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The Art of Dying Well, with Jesus

Recently there has been some significant deconstruction of the grief cycle as postulated and engraved into our psyches in the last twenty years by the work of thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So it is incumbent on me before I reference these “stages” for the work of Holy Week that I acknowledge the challenges that have been put to her work. I  concur with most of the criticism of the “Grief Cycle”.  What was intended to be a tool for helping professionals became popularized and bandied about by people who demanded of grieving friends that they pass through each stage in some kind of causal process. I am not sure Kubler-Ross would have been happy with what became of her insights anyway! The main outcome of the critique has been a realisation that what Kubler-Ross identified exclusively with death and dying processes are in fact normal human responses to chaos and change. For example, there is as much chance of experiencing the “stages” (and they are non-linear stages that come in any random sequence and recur multiple times) when your motor vehicle engine “dies”, as when you hear that you are suffering from a terminal illness.

Having paid my dues to current research, let me proceed to say that the headings of the Grief cycle still offer useful lenses through which to observe some of the archetypal activities and personalities playing out during Holy week. Along with the work of Kubler-Ross I have in the last few days been introduced to the themes of the classical “Ars Moriendi” – the art of dying from 15th and 16th Century Europe and so may be able to weave these into the themes as well.

Born in a time when death from Bubonic plague (Black Death) was prevalent. the Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” is a body of Christian literature that provided practical guidance for the dying and those attending them. These manuals informed the dying about what to expect, and prescribed prayers, actions, and attitudes that would lead to a “good death” and salvation. The first such works appeared in Europe during the early fifteenth century, and they initiated a remarkably flexible genre of Christian writing that lasted well into the eighteenth century.

An article in the Christianity Today Library merges the themes of Ars Moriendi with the Seven words of Jesus from the Cross and this might just become my outline for the Three Hour Vigil on Good Friday,

The Grief Cycle Stages

DenialPeter and the crowing cock – the” rock” that wobbled.

What to do when the ground beneath you shifts.

“I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defence for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of situations and individuals that will be left behind after death.

Of course Peter was denying knowledge of Jesus, in the presence of possible hostility and exposure, but was this denial rooted in a deeper denial within Peter that was the result of the chaos he was experiencing?

In my own experiences of shock and chaos, which include being blown up by a land-mine during the bush war, motor vehicle accidents, and experiencing divorce, I have known the numbness that floods the psyche and the functionality that has one feeling that you are standing outside yourself and simply going through the motions without being fully present. Peter had been very vocal about never allowing anything bad to happen to Jesus, but now it had and he was numb. This can’t be happening!

I wonder if Peter’s denial of any association with Jesus was an attempt to disassociate? Disassociation is a very powerful psychological protection mechanism and I don’t want to enter the Freud – Janov debate on this matter, suffice it to say, that there is a very strong pull in times of chaos to deny what is happening and extreme cases even to disassociate from the reality of what is taking place.

The first two woodcuts in the classical Ars Moriendi (see graphic above) show what are called Temptation in the Faith and Encouragement in the Faith respectively

The first woodcut shows the Saints and sages, isolated behind the headboard, whilst the dying one is beset with a horde of tempting and fear inspiring characters.

Chaos will do that won’t it?

All that we know and trust has little worth as we are overwhelmed by the experience.

The second woodcut, “Encouragement in the Faith” has the person surrounded by consoling and nurturing visitors.

Could this two stage process be a graphic illustration of Our Lord’s own experience on the cross?

My God my God why have you forsaken me?” is classically named the Cry of Dereliction, it could also be the cry of Desolation.

Jesus beset by the chaos, the pain, the loneliness, the sheer brutal horror, finds himself denying that God is present.

I insert this here, because I believe it is important that we recognise that these processes are largely unconscious. It is only one who has established a grounded spiritual practice of prayer and contemplation, who will be able, in every moment to be conscious of the inner and outer processes at work in their being and not disassociate and be overwhelmed by the demons who masquerade as realities, whilst the stable mind would know in a wink that they are illusory and ephemeral shadows on the screen of a tormented mind.

