You Can’t Celebrate the Party with One Guest Missing

God’s plan aims for inclusion, not exclusion.

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Jesus as the good shepherd. A mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century A.D. Photo credit: Peter Milošević. Used under Creative Commons license.

Luke 15 recounts three of Jesus’ most famous parables: the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each story, one member of a group goes missing. It/he is the lost one.

In the story of the lost sheep, a single sheep wanders off from the flock. The shepherd leaves his flock to search for the lost sheep and return it to the flock. In the second story, one coin in a collection of ten coins is lost. A housewife thoroughly scours her house until she finds it and restores it to the collection.

The third story of the lost son has a bit of a twist. A man’s young son demands his portion of his father’s inheritance. He then travels to a far country where he squanders that inheritance in undisciplined living. When he sinks into destitution, he comes to his senses. He returns home to ask forgiveness and encounters his father running down the road to joyfully embrace and welcome him home.

What is striking about all three stories is that the shepherd, the housewife, and the father all celebrate the recovery of the lost one by throwing a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which is lost,” says the shepherd to his neighbors. Merrymaking is a repeated note in all three stories.

The parties don’t come until the lost one has been restored. What strikes me about this fact is the thought that the parties cannot begin until their one missing guest is present. The merrymaking cannot be full until that missing guest has been ushered in.

That is what makes the ending of the third story so poignant. Even though the lost younger son has been restored to the family–and to the party–there is still one guest missing. That guest is the elder son who has been working in his father’s fields.

He resents his father’s extravagance on behalf of his errant younger brother. He will have nothing to do with the party celebrating his brother’s return. When the story ends, we are left with the question: Will the elder son spoil the party by becoming the next missing guest?

Jesus tells the three stories in response to grumbling by Pharisees and scribes that Jesus has been socializing with tax collectors and sinners. In their view, God’s party must shut out those missing guests. The party is all about exclusivity, not inclusion.

But Jesus responds by telling these three stories. In throwing his party, God is all about inclusivity, not exclusivity. In fact, the hint is that the party cannot begin until every one of the missing guests has been found and brought in on the celebration.

Now the point of these stories, I think, goes beyond just concerns about the pastoral approach of churches in their dealings with social, economic, ethnic, or moral outsiders. I find myself wondering if it does not point as well to universal salvation when the kingdom of God is ushered in at the end of history.

This is not to deny the theme of judgment that we find in Scripture. Mercy can never sweep sin and evil under the spiritual rug. We must take with great seriousness the notes of warning that are scattered throughout Scripture.

But I also contend we must always balance out that theme of judgment with the equally strong theme of the overflowing mercy and love of God for all his creation. And these three parables suggest that there are no limits on how far God will go to restore those missing ones to his party. He will scour the universe until each lost one has been brought in.

That also raises a question I have to take personally. Will I be the elder son who, by my insistence on the exclusivity of God’s intentions, become the next missing guest at the party?

Note to Reader:

I want to acknowledge that my thoughts in this posting were triggered by an insight into these three parables written by Amy-Jill Levine. A friend recently sent her piece to me. Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Just as Christians have long commented on the Hebrew Bible, so Levine is an example of how this process is going the other way as well. I welcome that for the new insights that Jewish interaction with the New Testament can bring me.

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Where Begins the Gospel?

An ambiguous word comes loaded with meaning.

An image of the evangelist Mark in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, 7th-8th centuries.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we encounter a word, a phrase, or a sentence that seems so ridiculously simple. We read it and move on, giving it no further thought. But if we stop to pinpoint its meaning, what had seemed so simple becomes ambiguous. It possesses layers of meaning.

One classic example is the sentence fragment that opens the Gospel of Mark: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It sounds simple and straightforward. That is, until we try to understand what the author means by the word beginning. Just what does constitute the beginning of his gospel?

I contend that there are at least four possible ways of understanding that simple word.

1) The sentence fragment may serve as a book title. Ancient books did not have titles like published books today. When people made reference to a particular book, instead of naming its title they would quote its opening word or words.

For example, in English Bibles, we give each of the five books of Moses a title: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew Bible, however, their titles are the opening words of each book. Genesis is not called Genesis but Bereshit (In the beginning), which is the opening word of Genesis in Hebrew.

Mark may intend the opening fragment of his gospel to serve this purpose. He is telling his reader that he is herewith beginning to  tell  the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2.  When we notice, however, what immediately follows this opening fragment (Mark 1:2-8), we find Mark quoting a passage out of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Maybe Mark wants us to see this quotation as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This may be a way Mark signals to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ really begins in the Old Testament. The Old Testament story of Israel is the necessary preparation for the coming of the gospel.

