Luke 17:9 – 15 Messing with the Dichotomies


A sermon preached on October 24th, 2010 based upon Luke 17:9 – 15, and on the occasion of the baptism of Conrad Eric Roelofs.

My son Bobby has begun attending a Roman Catholic Preparatory School, and one consequence of this is he’s taking a course on the Old Testament.   It’s interesting for me to hear his reactions.  For instance, the other day he was marveling that there are two separate creation stories at the beginning of Genesis.  I refrained from pointing out that I had pointed out the same thing in Confirmation Class.

It’s true.  The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of the six days of creation, with God affirming that it’s all good, culminating with the creation of human beings, made in the image and likeness of God.

But then in chapter two if you’re paying attention you can’t help but notice there is a second creation story.  In this one, the first human being – Adam – is created before the animals, out of a combination of dust with divine breath.   We are this strange mixture of dust of the earth — destined to return to dust — and this mystery of a divine spark that makes us far more than mere dust.   The story tells of  a garden of tranquility known as Eden where the first humans can eat of any of the good-tasting fruit produced by the trees found there EXCEPT for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The fact that there are two creation stories and not one drives home the fact that they are not intended to be viewed as literally, historically accurate.  They express spiritual truths we remember this morning as we baptize baby Conrad.   The first story reminds us that life is a good gift, and that Conrad is made in the image and likeness of God, a fact that gives his life a special meaning and purpose.  The second story, however, addresses the fact that there is something about us human beings that takes this good gift and turns it into a thing of strife and misery.

In a sense, Conrad is right now living in the Garden of Eden.   Except for occasional hunger or gas pains or the displeasure of a soiled diaper, he is in a state of bliss.   If he were to stay in that state forever, there would be no need for the baptism he underwent this morning.   But we know that gradually Conrad will follow his siblings Maya and Garin and every other human being in leaving behind the Garden.   It’s sad, but necessary.

The first step in leaving behind the garden is to encounter certain dichotomies.   The definition of dichotomy is “any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts, meaning it is a procedure in which a whole is divided into two parts, or in half.”  The first dichotomy we encounter is  “there is me and there is everything else, and the two are separate.”

Another dichotomy is the one expressed by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.   As a child grows they become aware of there being that which they should do and that which we shouldn’t do, and the mystery of the strange pull that which we shouldn’t do can have over us precisely when we realize it is forbidden.

Are dichotomies true?  Yes and no, which is another dichotomy.  There is me and there is everything else, and there is good and evil, but there is also an underlying whole that exists before we fracture it with the distinctions we make.

And so when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they  find themselves in this cursed state where the whole is lost and they are compelled to live from then on in the realm of dichotomies.

When we get to the Gospel of Luke, we find dichotomies frequently referenced.  We find, for instance, the familiar story of Jesus’ birth in a stable.  There is the dichotomy of heaven and earth, but here holiness is mixed together with the stench of the barn.

In Luke’s Gospel, the adult Jesus  often calls attention to dichotomies.  Some of the dichotomies seem to play out the way you expect:  there are two thieves who are crucified with Jesus, one who mocks Jesus and one who repents.   There is the rich man who is condemned and the poor man Lazarus who is rewarded.

But at other times Jesus seems to plays around with dichotomies.    He tells of father who had two sons.  At the outset the older son expresses the righteous path, and the younger son the path of unrighteousness, but at the end of the story, their positions seem to reverse, with the son who did bad inside the party, and the son that did good outside the party.  It’s as if Jesus is messing with our heads — specifically, with our knee jerk inclination for dividing life into dichotomies.

We hear about two sisters, Mary and Martha, one of which is doing all the work and the other one is being a lazy bones, and yet Jesus praises the lazy bones sister and seems to criticize the hard worker.

At David’s small group this past week we dealt with the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, also found exclusively in Luke’s Gospel, which essentially presents a dichotomy.  On one side are those who pass the man left half dead at the side of the road, and on the other side is the Samaritan who doesn’t.   Be like the one and not like the other the parable seems to be saying.  And yet the more we ponder the parable the more we realize that every one of us makes choices to stop for some and pass others by.   We are sides of the dichotomy.

And so the parable that we heard this morning presents yet another dichotomy.  It begins with two characters:  the Pharisee who has striven mightily to live a righteous life and the tax collector who long ago gave up even trying. And the choice, to Jesus’ listeners would have been clear enough.  It gets at a basic dichotomy we try hard to teach our children, encouraging them to strive to be “good” people, and to turn away from the example of “bad” people.

But in Jesus’ parable the dichotomy breaks down.  It is the righteous Pharisee who leaves the Temple unjustified, and the unrighteous tax collector who leaves justified.  And the message is that we can manage to get it sort of right on the outside and have it wrong on the inside, and we can be getting it all wrong on the outside and yet have moments when we really get it on the inside about the wonder of God’s grace.

To put it another way, the greatest sinners are those who think they are saints, and the greatest saints are those who know that they are sinners.

We Methodists have the example of John Wesley.  The way I tell his life story may not be the way you hear it is told in a lot of churches.   Wesley essentially underwent two conversions; the first being to embrace the dichotomy of knowing good and evil.  At age 21 the choice between the two seemed altogether clear to him, and he committed himself to living with every fiber of his conscious energy in alignment with the will of God.  His good works surpassed the mass of men, and yet something wasn’t right on the inside.   In his early thirties he went through a crash and burn experience during the two years he spent in the colony of Georgia, at which point he came face to face with the intractable darkness within him self that he could not escape, as hard as he might try to do so.   His second conversion occurred at the Aldersgate Street prayer meeting when he described his heart as being strangely warmed, experiencing in the depths of his being the grace of God in Jesus Christ that forgave his sin and overcame the division within, discovering the wholeness he had long sine lost.

It is interesting that the story immediately after the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke’s Gospel is a story with yet another dichotomy.  The parents are trying to bring little children to Jesus, but the disciples have  divided people into either children or adults, and in this division have concluded that children didn’t merit Jesus’ attention.   Jesus, however,  rejects this dichotomy, saying “Let the children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”  The children get what we adults miss; the underlying wholeness that pre-exists all dichotomies, and until we turn and become like them, we miss the kingdom.

Now this doesn’t mean that Jesus always rejected the dichotomy between adults and children.  The fact that he never once asked a child to leave everything and follow him as he did to numerous adults implies he recognized that adults and children were different in terms of their capacity to make the conscious decision required in becoming a disciple.   Dichotomies are necessary.    We are obliged to teach little Conrad how to grasp the dichotomies of this world.

And there is a truth beyond our dichotomies, and Little Conrad grasps certain things that we adults more often miss with all the dichotomies through which we perpetually break up reality.  As such, he is our teacher, helping us to find our way back into the garden of God.   In the words of Paul Simon, “Did you ever have a moment of grace, when your brain took a seat behind your face?” and in that moment the wonder of it all returned?

A child lives inside of every adult, and one day the child picks his parents nursing home.

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