It is a great consolation for me that even Jesus had this moment of overwhelming fear!

Anger“Father, …take this cup away from me..”“Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?” Once in the second stage, the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue. Because of anger, the person is very difficult to care for due to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. Any individual that symbolizes life or energy is subject to projected resentment and jealousy.

Whenever I am confronted by people who insist that Jesus knew every step along the way that he was going to die as a substitutionary sacrificial lamb as his Father’s will, I refer the discussion to Jesus in Gethsemane. Here we see a Jesus who is not resigned like some robot to the execution of the programmed plan. I see a young Rabbi, with dreams and trust in a Kingdom of Love that could change the world if given a chance to grow in people’s hearts. The looming opposition, the sinister leaving of Judas bringing in the darkness (and it was night!), all of this brings Jesus to his knees before God and he isn’t acquiescent, could he be angry?

God knows it didn’t have to be this way! Jesus knows it too. For me the grappling Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane is a deeply consoling image, a transformative icon. Once again I see the move from desolation to consolation. The shift that is shown in the woodcuts at the start of this blog. From, “Take this away!” to “Let your will be done in my life“. And if you thought that the movement from that desolate pole to the consoled one was easy, count the drops of sweated blood along the way!

BargainingJudas said, , “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?”

“Just let me live to see my children graduate.”; “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” The third stage involves the hope that the individual can somehow postpone or delay death. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I will die, but if I could just have more time…”

Judas makes a bargain. Thirty silver coins, a month’s wages for a life. What makes this deal unconscionable is the fact that Judas is bargaining with someone else’s life. There is the hint of the scapegoating theme here again. It is easy to bargain with the lives of others, but it is also cheap and has suicidal consequences. We can speak of Endlösung der Judenfrage (the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), we can speak of Colateral Damage but what whatever our euphemistic name for the bargaining with the lives of others may be, we have to realise that it is never a fair exchange, and Emotional, Ethical or Soul suicide will be the real outcome of such bargaining.

In contrast, Jesus doesn’t bargain at all. Not even for his own life. Is this not the ultimate challenge for the Christ follower. To be prepared to be the one who pours my life out, instead of trying to get someone else to do it in my stead? There is a business in Port Elizabeth called Q-4-U (Queue for you ) For a fee, this company will stand in line for you so that you don’t have to have the unpleasant experience. It’s a bargain! It makes me wonder though how many of us look at the church and the clergy as “Serve- 4 U” or “Compassionate-4-U” or “Suffer-4-U”. Doesn’t “vicar” mean “in place of” or “substitute”? What a bargain!

DepressionHe said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?”

“I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die… What’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” During the fourth stage, the dying person begins to understand the certainty of death. Because of this, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time crying and grieving. This process allows the dying person to disconnect oneself from things of love and affection. It is not recommended to attempt to cheer up an individual who is in this stage. It is an important time for grieving that must be processed.

I discovered during months of psycho-therapy that depression is the leaden blanket we pull over our souls when the anxiety of reality is too hard to bear. Is this what the pre-Psychology gospel writers are trying to portray with these disciples who cannot keep awake?

They had been in the Upper Room, they had seen Jesus offering Judas the reconciling, dipped bread. They had witnessed the refusal. They must have felt the tension, the apprehension the anxiety. How much easier to pull their robes over their heads and sleep. I thank God that in the moments when this life is overwhelming and I sink into the shadow world of depression, that Jesus is still awake and praying for me and every other one who at times find living their life too much to bear. May I in moments of clarity and calm, be prepared to sweat blood for those whose suffer mental anguish and illness.

Acceptance“Father,… yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” This final stage comes with peace and understanding of the death that is approaching. Generally, the person in the fifth stage will want to be left alone. Additionally, feelings and physical pain may be non-existent. This stage has also been described as the end of the dying struggle.

