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Archive for March, 2016

Extravagant, Scandalous Love

John 12:1-11

Throughout these 40 days of Lent, I’ve been asking this question:

What does it mean for me be truly myself?

And I encourage you to do the same.

While we ask that question of ourselves, we are journeying with the story in the Gospels, following Jesus’ own journey of self-discovery. Most of this Lent, we’ve been reading Luke’s story, but this time we are following the 4th Gospel’s story—John.

Let’s set the stage. Use your imagination. John’s Gospel writers certainly did.

It was six days before Passover. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead; some were people were amazed and some were mad. The religious leaders of the day were firmly in that mad group. So they were making their plans to kill Jesus as soon as they had the right moment. He was too popular now. Kind of a depressing start, but it gets better.

mummyJesus and company were in Bethany, just a small town outside of Jerusalem, but surely at its most crowded, because tons of people flocked to Jerusalem for Passover. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus make a cameo appearance. These three characters only appear in John’s Gospel, except for a short story about them in Luke’s Gospel. Who the heck were they, then? It’s a mystery. For real.

This story appears in all four Gospels, but each one has different characters. Mark has Jesus in Simon the leper’s house and he is anointed by an unnamed woman. Matthew’s version is pretty much a copy of Mark’s. Luke, on the other hand, changes it up. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus eats dinner at the home of a Pharisee called Simon, and an unnamed woman called a “sinner” cries at Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair before anointing his feet with ointment. It’s yet another example of how the four canonical Gospels can tell the same story in different ways. I think recognizing this is so very helpful for us the readers as we try to glean some meaning from ancient texts. The stories aren’t the same—even the characters change! So this means that we should be reading this as a metaphor for something, but also we should see the different perspectives of each author.

It’s always good to see another person’s perspective.

If we don’t do that, we can come up with some really insane beliefs. For example, there are still way to many people who believe that the woman in the story is in fact Mary Magdalene, and a prostitute. This idea started to gain traction in the 6th century. Popes and other religious leaders assumed that a woman called “sinner” must be a prostitute and that even though the other Gospels do not name the woman, it must be Mary Magdalene.

It’s unfortunate, I think. Female characters of the Bible have enough trouble getting respect as it is. But to assume that the hero character in this story, clearly the woman who anoints Jesus, was a prostitute just seems lazy and irresponsible to me. What if she really was a hero? What if she really was the Christ figure in the story?

So let’s look at what she did. She took a pound of ointment, called pure nard. Another name for it is spikenard.

Spikenard-Oil-5 It is oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family and grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China. So not only is it good for anointing, but it might even help you sleep! The important point being that it’s imported oil, probably from India. It’s expensive. This type of oil was considered a healing and palliative ointment. And it smelled reeeeeeeel good. Which would have been important, considering that there is some previously-dead due named Lazarus in the room, reading something and not opening his mouth, apparently. Spooky, isn’t it? Just earlier in the story, Lazarus was completely stinking of death. Then he emerged from the tomb, alive. And now, Jesus is in Lazarus’ house and everything smells fantastic. Gotta love the details.

Anyway, lovely-smelling, expensive oil aside, Mary does something scandalous next. She uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet with the oil. Uh…..

 

Yeah, THAT wasn’t good. Consider this—women covered their heads in this time and culture. Jewish women wore [and some still wear] a tzniut that looks remarkably similar to the Muslim hijab. Hair was intimate. So if a woman like Mary uncovered her head and then touched a man’s feet [also intimate], well, you might as well make this an R-rated feature. Cue Judas Iscariot’s entrance.

We all know Judas, the oft-misunderstood, so-called “bad guy” of the Bible. Here he gets to be the Debbie Downer in the room. Everything smelled so nice, Lazarus wasn’t dead anymore, Martha was doing her OCD stuff around the house, and Mary was anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. What could be bad about that? Well, Judas found something.

Why didn’t Mary sell the oil for money and then give it to the poor? What wastefulness!

You wonder if Martha was in the background shaking her head yes in agreement. After all, Mary was a rambunctious character who tended to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen when there was work to be done.

But John’s authors tell us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He kept the bag which was actually a box which eventually was called a coffer or money box [Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary]. It seems to me that here John’s Gospel wants to make sure we don’t side with Judas. After all, he does seem to make a good point here. But the Gospel quickly tells us that Judas is still the bad guy. I can sort of understand, because Judas Iscariot was really close to Jesus. He was in the inner circle of disciples and was trusted with the money, too. Regardless, Jesus stands with Mary and not with Judas, telling Judas to release her, which in the original Greek really means let her go or forgive her. It’s the same thing that the gardener said to the landowner about the fruitless fig tree. Forgive it.

