Posts Tagged ‘unconditional love’

September 10, 2016

Pentecost 17 – 2016

Luke 15:1-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose love and mercy confounds and astounds us all. Amen.

It all comes down to this – what sort of God you believe in. How do you envisage the nature of God? Do you believe in a fire-breathing, hell damning, judgemental, unforgiving God or is your image of God one of boundless, unconditional, all-encompassing, all forgiving love? The answer is important, because I believe that the answer lies at the heart of understanding the radical, shocking nature of the God depicted in today’s gospel.

Those who believe in an exacting, demanding rule-focussed God tend to have a view of the faith community as exclusive and limited, restricted to those who are willing and able to adhere to a set of stringent guidelines. They will be quite certain as to what behaviours determine who is in and who is out of the group and therefore who is in and out of God’s favour. A clear set of standards will enable them to measure their own goodness against that of others and at the same time will inform them of their (and others) status before God.

Those who believe in a compassionate, welcoming God will have a completely different view. They will understand that the community of believers is not exclusive or perfect but is made up of people who try but fail to achieve the godliness for which they aspire. As a consequence the boundaries of their community will be porous and ill-defined. They will welcome into their community the frail, the damaged and the imperfect. This community will also hold a clear set of standards, but they will accept that few, if any, will reach that ideal. Knowing their own imperfections and failures, they will think very carefully before measuring themselves against others and before standing in God’s place to judge.

Of course, these are broad-brush strokes and blatant stereotypes. Most Christian communities fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two extremes. Some will believe that God sets very high standards and, while imposing those standards on themselves will be open and compassionate towards those whom they consider to be “sinners”. Other communities that appear on the surface to be loving and compassionate may carry a weight of guilt at their failure to be more than they are.

I have described these two extremes to try to demonstrate just how shocking the parables of the lost would be to those who think of God as the arbiter of strict behaviours and who withhold love and approval from those who fail to live up to certain pre-defined standards. In fact as the opening verse reminds us, Jesus tells the parables in response to the accusation by the Pharisees and scribes that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is answering the unspoken question: – who is worthy of God’s love – those who do what God requires or all God’s creatures, those who come up to standard or all people regardless of their failures?

Of the two parables, that of the lost sheep is the most shocking. Most of us find comfort in this parable. We see ourselves as those who were lost but are now found. It is interpreted as a parable that reminds us how much God loves us – that when we are lost God seeks us out and brings us home. That is certainly true – we can identify with the lost. However, what does the parable look like if we understand ourselves to be among the ninety-nine? Ninety-nine of the sheep are doing the right thing. Not one of them has wandered off. Not one has been absent-minded enough to lose track of the shepherd. Not one has been tempted to seek out better pastures. Not one thought that they knew better than the shepherd what was best for them.

No, only one sheep has been foolish enough or disobedient enough to wander from the safety of the group. Only one sheep has placed itself at risk by taking itself beyond the reach of the shepherd. Only one sheep has thought that it knew better than the shepherd. Yet – and here is the shock at the heart of the parable – despite the fact that one sheep hasn’t lived up to expectations, the shepherd abandons the ninety-nine compliant, obedient sheep and goes off in search of the one who did not conform. Instead of favouring those who behave according to expectation, the shepherd is making a big deal of the one that has gone its own way! The good sheep, those who are doing the right thing get no special treatment, no reward for their conformity – they might just as well not exist so concerned is the shepherd for the one that is lost.

If they could think like humans, the ninety-nine sheep would have every right to be indignant. What is the point, they might think, of doing the right thing, when the one who does the wrong thing receives special treatment. Why bother to behave in the right way when it is the one who behaves badly and creates so much trouble causes such joy to the shepherd when it is found? How can we feel smug about our own goodness when the shepherd (God) is obviously vitally concerned about those who are lost? If sheep could think I imagine that their reaction to the shepherd’s reckless behaviour would be much the same as the elder son’s response to the father’s extravagant welcome of the prodigal son.

