Sermon I Advent Yr C

1 Advent Yr C, 29/11/2009

Jer 33:14-16

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Hope amidst hopelessness”


Do any of you know surely? I’m not talking about a person of the female gender named Shirley. No, rather, I’m speaking of that little English word. A word that refers to confidence and certainty. Surely you know it. In today’s first lesson the prophet Jeremiah speaks of it like this as he quotes what he heard from the LORD himself: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Notice that Jeremiah does not say or quote the LORD as having said something like this: “The days are perhaps coming…” or “The days are maybe coming…” None of that kind of ambiguity here. “The days are surely coming…”

And sure enough, as day follows night, surely the season of Advent has arrived. Advent is too short, only four weeks. The season reminds us of Christ’s coming. We look at Christ’s coming from the perspective of the past as Jesus came to earth and live among us as a human being like us in every way, except without sin. And we celebrate Christ’s presence among us today in the present; as he reveals himself to us through Word and sacrament, and the communion of us sinner-saints. We also look forward into the future when he shall come again and usher in completely his eternal kingdom. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year, which usually gives us cause to look forward into the future.

However, there is much irony as we celebrate Advent for the last time here at Grace Lutheran Church. The irony bespeaks hope and sadness, loss and grief. I believe that’s why our passage from Jeremiah is tailor-made for us today. The predicament that we find ourselves in as a congregation moving into the future with sorrow and grief has similarities with the predicament of Jeremiah and the people of Judah. We, like Jeremiah, can say that “The days are surely coming…” Our predicament here at Grace Lutheran, like that of Jeremiah and his people, is one of hope amidst the hopelessness.

Jeremiah’s little oracle of hope is almost out of sync for the prophet, in that the circumstances were most likely anything but hopeful. Jeremiah was either serving time in jail or under house arrest, because he prophesied against the king, Zedekiah, and the people of Judah and Jerusalem, charging them with being unfaithful to the LORD and his covenant with them. Moreover, to add insult to injury, Jeremiah had said that the present siege of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadrezzar and his Babylonian army was God’s instrument of punishment upon the people of Jerusalem and Judah, thus it was pointless to resist them. Such a prophetic message went over like a lead balloon, no wonder Jeremiah was in jail. In contemporary times, it might be compared with something like a pastor from Lethbridge standing on main street Medicine Hat and prophesying that our city is going to be invaded and taken over by the citizens of Lethbridge; and it’s pointless to resist them, for they are God’s instrument of wrath upon us. Such a pastor might also very well be arrested, perhaps even thrown into jail, and most Hatters would likely reject and condemn their message.

And yet, Jeremiah remains faithful to God and proclaims this oracle of hope in spite of the immediate situation of hopelessness. At times it is difficult for people to live with hope when all they can see in their situation is hopelessness. Yet, as people of faith, we like Jeremiah and the people of Judah are called to live with hope—even as we face the hopelessness of closing our church doors. Jeremiah’s oracle of hope communicates certainty and confidence that God shall, in the future, make good on his promises to the people of Israel and Judah. How can we, like Jeremiah be a people of hope amidst our hopelessness? Well, by trusting in God’s Messiah-King Jesus, like Jeremiah did; for he is our righteous Branch.

I like that image of Jesus as our righteous Branch. Apparently one of the military tactics that the Babylonian army engaged in against the people of Judah and Jerusalem was to chop down the olive trees. The olive orchards were, in many respects part of “the life-blood” of the economy for God’s people—providing food and oil for eating, cooking and other uses. So, when the olive trees were cut down, the people of Judah and Jerusalem no doubt lamented at their loss. Such a hostile act would have made them feel hopeless. Yet Jeremiah sees hope amidst that situation of hopelessness. Jeremiah sees the righteous Branch. Looking into the future, Jeremiah knew that the olive orchard stumps would produce shoots and branches. In a few years down the road, they’d even come to live again and produce olives.

