O, To Grace, How Great a Debtor

In 1758, Robert Robinson, a one-time barber’s apprentice turned preacher, wrote the words to a hymn that set me on the brink of tears almost every time I sing it.  His immortal hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” is steeped in personal reflection, from the torment of battling sin to the exultation at the thought of grace; from the sacrifice for atonement, to the need for constant guidance.  There are only a few, perhaps no more than two other hymns that affect me in such a way, because these songs sing my life, my struggles, my hopes and my soul’s deepest desires.

The hymnal I use has only three highly edited verses to this wonderful meditation.  I was surprised to find that Robinson’s original had five verses that focused as much on his own foibles as on the immense goodness of a forgiving God, the counterweight to the burden each must bear.      

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

Sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,

Till released from flesh and sin,

Yet from what I do inherit,

Here Thy praises I’ll begin;

Here I raise my Ebenezer;

Here by Thy great help I’ve come;

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,

Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

Wandering from the fold of God;

He, to rescue me from danger,

Interposed His precious blood;

How His kindness yet pursues me

Mortal tongue can never tell,

Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me

I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,

I shall see Thy lovely face;

Clothed then in blood washed linen

How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;

Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,

Take my ransomed soul away;

Send thine angels now to carry

Me to realms of endless day.

What have we missed by allowing such great thoughts to be edited, maybe for nothing more than to fit the space in a hymn book?  In the third stanza of the hymn book used for the past two or three generations by many of the congregations of my tribe, the words have always rung hollow to me, and now I know why:  where the version in Sacred Selections reads, “Never let me wander from thee, Never leave the God I Iove,” Robinson actually wrote of his own weakness.  He wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.”  Rather than place the responsibility on God for maintaining the relationship, Robinson recognized he was imperfect, prone to wander.  By freely giving his heart, he would be bound to his God. 

Second, Robinson wrote of his inability to adequately express his wonder and gratitude for the grace he had accepted: “How His kindness yet pursues me, Mortal tongue can never tell. Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me, I cannot proclaim it well.”  He realized after a brief career of what was once called “dissipation” that God had not given up on him, that his kindness pursued him.  The overwhelming realization of that kindness, that wonderful grace, was more than he could truly explain, at least while trapped within the fleshly bonds of mortality.

Finally, perhaps outside of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” Robinson penned the greatest hymn focused on God’s great gift.  From the opening lines, he implores God to give him the ability to sing of his grace.  He says he is daily constrained to be in the debt of grace, and then in the closing stanza, he looks forward to being freed from the constant threat of sinning, to shed his weak flesh and be in God’s presence.  There, he says, “How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace.”  The grace that he praised from the first verse, to which he was indebted each and every day, would be the subject of his eternal gratitude and praise.

It is that understanding and elemental appreciation of grace that is so lacking in so many today.  For too many among those with whom I have been associated, grace has become little more than a greeting and benediction in Paul’s letters or smugly considered a byword used by those in other denominations to evade the five steps in the plan of salvation.  And yet, it is so important of a concept that Paul spent a large portion of his letter to the Ephesians explaining just how important grace is to salvation, and that a salvation by works would only lead to boasting.      

Eph 2:1  And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—3  among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

4  But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7  so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8  For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9  not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

By grace you have been saved.  For by grace you have been saved through faith.  It is the gift of God.  A gift is no gift if it must be earned or bought.  But a gift does require an expression of gratitude, which we can provide in pledging our lives to God’s good purpose: good works.  To helping others.  To righting wrongs. To seeking justice.  To becoming true stewards of a very good creation in need of restoration to its intended state of beauty and equity and perfection.

His children by petition and adoption are allied to that purpose.  We cannot bring back Eden.  But we can model Heaven until all is made new.  That should be worth a few songs of loudest praise.

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A Brief Meditation on the Tragic Fall and Triumphant Rise of Humanity

From ancient times, the human condition was degrading.  We were created in innocence and ensconced in a realm of perfection, never having been polluted by sin or evil.  But humanity was not content with perfection.  There must be more.  That one prohibition given to those innocents in the Garden was too restrictive, that forbidden fruit too tempting, that soothingly nagging voice too convincing to let the line go uncrossed. 

But perhaps the far-reaching effects of that one fateful decision were too cosmically cataclysmic for two innocent hearts, too inexperienced minds to fully contemplate or comprehend.  How do you know evil unless you have seen it face to face, heard its voice, felt the intensity of its burning cold emptiness?  How do you know loneliness without separation?  How do you know safety without danger? How do you know peace without conflict?

