This sermon, and the long study that preceded it, are in response to all the hours I spent sitting in the pews of Episcopal churches. I loved Jesus, or probably more accurately, had something of a crush on Jesus, who to me was a long-haired, sexy young guy who defied authority. Jesus was what I wanted to be (a long-haired, sexy young guy who defied authority). Alas, neither Jesus nor I embodied the dream. The years following confirmation at age 12 found me attending Sunday services rather than leaving with the children for Sunday School. As I followed the Book of Common Prayer, sat through all those sermons and listened to all those Gospel passages, I lost the Jesus of my childhood. I lost Jesus entirely. I didn’t know what the priest was talking about.
In the liturgy I found little comfort and in the sermon I found little relevance. I heard the stories that Jesus told, the parables, over and over, with little comprehension of their meaning. What was the point? I left the church with hardly a regret before I turned 18. Yet now, all these years later, I turn back to the parables for answers to my adolescent questions. What do the parables mean? What are the teachings contained in them? How do they relate to my life? And my adult questions: How can the parables inform my stance in society? How can an understanding of them help me, a Unitarian Universalist minister, have a greater voice in interfaith dialogues? Is there a message here? Today is Christmas Eve, a time when many celebrate the birth of Jesus. However, what endures about Jesus, for me, is not his birth, but his teachings. The word parables, from the Greek parabole, means “to throw beside, to compare,” and the form of parables belongs to the Jewish wisdom tradition and is related to proverbs and aphorisms. A parable is a short narrative fiction that serves as a metaphor. Jesus’ parables, which mainly took as their subject some practical, well known aspect in the life of a peasant, most often related to nature, and also contained some incongruity that let the listener know the parable isn’t about what it is about. Like a Zen koan, the incongruity unlocks the imagination and opens the hearer to a new vision and understanding. They help us relate to new ideas through the use of the commonplace. Jesus’ audience would have been used to parables, stories, as a familiar teaching method. However, Jesus’ parables, with their Zen-like twists, were something of a mystery, perhaps in his own time, most surely to the gospel writers, who contextualized them, asked Jesus outright what they meant and noted the obscurity of their meanings. Why would Jesus speak in parables that challenged the understanding of his hearers? Unless clarity of message was secondary to opening the mind. Unless opening the mind was the message. Opening the mind for what? For seeing the vision in the parables, the vision that Jesus presented to the world, and for re-structuring our lives according to that vision. The parables are not teachings in the sense that they tell us you must do this or that. No, in them Jesus engages our imagination, our inner eye, and asks us to envision a better world. In the parables Jesus asks “What if?”
What if what? What is the vision? It is a vision of human life that prizes above all total inclusion, restoration of the lost, mercy and forgiveness. It is a vision of how the world might be, in the here and now. Jesus’ parables talk about this world, not the next one. They teach about and proclaim the Kingdom of God as already here. Jesus invites his hearers to conceive the inconceivable and in doing so experience the Kingdom breaking in, turning things upside down, making all things new, here and now.
I will continue to use Jesus’ language – Kingdom of God – but have a need to unpack it. The phrase Kingdom of God feels strange in my mouth yet I do not want to throw out a vital vision because the words do not fit my theology. Therefore I translate it into something like “a better world.” A more just, more compassionate, more living the interconnections world. A wildly exciting, powerful, creative and loving world. A world many of us dream of. The parables told by Jesus present a set of themes and a pretty consistent vision. Today we can only look at two of them, but they are representative of many more in their vision of inclusion, restoration, mercy and forgiveness. Let’s see what they offer to our imaginations and then let’s engage it as relevant for our time. The first story is the Prodigal Son.
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me. And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants. And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to make merry. Now his elder son was in the fields; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound. But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him. But he answered his father, Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when that son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf! And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found. (Luke)
The key concepts in this parable: lost and found, restoration and rejoicing, while clear to us, would have challenged the hearers of Jesus’ time. Remember, these parables are like koans. First, Jewish law would have frowned upon a father distributing his inheritance, (the elder son receives 2/3 and the younger 1/3 of the estate), because it would have made the father dependent upon his sons. The younger son’s request for distribution would have been heard as asking his father to die. The father further loses face upon his response to the return of the younger son. His physical actions in welcoming him, falling on his neck with multiple kisses and running to greet him, are subservient and unseemly. Older men did not run and did not show their legs. Fathers did not fall upon the necks of their sons. Further, the younger son has made himself unclean by feeding swine. Jesus draws a picture of a family in which the traditional roles are out of order. Not only is the younger son disrespectful, so is the elder. He speaks rudely to his father, challenges his authority, and declines an invitation to join the party. Yet toward both sons the father only offers his love.
The story shows us the implications of radical inclusivity, namely the restoration of all who are lost. The father, who offers such extravagant restoration, appears as a fool, as would anyone who valued restoration above social propriety, social dignity and even property.
We tend to look at the parable as one of repentance and forgiveness. I can identify with both the prodigal, having messed up and longing to find acceptance again at home, and with the elder son, having not messed up and resenting being taken for granted. Or with the father. I too love my son and think I could forgive him anything.
What if, though, repentance and forgiveness are not the dominant themes? What if a vision of restoration is the primary message? The story ends before we know what happens with the elder son and before we get a sense of the future between the elder and younger son. The father offered restoration; will the sons accept it and offer it to each other? Does that have any bearing on the father’s choices? What motivates the father to trust his sons, who have shown themselves untrustworthy and full of greed, impulsiveness, jealousy and disrespect?
Maybe the outcome of the sons’ behavior matters less than the offer of restoration, than living with the implications of inclusivity, of breaking down barriers. Imagine such a life. Is the door of our hearts always open to those who have wounded us, to those close to us who behave more like enemies? Is restoration at the top of our list? Restoration, even if it flies in the face of what we might understand as justice?
