Signs of Lent: Hell

 

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This image is public domain, found here. The audio version of this sermon can be found here.

When I was a kid, as is the case now, I loved learning. For a while it was biographies and stories of peoples and cultures, then art and artists, and at one point simply reading the dictionary to learn new words. My problem was not being able to learn but to keep sorted all the new information that I had gained. Quite often, stories ran into one another and words were the opposite of what they really meant.

 

Case in point, it took me the longest time to get the difference between modest and arrogant. I constantly used one as the other and made silly statements about someone being so modest when I meant arrogant and vice versa. Of course, I also learned the meaning of irony and then claimed that I was being ironic when I got it wrong. Such is the life of know-it-all kid.

So often in the gospels, we read stories of Pharisees and picture them as misguided religious fanatics on one end of the spectrum and hateful, jealous monsters on the other end. I have, in keeping with Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels, seen them in the story as theology professors, living on the wealth of information and understanding from those before them, desperate to keep it, and hiding behind a wall of traditions, etiquettes, and formalities that separate them from the rest of the people around them. Not that there is anything wrong with being a professor, but like any profession, there are good ones and bad ones. For my version of the story, we’re talking here about the bad ones.

Some of these professors have come to Jesus and yet again, ask him about a point of the law they hope to trip him up on. Jesus has just told a parable about a shrewd money manager who impresses his master by cunning and generosity, even though it is to save his own skin. Jesus says about this parable,

“Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much. If you haven’t been faithful with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? If you haven’t been faithful with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? No household servant can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:10-13)

The response, according to the writer of Luke, is predictable: “The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus.” (Luke 16:14) Jesus replies to them,

“You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it. It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out. Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:15-18)

It is at this point, we get to the parable at hand and I would like to reiterate what a parable is for clarification. The word parable literally means a “comparison, illustration, analogy” or a “juxtaposition”. In other words, it is a story told to illustrate something else. In this case, Jesus is referring to his words in verses ten through eighteen and reiterating the point with greater clarity for those who are apparently not getting it.

In keeping with our study, “Signs of Lent”, we find an interesting set of signs in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. So often, this text is taken as a literal explanation of the afterlife and the torment of Hell. The truth is parables do not work this in this way as they are not meant to be literal but allegorical explanations to make the point in a simple way. They are usually directed to a specific situation and the people who are hearing them. Professor David Gowler once wrote,

“…parables stand in fundamental relationship to the story as a whole and cannot be “properly interpreted” apart from it; they function primarily as a kind of “mirror” to assist the reader/hearer.” (Gowler 2005, 249)

In the verses leading up to the parable, Jesus is speaking directly with the Pharisees about their love of money and their tendency to see others as being useful only when they have financial or personal value to them. Notice Jesus saying, “Whoever is faithful with little is also faithful with much, and the one who is dishonest with little is also dishonest with much” and “You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God” followed Jesus comments on divorce, a rebuke of the Jewish practice of divorcing women because they are ‘unpleasing’ to the husband in some way. The point Jesus is making before the parable is one of recognizing the value inherent in all people, or truly loving your neighbor as yourself, even if that neighbor offers no financial or personal gain to you.

Which brings us to the parable itself, an explanation of the previous comments for those who ‘just didn’t get it’ the first time. The parable is itself, taken from an old Egyptian or Rabbinic folktale, retold with a Jewish emphasis, and offered as a means of clarifying a point.[1] Fred Craddock writes, “The first part of the parable…is a much-traveled story, forms of it being found in several cultures” (Craddock 1990, 195). Think of it in the same way we have variations on stories in early American history about Honest Abe or George and the cherry tree. They are stories meant to illustrate a truth about a time, a place, or a person or people. About this one, Alyce McKenzie says, “The story is a three-act play. The first act portrays the earthly contrast between the wealthy man and Lazarus. The second act describes the reversal of their conditions in the afterlife. The third act depicts the rich man’s request to Father Abraham for a sign so that those still living can avoid his torment, a request that Abraham refuses” (McKenzie 2013) With this in mind, I see several helpful elements which will, I hope, shed some light on this oft misinterpreted parable: those who seem to have much, those who seem to have little, and Hell as a state of being. Each of these elements speaks to something beyond the normal interpretations that most of us have heard over the course of our lives.

He who seems to have much – Wealth has long been divisive in culture, separating the world into those who have it and those who have wished for it or suffered for their lack of it. In Jesus day and the centuries before it, the divide was greater than we can imagine in modern times. The ‘one-percent’ that so many people talk about as being the wealthy making decisions and ruling the world through financial control of the markets, the economies, and the resources of the world, was more like the fraction of one percent. In the world of Jesus day, a story like this would have been a common expression of that divide. Ronald Hock writes,

“…the rich and poor were a favorite subject for the advanced declamations of rhetoricians (V. Soph. 481). In other words, not only the subject of the parable but the very treatment of it by comparison of extreme examples and by further characterization of the rich man through dialogue would be familiar to audiences and readers throughout the Greco-Roman world…The rich and poor were not the sole preserve of rhetoricians, however, since the subject occupied philosophers, too, but especially Cynics.” (Hock 1987, 456-457)

