We have three parables to contemplate today. Each in its own way carries an important teaching. The context for the delivery of these parables needs to be noted. “Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus’ teaching was attracting the outcasts of Israel. They were Jews who were either non-observant, or who were socially unacceptable in Jewish society like the taxcollectors who worked for the Roman occupiers. These Jews were considered traitors. Jesus welcomed them, and even ate with them. This wasn’t accidental. In the culture of Jesus’ day, one sat down to eat with another to enter into communion with that person. Jesus was giving these sinners and tax collectors absolution by the mere fact of his eating with them.
Jesus, turned from the tax collectors and sinners and addressed the Pharisees. Each of the parables that Jesus spoke that day highlighted an aspect of God’s personality, an aspect the Pharisees had long forgotten. The parables highlight God’s love that is continually reaching out to each and every one of us, saint and sinner alike.
The first parable presented God as a shepherd totally dedicated to the safety of his flock. When one of his sheep got separated from the flock, he went out and searched until he found that sheep. God doesn’t punish the sheep for getting itself lost. God picks it up and lovingly returns it to the safety of the community, the flock. Jesus ended the parable by noting that the angels in heaven threw a party to celebrate the return of the lost sheep.
Jesus followed up with another image. A woman had ten silver coins and lost one. Before we look at the parable there are some things we need to note. This silver coin was a drachma, worth about a day’s wage. For ordinary people who lived very close to the edge, this loss of a coin was a crisis. We also need to know that the homes of the common people were quite minimal, usually one room with a dirt floor and a very small opening near the ceiling to let in a bit of light and some fresh air.
In the parable, a woman lost one of the ten coins she had saved. She was panicking! She had to find it or her family would be in trouble. Imagine a family living in one
dark room. To find the coin she had to turn everything upside down, and inside out, sweep the floor over and over again with the hope of catching a glimmer of light from the lost coin. When she finally found it, she called in her friends and had a party!
We’re God’s treasure! God can’t live without us. God is willing to sweep and dig and do whatever is necessary to find any one of us who might be lost. When we’re found, there’s going to be a party!
The third parable is the crème de la crème of all parables, the prodigal son. I’ll just focus on the father in this parable. His younger son asked him for his inheritance, a thing unheard of in Jesus’ time. This was half of his property, half his live-stock, and half his liquid wealth. Even though the family would suffer a huge financial hit, the father gave it all to this son. The son left his father, his family and his religion and went off on his own. His life was out of control. He lost everything, ended up penniless, and without friends. He decided to return and begged his father to accept him as a slave.
The Pharisees and most of the people who had heard this parable would have thought, “if this were my son I’d consider him dead!” But the father in the parable not only accepted his son back, he reinstated him as an heir once again eligible to inherit fifty percent of all the father had! The father even killed the fatted calf and threw a party for everyone he knew.
Everybody who heard this parable must have thought, “this father is crazy!” Yes, this father WAS crazy, and God is AS crazy as this father because there’s nothing any of us can do that could divert God’s love from us!
Jesus is teaching the Pharisees, and us, three things. First. We’re so special in God’s eyes that nothing we ever do can separate us from God’s fatherly love. This love flows through all the moments of our lives. God wants us to be safe. God values us as a treasure. Second. None of us should ever judge a brother or sister or ostracize them. We should eat with them. We should pull them back into the loving and healing community.
Third. We should throw a party every time someone returns to the community, because our crazy God has successfully caught up with them and given them another chance at life.
Jesus is scary this week. We catch up with him and a large crowd walking along the road. He’s on his final trip to Jerusalem. His death is drawing near. He suddenly stops and begins throwing out one brutal challenge after another. Just look at them! “If anyone come to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” We have to hate the people closest to us if we hope to be his disciple!? He must be speaking in hyperbole!
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” We know what the cross was all about. It was the worst form of Roman execution. It involved brutal scourging, nailing a person to a cross beam and hanging them from it until they died. This form of execution, always staged in busy public areas, could take days to complete. The crowd would have been shocked by Jesus’ call to hate their family, but would probably have taken it as exaggeration. This proclamation that the disciple must even be willing to submit to crucifixion must have sent chills into every person listening to him. Even if he were exaggerating, this statement was terrifying.
To break the tension, he went on to spin two short parables that stressed the need to think seriously before taking on a commitment. He then concluded his teaching with one final zinger. “Anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions he cannot be my disciple.”