So it was spiritually too. Jeremiah was saying to his people: “Don’t give up hope in the midst of this Babylonian hopelessness. Yes, we will go into Babylonian exile. However, look into the future, the LORD shall fulfill his promises to us. Hope in him and he shall not disappoint you. He shall send his Messiah-King, the righteous Branch to govern us. One day we shall be back in the Promised Land and eat from the fruit of the olive orchards. On a new day we shall worship the LORD in a new Jerusalem temple. My people, don’t lose your hope amidst the hopelessness—even if you cannot see the hope now. Hang onto it, for the LORD is a God of hope and where there’s hope there is life.”

Members and friends of Grace Lutheran, can you see the hope amidst the hopelessness? Yes, the doors of this edifice shall close at the end of December. And yes, such an event breaks your hearts. We all had hopes, now that are in the past and lost, for the situation to improve here at Grace so we could carry on our ministry. We mourn those lost hopes of the past. Now we face the future. Advent is a season of hope—pointing us to Christ our righteous Branch. After the ministry here comes to an end and our doors close; when we’ve completed all of the last things, then we shall go into a new future. A future where we can find another congregation and become accepted in that faith community. In that future a new hope can be born after the sorrow, pain, sadness and loss—just as new olives are born from chopped down tree stumps.

The days are surely coming, Jeremiah prophesies, when the Messiah-King shall come to rule with justice and righteousness. According to later Jewish tradition, the rabbis said: “The life of a single righteous person is equal in value to the whole world.” And: “Through the merit of one righteous [person] the world survives…”1 That, too, is our hope. The first Sunday of Advent points us to the one righteous person—Jesus, our righteous Branch. He can and does save the world and ensures that the world survives. As the old familiar song puts it: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” Moreover, Jeremiah tells us: “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” According to this promise, we are reminded that there is no justice without hope.

Hope is symbolized by the birth of the Christ child, who taught us by example how to make peace, how to heal division, how to restore community.

Hope is born when an Hasidic Jew extends his hand to a fallen Arab, helping him to safety before the collapse of the twin towers.

Hope is born when the parents of savagely murdered teenager Reena Virk help their daughter’s killer gain parole so that he may begin to “lead a useful life.”

Hope is born when the Amish Mennonite parents of five murdered schoolgirls in Pennsylvania encircle the family of their executioner, ensuring forgiveness amid embraces and tears.

Love—not law—is the spirit of justice. Hope is the agenda of justice. There can be no justice where there is no hope. To do justice is to create hope. Justice without hope is like law without gospel.

Restoring hope in this 21st Century will require great sacrifices—especially among those of us who have gotten used to receiving far more than we are willing to give. Whether we take up the cross freely in love or have it forced upon us in hatred, that will be our personal and political choice.2

So brothers and sisters in Christ, do not give up hope for your future amidst the hopelessness. Let go of past hopes so that out of them a new hope shall be born—just like the new olives from the chopped-down olive tree stump. Live with expectation that Jesus our righteous Branch is coming. Prepare for his coming into your hearts, minds and lives this Advent. Be ready to welcome his coming at Christmas. Find the hope for your future and the future of your fellow members of Grace by trusting that Jesus our Messiah-King shall lead you through your hopelessness and exile, sadness and grief into the realised hope of his Promised Land; the kingdom which shall have no end. Amen.

 1 Cited from: Rabbi Alexander Feinsilver, The Talmud For Today (New York: St Martin’s Press, Inc., 1980), p. 48.        2 Cited from: Erich & Miranda Weingartner, “No Justice Without Hope,” in Canada Lutheran, December 2006 (Winnipeg, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p. 13.







Funeral Sermon for Adam Bechtloff

Funeral Sermon for Adam Bechtloff, based on Ps 23 & Lk 12:35-40, by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson. Pattison Chapel, Medicine Hat, 1 o’clock, November 21, 2009.

Adam Bechtloff has now departed from this world. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity or privilege to meet Adam. For those who knew and loved him, Adam was known as a hard-working farmer, a fun-loving person, who enjoyed and loved life. In his retirement years, he became an avid fisherman. He shall be missed as a good neighbour–willing to lend a helping hand in times of need. For example, about a month ago, Adam helped his step daughter Rose and her husband lay down their floor in Taber. According to Adam, a good friend and neighbour is a priceless treasure, and he tried in his life to be a good friend and neighbour.

