The Rev. Michael E. Blewett
Over the last couple of days, I’ve had the opportunity to read a section of a journal in which Casey wrote a bit about his spiritual journey. In fact, the readings selected for his funeral reflect certain passages Casey quoted. One of these was Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son that you just heard.
Casey wrote, “Sin can lead you away from God, but when you walk away from Him, He is with you the most. He loves all of us in spite of our failure to recognize him.” Casey’s insight is one of the great mysteries, one of the wonderful paradoxes of being a follower of Jesus: that when it seems we are most lost, we are also most likely to be found. While we might think we are running away, we are being pursued to the very ends of the earth by the One who will never let us get away.
Permeating the pages of Casey’s journal is a recognition of the importance of humility. While Casey may very well have identified with the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, he and I would have agreed that the parable is incorrectly named. Because it’s not so much a parable about a wayward son, but of a scandalously loving Father. So in recognition of his pursuit of humility, my preaching today does not as much dwell on Casey as it points to Jesus, in whom Casey now lives fully, completely and perfectly.
You see, what comes home to us in this parable is not the homecoming of the son, but the home-leaving of the father. The son sinned, and sinned boldly to use Martin Luther’s phrase. He basically told his father, “I wish you were dead, and because I can’t wait for that time, give me what’s coming to me now.” You know the rest of the story. The son squanders his inheritance and his youth and things that never satisfy, until he ends up wallowing with pigs. Jesus’ story says that the young man then had a realization. The prodigal “came to himself,” and thought of a way to upgrade his roommates from pigs to people. So he gets a good speech rehearsed and summons just enough humility to return home in disgrace, ready to take his place as a slave rather than a son. But if the main point of the parable was about the son messing up and returning home, the story would have ended there.
Before the son even has a chance to grovel, before he can recite his repentance speech, while he is still a long way off, his Father was already running down the road to meet him. This might seem like a small detail to us, but during Jesus’ time, fathers simply did not do that. A father would never have gone out to meet any child, much less one who has sinned against him so severely. The father’s reaction is scandalously over-the-top. It’s not just unbelievable; it’s unimaginable. It’s mind-blowing and heart-rending. And that’s the point.
The prodigal son in the story might have been tempted to credit his own repentance, his own humility, or his own willingness to make amends for his restoration. But he never gets a chance to do any of that because of the overwhelming and invincible love of the father. The prodigal’s identity will never again be measured by sin, but by sonship. He will never be enslaved, but saved.
I didn’t know Casey well, but I do know this: he was baptized into the death and live of Christ. Jesus got a hold of him and never let him go. That which God has created, that which has been given to Jesus, will always and forever be redeemed. And to that reality we proclaim today, as part of the communion of saints on earth, with Casey and all the company of heaven: Amen, and Alleluia.
The Rev. Michael E. Blewett
is All Saint’s Day, one of the most significant feasts in the Christian
year. I must admit, though, that I’m never quite sure how to recognize
this day with folks. Most holidays have a snappy little exclamation
with which we greet one another, and it usually begins with the word
‘Happy’: Happy New Year, Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Halloween. But All
Saints’ Day is a bit different, isn’t it? That’s because in order to
recognize the saints who have gone before us, we can’t help but
remember their deaths. It’s a bittersweet thing. Anyone who has ever
lost someone dear to them can easily be of two minds on this day.
We’re glad they’re with God, yet sad we see them no longer. Heaven
rejoices, but earth still sorrows.
the midst of our prayers and praises today, we may find our smiles
mingled with tears as we remember the shortest verse in the Bible:
Jesus wept. Jesus wept because his dear friend Lazarus was dead.
Lazarus was dead. And not just a little bit dead, mind you, but really dead.
Use any euphemism you want: He was pushing up daisies, taking the
great dirt nap, kicked the bucket, permanently out of print, eating
grass from the roots up. The munchkins from the Wizard of Oz would
have said he was:
Lazarus wasn’t just dead; he was dead and gone.
Jesus’ day, many believed that when a person died, their soul hung
around the body for three days, after which it went down to the
underworld. When Jesus finally came calling, Lazarus had been dead
four days. It was over; there was no hope. Lazarus was gone, and
know next to nothing about Lazarus: he’s a good friend of Jesus, he
gets sick, then he’s dead. Oh, and he smells, too, because he’s been
dead four days. One thing I do know about Lazarus is that he was,
perhaps, one of the most unlucky people in history. What do I mean by
unlucky? Wouldn’t we all like to be on the receiving end of a
spectacular miracle like this? Who wouldn’t want to be resurrected by
Jesus? While I’m sure Mary and Martha are elated their brother is
back, I’m pretty sure Lazarus is of two minds about it. After all,
this isn’t resurrection; it’s a resuscitation. Lazarus is going to
have to go through death again as the result of Jesus’ call. Apparently, it can be rather inconvenient to be a close friend of Jesus.