In this parable, the wealthy man has everything he could want. The writer of Luke says about him,There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day.” The description speaks to the level of wealth the rich man has. The fine fabrics of his clothing could only be afforded by the extremely wealthy, especially the idea of purple fabrics, commonly known as Phoenician Purple (Hatcher Spring 2012, 278). The idea that he ‘feasted’ every day or better translated ‘having a merry state of mind because you are feeling the sense of inner triumph.’[2]

The wealthy man also has little regard for his poorer countryman. As the rich man came and went each day, Lazarus the beggar (ptochos) would have been sitting in plain sight at the edge of his lands or better said perhaps, on the fringes of his wealth and security. The rich man’s concern is his riches and his celebrating according to the parable as well as other stories of this kind from the time period. In this case, he is symbolic of one who is selfish, greedy, and above all uncaring for those in need around him. He has forgotten the poor, the sojourner, the hurting and needy among his brethren.

He who seems to have little – This leads us to the beggar, Lazarus. According to George Knight, “The description of Lazarus as “poor” (ptöchos) implies one who depends on others and often refers to a beggar, although the term could focus simply on Lazarus’ state of poverty. In this condition he has been “dumped” at the gate of the house of luxurious celebration” (Knight 1997, 279).

“Hunger and poverty cannot be separated in analyzing the biblical material. Hunger accompanies poverty. Famine can strike an entire land, rich and poor alike, but it is still the poor who go hungry while the well-to-do buy food from other lands (cf. Gen. 12:10; 42:1-2). In both the Old and New Testaments hunger is linked with other terms describing those who have been forced by societal conditions into a marginal existence — the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed.” (Birch 1975, 593)

In the worst times of my life, I have never been hungry for more than a few hours, never slept out in the elements unless by choice, and never had to go without reasonable medical care unless I was just too stubborn to go to the doctor. Lazarus has none of these options. As previously stated, Lazarus is completely dependent on someone else to care for him, someone else to step in and provide for him. Being unceremoniously ‘dumped’ at the rich man’s gate, it is most likely that Lazarus was in poor health and those closest to him were hopeful that the wealthy man would remember the Jewish laws and customs about caring for the poor.

Hell, as a state of being – As we said earlier, the background of this parable is most likely a tale from Egyptian folklore or from Jewish rabbinic literature but the subject is not just about the rich and the poor but about the reversal of fates and fortunes after death (McKenzie 2013). In these stories, as in our parable, the point is not that there is or is not a place of torment in the afterlife but that the person who experienced good in this life at the expense of others is being punished for mistreating those they hurt. The idea is that it should be a cautionary tale to remember those who are less fortunate around us, to realize that we are not so far removed from our own reversal of fortunes and fates.

As Christians, or followers of the rabbi Yeshua, we are called in this parable to see others and their needs as being as important as our own needs. For those of us who have neglected those in need, it is a warning. For those of us who are aiding those in need, it is an encouragement. In either case, it is an invitation to live a life devoted more deeply to those cause of taking care of those in need, in their time of need, with whatever we have to do so and not assume that someone else will deal with it. In short,

“The parable presents a disturbing critique of today’s global money economy, which creates an ever-widening chasm between the poor and the prosperous. With satellite television, the Internet, and news broadcasts incessantly streaming images of the indigent, the privileged can hardly claim ignorance. It is rather complacency that turns a blind eye to each Lazarus languishing on the back stoop of our gated communities or the 1.2 billion inhabitants of our global village living on less than one dollar a day. Conditioned by a consumerist culture, American Christians in particular are at risk of contracting “affluenza” and the attendant spiritual malaise that leaves them “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17).” (Hatcher Spring 2012, 281)

So, what do we do about it? What do we do with these symbols of the wealthy man turning a blind eye to his countryman, a poor man suffering needlessly before him, and the idea that God sees this treatment of the poor as hellish?

I think we go to the experience of God that others had before us as they recorded them in what we call Scripture. Isaiah 58:6-7 declares, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?” And Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “Now if there are some poor persons among you, say one of your fellow Israelites in one of your cities in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, don’t be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward your poor fellow Israelites. To the contrary! Open your hand wide to them.”

And finally, the words of Jesus from a few chapters ago,

“A certain man hosted a large dinner and invited many people. When it was time for the dinner to begin, he sent his servant to tell the invited guests, ‘Come! The dinner is now ready.’ One by one, they all began to make excuses. The first one told him, ‘I bought a farm and must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I bought five teams of oxen, and I’m going to check on them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’ When he returned, the servant reported these excuses to his master. The master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go quickly to the city’s streets, the busy ones and the side streets, and bring the poor, crippled, blind, and lame.’ The servant said, ‘Master, your instructions have been followed and there is still room.’ The master said to the servant, ‘Go to the highways and back alleys and urge people to come in so that my house will be filled.” (Luke 14:16-23)

So let us go, preach and live this gospel, and if necessary use words. Amen.


References

Birch, Bruce C. “Hunger, Poverty and Biblical Religion.” The Christian Century, 1975: 593-599.