The final consolation, comes here in the Garden and also on the Cross. Father into your hands I commend my spirit. Those moments when we can breathe it all out and surrender ourselves to the reality of God’s consoling care. Soon enough the cycling chaos will whirl me up and down the spiral, but just for now, I rest in God and practice for the moment when my out breath will be all there is and what follows is not another in breath, but whatever the Spirit, who first gave me life, wills.

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Palming off the Donkey King

Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

And so the climax of the incarnate life of God draws close.

Jesus has just told the parable of the nobleman who goes off to win power in a foreign land and leaves his servants with varied levels of resourcing and on his return exacts an account from them of their use of those resources.

Those who have been entrepreneurial are rewarded with power and authority over regions of the kingdom,but those who have been cautious and cowardly are stripped of even the little they have . The parable ends with Jesus saying I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.'”

Luke moves the action directly from that enigmatic saying to the arrival of Jesus at the Mount of Olives and his requisitioning of a colt.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is casting his actions with direct reference to the prophet Zechariah who was one of those killed in the temple. “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9

My laziness and thoughts of a whole week of Holy Week preaching that lies ahead, tempts me to go with the conventional themes of Palms Hosannas, the irony of a crowd that a few days later will replace adulation with the mob’s anger that cries for crucifixion.

But there is a question that keeps tapping at the window of my mind and it will not let me duck it by a flight into conventionalism. So as I open the window my mind whispers, Why does he accept the appellation as king now when Jesus has spent his public ministry avoiding it?”

So, on this Public Holiday celebrating Human Rights in South Africa, I have begun to dig around for some possible insights that may answer my tapping question.

This is what I have found and share as speculative explanations.

Jesus could not accept the association with Kingship and rule until he had opportunity to correct the popular experience and understanding of what that meant. Lord knows, the current exemplars of kingship and rule were far from Jesus’ concept. The two Herods in his lifetime, Quirinius, Procurator Pilate and of course the Caesars of Rome, modelled their leadership from the same Macchiavellian mud. (Yes I know Machiavelli doesn’t time synch, but what a fun alliteration?) Power, control and brutal consequences for those who dissented.

This was not what Jesus wanted to be associated with and so he avoids being proclaimed king until he had had a time to reorient his disciples understanding of kingship.

In three and a half years he has modelled what kings are intended to do for their people:

  • He has healed the broken and restored them to full participation in community
  • He has forgiven those who missed the mark of required ethical and religious standards and included them in his new community.
  • He has raised the dead so as to offer social security to those women who would be destitute by the deaths of the men (Lazarus, Widow of Nain)
  • He has raised and healed children to break the bondage of bad theology that blamed bad things on parental conditions and culture (Children of Jairus and the Canaanite woman)
  • He has been inclusive, unconditionally accepting, and restorative in his words and actions.

This is who kings and rulers are meant to be and now it is time for him to own the archetype and to associate with the kingship that the stoned prophets were trying to bring to the palaces of Palestine.(yes probably both meanings of “stoned”, they were high on God remember?)

There is another dimension to this parade that is a hard sell in a church that has invested so heavily in the “lamb to the slaughter” image of Christ.

It is that late in life convert to Christianity Rene’ Girard who reminded me, in a interview recorded in The Girard Reader , edited by James G Williams

R.G.: The Gospels speak of “sacrifices” only in order to reject them and deny them any validity. Jesus counters the ritualism of the Pharisees with an anti-sacrificial quotation from Hosea: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'” (Matt. 9:13). The following text amounts to a great deal more than ethical advice; it at once sets the cult of sacrifice at a distance and reveals its true function, which has now come full circle: So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23—24)

Interviewer: Surely the crucifixion is still the sacrifice of Christ?

R.G.: There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition (expiation, substitution, etc.) we may give for that sacrifice. At no point in the Gospels is the death of Jesus defined as a sacrifice. The passages that are invoked to justify a sacrificial conception of the Passion both can and should be interpreted with no reference to sacrifice in any of the accepted meanings. Certainly the Passion is presented to us in the Gospels as an act that brings salvation to humanity. But it is in no way presented as a sacrifice, If you have really followed my argument up to this point, you will already realize that from our particular perspective the sacrificial interpretation of the Passion must be criticized and exposed as a most enormous and paradoxical misunderstanding — and at the same time as something necessary — and as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.