With that one decision, a curtain fell.  With one thought that traveled through still learning synapses, guiding a hand upward, reaching for something that should never have been considered; with one touch of something as apparently innocuous as a fruit, this universe was destroyed.  Not all at once.  But even as entropy patiently, inexorably claims order, the rift between eternal and mortal, soul and body, God and man had begun.

Through countless years of calls to order, pleas to return, invitations to reason, the rift continued to fray until perhaps this failing, corrupted creation reached a tipping point beyond which there could be no hope of redemption.  Whether that was the case, only God knows.  But it was then that God lit a candle in the darkness to guide us home should we choose to see it.  He opened the realm of the divine and let slip the hope of a restored creation.

He sent us Jesus.

Jesus’ earthly ancestry was a jumble of rogues and royalty, like most of us.  His birth was into humble circumstances, like most of us.  That birth was a miracle of life, as any birth is, but was even more miraculous through its circumstance.  His life was unremarkable in terms of worldly accumulation of wealth, like most of us, but the riches he imparted through his teaching were far from ordinary.  He was challenged with every temptation that humanity can face, like every one of us, but stood firm in his resistance, to show us it can be done.   

His message was one of hope.  It was the echo of the creation call to perfection.  It was the challenge to rise above the gathering corruption of a fallen humanity bent on self-destruction and breathe the clean air of a restored Eden, now in heart, but one day in reality. 

His life was one brief but eloquent demonstration of what humanity can and should be: thankful, gracious, appreciative, selfless, loving, caring, passionate, compassionate, giving, forgiving, strong, courageous…in a word, perfect.

When the darkness claimed Jesus’ earthly life through his own willingness to lay it down, its victory was short-lived.  He arose from a borrowed tomb to unsurpassed glory: he was re-created, now more in God’s image than any before him.  He was the new Adam, rising above the bonds of mortality to show us the way to what was always planned for us.  The candle in the window now blazes as a watch-fire, a beacon on the hill of Heaven, a lighthouse to guide us safely through the straits of this fallen creation and on to perfection.  Through his life and example we have the pattern of what humanity was meant to be, what we can be if we choose.

Whether you call him Jesus, Yeshua, Immanuel, the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah, there is no mistaking who it is you are talking about.  He is the central figure in the Christian scriptures, and some would say all of history.  His life changed the course of history, the echoes of his teaching ringing still through 20 centuries.  His message, though twisted by some and denied by others, will never be extinguished.  He continues to change hearts.  He is the son of God.  He was.  He is.  He ever shall be.

The Irony of Jesus

I suppose that of all the literary devices, I may be fondest of irony.  Irony may be funny, or it may be thought-provoking, or it may be both.  When I consider the literary value of the Bible, I see many examples of irony.  But no one used irony as much as the God-Man who actually embodied it. 

Imagine a king born in a stable.  Imagine this king surrounded by a court of common laborers, fishermen, and despised tax collectors, and being anointed by a sinful woman.  Imagine this king who tied a towel around his waist and humbly washed the feet of his disciples.   Imagine this king being heralded and lauded as he made his final entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, riding on an unbroken donkey’s colt.  Imagine this king, the greatest man ever to walk the earth, being nailed to a wooden cross to suffer as a spectacle, and to die as a common criminal. 

Jesus was irony.

But not only did he live in irony, he used it masterfully.  Remember the scene early in Jesus’ ministry when he was assembling his team? 

“Mark 2.14  And as he passed by, he saw Levi [most of us know him as Matthew, dlr] the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

“15  And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16  And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

“17  And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

A king among commoners. A Savior among sinners.  But the greatest irony here is that every single one of those “righteous” Pharisees was “sick,” and needed a physician. 

How many times did he perform a miracle and tell his followers or the recipient of that grace NOT to tell anyone?  He pointedly taught that those who wished to be first would be last, and the last first.  He elevated the lowly with praise and brought low the (self-)righteous with scathing condemnation. 

One of the most ironic scenes I can recall is that fateful scene in Matthew 25, where Jesus is describing the parting of the true disciples from the false ones.  The sheep would be marked by meekly doing as Jesus would do.  The goats would have likely been gloating over their meticulous observance of every point of law, but failed to live and serve as their Master had shown them.  These would be the ones whom Jesus had mentioned in Matthew 7.21-23:  

“21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 

You would think that if they had accomplished all of these big visible feats, they would surely have an express ticket for Heaven.  But Jesus said that while they may have indeed done those things, they neglected the real will of God. 

