Proper 21, Year C
I have two confessions to make:
The first is that this week is kicking my proverbial butt. New semester at seminary, an unusual (especially for this time of year) concentration of freelance work, the launch of a new physical fitness regimen, and a great deal of pastoral care following the House of Bishops meeting, about which so many were so anxious, has brought me to Thursday night with little extra time to write.
But I have had time to think, and even thinking long and hard about this Sunday's gospel, I think that if I were preaching this Sunday, I would say much the same thing I said last time it came up in the lectionary:
The hard, hard thing in this passage is that the rich man is not described as being ungenerous. For all we know, he was very generous indeed; in any case, the Gospel of Luke treats the rich man's generosity or lack thereof, as well as the rich man's attitude toward money, toward dependence on God, and everything else going on in the rich man's head and heart as being immaterial to the story. So the moral of the story is NOT that as long as I'm generous, or I know I'm really dependent on God, or I'm sufficiently grateful, or I feel sufficiently sad or guilty about my having so much and others having so little, it's totally fine that I am rich and others are poor -- at least a billion so poor that they have no access to clean drinking water, nourishing food, or any chance of changing their situation unless there is profound systemic change in our world. Luke does not give us room to think that.
The hard word in this Sunday's gospel is that we have, in our fallen way of doing things, responded to poverty, sickness, age, vulnerability, and just plain difference by running away from those who remind us of what we fear. Since we can't run far or fast enough, we dig chasms between us. The poor live on one side of the tracks or the river or the freeway, and the rich on another. The poor go to one church, and the rich go to another. The poor are objects of church "outreach programs"; the rich are church members and leaders. You could add to this catalogue of chasms, I know. We build them around all kinds of categories: race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, respectability ... the list could go on and on.
And the truth is that whenever we dig such chasms, and especially when we seek to make them unbridgeable, we can be very, very sure that we're on the wrong side of it.
This behavior is hurtful all the way around. Isolating ourselves from our sisters and brothers in the human family doesn't make us less vulnerable; it just denies us the opportunity to see and experience that much more of the image of God. It makes us miserable. It does violence to our souls to live this way as it inflicts violence on the bodies and families of the "have-nots."
We were not made for this. And we have a name for behaving in a way that isolates us from one another and from God. We religious types call it "sin."
It's Good News, though, that we were not made for this. The Good News is that even as we look at our lives, our world, and all the ways we can feel trapped in them the way they are, a part of us knows we were not made for this. The Good News is that just as we're ready to cry with St. Paul in Romans, "Who will rescue me from this body of death?," we can still hear God's call:
Thanks be to God -- when we separated ourselves from one another and from God, God sent the prophets to plead, to shout, to remind us that God made us for justice and peace in community.
Thanks be to God -- in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection shows us that no human power can dig a chasm too broad or deep to be bridged in God's grace.
There is a hard word in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, but there is also an invitation to engage God's mission of healing, justice, and reconciliation in the world. And the marvelous thing -- well, one of the wonders I keep discovering as I seek to follow Jesus -- is that the cool water for which the rich man longs, the peace and freedom and joy that Lazarus enjoys as God's gift, is available to us now -- partially and sometimes fleetingly, but REALLY, a taste of grace that nourishes hope -- whenever we seek justice for the poor, whenever we strive to live in reconciled and reconciling community.
Thanks be to God!
SarahLaughed.net readers in Tuscon?
This is a little odd, but what the hay ...
Are there any of y'all live in Tuscon, Arizona who might be inclined to do me a favor? A guitarist in Tuscon could be of particular help to me. If this describes you, please drop me an email.
Many thanks, and blessings!
Proper 20, Year C
When I was interviewing for my last parish position, I was asked to give the homily at a children's chapel service. I was allowed to pick any texts I wanted for the service, and believe it or not, I elected to do a children's homily on the gospel for this Sunday, commonly known as "The Parable of the Unjust Steward." You can see the homily here, actually.
