A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

Image credit: sharefaith.com

The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!

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Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph’s address at Augustana Campus, U of A

On Tuesday of this week, I attended a talk by Rabbi Lindsey bat Joseph, titled, “Dancing on our Enemy’s Grave?: Coming to Terms With Victory and Peace,” in the chapel of Augustana Campus, the University of Alberta. The talk was organized by the Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public Life.

Rabbi Y. Lindsey bat Joseph is director of the Sol Mark Centre for Jewish Excellence, in Vancouver, B.C. She has been teaching for over 25 years, primarily in adult and post-secondary settings, and is currently a faculty member at Alexander College in downtown Vancouver. She has also acted as a moderator for Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café. She was ordained as a Reform Rabbi under the auspices of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Rabbi bat Joseph served as Rabbi-Educator at Temple Beth Ora of Edmonton for 11 years. She is committed to a Judaism that is inclusive, egalitarian, and creative in its approach to meeting the needs of contemporary Jews. Since moving to the West Coast, she has been involved with small Jewish communities on the B.C. Mainland and on Vancouver Island as well as teaching and studying in the Greater Vancouver Region. She holds a Bachelors Degrees in Education and in Religious Studies and Applied Ethics, a Masters Degree in Jewish Letters from the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform seminary), and a Masters degree with a major in Moral Philosophy. In 2005, she was awarded the Alberta Centennial Medal for community service. She was a contributing writer to the Jewish Lights Press Women’s Haftarah Commentary and had an article published in the Central Conference of American Rabbis Journal in August 2013.

The following are my notes from Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, with apologies for any and all errors, omissions, etc.

Rabbi bat Joseph began by saying that one of the main impetuses for this talk was the death and aftermath of Osama bin Laden.

When terrorists are successful in killing their victims, they are portrayed by the media as rejoicing over their enemies. However, when terrorists are defeated, reactions are mixed and more ambiguous. According Rabbi bat Joseph, the reaction of governments were muted, they were not triumphant when the enemy, bin Laden was killed.

In our world today, civilians are increasingly on the front lines, as they are kidnapped by terrorists. Rabbi bat Joseph said that Israel has dealt with this since 1948.

Countries and governments don’t want to negotiate with terrorists, but what about a government’s responsibility to its citizens?

According to Rabbi bat Joseph, there are two seemingly contradictory passages concerning ethical-moral approaches to the enemy in the Book of Proverbs. Proverbs 24:17, and 11:10. Proverbs 24:17 states: “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Whereas Proverbs 11:10 states: “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; and when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.” (Note: I am quoting from the NRSV Bible).

Rabbi bat Joseph pointed out that there is a Midrash on Jewish festivals which places limits on rejoicing in light of the suffering of one’s enemy. One example she cited was pouring wine cups only partially full in the Passover Seder, reminding the Jewish participants that the enemy Egyptians suffered from the deaths of their loved ones from the plagues and in pursuit of the Hebrew slaves during the exodus from Egypt.

In Jewish exegesis of the Proverbs eleven passage, the text is in the context of judgment and justice. Rabbi bat Joseph employed the phrase “carefully restrained joy” when justice prevails.

When Osama bin Laden was killed by the U.S. military in 2011, many in cities across the U.S.A. celebrated his death, even with fireworks. However, governments around the world, including the U.S. government had a more muted response.

In 2004, Sheik Ahmed Yassin was killed by an Israeli missile. Even though he was a well-known terrorist, his death was not celebrated with rejoicing in Israel. Jewish tradition values human life.

The Jewish principle of redeeming the captive is more difficult in today’s world. For example, today we know—and Israel has experienced this—if terrorists are released they go home to plan more attacks.

Rabbi bat Joseph, making reference to the value of a captive, cited Mishnah Gittin 4:6: “Captives may not be ransomed for more than their value, for the sake of social order.”

When a person is taken captive, it is prominent in the media. Sometimes prisoners have been exchanged in Israel for dead bodies. Israel as a country is divided on these exchanges—do they or do they not encourage more kidnapping? What is the price for doing something and for doing nothing? What is a reasonable price to pay for ransom? There are no easy answers according to Rabbi bat Joseph.

When ISIL is defeated, Jewish tradition says that we will not dance on the enemy’s grave.

Following Rabbi bat Joseph’s talk, there were several questions.

On the matter of a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians, Rabbi bat Joseph said she thinks the two-state solution is the right one and will eventually bring peace. She also stated that Israel is most likely going to end up abandoning some of the settlements, since they will be part of the Palestinian state.

When peace finally comes, Rabbi bat Joseph believes that economically both Israel and Palestine will rely on each other in a similar way that Canada and the United States do now. She also noted that a similar thing happened between Germany and Israel. Today both countries are on reasonably good terms with one another economically and politically.