You who knew Adam well and loved him dearly shall certainly grieve his loss. You will miss him very much. Now however his suffering and battle with cancer is over. When cancer strikes we often question and wonder: Why me? Why him? Why us? Why now?

When someone dies from cancer, we may ask: “What caused the cancer?” There are, as you know, at least three sources of our suffering: it is self-inflicted, or it is caused by others, or it can come from factors seemingly unrelated to human failure.

If we kill ourselves by smoking, it’s our fault. If someone else kills us, it’s their fault. But if, after having done all we could for good health, we still get cancer, whose fault is that? Perhaps it is the fault of the human race. If human beings had worked as hard to destroy cancer as to get rich, travel to the moon, or build bombs, cancer might have been beaten by now. However, we still ask, “Why does God permit cancer in his world?” We don’t know, but, we do know that the healing ministry of Jesus assures us that, as the Good Shepherd, he walks with us–even through the valley of the shadow of death. That is the promise our God gives us in Psalm 23. He is with us no matter what circumstances we face in life and in death.

This message of God with us is, in fact, one of the most important messages during this time of year. In the Christian Church, soon we begin the season called Advent. Advent means “coming.” During Advent, we prepare for the celebrating of Christmas–remembering that God comes to us in the birth of his Son, Jesus, our Lord and Saviour. However, he did not stop coming to us when Jesus died. No, he comes to us in the present time too; he comes to us each day. Psalm 23 reminds us of this promise that Jesus our Good Shepherd is with us. God doesn’t stop there either. He promises that he will come again one day too in the future, at a time we do not know.

That brings us to our scripture passage from Luke’s Gospel, which reminds us of how sudden death can come and the need for us to be prepared when it comes. Luke gives us the warning: “You also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

In a sense, every death is a warning to us to be prepared to wake up; to be alert; because our turn could be next. Life is not ours to control, or to be wasted and abused. Life is never to be taken for granted. Life is a loving gift from God to be lived in harmony with his purposes.

All of us need to be in touch with God our source of life, who is in control of life and death. Those of us who are married, all know that if we don’t communicate with our husband or wife, then the marriage will not be a good one and may end in divorce. Our relationship with God is very much like this too. God, who gives us life, wants us to communicate with him. We need to pray; to read and study and hear his Word; we need to come to church and receive the sacraments; we need the friendship of other Christians too. These are the means of grace through the church that God has provided for us to help us in our grieving; to help us in our living; and to prepare us for death.

As a Christian and a pastor, I have learned that those who handle their suffering best are those who get beyond blaming someone or something for it; who come to accept it; even though they cannot fully understand, for it remains a mystery. For it is in suffering, as Scripture teaches us, that we are often drawn closer to God. My hope and prayer for each and every one of you here today is that you would trust in the promise of God’s Word that the LORD is your shepherd; that he was with Adam even through his darkest valley of suffering and death. My hope and prayer for each of you here today is that you believe and trust Christ is with you now as you bring your sadness and grief to him; for he invites you to trust in his promise that he will be with you today, tomorrow and forever; and he wants you to benefit from his Word and the sacraments and his Church; that he wants you to come to him for healing and peace; and he wants you to be in a loving, trusting relationship with him now and forever. For in Christ alone is our true security and Source of life now, and in the future, forever. Amen.


Sermon Christ the King Yr B

Christ the King Sunday Yr B, 22/11/2009

Ps 132:1-12

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“The most faithful King”


The story is told of Prince Philip who was visiting an Australian university, where he was introduced to a couple identified as “Mr and Dr Robinson.” The husband explained, “My wife is a doctor of philosophy. She is much more important than I.” Prince Philip sympathetically replied, “Ah, yes. We have that trouble in our family, too.”

In today’s first lesson we learn of King David’s troubles too. The psalm also speaks about it—it begins with a prayer likely prayed by David’s son, Solomon at the time of the dedication of the temple. In the opening verse, the psalmist prays: “O LORD, remember in David’s favour all the hardships he endured.” The reference to hardships here most likely refers to his troubles over wanting a permanent home for the ark of the covenant. Even though David tried his best to build a temple for the ark, the LORD did not let him—he was upstaged by his son Solomon, who accomplished that building project.

