Lent 4, Year C, RCL
31 March 2019
If you happen to go up to Chillicothe, I am told that there is a museum commemorating the first bakery to produce commercially pre-sliced bread. People had been wanting to buy pre-sliced bread for ages, but they hadn’t been able to figure out how to keep it fresh after it was sliced. But someone eventually came up with a patent, as humans often do, and Chillicothe was the first town to use the inventor’s commercial bread-slicing machine. It was such a welcome advance that a couple generations later, kids grew up not knowing that bread came any other way.
Now, of course, you can go to Hen House Market, take an unsliced loaf of bakery bread, and put it through the slicing machine they have there, and have up-to-the-minute pre-sliced freshness. Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing.
But there are some things that human ingenuity just can’t address. We’re very good at finding new and better ways to cope with the world around us — or the part of the world we can see or touch or hear or taste. But when it comes to what we can’t see, there are whole realities that we often fail to take into account. I think this is part of what Paul was talking about when he writes to the Corinthians: “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view,” though up to this point we had regarded everyone, including Jesus, that way. The older translations put this in the phrase “according to the flesh” — a word that commonly meant something like our mortal bodies, with all their limitations and their self-referential points of view. In newer translations we get “human,” because there’s been a move away from talking about the body as if our bodies were inherently bad.
They’re not. And when Paul talks about “the flesh,” he adds another layer of meaning to the usual one. He uses the word to call our attention to the ways in which the whole person, body and mind, can not just refuse to account for, but actively oppose, the purposes of God. So part of what Paul is saying here is that we are not only limited in our view of God’s reality, we want to be limited. We’re stubborn and recalcitrant. We want to see people the way we want to see them.
In the Gospel reading for today, we see that stubbornness on full display with the parable Jesus tells to the Pharisees. We’re used to thinking of “Pharisee” as a word for “the bad guys,” but in reality the Pharisees were a lot like us: moral, fairly middle-class people trying to negotiate life in an empire without compromising our principles or debasing our religious beliefs. And doing that successfully often depended on knowing who was right and who was…well, a sinner. We humans have always had this sneaking belief that everybody gets what’s coming to them. As we saw with last week’s gospel, we still really do think that if something good happens to you, it’s because you deserve it somehow — and if something really bad happens to you, well, you deserve that too. Otherwise, we would have to confront the stark and terrifying fact that we have much less control over what happens to us than we think we do.
But our way of coping — or not coping, as the case may be, means that we don’t look at people according to reality. We don’t look at people as God looks at them. The Pharisees are upset because Jesus has been hanging out with “sinners” — people who failed to get a job, or whose job is something people looked down on; people whose choices in life get whispered about in corners; people with addictions; people who suffer the kind of misfortune that we all, down through the years, think they could have avoided if they were just better people.
And on some levels, they, and we, would be correct. Because we humans are not just plagued with the knowledge that we have committed particular sins. We are also painfully aware that we are all caught up in a power called Sin that puts us behind the 8-ball no matter what we try to do. On some level we are all aware that we can’t set things right by ourselves. We need intervention. We need God. We don’t want to look at God’s terrifying reality, but we know we need it. Our bones wither away and we groan all day long, when we look inward, and when we look outward. When we read the headlines. When we remember how we failed to act — or how we acted wrongly without being able to help ourselves.
We might, like the Pharisees, think we can escape by cutting our losses and ousting people who are clearly not making the grade — by writing them off as just “sinners,” not really people. So when Jesus not only hangs out with them but talks to them and talks about them as though they are really people, as though they are equals, it’s extremely upsetting. “Only God can forgive sins,” they say, and the unspoken end to that sentence is, “and of course God’s not going to do that.”
So Jesus tells a series of stories, trying to get them to look at the whole picture. “Say you own a flock of sheep, and the shepherds tell you one got lost. Wouldn’t you go looking for it, instead of saying, ‘Welp, at least I have 99 non-sinning sheep!’ Or say you’re doing your household accounts and discover you’re missing a 100-dollar bill. Wouldn’t you turn the house upside down until you found it?”
They’re not convinced. So Jesus ups the ante and tells a story about a loving father who has two sons. One of them, the younger one (and remember in Israel’s history how many times the younger son becomes the hero of the story of their faith) — the younger one asks to have his inheritance now instead of at the father’s death. He sells everything off, goes to the city, and spends it all on hookers and blow. Then a crash hits, he finds himself destitute, and finally says to himself: “I’ll go home, and ask to be a servant so I can at least get something to eat.” He prepares a sales pitch to his father, who he imagines will show him the door unless he grovels convincingly.
But while he’s still a half-mirage figure walking down the road, his father sees him, drops everything and runs to him where he is. Hugs him, holds him, starts calling for proper clothes for his son and party arrangements. Notice, this younger son’s repentance is mostly out of self-interest. If he hadn’t lost everything, would he have confessed, even to himself, that he was a sinner? Probably not. The older brother sees this, and is enraged. He stalks out of the house in disgust and goes away to sulk.
At this point, Jesus has turned the tables on his listeners. Up till this point, his stories laid the Pharisees alongside the people who had lost something, trying to get them to see these sinners as beloved members of their own community who — precisely because they were valuable — were a terrible loss that needed to be retrieved. But they didn’t buy it, so in this story, Jesus reveals them as the older brother, the one who is outside sulking while everyone else is having a party. More than that, he seems to be saying that even if they’re right that these sinners are a dead loss, if they would never repent except out of self-interest, it is Jesus’ prerogative on God’s behalf to go to them where they are.
That’s the thing about God’s reality. God comes to meet us where we actually are, not where we ought to be. And if we’re tempted to think that’s not costly, imagine a time when you’ve done the same. Is it not costly to us to meet people where they are in their relationship to us, rather than where they should be? In fact, it can be a staggering cost to us — damage and toxicity inflicted on us by people who ought to have done better, who ought to have wanted to do better, and didn’t. The power of Sin in this world is so great that God has a lot of cost to bear in order to set it right. When Jesus tells this story about a troubled family, he is already thinking about the cross.
God’s righteousness is costly, but it’s also an active power, and can sustain us in our little righteousness. Just as Israel were fed from God’s hand on manna until they could make bread themselves, God feeds us in our efforts to repent, in our efforts to forgive. And if anyone is in Christ, Paul says, there is a new creation; the old things have passed and the new ones are here! And more than that: “all things” are of God, Paul goes on to say — the old things and the new things are, if you look at it right, God’s continuous active work of righteousness, of setting things right. And we have been made ambassadors for this new reality. We have been empowered to speak of reconciliation, of the cost God paid, taking our sin, that Power we could not fight, and wearing it as God’s own identity, so that we could be called righteous.
We are obligated as Christians to key our thoughts and our perspectives to this wider reality, this new creation. We are obligated to see people not as losses to cut, but as people for whom Christ died. That is costly, and it is frightening: but it is real. It is more real than anything else we could try to do. For that costly and awesome work, we can and should call on God for God’s sustaining help.
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.