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Archive for the ‘parables’ Category

I was reflecting on the man who found a treasure and immediately bought the field where it lay.  His friends and neighbors probably warned him about all the disasters that could happen, about the risks he had foolishly taken—anything but simply celebrating with him and sharing his good fortune.  Or else they didn’t even notice.  He went to his neighbor and said, “I just bought a field . . .” and immediately his neighbor was droning on about all his problems with the crops and the insects and the family and the Romans.  Finding a friend later he says I’ve found an unbelievable treasure in my field.”  But instead of congratulating him, the friend says, “That’s nice but what if it belongs to someone else?  What if someone comes to claim it?  You better not let yourself enjoy it.  You better think about these questions.  I don’t want you to get hurt.”

And then there’s the man with his pearl.  He sells all he has and the pearl is his.  He gazes in sheer delight at its purity and lustrous beauty, its warmth and precious value.  He’s searched for this all his life.  He’s seen other people with fine pearls but one of his own had eluded him.  But now friends invite him over and they’re obsessed with string after string of gaudy fake pearls and he wonders if he’s overvalued his own?  And if not, could they ever comprehend anything so precious?  They seem content and yet he suspects they’re unhappy, insecure, defensive, immature.  He knows because he was like them once, weary of the search and settling for imitation.  What help is his pearl in a situation like this?  He finds himself withdrawing, staying away from them, unable to take part in their cheap entertainment, but not comfortable shutting himself away from others.  The treasure is not without its price!  He shows his family and they pretend to be interested, pleased, impressed, but all the time are they thinking, “Why couldn’t it be me?  I’d like a pearl like that too.”  It’s not that he doesn’t want to share, but a pearl can’t be split.

But perhaps one day a man is walking by the seashore, content with his life, secure in his treasure, and he meets another.  They talk of the beauty of the sea, the sunset, of evening star and velvet sky.  They talk of sadness and joy, of pain and of healing,  of anger and ecstasy.  One finally takes a deep breath and says, “I, uh, one day, I mean, I just sort of found this treasure . . .”  and the other says, “Then maybe you would know what it is to have a wondrous pearl.”  The first one breathes, “Yes!”  And a bond deeper than anything either of them has known is formed.  For the first time someone understands not only the treasure but the aloneness.  And in that understanding, there’s no more alone. And if they meet a woman with a dusty coin, a shepherd with a lost lamb, a farmer with a handful of mustard seeds, a farmer’s wife with a batch of bread raising, a woman with an alabaster jar of perfume, a young man weary of feeding pigs but confused by the lights and music of a dinner of fatted calf, a fisherman on the seashore with a catch of fish beyond imagining, they will join with all of them in celebrating the search, the discovery, the joy in the treasure.

The images in the scriptures are rich and multidimensional, because they tell the story of our relationship with a God who is always leading us in new directions and challenging us to grow. We need to cherish the gift of our faith and find like-minded souls who understand and can rejoice with us. This can sometimes be difficult. But the gifts we have are meant to be shared. Sometimes it means taking a chance, risking embarrassment, risking that someone won’t understand or will be offended. We need to be rooted first in our own appreciation of how much the gift means in our own lives. And we need to be sensitive to times when we really do need to protect the treasure we’ve discovered. Never let anyone devalue the gift in your own eyes. One of the blessings of the Internet is that we have a much wider pool in which to find people who share our our dreams, our vision, our faith. And we have new ways of sharing that faith and those dreams with others.

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Luke is very clear in the introduction to the parable of the tax collector and the pharisee that Jesus was speaking to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.” Many of the religious leaders of his day had fallen into the trap so familiar to the powerful of believing their own PR.

Sadly, we still see this tendency today in far too many religious gatherings. There’s a tendency to divide the world into “us” and “them” along any number of ideological fault lines. Convinced of the rightness of our position, we despise anyone who holds a different belief, even a different opinion, and insults fly in every direction. Basic human charity, to say nothing of Christian generosity, are forgotten in the name of some abstract principle.

Jesus was a master storyteller, and his parables often have small details on which the whole message hangs. In this case, if we’re overly impressed by the Pharisee’s carefully constructed rhetoric, we might miss that he “spoke this prayer to himself.”