The psalm takes a single incident out of the past, the history of the ark of the covenant, and reminisces over it: “Remember how we got the news in Ephrathah—which is another name of Bethlehem, David’s city—learned all about it at Jaar Meadows? This was Kiriath-jearim, where the ark had been kept from Samuel’s time until David became king in Jerusalem. We shouted, ‘Let’s go to the shrine dedication! Let’s worship at God’s own footstool!’ Up, GOD, enjoy your new place of quiet repose, you and your mighty covenant ark.”

The ark of the covenant was a box approximately forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches broad and twenty-seven inches deep, constructed of wood and covered with gold. Its lid of solid gold was called the mercy seat. Two cherubim, angel-like figures at either end, framed the space around the central mercy seat from which God’s word was heard. It had been made under the supervision of Moses (Ex 25:10-22) and was a symbol of the presence of God among his people. The ark had accompanied Israel from Sinai, through the wilderness wanderings, and had been kept at Shiloh from the time of the conquest. In a battle the ark had been captured by the enemy Philistines and was a trophy of war displayed in the Philistine cities until it became a problem to them (the story is told in 1 Samuel 4-7) and was returned to Israel, to the village of Kiriath-jearim (7:1-2), where it rested until David came to get it and place it in honour in Jerusalem, where it later became enshrined in Solomon’s temple.1 However, the ark, even though it was a symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites, was not God himself. The Israelites had to learn the hard way that you cannot put God in a box; nor can you limit God’s presence to one particular place on earth. God is God over heaven and earth. God was not pleased with the Israelites, Solomon’s temple was destroyed, the Israelites were taken into exile, and the ark then disappeared into the mists of history.

As we continue with our psalm, there is a theme in verses eleven and twelve of a covenant that God had made with David: “The LORD swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back; “One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne.” Sure enough God kept that covenant, by allowing Solomon to ascend to the throne, and allowing him to build the Jerusalem temple. In many respects, Solomon’s success and fame succeeded that of David’s. However, there is a second part to God’s covenant, which is spelled out in verse twelve. In verse twelve, the covenant becomes a conditional one—which means that if David’s dynasty was to continue and be blessed by the LORD, then there was a certain duty, a certain condition that the kings would have to honour. God places the following condition on the covenant: “If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I shall teach them, their sons also, forevermore, shall sit on your throne.” Well, we all know what happened with that conditional covenant. The Davidic dynasty did not last. David’s offspring, including Solomon, did not keep God’s covenant and decrees—all of them fell away from the ways of the LORD, into very serious sins. King after king who succeeded David committed brutal acts of sin. The history of the Davidic dynasty is full of evil plots and power-plays; much violence and blood was shed; like so many other royal dynasties of the world. I’m sure all of this dirty politicking must have broken God’s heart. Here were the makings of a holy people, blessed by God to rule under a holy king, in a holy place—Jerusalem. Yet, Jerusalem, which was supposed to be “the” model city of peace for the rest of the world, became the exact opposite. Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, over the centuries has been anything but a city of peace. The pages of Jerusalem’s history are filled with conflicts, strife, destruction, divisions, sufferings, and the shedding of much blood. So, no, this conditional covenant of a Davidic dynasty blessed by God “forevermore” has not been fulfilled.

Unless, of course, we look at this covenant from a different perspective—namely, from the perspective of another offspring from David’s lineage, born to a humble couple named Mary and Joseph, Jesus. If we look at the life, teachings and miracles of Jesus; and if we focus on the greater meaning of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection; then we Christians can say and believe that this conditional covenant made centuries ago in today’s psalm has been kept by Jesus.

Jesus was a King, yet he was a different sort of King. He was born without sin. As the God-Man, without sin, he was able to keep perfectly all of the conditions and decrees of God’s covenant. Moreover, we believe that he came to establish a new covenant. As King of kings and LORD of lords, King Jesus established an eternal covenant for all who believe in him as God’s Messiah. He accomplished this by shedding his innocent blood—outside the city gates of Jerusalem on Golgotha. His innocent blood was shed not out of a sinful lust for selfish, political power and earthly glory. NO. Rather, it was shed out of sacrificial love for all humankind, including you and me; in order that we may have forgiveness of sin and eternal life. So, come, King Christ and live among us today as we partake of your eternal covenant of love now through means of bread and wine. Amen.