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Gowler, David B. “”At His Gate Lay a Poor Man”: A Dialogic Reading of Luke 16:19-31.” Perspectives in Religious Studies | Journal of the NABPR 32, no. 1 (2005): 249-265.

Hatcher, Karen M. “In Gold We Trust: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31.” Review and Expositor, Spring 2012: 277-283.

Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447-463.

Knight, George W. “Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus.” Review and Expositor, 1997: 277-283.

McKenzie, Alyce M. Edgy Exegesis – The Rich Man and Lazarus: Reflections on Luke 16:19-31. September 22, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Rich-Man-Lazarus-Alyce-McKenzie-09-23-2013 (accessed March 21, 2017).


[1] (Craddock 1990, 195), (Hock 1987, 451)

[2] http://biblehub.com/greek/2165.htm

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Signs of Lent: Lost Things

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It was sunny, not warm yet, but bright enough and cloudless enough for my one good suit to feel a little uncomfortable. It is the sticky, cloying feeling of humidity and heat as they increase in complementary fashion to one another under a spring sun, which in Georgia, is early summer. I was watching the family arrive, my family – cousins, aunts, uncles – distant kin from all over Northwest Georgia, Northeast Alabama, and Tennessee. They climbed out of vehicles in their Sunday best, walking with proper solemnity, heads bowed, shuffling toward the tent in the middle of what was once upon a time, just another hilly field in the town built on seven large hills and named for the great and ancient city of Italy, Rome.

This was to be my first funeral as a minister. I was just beginning to get my feet wet in ministry serving as a part time, more voluntary than anything, A/V and worship leader in my church. I had only recently begun to test the waters of preaching and teaching and for that matter I was only Methodist in thought and theology since the rest of me was at a Baptist church. I was nervous, rightly so, since this was the funeral of father’s only brother, Joe. I worked and worked on the sermon, trying with my limited understanding of theology to craft something hopeful and meaningful for my father but also for Joe’s five surviving children.

Misery loves company but even the most miserable among us have our limits. The four daughters (Joe’s son was not there) were intent on making sure that everyone knew they were miserable and seemingly on making one another miserable. It wasn’t long before one of them got upset about a slight, imagined or not, and the row began. Within a few minutes, it moved to being an honest to goodness fight and at that point, I tried to step in. After a moment or two, I was reminded that the cousins of my childhood were not so much different in temperament in adulthood and I stepped out. It took the stern but kindly affirmations of my father’s cousin, more like a sister to him and his brother, to calm the girls long enough to have a funeral. They sorted it and later were fine, since they have been sorting their differences in their own raucous way as long as I have known them.

Looking back, I can see the problem: loss. Everyone responds to loss in a different way, each of us with our own unique mechanisms for dealing with the sense of absence and longing that is inherent with losing something or someone. For my cousins, it was a fight. The yelling and screaming (and occasional punching, biting, and hair pulling), was the way they have been dealing with anger, grief, loss, and other negative emotions as long as I have known them. For them, this is the way they have always dealt with the difficult things of life, fighting their way through it, with each other or anyone else. If you have lived, you have experienced loss in some way or another or will experience it in the future. It is as inevitable as death and taxes. We will all know the sharp pang of it and will all have to find our way past its pain and emptiness.

As we continue our look at the symbols of Lent, we find this passage, like all that contain parables, is chock full of symbolic and metaphorical language. Surprisingly enough, our passage today is one that is about loss and restoration. The reason, however, may not seem so obvious on the surface. Jesus is traveling through the countryside, large groups of people following after him, when a group of Pharisees and religious scholars joined the gathering. As they looked around, they found themselves surrounded by what they termed ‘sinners’. Our English translation of this word loses some of the punch that it has in the original language. In Greek, the word means ‘erroneous’ or ‘of bad character’, someone who is wrong in the eyes of those who are right.

The Pharisees, whom we have discussed before, have a low tolerance for unholiness. To them, these sinners, all seeking hope in the message and person of Jesus, are the epitome of unholiness, a collection of flies buzzing around an otherwise respectable family picnic. The author of Luke marks their disdain, recording, “The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In other words, Jesus accepts the unholy not only in public places but also in the privacy of their dirty, unsanctified, unholy, houses and at table, a sacred place of ancient hospitality and holiness. Not only that, but the way the text is worded, the implication is that Jesus invites them to his table where they are welcomed and treated as respected, honored guests. They are the erroneous, those with bad character, and Jesus must be taking on their error and bad character. After all, if you lie down with dogs, you have to wake up with fleas, right? But Jesus, sees something else, something beyond the Pharisee’s attempts at holiness and honor before God. He sees something underneath the veneer of man’s broken, societal rules and sees something precious. He sees something that has been lost.

A soul.

So, Jesus looks out at the people, Pharisees and disciples included, and uses the tried and true method of explication, the one that separates ‘those who have ears to hear’ and those who don’t, and begins to speak a truth about the ‘sinners’.


When Jesus begins each parable, he speaks of something that has been lost. In each, the thing that is lost becomes something of greater and greater value to the person who lost it: a lost sheep (v.4), a lost coin (v.8), a lost person (v.11). In the first parable, we have a lost sheep. Agriculture was the backbone of the ancient economy and the loss of an animal was a great financial loss to the owner, but a personal loss to the shepherd who cared for and nurtured the animals.

