Ordinary Sunday 34 Jer 23:1-6 Col 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43
Sitting on the wharf. Watching the sprats. Being idle. As you do. I was hooked into a conversation with a fisherman. It progressed past fish, to philosophy, and on to Jesus. While re-casting his line he asked, "Tell me about Jesus."
Where do you start? Do you answer with a question? Do you regale him with a personal creed? Do you offer some history, deep-fried in doctrine, and sprinkled with contemporary meaning?
Being a fisherman, I thought a couple of tales would be a good start. I began with the Prodigal Son.
The story has three characters. There is a younger brother who wants his inheritance, and insults his father to get it. He goes off, squanders it, and then, after much soul-searching, decides to go home and say sorry. There is a father who, when insulted, doesn't let his emotions get the better of him, and gives the inheritance. He then waits and is delighted to see the wandering son return. The embrace precedes the apology. The son is welcomed home. The third character is the older brother who likewise insults his father. He does it by refusing to dine with him. Again the father's love goes out to welcome and include the offending son. There is one overarching moral lesson from this tale: the grace, or embrace, of God is not restricted to whom we think is deserving of it.
The second tale was of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asks Jesus how one attains eternal life. Jesus answers with a question: "What's in the Law?" He answers "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and your neighbour as yourself." "Yep," says Jesus, "That's right." The lawyer then asks, "Who is my neighbour?" Jesus answers with a story: A fellow gets beaten up on a country road. A priest comes by, and passes by; likewise a Levite. Two holy, godly men, no doubt with good excuses, come by and pass by. Then a Samaritan comes by, and stops. To a Jew a Samaritan was something like what Christians today think of Mormons or Jehovah's witnesses. They're foreign. You don't trust them. They believe funny things. Well the funny thing is that it's the Samaritan who is 'the neighbour' to the beaten man. He cares for him, tends his wounds, takes him to a hotel and pays for his continuing care. It is this Samaritan who is the one faithfully following the commandment to look after his neighbour. It is the Samaritan therefore who is attaining eternal life. The overarching moral lesson of this story is that kindness has no borders, and nor does God's favour.
Both tales point to the expansiveness and generosity of God. This is what Jesus lived - writ large in his scandalous practice of dining with 'tax-collectors and sinners', with poor and rich, prostitutes, Pharisees, and publicans. The tide kept coming in. The fisherman paused, and thought. He'd liked the tales. Reminded him of one that he then told me - not that it's repeatable. He re-baited, cast, and together we stared at the sea. "Well then," he says, "so what?"
"Three points", says I. "Firstly, don't presume God thinks like we do." It's too easy to project on to God our pet likes and dislikes. We all do it mind you. But it's very important to talk, debate, and criticize each other's notions of God and humanity. Indeed that's what Jesus was doing when he told those tales.
"Secondly," I continue, "don't presume truth is more important than being kind." Being right in these tales takes second place to being kind. The prodigal's dad would have been right to roundly criticize both his boys. Mightn't have got him the relationship he wanted with them, but he would have been right. The priest and the Levite were probably right to prioritise their church services; after all, they weren't paramedics. They were church leaders, not City Mission front desk.
The third point never arrived. A fish took the bait, and our attention was pulled away. Later the conversation moved on to politics and got snagged on the foreshore and seabed.
It was pleasant sitting there. Watching. Talking. As you do.