Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Kingdom and the Cross

Easter Sermon year C 

Title slide
Why…when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection
on this glorious day…why…do we still have to look
upon a cross…why can’t we turn our eyes away
isn’t that behind us now…done and dusted…
hasn’t God shown us his love and sovereignty
in the resurrection…isn’t that the ultimate sign of God’s kingdom…

Well no… we can’t turn away from the cross…
because it is precisely there that God reveals
God’s ultimate sovereignty… it is precisely there that
God’s will is done on earth…precisely there…
where evil is defeated by love...absorbed into love...made impotent by love.
Any attempt to speak of the salvation of the world…must involve both cross and kingdom.

You see my friends…the cross is central
to the earthly reign of God ushered in by Jesus …and God’s kingdom can’t be understood apart from Jesus’ suffering on that cross.
We might wish to separate the two…but it can’t be done.

All four Gospels… are written to explain the irony
of the cross and the kingdom…

It’s so obvious looking back…why didn’t we see it!
As the tense trial scene reaches its conclusion…
we hear the Jewish leaders call for Jesus’ execution… because he’s ‘made himself the son of God.’

They are tempting Pontius Pilate aren’t they…
because Caesar’s has declared himself to be the son of God.
 And then we hear the irony… in Jesus’ gentle words to Pilate

Slide words You would have no power over me… were it not given you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.

Blank slide
And oh my friends…did you hear what then what chief priests of the Temple shout next in unison…
we have no other king but Caesar’?

Gradually…page by Gospel page…in a story heavy with irony…we discover God’s purpose for the cross.
And as we should have realized all along

the ‘lifting up’ of Jesus on the cross…
is his exaltation as the kingdom-bringing ‘king of the Jews’... Messiah…and as he’s lifted up… right there and then
God’s kingdom on earth comes into being in the flesh…
In the victory of God’s love…kingdom and cross are fully joined.

But are we to sigh with relief at this point in the story?
and think ‘oh now I understand …God’s kingdom is simply the sum total of all those who respond in faith… to God’s love. Or do we think it isn't a real kingdom in time and space…it's  a spiritual reality ‘not of this world’!

I don’t think so... as my favourite biblical scholar Tom Wright points out…our gospel storytellers…refuse to collude with us in this misunderstanding
in fact none of the Gospels allows us to make such an
other worldly conclusion.[i]  

But still we argue… what about earlier passages…
about the ruler of this world being cast out
condemned and overthrown. Isn’t Jesus speaking…
of a dark and evil being…that stands behind earthly rulers …and incarnates itself in them.

No the gospel’s insist… Jesus God’s Word made flesh
isn’t just talking about a spiritual victory
which leaves… human rulers unaffected. This is indeed an earthly thing.

The resurrections scenes in John’s gospel
aren't describing some heavenly creature…detached from this world…But in the risen Christ…they show precisely the first fruits of God’s new creation … arrived at last…on earth.

On the Cross Jesus inaugurates a new creation
a new Genesis….and John wants us to hear this loud and clear…when Jesus cries out…

slide words
it is finished…
John uses the same root word as in  Genesis 2 …
God finished the work he had done…

On the sixth day God finishes the work…
and rests on the seventh.

And John underlines for us… the resurrection happens on the first day of the week. It is finished God has rested…a new creation is begun. Mary is sent to tell the others that Jesus will be enthroned beside the Father…and Peter is sent…to feed and tend the flock.

Jesus has been glorified on the Crosscompleted the work of rescuing his people…and now the Spirit can be given…
and Jesus followers can begin their own work.

That’s how the kingdom… which is from above
has come into this world…This is how God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven…and the Cross of Christ serves the goal of this kingdom…

Though scandal to the Greeks and a stumbling block for the Jews…all four Christian Gospels…Matthew, Mark, Luke and John …bring the kingdom and the cross into the closest possible relationship.

In Matthew the sermon on the mount points ahead to the cross…Jesus’ himself… loves his enemies…goes where the Roman soldiers force him to go…and turns the other cheek
before being set like a city on a hill
like a lamp on its stand…like a light to the world…

And again and again Luke insists on the Cross… as the fulfillment of scripture…
the launch of God’s jubilee. And it always came with danger. We see that when he first preaches at Nazareth …Jesus very opening statement of what God was now doing
might have led to his death…there and then.

