Sunday, September 26, 2010

Generous or Wasteful?

Generous or Wasteful?

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

September 30, 2010

Luke 15:11-32

“For all these years I have been working like a slave for you...

...this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property...”

“...we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours...

was lost and has been found.”

Which of Jesus’ parables is more well known than this? None, I would say, though perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan is equally well-known. These two are probably the top two of Jesus’ many parables and stories in terms of familiarity. I wonder why that is.

Initially, we probably think that Jesus’ stories are heart-warming and universally loved. As one Bible commentary says of today’s passage, “Let the parable be one of those beloved texts that always repays a return visit.1 But is it really “beloved?” When we examine the parables more closely, we invariably discover that they are filled with challenges to common wisdom, obstacles to the thinking of religious people in our day as well as in Jesus’ day. Even a cursory overview makes this evident.

I recall teaching groups, leading groups in study of this parable on many occasions. I used study groups in various settings in preparation for work on my doctoral dissertation, and we focused a good deal of attention on parables, including this one. Most of the time the reaction to this parable was anything but universally positive. I have a friend who took this story into a classroom of 2nd and 3rd graders. The responses of the children were merciless. “I would have killed the younger brother,” said one. “I hate this story from Jesus,” said another. “This is not the way it goes at our house,” came the less-than surprising response of a third. “If you don’t do your work, you don’t get your allowance,” said still another.

Consider some reasons for the strength of these reactions, not only from children but from us all.

The parable is filled with a variety of life experiences, some of which are certain to be familiar to many of us:2 youthful rebellion; alienation from family; the appeal of distant and foreign places; the consequences of foolish living; the way remembrance of home functions in our minds; the experience of coming to oneself, admitting personal shortcomings, repentance; the sheer joy of reunion; the unexpected and humbling power of forgiveness; the dynamics between siblings described in one’s departure and the other’s indignation; the contrast between relationships based on merit and those based on love and the recognition that most of our lives we live within some sort of combination of those two.

Just look at the cast of characters:

A younger brother, pampered baby of the family, who seems clearly bent on pursuing the wild impulses of his youth and, his elder brother suspects, the full exercise of his libido, drinking and partying away the proceeds from his father’s hard-earned estate in the full-speed-ahead quest of dissolute living, or, what another translator more vividly rendered as “riotous living.” If we think about it for long, there are reasons why the younger brother’s role in this parable, should it be made into a movie, would possibly get it an “R” rating.

An elder brother, the oh-so-good presumed heir to the family fortune who has nursed his bitterness toward his brother – and possibly his father – over a period of many years. This is the sort of child destined to give even King Lear second thoughts on common practices of succession. The elder brother, far from rendering to his father dutiful and satisfied service, apparently resented the passing of each day as he awaited his turn to take over the farm, working, as he said, “like a slave for you.” This, even though he summoned and dismissed one of his father’s real servants with an accustomed snap of the fingers. It is interesting to me that both sons returned to words for service or slavery, both thinking the only thing their father could ever want from them was servile work and plenty of it. And by the end, both had clearly misjudged their father by a wide margin.

The father. Was he just a doting parent who had gone soft in the head over his spoiled-rotten younger son? And is the main offense of this parable the realization that Jesus seems clearly to be comparing the person of this permissive parent to God? Remember, he started this little sequence of parable-telling in response to the objections of the religious authorities who saw him gathering with the lowest rung of the fallen people in Israel, tax collectors and sinners, murmuring just under their collective breath, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them!” Imagine the offense of Jesus declaring that God in heaven was like he was, welcoming, eating with, even celebrating those who had fallen so low!

How can we find the offense in this story so that we may also be touched by its potential to redeem us? I’ll share a story that helps me get there.

I know a family that had not two but four handsome sons. The boys were part of fellowship programs, part of the life of the church. When the boys grew into men, each left home to make his own way in the world. The youngest son — let’s say his name was Alfred — was a popular member of the youth group all through his high school years. He took part in summer mission trips, participated in retreats, was blessed with a bright mind, a great sense of humor, and an outgoing, sparkling personality which endeared him to all his friends. When Alfred left home he went through a few failed terms in college, moved to another city, and took up a thoroughly unconventional lifestyle. Though Alfred’s parents were not thrilled about the choices he had made, they hoped and prayed that he would be able to make something of himself. His macho brothers found Alfred to be something of an embarrassment, but since they all lived in different parts of the country, there were few times that required them to think about it. Mostly, no one talked about it much.