The Vineyard Laborers (Matthew 20:1-15)
For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and to them he said, You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you. So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, Why do you stand here idle all day? They said to him, Because no one has hired us. He said to them, You go into the vineyard too. And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first. And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. But he replied to one of them, Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?
The laborers hired first begin to sound like the elder son in the Prodigal Son. Like the elder son, they have a point. The peasants of Jesus’ time certainly would have identified with the laborers who worked the longest. Our own sense of fairness tells us that those who worked more should receive more pay. The challenge in the parable is its suggestion that the implications of inclusivity: restoration and generosity, take precedence over what we might understand as fair, or even just. This is particularly hard for Unitarian Universalists and all people who hold justice as the highest, or one of the highest, of principles. Think about it. On the one hand, was it the fault of those laborers that they weren’t hired for the whole day? Should they have to bear the economic consequences? Some businesses profit more by hiring a lot of part-time employees and not paying benefits than they would if they had full-time workers. Should they? On the other hand, if you are a full-time worker, how would you feel if the part-time workers were paid the same as you? As the parable points out, life isn’t fair. We do not always get what we deserve, or think we deserve. We do, however, receive grace, in the form of restoration. Sometimes we don’t get what we deserve, and that’s a good thing. What about justice, in the sense of equity? If restoration of the lost, inclusivity, grace, is paramount, why lead a just life at all? Why lead a just life at all? Because our actions do have consequences and it does matter how we live. Cooperation, not competition must be the primary basis for human social structure. Finding and restoring the lost. When we mismanage the inheritance, when we hoard that which is given, or spend it all on ourselves, or even when we share our resources, if we behave strictly according to fairness, we do not behave in ways congruent with the vision of the parables and we experience the consequences, which are loss, scarcity, greed, jealousy, exclusivity, death. The better world is here, its invitation lost and waiting to be found, thrown away and waiting to be rediscovered. But finding it is not enough. We must go one step further and steward the invitation, steward the treasure with restoration for all in mind.
What is the Kingdom of God that Jesus talks about? A paradox. The parables describe it as potential even as Jesus says it is here now. It’s a vision of how things could be, a “what if?” And as any vision, it serves as the motivating dream, the raft that carries us across the water. We may never fully achieve it; we may only catch glimpses of it; yet if do not engage it we will never experience it. We will only stand on the shore wondering how to cross over. We are asked to risk a great deal for something we do not fully understand. Yet there’s something of vital importance among us in this world, which we are missing. The only way to see it is to let go of previous conceptions. How does one conceive of the inconceivable? Gandhi said, “Make this world the Kingdom of God and everything will be added unto you. I tell you that if you will understand, appreciate and act up to the spirit of this passage, you won’t even need to know what place Jesus . . . occupies in your heart.” (Barclay)
I once heard the Dalai Lama say, when asked about the future of Tibet, that within sixty years Tibet would be gone due to massive Chinese efforts to eradicate the culture, religion and society. Did he consider that a tragedy, an injustice? The Dalai Lama said that he didn’t know what good might come out of it. He didn’t know. This is the kind of openness required to engage the vision, the what if which Jesus presents. Does it mean we must live on shifting sands? Rootless? Our values and beliefs utterly relative? I don’t think so. It means we hold on to what we think is right, what we believe, ever open to the possibility that there is more than we think we know or believe. Being open to such possibility, we will probably encounter that which is more. Our task then is an ever-willingness to modify our beliefs, our ethics, our practices in the light of it.
What is Jesus’ vision in the parables and how does it relate to us? I think it is one in which the values and the practices of inclusion, restoration and mercy are paramount, even, at times, over justice and equity. The community, the family, the individual, each taking responsibility for themselves, must put these into play. Jesus lived in a fractured society, in which one class was pitted against another, peoples against peoples, in which economic injustice thrived, in which religious freedom was compromised, in which personal and political freedom was sharply curtailed. Allowing for the differences of history and culture, so do we. Jesus’ vision is a “glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.” (Seamus Heaney)
Jesus’ vision is against this world insofar as it excludes, oppresses, and destroys lives, and most especially those of the marginalized. How does such a vision gain traction? How does it begin to move into reality? It begins by engaging the imagination, as the parables do every time they tell a story that makes the listener stop and think. Seamus Heaney writes about the ability of poetry to do this. “. . . there is a tendency to place a counter-reality in the scales– a reality which may only be imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own and balance out against the historical situation. . . . And sometimes, of course, it happens that such a revelation, once enshrined . . . remains as a standard for the poet, so that he or she must then submit to the strain of bearing witness in his or her own life to the place of consciousness established. . . “ What is our role in the Kingdom, in this better world? To place that counter-reality of inclusion, restoration and mercy in the scales and to bear witness to it with our lives. Not as a standard of perfection, but as a glimpsed alternative. There are so many arenas for this: peace, the environment, health care, education, the family, poverty, living wages, AIDS, the list goes on. Pick one; pick two and start asking, like Jesus did, “What if . . . “ “ The kingdom of heaven is a condition of the heart. . . What is ‘the good news’ ? That true life, eternal life, has been found – it is not something promised, it is already here, it is within you: as life lived in love, in love without subtraction or exclusion, without distance.” (Nietzsche, as quoted in Barclay)
Are you committed to loving in your life without distance or exclusion? Are you committed to stop waiting for justice or even fairness in your family, in your world when you might be seeking restoration and mercy instead? Let the parables, paradoxical as they are, lead the way. The better world is, to paraphrase Vaclav Havel, “a state of mind, not a state of the world . . . and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation . . . it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” Let the hope and goodwill of this season manifest in our lives. Imagine . . . . . . . . . .
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