Can’t you see it people…our gospel writers plead

to announce and inaugurate the kingdom of God..
is to go to the cross…in fact the shadow of the cross
falls on the message of the kingdom… page after page…

Luke reminds us in Jesus own words
Slide words
This is what is written The Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and in his name repentance for the forgiveness of sins must be announced to all the nations beginning from Jerusalem.
You are witnesses for all this.

Blank slide
And should we ever imagine the forgiveness of sins
is purely an individualistic thing. Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto makes it crystal clear…the forgiveness of sins… extends right into jubilee for the world…release from all debt, and a cosmic sigh of relief at God’s new exodus achievement …as people are rescued from all forms of slavery and oppression.

And at Pentecost…Jesus followers are commissioned and empowered by the Holy Spirit to announce to the world that in Jesus… a different way to be human is revealed. Through his suffering…and his words of forgiveness
for his enemies… Jesus brings about his messianic kingdom

And by the suffering of his followers…
God’s kingdom will continue to be born.

When Jesus says… I’m telling you the truth
some people standing here won’t experience death
before they see the kingdom of God come in power
he’s not predicting the second coming or the end of the world… or a great political revolution which would happen in their generation

he’s pointing to the cross and to the resurrection
for they will constitute him…as the one given all authority
in heaven and on earth.

And I agree with Tom Wright... it’s the church’s widespread and long-lasting failure…not to realise what the gospel evangelists mean.. In the death and resurrection of Jesus…the kingdom of God has already come to pass. Lifted high on the cross…
Jesus is enthroned… [pause]

But the gospel writers were as aware as we are
how paradoxical this appears… to those who don’t get it.
Then as now…the claim God’s kingdom is already present
 would be met with... ‘yeah right…
God’s kingdom is here…just watch the news'

And this public relations problem was far more acute for the early church facing hostility and often persecution and trying to assert God’s reign in the face of Caesar.

But the gospel writers want us to understand
the legitimacy of God’s kingdom… was never susceptible
to doubt… on the grounds of continuing evil, corruption, violence and death!

On the contrary the kingdom was never expected to be whole and complete all at once. Remember Jesus’ parables that the kingdom is coming like a seed growing slowly and secretly …a kingdom that would face strange setbacks
and unexpected turns. 

Like we've heard again and again… the kingdom wasn't going to arrive as people expected. In fact it’s the central contention of the gospels that the reign of God…
is coming in a dramatic new way through the work…
the teaching…the death …and the resurrection of Jesus...and those who take up his yoke.

Jesus warns his followers to put aside their dreams of utopia and get ready to drink the cup… he is to drink. To take up their own cross. [pause]

For the earliest Christians …and for you and I…
the kingdom and the cross… can… not… be separated.
And what’s more…in the kingdom... the cross reverses all familiar modes of power.

And that’s exactly how we stay faithful and hopeful… in the face of the powers and principalities of our world today …because we know from Jesus...
there’s no easier softer way.

Yes we might have to suffer in the face of our enemies
but nowhere is it written in the gospels
that God’s kingdom can be achieved without suffering.

Yes we might have to be unpopular…
and face persecution from religious and political authorities
when we demand an end to poverty and oppression
and exploitation and violence…

But we don't lose hope because of our suffering
nor seeing evil's continuing pathetic attempt to stop the progress of God’s kingdom…
for we have seen in the resurrection that God’s purposes can not be thwarted. And God's love is stronger than the worst humankind or any other kind can dish out.

May we love the world even as Christ has loved us…
even to the Cross. Let us pray…

[i] How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Politics of Palms

Lent 6 year C Palm Sunday 2013  The Rt Rev Ray Coster at the rededication of our church following major extensions and refurbishing.

Lying right at the centre of this building project is Jesus.  This building is all about Jesus.  No more no less.  It’s built for him and dedicated to him.  All that takes place in this building in the years to come will have his touch upon it, his grace over it and his love flowing through it.  Jesus loves Wanaka and its environs and this building stands here to declare even as a silent witness – and hopefully a noisy one at times – that Jesus cares about the people of this district.

In my time as moderator I have one main goal and that is to uplift the name of Jesus and declare him to this nation of Aotearoa New Zealand.  Wherever I can I will talk about him. 

Remember church, he is the one who said, ‘without me you can do nothing.’  "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5  And as Paul was later to declare, with him we can do all things.  “I can do everything through him [Jesus] who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13

As you step out into a new day as a church and community in Wanaka can I encourage you with this simple truth – keep your eye on the ball – his name is Jesus.  It’s so easy as a church to drop the ball and focus on so many other things that demand attention.  Keep your eye on Jesus in all that you.

