Monday, April 07, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent: Why did Jesus weep?

Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

We are not told specifically what it was that drove Jesus to tears, but we can be reasonably sure Jesus was quite capable of empathizing with (that is, sharing and feeling) the emotions of those who so deeply grieved at Lazarus' death.  Jesus could feel human emotions because He was Himself as fully human as He is fully Divine.  He is no less capable of feeling our pain and grief now than He was when He walked the earth.

Reflecting on this, then, I got hung up on this one tiny verse among these forty-five verses of Lazarus' resurrection story: "Jesus began to weep."  We've read in other stories how Jesus was moved with compassion or pity or profound love, but this is the only verse I can think of that speaks directly of Jesus shedding tears of sorrow for others.  What makes Jesus shed tears for and with us?

You may be aware of World Vision, a credible Christian humanitarian organization through which we can sponsor children on just about every continent in the world.  You may also be aware of World Vision's controversial decision a few weeks ago to allow the hiring of same-gender couples who are legally married.  Yet only two days later World Vision did an about-face on this decision because of the outcry from the evangelical world.  They were compelled to backtrack because thousands of sponsors either withheld their financial support or threatened to do so.

Now we conservatives may believe some victory for Christian purity was achieved in this dispute, but it could only be a hollow victory at best.  Thousands of children from impoverished countries around the world who depend on this generosity were put at risk - if only for a day or two (shall we go two full days without food or clean water??). 

As I was reading about this dispute, I could envision a newly sponsored child getting her first decent meal in weeks - or maybe ever!  She is about to sit down and enjoy this meal when while she is saying a prayer for her new sponsor - BY NAME! - who made the meal possible, suddenly the tray is pulled away and she is sent home ... because her sponsor whose name she now knows stopped payment on the check which had paid for that meal.  Surely in such a moment "Jesus began to weep."

I am pretty sure it was not quite that dramatic or sudden, but it is necessary for us to insert ourselves into these real-life stories as representatives of Christ Himself in order get a glimpse of how such drama would play out, what our part in the story would be, and how we might react under similar circumstances. 

How might we feel if that child had been our own?  How might we react if we were the World Vision missionaries "on the ground" where the child is and, having told this child of her new American sponsor BY NAME, look her in the eye and say, "I'm sorry.  They changed their mind."  Surely in that moment, "Jesus began to weep".  And most likely, perhaps most importantly, a heart of flesh would turn to stone.

Our Lord would surely weep for a child whose hopes for nourishing food, preventive health care, clean drinking water, and the chance for an education were suddenly taken away; but I also think Jesus would weep even more for those who would use money - or a child - as a political pawn to get their own way.  After all, these are also the ones for whom Jesus gave up His life!  I have to believe the outcry and protest came from well-meaning people who probably believed they were doing the right thing by withholding their financial support in order to force World Vision into an ideal of their own vision. 

This happens in churches all across America, not one excluded.  Money is the one "weapon" many believe they have that will get someone's attention.  It is the one tangible thing we can do to make known our personal displeasure.  Frankly, I am not sure why World Vision would find it necessary to make such a public announcement knowing some would be antagonized.  Were they so naive?  Or were they so bold?  Even in that moment, World Vision took their eye off the ball and lost sight of their own mission.

Maybe they simply could not imagine earnest, generous, and devoted Christians who would do such a thing as to offer hope to a hungry child in Armenia, for instance, and then pull it away - for any reason, let alone a political reason that has nothing to do with charity, nothing to do with Divine Love.  It is rather an act that betrays the reality that every dollar we have may well be earned by our hands but is claimed by our Lord!  Like every other blessing, even money is not "ours" to withhold!

I think, however, the reason it was so easy for these thousands to threaten to withhold their support is because while they may be sympathetic to a hungry child as I believe we all are, it is virtually impossible to empathize with such a child because we are so far removed geographically and financially - perhaps even spiritually.  It is very difficult, if not impossible to empathize with anyone if we have not ourselves suffered similar challenges or watched our own children do without basic needs. 

Our theology of plenty does not allow a lot of wiggle room when it comes to fully understanding what people in other parts of the world have to deal with on a daily basis, and even folks in this country who struggle don't get a lot of sympathy because of our national doctrine of "rugged individualism" and equal opportunity.  We reason that our own success, however limited, can be as easily enjoyed by others if they are willing to do the work and put in the hours because we simply cannot imagine otherwise.  Hard work got us what we wanted; why can't it be so for others?

Even Bible stories are hard for us to understand because these events took place so long ago and in another culture completely alien to us.  I think maybe this is the reason we can so easily take a small snippet of Scripture away from its context and try to force it into our own setting - because we do not understand the cultural context it came from.  Historians and archaeologists can give us a pretty good idea of what other cultures looked like, but we can never fully empathize with something we have never experienced ourselves.

Jesus was sharing the emotions of those who were around Him.  He was WITH them, He was one of them, and so He was sharing the grief they suffered rather than merely observing.  It is part of the Christian doctrine which teaches that our Lord shared our humanity so we may hope to one day share in His divinity as co-heirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But what this doctrine also expresses is an understanding of our fully sharing in His ministry as the Body of Christ in the world today in "bearing one another's burdens" as Jesus was surely doing in this moment with Mary and her friends. 

We can pick our battles (or our own poison!) as we will, but we can never be selective when it comes to faith and evangelism; that is, sharing the Gospel in practical ways as St. Paul and St. James demanded of their audiences ('not only hearers, but DOERS of the Law').  We cannot be selective about who is worthy of the Gospel of our Lord, and we must never try to manipulate by any means an outcome that suits our personal preferences - especially at the expense of a hungry child or the mission of the Holy Church which is Christ in the world today. 

The choices are not always easy, of course, because we often let our emotions get in the way; but we must always remember that the fullness of Christ in the world today is weakened when we who call ourselves "disciples" or think ourselves "saved" would withdraw our support and participation by any means.  That is not Jesus, the One who sat and ate with what was considered the worst of humanity!  Even with what we believe to be the noblest of intentions, we can still grieve the Spirit if we do not stop to count the cost of our protest, consider more seriously any potential "collateral damage", and remember who will ultimately be harmed rather than helped; it will always be the weakest among us.  Always.  And Jesus will surely weep.

"If Christ is in you ... the Spirit is life because of righteousness."  We are the Body of Christ, and "the world is our parish", even (perhaps especially) the world we do not always agree with - for He died for them as well.  We can never allow needless suffering when it is within our power to alleviate such suffering.  And when we act in accordance with the righteousness of Christ our Lord, "many" who see us suffering WITH THEM - as they saw Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus - will believe in Him ... because we, too, truly and deeply believe.  Amen.

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