Why forgive it? Because Mary did something not only scandalous, but extravagant. She could have anointed Jesus on his head like normal people did for kings and prophets. But no, she chose his feet and her hair. This was no king. This was no religious elite. Not according to Mary.

This was someone she truly loved.

Her act sets in motion something that will happen in the future. Eventually, when Jesus’ life is in real danger, and he’s in Jerusalem with his friends, they wash each other’s feet. So Mary, not considered by many to be a “disciple” of Jesus, not in the inner circle, preempts the foot washing before it was a command.

But the story isn’t over. Jesus ends it by saying: “You always have the poor with you.”
Uh……..

say-what

Jesus, was just happened?

Okay, before we jump to the conclusions of prosperity gospel people, Jesus was not giving people an excuse to ignore poor people. It’s quite the contrary. The so-called poor people who were often destitute beggars, were an assumed part of the Jesus community. They weren’t outsiders, they weren’t those poor people. They were part of Jesus’ circle. And I think that this wonderfully frames the message of Mary’s loving and extravagant act. Mary acted out of love and not charity. So should Jesus’ disciples act. They should care for all people [including those who were poor], but not out of charity—out love.

I wonder sometimes how much we do things to or for others, simply out of some obligation or perceived duty to be charitable.

And don’t just mean when you give a couple dollars to someone on the street or sponsor a child in Africa, though that happens, of course. I mean how often do we act out of love in our relationships, and not out of charity? Think about that for a moment.

How much of our relationships are built on obligation, duty, and charity?

And how much of our relationships are built on love?

It’s scandalous and extravagant to think about.

Because if we act out of love and not out of charity, we won’t be afraid to let our hair down, crack open the expensive jar of oil, and touch someone’ s bare feet. We won’t worry about what other people will think or how we’ll look or if we broke somebody’s rules. We will just act. Out of love.

Whenever I think back to those few moments in my life when someone truly acted out of love and showed me that love, I am overwhelmed with a peacefulness and gratitude. Those acts of love changed my life, healed me, and shaped me.

So what would it mean for you be a person who acts out of love?
What would that look like?

How would it change your relationships? Your workplace environment? Your school?

Calling All the Prodigals

Luke 15:11-33

From the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scriptures:

To practice forgiveness is fasting, good conduct and contentment.
Dispelled is anger as forgiveness is grasped.
Where there is forgiveness,
There God resides.

HugProdigalPerhaps there is no more-recognizable story from the New Testament Gospels than the story of the prodigal son. You could make a case for the parable of the Good Samaritan, but I think the prodigal story is right up there. In my view, the worth and appeal of a good story is that it can be viewed from various angles. Each time you hear the story, you may notice or feel is somewhat different. This story is like that.

The prodigal parable is a reiteration of the same theme in two other parables: one about a lost sheep and another about a lost coin. In both cases, something is lost and then it is found. Simple enough, right? But we will need to notice the narration in Luke’s Gospel story before the prodigal parable begins. It goes something like this:

Tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. Some Pharisees and scribes were grumbling about that and saying, “This guy welcomes sinners and even eats with them!”

You have to pay attention to that lead-in. In Jesus of Nazareth’s life, he was dealing with people—real people who were treated like dirt and dehumanized. They were called names like tax collector, sinner, leper, etc. And then at the same time, Jesus was dealing with his religious colleagues, the Pharisees and scribes. Don’t assume that this is a clear-cut good vs. evil thing; it’s not. The lost-and-found parables all present the same picture:

The lost were the outcasts of society; the dehumanized; the marginalized.

They were always found and embraced as being priceless.

Those already “found” were the religious elites, the rich, the powerful.

In the end of the story, they ended up lost.

So let’s revisit the story.

The father in the parable ends up giving all his assets to his two sons. The twist is that the younger son asked for his share prematurely, because according to the culture and time period, he was supposed to wait to collect his inheritance. But the younger son oversteps his bounds and asks his dad for the money up front. The dad obliges and splits his assets in half for both sons. It doesn’t take the younger son long to start blowing the money—a couple of days, in fact. But even after he spends it all, he’s still okay being far away from home. That is, until the economy goes in the tank. No food. So he gets a job feeding pigs. He is so hungry, in fact, that he envies the pigs and what they are eating! So they must have been Iberian pigs.

Iberian01Mmmm…..herbs and nuts….

But one day he sort of wakes up and realizes that the people who work for his dad eat pretty well. So why not go back home and work? That way he would at least have food and a better life. So he concocts what he will say to his dad. It is a real dramatic speech, for sure. But as he journeys back home, his dad is already waiting for him excitedly. The son doesn’t even get a chance to give his great speech. His dad runs to him, embraces him, and kisses him. He gets to wear his best robes and there is a huge party. The lost son is now found. The older brother, however, skips the party and sulks out of anger.