Was I crazy? Maybe. But I wanted to show that it's possible to get across insights from biblical scholarship that can illuminate difficult texts for people of all ages and backgrounds. And I think that this Sunday's gospel contains a timely and important word that's more than comprehensible when we read the text closely and are willing to set aside some of the presuppositions we tend to bring to the text.
The first presupposition that many people need to set aside is that Jesus' parables are all allegories in which every character represents someone or something -- God, the Christian, Jesus, Satan, or abstract qualities such as virtues. In my opinion, many if not most of Jesus' parables are NOT allegories, and this Sunday's gospel is best read NOT as an allegory.
For example, in what was is the God of Israel, the God whom Jesus proclaimed, like the landowner in the parable? The landowner in the parable is an absentee landlord, living in luxury in the city off the sweat of tenant farmers' brows. The landowner doesn't really know or care about what goes on at the farm as long as the rents come in. Such a view reminds me of the satirical one in the Michelle Shocked song:
God is a real estate developer
with offices 'round the nation
They say one day he'll liquidate his holdings up on high
I say it's all speculation
Is that what we think God is really like -- a distant, uncaring profiteer? Judging from the exorbitant amounts owed by the poor farmers, the landowner is charging obscene amounts for rent, such that the farmers on his land each owe between three and seven YEARS' wages.
Furthermore, the landowner of the parable is not at all like God whom Jesus proclaimed as Father because the landowner has no desire at all to forgive, but is tricked into it by his steward. I'm sorry to say that I've heard a great many sermons over the years in which the preacher suggested that God the Creator wanted not to forgive us but to punish us until Jesus intervened, but that's not an orthodox view. The barest Christian confession has to include that Jesus shares the character of the God of Israel, and if Jesus has to trick God into mercy, then Jesus is not God's servant, let alone God's Son; he is a rebel against God, as Jesus' enemies suggested.
I've also heard lately some other intriguing readings of the parable as allegory, the most intriguing of which had the landowner representing the Roman Empire and the steward the Christian, with the moral of the story being that Christians should live out values of justice and generosity even if the Empire labels those values as deviant. I have to admit I haven't found any of those other allegorical readings persuasive either. For example, if the landowner is the Roman Empire and the steward is a stand-in for any Christian, why do we get the detail at the beginning of the parable that the steward has been fired before he embarks on the emending of bills that results in the peasants' debts being reduced? In what sense are all Christians empowered to pronounce on behalf of the empire as a steward is empowered to pronounce on behalf of the landowner who employs him? And what sense in any case do these allegorical readings make of the sayings Luke places at the parable's close, that people are called to make friends with the poor by means of "mammon of unrighteousness" so that they may be welcomed into eternal homes?
I hope I'm not merely being stubborn in still finding most persuasive the reading of the parable for which I argued in my master's thesis over fifteen years ago (I was only nineteen then, so I'm not as old as that makes me sound):
The landowner is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who cares only about his own privilege and honor.
The steward is clearly depicted in the parable as someone who is concerned primarily with saving his own skin and with not having to do manual labor, such as the ordinary peons (e.g., the tenant farmers) do.
And yet, in this extraordinary story Jesus tells, the steward -- a man who has until this point gained a life of privilege and relative leisure by siding with the wealthy and uncaring absentee landlord -- realizes that in the end his own welfare depends on doing justice for the poor as a matter of urgency, regardless of how it gets done. The landowner, who cares only for his own honor and privilege, discovers that his desires are satisfied more fully and rather surprisingly by going along, however unwillingly, with the current of justice for and generosity toward the poor that his steward set in motion for his own selfish reasons.
The moral of the story stands in stark contrast to something I heard at a recent conference at which folks were discussing relief for the poor. One man said something that many others echoed with slightly different phrasing. He said something like this:
"It doesn't really matter what you do. Make sandwiches and give them to the first people you see. It doesn't have to be a huge thing; it's where your heart is that counts, and if you're trying to help the poor, that's what matters."
I said -- after gulping hard, because I knew saying it wouldn't make me popular in that gathering -- that I think that there are things other than what's in your heart that matter a very great deal.