Nelson Mandela: A brief tribute

Receiving Doctor of Laws Degree at Ryerson University, Toronto

Receiving Doctor of Laws Degree at Ryerson University, Toronto

Yesterday, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the ripe old age of 95 years. What an incredible life he lived! He started out in a rural area of South Africa as a humble animal herder. He then moved to one of the nation’s urban centres to eventually become a lawyer and begin his long fight for freedom and democracy against the South African Apartheid regime. His fight for freedom and democracy landed him in jail for 27 years. His time in prison however gave him an opportunity to grow richer and stronger in character as a human being. After his release from prison in 1990, he continued his long struggle as South Africa’s most gifted and inspirational political leaders, and eventually was elected as the nation’s first black President in 1994. A year earlier, he and President deKlerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Mandela has been described, among other things as: The African Lincoln, noble yet humble, Father of the nation [i.e. South Africa and/or of the whole continent], prophet, brilliant leader, courageous peacemaker, and so forth. We Canadians awarded Mandela an honourary citizenship and made him a member of the Order of Canada, we also named a school after him. Of course, in many respects Mandela was also not only a citizen of his own nation, but a citizen of every nation-especially regarded as such, I think, because of his political wisdom and compassion for humankind.

 

Without question, he was an inspirational exemplar and hero of the black citizens of his nation, and of blacks in general in all of Africa and around the globe. Yet, he had feet of clay like the rest of us, and he at times was the first to admit it. He had, in his earlier years, intimidated and bullied an East Indian leader, removing him off the stage at a public gathering. In humility that bespeaks repentance, he admitted on one occasion publicly that he had failed as, and had been a poor husband to his first wife. He also publicly spoke words of compassion rather than condemnation regarding his second wife, when he was asked about an alleged adulterous relationship with another man.

 

Yet his charisma and sense of doing the right thing at the right time in a symbolic way, earned him the respect of even his worst enemies-including P.W. Botha’s wife, whom he visited shortly after her husband’s death.

 

I think the most significant thing we as Christians can learn from the life of Nelson Mandela is his brilliant capacity to forgive and work for reconciliation with his enemies. In this regard, he was extremely successful, and deserved winning the Nobel Peace Prize. South Africa could have devolved into a brutal civil war, however against all the odds, Mandela’s brilliant leadership led the nation into a state of forgiveness, peace, justice and reconciliation. In this way, most likely he was influenced by such non-violent peacemakers as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas K. Gandhi, [and, most of all, I would like to think, Jesus himself our Saviour and Messiah].

 

May this legacy of Nelson Mandela live on in the history of South Africa, as well as the history of humankind! In closing, I would like to let Nelson Mandela speak for himself, I believe the following quotation epitomises the man and his life: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” REST ETERNAL GRANT NELSON MANDELA, O LORD; AND LET LIGHT PERPETUAL SHINE UPON HIM.

 

Thoughts on forgiveness

Thoughts on forgiveness

Forgiveness is at the heart and core of Christianity. When asked if there were limits to the number of times a person should forgive, Jesus replied: “seventy times seven,” which is not to be taken literally—rather, it is a figure of speech meaning that forgiveness has no limits. Jesus was the perfect exemplar of forgiveness too, while dying on the cross, he prayed for his enemies-those who crucified him: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking on forgiveness understood Christ’s teaching, when he stated: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act it is a permanent attitude.”

 

In Jewish tradition, forgiveness is also emphasised, especially during the ten-day period from the start of Rosh-ha-shana to the end of Yom Kippur, known as Aseret Y’mai Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance. However, the four-step process of repentance applies throughout the year: i) Regret: Realise the extent of the damage and feel sincere regret. ii) Cessation: Immediately stop the harmful action. iii) Confession: Articulate the mistake and ask for forgiveness. iv) Resolution: Make a firm commitment not to repeat it in the future.

 

In addition to the significance of forgiveness in the Judeo-Christian tradition, scientific studies have found that forgiveness is good for our health. According to Professor Kathleen A. Lawler-Row, studies have shown that more forgiving people have lower blood pressures. They are less aroused during stress. They recover off thinking about this experience more quickly. When we look at surveys samples and a variety of measures of health, fatigue, sleep, physical symptoms, number of medications, in every case the more forgiving the person, the better their health.

 

Some identify two basic stages of forgiveness: i) The letting go of the negative aspect as you think about the other person and how you feel. ii) The positive wishing the other person well, which may even involve at times compassion for the offender or seeing them in a more complex light than merely the perpetrator of the offense.

 

It’s also interesting to see that people seem to get a little more forgiving with about every decade in life. With college students, starting at eighteen, there’s certainly a wide range of forgiveness. But with each decade the average level of forgiveness goes up. People get a little bit more and a little bit more forgiving, regardless of personality. They just seem to be a little more ready to forgive the other person with age. Thank the LORD for the gift of forgiveness!