If you are not familiar with Girardian thinking you may want to click through to The Girardian Lectionary

The crux of Girard’s insight for my thinking this week is simply that in the Palm Procession we do not have a Lamb to the Slaughter, pre-programmed robotic Jesus, we have a living, choosing, inviting Jesus making one of his final offers to the people and powers of Jerusalem. An offer they reject not because they are scripted to do so, but because the cost of compassion and inclusive community is far greater than the system of scapegoating shame and blame religion and power that is in place.

Jesus the Zecharian, “King on a Colt” comes with an offer of alternative living. An inclusive community of compassion and companionship. Where servants not swordsman have power,… the power of love. A kingdom of healing and restoration where humans blossom into fruitful beings. A kingdom which all the democrats and despots of this world even two millennia after the Palms waved, have yet to be able to bring to reality.

The offer still stands, and notfor a limited time only” as the End Time Enthusiasts would have it.

No it is an eternal offer, always available for any who can sing Hosanna and hold back on hatred.

Look! here comes the Donkey King again!

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There’s no soul in safety, only shadows

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

I was encouraged to always play it safe. Raised by post-war parents, a job was held onto for life, money was saved for a rainy day, and prodigal pursuits like gambling and extravagant shows were taboo. Of course my Calvinistic mother, from a very strict vein of the three dominant Dutch Reformed Churches that monopolised white religion and government, was even better at this than my slightly more profligate Methodist father. They used to love telling how their first marital argument was about Dad frying eggs in butter when lard had been good enough for the twenty one years of my mother’s life till then! Today, my cardiologist will not allow me do either.

This cautious Calvinism was simply a subset of puritan Protestantism and was how most of us lived through the fifties sixties and seventies. You must remember that South Africa was cocooned in Apartheid Nationalism, with no television, strictly controlled media, and prudish censorship laws that enhanced our fear of otherness and made us all (all hues and shades) quite governable and compliant.

In the world in which I grew up Judas would be speaking for all of us when he criticised Mary’s reckless extravagance. So coming to the passage as I do today, requires of me some reorienting of my formational values if I am going to understand why Jesus praises Mary and not Judas in the events John is recording for us.

I am of course grateful for the deep shifts that my training and reading in the disciplines of ministry have brought about. These changes of view help me be ready to explore the passage. Allow me to name two:

  • It was at a preaching school as a probationer minister almost twenty five years ago, that our leader Rev Vivian Harris, played a cassette tape of a lecture by a Lutheran minister, whose name has been lost in my memory. The speaker was exegeting the Parable of the Sower and was commenting on how this was NOT a parable about the soils as we had come to understand and preach it, rather it was a parable about the extravagance of the sower who didn’t seem to care where he was casting his costly and carefully prepared seed. My mind was expanded.
  • The second discovery comes from a book whose title I do remember. It was, Journeying Within Transcendence: A Jungian Perspective on the Gospel of John. by Diarmuid McGann. It was in this book that I discovered how important it is to read the passages of the Gospels carefully and prayerfully. The discipline of Lectio Divina is unequalled here as helping me to do that. McGann brought home to me the fact that the Gospel writers and John in particular seldom say anything without it having significance.

So to the passage.

John makes a point of locating the event “six days” before the Passover. Why? There seems to be a hint at the beginning of creation. God created everything in six days and rested on the seventh. If the Passover/Last Supper is the culmination of the New Creation of Jesus, then what is happening in Bethany could be the proto event of this new creative “week”.