If I were a mother afraid I would soon be burying my child because of hunger or preventable or curable disease, what was in your heart would bring me little solace -- or little solace compared to the joy I'd have if my child could live.
It matters what you DO.
It matters to those mothers. It matters to those children. What's in your heart as you embark on a well-meaning gesture that won't necessarily change the way the world is matters a great deal to you, and that's only natural. But if I am a mother whose child is in danger, I want you to use not just your heart, but also your brain and your voice and your ears.
I want you to find the very best counsel you can about what will change the world for my child, what will give my child access to good food and clean water, to basic medical care and an elementary education, so that my child has at least half the chance your children have to live to adulthood -- and so our world has a chance to receive the gifts my child has to offer for the building up of the Body of Christ and the fulfillment of God's mission.
And so Jesus, in this Sunday's gospel, sides with the mother so concerned for her child, and for the world in which that child will live or die. Jesus tells a story in which "the master" -- whether the landowner who's going along with justice for the poor because it generates cheering crowds, or the Lord of Life who was present at the moment of Creation, and who wants every child created to have a chance to live and love and engage God's mission in the world -- praises the forgiveness of debts, justice for the poor, however it happens and with whatever motives are involved.
It matters. What's in my heart and yours matters, to be sure. It matters to God. Our hearts are a gift from God, after all.
And it's also true that they weren't God's only gift to us. God gave us brains and voices as well as arms and legs. We privileged people have used them with tremendous effect for generations to place us in our positions of privilege and to consolidate the privilege we have.
And if we are at all uncomfortable with the idea that a politically shrewd and not particularly honest steward should be commended in a story from Jesus for doing more than what we're doing to bring real, tangible relief to the poorest among us, then let us be made uncomfortable. Let's recognize that even this not at all commendable steward can recognize that, interdependent as we are, saving the most vulnerable in this world is saving our own skin, our own heart, our own soul, our own life and what makes it precious, as well.
Please feel free to revisit what I've said before on these texts.
My blog entry on these texts from 2004 is here.
I've also posted sermon I preached on these texts on Proper 20 three years ago.
God, help me to be more effective in work empowered by passion for justice than the steward was in maneuvering to preserve his privilege. I've benefited so much from the unjust order in which I live; help me to undermine it, that all may live.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 19, Year C
If you haven't seen it before, please take a look at my entry from three years ago, "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing That Sheep Don't Talk." This week, I want to take as a launching point the three questions with which I closed that parable:
- At the end of the story, where is the shepherd?
- At the end of the story, where are the ninety-nine sheep?
- If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?
My "Parable of the Ninety-Nine" reflects a number of dynamics in the church, but the questions at the end draw attention to one in particular, I think -- one I'd like to concentrate on this week.
Too often, we think of "ministry" as what happens in church buildings. And it might sound goofy at first, but I think many of us far too often go to church when we want to look for Jesus.
I'm not saying that we won't find Jesus in church. I certainly have, countless times and in powerful and wonderful experiences of Christian community. After all, church buildings frequently host gatherings of Christians, and the assembly of those called in Christ to join God's people is the very Body of Christ in this world. When two or three members of that Body gather, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up every Sunday morning, and at lots of other times as well, in church buildings.
But Christian discipleship isn't just "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," or at the very least, it's a particular kind of relationship with Jesus:
We are called to follow Jesus, to follow the shepherd.
So why do we slip so often, then, into thinking that deepening Christian discipleship -- following Jesus -- is primarily or even in large part about coming again and again to the same place to meet with the same people? When did Jesus' "Great Commission" of making disciples -- followers of Jesus -- turn into a commitment to go to church and convince others to do the same?
Clearly, I believe the answer is that it didn't, and this Sunday's gospel is an invitation to rethink such an approach.