In the second story, the woman has lost a valuable coin. Now this is not like us dropping a nickel on the ground or pulling out a hand full of change and dropping a few pennies. This was the equivalent to a day’s wage, something she most likely saved up over a long period in Jesus’ day. She would have saved several smaller denominations of coin to get to the place where she could trade them in for a drachma, the basic unit of currency. According to one source, “Modern commentators derived from Xenophon that half a drachma per day (360 days per year) would provide “a comfortable subsistence” for “the poor citizens”…”[1]

In the final parable, what is lost is beyond price and I believe, more directly related to the point that the writer of Luke is making in the parable. The youngest son of a well-off man has abandoned his family, asked for his inheritance (a way of saying to the father ‘it is as if you are dead to me’), and has taken to the road. He is youthful, headstrong, and quite frankly, a little stupid, assuming he understands the way of the world, assuming he can see things better than his old man can. He is a type or sign of youthful arrogance and indiscretion, a soul lost to his ambition.

Unlike the other parables, that which is lost has the capacity to realize that it is lost. IN the son’s case, almost too late. He has taken the wealth of his father’s hands and squandered it on ‘extravagant living’ (v.13). When hard times come, and they always do, this once faithful son of a prominent Jewish farmer finds himself, “sent…into [the] fields to feed pigs” and longing “to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything…” (v.15-16)


So, who is looking for these lost things? The first parable speaks of the shepherd. In the Old Testament, there are examples of God seeing Israel in this way, such as Isaiah 40:11 which says, “Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.” The writer of Luke has Jesus use the first parable to depict our shepherd in such a way. The shepherd loves the lost animal so much, that he is willing to “leave the other ninety-nine in the pasture and search for the lost one…” (v.4) In this parable, either the shepherd feels there is nothing of danger in the vicinity to harm the sheep or that the sheep, dumb as they are, can stand where they are for a while until the shepherd returns with their errant kin. According to Fred Craddock, professor of Preaching and New Testament at Emory University, “Either the shepherd is foolish or the shepherd loves the lost sheep and is willing to risk everything, including his own life, until he finds it.” (Craddock 1990, p.185)

The second speaks of a woman, but not just any woman, a shrewd woman who has scrimped and worked and saved and now has collected nearly half a month’s wages in savings. Her intent is evident: she is trying to save these valuable coins for some future purpose, one not disclosed in the story. But knowing the state of a day laborers existence in the ancient Roman world, we can see she is a person unafraid of hard work, willing to toil, willing to give up things of comfort for herself to save for something of greater value to her in the future.

Finally, we come to the father in final story. The man is a strong man. Think of what it must have felt like to know that your child sees you as being dead to them and simply wants their share of an inheritance. How must it have felt to count out the coins that represented years of your work, not your sons work, but your work, counted out to fund the life of what seems to be ungrateful, selfish child.

Yet the man is not only strong, he is patient. The writer of Luke says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion” (v.20). In other words, the father was waiting, probably daily, looking for some sign of the son that had wandered away, hoping, perhaps against hope, that this errant boy would one day realize his folly and wake up from the foolish delusions of youth to find his way back, find his way home.


In the end, each of these stories wraps up with a celebration. All of them end with the same overarching idea, one expressed at the end of the first two parables, “Come, celebrate with me!” Jesus stops at the end of the first two parables to say, “In the same way, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who changes both heart and life…” (v.7) While the last isn’t phrased this way, the celebration is illustrated in more practical, life like terms.

“His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (v.20-24)

These celebrations make their point: that which was lost and then found must be celebrated. Think about the words used: ‘joy in heaven’ (v.7) or ‘joy breaks out in the presence of God’s angels’ (v.10). These are expressions that denote ‘delight’ as an experience and as something to be sought and experienced. Look at the final parable and the father’s reaction. In the other stories, the people finding the sheep and the coin are happy, but the writer makes the final story more practical, more personal to the human situation. It is the joy, the delight, the ecstatic excitement of having a child, a youngest child who has been gone, lost to you, returned and for the most part unharmed.

 

Of course, not everything ends well and the writer of Luke has Jesus sense the rebuttal of the Pharisees and legal scholars, a rebuttal that comes in the final parable from the mouth of the eldest son. You him, the son who was faithful, the one who, by Jewish law and custom, got twice the inheritance his brother was given. Yet, when the brother is welcomed back, he balks, and in plain spoken terms, speaks his mind,

“‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’” (v.29-30)

In other words, ‘I’ve been a good son, followed the rules, been faithful to God and family, and you treat me like the hired servant my little brother asks to be.’ Where is the retributive theology in this? Where is the justice of getting that which you deserve? Author Brian McLaren puts it this way,

“The parable ends. Jesus never tells us how it comes out. Did the older brother join the party and reconcile with his younger, wayward brother, or did he stay outside, fuming over the seeming injustice of his father’s extravagant love? The story remains unresolved because it is, in fact, an invitation – an invitation to the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus to join him welcoming sinners and other outsiders into the joyful party of the Kingdom.” (McLaren 2007)

I think there is wisdom in this. And I believe the invitation extends to us now. We have the capacity to be Pharisees or welcoming fathers and mothers. We can push those who we deem unacceptable, not holy enough, not good enough, not like us away from the vaunted halls of our buildings we call churches or we can invite all who are hurting and in need, regardless of where they are from or what they are like, in the greater Church, into the Kingdom of God. I believe the invitation is an open invitation, one extended to us to join Jesus and one we in turn extend to any and all who find themselves lost or out of the presence of God.

