Yamaka

I saw something offensive on the golf course a few days ago that will stick with me for awhile – something that flies in the face of so many things we hold dear in our culture.

I was playing a par-three course in Denver that’s surrounded by a retirement community.  It’s cheap, plays fast, and they take really good care of it – a great place to practice your “short game.”  I was by myself and playing faster than the couple that had started a few holes ahead of me.  From a distance it looked like a man teaching his wife to play golf – his arm around her as she swung the club, very loving and patient, albeit slow.  As I caught up to them I realized it was a very old man and his son.

I got frustrated because they were playing so slow.  Each time the old man swung, his ball would go about 15 yards or so.  I waited forever on the last hole, but the longer it took, the more I was changed.  The son would help his father, bent almost 90 degrees at the neck, out of the cart, take his hand as he walked him to his ball, and hold his shoulders as his dad tried to swing.  I think it took 6 shots to get to the green, 195 yards total, and another 6 shots to finish.

As I waited, leaning against my 5 wood because I can’t hit a 5 iron that far, I thought about what it must take to be that patient, that concerned, that present.  I thought about what a hurry I’m always in, how I’m never that present with my own father, much less anyone else.  I thought about how offensive this was to the “me first,” “get it fast,” “what’s the next thing on the list” stereotypical Western values that we all hold onto so tightly.  I had one of those rare moments, reminded what really matters.  I felt at peace.

The old man and his son putted around on the green for a bit, then left.  I teed up my ball and swatted it – 15 yards or so – which really pissed me off, like it was some sort of anomaly.  I’m a shitty golfer, always have been.

I had a good second shot and 2-putted, which isn’t horrible.  As I walked off the green I passed the young man who had been helping his father.  “Can I tell you something?” “Yeah,” he said with a totally checked in peace on his face.  “I really appreciated watching you with your dad.  That changed me.”  “Oh,” he said surprised at the awkward/blunt confrontation, “Thank you.”  I felt like he needed to know that his submission to something higher than himself didn’t just affect him and his dad.  Few people could have seen what I did and not been affected.  We think our lives, lived in front of others, good are bad, are benign.  As awkward as it was, he needed to know, and I needed to say something.

As we parted company I noticed that he was wearing a black Yamaka, I didn’t see it before, I was a long way off, and he had dark hair.  Forgive me, I’m none too savvy on Jewish customs, maybe I should to refer to it as a “Kippah,” or “Yarmulke.”  Either way, I walked back to my car, popped the hatch on my crappy white minivan, put my clubs in the back, and thought about strength and humility for the rest of the day, wondering why, as an Evangelical, I don’t think about it more often, especially in those places where I really suck.

The Holy Finger

I always chuckle a bit when I think of our Western concept of “The Finger.” We all have 10 fingers, and refer to each one as “a finger,” with two exceptions.  We call those “The Finger,” even though there’s two of them. This has little to do with what I’m writing about today, I just think it’s funny.

Anyway, there’s an episode in the New Testament where Jesus does something with his finger in a way that’s deeply insulting to the crowd he’s addressing.  The story goes like this:

A crowd of religious leaders, seeking to put Jesus on the spot and expose Him as a fraud, offers up a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. This particular sin, at the time, was considered to be one of the worst a person could commit. They declared, “Our law says we should throw rocks at her until she’s dead, what do you think?”

Jesus knelt down and began to write in the sand with his finger. I’m not sure if he used “The Finger,” but he might as well have. There’s a lot of speculation among Biblical scholars about what Jesus was writing, but that’s not what the author of this passage wants us to think about. He goes out of his way to use the phrase “His finger” and expects us to ask the question “what does Jesus’ finger have to do with the story?

As He wrote, with His finger, these leaders kept bothering him for an answer, so He stood up and said something akin to “you’re not righteous enough to condemn this person,” then bent down again to finish whatever it was that He was writing as the formerly self-righteous crowd dispersed.  See the whole story here.

This passage is written by one of Jesus’ Apostles and can be found in the New Testament’s “Book of John.” If you read the entire book, you’ll learn early on that John believed Jesus to be God in human form – “God in the flesh, fully God, fully Man” as He’s so often referred to throughout history.

Let’s go with that idea for a minute. Let’s say that Jesus was God, and these religious leaders, who confessed to be sold out to God – heart and soul – are standing in His presence.

They know by heart another story in their scriptures of God doing something with His finger, an episode where God writes their law, ironically enough. So here they are, God’s holy army, standing next to Him in every sense of the word, and here He is, again, writing something with His finger, just like He did in the presence of Moses on Mount Sinai. Any one of these leaders would have given their left arm to stand next to God while He writes, but all they want to do is discredit Him, and kill someone.  They’ve somehow become convinced that they have the right.

Jesus knows they don’t understand who He is, nor will they get the insult He’s hurling at them, but their hypocrisy makes Him angry.  Hence the “gesture.”

In the Old and New Testament stories, it’s the people who think they’re in good standing with God who really make Him angry.  They’re also the ones who wouldn’t recognize God if He were standing right in front of them.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that they stand take heed lest they fall.

Apostle Paul from his first letter to the church in Corinth

 

Self-righteousness, i.e. the idea that the way you live has given you favor with God, is one of the most toxic beliefs a person can embrace.  It’s also something that’s doing a ton of damage in our world today.  You’ve met these people, they love to look at the sins of others while swimming in their own.  They search the world to make a convert and when they find one, to use Jesus’ words, they “make them twice the son of Hell” that they are.

Jesus and the rest of the New Testament give ample warning about all of this, but it frequently falls on deaf ears.  It feels good to think I’m right and you’re wrong.  It gives me a sense of power, makes me feel like God.  But it also strips away the ability to hear God, to see Him, and ironically, to do the stuff He wants us to do while avoiding the things that He truly hates.

God is for losers

Jesus told the following parable to a group of people who had lost their way.  It was more of an indictment than anything else.  Following is a paraphrase of the story, taken directly from a collection of Koine Greek manuscripts commonly used in the creation of our modern Bibles.

Once there was a very rich man who had two sons.  One a winner, the other a loser.  The good son always did what he was told, worked hard on the family farm, and was a big contributor to the success of his father’s operation.  The other son was a somewhat lazy ne’er-do-well who couldn’t seem to get his act together.

The loser son one day went to his father, announced that he would be leaving, and asked for his inheritance.  Back then, this was tantamount to wishing your father dead – a very shameful act in the minds of Jesus’ audience.  The father willingly complied and the son went and sold the bounty all throughout the town, further spreading his father’s shame.

The son went to a “far off place.”  In 1st century Jewish parlance he went to live with pagans, losers, trash.  He blew the money in some very unsavory activities, got hungry, resorted to eating garbage, and came to his senses.  “Jeeze, I’m living in hell.  I can go home and at least be treated like a slave.  My father’s servants are living better than I am.”

So he crafted a speech that he would deliver to his father.  In the Greek it’s apparent that he’s making up an apology but not sorry or “repentant” for his stupidity.  There is no mention of sorrow, humility, or wisdom.

The picture being painted is of someone who’s committed the most grievous infractions a person from that culture could think of – dishonoring parents, sinful living, rubbing elbows with pagans, and manipulation.  “Kill him” is what most of Jesus’ audience, including his disciples, would be thinking.

His dad, who’s been waiting for him to come home, sees him on the horizon, runs to him and does something akin to tackling him.  The son attempts to give the speech, word for word as he’s rehearsed it, but the father cuts him off.  He places a ring on his finger and immediately restores his status, privileges, and rights to inheritance. Dad then throws an enormous party and kills the calf that’s only reserved for uber-special occasions.

The good son, understandably, is pissed and standing outside the party, refusing to go in.  The father begs him to join the party.  “But my son has returned,” the father begs, “Aren’t you happy too?”  But the winner son sees people as most of us do.  Winners should be celebrated – exalted.  You should never throw a party for losers.  Dad returns to the party alone leaving the winner son to stand outside and pout.  The end.

Jesus tells this story in part to illustrate the fact that God’s view of people is upside-down to ours.  The losers are winners and vice versa.  If He’s right it suggests that our view of most things is upside-down.  Maybe that’s why he so often calls for humility. Getting down on your knees is the highest you can get in an upside-down world.

This parable is one of three (read the whole thing here) that Jesus tells to an audience of “Good People” who are grumbling about the horde of losers that are following Him.  The first parable talks about someone who loses their property then gets real happy when they find it.  The second talks about a poor person who loses their money then gets real happy when they find it.  The third is a story of a man who loses a son then gets real happy when he finds him.  Everyone in Jesus’ audience can track with the first two, few can deal with the third.

Funny that the only loser in this story is the one that didn’t want to go to the party.