Proper 6, Year C
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
I once heard a story -- and was told it actually happened -- about a very rich man who was both Christian and deeply religious. He was deeply troubled by the thought of his wealth, as he remembered Jesus' saying that it's harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle (and he also knew, presumably, that there's no such thing as a gate called "The Eye of the Needle," through which a camel get through on its knees if its pack is removed -- that's an invention born of wishful thinking). He decided to do something about it. He redid his will, leaving all of his vast wealth to a single person, the richest person he knew. He didn't want to doom the soul of a poor person by bestowing all of this wealth that could keep him or her from God's kingdom.
This was a very, very silly man.
He wasn't silly to worry about the state of his soul when he was living with such riches in a society in which many don't have enough to eat. That much is a natural and potentially healthy response to reading what Jesus had to say to and about the rich. He was silly in what he thought he was called to do about it. What he did exacerbated rather than diminished the chasm between the rich and the poor, and as I've blogged about before, whenever we're widening such chasms, we can be sure that we're on the wrong side of them.
The Gospel According to Luke emphasizes this particularly, and Luke-Acts strongly and repeatedly condemns behavior widening the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in language that should make those of us who live in the wealthiest nations in the world think and pray long and hard about how we might respond. The Christ presented by Luke is no "Buddy Jesus" who just wants you to have the right attitude toward your wealth; he has very strong words about the proper use of it.
Luke-Acts also presents numerous positive examples of Christians who use their resources -- their their power, and their voice as well as their money -- to narrow or bridge those chasms and to further Christ's mission on earth. We get several of them in a single story this Sunday.
And as a bonus, we get several clear affirmations of women's status as disciples of Jesus whose gifts are vital in the life of the community. Let me start at the end of this Sunday's gospel reading with a passage often overlooked by those who think we need noncanonical sources to see women portrayed as leaders in early Christianity. In Luke 8:1-3, we find out quite a few important things in a little bit of text:
One is that it's not appropriate to say "the twelve disciples," as if Jesus only had twelve disciples, all of them male. The opening verses of Luke 8 clearly indicate that Jesus traveled not only with "the twelve" (who don't have any particular function in Luke or Acts other than existing as a group of twelve, thereby symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel and Jesus' authority to reconstitute Israel; other than that, the twelve function as do the other disciples in Jesus' inner circle), but also with other disciples, and a number of those disciples were women. Luke names three -- Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna -- and says there were also "many others."
Another thing we see in this little bit of text is that Jesus' disciples, both men and women, were freed by following Jesus from behaving according to gender roles their culture prescribed for them. Men did not have to act conventionally as males by competing with one another for honor, retaliating when attacked, working in their fathers' trade, or proving their masculinity by sexual conquests or even begetting children. All of that is shocking in Jesus' culture. It may have been even more scandalous, though, for the gospels to commend how Jesus' female disciples behave. It's weird enough in the first-century Mediterranean world for men to adopt an itinerant lifestyle; Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures alike would have held that the family honor demands men staying with their extended family to care for their parents and give them an honorable burial, to protect the honor of the women of the family, and to have sons to carry on the family name. But it's even more weird in the cultures in which Christianity was born for women to travel as Luke depicts. Women traveling without their male kin would be seen as unattached or "loose women"; these women are behaving in a still more shocking manner by traveling with men who are not their kin -- or at least, not by blood or marriage. Furthermore, they are women of means who are deciding for themselves how to spend their money; Jesus' followers have set up a society among themselves in which there are no patriarchs to make such decisions, as all act as sisters and brothers to one another.
That leads to a third thing we observe in this Sunday's gospel: that, especially in light of Jesus' ministry forming all God's people as a single family of sisters and brothers, we are called to make use of our resources in particular ways. We are called to use our resources to care for the poor among us in the human family as for our own flesh and blood, exercising a radical hospitality and generosity with one another. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are portrayed by Luke as honored patrons of the community of Jesus' followers because they do that, providing for the whole community out of their means. And the woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7 similarly is commended for providing hospitality for Jesus, in contrast to Jesus' supposed host, who is too busy testing Jesus to see whether he is truly an equal to care for him as an honored guest.
Is the radical impact of this passage dulled by Luke's referring to the woman who anoints Jesus as "a sinner" and noting that Jesus' female patrons had been healed by Jesus? I don't think so. Jesus not only announces that the anointing woman has been forgiven (and therefore she is fit for polite society, although she clearly prefers Jesus' company), but he also commends her faith. Similarly, noting that the women who traveled with Jesus and served as patrons to their fellow disciples establishes clearly that they were not traveling with Jesus because some infirmity or impurity forced them out of their homes, but rather they followed Jesus as a matter of choice, a freely given response of to grace. And so their patronage of the community is also a freely given expression of who they are in Christ -- free to follow Jesus, and set in a new family of sisters and brothers who travel with them. In some ways, Queen Jezebel in the book of 1 Kings gets a bad rap; she is only behaving, after all, according to the conventions of this world, in which the rich get richer and the powerful use their power to consolidate their privilege. What's the point of being king if it doesn't mean you get what you want in the kingdom? But the women in this Sunday's gospel know better. They know grace, and so they extend grace to others, a radical expression of their radical freedom as Jesus' followers.
Thanks be to God!
The story might be about Wittgenstein, although calling him 'Christian' might be stretching it a bit (though it was undoubtedly Christian theology which was pushing him, mediated via Tolstoy). He inherited a vast fortune when his father died (making him one of the richest men in Europe) and he immediately gave it to his sisters, because he didn't think they would be corrupted by the vast wealth, as they already had so much. Not sure I'd call him a 'very silly man' though ;-)
Thanks for all your work btw, I read you every week.
Posted by: Rev Sam | Jun 15, 2007 4:08:48 AM
Why isn't there an anti-war banner on this site?
Posted by: Anti-war | Jun 18, 2007 12:09:31 AM