Jesus is, after all, a shepherd. By most ways of reckoning, he's got a pretty bizarre approach to shepherding -- one not unlike the approach of the farmer in the "Parable of the Sower," who tosses seed in parking lots and pigeon hangouts as well as on good soil, behaving as if seed were in unlimited supply and all soil were good. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shepherd who will leave ninety-nine sheep to care for one. We should probably refer to our stained-glass windows showing Jesus carrying a single lamb on his shoulders as portraits of "The Loopy Shepherd." And yet Jesus suggests that this brand of foolishness is characteristic of the God who created the universe as well as of God's Son.
It's quite a radical statement, and not nearly the sweet and comforting, if somewhat sterile, scene in a lot of art about "The Good Shepherd." Those of us who have no experience of herding livestock might be tempted to think of scenes with shepherds as ones described by the genre of English poetry we call "the pastoral" -- rolling green hills, fresh air and sun, birds twittering peacefully.
The life of a shepherd wasn't like that much of the time, though. It was hard, as shepherds had to sleep out in the cold, exposed to the elements as well as to the predators from which the sheep were to be protected. It was lonely, spending day after day and night after night away from one's family. And it was not viewed as a respectable one. Shepherds' duties in the field left their aging parents, their wives, and their children unprotected at home, and therefore shepherds were widely viewed not only quite literally as perennial outsiders, but also as dishonorable men.
And yet it's the figure of a shepherd -- and one who leaves the ninety-nine sheep at that -- to which Jesus turns in this Sunday's gospel to help us understand what God is like and how God acts in the world.
So this Sunday, let's reflect on the invitation offered in the gospel: an invitation to look for God especially among the outsiders, the poor, the disgraced, those whom our world shelters least. If God is like the shepherd Jesus describes, and if Jesus is truly God's Son, doing what God does, then following Jesus requires venturing out to the margins.
That's one reason I speak so often and so highly of the movement to make extreme poverty history -- of those of us who style ourselves as being at the center of things and whose wealth and privilege put us at the center of worldly power working with others around the world to put our treasure -- and with it our hearts -- out to the margins, to the "bottom billion" trying to live without clean drinking water, access to basic education or medical services, and on less than a dollar a day. I'm enthusiastic about it because I see Jesus as I pursue it.
And while we don't have that kind of extreme poverty in the U.S., every community has its margins -- and therefore a horizon we can pursue to look for Jesus' action in the world. Whom do shopkeepers in your town monitor nervously or chase out of their stores? Who is "the wrong sort of person"? Who makes churchgoers jumpy? Who are the outsiders?
Some of them may be in church. And certainly a good, spiritually growing congregation will provide encouragement and support we may need to find, listen deeply to, serve, and learn from those who aren't in our churches and are probably outside our comfort zones as well.
But this Sunday's gospel invites us to think of church not as the destination for those seeking to follow Jesus and engage God's mission, but as a way station providing strength for the journey.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 18, Year C
I sprained my wrist (a mild sprain, thankfully) this week and am trying to take a break from the keyboard, but I think this 2003 entry from the BCP lectionary for Proper 18, Year C should be helpful. What I'd add to it is that much of what I said this year about the gospel for Proper 15 applies equally well to this Sunday's gospel. The invitation in this Sunday's gospel is to end old patterns of relationship, thereby becoming free to enter into new patterns of relationship. There's no way of forcing that on someone else, though -- and to those who don't choose to follow Jesus as their sister or brother, spouse, parent, or son or daughter did would experience their abandonment as an act of hate. On the other hand, family members who joined the Jesus movement would find themselves part of a much larger family of sisters and brothers committed to care for one another. Choosing to follow Jesus can involve stark and difficult choices, and with any set of choices that could change the world, following Jesus presents others with choices they may not find welcome.
"None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions" (Luke 14:33).
Is there anything Jesus could have said which would be harder for us to hear?
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
Both come from this Sunday's gospel reading, of course.
There is no trick of Greek translation or historical context that will make these sayings anything other than difficult, if not offensive. I can't recommend an angle of preaching or reading that could be summarized as "here's why Jesus/Luke didn't really mean this." Friends don't let friends do this to texts.