In word and action, Jesus is revealing how much God loves ALL of God’s children. It is impossible for anyone to be beyond the reach of God’s love no matter what they do or how far they stray. When someone wanders from the fold, God is heartbroken and cannot rest until they are brought back in. God seeks the sheep that has drifted from the path, searches for the coin that has gone missing, and watches and waits for the prodigal to return.

Jesus’ parable is encouraging those who have responded to God’s love, who have remained within the fold, stayed with the other coins or remained at home with the Father to understand what a privilege it is to be so loved and to have the grace and generosity to allow – to desire even – that love to be shared with everybody – the good and the bad, the willing and the less willing, the conventional and the unconventional. .

In Jesus, God’s love for all people is made palpably visible. Do we, (like the scribes and Pharisees), resent the way that Jesus extends God’s love to those who do not deserve it? Are we (like the scribes and the Pharisees) so insecure of our place in God’s heart that we constantly compare ourselves with others to assure ourselves of our own worth? Or – are we so overwhelmed by God’s abundant, unconditional love and so confident that that love will never be withdrawn that we can join the rejoicing when the lost are found and God’s children come home?

To know God’s love and to begrudge that love to others demonstrates a meanness of spirit and a smallness of heart that makes us unworthy of the love that we have so freely received. God can love whomever God will. The wonder is that God has chosen to love us.

 

 

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Not one but two sons

March 5, 2016

Lent 4 – 2016

Luke 15:11-32

Marian Free

In the name of God who longs for us to lower our guard, let go of our pride and allow ourselves to be completely and unconditionally love. Amen.

When many of us were growing up, we knew today’s parable as “The Prodigal Son” – the story of the wastrel who took his share of his inheritance before his father had even died, spent it all, and yet was welcomed home in a show of extravagant love. Over the past few years I have become used to calling the parable “The Forgiving Father” because it has been argued that the point being made was more about the reaction of the father than it was about the action of the returning son. My reading this time around has opened my eyes to another, and to my mind, more applicable title – “The parable of two sons”.

This much loved parable is so popular that the story has passed into popular culture and the expression, “prodigal son” is almost as well known as a “Good Samaritan”. Popular usage and interpretation often makes us blind to the role of the older son, who gets mentioned as an example of poor sportsmanship or else is ignored altogether. A close examination, or even a re-reading of the parable without the blinkers of past experience and pre-conceptions makes it very clear that this is the “parable of two sons”. The clue, as we might expect is the first sentence: “There was a man who had two sons.” There is no need for Jesus to mention the older brother unless he is essential to the story. As we will discover, the older brother is not simply an addition at the end to be taken or left, he is an integral part of the point that Jesus is making.

A fundamental aspect of first century culture is that of honour and shame. A person’s (read man’s) position in society was entirely dependent on what others thought of him and there was a strict code that governed the interaction of equals and that between those who were not of equal status. Honour was ascribed (a matter of birth) or acquired (bestowed by virtue of some act such as service to the Emperor that a person performed.) Whether ascribed or acquired, honour had to be carefully guarded if a person was to maintain their position in the court of public opinion.

The beheading of John the Baptist fits into this picture of honour and shame. Having made a promise in front of his guests, Herod would have been publically shamed if he hadn’t given his stepdaughter what she requested. Being deposed from the best place at a dinner party (Luke 14:7) would be equally embarrassing for a person who had taken the higher place. When Jesus argued with and confronted the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was in effect, challenging their honour. When he bested them in debate they were publically humiliated – unable to maintain their position of authority in the eyes of the crowds. In order to restore their honour, they had to find ways to expose and humiliate Jesus.

Associated with the culture of honour and shame is that of the collective personality. In our individualistic world, it is difficult for us to understand that a person in the first century did not see themselves apart from their family and the community in which they lived. The action of one member of the family impacted positively or negatively on the family as a whole, which was why it was so important for the head of a household to have firm control over his family and their public and private behaviour[1].