In the Genesis creation story the first creative act is the dichotomous duality of light from dark. Is this the same in the little home of the two sisters whose names MARtha and MARy originate etymologically in bitterness? [Martha’s name means “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking” Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child“] At the Passover meal the eating of bitter herbs is a reminder of the bondage of Egypt, yet the bitter sisters are the ones who bless not out of bitterness but out of abundance. Martha serving the meal, and Mary bringing the evening to a climax by the extravagant anointing of her Lord. At an immediate level of course this could be because of the gratitude at the raising of Lazarus, but one feels there is a more transcendent reality hovering, as the Spirit always hovers over the chaos of human suffering. Those whose names signify bitterness, are not the ones who display bitterness. No, the bitter named women are the feast givers and fragrance spillers. It is the man, the treasurer from Kerioth, the only Judean [read superior Judean], who displays bitterness in his criticism of Mary’s extravagance. , “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Now dear John, cannot seem to help himself from editorializing. His unfortunate comments about “the Jews” later in the gospel became the excuse for Anti-Semitism from the middle ages onwards! Here his editorial wants to guess at Judas’ motives. (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.). “Hey c’mon John, you know better than to guess at another’s motives! It is the cause of so much conflict in the world. We don’t know why Judas said what he did. But Jesus rebuked him for it, that is clear!

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

The Passover is beginning. The duality is emerging. Light is separating from darkness. Six days from now at the Passover meal Judas will leave and it will be night. (As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30) The darkness will be complete. For now, though, there are only shadows on this act of pure love.

I want to circle back to “Why the extravagance?” l do that because there is another family member whose name is significant. Lazarus means, “God is my help

Is it not true that only when we have been helped by God, that we begin to understand how to live extravagantly in honouring Christ wherever we may find him? The bitter sisters discovered that nothing was too much to offer in praise of God, after Jesus had restored their lives to them (literally because Lazarus death would have left them as women, destitute in that society). When Jesus has become the reason for our very existence, we have a different sense of values and what worth really means.

A dear friend and recovering alcoholic describes his journey into following Christ, not as some intellectual, or social pursuit. “Oh no”, he says “I had to find something that would give me a reason not to commit suicide at the end of every day” That is to know you have been helped by God.

The bitter named sisters and the God helped brother are transformed into generous and faithful followers of the one who gave them a reason to keep on living every day. The Passover lamb who kept the Angel of Death away from their little home is the Jesus whom they praise with food and ointment without counting the cost. What is a year’s wages when you have been given life in all its fullness? There is no bitterness here. The bitterness has all shifted to Judas.

Judas the cautious, Judas the pragmatic, Judas the frugal; was always playing it safe and secure. Convincing the committee with pragmatism and good fiduciary governance.

Too bad he was staring at the balance sheet so intently, he never noticed the shadows that were beginning to swallow him.

Oh, I forgot to mention what the name of Judas means.

It comes from the Hebrew root, “God be praised

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The land of the settling sons

Luke 15:1-3,11-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable: …”There was a man who had two sons.   The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.   A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.   When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.   So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.   He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.   But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!   I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;   I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘   So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.   Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’   But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.   And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;   for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.   “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.   He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.   He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’   Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.   But he answered 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.   But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’   Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.   But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

In a letter to his friend Philip Melanchthon, on August 1, 1521, Martin Luther wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly… Pray boldly – for you too are a mighty sinner.” The reason for such a strange instruction from a man who had spent much of his life as a monk obsessed with making reparation for his own sins, is testimony to the insight Luther had into the Sola Gratia-by grace alone nature of our relationship with God as God’s children. Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague, and the theological brains of the early Lutheran movement, suffered from that deadly virus that kills a vibrant spirituality called Scrupulosity. Luther was addressing this obsession in the timid and fearful Melanchthon when he penned this trademark quote.

Later John Henry Newton would pen “Amazing Grace” as his response to the same insight that Luther had.

In our own time Philip Yancey has written a modern classic titled, “What’s so amazing about grace?” Yet, Luther, Newton and Yancey are simply pointing to a reality that every Christ follower in every generation has come to discover, namely, we are created to be at home with God our essential parent.

There are as many pointers to this truth in the words of Scripture as there are in the literature of faith which reference those scriptures, but none of these has the poignant earthiness of the parable in this coming Sunday’s gospel.