Reading and Prayer 

Someone once said that leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.  Jesus was the master at this throughout his life, but in the last week of his life he exceeded the disappointment rate and was killed.  I am learning in my first few months as moderator that it is very easy to disappoint people, but so far I have not had any stones or tomatoes thrown at me, and certainly not a cross on a hill!

People often think of Palm Sunday as an innocent children’s parade.  A donkey, Palm Branches, celebration, happy laughter – something like the Santa Christmas parade down Queen Street in Auckland.  The first one that we read about today was most certainly not.

About 100 years before Jesus birth, Israel’s great temple had been desecrated by foreign powers.  Under the Maccabees – a Jewish rebel army, Israel won a measure of freedom, which included control of the Temple.  Once they had this control they cleansed the temple, restored its worship and then rededicated the Temple to God and their restored nation.  Palm branches were used for its rededication.

I am not sure if you intentionally chose Palm Sunday to dedicate these renovations and additions or not, but in doing so you are in many ways repeating an ancient tradition of the Jewish people.  Palm Branches are a symbol of the restoration of a Holy Place.  A symbol that the place of meeting, the place of encounter with God in a town has been restored to its rightful place.  But that depends on your perspective.  To the Jewish people the Palms were a symbol of restoration, but not to the foreign powers that lorded it over the nation.

In Israel by the time of Jesus, Palm branches became a symbol of Jewish nationalism.  During two major wars against Rome, Israelite rebels illegally minted coins and put palms on them.  A sign of opposition – a refusal to use Roman currency.  To wave a palm branch in front of Rome was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  It was a declaration of war.

What we Christians call the triumphal entry was for the crowds a military statement.

John indicates this in his gospel when he says the people quoted Psalm 118 ‘Hosanna (Lord save us) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’  The next line in Psalm 118 is ‘From the house of the Lord we bless you.’  But that is not what the crowds say.  What they say is ‘Blessed is the King of Israel!’   In other words, blessed is the one who is going to overthrow Pilate, Herod and Caesar. They are fighting words.  The crowds wanted a fight.

But Jesus would not fight.  He got into trouble with the Palm Sunday crowds.  The hosanna’s stopped abruptly.  He disappointed them at a rate they could not stand.  Within a week they were asking for him to be killed.  “Fraud, imposter – you betrayed us, we will betray you!”  To the cross.  They wanted a new kingdom and a new king and thought Jesus was their man.  He was, but not in the way they thought.

When some of us Christians talk about the Kingdom of God we have an image of a place that human beings go to when they die.  The Kingdom is also now.  ‘Your kingdom come your will be done on earth.’  For the people of Jerusalem the Kingdom of God was a day when God would crush Rome, and give them a King.  There were many views how God would do this that we can learn from today as we dedicate this new church. 

The Zealots believed the Kingdom of God would come through revolt.  Challenge the political system.  They were an extreme terrorist group who would use violence.  There are some Christians while not declaring a physical war still think that the Kingdom of God is advanced through civil disobedience, whether it is through shooting people at an abortion clinic or protesting on city streets, or destroying communication dishes, or …

The Essenes decided to withdraw.  They were the people who lived in caves in the desert believing the world was so corrupt that the only response was to withdraw completely and devote themselves to a life of purity.  The Kingdom of God will come when the majority of people stop sinning and lead holy and righteous lives.  Today in the Christian world we still have what we might call the holiness movement – people who basically withdraw from society into a life of piety.

The Sadducees decided to assimilate.  They were pragmatists.  They were only interested in the here and now and thought if you can’t beat the opposition, then join them.  Some parts of the Christian church may also be like this today – it is hard to tell the difference between the church and the world.  The values of the world become the values of the church.  Serving the community, being community focus does not mean assimilating with the community so far as values, beliefs, attitudes are concerned.  As christains we are to be in the world – but we should also be different.  Palm 118: 8 verse 8.  Middle verse of bible, hinge around which it all swings.  It is better to trust in God than to trust in humanity.

Revolt, withdraw, assimilate.  Three possible responses of God followers to the world around them.  I trust that none of these is the attitude you want to embrace in this new church.  And neither did Jesus.  Jesus got into trouble with every one of these groups.  His method of relating to the world around him and bringing God to them was not by violence, or withdrawing into a religious sub-culture, or by assimilating with the community around him.

