Palm Sunday Meditation
Today we begin loudly proclaiming Jesus as King. Crowds cry out "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!"Palm branches wave cloaks thrown down on the rough rocky road. Jesus sits on a donkey or colt. He looks preposterous. But isn't this the point? Roman authorities show their might sitting on mighty steeds, their breastplates blind people with the sun glinting off them. But the soldiers and Jesus share one thing, their faces are inscrutable. The soldiers through might and Jesus through knowing. Knowing human nature and all it is: loving one moment, fickle and hate-filled the next.
This is exactly how Jesus life plays out. The crowd roars their approval one minute and calls for his death in the next. It happens all the time, the most popular and well-liked is suddenly hated and avoided. Ostracized by his peers. It only takes a few to change the way things are going. A couple of whispers here, the spread of gossip there. Lives are ruined and reputations are tarnished, sometimes forever.
Rene Girard names this the Scapegoat theory whereby to restore communal order someone has to bear the sins of the community and be expelled much like the biblical theory of scapegoat. The biblical theory is a sheep or goat "takes on" the communal sins of the village and is run out into the wilderness. While it does not work, communities naively believe it restores communal peace. Jesus' trial and crucifixion was how the authorities in the temple and Rome thought order would be restored to society. It is something we still do today. Society is always looking for a victim to right the wrongs of society. The hope is order will be restored, which it is for a time. Then the whole thing begins again.
In the documentary "Panic: The Untold Story of the Financial Crisis" we are reminded again how close the world was to financial collapse. The story unfolds for people wanting a scapegoat for the greed of society. The scapegoats rightly or wrongly were those who were trying to fix the system. The burdens they carried now seem almost cruel. But when it was all unfolding, the over riding thought was someone needed to pay.
History does have a way of repeating itself doesn't it? Someone needed to pay in 33AD and that someone was Jesus. Guilty or innocent. It didn't really matter, order needed to be restored, peace at any price. How many of us look for a scapegoat when things are not going as we wish they did? How many of us want someone, anyone to take on the burden of the group? How many of us say we would never be calling for Jesus' death, only to have someone whisper something in our ear and we too are calling for his crucifixion? Think it couldn't or wouldn't be you? This week I invite you to think again.
Judas the Buzzkill
Today our gospel reading is two dramatically different views of love and abundance. Jesus is at the home of Martha, who is the owner of the house, Mary and Lazarus whom Jesus has just raised from the dead. It is of course a happy occasion. Not only are Lazarus’ sisters rejoicing but Lazarus himself has to be rather happy. He was DEAD! Now he is alive. The party is going raucous laughter spills out of the room into the courtyard. The wine flows and the food is plentiful, the table is heaving. Martha the hostess, did I mention she owns the house? Is thanking Jesus the best way she knows, by throwing a dinner in his honor. Yes this is the same Martha who is chastised for being a worker bee while her sister sat at Jesus’ feet. But all that is forgotten for now. They are HAPPY!
Mary is so happy her brother is alive, she takes a pound of costly perfume which we know to be nard. Nard comes from the Himalayas, the full name is Spikenard. It is a mood elevator and enhancer that calms anxiety and heals emotional and psychological trauma and pain. Its calming, soothing and mood elevating qualities perhaps were used to help Jesus prepare himself spiritually for his upcoming ordeal on the cross, and his subsequent death and resurrection. It is equal in price to Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty Perfume which sells for $12,721.89 per ounce. A fragrance I know we all have in our cupboards.
Mary lavishly pours the nard over Jesus feet and immediately the room is filled with the spicy aroma. Everyone relaxes a bit due to its soothing elements. Once a raucous room, it is now quiet. The disciples stop talking, drinking and eating to watch Mary not only anoint Jesus’ feet but then to wipe them with her hair. They are as the Brits would say gobsmacked by her behavior. It is indeed a holy moment.
The moment is lost though when Judas cries out, “hang on a minute here. This is a terrible waste of money.” The disciples look over at him and roll their eyes. “After all” he sputters, “that could have been sold and the money given to the poor.” In an instant an act of lavish love has been sullied. Thank you Judas, the buzzkill. This is foreshadowing for Judas’ next role of betrayer. Tonight he is the Devil’s Advocate. You know the one who believes it is his or her place to argue the contrary opinion. So he chastises Mary for her act of generosity. For a moment their minds drift to the idea of, “Yeah Judas is right Mary. What were you thinking?” They don’t say anything but on can imagine some probably agreed with Judas’ assessment of the situation. But Jesus pulls Judas up short and reprimands him in front of everyone. Jesus tells Judas Mary has done the right thing. Foreshadowing his death he speaks of being anointed for his burial. Would it be correct to say Judas is humiliated and fumes about being embarrassed in front of everyone.
