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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Jesus was not a puppet, and neither are we

I recently read a book by Donald Miller called "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life". Miller's most famous book is called "Blue Like Jazz", which was on best seller lists a few years ago. He often writes in a confessional, memoir style. He uses "stuff" from his own life as the basis for reflections on "life's big questions".

I see Miller doing often what one of my writing teachers called moving from the "particular"- authentic elements of his life, and the lives of people close to him, to the "universal"- questions or themes that have application to the human condition in general.

In this book, Miller muses about what makes a good story. Story becomes for him a way of thinking about how to live a good life. Describing how it felt to be at the funeral for his favourite uncle, Miller wrote, "there was such sadness at his funeral because his story wasn't finished. If you aren't telling a good story, nobody thinks you died too soon. "

I think I know what Miller is trying to say, even if I don't totally agree with how he has said it. If a person has not made a positive impact on other people's lives, what we might mourn at their funeral is the squandering of a life. If a person was in the midst of a life they were using to help others, part of our grief at their passing is connected to the impact they had on others.

Miller plays in his book with the idea that we each have the opportunity to live out a good story. He says, "all of us are living out stories. And what our stories are about matters, not just for us, but for the world... a story is based on what people think is important, so when we live a story we are telling people around us what we think is important."

Some of these thoughts were with me as I was working on my sermon for Palm Sunday. The story of the "triumphant entrance" of Jesus into Jerusalem for the Passover Festival is a good story. The story Jesus lived out told people what he thought was important. Jesus entered Jerusalem not as a rebel commander or a warrior king, but as a simple, humble, holy man.

Palm Sunday is also a kind of opening chapter for the Passion Story. Every Holy Week I find myself wrestling with the theology that would have us believe that the events of Holy Week were all planned, pre-ordained, and required by God from the beginning of time- that Jesus' death was a necessary piece in God's plan for humanity.

Did Jesus live out the story he did because it expressed who he was, and what mattered to him, or because he was playing a part already scripted for him? My thinking is that Jesus took real risk in making the trip to Jerusalem that week- and that he exercised free will. He could have made different choices.

The people who acted unjustly and cruelly, to have Jesus arrested, and tried, and condemned, were also exercising free will. They were not puppets in a play in which God pulled the strings, to make this gruesome thing happen.

Why does that matter? If Jesus and the other characters in this big story did not have any choice- if we buy into the notion that all of this happened according to a divine script- then they did not have free will. If they didn't have free will, then Judas' betrayal of Jesus was not a sin- it was more like a supporting player in a drama doing what was needed to further the plot.

For me, this is the big question: If there was no free will, and therefore no responsiblity for actions in Jesus' story, how could there be free will in our lives?