Taking a Mulligan

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Throughout Lent, we’re exploring the parables of Jesus – the two dozen or so stories that were his chief means of describing the reality of God’s rule on earth. 

Back in the 1920s, a Canadian amateur golfer left a lasting mark on the game he loved.

It just wasn’t the kind of legacy he had always imagined. 

David Bernard Mulligan, playing with his usual foursome, hit a poor drive off the very first tee.  “I was so provoked with myself,” he confessed in a 1952 interview with sportswriter Don Mackintosh, “that on impulse I stooped over and put another ball down.  The other three looked at me with considerable puzzlement and one of them asked, ‘What are you doing?’

“’I’m taking a correction shot,’ I replied. ‘What do you call that?’ the partner inquired.  Thinking fast, I told him that I called it a ‘mulligan.’”

Thus was born one of the more colorful phrases in golf’s lexicon.  “Taking a mulligan” means granting oneself a do-over at the first tee.  If you shank your opening drive of the day, pick up another ball and try again.

Do-overs appear in other realms of human endeavor. 

What happens if you choose the wrong college major?  Pick a new one.  Are you spinning your wheels in a dreary job?  Update your resume and go somewhere else.  Sociologists have begun to document the phenomenon of the “starter marriage.”  Do you suspect you walked down the aisle with the wrong partner?  Cut your losses and take a mulligan. 

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character keeps reliving February 2.  Ever so slowly he learns and grows, even while the rest of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania goes back to zero every 24 hours.  According to director Ivan Reitman, Murray does this 10,000 times.  He gets 10,000 mulligans before he gets his life right. 

Unsurprisingly, many Hindus have resonated with Groundhog Day.  Adherents of this ancient faith believe that human beings are reincarnated – reborn into this world into higher or lower stations – until they achieve a sufficient level of spiritual self-awareness to graduate from the seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth.  Some Hindu teachers have suggested this process requires six million reincarnations. 

That’s a lot of mulligans. 

Did Jesus have something to say about the possibility of getting a do-over at the end of one’s life?

Consider the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31):

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.  At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table.  Even the dogs came and licked his sores.  The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 

“In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’  But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’  He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

This story stirs up a host of fascinating issues. 

It’s the only parable in which one of the characters is named.  Interestingly, it’s not the guy who might have been featured in Lifestyles of the Palestinian Rich and Famous, but the beggar starving just outside his gated community. 

Preachers occasionally point to this parable as a snapshot of the next world.  Most commentators, however, believe Jesus wasn’t portraying the actual geography of heaven or its relative proximity to hell.  Nor was he suggesting there might be back-and-forth conversations across a great abyss.

Nevertheless, such vivid details are an exceptional way to hammer home his real points:  There is a Great Reversal coming.  The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.  Looking good, feeling good, and making good in this world may seem like the best things that could ever happen to us.  But those who embrace such thinking are in for a very big surprise.

We’ve identified these themes on several occasions in recent weeks.  They are central to a number of Jesus’ stories.

The special twist of this parable is its ending.  It suddenly dawns on the rich man that he isn’t going to get to take a mulligan. 

This is not an incidental detail in Christian teaching.  We are gifted with one life.  As long as we are living and breathing in this world, new pathways are possible.  New doors can still swing open.  It’s never too late to fall on our knees and say, “Lord, I’m at a dead end.  I need to start over.  Please help me now.”

Help comes to everyone who offers that cry of the heart.

But the door won’t stay open forever.  Life comes to an end.  As the rich man discovers, we cannot hit a reset button just because we’re unsettled by how things have turned out.

God’s grace is astonishingly gracious.  And it’s free.  But it’s also urgent.  As author Susan Jeffers points out, we can’t always be playing the When / Then game. 

When I finally get answers to my questions, then I’ll get serious about encountering God.  When my spouse becomes more supportive, then I’ll work on being a great partner.  When things settle down and I get more financial security, then I’ll start serving others.  When this pandemic finally ends, then I’ll think about taking that next step of faith.

Time is running out.  And there are no mulligans at life’s finish line.  When will Then become Now

In a moment of compassion (something that had perhaps been all too rare in his life), the rich man advocates on behalf of his five brothers.  Would Abraham be willing to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn them about the urgency to turn their lives around?  “They already have everything they need,” Abraham replies, indicating the witness of God’s Word.

“No,” says the rich man, “you don’t know my brothers.  But somebody returning from the dead would definitely shake them up!”  To which Abraham replies, “If their hearts aren’t open right now to the abundant evidence they already have, a resurrection won’t mean a thing.”

That’s an amazing statement to ponder at the beginning of Holy Week.

We can live in the hope that Easter Sunday will stir us as never before.  Maybe Then will finally become Now.   

Or the Now we seek can actually be now

We can stop at this very moment and, with open hands and humble hearts, ask God for the gift of a new beginning.