Category Archives: Luke’s Gospel

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.

Breath-taking

Luke chapter 12 verses 13-26

Some people seek moral guidance from gurus. Here, it’s not so much guidance that someone wants from Jesus, it’s judgement:

“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” (12: 13)

This is someone who really has not understood what Jesus is about. Only Luke among the three synoptic Gospel authors records this conversation and the parable that follows it. (12: 16 – 20, though it also appears in the Gospel of Thomas at 63: 1-3)

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do for I have no place to store my crops?”

He decides to increase his storage space and says to himself:

“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat drink and be merry.”

Elsewhere in the Gospel accounts Jesus says it’s harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. So where does that leave all us Christians in the developed world? By comparison with the desperate migrants risking death to cross from Libya to Europe we are all rich. It behoves us to be very sensitive to the possibility that our moral judgement is compromised by our wealth. The sting of the parable is surely in that well known phrase: ‘relax, eat, drink and be merry.’ I assume that Bill and Melinda Gates have not succumbed to that temptation. Their Foundation channels their wealth into lots of admirable schemes designed to redress the balance between richer and poorer nations of the world.

The crucial thing for us in rich developed countries is to remember who we truly are. Material wealth can make us blind to the spiritual wealth that is ours: the wealth we cannot store up any more than we can store up life-giving breath that can only be taken moment by moment. And for all of us there will come a moment when the breath-taking ceases and we begin the transition to dust.

I need a neighbour with skin on

There’s a thunder storm. A little girl lies in bed, frightened. “Mummy, mummy!” she calls. Mummy comes and says, “There’s no need to be frightened, darling. Remember, God is always with you.” “I know”, wails the little girl, “but I want someone here with skin on.”

Twitter, Facebook and all the other digital media are not real substitutes for someone around with skin on. The Samaritan saw the wounded man lying there and went to help. I step out of my flat here in the middle of London and find myself presented with lots of chances to be a good neighbour. It’s important to grasp this fundamental reality of being human. Everything we do is time bound by our skin, our bodies. Lose sight of this reality and we can soon feel swamped by the relentless pressure of texting, Instagramming and updating Facebook status; not to mention daily horror stories about the impact of immigrants on our health service, or the desperate refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. Of course digital media are a huge benefit but they can blind us to the simple fact that we exist only in the present moment. We breathe in and out moment by moment. We can’t store up breath for the future. Jesus insisted that the kingdom, the realm of true Being can only be entered in the here and now. Of course we face political challenges and politicians seeking re-election can play on our fears, especially fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on. Unless we can stay in touch with the fundamental fact that to be human is to exist in a time-bound body we will fail to make good decisions about general principles of good neighbourliness. Every time we hear or read something designed to ignite our fears about ‘neighbours’ without skin on the trick is to return to our breathing, to focus in on our bodies, before deciding how we should react. After helping the mugged traveller maybe the good Samaritan would have used Facebook if it had been available, to gather support for an anti-racism campaign.

 

Who is my neighbour?

The contemplative/mystical experience does not vary from age to age nor from culture to culture. What changes is the language and imagery people in widely differing cultures use to try and describe something that is essentially beyond words. Jesus himself was a man of his time and therefore used the language of his time and culture to point to the reality that silence reveals. Even more so were his disciples, the emerging Christian movement and the gospel writers. That makes reading the New Testament a challenging task. The closer we can get to Jesus of Nazareth the less time and culture bound the message is likely to be.

So far, my journey through Mark and Matthew has, I hope, yielded the essence of what Jesus was pointing to. Each Gospel writer puts his own ‘spin’ on the teaching and it is time to move on from Matthew to Luke. Matthew has given us the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. What Luke adds to the mix are several well known parables not found in Mark or Matthew. There’s the Good Samaritan, for example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus; and then there’s Luke’s affinity for the place of women in the story.

Mark, Matthew and Luke all record a discussion between Jesus and a Scribe about the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbour. Only Luke follows this exchange with two famous passages: the parable of the Good Samaritan (chapter 10 verses 30 – 35) and the conversation between Jesus, Martha and Mary (10: 38 – 42). The first is about loving my neighbour, the second about loving God.

A Scribe asks Jesus, who is my neighbour? Jesus doesn’t respond with a direct answer. Like all good teachers he tells a story and invites his questioner to make up his own mind. It’s a story designed to challenge our prejudices about strangers. Jews and Samaritans couldn’t stand one another. Who are ‘Samaritans’ for me? Who is my neighbour? Who presses my buttons? People who don’t give up their seat on the bus or train to those in greater need? Immigrants from eastern Europe? And who can I expect help from? Sometimes the most unlikely people offer their seats on the bus to me and my wife – both of us now obviously elderly. They are only ‘unlikely’ in my mind because of my prejudices about the kind of people I think they are. Sometimes I am the wounded traveller, sometimes I am challenged to be the good Samaritan.

A common misunderstanding of the contemplative/mystical life is that one becomes too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use. Nothing could be further from the truth. Perhaps Luke should have placed the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha before the parable the Good Samaritan. For most of us the answer to the question, who is my neighbour, only becomes clear when we have become more like Mary than Martha. There are numerous examples of people who, Mary-like, have developed a mature and disciplined practice of contemplative prayer. Leaving their hidden place of prayer they go about their ordinary everyday lives with a deep sense of being connected with everyone they meet however fleeting each encounter may be. Thomas Merton, a contemplative monk, described this in an essay, ‘A Member of the Human Race’:

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of a pure self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”

This awareness stayed with him for the rest of his life. It was the fulfillment of the second commandment, to “love your neighbour as yourself.” I am never more essentially, more deeply myself, than when I have discovered a Mary-like stillness in the Presence of the divine. And in that stillness I know the answer to the question, who is my neighbour?