Monday Evening Musings – Isolation and Elder Brothers
After a long and full Lord’s day, it is easy to lose track of the spiritual journey our worshiping family takes together from scattered-in-ten-thousand directions, through the Presence and Word of the Lord as we assemble for communion and prayer and celebration, into the recollected peace that comes from our confidence that the Lord is near to us in all our sorrows and joys. It takes me a day or so to spot some of the deeper connections between the the word preached and the life I’m living. Maybe, by Monday night, I will have something to share. Sometimes.
Jesus is a genius. Flat-out brilliant. But not in a geeky Dr. Reed from Criminal Minds way where his incredible intelligence is a barrier to relationships and emotional understanding. Not at all – in fact, his brilliance gives him an unparalleled comfort around all kinds of people. He wears the holy story of God-with-us, of God-saving-His-people, like a second skin – it fits him with shocking ease, if only the people around him would listen. Because he saw everything through Emmanuel eyes, he always had wise words in his mouth. Wise in the sense that they were precisely the words that needed to be said to those particular people at that particular time. And, as we enter the Jesus story through prayer and worship and study, perhaps we’ll hear his voice with “words fitly spoken” unto us. Listen to this:
“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable…” (Lk 15:1-2)
The Master Teacher goes on to spin three stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons. In the first two, he follows the conventional wisdom of the day, baiting the barbed hook of the third story. His basic point? “You people will bend over backwards to save your livestock, to keep careful accounting of your money, but what happens when you lose people whom your God loves?” Then he answers the question for them. Listen to this:
“But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him!’” (Lk 15:29-30)
How does Jesus describe our response to the grace of God? God’s people turn God’s gifts into hard yokes of tyrannical servitude! The opportunity to partner with the One True God in his saving-the-world mission becomes ‘working like a slave.’ We make ourselves the heroes of the story, and God becomes the villain. And worst of all? God’s awesome gift – the opportunity to praise His name and give thanks for His goodness and draw love and joy and peace and strength from His Presence – becomes nothing more than a performance for Him. Notice how the elder son talks about celebrating?
The great worship festivals – Passover and Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Tabernacles – were gifts of rest and celebration from the Lord God to His Treasured people! And how does the elder son describe them? “Working like a slave for you” and “you’ve never given me even a young goat!” Woe unto those who suck the joy out of worshiping the One True God and turn it into performance – slave labor! The Father will celebrate with any who will come to him – but Jesus never tells us what the elder brother chooses to do.
Jesus tells this story to the people of God, but people who isolated themselves from foreigners and fools and filth. Yesterday, The Tennessean ran a story about some of God’s people wrestling with religious isolation. How will we respond? Will we hear the message of the parable, or turn a deaf ear and stay outside?