1 Cited from: Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2000), p. 164.



Sermon 24 Pentecost Yr B

24 Pentecost Yr B, 15/11/2009

Mk 13:1-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Jesus and our future”


How good are you at predicting the future? I’m not talking here about the obvious events like you predicting that tomorrow, most likely God willing, you’ll get out of bed in the morning; you’ll get dressed and eat breakfast. No, not events like that. Rather, I’m talking about the future that may seem certain and secure; however what most folks expect to happen does not transpire. Instead the opposite occurs.

History is full of such predictions. Listen to the following examples: Right here in Medicine Hat, John Palliser, in 1863, thought this part of the world was a barren wasteland. However, he was wrong, we’ve thrived thanks to our natural gas, grazing lands, and grain and vegetable crops, and now our future looks promising because of the sunlight and wind in this part of Canada, solar energy is becoming more popular, as is wind energy.

Perhaps some of you may also remember the following predictions: Thomas Watson, the chair of IBM in 1943 said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Decca Records, rejecting a request for a recording contract with a group called the Beatles in 1962, said: “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on the way out.”1 Today we all know what happened to computers and the Beatles. In both cases those making the predictions were dead wrong.

In a reverse manner, from history past there were signs of the times that seemed so certain and secure, but turned out to be tragic and destructive.

Only 12 kilometres south of the popular Taizé monastic community in France, is the town of Cluny. Cluny was a thriving monastic centre from about the tenth to the twelfth centuries, with around ten thousand monks. The cathedral at Cluny was most likely the largest edifice of Christendom until St Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome five centuries later. Today no cathedral stands at Cluny. During the French Revolution in the 1790s, the cathedral was destroyed by the battalions of the poor and the stones were sold to finance the revolution.

In today’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching in the Jerusalem temple, and now he and his disciples are leaving that place. Standing outside the temple and looking at it, a disciple was impressed with the magnificent structure; admiring the large stones and buildings. Quite likely the disciples from the backwaters of Galilee had never seen the temple before. For them as for many Jewish people it was a symbol and sign of God’s power. The temple reminded them of God’s security and protection, a holy place of refuge. A disciple in amazement said: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.” The disciple was correct; the architecture was grand and impressive. Would such a solid edifice not last forever?

Jesus, answers the disciple in a shocking way, saying: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Wow! What a surprising prediction! Who would have expected such an answer? According to one commentator, the large stones were about thirty-seven and one-half feet long, eighteen feet wide, and twelve feet thick! Now that’s a huge rock! Think of all those rocks that size together to make a huge structure. What could be more solid and secure and long-lasting than such an architectural masterpiece? Yet Jesus says, even such a structure as this is not going to remain secure and last forever. In predicting the temple’s destruction, Jesus is, in effect, saying: “Do not be so mesmerized by these large stones and buildings. Do not place all of your security in them. Rather, your true security is in me and the heavenly Father alone—not in sacred places, no matter how large and secure they are built. Your ultimate, eternal security is in God alone.”

As they walk away from the temple and reach the Mount of Olives, the disciples are still puzzled and curious about the future, and so they ask Jesus: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Jesus answers at first in a very sobering way, after which he gives them a seed of hope.

His sobering part of the answer is a warning; he begins with the word “Beware.” The word “beware,” to this day, is a warning, it reminds us to keep alert, observant; keep our guard up since certain dangers may be coming our way. Jesus then tells his disciples that they and many other folks shall in the future face the danger of being led astray by many false messiahs who come in Jesus’ name. He says to them and us that there will be snake oil smooth pretenders out there ready to lead you into a danger zone that will destroy you. Jesus warns the disciples and us that they and we could be at risk. He says, such charlatans shall say: “‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” In other words, they shall succeed. We know that Jesus’ prediction was right, as over the years and even today there have been many false sectarian leaders and cult figures who have brainwashed vulnerable people, and led many folks to commit soul-destructive acts, often ending with tragic deaths.