Jesus would not worship Caesar, but he also would not hate him or slander him or even ignore him.  And so with Pilate, Herod, the Pharisees or anyone else.  Jesus did not come just to bless Israel but Rome, Greece, Egypt, Babylon, Asia, and so on to the ends of the earth.  Anger and violence are not the way; withdrawal is not the way; assimilation is not the way.  There is another way.  The way of Jesus is to connect people whom politics and society separates.

Jesus strategy was simple – but different.  To his disciples he basically said, ‘we have no money, no clout, no status, no buildings, no soldiers – great!  Things are going exactly to plan.  We will tell them their way is wrong – Roman money and power, the revolutionaries, the withdrawers, the collaborators.  When they hate us – as many of them will – when they call us names and throw us in prison, even kill some of us, we won’t fight back, we won’t run away, we won’t give in.  we’ll just keep loving them.  We will just keep inviting them to join us.  We will love them so much.

Our God is a God for all nations.  Our God is a God for all peoples. 

Many people are concerned what they can get out of a nation or a community.  I have no doubt that many people come to Wanaka and Central Otago to take – to take photos, sample the wine, tramp the hills, take fish out of the lake, ski the slopes and many other things I don’t know about.  As I climbed Mount Iron yesterday morning I was thinking it’s a pity someone didn’t come and take a few hundred rabbits.  A hundred or so years ago people came to this region to take out gold.  How many have come to put gold back in?  The gold I am thinking of is not just the metal nuggets – the money that tourists bring, but the gold that is the symbol of heaven.  Who is coming to put gold into the soul, into the heart of Wanaka?  People come to Central Otago to get rich, to get a tan, to get pleasure.  But who comes to give.  Jesus does and so do his followers.  Martin Setchel did.

Jesus calls his people, his followers to love Wanaka and to engage in this region in enterprise and education, in the arts and local government, in their neighbourhoods and communities to add to the well-being of this place.  He calls us to give to the town so that it may flourish in every sphere of society – not just the spiritual – but we are not to worship the town or the beautiful scenery anything associated with or around the town, we are to worship him alone.

Sometimes Christians forget that the first thing that belongs to God is the obligation to love – including the obligation to love people who follow the way of other religions or who follow no religion at all.  Church, when we look at this community and its environs, ask what will bring life and what will cause death.  Look for ways of bringing life.  Maybe we Christians need to stop asking what is right and what is wrong.  That question leads to division and confrontation.  It puts one group of people on one side of an invisible line and the others on the opposite side.  And then like two opposing rugby sides we try and bash hell out of each other.  The early Christians asked, what will bring life first.  When they simply loved the Roman Empire eventually the Caesar became converted and the whole Roman Empire became Christian.  Sure it took time, but one day Constantine met Jesus and suddenly Christianity moved from being illegal to being legal.

Can I suggest that we are dedicating this church today as an expression of love for Wanaka.  When Jesus rode into Jerusalem that was his purpose.  Do you remember how he once said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, how I have longed to love you. Matthew 23:37 (NIV)  The crowds did not understand that on the first Palm Sunday.  They were looking for power, but human power always submits to the law of unintended consequences.  True love never does.

There is a kingdom that is not of this world.  There is a love that is stronger than hate.  Sadly, when the followers of Jesus have not embraced this truth they have been corrupted by power and committed horrible crimes in the name of Jesus. 

Church, I congratulate you on this wonderful new renovated building.  Use it to love this community through sacrifice and service.  Use it to give to the community.  Use the symbol of Palms to dedicate the building to God for his glory that it may be a place of worship and prayer, a place where men and women and boys and girls will find the loving embrace of Jesus.  Don’t use them as a sign of power, or revolution, withdrawal or assimilation.  Go forward from today as his resurrection people living in the power of His presence and the presence of his power so that all of Wanaka is truly blessed.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The cost of loving

Lent 5 year C Sermon 13 
 If you don’t survive this... 
I want you to know I love you.
Mary isn’t going to save her love for later.

The cost of loving Jesus… starts right now.
In a week his life will hang in the balance
and Mary knows it...

and so does everyone else in the room.

And so with her hands and her hair...
and with… the very expensive perfume she and her sister …have saved for Jesus’ burial…Mary tells Jesus by her actions...