So if doing big things in front of a lot of people in Jesus’ name won’t get you to Heaven, what will?  Well, that’s not something I am completely qualified to answer.  Really, it’s not my call.  But I do know this: that doing the will of God is not just religion for show.  God wants his children to take care of each other.  To do justice.  To love and to live mercy.  To embody love and reflect that love to the benefit of others.  To be the purest light, the real image of God in a hopelessly sin-darkened world.  Religion for show won’t get you to Heaven.

And there is another point of irony: so often the people using Matthew 7.21 the most are the ones who themselves take the most pride in their show of religion.  They get it all right – the acts of worship, the structure and organization of the church as they consider “right”—but lose sight of what it is we’re supposed to be doing in the first place: loving God, and loving each other. 

Now, they will say that getting the precise form of worship and the exact congregational organization right is showing love for God.  They will cite Jesus’ observation that if we love him, we will keep his commandments.  And that is true.  But we can’t pick and choose which commandments are more important than others.  When we quibble over who we can help with a donation from the church treasury, are we really showing love for our brothers and sisters or for Jesus?  When a preacher declares in an admittedly extreme game of “what if?” that it would be more acceptable for a homeless baby to starve to death rather than use money from the church treasury to feed it, do we really understand the love of God, and that it doesn’t matter where the money comes from, if it’s all God’s money anyway, whether in the church treasury (is that Corban?) or my wallet?  When we elevate men—some of questionable motive and dubious qualification— to positions of leadership yet fail to recognize, let alone celebrate the service, contribution and wisdom of women, are we showing love for Jesus, who respected women and counted them among his closest friends, even allowing women to be the first bearers of the news of his resurrection?  When we build entire doctrinal formulas from single phrases, even single words, doctrines that divide brother from brother, yet ignore examples and observations that do not conform to our specific traditions, are we living and exhibiting what Paul said matters most: faith working through love (Galatians 5.6)?  Or is that conformity working through coercion?

Oh, irony abounds among us humans, too.  Nowhere is it more apparent than where we talk about liberty yet do not hesitate to bind inferred laws on everyone.  The thing about human irony is that we don’t do it nearly as well or remotely as effectively as Jesus.  Where his irony underscored his humble majesty, our ironies more often than not underscore our foibles, frailties and failings.  Jesus said we might strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  We judge the one with a speck in his eye, but fail to see the plank impairing our own vision.  Such irony is classic Jesus, the God-Man, the Servant-King, who taught that the way to abundance is through denial, but more importantly, the way to life is through death.  And that may be the greatest irony of all.   

A Woman, a Jar, and a Memorial Forever: Just Some Thoughts on Mary’s Act of Doing What She Could

Every now and then, a line from the Bible comes to me, at odd times it seems.  I awoke this morning with one such line in mind, that being from Mark 14.  It was the final week of Jesus’ ministry.  It was so fitting that all of these things would culminate during Passover week.  Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper.  Jesus, as was his custom, was reclining at table with these people of low estate and questionable reputation.  He was frequently found in the company of the likes of tax collectors—those traitorous Roman collaborators spoken of with derision by good Jews—and prostitutes and other “sinners.”  Once when he was asked why he and his disciples associated with this questionable lot, he replied, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ because I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”  (Matt 9.12-13)

At Simon’s table, during the course of the evening, some woman (we learn it was Lazarus and Martha’s sister, Mary over in John 12), broke open the seal of a jar of very expensive oil, an ointment called nard or spikenard in different translations, and poured it on Jesus’ head.  Some of those in attendance—John says it was Judas himself—chided the woman for wasting the oil, valued at somewhere in the range of 300 denarii, or close to a year’s wages.  Ostensibly, this “conscientious” follower would have sold the oil to give the proceeds to the poor.  Realistically, he would likely have pocketed the money for himself, if the description in John 12.6 held true. 

On hearing this, Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me, because you will always have the destitute with you and can help them whenever you want, but you will not always have me.  She has done what she could. She poured perfume on my body in preparation for my burial. I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  (Mark 14.6-9)

How could Jesus have said it was fine for the woman to have “wasted” this fine oil when it could have been used to alleviate suffering?  On the one hand, what was done was done, and there was no use chiding her over something that would be trivial in the greater scheme of things.  It was only oil.  But that had little to do with the situation.

But wasn’t it insensitive of Jesus to say what he said in John 12.8 and Mark 14.7, that they would always have the destitute with them, but they would not always have him?  It is never insensitive to face reality.  How it is done and how it is received may vary, but truth must be addressed and facts must be faced.

In saying that the poor or destitute would always be with them, Jesus was not making an excuse for Mary’s actions.  He was stating a fact.  And just because the opportunity for good (if it can be so characterized) that Judas pointed out was not taken does not mean that they would be forever absolved of their responsibility to the poor in the future.  Jesus said, “…and you can help them whenever you want.”

That line, “She has done what she could,” often comes to my mind.  Mary had done what she could to show her love and respect for this great man.  Jesus had raised her brother from the dead.  Now soon, he would be taking his place in the unknown.  In John 11, we are told Martha believed in the resurrection, and it would be likely that her sister shared that view.  She would believe that Jesus would live again. 

But to live again, one must first die.  And funeral practices in that time involved burial preparation, a crude embalming not nearly as elaborate or effective as Egyptian mummification, but necessary according to tradition.  Mary consciously or sub-consciously, intentionally or not, was preparing Jesus’ body for what would soon come to pass.   Jesus used the situation to underscore the nearness of his death, and the fact that these people that he had held so dear would be separated from him.  The prophetic act of anointing emphasized that what he had been saying was about to happen. 

Jesus stood up for Mary against her accusers and detractors, saying, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me….”  From this, I perceive an assurance that Jesus knows and appreciates those who genuinely appreciate and honor him.  The self-righteousness of the accusers was dismissed for the hypocritical superficiality that it was.  Mary’s act of selfless adoration was accepted and cherished. 

This sacrifice of so costly a gift assured Mary of a place in history.  “I tell you with certainty, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”  Her gift was given not out of fear or some misplaced sense of responsibility.  She traded Jesus this precious object of transient value for his gratitude and reflected, even amplified love—an outcome of infinitely greater worth than a jar of spikenard.  Her gift was offered in love for his temporal glorification.  This attitude, not the monetary value of the gift, got Jesus’ attention and won his eternal approval and respect.

Had she planned this before the dinner at Simon’s house?  Was it a spontaneous act?  We can’t possibly know her heart.  But Jesus did just as he knows ours.  Mary did on Earth what Heaven had already done and was about to do again: she poured precious oil on Jesus’ head even as Heaven had broken the seal of its most precious gift, the Son of God, when he came to Earth, taught us all how to live and love like God, and showed us that the way to glory is through humility and sacrifice. 

That attitude is what Jesus wants in his disciples even today.  He accepts those who are not afraid to honor him.  He exalts those who humble themselves.  He intercedes for those whose lives testify to his transformative presence.  Words are cheap.  Actions are dear.  Mary’s “sacrifice” of so precious a possession was no real sacrifice at all. She invested her precious oil in the glorification of her Lord. She extended to him a mercy to comfort him in his coming trial and suffering.  When we do that to even the least of Jesus’ brethren, we will have done the same to him.  I have no costly oil to give.  But I have a heart full of mercy that I can share. 

So thank you, Mary of Bethany, for doing what you could, and for honoring Jesus with a pure and unfeigned heart. What an example of faith, devotion, mercy and love. 

Meeting Yeshua

I have often wondered what it must have been like to be in the crowd that gathered around this Jesus of Nazareth to hear the Sermon on the Mount or any of the number of other lessons recorded in the gospels.  Here was a man who taught like no other had before him.  He could see the hearts and minds of his listeners and knew what they felt and what they feared.  He was able to meet them at their point of understanding, and teach them things that they needed the most.  But since we were not there to see it first hand, we read the record and try to apply the principles as best we can. 

Still, I can’t help but let my mind wander and imagine what it must have been like.  Several years ago, I began writing a story that did just that, imagined a scenario where a man comes to encounter this teacher, the turmoil he must have experienced at listening to this fresh, authoritative message.  I put myself into the role of just such a man, and let the story take me where it decided to go, maintaining the written record as a guide.

While I am sure some may see this as a pointless exercise, I greatly enjoyed the experience, as I found the story after several years and felt compelled to finally complete it.  I hope you enjoy the story, and if you feel like going back to find the text that inspired it, it’s in Luke 15. 