Let's take the Greek question head-on, as it's often said in sermons on this passage that the Greek word translated here as "hate" really means something more like "love less." There's no evidence to support this assertion. I suspect that it comes from confusing Luke 14:26 with Matthew 10:37, which says, "whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." But misein, the Greek word translated as "hate" in Luke 14:26, really does mean "hate," as in the opposite of love. Here are some other New Testament passages that use the same word:
- Matthew 5:43 (in which "hate" is clearly presented as the antithesis of "love" (agape)
- Luke 21:17 (in which hatred is what persecutors have for those whom they put to death)
- Hebrews 1:9 (in which it is said of the Son that he "loved righteousness and hated lawlessness")
You get the idea. This is a strong word, and not at all a pretty one -- especially for one's stance toward parents, spouse, children, and siblings. It's an offensive statement that has lost little of its offensive power in its travel from a first-century Mediterranean context to 21st-century America.
And I'm glad it's in the gospel, and in the context in which it appears, because the next sentence is supposed to be offensive too, though it's lost much of its power in our context. In 21st-century America, we see what we think of as a cross mostly as pieces of jewelry, and then as decorations for churches, and then maybe as part of the logo of an organization. It's become in many ways a symbol of respectability and privilege, held up by political candidates to rally the base.
But that's not what the cross represented in the first-century Roman empire. There, the cross was a work of perverse genius -- a cheap and non-labor-intensive way to inflict indescribable pain and shame, while providing a gory public reminder of just what happened to those who undermined the good order of the Empire. It was a reminder of what happened to Christians who encouraged women and men to decide for themselves whom they would call "lord," and then to follow no one else. As I've said in my comment for Proper 15, Year C and the previous entries linked from there, such teaching could and did divide families. It undermined the authority of every man who called himself "father," from the head of the family you grew up in all the way up to Caesar Augustus, who called himself the father of his empire, and his successors.
And it challenges us too. Jesus' words here aren't asking us to feel differently about our family or about the Cross; "hate," like "love," in a first-century context is not about emotions, but about actions. We are being asked to behave toward family in a way that our culture will almost certainly see as hateful. It is still offensive to say that we do not feel any more obligated to blood relatives than we do to others, and I think that's at the core of this week's gospel. We are being asked to abandon, or even despise, the cultural value placed on family, a value that reaches almost to the point of idolatry in many quarters.
But the choice we are faced with is not between swallowing whole "family values" as defined by our culture or rejecting all family members altogether. Jesus' teaching did tear his followers out of the families they grew up in, the families that not only provided for them materially, but gave them their identity in the world and any honor they experienced. But Jesus defined the community of his followers as a different kind of family. He expected them to care for one another materially (hence the emphasis on common rather than private possessions), honor one another in a world that despised them, and to treat one another with all of the intimacy and loyalty one would expect of brother and sister.
One's father and mother, spouse and children, were welcome to join the community, becoming brothers and sisters with all its members -- but the new relationship in Christ was then to be the definitive one. That was particularly challenging for fathers, accustomed to a kind of authority that Jesus taught belonged rightfully only to God.
That's the sort of challenged that Paul poses to Philemon in the epistle for this week too -- to receive Onesimus, who had been his slave, and to relate to him not as Onesimus' master, but as his brother. Doing so would include and go beyond freeing Onesimus from literal slavery. Normally, if Philemon freed Onesimus, Onesimus would still be defined as Philemon's freedman, obligated to him in a lopsided relationship in which Philemon could choose to care for him or ignore his needs. But brothers cannot do that to one another; they are obligated to one another indissolubly, absolutely, and mutually. As brothers, Onesimus and Philemon would be bound eternally in a relationship that freed both: Onesimus from the obligations of being Philemon's slave or freedman, and Philemon from participating in a system that dehumanized masters while oppressing slaves.
That's the Good News in Jesus' very hard words. Follow Jesus, and we are abandoning a lot of what gave us honor, security, and even identity in our culture. In short, we will be abandoning what gave us life. But what kind of life? Follow Jesus, become family with his brothers and sisters, and while we will share in his cross, we will share also in his risen life -- joyful, eternal, loving, and free.
Thanks be to God!