References

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

McLaren, Brian. The Voice of Luke. Nashville, TN, 2007.

[1] H. G. Dakyns’s translation of Ways and Means: A Pamphlet on Revenues alias On Revenues (The Works of Xenophon, Macmillan, 1897). This footnote is quoting George Grote (Plato, and the Other Companions of Sokrates, vol. 3, J. Murray, 1865, p.597).

Signs of Lent: Figs and the Fallen

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My mother has always had a bit of a green thumb. I can remember growing up having to help plant various flowers and shrubs around our house and in our yard. My job was to clear the ground so I had the task of digging out rectangular patterns in the open spaces and along the edges of the house and yard. What was planted changed from season to season and year to year but it was a forgone conclusion that something was going to be put in the ground to be nurtured and grown. There was never a shortage of greenery and practically every reasonable open space had some manner of plant in it.

I do remember, however, our one attempt to plant a fruit tree. I can’t remember what precipitated the idea to do so but we went to one of the local nurseries or home improvement stores, I can’t remember which, and bought our first, and only, fruit tree. We decided to plant an apple tree just off the end of the house, with the hope that we would one day have fresh apples to pick. We seemed to have found a good spot, one that got plenty of sun and had rich soil beneath it. Though I was generally a meat and potatoes kind of kid at the time, and what teenage boy isn’t, I was fairly excited about the prospects until I found out that the first few years of apples are generally not edible, since they tend to have a sour taste that no one could like.

We watched, checking week after week, looking for some sign that the tree was going produce. When the buds gave way to small, light green colored apples, I knew that the fruit might not taste good. It was only the first year and as I had heard, you should give the tree some time to mature, to soak up the soil, to come into its own. I decided to risk it though, when the first buds gave way to tiny little green piece of fruit. The first bite told me I made a mistake. I’m not one of those people that likes other people to share in my misery when I eat something bad (think back a few weeks to the Geico raccoons). And I’ve tasted some not so great things in my life but that first-year apple was among some of the worst. I don’t know what exactly is was about it that made it taste so bad but I decided it would be a while before I ate anything else fresh off the vine.

This story of my experience is somewhat reminiscent of the story we read in Luke 13 about figs and fallen people; about retribution theology and divine patience; about repentance – second, third and fourth chances. Luke’s story is a story and a story retold, a means of sharing truth in a simple way for a people in their time. As with last week, it is also a story filled with symbolic meaning, meaning tied to the people in their place and their time but meaning that is still relevant to us today as we attempt to follow Jesus in our time and place.

Luke 13 begins with a news flash. In our day, it might be a breaking story on KOTA or a beeping alert on our cell phones: Galileans killed by Romans during Sacrifice. We would see a news reporter holding a microphone in front of a camera, interviewing a local witness to the tragedy who would be alternately enraged and devastated. Then it would be back to the studio where a panel of Torah scholars and temple officials would have a roundtable discussion on the state of Israeli-Roman relations. There would probably be talk of retribution theology, ‘we deserve this for our sins’, and then hardliners on both sides would argue about the interpretation.

In our day, Jesus might be among those discussing the matter at a coffee house. Someone says, “Pilate killed a bunch of Galileans while they were at worship. And he mixed their blood with the blood of the sacrifices on the altar.”[1] They probably expected Jesus to be outraged, after all, Jesus is a Galilean, raised in Nazareth. I can imagine a tense hush as people sitting around begin to listen in and wait for the response. In our version of this I can see Jesus let out a soft breath and look the crowd over before answering.

“Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.”[2]

I imagine Jesus looking around the room and seeing confused faces staring back at him. I can see Jesus leaning forward, elbows on the table and hands raised for emphasis as he prepares to explain in a very Jewish way, the parable.

“A man had an fig tree planted in his front yard. He came to it expecting to find figs, but there weren’t any. He said to his gardener, ‘What’s going on here? For three years now I’ve come to this tree expecting figs and not one fig have I found. Chop it down! Why waste good ground with it any longer?’

“The gardener said, ‘Let’s give it another year. I’ll dig around it and fertilize, and maybe it will produce next year; if it doesn’t, then chop it down.’”[3]

The writer of Luke ends the story there, as though Jesus parable is the final word and everyone gets it. In his day, the writer might be correct, but for us, we could use a little help sorting the symbols here.

If you remember from last week, when we look at symbols, we understand them as the sign (signifier), what the sign points or refers to (signified), and what the sign means. As before, we will walk through this idea of defining each of these things to arrive at a meaning for the story we are looking at. I believe in doing this, we will find a good interpretation of the story and its intent, at the very least, one that speaks to the journey that we find ourselves on now. This week, we will look at the fig tree, the landowner, and the gardener.