This interpretation does not sound so far-fetched when we notice how it is impossible to understand the fullness of the New Testament message unless we soak ourselves deeply in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are constantly quoting the Old Testament. They use theological terms and images that have their origins in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament provides the fundamental theological premises on which the New Testament writers build their own theologies.

The New Testament becomes wobbly in its proclamations without the background of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament itself may be the beginning of the gospel which Mark is proclaiming.

3) I always believe that it is essential to pay attention to context when trying to interpret an isolated phrase or sentence in a Bible passage. The opening of Mark is no exception.

If we pay attention to what follows the opening fragment (again Mark 1:2-8), we find it is not only a quotation from the Old Testament, but also the story of the coming of John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism in the desert. In fact, the quotation from Isaiah serves to leads us into this ministry.

So a third option for understanding the beginning of the gospel is the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, all four gospels in the New Testament acknowledge that the ministry of John the Baptist as the trigger that launches Jesus on his own ministry. Jesus does not begin his preaching, teaching, and healing until he has been baptized by John.

Christians have ever since acknowledged the crucial role of John in launching the Christian movement by giving him the title the Forerunner. In Orthodox iconography, like the mosaic of the deësis in Istanbul’s church of Hagia Sophia, John always stands to the immediate left of the central icon of Jesus.

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4) The final possible meaning requires looking upon the whole of Mark’s gospel as the context for its opening sentence fragment.

Scholars have longed noticed that in the manuscript tradition the gospel of Mark has ended oddly. In the earliest manuscripts it ends with chapter 16, verse 8. Scribes added verses 16:9-20 to the gospel only centuries later.

So Mark’s original text appears to have ended with the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by a young man (an angel?) to the women at the tomb. But oddly Mark’s gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples as do the other three gospels. Instead the young man tells the women that the risen Jesus will go before his disciples into Galilee. There they will see him (Mark 16:6-7).

But Mark never records that appearance in Galilee. Why? That’s one big puzzle in studying Mark.

It is important, however, to recognize what Galilee represents in Mark’s gospel. It is not the Jewish heartland. Judea and Jerusalem are that. Galilee is more of a borderland. Its populace mingles Jews with Gentiles. To a Jewish purist, it is therefore a place where one might risk religious contamination.

Yet the young man tells the women at the tomb that Jesus’ disciples will meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. Is this coded language by which Mark is suggesting that Christians will meet the risen Jesus when they continue his ministry in the borderlands, in those lands where races, ethnic identities, social classes, and religions intermingle.

This leads me to wonder if Mark sees the movement of Christians out of Palestine and into the Gentile world as the continuation of the gospel ministry of Jesus. That gospel ministry began in Galilee. There was the beginning of the gospel, but not the end. The full story is to be found in the spread of the gospel out into the whole world. The ministry of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection–is only the beginning.

Now which of these possible interpretations does Mark have in mind when he writes The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God? Is it possible that he does not have just one of these meanings in mind? Is it not possible that that simple, but ambiguous sentence fragment embraces all four?

Dancing Freedom

How we understand God has a lot to do with how we understand freedom. 

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Galaxy NGC 4414 in its circular rotation.

In working on my recently published book Charter of Christian Freedom, I had to struggle a lot with what the apostle Paul was saying in his Letter to the Galatians. For freedom is a major theme throughout the letter.

Two verses in Galatians capsulize that theme for me:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13)

They express the heart of Paul’s teaching. But they pose one big problem for me. How can you advocate freedom and then turn around in the same breath and advocate becoming a slave? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

My Very American View of Freedom

Part of the problem, I think, is that I hold a different understanding of what freedom is than does Paul. As an American, I’ve been raised on the idea that freedom means individual autonomy, self-reliance, independence. If I am free, I make choices purely on my own personal desires, insight, or judgment of what is right. I have no one compelling me to choose in a specific way.

This concept of freedom fueled the American Revolution. Americans wanted to shake off what they perceived as British oppression (taxation without representation among other things). They wanted to determine their own destiny rather than a Parliament and king across the ocean doing that. That understanding of freedom has underlain most American attitudes since.

We glorify the self-made man. We believe every family should be master of its own castle. Government should be limited to the barest essential duties. And we should be able to follow any dream we come to hold, without restraint. We see this concept of freedom in a pure form in libertarian thought.

If that is our concept of freedom, then slavery is its polar opposite. Slavery represents a condition where an individual has no choice to make. The individual is not master of his or her life. He/she must submit to an authority above himself or herself.

