kingdom Jesus is bringing will be different from any other kingdom they have experienced?

What about the stones that will continue to shout? Even if no human ever calls Jesus king or Lord, the very earth will know that God is the creator and Lord of the universe. Can we hear the earth crying out, proclaiming God?

And then Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Is he predicting the destruction of Jerusalem because he knows it is going to happen or he simply because he can see the state of the country and recognizes that bad things are going to happen if they continue on this path? What could prevent the destruction that Jesus imagines is coming? Could the people, the city be saved if they had recognized Jesus as a messenger from God? What would the world look like if the hearers took Jesus’ message to heart? What would our world look like if we imagine God’s kingdom among us?

We know how this week will end. We know that Jesus dies on a cross but did Jesus believe that God had sent him to this place so that he could die? Was he simply living faithfully, knowing that the path he was on would put him into a difficult and dangerous situation?

Are we willing to risk living as Jesus lived? Are we willing to be messenger that point to God?

Zacchaeus the Honest Tax Collector

 

It’s a cute song but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what might be happening. Jesus is continuing to travel around teaching and healing and he arrives in Jericho. There is a chief tax collector who is wealthy. Chief tax collectors contracted with the local administration to collect the taxes in an area. They would pay the amount upfront and then hire tax collectors who went out and collected the money. If there was any cheating or extortion on the taxes it was a benefit to the chief tax collectors. The tax collectors tended to be people who couldn’t find work. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He has paid the taxes up front to the city. He hires people to collect the taxes with the hope that they will bring in enough money for him to break even. Even better would be to make a profit. This is how Zacchaeus lives. There was a stereotype that the chief tax collectors were wealthy because they had collected more taxes than were necessary. (See Social Science Commentary on the Gospels for more detail.)

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus got an idea and climbed up in a tree. From there he had a great view of what was happening. Jesus comes along and calls out to Zacchaeus. As they walk the crowds follow and they are distressed because they see Jesus associating with someone wealthy who has gained his wealth at their expense. Zacchaeus makes a declaration. In many of our English translations it says something like: half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times as much. But the English translations miss a nuance. The Greek is in the present tense which means that Zacchaeus already gives half of what he has to the poor. If he realizes that one of his tax collectors has defrauded someone he pays it back four times as much. Zacchaeus is already a good guy but the community doesn’t know this. They see his wealth and make assumptions.

But now they hear Zacchaeus making a claim and they have to rethink what they think they know about him. As the crowd has their image of Zacchaeus shaken they might find new respect for him—a wealthy man who gives away half his goods with asking for recognition and a tax collector who is honest. As the crowd reassess their perception of Zacchaeus he is no longer an outsider. The English translation says that salvation has come. Salvation has its roots in the Greek word salve which means to heal. When people find their place in community they are healed and the community is healed.

Salvation isn’t just for the individual but for the community. We are healed as we find our place in community. We all make assumptions about other people. We lump people in with a particular group without really knowing anything about them. We don’t always know how people think or what is in their hearts. We might not even know the good things they do because they keep it hidden or because we don’t want to see. Seeing something different might unsettle us.

Stereotypes create broken community. Making assumptions about people create broken community. If the community had taken time to get to know Zacchaeus they would have known the he was honest and that he shared his wealth. It wasn’t Zacchaeus who needed healing. Zacchaeus didn’t need to change. The community of people who disliked him needed to be changed.

We all have stereotypes and we all make assumptions. These stereotypes create broken community. We (all of us) are always in need of healing. Like the crowd in the story, we need to listen to our neighbours. We need to listen to the people we don’t know and hear their stories. We need to be open to being transformed so that healing can happen as community is restored.

The Prodigal Son

A retelling of the Prodigal Son based on Luke 15:11-31.

I have two sons. A few years ago my youngest came to me asking for his inheritance—no. He didn’t ask. He begged. He wanted so badly to go out and see the world. We didn’t always get on and he was angry at what he felt was my unfairness. Eventually, I relented and divided everything I had between my two sons.

The younger one left. We didn’t hear from him again for a long time. I thought he was dead but he tells me he was living wild. I don’t know all the details but he wasn’t here. He spent all the money and had to work on a pig farm—of all the unclean animals. Eventually he realized that he had it pretty good in my tent so he came back home.

I saw him coming. I was afraid for him. He had dishonored me before more community by asking for his inheritance and then by leaving. He was no longer a part of the community. I had to do something to protect him. I was afraid my neighbours would see him and kill him because of how he had dishonored me. I ran out to greet him. I put my arms around him. I gave him gift of a ring to show that he was still my son and to show forgiveness for the dishonour he had caused. We went home and I had the best calf killed and threw the biggest party the town had ever seen. I had to appease them some how. I had to repay the dishonour from my son with honour for my friends and neighbours.