First, we look at the fig tree itself. According to some sources, “After the grape, the most valued fruit was the fig (tĕ ēnâ), mentioned fifty-three times in the bible.”[4] The fig tree provided not only an important crop, which could be used to make food for use in a variety of situations (dried figs were made into cakes that could be carried by warriors and travelers), but also provided large areas of shade with some trees measuring thirty feet in height and twenty-five feet in diameter.[5] Figs were used by Egyptians who were recovering from malnourishment, with the prescription being to give them “a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins” along with water. Figs also had the potential of producing several crops of fruit each year, with the sweeter fruit harvested in late summer and another crop near the beginning of winter.[6]

As Jesus tells this parable, it is in response to the conversation we have just talked about. The people Jesus was talking to and Jesus himself are talking about how certain Jews have experienced several tragic events, one at the hands of the Romans and the other, a result of a natural disaster.  Professor John Klotz sees the situation this way,

A fig tree puts out its earliest fruit buds before its leaves, the former in February and the latter in April or May. After the leaves appear the fruit ought to be ripe…The fig tree bearing leaves without fruit was a symbol of Jerusalem. The regular sacrifices and prayers in the temple, the services in the synagogues, and the meticulous keeping of the Law gave the impression of a lush and healthy religious life. But the expected fruit of true spirituality was not there.[7]

As he points out, Jerusalem had the teaching of Moses, the wisdom of the Psalms and Proverbs, the preaching of the prophets, and now the teaching of Jesus, and yet they still would not hear, still could not see. I think the fig tree in this case does represent Israel and that Jesus is saying in effect that the Jewish people are not producing fruit as they ought to have done.

Second is the landowner. The landowner in this story is one who has the right to decide the fate of all things on his land. In Jesus day, many of the landowners were absentee, meaning they lived in the city most of the time, attending to their business affairs and only went to the land they owned to inspect it or settle issues that might have arisen. This was due to the Roman Empire’s commercialization of agriculture which took away the small family owned farm to be replaced with larger, sharecropped farms, with peasants making a subsistence living and the landowners (in the Jew’s case, the temple authorities and high ranking council members in collusion with Romans), living well off the work they did. Landowners were business men and if the tree doesn’t produce fruit, it’s not worth keeping.[8] Again, Klotz points out,

The land owner had a right to expect fruit; that was the purpose of the care lavished on the tree. For three years he waited in vain and then determined to cut it down. The vinedresser pleaded for one more year of grace; then he too agreed to its destruction.[9]

In this parable, however, God is himself the landowner, the Lord over Israel, even if foreigners are occupying Israel. God has brought Israel out of Egypt, as is repeatedly attested to in the Old Testament, and has given them this land. Throughout the Torah, The Histories, the Writings, and the Prophets, God is referred to as king over Israel, with the human rulers called ‘princes’ beneath God. As such, God is entitled as sovereign over the Jews to see them ‘yield fruits’ or repentance, obedience, and worship. Klotz writes,

God had every reason to expect the fruits of faith in the loyalty and obedience of His people, particularly of the people of Jerusalem, where the temple stood and the prophets preached.[10]

In this parable, the sign of landowner stands in for God, a sign whose meaning is one of judgment but also mercy and benevolent care as we will see in the next sign.

The gardener is the one with his fingers on the pulse of the land itself. Day in, day out, the gardener has his hands in the soil, on the leaves and branches. He is connected in a way that the landowner cannot be because he has watched the plant from seed come to what it is. This direct contact with the fields and plants is reminiscent of the prophet.

Throughout the history of Israel, there have always been those who spoke for God and on behalf of the people. In the story of Abraham, Abraham speaks on behalf of Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. During the Exodus, Moses speaks on behalf of the people when God is preparing to strike down that ‘stiff-necked’ people. The writings of the major and minor prophets are filled with stories of those crying out on Israel’s behalf despite Israel’s wandering spiritual ways. Even Jesus himself, the last of the great prophets of the Temple periods, cries out for Jerusalem and on behalf of the Jews, and preaches his message in synagogues and Jewish communities. The gardener is a type of intercessor, one who stands up for someone who cannot stand up for themselves.

When we take all these signs and tease out their meaning, we get a picture of the second chance. Jesus uses the parable in the story to illustrate the point that God (the landowner) has sent the prophets, Jesus included, as gardeners to tend to the spiritual well-being of Israel. The fig tree of Israel has not produced fruits of repentance and discipleship but has instead, gone their own way after their own ideas and desires. They take up the nourishment of God’s love and affection and the tending of the prophet’s teaching and wisdom but produce nothing in response. In the parable, Israel is being given another season to change, to repent, to turn in a different direction, one that leads them toward God.

As we examine our lives, what kind fruit do we produce? Are a people who are taking up the nourishment of God’s love and affection and the tending of Jesus teaching and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom but produce nothing in response? Have we made the faith we profess nothing more than a ritual, limited to an hour or so of good behavior on Sunday morning to assuage our conscience on a weekly basis?

