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Pastoral ponderings . . .
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes back to his hometown, and the neighbors are talking about him to his family. Something like, “We remember him when he was such a good little boy. So helpful around the house. But since Joseph died, we hardly ever see him. And he’s her oldest son! He should stop all this nonsense: going from town to town, getting people so upset. Even the authorities from the city are coming here, asking him questions; and he doesn’t seem to be concerned one bit! Is he showing off? Does he just like being popular? He’s just being a trouble-maker.”
“He should be home helping his mother: fixing the roof, being a good son. What happened to him? He’s acting crazy. He must be out of his mind.” His mother Mary and his younger brothers and sisters hear what the neighbors are saying. Jesus is disturbing the peace and quiet of their hometown. So, the Gospel of Mark says, they went out to restrain him.
“What will the neighbors think?” “What will the neighbors say?” Neighborhood peer pressure has been around a long time. Jesus of Nazareth is following his calling, being his own person, and he’s upsetting the Nazareth neighbors.
I can imagine the resentment building in his sisters and brothers: “He comes home like a rock star, surrounded by crowds and just leaves whenever he wants. And we’re the ones left to take care of Mom.”
I love these scenes when Jesus returns home! We rarely have scenes where we see his family and get a sense that maybe his relationship with his family was as complicated, even broken, as any of ours can be. Jesus doesn’t come home to help out the family. He doesn’t even respond to them when they’re standing outside asking for him. What’s going on here? What kind of religious role model is this?
“Choose the right” our Mormon friends say. At age 8, children are baptized and given a ring with the letters CTR on it, and from then on Mormon kids are always supposed to do the right thing and choose the right thing since now they are at the age, their Church tells them, when they should know right from wrong. And for Mormons, choosing the right means loyalty to the family, and obedience to authority. Jesus is their role model: always choosing the right.
But Mormon theology would have trouble explaining Jesus’s choices regarding his family obligations in Mark’s gospel. If we were to take this scene from Mark literally, because we believed like Mormons that we should do everything that Jesus does, we would be missing the point. We would even be making a serious mistake. First of all, none of us is Christ. We aren’t now, and never will be gods. Second, none of us is the Savior of the World.
As Lutherans of the ELCA we use our brains and common sense to interpret ancient scripture. We look deeper than a simple literal understanding of the Bible, to begin to see a greater wisdom that endures the test of time. And what we know as we grow older, is that doing the right thing, and choosing the right thing, is not often very clear. Sometimes it is. Keeping refugee children with their loving, self-sacrificing, non-abusive parents on the Border is clearly the right thing to do. But more often in our daily lives it’s not as clear.
What is love to do when confronted with the necessity of choosing between two harms? This is more often our reality as human beings than having the luxury of choosing between an obvious right and an obvious wrong. We do not live in a perfect world. We are not capable of living perfect lives. We do not make perfect choices. We do the best we can, in an imperfect world, filled with imperfect choices that have mixed outcomes. And so the question becomes, how do we live with ourselves? How do we live with our choices?
How many mothers are confronted with “Sophie’s Choice” every day on this planet: having to choose which of their children will live, and which will not? It’s the reality of mothers in El Salvador and Guatemala today who must flee terror and violence like we cannot imagine, bringing their children with them and leaving others behind. Sophie chose. But in the end, could no longer live with herself.
To say that being a Christian means always choosing the right thing, always doing the right thing, would be to reduce all of Christian ethics, theology, and tradition to an oppressive system of social control. Oops! Isn’t that the way the Church has behaved; the message it’s put out there for centuries? “Be like Jesus!”
But if Jesus is simply a moral example, we’ve reduced a profound idea about who God is and who we are as human beings to the level of Elementary school. And sooner or later, as people live imperfect lives in an imperfect world, the Church’s voice becomes irrelevant. It loses meaning. Because people aren’t seeking to be controlled. We are looking for liberation. We find that absolute right and wrong are extremely rare situations, and that the hardest things to live with are the choices we have to make between two harms.
I think we are seeking absolution for being human; for being imperfect. We are seeking a path, a way, to live with the choices we make and not just survive, but thrive. “I have come,” Jesus famously said, “that you may have abundant life.” At the core of our faith, we are trusting that promise proclaimed to us by the Church in our baptism that God is love, and nothing will separate us from God’s love.
This good news means that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on the rightness of our choices. It doesn’t depend on how good a person we are. If it did, Jesus would have stayed home, been a good eldest son, and taken care of fixing his mother’s roof; end of story. But there’s a lot more to this Story that envelopes our lives and hearts and souls, and the more is Grace. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Even the joy of living an imperfect life.
If heaven is spending eternity in the presence of God’s love, we don’t get there by choosing the right thing, and doing the right thing. We get there because it’s offered to us as a free gift in the body and blood of Christ. And as Church, we do not proclaim our rightness, our goodness, or our individual morality. We, as Christ’s Church, proclaim Christ crucified and Christ poured out for all. For the life of the world. That’s what gives us hope. That’s what gives us liberation.That’s what frees us to live lives of joy in imperfect ways, in an imperfect world.