Twenty-Second Day of Lent

Luke 22:47-53
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’

49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns.’

Most scholars treat yesterday’s miracle of the healing of the blind man as the closing miracle of Luke’s Gospel, but then this appears. It’s an odd one. But would you believe this story is related in all four Gospels, though only in John are the characters named (Simon Peter chops off Malchus’ ear). And only Luke relates the healing.

It is also a miracle that I remember from when I was a young child. I don’t know why it should have captured my attention, other than perhaps the prospect of Jesus searching the ground by torchlight looking for a stray ear.

But as I read it today, I am struck by crowds and violence. Jesus remarks that they have come with swords and clubs (Luke 22:52). When the disciples discern that Jesus is to be arrested their initial reaction is to draw swords and though they look to Jesus for advice, before Jesus says a word someone strikes and a man is wounded.

This whole journey through Lent with the book of Luke is a journey of discipleship. Along the way we are encountering the wonder and the strangeness of Jesus, we marvel at his power and compassion, particularly for those who are on the margins. Again and again we are confronted with the challenge of following him and with question of just what will I surrender to join him on the Way.

The pressure has been building on Jesus and his followers for some time now. Many thought going to Jerusalem was a foolish thing but he was insistent. And now, following a meal which was full of all manner of hints of endings, they are in this garden in the dead of night where he has spent a long time in intense prayer. Luke records that in his anguish his sweat was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

And now this. A big crowd with swords and clubs and a kiss of betrayal.

I understand the impulse of the disciple. Under the shock of betrayal this is a common form of response. Meet the violence of betrayal with another form of violence. Perhaps it is even more true if it is a loved one who is betrayed and I must stand by. I want to strike out on their behalf to find some answer to the anger and sense of helplessness I feel.

But there is a Gospel message here. Meeting violence with violence is not the way of Jesus. His urgent command “No more of this!” speaks to the moment, but also for all time. No more of this. Ever.

No more to seeking God’s imprimatur on our national adventures of war.

No more to matching an eye with an eye or a tooth with a tooth. Nor here, an ear for a kiss.

No more to blind rage and vengeful aggression. No more to hard words which injure and maim the spirit of a person.

I dare say this poor servant didn’t have much control over what he was doing that night. After all, he was a servant, and he did as he was commanded. And he lost an ear. There is something symbolic here in a member of the high priest’s household lacking an ear. He stood in for a religious institution that couldn’t hear the truth of what was being said in the ministry of this man from God.

So Jesus in his grace and humility refuses to be vengeful or to take comfort in the suffering of his accusers, and instead he heals. There is still time for healing even after striking out in anger, frustration and revenge.

And so I ask myself after having reflected on this story. Which is the worst betrayal here? The kiss or the sword?

As I write this March 29th remains the day we exit the EU. So today is the day when the nation might be taking stock. Whatever happens a sizeable proportion of the country is going to feel betrayed, the question is what will be done with that sense of betrayal? Will we strike out at our betrayers? Or will we seek advantage through a lying kiss? Take some time today to pray for our political leaders and for those who feel betrayed by recent events.

Fourteenth Day of Lent

Luke 12:16-21
16 And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.”

18 ‘Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’”

20 ‘But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

21 ‘This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich towards God.’

This story has such contemporary resonances for us. It’s the story of a man who builds his whole future security on the basis of a once-off windfall and ends up a fool.

We know it’s a once-off windfall because his farm is not set up to cope with the abundance. This super-abundant harvest was one he couldn’t cope with. How sad then that faced with plenty he reacts with stress and anxiety and is only aware of what he does not have, “What shall I do? I have no…” Even as he struggles to gather the huge harvest he grows aware of what he does not have—barns sufficient to store the crop.

So on the basis of a fortunate event he re-tools his business, perhaps re-mortgages the house, tears down the buildings which had served him (and presumably generations of his family) very well, and builds bigger in order to store the surplus.

He thinks that now all his future concerns have been taken care of because of his good fortune. But the stress tore down his body much as he had foolishly torn down his buildings, and someone else gets to benefit from his good fortune.

What sparked the telling of this story is a response Jesus makes to a man whose family is being torn apart by a dispute over money (Luke 12:13). Jesus refuses to intervene but tells the man “Be careful. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” (Luke 12:15).

Like I said, this is an incredibly contemporary story.

Healthy human life is composed of a complex and often delightful web of connections and friendships. Greed destroys that web. And there is perhaps nothing so divisive as money. When we seek to substitute stuff for human connection, believing that life consists in the abundance of things, then we’re fools. Funnily enough, we can do the same with friendships. We can use the company of people like stepping stones on to the next level, leaving behind those who helped us rise. Using friendships as capital to help us grow. Jesus says we are fools.

The parable invites us to imagine what alternatives might have been open to the rich man. What alternatives did he have that would have nurtured the web of connections around him.

He could have been wise enough to recognise what it is to have enough. This was a family farm which had probably been in his family for generations. The land has its limits and every so often it exceeds them, but to expect the excess every year is to exhaust the land and make it ultimately unproductive both for him and future generations. That year’s special excess could have excited gratitude from him and not anxiety over what he lacked.

He could have been generous enough to share his excess with those who weren’t quite so fortunate. Those whose farms are smaller, or whose land might not be so good, or those who made poor choices that year. In this way he could have nurtured the connections and relationships which sustain life and which draw the best out of people.

Instead his good fortune turned him in on himself, focussed him on the absences in his life, created in him an arrogant sense of personal control over the future, and ultimately removed him from the community.

The best stories are the ones which make us want to be better people. They hold up good examples for us to follow, and warnings of lifestyles and choices to avoid. My all-time favourite novel is called Jayber Crow, by Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry. I read it again recently for the fourth time. There’s a character in the story who is just like the rich farmer in the parable, updated and made more contemporary. Thankfully too there are countless characters who inspire me to be better.

What fictional characters, in books or films, inspire you to be a better person, or warn you against bad choices. Why not return to that film or book this week. Or get a copy of Jayber Crow (I could lend it to you if you promise to return it!).

Finally, this reflection will appear on the Ballycrochan Presbyterian Church facebook page, why not go over there and leave your recommendations of books or films in the comments.

This morning I offer you a poem as an instrument of quiet meditation. The poem is “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry which draws us away from the the worry and stress of our lives into peace and quiet where God is. It has many of the themes of our parable, stress and anxiety and dread for the future, but calls us to another way of being in the world. A way that acknowledges the goodness that we have been given and the grace that is all round us.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.