My older son had been working in the field. He came home and heard the music, saw the dancing, smelled the calf cooking and was angry. He refused to come to the party. He complained to me, “I have worked hard for you and you never threw me a party. It isn’t fair. How come my brother who dishonours you gets a party while, I worked hard for you receive nothing?” I said to my older son, “you have worked hard but they would have killed your brother. He was dead to us but he has come back to life. He was lost and now he is found. Come join the party for honour restored and your brother’s return.”

Image result for prodigal son leaving

from: wetherekeepers.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/om-my-way-home/

We hear this story and think that father was so glad to have his son back but in reality he had to protect his son from the community and even from his own brother. By extending honour to the son who had dishonoured him, the father placed him under his protection. This story reminds me of families where there might be addiction or mental illness and a child goes off again and again and returns home again and again to safety and love. How difficult it is for those on the outside to understand second and third chances. Like the older brother in this story, friends and neighbours might ask, “Why do you let your child take advantage? Why don’t they just grow up?”

The father in this story was not willing to give up on his son—even if the rest of the community disowned him. Sometimes, we might find ourselves as the son who must return. It is difficult to go back when we have wounded someone. It takes courage to go back and acknowledge our brokenness and admit wrong doing.

Lent invites us into exactly those places. The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to med relationships—to go back to people we have wronged and acknowledge our brokenness. We acknowledge the brokenness not knowing how it will be received. We also need to be open to seeing the brokenness in others and responding with compassion to their vulnerability.

God doesn’t give up on us. We cannot give up on ourselves. We cannot give up in each other.

Repent: Be in the same place. Behave differently.

Luke 13:1-9,31-36  begins by talking about some terrible things that have happened. Good and faithful people have been killed. How do we make sense of that? Is it because they weren’t as faithful as everyone thought? Jesus ties these events directly to repentance. And there’s judgement in this passage. There’s an underlying sense that if you do not repent, God will cut you down—just like the fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit.

In the passage, Jesus is going around teaching and healing. As he does this, he continues to accuse the Pharisees of being hypocritical and of leading people astray. He accuses in ways that are sometimes very direct and sometimes by telling parables or stories. Some people come to Jesus and tell him that Pilate killed some Jews while they were offering sacrifices. Jesus is very mater-of-fact about these events. He responds by reminding the crowd that things like this have happened before and things like this will happen again. The people who were killed did not do anything to deserve these deaths. It simply happened.

And then he places responsibility onto the people telling him the news. “Unless you repent, you will perish just like they did.” During Lent, we are invited into deeper self-reflection. We are invited to think about our actions and lives. Sometimes sin and repentance can be uncomfortable topics because we connect them to  “worm theology”—a belief that we are horrible people. This theology suggests that we are the lowest of the low and we need Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to prevent us from rotting in hell. It’s an icky theology and the way we avoid talking about this theology is to get rid of the words and concepts associated with it.

So let’s start in a different place. We are not bad people. We are good people, created in God’s image who make mistakes. These mistakes, in theological language are called sin. The Song of Faith (a statement of belief from the United Church of Canada) describes sin this way:

Yet we choose to turn away from God.
We surrender ourselves to sin,
a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy.
Becoming bound and complacent
in a web of false desires and wrong choices,
we bring harm to ourselves and others.
This brokenness in human life and community
is an outcome of sin.
Sin is not only personal
but accumulates
to become habitual and systemic forms
of injustice, violence, and hatred.

These mistakes–or sin–do not make us bad. They do not lessen our worth or value but the behavior of sin has the potential to destroy life. If we continue to sin, it eats away at us. It destroys our relationships.

A way out of sin is through repentance. Repentance requires self-reflection. It requires us to look within ourselves and take responsibility for our words and actions. An Israeli soldier describes repentance as being in the same situation and behaving differently. He was witnessing and participating in the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank. He recognized his role in the violence and then refused to participate in violent actions. He is still an Israeli, living in Jerusalem but his behavior changed. Repentance isn’t about beating ourselves up or get stuck in wishful thinking. Repentance invites us into a true change of heart which leads to concrete change in our behavior. If we know we made a mistake and we keep repeating it then we haven’t truly repented.

Image result for parable of the fig tree

from: equipper.gci.org./2016/09/sermon-summary-parable-of-the-fig-tree

In the parable of the fig tree, the owner comes looking for figs. It takes three years for a fig tree to produce, there was a law forbidding eating the fruit for three years. In the seventh year, the figs could be eaten. The owner of the vineyard is impatient and wants figs immediately. The gardener urges patience. We also need to have patience with ourselves and with others as we seek to lessen the impact sin has in our lives.

