SJF • Proper 26a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSGWe continue this week with our extended look at the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians, and it follows through on where we left off, with yet another emphasis on his love and care for these folks, who must surely have been very special to him.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Last week Paul used the image of a mother nursing her children, and this week he portrays himself as the other parent, the loving and caring father who encourages and urges and pleads with each of his children to do the best they can, living a life worthy of God and God’s kingdom. As I reflect on this with you, I wonder if we are hearing an echo of the Lord’s Prayer here in Saint Paul’s letter. Could this have been a reminder to the Thessalonians, who must have used that prayer each day as every Christian did? Isn’t this a reminder of God the Father, whose kingdom we pray each day will come, who loves us and cares for each of us, giving us our daily bread; and who encourages us to be our very best by forgiving us our very worst, even as we forgive those who sin against us?
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus also alludes to the prayer he committed to his disciples, when he reminds them that they have one Father — the one in heaven. Jesus does this to contrast good fathers and bad. As I said a few weeks back when we were talking about mothers, there are good mothers and bad — as Isaiah assured us, some mothers might even forget or abandon their nursing child. But God is different: God is all good, through and through, better than any human parent, father or mother. Ultimately, only God is the perfect parent, who will never forget or forsake his children.
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Jesus feels so strongly about this, that he drives his point home by saying, “Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father— the one in heaven.” What he means by this is that no earthly father cancompletelyfulfill that role the way only God can — to be not only the giver of life, but the preserver of life, even unto the life of the world to come. No human father or mother can be quite as good as God, who in Christ is willing to give up everything to save the life of his children. To emphasize this teaching about our perfect Father in heaven, our scriptures lay before us today examples of imperfect fathers on earth, from bad to worse.
We start with the worst: the false prophets who lead the people of God astray; who give false but comforting prophecies of peace as long as they get something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.
I don’t know if any of you have been following the cable TV series, Rome, but there was a good example of exactly this kind of thing in an episode a few weeks back. When Julius Caesar entered Rome with his army, even though he was breaking Roman law he wanted to be sure that he got the blessing of the religious authorities — the pagan priests who, according to the Roman religion, were supposed to be able to tell the future by watching how birds flew. Yes, I know that sounds odd, but that’s what they did. Well, Julius Caesar invited the chief priest to a dinner party, and as a matter of casual dinner conversation indicated how a very large sum of money might find its way into the accounts of this chief priest’s wife. Much winking and nodding ensued. And sure enough when Julius Caesar came to the Temple on the day appointed to foretell the future, sure enough the birds flew in the right direction— with a little help from a several servants out of sight behind a wall, dropping a brick outside the cage of birds and furiously waving their aprons to shoo them the right way!
Apparently it was the same in the Israel of Micah’s day: as long as you crossed the palms of the prophets with enough silver they would be sure to give you a good word: they were bribable judges, and priests for price, giving oracles for money.
And things weren’t any better hundreds of years later in Jesus’ day. The primary difference appears to be that the bribery was in a somewhat less obvious form. Rather than monetary bribes, the Pharisees and scribes received a less tangible honorarium: the place of honor at banquets, thebest seats in the synagogue, people bowing and scraping to them in the street and in the market, and being called Rabbi, which means teacher, or Abba, which means father. And it is also clear that these guys had absolutely no concern for the people who honored them. On the contrary, they placed heavy burdens on their shoulders, but didn’t even lift a finger to help them with them. One might well ask why the people put up with this — but you might just as well as ask why the Romans thought you could tell the future by watching birds! Maybe people just like getting good news even if they’ve paid for it; or maybe people like being told, “Do this; do that” because it relieves them of the burden of having to take personal responsibility for their lives.
Whatever the reason, this kind of bad fatherhood had been going on for a long time. And all of these bad fathers have one thing in common: they are interested only in themselves. They are only concerned about others for what they can get out of them: food to fill their mouths, money to line their pockets, seats of honor at the banquet, and salutations on the sidewalk.
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How different, Jesus tells us, how different, Saint Paul assures us, is our God and Father in heaven, who sets for us the model of all good fatherhood. Paul shows us one crucial aspect of what a good father is like in this passage from First Thessalonians: notice how quickly he shifts from the language of being like a father, to the language of being a brother, and then even to the point of being the child: as he says that when he lost touch with the Thessalonians even for a short time he was made like an orphan by being separated from them.
So too Jesus calls for this inversion of hierarchy: if you want to be the greatest then you must be the servant. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is the great inversion of the order of the world that took place in the Incarnation itself. Unlike the scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat, but don’t get up to lift a finger to help anyone; Jesus left his heavenly throne and came down to be with us as one of us, to be our brother, to serve and to save a fallen people. In a certain sense he descends from his heavenly father’s side and becomes the child of all humanity: the Son of Man — think about that odd expression by which Jesus speaks of himself so often — the Son of Man, humanity’s child, the one who leaves his Father’s heavenly throne and comes to earth — as we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time — as a vulnerable infant in a manger.
This self-sacrifice stands in stark opposition to the self-interest of the bad fathers in our readings today. A good father not only lifts a finger to help his children; he will do everything he can to save them, even at the cost of his own pain and suffering.
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Not too many years ago, one fine summer day, a father was out driving in the country with his young son. As they drove along with the warm breeze coming through the car window, a bee flew in on the wind. It buzzed around inside the car, terrifying the child, because he was allergic to bee venom — and a sting could send him into shock or even kill him. Without a moment’s thought, the father reached out and grabbed the bee, squeezed it in his hand, and then tossed it out the window. He looked over at his son, whose eyes were still wide with fear and confusion. Then the father showed his son his hand, on the palm of which the stinger had penetrated, and the venom sack still pumped by reflex. “You don’t have to be afraid of that bee any more,” he said. “I’ve taken its sting for you.”
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This is what a good father will do for his son. This is what Christ did for us all. This is what we are called to do for each other. May God give us the strength to lead lives such as this, lives worthy of God our Father, who has called us into his own kingdom and glory. Thus every day can be our Father’s Day: the Day of our Father who is in heaven, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth, and for evermore.
The story of the father, the son, and the bee is adapted from Adrian Uieleman.