Someone once said that God created man in his image and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since. A particularly pompous person might be referred to as “a self-made man who worships his creator.” And again, you may have heard the scathing remark, “She’s a legend in her own mind.” Our language is filled with aphorisms such as these because the tendency to exalt ourselves is part of the original sin that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden: “You will be like gods.”

The tax collector has no such illusions about himself. He knows that he’s a sinner, that he doesn’t truly belong in the great temple. And yet here he is, because he is drawn to the holiness of God’s presence. He’s not there to look around at who else is praying that day. He’s probably not even feeling resentful of the dirty looks he’s getting from the regular churchgoers. His prayer is focused entirely and exclusively on God’s mercy. And this is why, as Jesus tells us, that he goes home justified. He’s gotten outside of himself and his problems to a place where God can truly touch his heart and save his soul.

The Pharisee, on the other hand, never gets beyond the point of talking to himself, impressing himself with his own virtue, focused on his superior nature, his great talent for religious niceties, his particular spiritual giftedness. He knows how the prayers are to be said—but perhaps has forgotten why.

The poor, the sinners, the people who knew how much they needed salvation, responded quickly and profoundly to his message of the kingdom. It’s the professional religious types who decided that Jesus had nothing to say to them. Jesus’ parables throughout the Gospels seem to be designed to shake them out of their spiritual complacency.

Perhaps this is why these same Gospel stories still speak to us today. We need to be reminded again and again to be sure that we’re hearing the God of the prophets, the God of the Gospels, the God of mercy and peace and inclusion. If these stories shock us, then there’s a pretty good chance that when we thought we were praying, we were just speaking words to ourselves. Maybe it’s time to listen for a change.

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We all know what it’s like to be worn down by persistent pestering. Dogs and small children both learn from experience that sometimes it works to whine. And if it works at least once in a while, they know to try it again. And so it is with the parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel. The widow seeking justice finally wears down an admittedly hardened judge with her persistence. But we think of this as something we ought to outgrow. We’re a lot like the unjust judge, who gives in to the widow’s pleas, but doesn’t respect himself for it. Americans especially are raised with a sense that “God helps those who help themselves.” We don’t like to ask for help. And sometimes we don’t think that other people should ask for help either. We value independence, often at the expense of true hospitality.

Jesus seems to be reminding us that it’s okay to ask for what we need. Part of having faith means being willing to throw our cares and our needs and our desires on God simply because we believe that we deserve what it is that we seek, and that our gracious God wants to give it to us. Part of growing up means not that we no longer have needs but that we recognize which of our needs are truly worthy of being met.

In the reading from Exodus that’s paired with today’s Gospel, we see Moses praying for the victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites. The writer tells us that as long as Moses had his hands raised in prayer, even that meant someone else was holding his arms up, the battle went in favor of the Israelites. This seems to be an interpretation by the early Scripture writers of the way God’s presence in their midst furthered the fortunes of the Chosen People.

But we know that prayers and other religious rituals are not magic. Persistence and perseverance are strong virtues. The widow in today’s Gospel is seeking justice. This isn’t a whim or a selfish desire on her part that keeps her knocking at the judge’s door. She believes in the rightness of her cause. And she’s not going to be dissuaded if her first attempt doesn’t get a response. Part of Jesus’ message in telling this story is that we give up too quickly. The introduction to the parable talks about “the necessity for the disciples to pray always without becoming weary.” And Jesus closes his story with the rather enigmatic comment: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Faith is ultimately trusting that God wants what’s best for us. That trust will keep us asking for what we need. It will give us the strength to persist in our belief even when we’re tired, even when we doubt, even when we wonder whether our cause is worthwhile. And, like the people who held Moses’ arms and found him a rock to sit on, other people will join with us in our quest for justice, for peace, for God’s gracious answer to our prayers. Magic? No. This is the power of love, the power of prayer, the power of true faith.

Persistent prayer of petition reminds us that we need to be focused, we need one another, and we need God. When our need is great, when our cause is just, our faith tells us that we can depend on God to come through for us, even if it takes all night, even if it takes a lifetime.

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Sometimes the stories from the Gospels have become such a part of our cultural heritage that we don’t really hear them. Sunday’s parable of the Rich Man (sometimes called Dives) and Lazarus is one of those stories. The rich man neglects the poor beggar at his door, they both die, one goes to heaven, the other goes to hell and their roles are reversed. The rich man is now the beggar, pleading for just a drop of water to quench his thirst.