Jesus goes on to say that there will also be plenty of wars and rumours of wars, kingdoms and nations fighting with each other as well as so-called “natural disasters” like earthquakes and famines. All of these predictions, of course, have come true. In every century since Jesus predicted such tragic events, there have been plenty of wars and no shortage of “natural disasters,” as our news broadcasts have focussed on the Afghanistan war and the earthquakes and tsunamis in places like Samoa and Indonesia recently. All of these predictions of Jesus have come true and continue to occur. Is this the end? Shall Jesus come again and rescue us from all of these sufferings and disasters?

For a little comic relief, listen to the following joke, it makes an important point: A red Porsche convertible pulled up to the red light. Its vanity license plate had the letters J C on it, the owner’s initials. Two nuns were in the next lane and one of them, noticing the vanity plate, said, “I knew he was coming back, but I didn’t know it would be in a Porsche!” The joke drives home (pun intended) the point that people can easily misunderstand and misinterpret the so-called “signs of the end,” and wrongly believe that Jesus is here today, or coming at a specific time and place. No, Jesus says all of these signs do not tell you the end has arrived.

Rather, Jesus leaves his disciples and us with a final answer of hope. The hope is a seed of better things to come. He tells his disciples and us: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” The last word in Jesus’ sentence here, “birthpangs,” is the clue to our future hope. Another way of stating Jesus’ last sentence here is: “These things are like the first pains of childbirth.” Here we have a comparison of a woman giving birth and going through all the pain of delivering her child—Jesus says such pain is like what we experience from the sufferings in this world due to false messiahs, and the so-called “natural disasters.” However, we all know—and I suggest that women who have given birth to a child know this better than men—that the pains during giving birth are a sign of hope because from the pain a baby is born. The new baby is a sign of hope. We are reminded that the birth pains were worth it because they resulted in this wonderful, new human being. So, too, all of the sufferings that we have to endure lead to the new age—they usher in the kingdom of God, which one day shall come in all of it fullness. Until then, we place all of our trust and faith, and hope in God alone who is our only solid and secure Rock and Temple. Amen.

1 Cited from: David E. Leininger, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit: Series VI Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 2008), p. 276.


Sermon 23 Pentecost Yr B

23 Pentecost Yr B, 8/11/2009

Mk 12:38-40

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“Jesus and the scribes”


Bragging may not bring happiness, but did you ever see a person, having caught a large fish, go home through an alley? The story is told about a man who was reading the schedule for his community’s upcoming meetings. He snorted about one program, “He’s going to talk to us about his naval experiences? Poppycock! The nearest he ever came to a naval experience was when his basement flooded and his rowing machine sank.” As that wise person, Anonymous once said: “Pride is the only disease that makes everyone sick but the one who has it.”

In today’s gospel, which takes place inside the Jerusalem temple, Jesus is teaching, and has a captive audience. Right there, in the place of religious power, Jesus lowers the boom so-to-speak on the religious scribes, who may also have functioned as priests in the temple; at least Ezra had that duel role according to Nehemiah 8:9 after the return home to Judah from Babylonian exile. At any rate, Jesus does not hold back on his criticism and judgement of the scribes. He criticizes and judges them on a few counts.

In contemporary, colourful language, Eugene Peterson in The Message puts it like this: “He continued teaching. “Watch out for the religion scholars. They love to walk around in academic gowns, preening in the radiance of public flattery, basking in prominent positions, sitting at the head table at every church function. And all the time they are exploiting the weak and helpless. The longer their prayers, the worse they get. But they’ll pay for it in the end.”

As you can see from this version of our gospel, Jesus comes across as one who is stirring the pot against the religious establishment of his day. Here he does seem to be “a rabble rowser.” The picture Mark gives us is one of a heightening drama; with a growing conflict and collision course between Jesus and the religious establishment. So, let’s unpack a little each of the criticisms and judgements that Jesus makes against the scribes.