I have often wondered what the other disciples thought about Judas. Did they like him? Was he a constant complainer? A schemer? John alludes to the scheming nature of Judas in today’s reading. But Jesus saw something in him, some quality in him to make him a disciple. Was it the adage keep your friends close and your enemies closer? Perhaps Jesus thought by keeping a naysayer in the group, it would force him to see the other side of an issue. We know Judas liked and admired Jesus, since he followed him around for three years, until he didn’t.
Now no one can argue with Judas’ logic. It would have been a good thing for Mary to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. An act of love for the community. But Mary in her wisdom knows something else is happening. All of these years of following Jesus around she knows what people are saying. She can see the authorities scowling when Jesus is teaching and healing. Their jealousy plain on their faces. But she doesn’t care, she loves him anyway. Mary sees something more in Jesus than the others see.
This story is similar writes Karoline Lewis to Jesus’ mother telling him there is no wine at the wedding in Cana. Jesus tells her it is not his time but she knows better, after all she is a mom. Mary can see who Jesus is even if he is not ready to acknowledge it. She as Lewis writes, loved him into his future. Now this Mary is doing the same act by anointing Jesus. Mary is telling Jesus as hard as what waits on the horizon for him, his death, he is loved and he can do this. Simply put she has faith in him. Mary’s lavish gift of love, gives Jesus courage to wash the feet of those who will betray him. Deny him. And yes, abandon him. In those dark moments we can hope and pray Jesus remembers what Mary did and finds both courage and comfort in her actions. She has loved him into his future.
Each of us here today, I hope, has been loved into the future by a friend, parent, partner or even a child. The person who stands in front of you and says I know you can do this. I have faith in you and I love you.
In the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on my ministry. What does it mean? Why did I do this? Was there another path I could have taken? I remember two people in particular who said you can do this. The first was a good friend of mine who in a moment of exasperation said, you talk about going to seminary but you don’t go. You have to. The other was a woman on my discernment committee who when writing my report said, she knew I loved Jesus. Honestly, I didn’t think it showed. Those two women loved me into my future.
At the other end of the spectrum, there will always be those like Judas who dole out love in a puny way. Lewis calls these people love resisters. They can’t begin to acknowledge the good in someone else because in some small way they feel it diminishes them. Or even worse, those who believe to think this kind of extravagant love is for the weak who need to be told how great they are. We laugh at society’s idea of everyone gets a prize and while it is aggravating, perhaps we should see it as loving someone into their future. The prize which everyone receives might be for someone the only positive reinforcement she will get. It might even open up her heart to bigger possibilities for herself.
Imagine if no one ever said they loved you or vice versa. What a cold and empty world it would be. It would be like living in a tomb. We might as well be dead. In those moments of abandonment, Jesus will begin to feel at the betrayal, abandonment and mocking we can hope he remembers the gentle touch of Mary’s hands smoothing the ointment over his rough calloused feet. Her touch was not only an act of love and devotion but also a gentle push into who he is for us all. The Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Each time I preach on the parable of the Prodigal Son, I try to imagine who I might be in the story. Most of the time I turn out to be the aggrieved older brother. I mean who wants to be known as the family ne'er do well? Most people when asked who are they in the story, state they too are the older brother But this past week, as I once again prepared for Sunday reflecting on this parable this is not about brothers or fathers it is about how we are each of the characters in the story.
Let me elaborate. The younger brother tells his father, "Dad I wish you were dead but not really. Can I have my inheritance now?" He goes off and has a blast. Life is one giant party every night. He has friends galore and women well women hang all over him as he buys the drinks and the meals. They go off for a spin in his new sports car ending up at the latest and greatest nightclub. Dancing the night away, the brother thinks this is living. Until it isn't. As we know all good things must come to an end and so with the brother. He sits on the curb trash strewn around his feet. The once immaculate dinner suit is filthy and torn. He is hungry, starving in fact and he starts thinking about maybe having to get a job! What can he do? He has no skills. Combing the want ads he finds something he can do. Cleaning cages at the kennel is all he qualified for, so he applies and gets the job.