Coming to the parable nested as it is with two other lost and found parables, I feel tempted to do what Stephen Leacock’s fictional horseman did, “He flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.

I could go with all three parables and link them to the confession in our liturgy of Holy communion, We have sinned through ignorance (how sheep get lost) through weakness (how coins in a woman’s headdress get lost when the thread breaks) and through our own deliberate fault (how the son gets lost). I could then note how when loss is through ignorance and weakness, there is no end to the resources that must be thrown into searching for those lost ones. However, when the loss is deliberate, then there is no search. There is only a longing prayerful waiting for prodigality to run its course and for the lost to “come to themselves” and come home.

Whoa boy! I am going to rein in on that direction.

I could go with what the parable should be titled. Rather than the regular, Prodigal Son, perhaps it should be called the Prodigal Father? Or would Helmut Thielike’s title of The Waiting Father, still be the best choice. What about The Prodigal and the Prosaic? Or, The Settling Sons?

Whoa boy! I am going to rein in on that direction.

This Sunday I am drawn to a completely different angle as suggested by Prodigality, liberality and meanness in the parable of the prodigal son: by David A. Holgate It is a rather dry as dust, literary critical analysis of the parable but which, as all these scholarly works are wont to do, dropped a burr of inspiration under my saddle, so….Yeeehah! Giddyup!

Three paragraphs from Holgate opened up a line of insight for me.

The most important character is the father. He forms the standard by which all other behaviour is to be judged. His home is the central place. His workers and servants reveal his liberality, and his sons evoke his compassion. Luke emphasizes both of these virtues, so that each qualifies the other. The subjects of his speech make this clear: his gifts, his joy at his younger son’s recovery from ruin, and his concern at his concern at his elder son’s criticism of the celebration to mark his brother’s return.

The presentation of the sons as opposing stereotypes reveals Luke’s rejection of such behaviour. His rejection of prodigality is shown by his brief mention of prodigal behaviour and places greater stress on the younger son’s conversion and return. This emphasis is also evident in the way most of the action in the parable is related to his return and takes place on the day of his return. Luke’s rejection of meanness is seen in the way he places the father’s appeal to his elder son at the climax of the parable. In the appeal to the elder son, Luke appeals to his readers. Page67

Thus, I conclude that the parable teaches the virtue of compassionate liberality and rejects the opposing views of prodigality and meanness. It illustrates that liberality is a source of physical and moral health and harmony, for the individual and the community. Through the creative use of a simple plot, conventional characters and familiar moral language, Luke appeals to his readers to behave with liberality, particularly towards their Christian brothers and sisters. Page 68

What I enjoy about Holgate’s insight is that he holds to that ever true, Middle Way.

All too often. in our life and preaching as the church we have tended to side with one or the other of the sons. The Evangelicals have tended to say that we all have to be prodigal before we can experience the Luther-Newton-Yancy syndrome of AMAZING grace. And of course they are correct. But as one wag has said, “It would seem from some Evangelical preaching, that in the church, you have to have a lousy past to have a decent future!

On the other hand, almost every time a preach or teach on this parable someone will come to me afterwards and whisper, “You know I really can understand how the elder son felt!” They are correct too. Many Christ followers have been that from their mother’s knee. Do you really have to go off to some exotic prodigal place before you can come home?

What Holgate has captured in this middle way, is the central focus on the liberality of the father.

The Prodigal son who doesn’t deserve anything because he hasn’t earned it and in fact has wasted what communal resources were given to him, still gets all the regalia (robe and ring) and ritual (fatted calf feast) of a bona fide son.

Don’t you love the fact that he only get’s one sentence of his prepared penitential speech out before his father interrupts him? Or as Eugene Petersen translates in The Message, “The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast!”

The Prosaic son, who has lacked the imagination to even ask for a goat, is also affirmed as having access to everything at any time.

Yet when we look at the life of the average church household do we not see a constant conflict in our Church Councils, between the Prodigal and the Prosaic. (Guess who the Treasurer usually is?)