And so, without further comment, let’s turn back the clocks two millennia, and see if we can catch a glimpse of the greatest teacher ever to grace the earth.       

The crowd was as large as usual, and made up of the usual sorts.  There were the drunks, looking bleary-eyed and squinting against the mid-day sun, sobering up a bit in the scraps of shade they could find beneath the scraggly trees.  There were a few prostitutes trying to look uninterested in the whole affair, and yet turning an ear to hear every word of the proceedings.  A thief, two con-men, and a runaway slave nodded from time to time.  A tax collector, hated for complicity with the occupying legions, bowed his head and listened intently.  And a knot of self-righteous Pharisees scoffed at the whole thing.

“I can’t believe it, Eleazar,” said the one called Josiah. “This, this…man…welcomes sinners.  And eats with them.”  Eleazar sniffed as if he had just smelled something horrible.  He grunted a reply that Josiah understood as agreement.

“I’ve wondered and wondered about the attraction of this man.  He obviously has them under some sort of spell.  Probably in league with Beelzebub.”

“Don’t speak such rubbish, Josiah,” said Eliakim, inviting himself to join the conversation. “Have you really listened to what this teacher is saying?  He is doing no more than giving these people hope and understanding.  You’d do well to open your ears and close your mouths for a change.  Hear him out before you judge.”

Eleazar grunted again and turned away.  Josiah raised an inquiring eyebrow and stayed.  The young man, Yeshua, made his way to a large stone and hopped easily onto it, settling into a comfortable position facing the crowd.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep,” he began, sweeping across the crowd with his raised right hand, and smiling, “And suppose you are in the field with those sheep, watching over them, and they need it, as you all know sheep do: after all, there are many dangers.  Thieves.  Wild beasts.  Rugged hills where lambs can fall and be harmed.  Who among you would not leave ninety-nine of those sheep to find one lamb that was missing?  And when you find it, you’ll probably call your friends together to celebrate.

“You see?  In Heaven, there will be more rejoicing over one lost sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent!”

Yeshua looked over the crowds again.  “What about the woman who had ten drachmas in her house and one day, one turned up missing.  She knew she had not spent it.  It had to be in the house somewhere.  So she lit her lamps and swept every corner and crevice until she found it.  She calls her friends and neighbors, and happily tells them that she has found her missing money.

“The angels of God rejoice like that when one sinner repents.”

Eliakim listened happily. Josiah looked puzzled, but remained to listen as well. Yeshua went on.

“The story is told of a father who had two sons.  You have probably seen boys just like this:  a serious older son—let’s call him “Jeremiah”—destined to inherit his father’s fortune, and a younger son—let’s call him “Eli”—who just wants to have fun.  When the younger son was grown, he knew that life in his father’s house would not be very good for him:  Second sons are always in the shadows of their brothers.  So, the younger son went to his father and, in the most grown-up way he could, said, ‘Father, I’m feeling trapped here.  I need to find my way in this great wide world, but in order to get me started, I’m asking you to go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance.  I only want what’s coming to me.’

“The old man was a little hurt by his son’s request.  Had he not given his sons all they could ever need or even want?  He had amassed a small fortune and his family was quite comfortable.  Still, he remembered how he had felt many years before.  Perhaps it was time to step aside and let the younger generation prove themselves.  So he divided his wealth between his sons and virtually retired to the keeping of his eldest.”

A breeze was stirring, and the sun faded behind a cloud.  The afternoon heat cooled a bit, and Yeshua stood up and walked around.  He took a water bottle from a little boy and splashed a portion into his mouth and drank deep, savoring the cool refreshment of it.  He handed the bag back to the boy and gave him a tousle on the hair and turned back to his story.

“Very shortly, the younger son gathered all of his belongings and headed out to find his fortune, or to seek adventure, or to find himself—only he knew for sure.  He traveled far, to a land of the Gentiles, and established himself there.  He spent money freely and made friends easily and lived riotously — that is, until the money ran out.”  Yeshua nodded.  “That’s right, the money ran out, and so did his so-called ‘friends.’  To add to his troubles, there was a famine that made things even worse.  He was out of everything, and with the famine, even begging for scraps and foraging through trash for the odd moldy crust of bread was next to impossible.  So what was this young man, this son of Israel, to do?  He had to make a living.  But what skills did he have?  His father had herds, so he had been a herder of various kinds of animal from sheep to goats, to cattle.  So he hired himself out as a herder of sorts.  But remember, these were Gentiles in those parts.  They keep and eat things that we Hebrews consider unclean.”  Yeshua paused in the story.  Uneasy gasps were heard throughout the crowd.