In verse 38, Jesus starts off by saying: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes.” As Peterson suggests, these folks could be the professor types or cutting closer to the bone for me, us clergy. Yes, professors and clergy often do like to be seen in our long robes. What’s wrong with that? Is not a robe better than showing off that eight-hundred or thousand dollar suit that the televangelists love to wear? Is not a robe less ostentatious than other distracting or inappropriate clothing? Even in the New Testament, there are positive references to robes—especially for the faithful who have gone to their eternal reward. So what’s wrong with wearing a long robe? Well, here’s why, according to Dr. William Barclay:

A long robe which swept the ground was the sign of a notable. It was the kind of robe in which no one could either hurry or work, and was the sign of the leisured (person) of honour. It may be that the phrase has another meaning. In obedience to Numbers 15:38 the Jews wore tassels at the edge of their outer robe. These tassels were to remind them that they were the people of God. Quite possibly these legal experts wore outsize tassels for special prominence (cf. Matthew 23:5). At all events they liked to dress in such a way that it drew attention to themselves and to the honour they enjoyed.1 In contrast, less ostentatious scribes only wore their long robes during prayer and while they were working at their scribal duties. There is a time and place for all things. If I were to wear my robe every day in public, I’m sure I’d get some weird looks and draw plenty of attention to myself. So, too, on special occasions like university graduation ceremonies; it is appropriate to wear a robe. If you didn’t wear a robe on such an occasion, you would stand out like a sore thumb. So here Jesus is criticizing and judging not all scribes. Rather, he’s referring to the pretentious group of scribes who love to draw attention to themselves by wearing their robes in inappropriate circumstances.

The next criticism and judgement Jesus raises is that the scribes like: “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” In other words, they liked to be praised in public—to have an air of pretentiousness, to exude an official, formal image. On the other hand, do we not all desire some respect in the public eye? Don’t we all want a respectable reputation among the general public? Are there not far too many charlatans out there fleecing folks with their shady business deals, their “get rich quick” schemes, and snake oil religion? Recently in news we’ve heard of how a group of Jewish rabbis swindled folks like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Here in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church was shocked to learn that one of their bishops was caught with child pornography on his laptop computer. So what’s wrong with wanting respect among the general public?

What’s wrong with being greeted with respect in the marketplaces was that at the time of Jesus, it was customary for a superior person to be greeted first by an inferior person—only after such a greeting would the superior person respond. In other words, such scribes who demanded to be greeted first were again acting pretentiously. Scribes of this ilk were saying by this behaviour: “Know your place; I’m better than you. I’m of noble stock, you’re a mere commoner.” In stark contrast to this attitude and behaviour Jesus’ attitude and behaviour epitomised humility. He befriended the ordinary folk of his day. In fact, he went further than anyone at the time by regarding the social and religious outcasts as sons and daughters of God, created in God’s image, like all other people. He came not to be served, but to serve folks—especially the lost, last and least.

In verse 39, Jesus continues his criticism and judgement of the scribes by saying they like: “to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets.” In defence of the best synagogue seats, maybe there is a rationale. For example, would it not be legitimate to have a best seat in the synagogue if a scribe were elderly and couldn’t see or hear very well? Perhaps the best front-row-seats would help them with such impairments in mind. On the other hand, Jesus’ words of indictment here seem to mean the scribes have a self-centred preoccupation with externals—their public image and identity, that’s what really mattered to them. “Hey, look at me, I’m important. See how great I art! I’m the centre of attention.” Again, in stark contrast, Jesus teaches no, such an attitude and behaviour is wrong. What is truly important; what really counts according to Jesus is what is inside more than externals. What is in our heart, that is what counts the most according to Jesus. Jesus’ teaching here is also affirmed by authentic Judaism. You remember the words of Psalm 51, which epitomise this, the psalmist prays: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” And a few verses later: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

In his final indictment of the scribes, Jesus accuses them of abusing their religion, saying: “They devour widows’ houses.” Now this is a pretty serious charge, preying on society’s most vulnerable, the widows. While they rob widows, they have a false veneer of piety and: “for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Does this mean that all prayers should be kept short? I think not, if we are to keep Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” Long prayers in today’s gospel seem to have the intention of duping people—you know, “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” syndrome. The scribes are trying to impress others for the sake of show by the long prayers. Their prayers are not out of genuine love and concern for their neighbour.