If you don’t survive the next few weeks...
I want you to know I love you
and I want you to know it now!

Mary shows Jesus… costly.. extravagant wasteful love...the kind of love the father showed in the parable of the prodigal son... last week. And costly the kind of love Jesus will show… during his last days in Jerusalem...

and it’s the same kind of love Jesus asks his followers to show. Love that costs and extends us for the sake of another.

Blank slide
Children know this intuitively don’t they…I was charmed by how children in another church answered their minister when they were asked what love looks like…

one eight year old replied right away…
well when my nanna gets all stiff and sore and can’t
bend over to paint her toenails anymore…my grandpa does it for her. I think that's what love is.

OR a six year old...says "Love... is when you give somebody most of your chips…without
making them give you any of theirs."

Another child says: "Love is what makes daddy smile when he’s tired." And another… when mummy makes coffee for daddy and takes a sip of it first...
to make sure it tastes OK."

Or how about this one... "Love... is what’s in the room with you at Christmas... when you stop opening your presents and just look around."

Another eight year old showed wisdom beyond his age when he said... "If you want to learn to love better,
you should start with a friend you hate,"

Or how about "Love is like a little old woman and a little old man... who are still friends... even after they’ve known each other a very long time."

Or "Love is when my puppy licks my face...
even after I left him alone all day."

But the very best example I heard of a child’s intuitive understanding of love…was this one

It’s the story of a four year old whose eighty year old neighbor recently lost his wife.
When the little boy saw the man sitting outside crying in his garden, he ran across the boundary... and climbed into the old man’s lap, and just sat there quietly.

All the while his watching out the kitchen window...

When the little boy comes back home
his mother asks him what he and the neighbor talked about…

oh we didn’t talk about anything…said the little boy…
I just helped him cry" [pause…………]

And on Jesus last journey to Jerusalem…in our Bible story today…you could say Mary…is helping Jesus cry.
Mary is beginning to engage in the grief process they’ll all almost certainly face... in just a couple of weeks because they love Jesus.

And it costs her…She’s willing to pour out all her perfume…willing to risk the ridicule of Judas...
before it’s too late to let Jesus know
how much she loves him...

And also in our readings…Paul writes from prison about this costly love for Jesus to the suffering church
at Philippi

Slide words
For Jesus sake I’ve suffered the loss of all things,
and regard them as rubbish, so I may gain Christ and be found in him... I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings
by becoming like him in his death.’ [pause]
Blank slide
You see the nard Mary uses… to anoint Jesus’ feet ...isn’t just some ten dollar pot from the body shop…
In first century Judea…Nard was a rare and expensive perfume imported from India.

In Mary’s culture and tradition...nard is associated with
the grief of love and with death. Remember how after the crucifixion…Nicodemus will bring spices for Jesus’ burial and how the women… come the next day
to anoint Jesus body again. And all this fits together subtly of course because Jesus is also the anointed one of God…

the Greek word Christos… meansthe anointed one.
The Hebrew word Messiah means the anointed one.

The story of a woman anointing Jesus...
is embedded in every Gospel account...of Jesus suffering and death. And in Mark… Jesus tells us...
people will always remember her for this.
And so we do....

We tend to remember costly love like this…if we notice it.... And the physical and emotional and spiritual suffering we endure when we love this way costs us doesn’t it
it’s the pain of inexaustible love… shown in the story of the prodigal son…it the energy and exhaustion…
the huge effort the shepherd expends
 to find his lost sheep...

It’s Jesus mother’s anguish and grief as she weeps at the foot of the cross.

when you and I are sitting with a loved one who’s dying
or looking for a lost child… my guess is we’re unlikely to care whether anyone points out what a waste of our time it is…or argue the way Judas did…
about the practicality of loving this way...

You know there used to be a time…maybe ten years ago when people in our church would argue about showing costly love to our community…why feed the skiers and snowboarders…even… why feed the JAG girls after school…why charge so little for funerals
for those who don’t come to church.