As years went by, Alfred’s parents heard from him less and less. He seemed to have cut himself off from them, though they had always tried to keep the lines of communication open. Finally, after an extended period of time during which they had no contact with Alfred and had even lost track of where he was living, they chanced to get in touch with one of his friends who told them Alfred was sick and staying in a small hotel. They went to find him. They were horrified to discover that Alfred was suffering from fully developed diseases related to AIDS. Alfred was as upset at their discovery as they were. He hadn’t told them because he knew how unhappy it would make them, and he dreaded the whole scene. He had resolved to die alone in his dingy one-room flat. He had convinced himself that if they knew of his condition, they would have refused to have anything further to do with him anyway. He believed he no longer deserved to be called their son, and he wasn’t even about to ask them to treat him as one of their hired hands.

Alfred’s parents packed him up and took him home. They set up a hospital bed in their living room and for months they nursed him through every day of his disease until the day he died. And then they wrestled with the decision whether or not to request a memorial service at the church. It wasn’t an easy decision. This was still in the earliest days of the AIDS crisis, when many people were all too willing to dismiss AIDS sufferers. Still, the church had always been their spiritual home. They scheduled a service. Who knew who might come? Who knew what people might say?

Many people came. All three of Alfred’s brothers were there. The arms of the church opened wide to love and support his family in their suffering, even as the arms of the parents had opened wide to accept their son back home in his time of need. It was, for me, an experience of living in the middle of the parable of the prodigal son. This story of reconciliation is not just a story, it is very truly our story.

It is not an easy story, not one we can receive without being changed right down to our very foundations. But if we fail to live this story in some way, we fail to be the church that Jesus called us to be. If as a church we fail to understand this story, we fail to be a hospitable church to outsiders, to all outsiders. Jesus, remember, did not tell this story at a Sunday school picnic. It was told in response to critical people who were grumbling because Jesus chose to eat with the sinful sort of people who had been thrown out of the synagogues. The story can’t end with the feasting and celebration, because the crux of the story is the appeal to the older brother to set his self-righteous resentment aside, be reconciled to his brother, and join the feast which his father had prepared.

If we fail to follow Jesus’ intention in telling this story, we cause those outside the church to conclude, rightly, that for us discipleship in Christ is concerned mostly with abstaining from this and refraining from that, and most of all, condemning those who fail to follow the rules. As a church, we always have the choice set before us in our actions, both large and small, whether we will be the older brother or the father. That is the choice with which the story leaves us.

In the end, the question for us as a church, as well as for us as individual believers, is whether to accept the older son’s interpretation of events or the father’s; just as the question for those who heard the Pharisees and scribes grumbling about Jesus’ choice of sinners and tax collectors as his dining companions was whether to agree with the objections of the moral authorities or to accept Jesus’ insistence on the propriety of his eating with those who have fallen short of community standards for acceptable behavior. The older son said, in effect, it’s not fair. He’s right, of course, it isn’t fair. But remember, the father’s love insistently reaches out to the older son just as fervently as he has welcomed his younger son. The only way the older boy will be excluded from the party is if he insists on excluding himself by some self-determined standard of fairness.

Certainly the Pharisees and scribes did not want to participate in Jesus’ feasting with people that everyone knew to be sinners. But Jesus declared that this lavish, grace-filled love of God is offered to the sinful not in order to exclude the righteous; and they don’t have to exclude themselves. Jesus’ mission was to save the lost, that is the business of the kingdom.

The already-saved always have a choice: to celebrate the return of the lost, or to grumble in self-righteous self-pity. Those who believe the main business of the church is to enforce justice and morality will always find Jesus’ eating habits offensive, along with his stories of prodigals and Samaritans. For Jesus – and for us if we want to be the church Jesus has in mind – something more profound than equal distribution of justice and human fairness is at stake in our life together here.

The mercy of God is set in highest relief among the sinner and the lost, but it is a mercy that falls on everyone, the saint as well as the sinner. It does, that is, unless by insisting on our own standards of fairness over God’s, we try to prevent the lost and least from receiving the abundant grace of God, and in the process, hold it at arm’s length from ourselves.

copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder


1. New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, p. 304.

2. Ibid.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Be Careful When You Pray

Be Careful When You Pray

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

I Timothy 2:1-8

First of all, then, I urge that supplications,

prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings

be made for everyone,

for kings and all who are in high positions...