I think these questions are the natural response to the signs in the story and parable we have read in Luke 13. Is repentance, turning our mind and being toward that of God, our response to these questions? Let us examine ourselves, as the season of Lent calls us to do, and respond, amen.


Works Cited

Crossan, John Dominic, and Marcus Borg. The Last Week. 1st (Paperback). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2007.

King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.

Klotz, John W. (John William). “The vine, the fig tree, and the olive: a study in biblical symbolism.” Concordia Journal 6, no. 6 (November 1980): 256-260.

Peterson, Eugene, ed. The Message Study Bible. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2005, 2012.


[1]  (Peterson 2005, 2012), p. 1609

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] (King and Stager 2001), p.104

[5] (King and Stager 2001), p.104; (Klotz 1980), p.258

[6] ibid

[7] (Klotz 1980), p. 258

[8] (Crossan and Borg 2007), p.17-18

[9] (Klotz 1980), p.259

[10] (Klotz 1980), p.259

Signs of Lent: The Good Samaritan

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For the audio version, click here: clyp.it/cvd2tc2b

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs.”[1]

I grew up listening to music that dated from the nineteen thirties to the seventies and eighties of my childhood. Because I was born in the early seventies, I was privy to a lot of leftover music of sixties. I heard Motown and the Beatles but the stuff that resonated with me, especially as I have gotten older is the protest music of the late sixties and early seventies. One those songs, Signs, was an anthem about people tiered of other people trying to define life for them without their consent. The song used the idea of signs to represent the oppression felt by those who being limited by the establishment. The chorus was,

“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Now, this morning will not be a look back into the counter-culture movement of the baby boomer generation but the idea of signs, especially the idea behind the power that signs can have over us, is good springboard into the message and our Lenten series, Signs of Lent.

As human beings, we have an amazing ability, to communicate in multiple ways, across a wide array of media. Think of all the ways that you can choose to express the emotions and thoughts you feel or think: language, art, music, song, and the list continues from there. Each of these means, these media are a symbolic representation of what is going on in our minds and how we might choose to express it.

With the development of language, the most means of communication is storytelling, where the stories we tell have symbolic meaning or act as signs for ideas bigger than we may be able to process. Stories, words, even individual letters are symbols for these ideas. For instance, the letter “I”, depending on how its written and used, can be a designation for “me, myself” or a symbol meaning “look here for information” or even the Roman numeral one. Phrases can create word pictures that bring back a host of ideas and thoughts such as “getting your ducks in a row”. All of this goes to say that we are people of symbols and these symbols speak to us in ways that are conscious and unconscious.

The bible is a book filled with symbolic language, allegory, metaphor, and parable. The major themes and ideas of the ancient were best conveyed to the masses by these short, simple stories that gave people lenses to understand and interpret the world around them. Augustine speaks of this symbolic language in terms of signs when he says, “…nobody uses words except in order to signify something. From this, it may be understood what I mean by signs: those things which are employed to signify something.”[2] Augustine spends a great deal of the second part of his work On Christian Doctrine speaking of proper interpretation of these signs, something we should consider ourselves when dealing with a symbolic text like the bible.

Understanding this, I would like to try to present the text today, the Good Samaritan, as a symbol whose meaning we might try and tease from the story. This would not be a farfetched idea since the text is a parable, a story told with the intent of being symbolic. There are many things we could look for as signs but for the sake of time and clarity (I can hope), I would like to look at the story and see what symbolic understanding we get from these characters: the injured man, the Pharisee, the scribe, and the Samaritan.

The Sacred and the Symbolic

When we look at symbols, we understand them as the sign (signifier), what the sign points or refers to (signified), and what the sign means.

Interpretation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything we know and have experienced we bring with us to process. Good interpretation happens when we understand something of the author, something of their place in time as they wrote, and something of their intent. If we tried only to look at the text, we would miss the meaning behind the symbols because we would not see the symbols as they were meant to be seen. So, let’s have a look.

The Injured Man – As with any symbol, this one can have multiple meanings and layers of meaning. From the story, we know nothing of the man, who he was, what he did professionally, what he looked like, other than he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a journey of about fifteen miles or one day. We know that he was robbed, stripped of his clothing, beaten, and left for dead. He is a physically broken man, left to the mercy of the road and anyone on it.

Like all signs, the injured man points to something beyond himself. Depending on your interpretation, you could see him several ways. Perhaps, we can take what I think is the most common interpretation, that he is the representation of those around us who stand in need. This story told by Jesus to a man asking “who is my neighbor?”, is one of a man who supposedly wants ‘clarification’ on what neighbors are to be loved. We could also see the man as ourselves, we could step into the story and see ourselves.

After defining the sign and what it points to, we come to meaning or better understood, the meaning we give to the injured man. Whether we see him as those around us in need who are forgotten and left by the wayside or we see him as ourselves in need or some other interpretation, we can see the sign of the injured man is one that speaks to need. There is, in the man, need that is being presented for someone to respond.