A quick observation:

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that the younger son repented.

Perhaps he was just being practical. Read the story carefully. It wasn’t until he ran out of food and realized that working for his dad wouldn’t be so bad that he came up with a speech about being sorry for what he did. One of my professors from Princeton, the late Dr. Donald Juel, shared some insight about this: he suggests that younger siblings like the prodigal son have the advantage of waiting, watching, and learning how to manipulate their parents. In this case, the younger son knows his dad and therefore convinces him to give up the inheritance earlier. He also knows that his dad is a big ‘ole softy and so his speech about not being worthy to be a beloved son but instead a servant would have indeed landed.

This view certainly makes the story more challenging, doesn’t it? Yes, but also more authentic, if you ask me, because forgiveness and showing grace to someone is messy.

Sometimes welcoming a prodigal back with open arms doesn’t lead to repentance or transformation. In fact, showing grace to someone often will not result in a reward and certainly not a big party.

Once you show someone grace, it is up to that person to do something with it.

We don’t know if the younger turned his life around after the party.

This parable, though not a true story, is representing real life. So the younger son represents the so-called tax collectors and sinners who were coming to Jesus. The angry, older son represents the scribes and Pharisees who grumble and complain about those who hang out with Jesus. But all that really matters is that the lost [prodigal] is found and those who are already found [older son, Pharisees, scribes] are lost in their anger and resentment. They miss out on the party.

It’s a story about forgiveness.

Forgiveness. One of the most difficult things to make a part of your lifestyle. I hear it all the time. So I thought about the many obstacles to forgiveness. Here are some quick thoughts about that, some of it from Dr. Thomas G. Plante, in his article the 7 Rules of Forgiveness:[1]

One obstacle is that we sometimes think that forgiving means forgetting completely. That’s certainly not true in the case of someone who is abused, neglected, or victimized. No one should be told to forget the trauma he/she experienced.

Another obstacle to forgiveness is thinking that forgiveness makes a person weak. I think it’s the opposite, actually. When you forgive, you show great strength, because forgiveness takes time and energy and character. The people I’ve known in my life who have forgiven people, even when it was most difficult, were so strong and courageous.

The Weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
-Mahatma Ghandi

And lastly, possibly the biggest obstacle to forgiveness is anger. People find it very difficult to let go of anger. One of the reasons for this is that sometimes we assume that we should feel angry because we hope that the person the anger is directed at will accept our anger and as a result feel sorry for what they did. We assume that this gives us power. It’s the opposite, actually. The more you hold onto anger and resentment, the more you are victimized by it. Psychologists who work with patients who have been severely traumatized note that those who are able to let go of anger feel freer than ever before and also do not feel like victims any longer.

So yes, there are obstacles to forgiveness, but I think that this prodigal story helps us work through them, because the story shows us that forgiveness does not depend on the other person apologizing or accepting your offer of forgiveness. The father forgave the son even before he had a chance to apologize. The younger son does not repent at all and there is no indication that he felt sorry for what he did, because that’s not the point of Jesus’ parable.

The Pharisees, scribes, and even some of Jesus’ disciples wanted fairness in forgiveness. They wanted reward and punishment.

Oftentimes we want fairness in forgiveness, too.

The characters in the story felt that some deserved to be lost and others to be found. But Jesus rejected such a notion. Instead, he argued that the prodigal was found by forgiveness, not repentance. Moving forward, the younger son would then have to choose what he would do with that forgiveness.

Yes, this story is complicated, but it’s good news, too. Who doesn’t need forgiveness? Who wouldn’t appreciate a little grace now and then? The key is to realize that God doesn’t differentiate between prodigals. Whoever is lost is meant to be found—wherever they are on their journey. Forgiveness and grace don’t come in neat packages; they are extravagant actions. They know no boundaries or categories; they just are.

So whether today you find yourself feeling like quite the prodigal—marginalized, lost, left out—remember that you’re worth being found. And when forgiveness is offered to you, do something with it. Pay it forward.

And if during this part of your journey you feel that you’re not a prodigal, remember that we’re not made to just hang out with the people who seem “together” or “found,” whatever that means. Instead, we are supposed to seek out and befriend those who feel lost, or hurt, or pushed to the margins of society. Why? Because they deserve to be treated as the human being they are. So be lavish in your forgiving and grace giving to others. Don’t hold onto anger. Let all the prodigals, including you, experience the healing and transformation of forgiveness.