In the first chapter of I Timothy, the apostle wrote concerning the love of God in Jesus Christ for the foremost of sinners, meaning Paul himself. And by implication, we would be made to understand that if God could count Paul to be faithful, as the chief among sinners, then certainly others can be made faithful, can be the subject of his love.

The reading from I Timothy today concerns not the chief of sinners, but the chiefs of nations. The apostle wrote, “First of all…I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all, for kings and all who are in authority.”

The cynical among us, those who know the truth behind Lord Acton’s famous phrase, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,”[1] may ask, “Even for these?” The answer is yes. And it is yes for a variety of reasons, some of which may surprise us.

So often in our day, the invoking of God’s presence is not much more than a social nicety. Apparently it strikes many people to be about as relevant in the 20th century as bearskin hats on the guards at Buckingham Palace – nice to have, as long as they don’t mean anything by it – a little formality to be dispensed with quickly, so that the real business of a gathering may be attended to.

There is consternation in some circles over the fact that on our government payroll at this very moment are chaplains to the House of Representatives and the Senate, not to mention untold numbers of chaplains, rabbis and imams in the military, all giving their opening prayers for this or that session of Congress, and this or that miscellaneous awards ceremony or banquet. Americans are strikingly impatient with anything that appears to be excessively ceremonial, and that is what these public prayers appear to be to many.

One time when I served First Presbyterian Church in Salem, when I was invited to wander across the street from the church and open a session of the state House of Representatives with a prayer, as we all bowed our heads to pray it struck me as being nothing quite so much as a fleeting interruption of the hubbub and flow of paperwork going on all over the floor of the chamber. In fact, it didn’t seem even to interrupt some of the representatives. I repeated the simple prayer from Psalm 19: “May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer,” and sat down. To my surprise, at the conclusion of my prayer, I received applause!

I was a little nonplussed until I learned why my invocation was so popular. Apparently it was the shortest prayer that they had had during that session: Perhaps elected representatives believe the quality of a prayer is to be measured by its brevity! It makes about as much sense as saying the usefulness of an airplane is determined by its color!

Public prayer is so familiar, and often so pedestrian, we can become cynical about it.

The Bible does not share that cynicism.

Timothy was urged to pray for the leaders of the state, and to pray for them regularly. Remember, the leaders Timothy was to pray for were those who were putting Christian brothers and sisters through persecution. “Pray even for these,” we seem to hear.

If we admire President Obama, we may blanche when the thought occurs to us that this means we must pray also for Republican House Minority leader, John Boehner, while the opposite for supporters of Congressman Boehner is also true. Even more startling, considering the brutality of first century rulers, this can be taken to mean that not only must we pray for our own leaders, but even for the leaders of other nations whom we think we ought to despise. A large number of foreign leaders have more than a little in common with the likes of Emperor Caligula, who was certainly no Christian, probably barely had the Christians on his radar. Still, “Pray for all in high positions...” cautions the apostle. “Prayer,” writes Kathleen Norris, “is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine.”[2] It is also asking that the world and its leaders be changed in unimaginable ways.

One could be forgiven for wondering why it is important to pray for the likes of these. After all, government leaders around the world are not known to be universally fast friends of the church in general, or its believers and their aims in particular, in any generation, and this was especially so in the first century.

One of the answers is that civic leaders, whether good or bad, have the responsibility to establish peace and justice in the nations as best they can. Peace and justice, we may remember, are no matters of small concern in the Bible. In fact, if the Old Testament prophets could be said to have gone off on a tangent about anything, it would be those two issues: peace and justice.

Political leaders need God’s word to guide them. They need the prayers of the people, many world leaders fervently seek our prayers, yet it shouldn’t matter whether they seek them or not. Christians must care about political matters and the people involved in them precisely because the God of the Bible is a God who cares about the issues and events that affect his children, all of them, in every land.

And not just political leaders. In biblical times there was no parallel to the kind of corporate business world we have today. Today, multinational corporations and their officers have the power to affect dramatically the lives of literally millions of people for good or ill. Executives of corporations, board members, big decision makers all need our prayers, whether they know it or not, whether they desire them or not.

This is not an attitude peculiar to Christians. Daily prayers and offerings were made in the Temple in Jerusalem on behalf of the Roman emperor until A.D. 66. And when those prayers stopped, it served as a sort of formal declaration of independence from Rome. The sacking of the city and the destruction of the Temple by the Roman legions followed soon thereafter, and the lesson was not lost on the first Christians or those who came after them.

