Monthly Archives: May 2015

Always coming Home.

In the middle of an argument Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have said, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” In classical Greek, the word for bowels was ‘splagchnon’ and it appears in the New Testament only in the plural form. It had four levels of meaning:

  • The inward parts, especially the heart, lungs, liver and other bits we can eat;
  • A sacrificial feast (a logical progression from the first level)
  • Any inward bits of the body – the bowels, the womb for example;
  • The seat of the emotions, our inward nature.

Today we might ask, ‘what’s your gut feeling about this?’ Then it gets more interesting. Apparently you could say we have three brains! The one in our head has 85 billion neurons. The heart and the gut also have ‘brains’; much smaller ones but 40 million neurons for the heart and 100 million for the gut are significant brain-like systems. Oliver Cromwell didn’t know that but he certainly understood the importance of ‘gut feeling’.

In modern English translations of the Gospels the word is not guts but compassion. It occurs quite often in Matthew, only four times in Mark, three in Luke and, oddly, not once in John.

So, engaging our three brains, we turn to Luke’s story of the two sons (often misleadingly called the parable of the prodigal son). Let’s start in the middle of the story. The prodigal son is on his way home:

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion….”.

The New English Bible has, “…his heart went out to him…” and that gets closer to the heart of the matter, if you see what I mean!

The heart of the matter (still thinking of those neurons) lies in the use of two little words (possessive pronouns according to those interested in grammar): ‘yours’ and ‘mine’.

“….this son of mine…”

says the father in verse 24.

“Your brother has come and your father has killed the fatted calf”

says the slave to the elder brother (verse 27).

“But when this son of yours…”

says the elder brother who cannot bring himself to say ‘my brother’ to his father (verse 30).

“… this brother of yours…”

replies his father (verse 32).

There’s a second thread running through the story: slavery. The prodigal thinks he will only be acceptable back home if he becomes a slave.

“I am no longer worthy to be called your son: treat me like one of your hired hands.”         (verse 19)

But a slave is exactly what the elder son thinks he is:

“Listen!” he says angrily to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you….” (verse 29)

He has been at home all the time without realizing that the place is full of ‘home comforts’.

Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours”

says his father bringing us back to the ‘yours’ and ‘mine’ thread.

One of the pitfalls of thinking of God like a father is that the divine compassion gets limited to our experience of frail human fatherhood. That can lead to the difficulty of seeing compassion even when it stares us in the face.

Let’s beware of separating out the two brothers in this story. I am both men. I know how deeply the elder brother’s sense of being a slave can infect me. I feel there are so many things I must do and be before I am accepted fully. ‘Look at my regular prayer life! Look at how I go to church regularly; give money to charity; sacrifice myself for the sake of others! And there’s that good-for-nothing so-and-so ……’ Off I go into that far country of the brain that so easily gets my guts stirred up with resentment so that my brain starts using ‘yours’ rather than ‘mine’ or ‘ours’. Both brothers ended up in that distant country. For one of them the living looked easy and pleasant, for the other it was drudgery. For both of them it was a long way from home. Only one of them found the way back.

This  is my last post to this blog that has been my attempt to locate our homeland and the way back to it according to the three synoptic Gospels. May we all find the way and keep returning to the place where infinite compassion, mercy and truth are ours; not theirs, or yours but mine, ours, everyones. To adapt some words from Nan C Merrill’s ‘Psalms For Praying’:

May you know abiding love, gentle joy, deep peace and wisdom.

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Don’t send me, send him.

Luke chapter 14 verses 7 to 14 and chapter 16 verses 19 to 31

It’s time to wrap up this blog with just two more posts. Already I keep repeating myself too often. That’s because I am not attempting a general commentary on the synoptic gospels. I am trying to recover the message of Jesus the wisdom teacher from Nazareth and it is really a very simple message. The gospel writers use lots of stories to get it across, many of them can be traced back to Jesus himself and they all keep pointing us to the same truth: about ourselves, about the universe and about how to see and hear this truth wherever it pops up.

Poor old Luke is getting a raw deal in this blog. It’s because I have taken the synoptic gospels in the order in which they were written. By the time I get to Luke I have covered all the major themes of Wisdom teaching. In spite of confining myself to passages that appear only in Luke I still find exactly the same message coming up again and again, albeit with Luke’s special concern for women and the poor. Take Luke chapter 14 verses 7 to 14. Jesus is invited to a meal and he notices how the guests jostle for the best seats. Students of the Bible note the way this story reflects the advice in Proverbs chapter 25 verses 6 & 7:

“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

Revisit the post headed ‘No ego. No problem’ (on Mark chapter 9 verses 33 to 37) and there you have my take on the problem of the ego that Luke and the book of Proverbs are alerting us to.

I want to end this whole blog with the story of the prodigal son and his brother in chapter 15 but first I want to jump ahead to chapter 16, verses 19 to 31: the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus – another example of a blind ego. Please – this is not a story about some dreadful thing that might happen to us when we die. It’s about being blind to the truth about who we truly are. The clues are in verses 24 and 27:

Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.

Then father I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them.

The rich man is trapped in the mindset of being able to give orders to those less fortunate, less powerful, than he is – ‘send Lazarus’. Even when he spares a thought for someone else it is still only to those of his own privileged status (his brothers) and it is still, ‘send Lazarus’. He just doesn’t get it, doesn’t see the truth.

Especially, Luke wants us to understand, he doesn’t get the truth of the Resurrection. It is a truth so beautifully put in the story of the Prodigal Son and his brother. I’ll talk about that in my final post for this blog.