The Pharisee and Scribe – Our next two symbols go together in that they both act the same way in our story, albeit from differing perspectives. The fact that there are two of them is symbolic as we will see momentarily. The Pharisee and the Scribe are members of the Jewish religious order that came into being around the time of Maccabean revolt around two hundred years before Jesus ministry. Pharisees are most often vilified in the New Testament and the church as well, but the intent of Pharisaical thought was to prioritize the practice of the law and focus on the intention behind that practice.[3] Scribes often worked alongside Pharisees as those who copied the Torah.

“Scribes were called upon to copy the Torah and record many of its historical interpretations, they became legal scholars to a great extent.  They were not required to believe in the interpretations put forth by the Pharisees, but they acted in a pseudo-Pharisaical role of explicating the Law to others. Additionally, because many scribes were Torah copyists, they were bound by ritual codes that regulated their fitness to produce appropriately kosher (fit) Torah scrolls. Consequently, they became very strict in their observance of the smallest details of ritual purity.  This meant following purity laws (commandments) previously required only of the priestly caste, which again associated them with the Pharisaical proposition that complete ritual purity should be observed by all Jews.”[4]

Knowing these basic things about Pharisees and Scribes, we can begin to look at what they might point to as signs. In the story, both walk around the man and go on their way. Often, we think of this as a slight, with the two men thinking they are too good to aid someone in need. But us we understand that both the scribe and the Pharisee are bound to strict laws of religious cleanliness and rigorous spiritual discipline. With this little bit of knowledge, we see that they might point not at an individual preforming the act but at the system behind the individuals that has limited them. The issue is not that the men are bad men but that the system that defines them is imperfect, leading them to imperfect actions.

The meaning for these two men could then become that they are part of a bigger issue in Jesus’ day, one tied to the Pharisaical interpretation of the Law and how that law should be lived out. It speaks to the idea that holiness is no excuse for failing to help those in need during their time of need.

The Samaritan – Our last sign is that of the Samaritan. In our time, the idea of the Samaritan is synonymous with the story we are reading today. Many businesses, charities, and hospitals take the name of Samaritan because it carries a connotation from this story and the classical interpretation of it. But what gives the idea of ‘Samaritan’ this positive influence and symbolic stature?

If we define Samaritan as they were understood in Jesus day at the time of the writing of Luke (80-90 CE), we are speaking of a truly vilified people. Samaritans were the ‘leftovers’ of the northern kingdom after the Assyrians took that part of Israel into captivity. They are the result of intermarriage between northern Jews and those Gentile tribes that lived in the area after the Assyrians left. The Samaritans were also distinct from Jews because of their beliefs. If you remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, that story highlights the difference of where they worship: The Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Mount Gerazim for Samaritans.

“Additionally, they believed only in the Written Torah (Pentateuch), every word of which they believed to have been written by Moses himself, whom they revered even more than the Judeans did. This rejection of the Oral Tradition likened them to the Sadducees, but unlike the Sadducees, the Samaritans also believed in an afterlife.  These religious differences put them at odds with most other groups of Jews, and combined with their mixed heritage, resulted in their portrayal as an inherently lower order of Jew.”[5]

 In short, Samaritans were looked at as half-blood, disgraced, pretenders to the faith.[6]

In the parable, however, Jesus uses the sign of the Samaritan to point to a different understanding of the person. As someone outside the purity traditions shared by the Pharisee and Scribe (and for that matter the legal expert Jesus is speaking to), the Samaritan can act out of true compassion and concern for the individual without regard to duty or obligation to any law. He acts as though the need of the man is greater than the need for following religious laws and traditions that get in the way of caring for those who are hurting.

This creates many layers of meaning for the Samaritan. He becomes a symbol for charity, compassion, mercy, and grace. He also becomes a symbol against the idea of religious laws and practices that get in the way of or supersede the true basis for such laws. The practice of the Samaritan reaches beyond “to prioritize the practice of the law and focus on the intention behind that practice”[7] in a way that the Pharisee and Scribe have failed to do, even in their own understanding and practice.

What does this mean for us?

The semiotician or philosopher of signs and symbols Marcel Danesi writes, “…there is no such thing as absolute meaning, for the simple reason that meaning cannot be separated from culture.”[8] While I can offer meaning from the perspective of my personal education and experiences, I cannot tell you that there is one singular meaning to the story.

I can say I believe the story is one of a need presented, the need refused, and the need met. I can tell you I believe Jesus used the culture of his time to illustrate a point about what it means to truly show love to neighbor, that love should go beyond the bounds of all other things including practices and laws of religion that are defined by man in his quest for holiness and orthodoxy. I can say I believe that we as followers of Jesus should seek to love beyond the trappings of religion as followers of Jesus. But that is my understanding, my truth, my reading of the signs. I encourage you to dive into the story, dive into your relationship with God and your understanding of these things and live them as good followers after the Way of Jesus, amen.


[1] (Band 1971)

[2] (Augustine 2008), p.9

[3] (Segal 1996), p. 48

[4] http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/dfg/jesu/topic2.htm

[5] http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/dfg/jesu/topic2.htm

[6] (Segal 1996), p.46

[7] (Segal 1996), p.48

[8] (Danesi 2008), p.24