 

 

The Song of Faith offers these words of hope:

We sing lament and repentance.
Yet evil does not—cannot—
undermine or overcome the love of God.
God forgives,
and calls all of us to confess our fears and failings
with honesty and humility.
God reconciles,
and calls us to repent the part we have played
in damaging our world, ourselves, and each other.

Finally, in the scripture passage Jesus continues to do what God calls him to do: cast out demons, heal, teach. He knows that his path will take him into Jerusalem and into direct confrontation with the authorities. This confrontation has the distinct possibility of leading to death. Jesus recognizes that even in death, evil does not and cannot overpower God’s love. We need that assurance as well. We need to know that we are never beyond God’s love—regardless of what we’ve done or the mistakes we have made. God always calls us to repent and find new ways of living that are faithful.

In all our lives, may we acknowledge sin in the mistakes we make.

In all our lives, may we seek repentance by behaving differently when confronted with similar situations.

In all our lives, may we know that we are always held in God’s love.

The Woman Washes Jesus’ Feet

In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus has gone to eat with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very concerned with keeping the purity of themselves and their faith community and they did that by following and interpreting the law given by Moses and that we find in the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures. Pharisees rarely ate with people outside their own group. If they did invite someone outside their group to their home, they would ensure that proper washing had taken place and that the guest was wearing a clean garment which they provided.

Jesus arrives for dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. No water or clean clothing is provided but the food is served. Part way through the meal, a woman arrives with expensive perfume. We are told that she is a sinner. We are not told anything about her sin.

When we read scripture we sometimes think of sin as prostitution or adultery. In Jesus’ culture sin simply referred to not keeping the Jewish law. If you were not particular about who you ate with, or the foods you ate, you could be labelled a sinner. In our own culture, it might be helpful to think of sin as brokenness in a relationship. The broken relationship might be with God. It might be with ourselves. It might be with another person. It might be with the earth. Sin is the action that leads to this brokenness. Sin causes hurt and pain. When we say the Lord’s prayer, I use the word sin rather than trespass because sin carries the weight of hurt and pain. To me, trespass means I have walked somewhere I shouldn’t have—a vacant lot for example. There’s really no harm involved and minimal consequences. Sin implies something different—it is word used exclusively to describe the hurt and pain that causes brokenness.

In our culture, we associate doing something wrong with a sense of shame or guilt that we place on ourselves. Our conscience kicks in and we can often (but not always) tell when we have said or done something that causes pain to ourselves or others. Sometimes, these hurts are a blip. Sometimes we can heal the relationships that have been damaged. In Jesus’ culture, the guilt and shame was not internally based and self-directed. The community was the conscience. It was the community that identified when sin had been committed and responded by labeling someone a sinner. Being identified as a sinner excluded people from social gatherings, limited access to the temple or synagogue and made earning an income difficult. There was also an understanding that an illness or something bad happening might be the result of sin. Whether you had done something or not, you could be labelled as sinner. People who were labelled as sinners became isolated from their communities and found themselves in a vicious cycle of poverty and broken relationships.

In the story, a woman who is labelled a sinner arrives to wash Jesus’ feet and anoint him. We don’t know anything about her sin. We don’t know where she came from or her connection with the household that Jesus is visiting. We don’t even know how she knew Jesus was there and that the host had not offered correct hospitality. Simon, the Pharisee, is perhaps grumbling to himself about the woman who has entered, is now touching Jesus and making him unclean. Simon also thinks that Jesus should know better than to associate with sinners. Jesus calls Simon on his behavior. He begins by telling a story about forgiving debts. Two people owe debts—one owes 50 coins, one owes 500 coins. Neither can pay and so the person holding the debts forgives them both. The obvious lesson from this is that the person with the bigger debt will be more grateful to the money lender.

But the story isn’t really about the money lender and these particular debts. Jesus really has something to say about the Pharisee and the woman who is washing his feet. Simon has sinned by not offering correct hospitality—by not washing Jesus’ feet or providing clean garments. Simon, as a Pharisee, should have been particular about these rituals. Simon—who might be a bit obsessed with keeping the law, and avoiding sin—has sinned by not providing hospitality. The woman, that Simon was looking down his nose at, has provided more than the correct hospitality. Even though she was “the sinner,” she was the one who knew how to do what was right. She was the one who knew how to love. That love overflowed from her in how she cared for Jesus.