it may be inconvenient for Lazarus, it is not unimportant, because
Lazarus’ life, death, second life and second death are a kind of
‘preview of coming attractions’ that the Gospel of John gives us.
a short while, in John chapter 15, Jesus will say, “No one has greater
love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13)
Lazarus’ illness, as Jesus said, did not end in Lazarus’ death, but it will end Jesus’
life. As a direct result of Lazarus’ resuscitation, the authorities
agree to pursue Jesus’ death. (Jn. 11:53) Jesus lays down his life for
second, and more important, preview of coming attractions has to do
with Lazarus‘ smelly grave-clothes. Lazarus was raised from the dead,
but not to new life. His life was not qualitatively different than the
life he had before. He wriggles out of the tomb still bound
in his grave-clothes, because he is going to need them again one day.
And at the risk of giving away the story, in chapter 20 of John’s
gospel, when Peter and John inspect Jesus’ empty tomb, they find that
Jesus has left behind his funeral attire. (Jn. 20:5-7) Jesus won’t
ever need them again; his life is wholly different. We agree that
Jesus rose from the dead, but we tend to forget that he is alive in a
completely new way, in a completely new world. He is alive as no one
has ever been; he is more than alive, he is resurrection-life. But
we’re getting ahead of the story.
What concerns me right now is why did Jesus weep?
Jesus grieved by the death of his friend? Certainly. Was he touched
by the ritual mourning of those in the village? Perhaps. Was he moved
by the plight of Mary and Martha, left and bereft? Maybe. But none of
these things caused Jesus to shed one tear. Jesus may have been
crying, but they weren't tears of sadness. Jesus was angry. The Greek
words that speak about Jesus’ reactions (ταράσσω and ἐμβριμάομαι) have
almost nothing to do with sadness; they convey anger. Have you ever
been so angry, so full of righteous indignation that you started to cry
through your rage? Now we’re getting close to the truth of Jesus’
always need to keep in mind the truth that Jesus’ main enemies were not
the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans, but Satan, Sin and Death. And
when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus enters a battle zone.
have a theory that the ‘Lazarus event’ was the closest encounter Jesus
had with death before his own. I doubt that Jesus had ever seen anyone
die. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it was even possible for anyone to
die when Jesus was in close proximity. After all, how could death work
its work in the presence of the Lord of life? Death and life are
opposites (B.C. , “before the cross”), and these opposites do not
attract. When Jesus calls Lazarus forth, he’s not just administering
long-overdue CPR. Jesus breaks him out of the most secure prison in
the world, the prison of Death, and don’t think the devil doesn’t
Gospel of John is full of words, phrases and interactions that have
double-meanings. This whole “Lazarus event” means one thing to Mary
and Martha, another thing to the disciples, something else to the
religious authorities, and most certainly something unique to Lazarus.
difficulty with this story is that one of the main characters remains
offstage, yet very much present: Death. I’ve said before that John is
full of double meanings, and the Lazarus story illustrates this
wonderfully. Once Lazarus crawls out of the tomb (and that is the only
way he could have exited, since his hands and feet were bound…I imagine
him inching out like a worm out of the ground), Jesus says, “Unbind him
and let him go.” Since the disciples and mourners are the only ones
around, translators believe Jesus is talking only to those mortals
watching the event. It makes good sense on one level, but there is, I
believe another level.
we had “eyes to see”, we would notice that there are not only
grave-clothes binding Lazarus, but that he is also being held by unholy
hands, hands that grasp and clutch as Lazarus gasps and claws his way
out. They are the hands of Sin and Death.2
Without going into a long lesson in Biblical Greek, my “amplified”
translation would read, “and Jesus said to Sin and Death, “Release him,
give him up, and go away!”” Lazarus is a prison break preview, because
Jesus is about to demolish the prison.
as I think about it, let’s go ahead and say, “Happy All Saint’s Day”,
knowing that Happy is also translated as ‘blessed.’ Blessed are those
released from the wages of sin, blessed are those now freed from the
handhold of death, and blessed be our Lord Jesus, who even now prepares
a place [in himself] for us, so that where the saints in heaven are
now, there we may be also. Amen.
1 From “Ding, Dong, the Wicked Witch is Dead” in The Wizard of Oz.
Greek sentence Jesus speaks is, “λυσατε αυτον και αφετε υπαγειν.”
There are three important words to dissect here, each of which has
1) to lose any person (or thing) tied or fastened, 2) to lose one bound, i.e. to unbind, release from bonds, set free
1) to send away, 2) to permit, allow, not to hinder, to give up a thing to a person, 3) to leave, go way from one
to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart