The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Christ Church, Shaker Heights
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
The familiar parable of the Prodigal Son is one of a triptych of parables in Luke chapter fifteen. The first one is about a lost sheep whose owner leaves the remaining flock of ninety-nine to go and find it. The second is about a woman who loses a coin and relentlessly sweeps and searches the house until it is found. The third – our Gospel for today - is about the younger of two sons of a father, who asks his dad for his share of the family fortune; in other words, his inheritance before his father dies. This was a very insulting thing to do, as the subtext of so doing is like saying to your father, I wish you were dead. But inexplicably the father does so.
Being young and impetuous, the son goes off to a foreign country – read gentile territory - engages in dissolute living and quickly squanders everything he has, leaving himself impoverished. He is so desperate that he is compelled to hire himself out as a farm hand where he ends up slopping the pigs. This is dirty work, made more so by the fact that the son is a Jew and pigs are treyf, a Yiddish word meaning non-kosher and therefore unclean. So, the younger son is not only submerged in the filth of his dirty work, but surrounded by – for him – the dirtiest of animals. For him it’s a disgusting, seemingly hopeless, and deplorable situation.
The scripture then tells us that, “when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."
The phrase “when he came to himself” is critical here. It tells us that he has hit rock bottom. He can’t fall any further in his life. He is bereft of everything: his dignity, his self-worth, his rightful place in the social order of life. But in coming to himself, he has an epiphany, he comes to his senses. The son realizes that there is food enough at his father’s home where he can at least escape the ravages of hunger and maybe find a place for himself as a laborer among his father’s hired hands. In other words, at least break out the degradation of his current circumstances among the pigs.
It is important to note that the son has no intention of asking to be reinstated to his former status. He clearly states that he will tell his father, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is remorseful for what he has done and humbled. All he wants is an opportunity to not starve any longer and to have a modicum of his dignity restored. His basic hope is to escape the hell he is in.
But when the father espies his son coming down the road he is filled with compassion and he runs to meet his lost son, throws his arms around him and kisses him. Then he tells his servants to get a beautiful robe to cloth him with, put a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. And oh, yes, get that fated calf and prepare a huge feast because we need to celebrate, “’for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. The filthy son is covered with honor and love.
When his older brother comes home and learns of what has happened, he becomes angry and refuses to join in the celebration. He gets into an argument with his father. I’ve been loyal to you and worked my fingers to the bone on this farm. I’ve done everything right and yet you never give me a thing. But when this reprobate brother of mine, who squandered your money, comes home you pull out all the stops and have a feast.
At this juncture of the story I always have this uncontrollable desire to smack this guy on the side of the head, and tell him that it’s not all about him! Some people just love a pity party!
Ever compassionate the father replies, “'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" In other words, you have at your disposal everything that I own, you have all that you need, you may have what you desire, you just didn’t opt to take advantage of it. Please don’t become the party pooper when I choose to share from the abundance that we have when your brother has had an amendment of life, has redeemed himself and come home. Because that calls for rejoicing!
In the opening verses of this parable we are told, “All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." This is the lens though which we must view this parable. It is a response to Jesus mingling with sinners and tax collectors, which was seen as deplorable behavior by the religious elites. Just like the older son sees his father’s behaviors toward the younger son as deplorable.
Earlier in Luke when Jesus encounters such grumbling about who he associated with from the same religious elites, he stated, ““Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”(LK 5:31-32) I can only imagine he made that statement with more than a touch of irony and a dash of sarcasm. Because the truth is none of us are righteous or well, all of us are sick and sinners. Which means we are all in need of the healing love Jesus the physician dispenses. We are all in need of redemption. None of us has the right to look with disdain from some lofty perch of superiority at another person and consider them inferior or beyond the pale.
But the sad reality is that like the Pharisees and scribes, many of us do. And many of us would prefer to see a perceived sinner kept in misery, if not actually destroyed. We have an adverse response when we think someone who has sinned and becomes remorseful for their sins is being forgiven and offered an opportunity at redemption. At new life. In fact, we even resent the opportunity being given. We prefer the suffering to the rejoicing.
Our criminal justice system is a prime example of this. It is built on the principle of retributive justice where the so-called repair of justice is based on punishment by incarceration and the hellish culture of prison life; punishment, which is all too often applied well-beyond the level of any committed crime. And also, with a huge racial bias. We enjoy seeing people who we see as sinful suffer – long and hard. Even if they are repentant and make amendment of life. Stay filthy, we think. Stay slopping them hogs. And stay away from me. We are the Pharisees and scribes. We are the older son.
Yet the father in the parable offers restorative justice. He desires the rehabilitation of his son and his egregious behaviors through reconciliation with his victims – who are he and his older brother. Truth be told this story is really about the prodigal father. He is the one who offers extravagant, even reckless love, to make his son’s life whole again. This parable tells us that restorative justice is the way of God. It is the way we are called to as well.
Where in your life do you seek the undue punishment of someone who may have wronged you? Even if that person is remorseful and desires reconciliation. Where do you engage in canceling or ghosting them? Of being angry instead of choosing to rejoice? Where do we desire in keeping a person filthy – like the younger son- instead of covering them with honor and love, like the father did.
No one – and I mean no one - who desires to be restored to right relationship with God and their neighbor is beyond the restorative, redemptive love of God. Even those who deliberately rebel and sin. Just like the prodigal son. And frankly what we think about that kind of justice doesn’t matter. That’s the point of the parable. It’s the way of God’s Reign. And that’s good news!
We don’t know if the older son came to himself like his brother did. The parable is left open-ended for us to imagine: for us to become the older son and ponder what we would do. Will we come to our senses and apprehend the truth of Jesus’ love?
Jesus said, “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (LK 15:7) Again, he had to have said that with some irony. But I hope we get the point. In God’s realm it’s all about the redemption and rejoicing. So, let’s come to ourselves and like the father rejoice. Let’s enter the feast and party.
“Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
It takes a very brave person to call a reigning monarch a fox!
Legend has it that Hugh Latimer, one of the Oxford martyrs and Bishop of Worchester, went into the pulpit at Westminster Abbey one Sunday, and looking down saw that King Henry VIII was in the congregation. Latimer was about to preach a tough sermon, that he suspected might not please the king. Taking a deep breath and making a leap of faith, Latimer began to preach. “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say, the king of England is here!” Then he continued, “Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here!” He then continued with his tough sermon.
It takes a tough person to stand up to the powers and principalities of this world, to defend your values and beliefs, giving allegiance to a greater moral good. In the case of Jesus, his values were those of God’s Reign and his allegiance was to God his Father, not to Herod. For Hugh Latimer, his values were those of the Gospel and his allegiance to Jesus, and not to Henry VIII.
And to cite a current analogy: Volodymyr Zelensky’s values are those of righteousness, justice, and peace, and his allegiance is to the Ukrainian people, their culture, and their nation, not to Vladimir Putin.
If you think Jesus’ calling Herod a fox and then referring to himself as a hen who desires to gather her imperiled brood under her wings to protect them sounds a bit like an Aesop’s Fable, you’d be right! There is such a fable titled “The Hen and the Fox.” I wonder where Aesop got this idea from! This fable is the one where the sly, conniving fox tried hard to get a roosting hen out of a tree by telling the hen that their two families had made peace and they were now friends. But the hen knew better than to come down to her doom. The hen outwits the fox by pretending to see some hounds coming their way. And the fox runs off. The moral of this fable is the trickster is easily tricked.
The scripture gives no indication that King Herod Antipas wanted to kill Jesus, but it does say that certain Pharisees and other members of the religious establishment did. So, the Pharisees telling Jesus that Herod wants to kill him is a ruse. They are using Herod as a foil to try and upset Jesus, to frighten him so he ceases and desists from his ministry. Even maybe, make go away, as they do tell him to get away from here.
This tells us that the real foxes are the conniving Pharisees. And like in Aesop’s Hen and the Fox, Jesus tricks the tricksters. He is not alarmed by their false report of Herod’s supposed murderous intent. Rather he calmly replies that he’s busy doing God’s work, so why don’t you go away and stop bothering me. He sees through the Pharisees subterfuge and undermines their willy intent. Jesus outfoxes them.
The Greek word that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as wants, as in “Herod wants to kill you,” is thelo which is more accurately translated as desires, making the text then read, Herod desires to kill you. Thelo is used two more times in this passage. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you [did not desire it!]
Here Jerusalem represents the people Jesus came to proclaim God’s Reign to, who in this particular scripture passage are represented by the Pharisees, leaders of the religious establishment.
In his lament over Jerusalem, Jesus is proclaiming that he desires one thing, and the people he has come to minister to – to offer God’s salvation - desire something else altogether.
What Jesus desires are the ways of God’s Reign: peace, justice, humility, compassion, equality, radical inclusion of all people.
What the Pharisees desire are the exact opposite: turmoil and violence, pride, power, arrogance, lack of concern for the other, subjugation, exclusion.
The civil and religious leaders of Jesus’ day didn’t desire Jesus and his values because they saw them as a threat to their power. To them Jesus was dangerous. Which is why they wanted him dead.
In the same way the values that Volodymyr Zelensky holds are a threat to Putin and his desire for power, subjugation, turmoil, and empire. While Zelensky is not a follower of the King of Kings, he does hold on to the values of the God of Israel, and his morals are formed in that crucible, just as Jesus’ were.
To Putin, Zelensky is dangerous because the Ukrainian’s values and those of the people he leads are a threat. As more and more people in Russia cast their eyes on Zelensky’s values, they might be desired by the Russian people who live under a brutal regime, and that would be a disaster for Putin and his grip on Russia. Therefore, Putin the fox, desires Zelensky the hen dead.
So far, the Hen has tricked the trickster. May it continue to be so.
It is my fervent belief that the values of God’s Reign will ultimately prevail in all things. Which means I believe that those who hold the values of that Reign will also ultimately prevail. Maybe not initially, but ultimately. Jesus endured the worst from the powers that opposed him, who denied his values. But those values ultimately prevailed in his Resurrection.
Regretfully, the worst is not over for the Ukrainian people. But because of the values they are fighting for, they too will prevail. They will find new resurrected life. They will outfox the fox.
May our prayers, our willingness to endure some financial discomfort and hardship to support their struggle, our commitment to help those who have been imperiled by this war, and our determination to proclaim the values of God’s Reign be our witness to our solidarity with the Ukrainians and their values, and to proclaim the good news of the King of Kings.
The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
A few years ago, when I was convalescing from surgery, I found myself unable to read. Between the trauma of the wounds and the medications I was on, focusing on the written page was difficult and made me dizzy. So, I turned to television as a source of entertainment and low and behold, discovered the hit Showtime and Amazon Prime program, Billions. Have you seen Billions? It’s a captivating drama about billionaires and what they do to increase their already obscene wealth. And trust me, at least according to the writers, there is absolutely nothing these billionaires will stop at to get richer and more powerful.
In the first few seasons of the show the primary billionaire was Bobby Axelrod, a hedge fund manager worth upwards of $10 billion. Money and power mean everything to Bobby and nothing, not even his wife and two sons, or his self-respect, or his standing in society, will deter him from attaining them.
His chief protagonist is United States Attorney, Chuck Rhoades, who is obsessed with bringing down Bobby and his many shady, if not outright illegal financial dealings. Chuck is obsessed on bringing Bobby down. Like with Bobby his marriage and family suffer for it. While initially he appears to be a good guy, Chuck is manipulative, controlling, and unscrupulous, stopping at nothing to destroy Bobby.
There’s a great cast of characters, mostly employees of Axelrod’s hedge fund and employees of the US Attorney’s Office. The plot twists and turns are incredibly cleaver and engrossing with the over-arching theme being the battle for supremacy – or maybe better put, destruction - between Rhoades and Axelrod.
The fuel that drives this battle is temptation. Over time each and every character in the show – even the ones you think initially are good and on the side of righteousness, to the degree that Billions can be righteous – end up falling for the seductive lures of temptation: the temptations of money, power, sex, and control.
I keep on hoping that one character will be a savior figure who will resist the incredible temptations dangled before them daily. I had great hopes in new billionaire who was added to the show two seasons ago named Mike Prince. Mike appears to be a good billionaire with high-minded values. In fact he comes off as being so good, that he’s almost saintly, so much so that Bobby derisively calls him Mike Thomas Aquinas Prince. Prince talks a good game about clean finances, above board hedge fund practices, and social justice investing, but sadly, (spoiler alert!) he too ends up caving into his lusts for more money and power and the elimination of his nemesis, Bobby Axelrod.
While entertaining, Billions reveals the monstrous, demonic behaviors of not only the billionaires and the US Attorney, but all those who get co-opted into their orbits. And on Billions apparently that’s everyone.
All these characters make Faustian bargains with the devil, selling their souls in return for worldly pleasures.
In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus’ temptations by the devil in the wilderness. When Jesus successfully resists those temptations we are told that, [the devil] “departed from him until an opportune time.” The devil doesn’t give up . . . ever. In Billions every moment of every day is an opportune time for the devil to take control of people’s souls. Billions is the devil’s sandbox.
It’s tempting – pun intended – to look down at the characters on Billions as they submit to all these temptations and see them as morally and ethically lesser than us, well lesser but with mansions, yachts, servants, ski vacations to St. Moritz, private jets, and unlimited French champagne! I know I do.
I find myself being like the Pharisee in the parable where the superior Pharisee arrogantly looks down his nose at the inferior tax collector and prays, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” My prayer is similar: God, I thank you that I am not like these people on Billions, who sell their souls to the devil for every temptation dangled before them. I certainly have much stronger morals and ethical values than they do.
In much of life we are tempted to believe we are morally superior to others, successfully resisting the devil when he figures out our weak points, and tries to seductively lure us with financial gain, power, control, sexual pleasure, holding out a cornucopia of worldly pleasures before us.
Our struggles during Lent to successfully deny ourselves caffeine, chocolate, pastry, adult beverages, or whatever we have given up, tells us otherwise.
We are not stronger or superior to the characters on Billions or anyone else for that matter. To believe that is to fall for the temptation of hubris, which is sinful. Temptation is a universal human experience. Falling for them equally so. We all encounter temptations great and small every day. And when I say all, I include Jesus.
Jesus had to be sorely tempted by the offer to turn stones into bread when he was famished, or submitting to the devil in return for authority over the world’s kingdoms, or tempting God by throwing himself off the Temple.
Christian theology states that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. Which means we believe that being fully human Jesus experienced every single human emotion, feeling, desire, and lust that we do. If he had not been tempted he would not have been fully human. Because he was, Jesus had to have struggled with whether or not to cave in to those temptations the devil offered.
But we also believe that, as it says in the letter to the Hebrews and in our proper preface for Lent, that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin.” In other words, Jesus did not make a Faustian bargain with the devil.
What gave the human Jesus the where-with-all, the strength, to resist the temptations he was offered?
A commentary I read believes that in resisting the devil in the wilderness Jesus fulfills the command that is central to Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5) This is the Shema, the foundational statement of faith of Judaism and the first of the two great commandments that Jesus offers us.
Jesus declines the temptation to make bread to meet his physical cravings, because it would have meant turning away from loving God and submitting to the devil. He rejects the temptation to compromise his devotion to God so to rule over all the earth’s kingdoms, gaining mammon and power, because it would have meant he was not worshipping God with all his soul. And finally, he refuses to put God to the test to deliberately place himself in danger- a sort of theological Russian roulette - because it would have indicated his lack of trust in God and when you don’t trust, you can’t fully love. In each temptation Jesus focused on loving God with all his heart, soul, and might, which gave him the strength to reject all the worldly pleasures placed before him.
One of the petitions in the Great Litany this morning asked God to save us, from sins of body and mind; from deceits of the world, flesh and the devil.” It’s a bold prayer request, but not an impossible one. Jesus showed us the way to do it. When temptations lure you, remember that you are called first and foremost to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength.
Any pursuit, priority, or preoccupation that diverts from that purpose should be seen for what it is: the devil’s temptation.
Every day we have held before us life and death, blessings and curses. The devil disguises death and curses seductively. It’s easy to fall for them. But never forget, he is a tempter and a liar. God holds out life and blessings and they are always the way of love, because they are from God who is love. My friends, choose life, choose blessings.
In so doing you will finally beat down Satan’s temptations under your feet. And when you do, you may not be a billionaire, maybe thankfully so, but you’ll be rich beyond compare.
Ash Wednesday Sermon, Year C, 2022
I will admit that coming to church today and hearing the message that we are but ashes and dust, and to dust we shall return is not exactly what I want to hear. We are reminded of death and our mortality each and every day in profound and frightening ways: this hideous and heart-breaking war the Russians are waging against the Ukrainian people, the Chinese genocide against the Uighers, the on-going ravages of illness and death wrought by COVID, the daily drum-beat of how we may be past the point of no-return in saving this fragile earth our island home from environmental apocalypse. Mortality and the Specter of death surround us. It’s inescapable.
And while I’m more than willing, to paraphrase our Collect, to lament the sins and acknowledge the wretchedness of Vladimir Putin, Chinese Communists, anti-vaxxers, and those who degrade the environment to acquire lucre, I’m in little mood to do the same for myself. I don’t want to deal with more death, most especially my own!
But, here we are. Embarking upon another season of Lent when we are invited to engage in some serious self-examination of who we really are, and how far away that reality is from the way God desires us to be. And the truth is, if we are to truly acknowledge the reality of our lives, we need to acknowledge those sinful and wretched behaviors, the less-desirable, bad bits and pieces of our lives, so that we can amend them. This is not to engage in some perverse theology of our being miserable worms and totally depraved creatures, wearing some torturous mental cilice that painfully cuts into our flesh to unfailingly remind us of our wretchedness every minute of the day.
It is rather to acknowledge that, as it states in our Absolution for today, God “desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.” And it is to find hope in the promise.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Die before you die. There is no chance after.” In other words, die to those behaviors and beliefs that prevent you from fully living. That strangle the life from you and make you as good as dead. Stop being a creature in the television program, The Walking Dead. Because the truth is we can be breathing and have a beating heart, but be as dead as a doornail.
Ash Wednesday and Lent help remind us of this.
When today’s liturgy focuses on our mortality it doesn’t do so out of a morbid sense of doom, but as a reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed . . . for anyone. It reminds us that life is fragile. Like C.S. Lewis, Ash Wednesday calls us to live life as fully as possible. Every moment of every day. And we do that best through love. Ash Wednesday calls us to love. But we can’t fully love if we are burdened by selfishness, by parsimoniousness, by enmity, by self-aggrandizement, by lusts and gluttony, by an estranged relationship with God. These are all barriers to love. They are wicked and wretched things. They are not of love. They keep us from living as God would have us live.
The self-examination and disciplines of Lent are vehicles to acknowledge how these behaviors prevent us from fully living. And then to make amendments of life, so we can fully live; dying to them before we actually die.
Conversely, and maybe counter-intuitively, Ash Wednesday also reminds us of our immortality.
I shared this story with the brothers of St. Andrew’s when they prepared our ashes a few weeks ago.
My first Ash Wednesday as a rector was in 2002, at the parish of St. John the Baptist in New Hampshire. I decided I would prepare my own ashes from the dried-up palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. I needed a container to burn the palms in and decided that a sturdy cooking pot from the parish kitchen was perfect. Not wanting to mar the pot and risk the ire of the women’s guild, I lined it with heavy gauge aluminum foil. Enthusiastically I burned my palms. It was a lovely fire that burned intensely at first and then died down as the palms turned to ash. This was on the day before Ash Wednesday.
Well, unbeknownst to me, aluminum foil flakes under high heat. As I sifted the ash to filter out any embers, I was shocked to see sparkly, starry, silver glitter in those ashes.
As I said, it was the day before Ash Wednesday, and I was in rural New Hampshire. I had no choice but to use the ashes I had. So, that year the good folks of St. John’s had ashes with star-like glitter imposed on their foreheads. Honestly, instead of hearing the hymn, Forty Days and Forty Nights that Ash Wednesday I developed an ear worm and could only hear that late great New York ingénue Barbara Cooke singing “Glitter and Be Gay.” It was a unique moment!
Scientists tell us that stars that go supernova are responsible for creating many of the elements of the periodic table, including those that make up the human body. These elements are called stardust and they have been falling to the earth’s atmosphere for billions of years. They are a part of the earth and the cycle of life, not only here on earth but in the entire cosmos. We ingest all these elements when we eat plants and animals which are part of this great cycle of life. These elements comprise nearly 100% of who we are. Ergo, we are made of stardust. Which, when you think about it, makes us immortal. When we die, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we remain part of the ongoing cycle of the life of stardust, continuing to feed new life, eternally a part of the immortality of life.
In hindsight, those glittery, aluminum foil flaked ashes twenty years ago, were a lovely reminder of our being stardust. For us today they are a reminder that we are called by Ash Wednesday to fully glitter and shine with the fullness and joy of the life God desires us to have. We do that when we amend our lives and get rid of the sinful and wretched stuff.
Knowing this propels us to love. To engage, appreciate, honor and love all life of which we are inextricably connected to for eternity. To love is to glitter and be gay in a lovely and holy way. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Now go, live your live fully, as God desires you to do.