The polarities are endless in this encounter:

  • Youth versus Elderly
  • Mission versus Maintenance
  • Expansion versus contraction
  • Evangelism versus Pastoral Care

We can go on and on, but we are missing the point. The Liberal Prodigal Father seems to be saying, “Hey kids, there is enough for everyone!”

“The polarities only exist in your scarcity mentalities. You don’t have to compete, judge and resent.”

Open up to what is available and join the party!

And by the way, you can rein in that high horse too!

Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

“It is not certain”

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.  Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

I am fascinated by Chaos Theory. A relatively new branch of physics that has been applied in many other fields such as biology and meteorology. Chaos theory stated at its most simple, suggests that systems evolve and are not static, that even orbits can become irregular over time due to irregular actions of “strange attractors”.

An early pioneer of the theory was Edward Lorenz whose interest in chaos came about accidentally through his work on weather prediction in 1961. Lorenz decided to cut time on running a very long computer programme, by inserting values, (which the first half of the programme would have calculated), at the halfway mark of the programme. To his surprise the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the weather calculated before. Lorenz tracked this down to the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 was printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have had practically no effect. However Lorenz had discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in the long-term outcome. Lorenz’s discovery, which gave its name to Lorenz attractors, proved that meteorology could not reasonably predict weather beyond a weekly period (at most). Wikipedia: Chaos Theory

This has given rise to what is now called the Butterfly effect, and that in turn to the famous saying, “The flap of butterfly wing in Brazil may cause a hurricane in Hong Kong

All this is fascinating to the intellect but there is one significant challenge. Our minds crave order! It is this natural ordering drive in all humans that has made us such a diverse and successful species. We prefer to make order out of chaos (except for some teenage years) and not the other way around.

Our mechanistic universe, so eloquently described and mapped by the early Western scientists was the fruit of this ordering drive. The Newtonian world that ran like a machine made us feel safe and comfortable. When people like Darwin, Einstein and Bohr came along, we became insecure and twitchy once again.

We find it difficult to deal with randomness and chaos, because the ego, which you can translate as “Satan” wants’ to be in control.

The problem however comes when, what has now been scientifically proven to be a fairly chaotic and random world, will not allow us to control it as we desire.

Halley’s comet did not return where we said it should, we cannot predict the weather as accurately as we would like, and as to what we will find in the Large Hadron Collider when we really get those atomic particles colliding who knows?

So because the world is now revealed as being random and chaotic, and because we refuse to accept that not everything can be explained or controlled, as a final frontier of control and resistance we now still expect our religion to explain and control what we know from science that we cannot.

And Fundamentalist religion falls right into this trap laid by our fear and expectations. that of offering certainty where there is none. Pandering to humanity’s quest for blind certainty is a hallmark of unskilful religion. Trying to explain, and thereby control the mystery, instead of celebrating the limitations of our understanding and the mysterious and unfathomable nature of God is not helpful.

Skilful religion, points to the mystery that is God, with awe, instead of trying to explain everything with arrogance.

Luke tells of how people come to Jesus and tell him of a massacre of Galileans whilst they were offering sacrifices to God. The assumption is that they must have done something wrong to deserve that. The certainty principle at work, “Bad things happen to bad people” Jesus’ response is to deny that who the Galileans were, made them in some way the deserving of the massacre.

He then sites the tragedy of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam just outside Jerusalem as another case for consideration. Were the eighteen people who were killed in that tragedy worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. Jesus is again denying the certainty principle.

You see in Jesus day, the certainty principle stated that bad things happened to bad people and good people only received blessing upon blessing. So tragic accidents, massacres and any other suffering had to have a cause that lay in the people who suffered in the event. They must have drawn it to themselves!

We have just recently seen the Christian Fundamentalist certainty principle, at work through the odious statement of televangelist Pat Roberston: on the earthquake in Haiti that destroyed the capital and killed tens of thousands of people, Jan. 13, 2010, “It may be a blessing in disguise. … Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. Haitians were originally under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it’s a deal. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
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Blame the victims is what this kind of thinking is. It is the same mentality that says women who get raped must have acted provocatively! It is a shocking line of argument but it feeds off the need to always explain what cannot usually be explained.