This is the stuff of all the classic stories, fairy tales, mythology. Even jokes rely on this notion of status shifts and role reversals. And we respond with a deep-seated recognition of both the oppression inherent in the situation and our desire to see bad people punished and good people rewarded, even if it only happens in the afterlife.

We know that we’re often indifferent to people who are suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. It might not be as close as a beggar at our front door that we literally step over to go to work. Or it might be. But we’ve become almost numb to the stories on the nightly news of the ongoing suffering in Darfur and other places in the developing where starvation is an ever-present reality, in Iraq and other war-torn regions, in the thousands who are still unable to return to their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

The best among us take an active role in helping these people. Most of the rest of us donate time, money and a collective voice lobbying in the halls of power when we can tear our attention away from the many distractions of our lives. At the least we occasionally feel guilty that we have so much when others have barely enough to survive.

The words of the prophet Amos remind us that this has long been a problem in human society. Words of contemporary prophets remind us that the problem continues unabated. An unlikely prophet, the Irish-born rock star Bono of U2, long active in campaigns to end AIDS in Africa and bring about debt relief and an end to global poverty, gave a rousing speech to the NAACP. Like a tent revival preacher, he closed with these words: “The poor are where God lives. God is in the slums in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is where the opportunity is lost and lives are shattered. God is with the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will take both their lives. God is under the rubble in the cries we hear during wartime. God, my friends is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. The least we can do is to stay aware of it, even when we’d rather not. The greatest hope for us lies in the heavily ironic words at the end of Jesus’ parable. The rich man has asked that Lazarus be sent to his five brothers to warn them to change their lives and avoid his fate. Abraham tells him: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

We have heard the words of the Risen One. Are we persuaded? And if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s a great advantage blogging has over publishing on dead trees. I found this student video on You Tube when I was looking for U2’s song “Crumbs from Your Table” from 2004’s How To Dismantle the Atomic Bomb.

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I hate losing things. Not big things.  Little, insignificant things: a favorite pen, a coupon I know I cut out of the Sunday paper, a receipt for a rebate, a book that I read long ago and suddenly thought of again, a particular item of clothing that I may or may not have given to Goodwill. I will tear the house apart looking for the lost item. I will obsess about it until I find it. More often than not I’ll find it after I stop looking. And in many cases I finally have to concede defeat and get on with life. Occasionally I’ll rely on that old prayer to St. Anthony: “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that must be found.” But because deep down I don’t believe in that sort of almost-magic, it usually doesn’t work.

The interesting thing about this quirk of mine is that I can see a bit of it in the parables in today’s Gospel. The woman sweeping her house and going over every inch of it with a lamp for a small, insignificant coin probably wasted far more oil for her lamp than the coin was worth. Certainly what she spent on the party far outweighed the discovery.

Commentators often point out the absurdity of the shepherd exposing an entire flock of sheep to the dangers of the wilderness in order to search for one lost lamb that may already have become a meal for a wolf. The wastrel younger son in the longer story certainly seems like no real loss to a responsible and upstanding family.

The very insignificance of these lost things is what Jesus wants to emphasize. The Pharisees and scribes have criticized him for associating with sinners. For them, these people aren’t worth a second glance, let alone the time and attention Jesus gives them. They only have time for “important things.” We might say that they have their priorities straight. But we would be wrong, at least in God’s eyes. What Jesus seems to be telling us is that these people are important because of their relationship to God. And in fact this is usually what happens when I’m obsessing about something that I’ve lost. It’s something attached to a memory, to a friend, to something that matters to me but is only incidentally attached to a particular object.

This becomes even more clear if we look at the other readings that accompany the Gospel. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he reminds us that that he was the worst of sinners, but that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And even more than that, he says that the Lord “considered [him] trustworthy in appointing [him] to the ministry.” And in the reading from Exodus, the aftermath of the infamous golden calf episode, Moses reminds the Lord that these people who have strayed are nevertheless the heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham and renewed with Moses and the people at Sinai. Their value is not in their virtue, good behavior or status. It’s in the inherent worth they have as people created and redeemed by a loving and merciful God.

In the end, then, our lives are about our relationship with God and with one another. This is why when we’re lost, our God seeks us out. We are one and that unity is broken if any part is missing.

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