Let’s move beyond the exaggeration, and listen with open mind and heart to Jesus’ teaching.
He’s warning us that our commitment to him will require even more love than we have for our father, mother, wife and children, sisters and brothers.
He’s telling us that following him will not be one grand picnic because the cross casts its shadow far and wide. Think of the Christians crucified by ISIS. Think of the Christians in Nigeria threatened with forced conversion. Think of the Christians in India, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Cameroon and so many other places throughout the world who live with the daily threat of violence because of their faith.
American Christians may feel safe from violence. We may feel safe because we’re financially secure. But “security” can be a challenge to true discipleship because it can make us complacent.
Jesus is all love, peace and harmony. But he’s scary, too. He’s challenging us. He’s leading us to the narrow gate. Today, let’s ask ourselves a serious question. Are we courageous enough to follow him down that road?
The message in the gospel passage seems quite straight forward. Be humble! Nice sentiment, but couldn’t Jesus do better than that? Everybody recognizes that humility is a virtue. Humble people are certainly more attractive than pompous people. I have to say that this particular message can evoke a polite yawn. So, let’s look at this passage more closely because there’s a message here, one that the Pharisees and the dinner guests probably heard quite clearly but is, perhaps, a bit too subtle for us.
There are two messages in this passage. The first is addressed to the guests. This wasn’t a banquet; it was a Sabbath meal, the meal commemorating God’s resting in total and complete harmony with all that had been created.
Jesus noticed that the guests were acting in a way that upset the harmony of the Sabbath. Where a guest sits at the table is very important in the Middle Eastern culture. There’s a social hierarchy that’s followed. However, the guests at this Sabbath Meal were anticipating the host’s seating plan and were seating themselves in places they presumed would reflect their social status.
In a gentle way, Jesus played to their pride. He told them to come to the table and choose the last place. Chances are that the host would invite them to a more prestigious seat. They’ll look humble to everyone else, and feel a boost of pride as they take a higher seat.
His message to the Pharisees was quite different. He told them not to invite relatives, or friends or influential people to their lunches, dinners and
banquets. Here, he moved away from the present setting. The Sabbath meal began at the family table but ordinarily expanded to friends, relatives and visitors. Strangely, Jesus told them NOT to invite the regular guests. Instead, he told them to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Jesus was telling the Pharisees to prepare themselves for a new meal, in a new time, the Messianic Time. He used images that the prophet Isaiah used in his description of the messianic time.
Say to those whose hearts are frightened,
Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God, coming with vindication;
with divine recompense God comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
Jesus was telling the Pharisees, and everyone gathered there, that the Messianic Time had arrived. He was telling them that this Sabbath table was about to transform into the table in the Kingdom of God. At this table the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would leap up and the mute would speak. Everyone was invited to this table, and everyone was special at this table, saint and sinner alike. Soon, the Host would wash the feet of his guests. Soon, at this table, the host would be the food of eternal life.
Someone asked Jesus a question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Good question, but before we think about Jesus’ answer, let’s think a little more about this man’s question.
This man isn’t referring to the end of the world and the final judgment as Christians think about it. Jewish tradition has long spoken about the “Day of the Lord,” the day of universal judgment. It’s commemorated in the Yom Kippur liturgy in the prayer, Un’tane Tokef. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, soft voice is heard; the angels tremble, fear and dread seize them, and they exclaim: ‘the Day of Judgment is here!’ All created beings pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause to pass before You every living soul.”
Jewish tradition held that Jews faithful to the covenant would be the first to pass safely under the staff of judgment. They were God’s chosen people. They would be saved from the destruction that would follow the day of judgment. They would have their names written in the Book of Life. Everyone else would perish.
Jesus’ answer would have been quite troubling for this man. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…for behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Knocking on God’s door and proclaiming, “Here I am,” isn’t enough. We have to shed what belongs to the world as we know it: hatred, greed, injustice, violence, inequality. Jesus is saying, “Sorry, being Jewish isn’t enough. You have to change. You have to see a new world”
We Christians have to hear Jesus’ message, too. Being a Christian isn’t enough. We have to change, too, but it’s difficult, because we’re so used to life as it is. Finding the narrow gate means discovering the way to a new world. We have to fine-tune our vision, see the world for what it is, judge it, and then turn our sights on discovering a new world, the Kingdom of God.
Our Father who art in heaven
hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.