All of which brings us back to the two sons. By asking for his inheritance, the younger son brings the family into disrepute by, in effect, wishing that his father were dead. Then, having taken his share of the inheritance, he brings further shame on the family by squandering the money, and by working not only for a Gentile, but as a swineherd. Despite all this and against all cultural norms and expectations, the father longs for his son’s return, watching and waiting for him to come home. When he sees the son, he casts all dignity to the wind as he does the unthinkable and runs to embrace him. Jesus’ listeners would have been astounded, that the father could endure so much shame and then further humiliate himself by doing the unimaginable – running down the road in full view of everyone.

During the absence of the younger son, the respectable, rule-abiding son has remained at home, doing what was expected and creating no waves. It seems however that his motivation has been, to some extent, self-seeking. He is not doing the right thing out of love and respect for his father, but because he expects to be noticed and to have his efforts rewarded. He has failed to see and understand that he already has his father’s love and attention. Instead he has got it into his head that he has to work for it. As long as our focus is on the younger son, we fail to see that the older son dishonours his father as much as his brother has. We fail to see that the father endures a similar amount of public shame in his attempt to convince the elder son of his love. The older son’s refusal to go into the house and join the party shows a lack of respect for his father and exposes the father to disgrace in front of the servants and neighbours.

We are not told whether the older son, like the younger comes to his senses. The story is left up in the air for the listener to answer. To understand this we have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and the statement that introduces Jesus’ three parables of the lost – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons. Luke tells us that: the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The parable is left up in the air to allow Jesus’ listeners to form their own opinion, to allow them to consider whether or not, they will allow themselves to be gathered into God’s love alongside the tax collectors and sinners.

The gospels demonstrate what to many is an unpalatable truth – that God loves everyone unconditionally and that salvation is dependent more on what God does for us than on what we do for God. The failure of the older son, is that he is unable to accept and to value the love that his father offers. As a consequence locks himself out of the benefits that are his for the asking. He cannot rejoice in his brother’s return, because he has not allowed himself to be loved.

God loves us. It remains for us to accept that we are loved. When we know that we are loved, we cannot help but allow others to share in that love.

(See last weeks sermon to see how much God agonises over our refusal to be loved.)

[1] We see a form of this in the honour killings that so horrify us in the Western world. A father or brother feels that the only way to restore the family honour is to kill the daughter who by falling in love with the wrong person has brought shame on the family as a whole.

You better watch out

November 28, 2015

Advent 1 – 2015

Jeremiah 33.14-16, Ps 25.1-10,  1 Thessalonians 3.9-13,  Luke 21.25-38

Marian Free

 

May we who live between Jesus’ coming and Jesus’ coming again, live with expectation and hope, joy and anticipation, trusting in God’s promises to us. Amen.

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

He’s making a list,

and checking it twice;

gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

 

He sees when you are sleeping,

he knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been good or bad –

so be good for goodness sake.

 

You better watch out,

you better not cry,

better not pout –

I’m telling you why

Santa Clause is coming to town.

 

On reflection it seems to me that this popular ditty completely misrepresents not only Santa, but the spirit of the Christmas season. When and how did a figure that symbolizes promise become symbolic of threat? The sentiment expressed is reminiscent of that of a stern, judgmental God who is constantly toting up a balance sheet in order to measure how we are performing against some standard that we can never reach. It brings to mind a story of a boy of six who, in January, was moving in the home of a foster family. The family were shocked and dismayed to learn that this child had never received a visit from Santa had – he had never been deemed good enough[1]. Santa had been used as a big stick not to bring joy to the child, but as a means of punishing him for real or imagined sins.  His mother’s love (represented by Santa) had to be earned.

The balance between responsibility and gift, gift and responsibility is not always an easy one to manage. Unconditional love does not mean that bad or irresponsible behaviour is overlooked but discipline does involve constantly finding fault. Parents and others have to find ways to deal with the tension – allowing the other to make mistakes, but sometimes calling them to account, ensuring that the other knows that although love will never be withdrawn there will sometimes be consequences for behaving in ways that are hurtful, dangerous or thoughtless.