“The young man was employed by a good man of that country to feed his pigs.  The boy was so hungry, he would have eaten the very seed pods and husks that he was feeding the pigs if anyone had given it to him to eat.  I suppose it speaks well of the young man that he did not deprive the pigs of their feed.”

“As time passed, and it didn’t take long when he reached that lowest ebb in his life, the young man finally woke up.  Reality dawned on him.  He came to his senses.  He came to himself.  ‘How many hired hands does my father have?  And they have food to spare.  I’m starving to death with a bunch of pigs for company.’  There was nothing else for it.  ‘It may hurt a little and it may hurt a lot, but I’ve got to be honest with my father, with myself, and with God Almighty.  I’ve sinned against both heaven and home.  Maybe my father will hire me on as a servant, and I’ll work for my keep.’  And the boy got up from the hog wallow, brushed off as much of the unclean filth as he could from the rags that barely covered his back, and set off on that long journey home.

“It took a while, and lots of begging and scrounging, but he finally made it home.”

“Josiah!” The shout echoed across the crowd.  The crowd parted to the sound of shushing noises, and a woman grabbed Josiah by the arm.  “You must come quickly!  Something has happened at home!”  Josiah heard the urgency in Miriam’s voice.  And yet, strangely, he was drawn to the teacher and wanted to hear the rest of his story.

“Go, Josiah!  I’ll stay and hear the rest, and tell you what happens,” Eliakim assured him.  Josiah gathered his robe and hurried after his wife who had already made her way to the edge of the crowd and was halfway to the town gate.

“What could be so urgent?” he thought.  He focused on the street ahead and saw a crowd gathering near the well at the center of the village.

“Ruth went to draw a pitcher of water for me and two wild young boys pushed her over the wall!”

“Ruth!” called Josiah.  A splash and a whimper rose from far below.  She was alive!  “Bring a torch and some rope!  We must get to her!”  Josiah’s three other children ran quickly to do as their father had asked.  “Ruth, I’m coming to you. Hold on!”

Lemuel and Jacob secured the rope around a stout old tree and fastened the other end around Josiah’s waist and lowered him over the rim.  The well was cool and dark, and as he descended deeper, the walls became slick and wet.  The torch gave reassuring light, and down below, waist deep in the pool at the bottom of the well, Ruth reached up her hands to her father.

Josiah grabbed her and held her tightly to him and called to be hoisted up.  They emerged to cheers and shouts, and more people came from the market and houses to see what all the commotion was about.

“My daughter is alive and safe!” shouted Josiah.  “Thank the Lord, and praise him for his kindness to his humble servant!”  Josiah’s wife wrapped the girl in a cloak and dried her off, crying tears of joy to see her youngest child returned, shaken but unhurt.

“A lost lamb has been returned to the fold,” thought Josiah.  “I know the joy that the teacher was talking about, now.”

When Josiah returned to the hillside, the crowd had dispersed, the lesson over.  He was sad, but saw his old friend, Eliakim talking easily with the teacher.  He strode over to where Yeshua and Eliakim were chatting.  The teacher noticed him, and still smiling, asked, “How is she, Josiah?”

Josiah looked a little stunned.  How did he know what had happened?  ‘How is who?”

Yeshua looked him in the eye, and gently said, “Ruth.  I know she fell into the well.  Is she alright?”

“Yes, Teacher.  But how—“

“I know a lot of things about a lot of things, Josiah.”  He patted Josiah on the shoulder.  “I suppose you want to hear the rest of the story?”

“I do.  But the hour is getting late.”  He looked back toward the village. “Teacher, would you come and eat with me and my family?  I’d like for them to meet you.”

“I’d be honored.  Lead the way.”

“You’re welcome to share our meal, too Eliakim,” he added.

The three men walked on toward the modest house where Josiah’s children played in the fading light of evening.  The air was becoming cooler, and glow of the lamps around the table was inviting.  Josiah sat down with those he loved, and with this stranger who really seemed like someone he had known for all of his life.

After they had their fill of bread and a fine lentil stew, Yeshua said, “Let’s see: where did we leave off?”  He quickly recapped the story for the benefit of Miriam and the children.