“Jesus told his disciples: ‘I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.’” What a powerful statement. It sounds a bit scary, but at the same time, there’s something about it that that fills us with excitement. To begin to unpack the full meaning of this statement we must go back to ancient Jewish tradition.
Tradition had it that, one day, God would judge the world and purify it in fire. This event, called the Day of the Lord, would inaugurate the Messianic Time. It would be a time of glory for Israel. Evil would be obliterated, the earth would be purified, and a golden age would begin for the Chosen People.
The statement Jesus made would have ignited tremendous hope in the hearts of the disciples. Could Jesus actually be saying that he’s the Messiah, and that the golden age was about to begin? Perhaps, but Jesus’ next sentence was disturbing. “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” Jesus followed this with another jarring statement. “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
The disciples must have been reeling at the end of this short, and somewhat explosive, teaching. What was he talking about? Was he the Messiah or not? Was the Day of the Lord coming or not? What’s this about this a baptism of suffering? What about his bringing division to the
earth? His example of division shook them up totally. How would he tear families apart?
The disciples knew his teachings. They wanted to follow him. They wanted to believe his message. They were yearning for the Messianic Age – the golden age of Israel. But what he just said blew their minds! What does suffering and division have to do with his message of love and harmony, and the promise of the golden age? There was one more element of his teaching that they needed to ingest in order to understand the depth of this teaching. They had to understand the place of the cross in salvation history.
Five days before he celebrated his last Passover with his disciples, Jesus would give them the key to the understanding of this mysterious teaching. He would tell them, “Now is the time of judgment on this world, now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:31-32)
When Jesus ascended the cross that was the moment he completely emptied himself of all ego and resistance. He became an open portal, brilliantly ablaze with divine light. His outstretched arms connected heaven to earth, and from the judgment seat of the cross he cast the purifying fire of God’s love across the earth. From that moment the Messianic time began, the kingdom of God had manifested itself.
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms…for where your treasure is there you heart will be.” This message just about says it all. We would do well to listen to it with and open mind and open heart.
Fear is an issue in the Christian experience. The New Testament was written between the year 50 AD when St. Paul began writing his letters to the churches, and the year 110 AD when the writings of John were completed. In that body of literature, the phrase “do not be afraid” occurs 365 times! Let’s look over this period of time.
Christians endured two waves of persecution during this period. The first wave came from the Jewish authorities. St. Paul, before his conversion, and other ultraorthodox Jews were opposed to the messianic movement within Judaism which came to be called Christianity. The second wave began after the Christians were expelled from membership in the synagogue in 50 AD. Until the 4 th century AD Jews held a unique position in the Roman empire. They were exempt from the obligation to offer incense to the Emperor if they paid a special yearly tax. When the Christians were excommunicated from Judaism, they lost the privilege of not having to offer incense to the Emperor. This initiated periodic persecutions until the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD legalizing Christianity.
During those 60 years while the New Testament was being written, the Christian community was experiencing various levels of persecution throughout the Roman Empire. Fear was a part of everyday life then. But even today, large segments of Christians live with the fear of persecution. North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, India, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, South Sudan and Ethiopia are at the top of the list.
We’re lucky to be able to believe what we believe, and to feel perfectly safe to gather for meetings and worship. But his message goes beyond a fear of persecution. Jesus’
words are directed to us, too. So, let’s ask, right now, what ignites the spark of fear in us. Is it lack of financial security? Is it illness? Is it a deteriorating relationship? Is it moving to a new city? Is it losing a job? Is it the death of a loved one? Is it the political situation? Is it violence? Is it the threat of war? Is it famine? Is it global warming? It is all of these and more? What’s Jesus offering us instead of fear? I believe it’s peace.
Looking at Jesus’ last days we see him battling his own fear. Witness the suffering he experienced in the garden of Gethsemane. Three times he prayed, “your will be done.” When he finished his prayer, he submitted to his arrest. He was at peace with himself and with his Father.
A few hours before his arrest Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” He was saying this from the place of his inner peace. His world was coming down around him. He knew his closest disciples would soon abandon him. He knew that his death was near. He knew he would suffer horribly, but he had deep inner peace – the peace that came from uniting with his Father’s will. At his last supper Jesus gifted this peace to his disciples. It would manifest itself during the Pentecost event.
The Spirit brought the flame of courage, and the mighty wind of strength to the disciples. They would preach Jesus to their enemies. They would joyfully suffer for his name. With his peace in their hearts they would bravely confront every obstacle and threat.