Judas’ complained to Mary...
why waste good burial oil… on the living
But what if Mary’d stopped right there and embarrassed apologized and put the Nard away for later…

it seems to me that if Mary’d paid attention to Judas
we would all have lost a teaching
at the very centre of our faith...
A teaching that illustrates Jesus’ command to love one another as he loved us...and what’s more…to take this commandment …to the ends of the earth...
As Jesus showed us… loving as he loved…as God loves…
always was… is …and will be costly.
Not the emotion of loving…but the follow through…
in the costly life of loving
As Christ’s Body through the power of the Holy Spirit we are called to this costly kind love…
This costly love is what it means to be a Christian... what it means to be in a committed relationship...
first with Jesus true devotion... honouring him…with our lives... by pouring ourselves out
for one another and for the world he came to save in costly love.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Inexhaustible grace

Lent 4 year C Sermon 13 Prodigal Son
And the ultra-religious… the super pious surrounding Jesus …are muttering with their noses wrinkled…
‘This rabbi…this teacher…this Jesus
welcomes sinners and eats with them…’

So naturally Jesus tells them a story
about an extremely righteous but resentful older son looks at the ground and sulks…oh come on Dad! ‘my younger brother has squandered half your estate… and now he comes back home, and you kill the fattened calf for him!

You sacrifice the most precious… living… thing ...
you have ………for him

The boys are acting up…as boys do…
no matter how you slice it as a parent…the behaviour of each son in Jesus’ story…causes heartache for the father [pause]

And as he makes his final journey to Jerusalem
Jesus tells yet another story…in which no one dies
only a prized and precious…and unblemished calf…[pause]

For you and I… sitting here in third millennium New Zealand …it’s tempting to see the story the way we always have…through the lens of our own kiwi cultural assumptions …tempting to draw the same familiar conclusions.

Ain’t it awful… how the youngest son runs off…gets in with the wrong crowd…hits the booze and the drugs…
and ends up on the bones of his arse…
and isn’t it wonderful how his father joyfully welcomes him home… when he’s ready to say sorry…

Maybe God’s like that…pretty simple eh?

And isn’t it sad the other son… is so caught up in resentment and anger that he cuts himself off…
from the joy and celebration his father so longs for him to share…isn’t it a shame… he’s so blinded by resentment and unforgiveness…so self-absorbed…
with what he thinks he deserves…
the older brother actually misses out on the party

Certainly that understanding of the story makes sense to us …in our culture…but Jesus wasn’t a 21st century novelist …he was a first century rabbi. And so we must beware
of our cultural conditioning…and our familiarity with this parable…lest we miss something…some treasure
hidden deep in Jesus words…that may reveal more about God than we expect

some meaning Jesus knew his first century audience would take from the story of the prodigal son.

So what happens if we walk around the story…about this father and his two lost sons…And view it from a different cultural perspective…from the standpoint of a middle-eastern crowd of tax collectors and sinners……..
and ultra-religious pharasees…

Well fortunately we can do this…because biblical scholars like Ken Bailey have lived and studied in the middle-east from Morocco to India…from Turkey to the Sudan asking the locals…
how they understand the parable of the prodigal son.

Ken Bailey made some amazing discoveries
and what really surprised him… was how consistently and passionately… people responded to this story at a gut level …especially to the shocking suggestion that a son would dare ask for his inheritance…while his father was still alive

In the middle-east…this isn’t seen as the impulsive act of an irresponsible young man…but as a malicious and abusive insult… to his father. Bailey could find no law… no custom …among Jews or Arabs…which entitles a son to a share of his father’s estate…
while the father is still alive.

In fact such a request would destroy the relationship. As though the son had shouted to his father’s face,
‘I can’t wait for you to die…’

No in this parable the son’s behaviour is far more serious than running off to Europe…with the money your parents saved for your college education…and ending up in the gutter. Arab’s and Jews listening today to this story react just as those in the first century would have…

hearing the sons contempt for the father they’re just waiting with baited breath…for the father to explode with rage …certain of the punishment he will rain down
on his youngest son [pause]

But what actually happens?

Utterly against cultural expectations
the father doesn’t retaliate…but instead
he agrees to his son’s request

completely… and
without conditions
Such a thing is unheard of in the middle-east.
Ken Bailey found it’s almost impossible
for them to imagine a love like this Father’s love…

This father… in Jesus’ story…is flying in the face of
every cultural normthis father is overturning
all social expectations… This father’s love
is utterly different than any father they’ve experienced…

this father’s love contains… the element of grace
grace that grants the son his freedom
even to reject the father. [pause]

And there’s another twist to the story we’d never guess without fresh insight into the middle-eastern mind…

As well as expecting the father to strike back
Bailey’s listeners insist… it’s the duty of the older son
to act as mediator…and as peacemaker…
to heal the broken relationship