“Now, for months, the old man had sat outside the house, day after day, hoping that he would see his son returning.  And every day, the older son scoffed, and said things like, ‘Good riddance.’  He was certainly full of himself.

“Then finally, while that wandering boy was still far away down that dusty track of a road, his father saw him.  And despite all of the years that had settled on him, he jumped up and ran down the way to meet him.

“The father welcomed him home, sent for a fine robe, put a ring on his finger, order the fatted calf to be roasted in celebration of this poorer, but wiser, boy’s return.”

Yeshua paused.  “Now, you might think that was the end of the story, wouldn’t you?” He looked at the children, who nodded eagerly.  “It would have made a happy ending.  But this is life we’re talking about.  Things are usually more complicated than the usual happy endings.”  He sipped the wine, well diluted with sweet cool water, and continued.

“The older son was not happy at all.  Here, he had been the good son, stayed home, taken care of business, and his old father.  When he saw the party going on, he got mad.  In his best self-righteous, sincerely injured tones, he complained that he had never even been given a goat to roast with his friends.  It sounded a little petty, didn’t it?

“The old man put his arms around the older son.  ‘You were always with me,’ he said. ‘Everything I have is yours.  But this brother of yours was gone, I didn’t know if he was dead or alive.  Now he’s back, and we have another chance to be a whole family again.’”

Yeshua sat back and smiled.  The audience was lost in thought.  “That’s how things are in Heaven when one sinner decides to repent and come back to God.  If you can imagine how that father felt when he saw his son, that’s how God feels: all of that love, relief, and joy—and even more.”

“Was that a real story, Teacher?” asked Lemuel, ever the skeptical teenager, his eyes squinted as if to see through the apparent fiction.

“All stories are real, Lemuel.  They have a meaning and a purpose.  But did these events happen?  Does it matter?  Would that change the truth of it?”  Yeshua looked up at Eliakim.  “How about it, Eli?”

Suddenly all eyes were on Eliakim, a wave of recognition passing over them. “The story certainly sounds familiar,” he said with a quiet smile.  Maybe there was a little rueful regret, maybe there was contrition, but there was certainly an overwhelming measure of genuine happiness.  “You tell it well, Teacher.”

By this time, it was well into the night, but no one wanted to sleep.  They drew strength and energy just from being there with this man, listening to him, learning from him.

The next day, as Yeshua set off on foot to find another crowd and teach them another truth, Josiah and his family were saddened.  Eliakim asked them, “So…what did you think?”

“He’s amazing.  But who is he?” asked Josiah.  “I mean really?  He taught as one who had some real authority.  But they say in town that he’s just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  Some say he’s trying to stir up trouble against the legions.”

“Oh, he’s somebody’s son, alright.  He’s the son of God.  But he’s not out to pick a fight with Rome, Josiah.  He’s changing the world one heart at a time.”

“You mean….?”

“The same.  He’s the Messiah.  The promised one.  Isaiah and the rest of the prophets had a lot to say about him.  I believe it with all my heart.  But don’t take my word for it.  You listen for yourself, you weigh the evidence, you decide.”

“The son of God….  He was right here in my house!”

“And now, he is right here,” said Eliakim, lightly tapping Josiah on the chest and on the forehead, “in your heart and in your mind.  Welcome to the revolution.”

The Third Joseph

Anyone who has ever been to many Sunday School classes has heard of the first great Joseph of the Bible, how he was favored by his father to the jealousy of his brothers, about his coat of many colors, how he was sold into slavery and wound up a high ranking official in Egypt. His poor treatment became the salvation of his family when the land was hit by a famine and they needed food. Joseph moved his people to Egypt, cared for them, and they grew into a large population there. Through all of his trials, he remained true to his faith. Joseph was a good man.

The second Joseph was the husband of Mary. Again, Sunday School or paying any attention at all to the nativity story as it is recited each December would give some appreciation for the role of Joseph as the earthly father of Jesus. He was a carpenter, and apparently very devout in his faith. When confronted with the pregnancy of his betrothed bride, he did not make a spectacle, but under the allowance of the contemporary Jewish law, he was going to quietly divorce her, to save his reputation, obviously, as well as hers. He was advised against that course in a dream, and he chose well in maintaining the marriage. Joseph was a good man.