We would do well to ponder Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock.” We’re afraid of so many things. We need to return to the Pentecost experience. We need to pray for courage and strength. It may not eliminate the existential threats that challenge us, but the Spirit’s gift of peace can prepare us to confront them. In spite of the fears that threaten us we can be courageous, we can remain strong. Today, let’s pray for the peace Jesus promised us – peace of mind and heart.
It was common practice in Jesus’ day, and still today in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, to bring legal issues to a rabbi. However, Jesus made it clear to the person who asked him to mediate an inheritance issue that he would not be a judge or arbiter. What he did, though, was to spin a parable about a rich farmer who had a super bountiful harvest. He prefaced the parable with a caution. “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
The farmer built new barns to store the excess grain that his harvest yielded. It was such a great harvest that it would set him up for life. The rich farmer had lived a great life, and due to this particular harvest, he could continue the lifestyle he was enjoying until his death. From now on, he could strut down Easy Street. He was very pleased with himself! But there was something he didn’t know. This would be his last day on earth. I’m sure that everyone in the audience let out a collective sigh when they heard this. Jesus then ended the parable with a with a moral. “Thus, will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.”
This particular parable often falls on deaf ears because it seems to go against our instincts. Nobody wants to be poor. Nobody wants to be financially insecure. Today, the media puts us all on alert by reminding us every hour of the day that the money we have is worth less as inflation rises. If we’re lucky enough to have savings, we’re panicking because the stock market is so volatile. Banks are paying almost no interest on deposits.
Poor families and the elderly are deeply anxious as they hear talk of ending Social Security and cutting food stamp programs and welfare.
Though this parable is aimed at the rich, everyone, rich and poor alike, would do well to contemplate the bottom line of Jesus’ message. We’re all called to be “rich in what matters to God.”
You may have noticed that the man in the parable is thinking only of himself. He had a great harvest and was ready to set up a comfortable life for himself. He wasn’t doing anything that was bad in itself. He was just self-centered. He was like the rich man in the parable of the man who feasted every day while Lazarus, a poor, sick beggar, sat outside longing for the food that dropped from the table. His sin wasn’t that he feasted every day. His sin was that he never saw the poor man starving at his doorstep.
Jesus is calling to all of us, rich and poor alike, to be conscious of one another. We’ve trained ourselves not to see the person lying in the street. We’re annoyed and put off by a relative or friend who asks us for financial help. We don’t want to get involved. We want to be comfortable, and we definitely don’t want to get involved in other people’s problems.
Today’s parable is reminding us that life is a communal experience. “Being rich in what matters to God” means being aware of those around us. It means being rich in compassion. It means that our wealth isn’t stored in barns or banks; it’s stored in the heart.
We’re thinking about prayer today. In the first reading from the book of Genesis we see an interesting form of prayer. Abraham is having a conversation with God, or perhaps it might be more correct to call it an interrogation.
Things look very bad for the corrupt city of Sodom. God has shared with Abraham that he’s planning to destroy it as punishment for its sins. In this prayer, Abraham, who has only recently come to know God, is trying to get a handle on God. Is this a capricious, undisciplined God or a just God? So, Abraham begins what seems like an endless string of questions. Will you destroy the city if there are 50 good people there? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? The prayer, conversation, interrogation, ends when God says that the city will not be destroyed if there are 10 righteous people living there.
So, the prayer leads Abraham to a deeper understand of God. In this scene, we see Abraham’s inner child engaging his heavenly Father. His conversation reveals God’s fatherly patience and loving acceptance.
This example of prayer reminds us that when we don’t understand the terrible things that happen in the world we can question God. It doesn’t mean that we have a lack of faith; it means we’re troubled, and looking for answers to our questions. When we were children we asked lots of questions of our parents. Some answers we received we understood and accepted, others didn’t satisfy us; they only brought up more questions. So, we asked more questions. This is one type of prayer.
In the gospel passage Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples. He begins with a blessing: “Father, hallowed be your name.” This is the opening line for all Jewish prayers: “Baruch ata Adonai.” Blessed are you, Lord. Our offertory prayers over the bread and wine follow this structure. “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation for through your goodness you have given us this bread to offer which earth has given and human hands have made.” We bless God and then acknowledge God’s blessings to us. Jesus’ entire prayer may be prayed in that way.