But in Jesus parable…the older brother does nothing of the kind…instead he distances himself from the whole drama … and to middle eastern ears…the older son remains disgracefully silent…and does absolutely nothing
to protest the insult to his father…
or stop the disintegration of his family

The behaviour of both boys… is unheard of in eastern culture…effectively they’re destroying what every father dreams of…that his sons would live peacefully together after his death…enjoying the abundance of their inheritance.

this Jewish custom of yashabh yahadh
is idealized in Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard, running down on Aaron's beard,
down upon the collar of his robes. As if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. [pause]

By taking his portion of the estate…and leaving the village …the younger brother has effectively turned his back
on his father’s dreams of blessing and family unity…
and in his refusal to act…so has his older brother. [pause]


But of course the story doesn’t end here…
the father gives what he’s
asked…and the youngest son…
in his
freedom… carelessly descends
into his own self-created

And when he’s as low as he can go …when he can’t slide down any further…stripped…of all physical…emotional and spiritual support… starving and penniless…
the lost son decides to change direction
and turn his life around…to head home…[pause]

When we listen carefully…we can hear in the prodigal son’s words the familiar Jewish teaching on repentance. you must turn…you must repent…to earn God’s forgiveness. Everyone listening to Jesus story… would recognise the words the son says to himself as he plans and rehearses the traditional speech of repentance …

‘I’ll just go back
to my father and I’ll say: Father, I’ve sinned… against heaven and against you.
I’m no longer worthy to be called your son…..
so just make me like one of your hired men.'

Life has defeated him…his own judgment has destroyed him…he’s lost everything…and now he’s coming home

He knows his abusive and offensive behaviour
will have hurt… not only his father and the entire extended family…but the community he turned his back on…
Jesus listeners expect an angry vengeful mob…
to descend on the young man the moment he steps foot in the village. [pause]

But you know what…his father has been watching the horizon every day…and sees him coming

before anyone else can get to him…before his son
can open his mouth in the ritual of confession

the father acts… quickly and decisively
And runs to meet him… as no dignified mid-eastern patriarchever ran…

Before his lost son can speak… in front of everyone
in the community…the father throws his arms around him
Before his child can even begin to repent…
his father… substitutes kisses… for words… [pause]

And suddenly the young man’s
cultural and religious
world view…is shattered…his understanding of how the relationship with his dad really works… is changed forever by his fathers’ costly demonstration… of love…
before the boy can say anything….grace is extended…

And… the boy accepts that grace. [pause]

Jesus’ meaning is clear

this is love like no other …whatever it costs…the father will pay…homecoming will be celebrated… everyone is invited…a banquet is set…the best wine will be served
And the father’s most precious calf …will be sacrificed

There is to be a great feast of reconciliation.

 And the ultra-religious round him… mutter
 ‘This Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them…’

and if we identify with the bitter older brother…if we refuse to join the party…if we can’t let go…
of our anger, and resentment and our un-forgiveness

then…surprise surprise…the father shatters our understanding of his love as well…as he leaves his place of honour at the banquet table…as he leaves the other guests …even the guest of honour…to come out to find us…
and plead with us… to join the feast…

Make no mistake, Jesus wants everyone with ears to hear
to recognise the father’s behaviour in the story
is a promise…a revelation… of the grace of God.

In this parable…Jesus sends a message of grace
to two groups of people. The question for us…
for me and for you is… ‘which group do we identify with’.

Do we stand with the cynical and bigoted religious authorities who resent sharing the table with sinners?
Or are we among those…who were once lost like I once was … yet long to return?

To the first group Jesus says… stop projecting your need to elevate yourselves above the rest of humanity…
onto God… your pride and your obsession with honour and status…has no place in the kingdom of God.

To the second group Jesus says…God’s grace is limitless …and God is just watching out for your return.

To both groups Jesus says
No matter how up yourself you are
or how down on yourself you are
God’s love for you is inexhaustible.


May this offering of the inexhaustible hospitality of God be our guiding principle as the people of God. And may we put on the mind of Christ…may we show love like no other …whatever the cost to our status or image…   

May the compassion and love of God seize our insides… as it did the father in our story and may it move us as it did the father…to public displays of justice and reconciliation…to offer grace before we’re asked? May the love we offer to our community be as scandalous as the love of the Christ we follow.

You can buy Ken Bailey's book 

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels at