« January 2004 | Main | March 2004 »

First Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 4:1-13 - link to NRSV text

This passage, along with its parallel in Matthew, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that “the devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against some ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.

One of those ways is what I call the “Magic 8-Ball” method, in which we pick up a Bible, choose some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, and then try to read whatever comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Another is what I call the “Beautiful Mind” method, in which we selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents -- to read the combination of things that stand out as a kind of secret message to us.

Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will.  I believe 2 Timothy's statement that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- although it's also worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage says “scripture,” that doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point).  But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an infallible oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it.  It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted “correctly.”  Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it.  Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and taken his letter to the Galatians to Corinth, and the Corinthian Christians had received Paul's instruction as something written to and for them -- or, for that matter, if the Galatians had received Paul's letters to the Corinthians and received it as if it had been written to and for them.

That's one reason the Alpha Course, for all the positive experiences people and congregations have had with it, grates on me; Alpha counsels us to read scripture, no matter which scriptural document we're looking at, as a “love letter” written by God to us today.  It's just not that easy.  The devil can quote scripture for his purpose, and I have a hunch that each one of us has seen examples of scriptural interpretation in our communities that were about as helpful to the community as the devil's scripture-quoting is in Luke 4.

In a single blog entry, I can't deal anywhere fully with the subject of how scripture can be used helpfully in discernment; for much of what I'd want to say on the topic, I'll have to substitute a recommendation of Luke Timothy Johnson's excellent and readable book, Scripture and Discernment.

What I can and would like to do here is to offer a few observations about the nature of devilish uses of scripture and how Jesus' vocation draws him in a different direction; I hope these will spark some fruitful further thought about how we might avoid being misled as we seek insights from scripture to help us discern God's call.

On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with what the devil is telling Jesus in the desert:  The power of God to which Jesus has access can provide food for the hungry, and it will.  Jesus does indeed bear the name before which “every knee should bend, and every tongue confess” his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and they will.  God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy.  Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, “biblical.”  Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, “true.”

Thank God that Jesus is not the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” type!  Thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances!  Because while all of the devil's points are, in a sense, “true,” they are not helpful here.  Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds (over 5,000, in one famous story) together for an abundant feast, and we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for Jesus to use God's power to provide.  Similarly, now is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the full extent of Jesus' authority and status before God to be revealed.

Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast is revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness.  Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel. 

Pick up a newspaper any day this week, and it will probably be clear that there are still opportunities to make a killing from Jesus' death, to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the Bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it.  But Jesus showed us a different way.  Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ.  Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now.  Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).  Trust the call to extend that love to others.

Thanks be to God!

February 24, 2004 in Discernment, Lent, Luke, Scripture, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

5,000 visitors

At 7:56 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, someone from Kitchener, Canada was this blog's 5,000th visitor.  Thanks to all for stopping by!  I hope you continue to find this site to be a helpful stimulus for reflection.



February 17, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Luke 9:28 - 36 - link to NRSV Text

Have you seen Disney's Beauty and the Beast? That's a film that has a transfiguration; sometimes I imagine the glorious appearance of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in this passage as being a little like the Beast's transfiguration at the end of the film, when he is lifted by mysterious forces and enveloped in light that erupts out from him at the moment of transformation. Hollywood loves that kind of stuff, the special effects moments that signal the climax of the story.

Except that the Transfiguration in Luke is NOT the climax of the story. It's a little more like the moment of Princess Fiona's transformation in Shrek -- there's all of this awe-inspiring light and swelling music that leads us to expect a Beauty and the Beast-style transformation, but it's a setup to subvert our expectations. The light subsides to reveal "true love's true form," and we discover that true love's true form isn't one of conventional beauty and royalty, but is one that makes Fiona perfectly suited for a life of companionship with Shrek in the swamp -- a life that our journey through the world of the story teaches us has the potential for a lot more fun and love than life in a palace does.

This is a message in the story of Jesus' transfiguration in all three gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) in which the story appears. This moment of dazzling glory comes not at the end of the gospel, but in the middle. It is not the climactic moment in which Jesus' true nature is decisively revealed for all to see. After the light show subsides (and in Luke, after the bat qol, the divine voice, proclaims Jesus as God's chosen), Jesus goes back to looking just as he has while they've been traveling around Galilee, teaching, healing, and setting people free from the powers that bound them and shut them out from community. The disciples tell no one of what they have seen.

When the disciples are ready to proclaim their message to the world, at the very center of it will be a moment that comes much later in the story, the moment in which Jesus' true nature is revealed and lifted up for any to see. The revelation of Jesus' true nature will come on the Cross. Luke does something really interesting in his rendering of the Transfiguration story that, I think, makes this extremely clear. In verse 31, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah appear in glory and speak of Jesus' "departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." The Greek word used for "departure" here is exodus.

Luke is too careful a writer for this to be a coincidence. In having Moses and Elijah point here, less than half way through the gospel, to what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem as an "exodus," he is telling us very clearly that the revelation that will free God's people is not the spectacular, not the light show and the heavenly voice.  The mountain of the Transfiguration, the moment in which Jesus is alone with his friends and his glory is recognized by all present, is a setting in which Jesus' message cannot be communicated fully. The glory of God and our Exodus from slavery comes in Jesus' path of self-giving, of answering violence and scorn with forgiveness and love, and the ultimate expression of that is Jesus' love and forgiveness from the Cross. That's the revelation the God of Israel, the God who led the people of Israel out from the Pharoah's slavery in Egypt, vindicated as true by raising Jesus from the dead, so declaring him as righteous.

Thanks be to God!

February 16, 2004 in Luke, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C

Luke 6:17-26 - link to NRSV text

I have a bit of a strange attraction to what some call the "difficult sayings" of Jesus (what can I say?  I did my master's thesis on the "Parable of the Unrighteous Steward"), so believe it or not, I actually like the "woes" in today's gospel. I think sometimes these "difficult sayings" -- things like "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" -- can serve a purpose a little like that of a Zen koan -- those 'riddles' like "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" A koan pulls our minds in to confound them, and that kind of dislocation from our usual ways of thinking helps us to open up and let go of them. Jesus' difficult sayings pull us out of entrenched patterns of relationship and ways of being in the world; they dislocate us from what's comfortable to free us to establish new kinds of relationship, new ways of being.

So even though my $36,000 annual income puts me among the rich -- I'm in the top 4.33% in the world in terms of wealth, according to the Global Rich List (a site you should definitely check out as you reflect on this coming Sunday's gospel!) -- I hear Good News and I find freedom in the Lucan woes.

Our culture has its own beatitudes and woes. They're deeply ingrained in us almost from day one, and they don't look much like this coming Sunday's gospel. K.C. Hanson argues persuasively that <I>makarios</i>, the word here translated by the NRSV as "blessed," would be better translated as "how honorable," and ouai, the word translated by the NRSV as "woe," would be better translated as "how shameless." As expressions of community values, I sometimes think of them as the equivalent of "we salute" and "we scorn." If our culture gave its beatitudes and woes, they might look something like this:

We salute the rich, for they are our major donors.
We salute the achievers, for we hope we'll become what we envy.
We salute the winners, for we hope they'll reward our loyalty.
We salute the strong, for nobody can tell them what to do.

We scorn the poor, for they remind us of our failure to share.
We scorn the hungry, for we fear they will disrupt our lunch to beg.
We scorn those who weep, for they remind us of vulnerabilities we try to deny or hide.
We scorn those the world scorns, for this demonstrates that we, unlike they, are insiders.

That's not Jesus' vision of the world. That's not the network of relationships in which we can be who God made us to be. But how do we get out of it? Jesus' "woes" are just the kick in the behind we need to get started, as the first thing I think we have to realize if we really want to see change is that the way things are isn't working for us. To paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race more than anything else confirms that we're rats, and that's not who we are in Christ. Wanting to win that race is so deeply ingrained in us, though, that sometimes we need to take a hard look through Jesus' eyes at what that prize we're going for really is, and whether it's really what we want and need. It isn't first prize in the rat race; that's not going to fulfill us.

A good step toward what will fulfill us would be living into the beatitudes, spending our money, our time, and our power, the currency that counts in our culture, on the people whom Jesus calls honored -- on those whose lack of power keeps them poor, and whose poverty keeps them disempowered and on the margins.

Jesus challenges us in this Sunday's gospel to try saying, "We honor not those who have the most to give, but those the world honors least. We invest not in those who are most likely to pay us back with interest or loyalty, but in those the world calls worthless. We salute the losers, the weak, the vulnerable." And then he challenges us to live it. That's what's going to fulfill us. We come to Jesus like the crowds, seeking healing. We come as people who scorn in others what we most fear for and in ourselves. As we learn to let go of the honor, the wealth, and the power we have so we can invest it freely in the poor, the despised, and the powerless, we become agents of healing for others, and we find healing for the parts of ourselves we used to scorn in them.

Thanks be to God!

February 9, 2004 in Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C

Luke 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

That's our collect for this coming Sunday, and it's a powerful one.  It also hints at something that's a major theme for the author of Luke-Acts as well as for Paul: God's people as a people of the exodus, people who have been freed by the God of Israel to be the people of Israel, to be a people who use power as God uses power.

Luke's use of this theme is clear at times, very subtle sometimes, and often surprising.  For example, in Luke's story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' "departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" in verse 31.  "Departure" is a curious way to talk about what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem, and it's a particularly odd way for Luke to talk about Jesus' death, but Luke's purpose in doing so here is much clearer from the Greek text of the gospel.  The Greek word used for "departure" here is exodus.

For Luke, what Jesus accomplishes in his life, death, and ongoing empowering of God's people through the Spirit, is Exodus, freeing us from oppressive powers and old ways of being and setting us on a journey that we who were not a people could become God's people, that we who shared labors and oppression in Egypt might share God's abundance even in the desert, with the miraculous provision of manna, the bread of the desert that cannot be hoarded.  In Luke-Acts, the Christian community sharing goods, that "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 2:32-37), is an indispensible sign of the Spirit's presence and expression of what Jesus freed us for.

I'm not sure if a direct allusion to God's provision of manna is intended in the miraculous catch of fish in this Sunday's gospel; if it's an allusion, it's one of the more subtle ones.  But there is a lot about the passage that reminds me of Luke's other allusions to the Exodus.  If you compare it to the call of the first disciples in Mark 1:16-20, there's a lot Luke has filled in here.  Contemporary scholar Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on Luke aptly describes some of the gospel's expansions from Mark's story of the call as providing motivations for the disciples that are left unspecified in Mark (p. 89 of Johnson's commentary).  But it seems to me to be more than motivation, in the personal and psychological sense (something which didn't much interest ancient writers).

It's more like a basis.  I think here, and in many places elsewhere, Luke is answering a question that I think is on a lot of readers' minds even today, when we see that Jesus' disciples "left everything and followed him," and that question is "what makes that possible?"  The same question occurs to me when I read things like Luke 12:22-34.  Be anxious about nothing?  Who is Jesus kidding?  Jesus' culture was one of what anthropologists call "limited good," in which the assumption was that any good thing was in finite quantity.  There's only so much to go around, and therefore any good thing you or your family have is something that somebody else doesn't get.  It was an intensely competitive culture.  And while our culture differs in many respects from Jesus', I think we share some of those competitive tendencies.  We may treat the ozone layer as if it were inexhaustible, but we treat every inch of progress on a trafficky commute as if our honor and eternal well-being depended on getting ahead.  And sometimes, we treat God's love as if it were a limited good, as if there were less of it for us, or for the "deserving," for every new or "undeserving" person who found it.

Getting ahead is too often our obsession, and the extent to which we indulge that, we limit our ability to experience what it would be like to "be anxious about nothing," to seek God's kingdom and leave everything else behind.  We end up in a state of perpetual anxiety, eternally on watch to see who is taking what we think we need.  Peter's culture was prone to a similar anxiety.  So what made it possible for Peter in this Sunday's gospel to leave everything and follow Jesus?  Peter had an experience with Jesus of God's abundance.  Like the Israelites in the desert, Peter found that God provides enough, in surprising ways, and with such abundance that we MUST share.  In a sea in which able fishers can work all night and catch nothing, God provided so many fish in one toss of the net that Peter's boat would have sunk if he had not had partners to call who could share the abundance.

So Peter's perspective shifts.  Instead of anxiously asking, "will there be enough fish?" he can ask, "are there enough people gathered to share God's overwhelming abundance?"  Instead of gathering fish, Peter devotes the rest of his life to gathering people.  As someone who cried "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Peter is becoming the person who says, "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34) and "God has shown me that I should not call anyone common or unclean" (Acts 10:28).  When he pulled in that great catch of fish, Peter wasn't concerned about whether the other fishers he called to were hard workers or lazy, righteous or unrighteous; the urgency of the moment was to find someone -- anyone -- to share God's abundance.  That's what Jesus' power does for us.

We can accumulate power in our culture, and it makes us anxious to hold on to what we've got and get more.  But when we experience Jesus' power, we are freed to do things differently.  We can stop asking "is there enough for me and my family?" and start asking "who's not here?  Who can I gather to share in this abundance?"  We know there's enough, so we can leave what we've got behind -- there are more urgent matters for us to attend to.  We become fishers of people, experiencing more fully God's abundant love for each thing we let go of.  That's what Jesus set us free for.

Thanks be to God!

February 3, 2004 in Luke, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)