If that is our concept of freedom, then Paul seems to be engaging in double-talk. He is telling us Christ has made us free, but only to subject us to a new un-freedom. (Does that sound familiar with many voices we have heard in Christian history?) We begin to feel we are in the world of 1984 or Animal Farm.

Now this understanding of freedom as sovereign independence can sound persuasive if we hold an understanding of God as the cosmic autocrat. This is a common view in many Christian circles. Notice how many prayers begin with the phrase Almighty God. In this view of God, God’s will becomes something arbitrary. We have no say in it; God decides everything. All we can do is submit or else, and the else is often pictured in direst terms.

The Calvinist doctrine of double predestination is a good example of this theology. God decides gratuitously whom God will save and whom he will damn. We humans have no say in the matter.

If this is who God is, then we are not really sure, deep in our souls, that we can really trust this God to be for us. We then try to cage in this arbitrary ruler so he cannot hurt us. Or we view freedom as rebellion. Freedom is becoming totally independent of this dangerous divine being. That lies, I suspect, behind a lot of contemporary atheism. It is a reaction to the view of God that traditional Christianity has often presented and then implemented in its actions.

A Challenge from the View of God as Triune

But what happens if we view God within the framework of God as triune? In the doctrine of the Trinity, God is one God, but not a isolated monad. God is a fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The life of God is a constant flow of love among the three persons of the Godhead. The Father eternally pours his love into the Son, who eternally receives the love of the Father. The Son eternally pours his love into the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit eternally receives the love of the Son. The Spirit pours his love into the Father, and the Father eternally receives the love of the Spirit. And so on throughout all the relationships of the Godhead.

The life of God is this eternal flowing of love among the three persons. Trinitarian theologians use a technical word perichoresis to describe this flow. The word is Greek and comes from the world of the theatre. It is the word for the circle dance that was often performed as a part of a theatrical production.

It is for this reason that I think of God engaging in an eternal circle dance of love, with love flowing in, among, and then out of all three persons. In that process the distinct identity of each person is maintained but within a fluidity of relationships.

It is important that we see perichoresis not moving in only one direction. It involves giving but also receiving. The life of God is a constant pouring out of one’s life into the other and a constant receiving of one’s life from the other. Mutuality defines divine life.

An Alternate View of Freedom

Now if this is the vision of God we hold, then the concept of freedom starts to take on a different cast. Freedom is being released for this life of mutuality. It is being released from all that blocks us from giving ourselves to God and others.

Those blocks can include oppressive demands, personal or social, placed on us by others. They can include anxieties within us, especially fears about self-survival. They can include emotional and spiritual wounds that have been inflicted upon us in childhood. They can include our own behaviors that seek to establish our dominance over others. In all these ways alienation is the result.

The blocks are not just blocks in giving ourselves to others. They can include, too, blocks in receiving from others, for receiving love can be as frightening as giving it. I find it is sometimes harder for me to receive love from others than to give it.

Receiving love can feel very humbling. We are not in a position of superiority as we are when we are donors. Receiving involves acknowledging our need. It calls forth a response of gratitude. And that can be a blow to our desire to be invulnerable.

If our view of God is this view of mutual giving and receiving (that lies at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity), Paul’s view of freedom begins to make sense. For then freedom is this experience of being released for the circle dance of love, a life of fully giving ourselves to others and fully receiving from others. We can confidently give ourselves in service to others because we can be confident that we will not be diminished, but constantly renewed and built up by the experience.

If this is how Paul sees freedom, then Christ is releasing us for the privilege and opportunity to enter into the Trinity’s own life. We are invited into the dance of love that is divine life. *

Of course, for most of us, this invitation is not realized instantaneously. It involves some agonizing struggle with our deep-seated fears for self-survival, fears that feel perfectly appropriate because of experiences of abusive mutuality that all of us have experienced in the journey of life. We have been hurt by people who claim to love us: we are therefore fearful and cautious when genuine love comes our way.

This struggle is a real part of growing up spiritually. And it never ends this short of the coming of the Kingdom of God in its fullness at the End. But the gospel also promises we can enter into this circle dance of love in stages here and now. We are given the gift of the Spirit who can progressively heal us from our fears if we are open.


* I do not want to claim that Paul had a full-blown view of God as triune when he wrote Galatians. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged in its full dimensions about 300 years later. But the seeds of the doctrine are there in Paul and the other New Testament writers.

A Pang for Eternity

Does life have meaning? It depends upon where you look for an answer.

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Gustave Doré’s rendition (19th century) of Dante’s vision of Paola and Francesca in Hell.

I was reading Ecclesiastes when I stumbled upon this sentence: He [God] has made everything beautiful in its times; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end (Ecclesiastes 3:11 RSV).

