Blessed

Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_1667-1670_Murillo

“The Return of the Prodigal,” 1667-1670, Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, and Luke 6:17-26

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s a famous “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a man approaching a booth, as though he’s shopping. In the booth is another man and a group of tall, dark antelope, standing on their feet, as many of the animals in the “Far Side” world do.  Some of the antelope are smiling and looking cherubic, and others are making faces and acting up.  By now, you might have guessed the caption.  The salesman says, “Well, I’ve got good gnus and I’ve got bad gnus.”

In today’s Gospel there is good news and bad; there are blessings and there are those things that, if not “curses,” our NRSV translation refers to as “woes.”

Our scripture contains what sounds like the well-known Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  The Beatitudes are sayings offered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—at least in Matthew’s Gospel. We typically read them on All Saints’ Sunday and they are generally offered as comfort, encouragement, and reminders that God intends good for us, no matter how hard life might be in the moment.

But in Luke’s version, the one we just heard, the Beatitudes are fewer.  Matthew gives eight, but Luke only gives four.  And then Luke’s version adds the four “woes:”

…Woe to you who are rich,…
Woe to you who are full now,…
Woe to you who are laughing now,…
Woe to you when all speak well of you….

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not on a mountain, but has come down on level ground with people. It is as though Jesus really is “leveling” with his followers and with us, giving us the promises but also being honest about the pains that are sometimes all wrapped up before, during, or after the promises come true.

All week, I’ve been struggling with how to approach today’s scripture readings in a way that does them justice—that conveys the hope and goodness God offers, while not shying away from the cost of following Jesus.  And then I saw a painting.

At the end of last week, I was able to get down to Washington, DC for a couple of days and a highlight was visiting the National Gallery.  While my thoughts a long way from preaching and even farther from today’s readings, I walked around a wall, into a gallery, and was dumbstruck by a painting that spoke to my questions about today’s scriptures.  The painting is by a seventeenth-century painter named Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  Almost 8 feet by 9 feet, the painting shows the Return of the Prodigal Son.  It was painted for the Brotherhood of Charity Chapel of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry.  The brotherhood cared for travelers and the sick and it buried unclaimed corpses, often the drowned or executed. The painting by Murillo and others in the chapel were meant to urge the members of the charity to do good works—to follow the words of Jesus literally by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and honoring the forgotten. And so, by doing good to others, one finds blessing.

The painting shows the prodigal son in rags, and the father, along with the servants, are about to drape the returning son with new clothes, rich-looking, colorful, plush clothes.  A happy little boy is bringing the fatted calf into the scene, and there’s even a white little puppy, jumping at the returned son.

But we know the complicated dynamics of that story of the Prodigal—it is, itself, a story of blessing and of woes.  The son initially takes his life for granted and runs away, living only for himself.  He brings the woes on himself and returns broken, empty, and in need—in need for the help of a stranger, a servant, a family member, of God—anyone.  The father might have withheld his generosity from the son. The elder brother might have continued to resent the mercy of the father and the repentance of the brother.  And the son who returned might have stayed in a place of pride and arrogance, never finding the humility to ask for help.

The woes are real, as Jesus says so clearly:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

But overall, the story of the prodigal, like our faith, is one of blessings.

The first reading this morning from Jeremiah also contains this language of blessing and curse.  And yet, notice the real-world aspect of the sayings:  “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals …,” but “blessed are those who trust in the Lord…”   Jeremiah is not giving advice for a rainy day, or for life in some distant future, and certainly not promising that thinks will be better in the life after this earthly life.  Instead, Jeremiah is saying NOW, cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…  RIGHT NOW, HERE AND NOW, blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

Psalm 1 also supports this way of approaching life—the blessings come as we walk in the way of the Lord… wickedness happens when we choose some other way, or become self-consumed and forget God.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians puts a cross-shaped exclamation point on the necessity to choose Christ here and now, in this life.  The cross is either a made-up notion that gives some a little comfort as they imagine what comes after life and death… OR, as Paul puts it, Christ has been raised for us—and the benefits, the power, the blessings of that Resurrection began for us in this life and into the next.

Because of the Resurrection, we are empowered to face down fear. We can put increasing trust in God.

Because of the Resurrection, we take the long view and know that sin and death have been defeated, once for all… and so, when we stumble here and there, we say we’re sorry, we allow the Holy Spirit to dust us off and pick us up, and we keep on going.

Because of the Resurrection, we can take our place in stories like that of the Prodigal—whether we’re the youngest child who has squandered God’s gifts, and needs to turn and return home; or whether we’re the older child who is so blinded by resentment and the desire for our fair share that we miss God’s blessings; or whether we’re called to act with the mercy and grace of the parent, who offers forgiveness and love—no matter what has happened in the past.

It can help us to step back a minute and recall that the Gospel of Luke, with Jesus’s words of blessing and woe, was addressed to someone named Theophilus…the same person or persons for whom the Acts of the Apostle was originally written.  Theophilus is thought to have had social advantage– some wealth, some standing, some education.  And so, the original intended audience for Luke was someone or some people a lot like us, in the relative scheme of things.  Though we may not think of ourselves as wealthy, in the context of our world, we are among the richest, best fed, and best educated.  The Gospel preaches to each of us today.

The “woes” come in this life (and surely in the next) when we live only for self and ignore the pain of the world.  But the blessings are overflowing. They are ours to enjoy and share when we live with humility, vulnerability, and openness to God.

May Christ help us to be honest with our need, even as we seek to help meet the needs of others. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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