The third Joseph is one of the few peripheral characters mentioned in all four of the gospel accounts. He was Joseph of Arimathea. Exactly where Arimathea was is unknown, but it was said to be in Judea. Joseph was wealthy, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and at least secretly a disciple of Jesus. It was said that he did not consent to the actions of the Jews in their plot against Jesus, that he was awaiting the kingdom of heaven. Legend has it that he was a tin merchant and traveled to England, where after the resurrection, he returned and built a church, perhaps in the vicinity of Glastonbury. In some Arthurian legends, he was said to have been the first keeper of the Holy Grail, the nature and existence of which has been discussed and debated in many forums. None of these legends can be historically attested or substantiated. Each gospel account, though, identifies him as the man who requested the body of the slain Messiah from Pilate, and laid it in a new tomb that he had apparently prepared for himself or his family. John says he did this with Nicodemus, who brought embalming resins, spices, and materials for the burial.

There are several significant things to note about Joseph of Arimathea. First, although he was wealthy, he was a disciple. This calls to mind the discussion that Jesus had with the rich young ruler, as he is often called, in Luke 18. The young man was devout in his faith, having kept the law well from his youth, and wanted to know what else he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus knew he had something that would stand between him and making that life-changing decision: his wealth. He told him to sell all he had and give to the poor, and then come and follow him. Joseph of Arimathea was also devoted to his faith, maintained his wealth, and he still was a disciple. His wealth was not keeping him from following the Christ.

But according to John, he kept his devotion to Jesus a secret, for fear of the Jews. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was in a position where his influence could make a difference. To openly proclaim his faith in Jesus may have led to his ouster. Nicodemus was apparently of similar persuasion, and we know that between Jesus’s initial discussion with Nicodemus and his work with Joseph after the crucifixion, he had also tried to be a voice of reason, as the Pharisees were beginning to plot against Jesus when he attended the Sukkot feast days in Jerusalem.

Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus were open about their allegiance to Jesus. But then, at that time, not even Jesus was completely open about his teaching and identity, the fact of which is attested by the challenge of his disbelieving brothers in the opening of John 7. But his time had not yet come. From the record, it became apparent that the time did come for both of these men to reveal their discipleship. When the Sanhedrin enlisted the aid of the Roman occupiers to kill a righteous man, they let their loyalty be known, albeit after the deed had been accomplished.

It was after Jesus’s death that Joseph took courage to appear before Pilate and request the body. Mark says that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead, so perhaps in order to prevent his followers from rescuing him, he had the death confirmed by a centurion. When the fact was established, he allowed Joseph to proceed.

Joseph freely gave some very important gifts to his teacher: He provided the resting place where Jesus would be laid, awaiting his reawakening at the appointed time, observing the Sabbath, as his Father had instituted. Jesus rested from his labor of earthly ministry, even as his Father had rested from his labor of creation. Joseph bought the linen shroud that would cover his master’s beaten and brutalized body. He could have walked away, kept his discipleship a secret, continued as a member of the Council, and his life would have been as rich as before. But his soul would have been impoverished beyond imagination. No, he made his decision, he stood tall, and he did what perhaps none of Jesus’s other followers could have done at that time.

But while the dignity afforded by the borrowed tomb was worthy of a great man, and the new linen to wrap the body was far more than would have been used for an executed criminal, Joseph gave Jesus gifts far greater than these tokens. What he did, he did not do out of any sense of obligation. He gave his love and offered honor and glory to the man, the Master, the Teacher who had turned the world upside down, and taught the people to look outward and upward instead of inward.

Joseph of Arimathea did not bury a dream that day: he planted the dormant seed of hope. That hope would rise in only a few short hours, burning away the darkness of what must have been the darkest, longest Sabbath of all, the day that Jesus slept. It must have been interminable for those who loved the one called Immanuel, those who believed in the promised Messiah, those who had given up all they had for the Christ. Doubt crept into their thoughts: although they knew Jesus said he would live again, nature was a hard teacher to ignore. They may have been preparing themselves for darker days ahead as the forces of evil had won this pivotal battle, and those forces no doubt rejoiced in their hollow victory.

But hope was on its way. And darkness would never win.

What happened to Joseph of Arimathea after that is unknown. The legends place him far away from Jerusalem. What he did, where he went are all lost to history. But we know he loved Jesus enough to risk his position, his life, and livelihood. He will be mentioned in passing by many as the donor of the tomb where Jesus was buried. But for those who take the time to think about the man and his actions, they know the truth. Joseph was a good man.