I love philosopher Sam Keen’s maxim, “Seek simplicity but respect complexity” The mysteries of life and death, tragedy and blessing, demand that respect.

Jesus, in both case studies, ends his exoneration of the victims from any culpability in the disaster, by calling his audience, to repent or else they will perish in the same way.

Now there is a mysterious statement if ever there was one!

The first phrase is relatively simple, “I tell you; but unless you repent” is a call to change direction. In this context it would seem to be a call to change the way people are thinking about disasters and accidents. I would paraphrase Jesus as saying, “Change the way you are over-simplifying these complex matters. You can’t blame the victims. They didn’t deserve what happened. Re-orient(repent) your thinking on these things

The second half of Jesus’ statement is a little more tricky, “you will all perish just as they did.”

This “dying as they did” seems to be the consequence of not re-orienting their thinking. “Repent, or die as they did”. At face value the saying seems to have the same causal problems the statement Jesus is refuting!

I must confess that I find no “simple” grasp of this passage. But the more I meditate on its mystery I seem to glimpse an insight that may be helpful.

The clue lies in the illustrative parable of the fig tree. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’  He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

This is a parable about a landowner expecting a causal and predictable result from his fig tree. The sequence is logical and simple, plant a fig tree, expect fruit, after three fruitless seasons get rid of the resource sapping barren tree.

But the gardener, pleads for clemency against the logical and causal decision of the landowner. Just another chance. “Maybe there is a mystery at work here you and I don’t understand. Let me feed and mulch the tree and if there is still no fruit next year. Go ahead and chop it down.

Of course the symbolism of the parable is clear. Landowner = God, Fig Tree = Israel, Gardener=Jesus, Fruit = Being a light to the nations. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

So here we have people in Jerusalem, steeped in the certainty of their doctrine and dogma about who God is and how God works. This doctrinaire exercise of their faith has over centuries, especially since the return from the exile, become exclusive, judgemental and xenophobic. Despite what they may think they know about God, Jesus is suggesting that their dogma is not bearing any fruit for God.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You can’t go around making pronouncements about the deeply mysterious tragedies of life, as if you somehow know how these things work!“. There are things only God understands. Take for example God’s patience with us as a nation and a religion. Despite our pathetic lack of fruiting, God has not cut us off yet. If God was as causal as you say, and if God’s ways ran on the narrow rails that your dogma has laid down for God, then we should have been destroyed just as certainly as the people you have been citing as examples of God’s judgement!

So please, re-orient your thinking, or else you are all going to die in your dogma and our nation will never have fulfilled its God given purpose.

Jesus seems to be suggesting that there is more going on in the mysteries of living and dying than of simplistic quest for certainty can couch in trite dogmatic pronouncements.

A dear Buddhist friend, who spent twelve years as a monk in Thailand, tells of his teacher Ajahn Chah, who had a favourite phrase whenever one of the other monks would make some great pronouncement about the meaning of the Universe, or merely about their plans for the next day. Ajahn Chah, would get a wry smile and murmur, “It is not certain”

I think Jesus has an invitation for us as the Church and as individuals.

As we face the barrage of opinion and doctrinaire drivel that spews with egotistical certainty from so many pulpits and podiums, we have an opportunity to pause a moment and consider the mystery of all around us and then respond, “It is not certain”

All that is certain is the mystery.

Does that negate the need for faith? No it does not.

True faith you see, is not belief, it is TRUST. Jesus called the people of his time to trust the God of the mystery and not try to play God themselves.

The call remains the same for us today.

Historic footnote: Many of the people Jesus spoke to in these dialogues did in fact die as the Galileans butchered by Pilate, and the Siloam tower victims, did. In AD 70 Jerusalem (including the temple) was destroyed by the Romans. I wonder who was responsible for that? … It is not certain!