Sometimes the people that we want to label and keep out of our communities and gatherings are the people who have something to teach us about showing love and hospitality. Sometimes we want to keep out people with mental illness or disabilities, sometimes we want to keep out people who practice a different religion or whose skin is a different colour from our own.

Sometimes, expected behavior doesn’t match the social location that we place people in. We would expect the random people eating pizza to share. They have an abundance and so we should expect more of them. That’s not how this video played out. The person who didn’t have money to buy pizza and who may not eat tomorrow shared his pizza. In the gospel story, we see Simon, the insider fail to provide hospitality and the woman who is “a sinner” welcome Jesus and tends to him. Who is more faithful in this story—Simon, the Pharisee, who talks about the law and purity or “the sinner” who provides hospitality?

Where are you looking for God’s Kingdom?

In Luke 7:18-35 John the Baptist’s followers have been watching Jesus and bringing word back to John about all the things that Jesus is doing. There may even have been some rivalry between the two groups. John sends a couple disciples to check out what Jesus is up to. John wants to know if Jesus is the messiah or if they should they wait for another.

They find Jesus continuing to do exactly what he has been doing. Jesus is curing people of diseases, plagues, evil spirits and giving sight to the blind. The lame are walking, lepers are being cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news. Jesus sends this message back to John.

John’s messengers go back and Jesus continues to preach to the crowd. It seems that Jesus is preaching to a group of people who were followers of John. Perhaps they have become disenchanted with something John said or did. Perhaps Jesus has more pizzazz. Perhaps Jesus is spending more time in the communities and less in the wilderness. This is a group who have been to the wilderness with John and are now following Jesus around. And Jesus asks them why they even bothered to go to the wilderness with John. What were they expecting to find out there? Jesus asks if they went to see a reed shaken by the wind. This might be a reference to wild sugar cane. It would grow 4-5 feet tall and during the day when it got really hot the tops of the canes would droop to the ground. It was apparently very pretty but not really the focus of a trip into the wilderness. Perhaps they went to see someone in fine clothing and living in luxury. Why would you go to the wilderness to see that? You would be looking in the wrong place.

Jesus is asking, “If you didn’t go to look at the wild sugar cane and you didn’t go to look at the wealthy people in their finery, why did you go? What was in the wilderness for you? Maybe you went to see a prophet—a prophet like John who is sending out the message that the messiah is coming.” Jesus has a crowd of people who have heard John’s message. They have even, like Jesus, been baptized by John. The crowd is made up of an assortment of people—including tax collectors who were perceived as corrupt. This crowd of people was looking for the kingdom of God. Looking for what was to come. They had gone to the wilderness looking for the kingdom of God and hoping to find it in John and in baptism. They were seeking something—something better than what they had. They were looking for hope that their oppression would end.

The Pharisees were trying to maintain their purity and obedience to God’s law. They saw the John and Jesus movements as barriers or threats to the Jewish people’s ability to keep God’s law. Jesus was crossing too many barriers and breaking too many of laws they felt were necessary to be faithful. They were looking for new life in the laws.

At the core of Jesus’ message is a sense that the important thing is not the law but to bring good news to the poor. You might remember from several posts ago, that the poor refers—not just to the economically disadvantaged—but to anyone who is socially marginalized. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. He was touching people who lived with illnesses. He was touching dead bodies and raising them to life. He was healing on the sabbath. All these things make him unclean and impure in the eyes of the Pharisees. For the Pharisees, it was more important to keep the law.

Jesus goes on to speak about the Pharisees as those who refused to participate in God’s kingdom. He describes them as children who haven’t learned how to behave appropriately. They haven’t learned that when there is music you should dance. At a sad time, like a funeral, you should cry. Because they haven’t learned how to behave appropriately, they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Yet children know instinctively that when there is music you should move and dance. Children pick up on the emotions around them and know when others are sad or upset. The Pharisees should instinctively know how to participate in God’s kingdom and yet they choose not to.

How many opportunities do we miss to participate in God’s kingdom? I have been reflecting lately on my own reaction to conflict. It is sometimes easier to walk away and remain silent rather than risk creating a scene or getting into an argument with someone. I find myself responding to difficult situations in this way. We learn ways of dealing with conflict in our homes as children. Sometimes, families have good and healthy ways of dealing with conflict. Sometimes conflict is surrounded by silence. Sometimes it is surrounded by violence.