[1] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201403/7-rules-forgiveness

Changing to Return to Ourselves

Luke 13:1-9

Selections from Self, Gautama Buddha

If a person holds oneself dear, let one watch oneself carefully.
The wise should be watchful during at least one of the three watches.
Self is the master of self; who else could be the master?
With self a well-controlled a person finds a master such as few can find.
Bad actions and actions harmful to ourselves are easy to do;
what is beneficial and good, that is very difficult to do.
By oneself is wrong done; by oneself one suffers;
By oneself is wrong left undone; by oneself is one purified.
Purity and impurity come from oneself; no one can purify another.

Change.jpeg

Daniel Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology. Dan’s 2007 book, Stumbling on Happiness, spent 6 months on the New York Times bestseller list, has being translated into more than 30 languages, and was awarded the Royal Society’s General Book Prize for best science book of the year. In 2010, Dan hosted and co-wrote the award-winning PBS television series This Emotional Life, whose premiere was watched by more than 10 million viewers.

He gave a recent Ted Talk entitled: The Psychology of Your Future Self.

He claims that all of us are walking around with an illusion:

“an illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end, that we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.”

To prove that claim, Mr. Gilbert provides some data from studies with thousands of people. Gilbert and his researchers asked half of them to predict how much their values would change in the next ten years; the other half they asked how much their values had changed in the last ten years. So in essence, they were comparing the predictions of people who were about 18 years old with the reports of people who were 28. Here’s what they found:

The common view that we often hold is that change slows down as get older. Gilbert’s study found that change does not slow down nearly as much as we think. People from age 18-68 in the study vastly underestimated how much change they would experience over the next 10 years. For example, 18-year-olds anticipated changing only half as much as 50-year-olds actually do. And it’s more than just change in values. It’s personality change and it’s likes and dislikes, too. What music do you like? Who is your best friend? What is your favorite hobby? People in the study thought that these things would not change in 10 years, but they were almost always wrong.

They did change.

This season of Lent [40 days] is about self-reflection and about change.
I’ve been asking you to hold this question closely:

What does it mean for me to be truly myself?

So as we continue to ask that question, let’s look at a story in Luke’s Gospel that challenges us to consider that change is really a part of who we are.

The story begins with a reference to Galileans. These “Galileans” were most likely pilgrims in Jerusalem. Apparently, Pilate, a Roman leader, had mistreated these Galileans, and violence filled Jerusalem. Jesus then asks a question of the crowd gathered there:

“Do you think that these Galileans were bigger sinners than all the Galileans because they had suffered this?”

Meaning: something really bad happened to these Galileans, so did they deserve it?

This of course is the old-school, sad but commonly-held view that if someone does things right, things will go well for her; if bad things happen to her, it’s because she is bad. Obviously, Jesus doesn’t believe this for one second.

So he refers to another old story about the tower of Siloam falling down and killing 18 people. And once again he asks: did these people do something bad to deserve that fate?

Both stories are attempts to change people’s perspectives about sin and debt. The commonly-held belief was that good things happened to good people and bad things happened to bad people. This cause and effect, reward and punishment mentality was and is severely limited. Instead, Jesus calls the people in the crowd to repent, a word that does not mean feeling sorry for a sin or something bad you did. Repent means turn around and move in a new direction.

Change in perspective that leads to change in your life.

Finally, Jesus of Nazareth tells the parable of the fig tree.

fig_tree2

A vineyard owner comes to a fig tree looking for fruit, but finds none. The owner is ticked off about that and lets the gardener have it. For three years I’ve been looking for figs, and nothing! Get rid of it—it’s taking up too much space! But the gardener says leave it alone. Coincidentally, the Greek word there [aphes] means forgive. The gardener is not ready to dig up the fig tree. In spite of its history of not bearing fruit, there is still the possibility that the tree can change and eventually be productive, finding its place in the vineyard.

Have you ever considered that change is part of your natural makeup–that you are not meant to stay the same? That goes for your perspectives and your life practices.

As Dan Gilbert’s studies found, we over-invest time and energy in our current preferences and perspectives because we think we won’t change and so we overestimate their stability. Why does this happen? Gilbert and co. are not sure. But one hypothesis is that it has to do with the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining.

The owner of the vineyard couldn’t imagine the fig tree having any use, because the owner only saw a tree without fruit. But the gardener had an imagination.

Friends, I’m sure that most of you can remember who you were 10 years ago, right? But how hard is it sometimes for you to imagine who you are going to be?

Don’t assume that due to your lack of imagination, who you are going to be, i.e. a change, is not likely to happen. When we say: “I can’t imagine that,” we are simply expressing our lack of imaginative perspective, but not the unlikelihood change.

Yes, changing your perspective right now will help. The present moment can be, as Gilbert points out, a magical time.

It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves.

So no matter what age you are, or where you are on life’s journey, remember this:
We are all works in progress. We are not finished.

The one constant in our life is change.

And when we change, we are truly ourselves.

 

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