Many of us are not good at living with the tension. We prefer clear guidelines that tell us that if we do action ‘a’ consequence ‘b’ will result.  That way we can measure our behaviour and that of others and we can inflict punishment on those who do not comply and be filled with self loathing when we don’t come up to a supposed standard.  Even people of faith are not good at living with the tension of a God who loves, but who also hopes that we will respond to that love.  When some people read the scriptures, they see only a harsh, judgement God and as a consequence live in a state of almost constant anxiety.

It is reasonably easy to understand how this comes about. The books of the prophets are filled with colourful descriptions of what God might do to an unfaithful Israel and today’s gospel provides a terrifying description of what we might expect to happen when the Son of Man returns. All this builds a convincing picture of a God who might be making a list and checking it twice.

The problem with this interpretation is that it fails to recognise, as today’s readings illustrate, that our scriptures are filled with tensions, contradictions and paradox. Promise and threat are recurring themes – God’s promise to be faithful, and the threat that things will go badly when we ourselves are not faithful. Our task is to hold the two in a healthy tension – to constantly allow the promise to soften and even override the threat.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to a people in exile who may well feel that God has abandoned them as a result of their rebelliousness. Jeremiah urges the people not to despair and to trust not only that God is still with them, but that God will restore them. Today’s reading speaks to God’s promise to David – that there will always be someone to sit on the throne. God will raise up a righteous branch for them. Psalm 25 gently holds threat and promise together. It expresses a belief that if we throw our lot in with God, instead of standing on our own, our lives will be much richer and we will be more content. There is a hint of threat – this is how we must behave or else. Yet the overall tone is positive: “Be mindful of your steadfast love O Lord”. The Psalmist believes that if someone’s heart is in the right place then God will overlook transgressions.

A similar delicate balance is found in the passage from 1 Thessalonians. Paul’s joy that the community have remained faithful despite persecution, is balance by a perceived need to be blameless. Then there is Luke’s version of Mark’s “little apocalypse” – the description of the end. “People will faint from fear and foreboding.” “Be alert so that you may have strength to escape these things.” Yet, even here, though heaven and earth is shaken to its core, the readers of the gospel are urged: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke is writing to a community that is more settled than that of Mark, more resigned to Jesus’ coming being relegated to a distant future. Luke is anxious to combat backsliding, complacency or a relaxed attitude that would make the community unprepared for the coming of the Son of Man.

What can be the purpose of this apparently mixed message of both promise and threat? Are our texts just messing with us? Is God the sort of masochist who enjoys keeping us in a constant state of uncertainty as to God’s relationship with us? Neither is true[2]. I believe that the tensions and contradictions play a very important role in our faith journey, that we both need to hold God in awe and to believe in God’s unconditional love for us.

Without a certain fear of God, we might well become complacent, believing that our relationship with God requires no effort on our part. Without a certain fear we might act in ways that damage and destroy our relationship with God and discover that not only are our lives impoverished as a result, but that our behaviour causes harm to ourselves and to others. At the same time, if we allow that fear to overwhelm us, if our lives are determined by terror and a belief that God is trying to catch us out in some misdemeanour, we will forget how to truly live and will be guilty of failing to accept God’s gift of unceasing love.

Promise and threat – two great themes that run through the Advent season – the promise of Jesus’ coming again, the threat of consequences if we are not ready.

The themes of Advent inform the way we live out our faith – with absolute confidence in God’s love for us and a determination to live in such a way to deserve that love.

[1] I’m pleased to report that the foster family were so distressed by the situation that they organized with their local Rotary Club for “Santa” to make a special trip to their home just for that boy.
[2] At this point we could have a long academic discussion about the writers of the texts, the difference between the priestly writer and the scribal writer of the OT and so on, but there are times when we should look at the text simply as we have inherited and see what it says to us when it stands alone.

 


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