One of the ways I deal with conflict is by remaining silent. By doing so, I miss the opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. We sometimes think—and are taught to think—that God wants us all to get along and so we cannot disagree openly. Jesus engaged directly in conflict. By not engaging in conflict, I sometimes let injustice or inappropriate behavior go unchallenged.  In doing so, I maintain the status quo and miss an opportunity to participate in God’s kingdom. Instinctively I know how to participate in God’s kingdom but at times choose not to.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to engage conflict. He wasn’t afraid to disagree openly as a way of helping people to understand God’s kingdom. Jesus wasn’t afraid of challenging people who thought differently from himself. He always grounded the conversation in his understanding of God and God’s kingdom. He didn’t just tell someone they were wrong. He brought the conversation back to what God’s kingdom would look like. He brought the conversation back to the teachings of the prophets. This seems like a good model for engaging conversation with people who have fundamentally different world views. As people of faith, we need to learn how to speak about our values in a way that reflects our faith and expresses our understanding of who God is and how the world is meant to be.

 

 

The crowd Jesus is speaking to had gone looking for God’s kingdom. Some had gone looking for it in the wilderness. Some had gone looking for it in following the law exactly. God’s kingdom is not in either of those places. God’s kingdom is found as we challenge injustice and seek to welcome the stranger and those on the margins. Many of us know this instinctively but are hesitant to risk being hurt.

I sometimes find it difficult to engage in what could be a conflict but as I see what’s happening in the world, I am reminded again God’s kingdom is not found in wealth and power. God’s kingdom is not found in dividing people but in drawing us together. God’s kingdom is not found in destroying life but in creating hope.

Absolute Rules?

In Luke 6:1-16, we see Jesus continuing his ministry and he’s finding himself in conflict with the religious authorities. They want Jesus to stick to the rules—the way they think they should be interpreted. Both Jesus and the Pharisees value scripture but the Pharisees want to stick to the letter of the law. Being faithful becomes about following the rules, rather than the rules giving life. Jesus’ focus was on how the laws could bring life.

Jesus and his followers are walking along on a Sabbath day and they are hungry so they pick some grain to eat. Picking grain was considered work so Jesus and his disciples were in violation of the Sabbath laws. Some Pharisees see this and question Jesus. Jesus refers them back to scripture and reminds them that David and his followers were on the run and they were hungry. (1 Samuel 21) They asked a priest for help and were given the Bread of the Presence which was only permitted to be eaten by the priests. David went on to become the great King of Israel. So Jesus is telling the Pharisees that David did not lose favour even when he broke the rules. The conversation about the Sabbath continues as Jesus enters the synagogue and heals someone’s hand.

Rules are not absolute. They help create a social structure and set boundaries but Jesus is warning against allowing the rules to rule our lives at the expense of truly living. In Jewish society, if you followed the rules you were an insider. If you did not follow the rules, you were an outsider. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus is challenging the whose social order. When someone had a disability, they were seen as unclean, as an outsider. After being healed this person would be welcomed back into the community. Jesus, on the other hand, places himself on the outside by healing on the Sabbath. It raises questions—yet again—about who is in and who is out. It raises questions about the role of the law and whether there are times when it is appropriate to break the rules or break the law.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian born in 1906. (For a good biography of Bonhoeffer check out: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy Paperback by Eric Metaxas.) Bonhoeffer was a young man as Hitler and the Nazi regime rose to power. He was a pacifist and an outspoken critic of Hitler. His pacifism was grounded in his faith and in his belief that Christianity could not just be an intellectual belief but must be lived. His faith led him to resist the Nazi regime. He watched holocaust happen. He watched the Nazi invasion through Europe and struggled with what to do. His faith told him that to use violence to resist violence was wrong but he could not stand by and watch these events unfold. His non-violence resistance seemed to be losing ground so  he and some other religious leaders became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Even someone who took their faith seriously and knew the rules, struggled with how to respond. To stand by and watch was wrong but to kill was also wrong. Which of these is the lesser of two evils?

 

Most of us will not be faced with this type of extreme situation but we do have situations in our lives where we need to decide whether rules should be kept or broken. Throughout history, and depending upon culture, the rules change. At one time, women were required to wear hats to church. And we no longer have that standard. At one time, it was standard for men to wear hats to church but now people are offended by men wearing hats in church. Sometimes rules around appropriate dress can prevent people from feeling welcome if they don’t know the rules or are unable to fulfill those rules for some reason.  Rules do play a useful part in ordering our lives and structuring our culture but rules for the sake of rule are sometimes destructive.The rules change and what we know of the rules—whether it is about the Sabbath or appropriate clothing or proper behaviour—always needs to be questioned in terms of whether something brings life or destroys life. Does it help people to be faithful or is it a barrier to being faithful?

What rules might God be calling you to reconsider?

Amen.