Like it or not, governing authorities have the power of life and death over vast populations, and whether they are fellow believers or not, they need our prayers. How much more so in our day when fingers are itching on triggers in conflicts round the world. How imperative it is that world leaders have our prayers! “Prayer is the way both to the heart of God and the heart of the world” said Henri Nouwen, “precisely because they have been joined together through the suffering of Christ...[it is] letting one’s own heart become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge to become the tears of hope.”[3]

Such a concern for order as Paul expressed reminds us that Christianity is not world-denying, but world-affirming. Christian life is not totally otherworldly, riding on an express train for heaven. No, Christian life is rooted firmly in the world.

It may be fashionable to see governments as sources of evil. And clearly, there is great potential for evil anywhere large concentrations of power are found. The author of Revelation saw this possibility, and named hopelessly bankrupt contemporary authorities the “Beast.”

There is another side, one we must not forget in all our enthusiasm for keeping government off our backs. There is also great potential for good in human government, and this should not be overlooked. A complete breakdown of the world order would not serve the purposes of the kingdom of God unless the civil order had become hopelessly demonic. Still, even rather hopeless governments can help populations to be fed, to be safe from invasion, to be housed, clothed, educated. Even in the most corrupt countries, some provision is made in these regards, because no government is safe from its own people when it ignores for too long their most basic needs. So governments are capable of doing tremendous good – even if for the wrong reasons, or from dubious motivation, or for no reason at all – and that should be the subject of at least some of our prayers.

Presbyterians should feel right at home with Paul’s desire to see order maintained in the world. Especially American Presbyterians, who have combined the Puritan zeal for ardor and a lively awareness of the Spirit, with the equally strong zeal of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians for order.

The fading political ideal of a never-ending revolution, aside from being a fantasy that history does not support, is a human impossibility. It feels good to be passionately enthusiastic about something, but it can’t last. Eventually passionate enthusiasm must be given a structure in which to establish itself, if any of the good that enthusiasm can do is to be maintained for the future. There are many examples of this:

  • The passion of competition needs the structure of Wall Street or the sports arena. Probably nothing on earth is so completely structured as professional sports are today in the Western world. Yet there is ample room for passion and enthusiasm, as evidenced each Saturday and Sunday afternoon in stadiums around the country.
  • The passion behind political issues needs the structure of political parties and governmental institutions so that the passion and enthusiasm does not erupt into violence and revolution each time there is a change of leadership or policy.
  • The passionate hearts that wish to see ministries of compassion undertaken need the structure of organizations such as those supported by our many mission dollars spent in our own community and beyond.

When passion gives way, structure can carry us forward, in our families, sports, the church, in politics and the art of governance, in business. So Christians are to pray for those leaders who must daily soil their hands in the perennially morally ambiguous affairs of state. Even these. We are not free to disregard political concerns. Some strident voices will call to the church and say, “Stick to the gospel!” or, “Confine yourselves to religious matters!” But the letter to Timothy – a very conservative letter on almost every issue – belongs right there along with the rest of the biblical witness because it does not allow such unconcern with the grubby affairs of state. It does not make the false distinction between issues that are religious and matters that are political. There is no activity in which we can involve ourselves that is outside the realm of our religious witness.

Jesus came to us and died for us in this world, not to say that the world deserves to go to hell, but to show that the world through him might be saved. We are not free to say we won’t pray for these because that is not the business of Christians. And our praying for our leaders does not automatically baptize any political order, either. Paul makes that clear. There is only one mediator: Jesus Christ. He could well have gone on to the next logical conclusion…there is only one legitimate government: his lordship.

Counterclaims from the left and the right, that law and order and private ownership are the means of salvation, or that communitarian values and redistribution of material goods is the road to the kingdom, are always a temptation, but are ever false. All people are God’s children, and Paul declares that God desires the salvation of all. Which of his children does a father desire to do well and which to fail? If he is any kind of father, the question invites ridicule. Of course, a good father wants all his children to do well.

So we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing. We cannot pray for some leaders and not others. We are called upon to pray for “kings and all who are in authority.” Not some, but all. Even our candidate and the other guy’s candidate; socialists and capitalists, Libyans and Lithuanians, Colombians and Californians, Romanians and Rhode Islanders. Even these.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.

[1] From a letter from John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834-1902) to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. Lord Acton then stated, "Great men are almost always bad men."

[2] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 60.

[3] Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land, Orbis Books, 2006, p. 100.