Father, hallowed by your name – your kingdom come.
Father, hallowed be your name – give us each day our daily bread (bread for our table and the bread of the Eucharist.)
Father, hallowed be your name – forgive us our sins because we forgive everyone’s sins against us.
Father, hallowed be your name – do not subject us to the final test. (the agony you suffered in the garden.)
Jesus continues his teaching about prayer by emphasizing the importance of persistence in prayer, as Abraham was persistent. He concludes with a teaching we all know by heart. So, today, as we reflect on prayer, let’s takes that final teaching to heart. Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you have given us this teaching on prayer.
“Ask and you will receive. Seek and your will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you.”
We begin our reflection with one of the most famous biblical stories about hospitality. Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent trying to catch a bit of breeze. He suddenly saw three men standing nearby. He rushed to them, greeted them, and pleaded with them to stop to refresh themselves with some water and some food. He called for the servants to wash their feet and told Sarah to make bread. Then he ran to his herd of cattle and picked out a choice steer for dinner. When all was prepared, Abraham waited on the three visitors. His extravagant hospitality was rewarded with a monumental promise. Sarah would give birth to a son in a year’s time.
We continue our reflection with a second famous story about hospitality, the story of Mary and Martha. But this story has a twist. Jesus was teaching in their home. Martha, attuned to the obligation of hospitality, was frantically trying to prepare food and drink for all the guests. Her sister, Mary, had abandoned her and was scandalously sitting with the men who were listening to Jesus. Martha, quite brazenly, marched up to Jesus, interrupting his teaching. She then reprimanded him for not sending Mary back to assist her.
Jesus told Martha that she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Maybe her problem wasn’t a hospitality issue. Could it be that she was jealous of Mary, the rebel, who had, as Jesus told Martha, “chosen the better part?”
The reward for Martha’s hospitality – opening her home to Jesus and offering water and snacks to his guests – had a built-in reward. She had a chance to listen to the teaching of Jesus, his proclamation of the kingdom of God.
Our lesson for today. Hospitality from the heart is a sacred labor blessed by God. Hospitality, though difficult at times, brings with it a blessed reward. If we only take a look, we might see the reward staring us in the face.
A FINAL THOUGHT FROM THE SCRIPTURE
“Let your love for one another continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:1)
To test Jesus, a “scholar of the law’’ asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus threw the question back to him by asking him, “What is written in the law? How do you interpret it?” The scholar answered by quoting two famous passages from the Hebrew Scripture. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength and with all your mind. (Deuteronomy 6:5), and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18b)
This shrewd lawyer understood quite well the meaning of these two commandments. He knew that just about everybody could agree with the first commandment: love God. There’s nothing that’s contentious about it. Everybody could say that they love God. The extent of that love could vary but the basic command to love God would be easy for most people to accept. It was like motherhood and apple pie.
However, the second commandment was much more challenging for everybody. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The scholar was looking for a fight with this liberal rabbi from Nazareth, and so, he asked Jesus to define a neighbor for him. Luke comments that the scholar asked this to “justify himself.” Jesus decided to engage him. He spun the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus made some major accusations in the parable. The people who walked by the dying man represented various types of people in the scholar’s circle of colleagues, a priest, and Levite, a member of the priestly tribe. These were people who officially said they loved God.
They served in the temple ritual. They put their “love of God” above their love of neighbor. They were on their way to Jerusalem to perform their priestly duties. If they touched this bloody, dying man they would be rendered ritually unclean and would not be permitted to perform their religious duties. So, they left him to die.
Then, the religious outcast came by, the Samaritan. The Jew who was dying on the side of the road was saved by a heretic and cultural enemy who overlooked his religious and cultural prejudice.
The moral of the parable was absolutely clear, but Jesus asked the scholar, “Which of the three was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” “The one who treated him with mercy,” came the answer. For the scholar and for anyone who could hear, the parable answered his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Be a Good Samaritan!
I ask you to revisit this passage during your personal prayer time this week. Allow the parable to speak to our contemporary situation. Open your eyes to the cancer of “them and us,” that we Americans are suffering today. Like good Jews and good Samaritans, we can’t talk to each other. We’re committed to our hatred for each other. We refuse to look for common ground for creative and healing dialogue. Instead, we wage war with one another. Our objective is to conquer and dominate the other.
I’ll conclude with a teaching from the apostle John. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.” (1 John 4:20a)