After awhile, he reminisces about home. His dad, what a grand a glorious fellow. His brother oh how he misses him. A tear trickles down his face. Suddenly his face brightens, he decides to go home and beg his father's forgiveness. After all he thinks, why would dad turn me away. I was always his favorite, He stands, brushes himself off and whistles a happy tune as he heads for home. Scheming all the way he rehearses what he will say, getting the inflection of his voice just right. He even practices crying and pleading.
His father does what he does every day. Standing in the fields he scours the horizon for his son. He thinks to himself today will be the day he returns. I know he really loves me, it was just a phase he was going through. Sighing he shakes his head and walks past his older son, not even noticing he is there. It's been like this since the younger son left, the older son is forgotten. He might as well be a piece of the furniture. Meals are eaten in silence. There is no friendly conversation in the evening no laughter in the morning. A deadly silence hangs over the house. It is like a tomb. They as well be dead for the lifeless existence present.
The older brother sees and feels all of this. He is hurt, angry and perplexed. He keeps asking himself the question, why is my father treating me like this? What have I done? I am dutiful, working my fingers to the bone every day for him. I don't ask for anything. I don't have friends over. My clothes are old and out of date. My car has 200,000 miles on it from running all his errands and keeping the business going. The house is a mess, dusty and dreary. Who would want to visit? The older son glares at his father, his eyes narrowed to slits as he thinks about the younger brother off having the time of his life. He becomes more and more resentful of the pair of them. His brother for being so selfish and his father for being blind to the one in front of him.
When the brother finally returns to the family, the father leaps with joy. He hasn't moved this fast in ages. Snapping his fingers to the servants, he commands them to bring the best of everything out for his son. The younger son is taken back by all of this, he can't even get the words he has practiced so well out of his mouth. His voice is muffled in his father's shoulder. Relaxing he allows his father to hug and kiss him. The party begins and since the brother is good at parties, he straightens himself up and welcomes the attention.
The older brother pulls into the driveway in his old, worn out car. As he gets out, exhausted from the day, he hears music and laughter coming from the house. He grabs one of the servants by the arm and asks what is going on. The servant tells him the news: his younger brother has returned. The color drains from the older brother's face as he clenches his hands to his sides. He starts to get back into the car when his father comes running out of the house. The father is laughing, holding a glass of wine with a cigar between this teeth. The older brother stares at him and wonders, is this the same man I left this morning? And isn't that the finest red wine and where have those cigars been all these months? His father tells him the good news about his brother to which the older brother explodes. Years of anger and resentment spill out as he tells of what it has been like working for his father. How ungrateful the old man has been and how thoughtless. You celebrate the one who wanted you dead?!
The father is dumbstruck. His face registers shock. He can't believe what he is hearing. When the older son pauses for breath, the father tells him all that he has was his as well. Aren't you glad your brother has returned?
Well as they say, welcome to one man's family. This has to be the most dysfunctional family we will ever have the pleasure of reading about. We could dissect each person and their role in this mess but I don't think this is what the story is about. I have come to believe the story is about our humanity. Sometimes we are the younger brother selfish and myopic about our own needs and wants. Thinking of our own self interest. How many of us can claim to be the older brother dutiful but with a closed fist rather than an open hand. Basically asking people to read our minds about what we want and need and not having the courage to say how we feel. Finally the father does he resonate? Blinded to what is in front of us because we are so busy thinking about what we lost, we can't appreciate what we have.
Most interpreters of this parable want to name us as the sons and the father as God. I beg to differ, because if we believe God is all-knowing and all-loving why we he be so blind to the pain of the older brother? Would he not have treated all of his children fairly like we believe God does. By treated fairly I am not saying believing in God makes our problems go away, but it means he sees us and loves us as we are. This story is about our fallibilities and frailties as human beings. None of us is perfect especially those of us in the human family and we will at some point in our lives be one of these characters. The question is what do we do about it? The best answer is to acknowledge it and work to understand one another and to love one another when we are unlovable. We are called to be honest and loving in all of our relationships no matter how painful they can be and finally we are to remember as humans we are all doing the very best we can given our circumstances and situations.
The Prodigal Son in my mind is not a story with a happy ending, but then life rarely has happy endings, but how do we patch our lives together to ensure all feel understood, needed and loved?