The sentence is evocative like good poetry. I had to pause and take in what the author was saying. It struck me as something very perceptive.

Odd Book in the Canon

Ecclesiastes is an odd book in the Hebrew canon. The author is called the Preacher and linked to Solomon, proverbially the wisest of the Hebrew sages. But he does not speak like a Hebrew sage. More like a Greek philosopher or moralist.

He is decidedly rationalistic in approaching the meaning of life. He travels widely, observing carefully all around him. Though he believes in God, he does not rely much on the precepts of Hebrew religion for his analysis. Rather he is skeptical of much of what the Hebrew faith teaches.

What does he concludes from his observations? Everywhere he looks, he sees impermanence. Seasons come and go, so do human beings. All–king or peasant, rich or poor, wise or foolish, noble lady or maid–all face the same fate: the grave.

So his final conclusion is: all is vanity. All is but a puff of wind. What is here today is gone tomorrow. Human beings therefore should just enjoy the pleasures of today nor work too obsessively, for they do not know what tomorrow brings. It’s a distinctly morose view of life.

The Longing for Meaning

That’s why the sentence I quoted at the beginning so struck me. The author seems to believe that a longing for something permanent, something forever meaningful, lies within the mind and heart of human beings, but we can never find it.

The longing lies deep in the human psyche. The question is: Is there any way to satisfy it? The Preacher is skeptical. Human beings, despite all their longing, cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

This would suggest that human life is always restless, never able to find contentment. This brings to mind the image in Dante’s Divine Comedy of the lovers Paolo and Francesca whirling around their circle of Hell passionately pursuing each other but never able to find a moment to rest and connect.

Rationalism’s Dead End

I wonder if the Preacher’s dismal vision may not represent where a totally rationalistic approach to life ultimately ends. Can reason alone, whether inductive or empirical, finally penetrate into the inner secrets of life and the universe? Can we ever really understand to our full contentment? I think the Preacher would say No.

I find this a provocative question because a couple of years ago I read Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. In it he traces the way modern human beings try to answer the vexing question: What is the mystery of existence? Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it?

He seeks answers by interviewing some of today’s top philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists. Many of them are working on the far reaches of current scientific exploration. It is amazing how much modern science has uncovered secret after secret about the universe.

And yet, despite their amazing knowledge, Holt quotes a number of scientists who have concluded at the end of all their study that the universe is meaningless. It has no purpose. It just is, period. Now, I think the Preacher would be right at home within their circle. All is but a breath of wind.

Moving Beyond Reason

If this is the ultimate end point for a purely rationalistic approach to understanding life and the world, then human beings have to turn elsewhere for an answer. Some, I think, turn to the world of imagination. Others to the world of religion. Human beings have eternity in their minds. If science cannot satisfy their longing, then they will search in alternative fields.

In the world of imagination, they can explore a world which has meaning. That’s one reason, I suspect, we are constantly attracted to stories–whether in print or cinema–where good ultimately triumphs over evil. We encounter them in fairy tales, TV police dramas, compelling novels, and cinema (the Star Wars series is a great example).

Imagination may not be able to prove its case by rational argument, but imagination may intuitively perceive a truth that is not available to reason. Or alternatively there is always the possibility that imagination may be dead wrong. Yet we are drawn back over and over again to stories that posit some kind of meaning to the lives we live. Our fascination with these stories bears witness to the depth of our longings.

The other alternative is religion, especially if the religion is based upon some belief in divine revelation as do Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historically religion has been probably the most prevalent way for most of humanity to find the contentment to the longing for eternity that the Preacher detects in the human mind.

One Christian Answer

Certainly the Christian faith does that for me. And no one provides it better for me than something out of my spiritual heritage as a Presbyterian. In the 17th century English Presbyterians adopted what are known as the Westminster Standards. They include a catechism for instruction in the faith.

The opening question of the catechism with its answer is probably the best known statement in all of the Westminster Standards. It reads:

Q. What is the chief end of man? 

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

 There, at the very start of its exposition of the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith, the catechism tackles the question of meaning right on. Life has meaning, and it’s tied up with our relationship to God.

It is easy to write this off as pious frou-frou. But I find it strangely profound. The universe, human beings, find their purpose in being in relationship, a relationship with their Maker. That relationship has two dimensions. One is the glorification of God; the other, however, is the enjoyment of God. Ultimately we are to bring pleasure to God and to enjoy pleasure ourselves through our relationship to the same loving God.

God creates out of a loving delight. We find our meaning as we respond to this same God in loving delight. Maybe that is the answer to that glimmer of eternity that the Preacher finds in human minds. But it is not an answer that reason alone could deliver. Only divine grace does.