Here again Jesus’ own life and ministry is a stark contrast to such proud, self-absorbed scribes. The gospels tell us that Jesus had mercy on the most vulnerable folks like widows. In verses 41 to 44 of our gospel he praises the unnamed widow for giving what little she had to the temple treasury, saying that she had given all she had. On another occasion, Jesus healed the son of a widow, knowing that she would be left destitute if she lost her son. So, in Christ’s eyes, widows were loved and cared for and highly regarded. As for prayers, the gospels tell us that Jesus would get up early in the morning and go to a quiet place away from people, and pray alone there. So prayers were not a show that Jesus put on to impress others. Rather, prayers were from Christ’s heart and soul, poured out in love to his heavenly Father for the sake of you and me and the whole world.

May we continue to learn from Christ’s humility, love for others, and service of others. May we learn from Jesus that life and faith is not lording it over others and placing ourselves on centre stage. Rather, according to Jesus, life and faith is giving of ourselves without asking what’s in it for us or how we can advance ourselves to a higher status. In the words of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels, life and faith consists of denying self, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. Amen.

1 Wm. Barclay, The Gospel Of Mark (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 299-300.



Elie Wiesel on forgiveness

Elie Wiesel on Forgiveness, just before his 80th birthday at a Jewish Values Network Fundraiser on 10/05/2008 at the Steinhardt Estate in NY.

Elie Wiesel is one of the 3 most important people in the world today, along with Nelson Mandela, and Dalai Lama, according to Rabbi Shumuley Boteach.

I always appreciate the message of Elie Wiesel; he is a person of exceptional depth and authenticity. Here are a few brief notes I jotted down while watching this video.

We ask God to forgive us. But God needs some of us to forgive him. I believe in questions more than answers. As a child he was never asked by his mother: “Did you have a good answer in school today?” Rather, she asked me, “Did you have a good question today in school?” In our tradition, what we try to show is a question, and questing. A philosopher once said: “Always seek truth, but beware of the one who found it.” Death is the question of everything—why did God create everything so it will die? Why create us humans because we shall die? Even though we die, we have to live, and therefore we need to do something with our lives.

Charity saves you from dying while you are alive. Charity is compassion for those who need you—they have no basic necessities, of even no hope. Our purpose is to give them these things; otherwise we’re not fully human.

Importance of asking for forgiveness from the person that one has hurt/sinned against. How long do we go back? Should we Jews have to forgive the Egyptians for the pyramids we built? Children of assassins and not assassins of children—problem of collective guilt, Wiesel does not believe in collective guilt. Each person must forgive the person who sinned against them directly; no one else can do that.

Jewish values, concepts, philosophies: Mine is the more Jewish is a Jew, the more universal one is. I cannot believe the Jewish person, or Jewish religion is superior to any other person or religion. I don’t like fanatics who tell me I don’t have the right to believe what I believe.

The Dalai Lama asked Wiesel to teach him the art of survival because the former said his people will need to learn it as it will likely be some time before they gain any kind of independence or autonomy for their homeland of Tibet and the exiles shall be safe to return. We can teach the non-Jew, the Muslim, Christian, and others if we live authentic Jewish lives.

Question time: I believe in memory. I don’t believe in hatred, anger yes. Memory, learn from it, say: “I don’t want my past to become someone else’s future.”

Question: Is Wiesel optimistic about the Jewish future? Yes, he said. Memory transcends future. Never before now have there been so many courses, books, etc., on the Holocaust. So I am optimistic about our people, that we shall survive.

Question of Jewish view of forgiveness, when do you forgive? Jewish law requires an individual to forgive their perpetrator, only if the latter asks for it. Wiesel told the story of a German government leader—I think it was Chancellor Kohl—who, after listening to Wiesel’s view on forgiveness, travelled to Israel and publicly in the Knesset asked for forgiveness from the Jewish people.

May God continue to grant health and blessings to his faithful servant, Elie Wiesel.