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Proper 18, Year C

Philemon 1-20 - link to NRSV text
Luke 14:25-33 - link to NRSV text

"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?

Oh yeah:

"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!

August 30, 2004 in Jesus' Hard Sayings, Kinship/Family, Luke, Ordinary Time, Philemon, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 17, Year C

Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18 - link to NRSV text
Luke 14:1,7-14 - link to NRSV text

Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.

Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, "Wow ... I'm being humble. And I'm MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility."

Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don't have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, "I can't tell anyone, and I can't pray -- I'm so bad that God can't forgive me." That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you've committed as being more powerful than God, and "I think I'm more powerful than God" is a statement of supreme hubris.

People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they're deeply concerned with boundaries, with what's right and wrong, with what's appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone -- themselves or their neighbors -- getting something that's given "out of bounds."

The lectionary gospel for this Sunday jumps from verse 1 to verse 7 of Luke 14, leaving out the occasion (unique to Luke's gospel) for Jesus' parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the sabbath. That was completely uncalled for. The man's condition was chronic; it could have been dealt with the next day, when the healing would have offended no one. It's not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner; Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), "And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him." Interrupting everyone's dinner would have been rude; bringing impurities (as Leviticus 13 suggests someone with dropsy would have been doing) into the midst of a Pharisaic meal would be worse. And it was the sabbath! There was no compelling reason -- by conventional reasoning, anyway -- for Jesus to 'diss' his hosts by precipitous action.

But that's not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, "Is there any compelling reason to act now?" In fact, he doesn't ask any questions at all until after he's acted, and even then, he doesn't make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more.

And in the process, Jesus presents a cure for pride: humble service, the kind that actively seeks opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual 'rewiring' for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice:

  • When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.

  • Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has the most reason to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.

  • Those of us who have the right to vote have a responsibility to our power the way Jesus used his -- to others' advantage rather than our own, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. We can disagree about how we can best serve the poor, but we cannot afford to ignore the poor. The National Council of Churches has put out an extremely helpful leaflet on Christian Principles in an Election Year, which might be a good impetus to further prayer and study about how we can use our power with humility, in a way that lifts up the lowly and invites the poor and outcast -- especially those we think could never repay us -- to the feast.

Any of these things will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things -- only so much honor, love, and justice -- to go around, and that it's very important to see that only the deserving get them. When we live as Jesus teaches us, and as Jesus lived himself among us, when our lives become parable for the world of God's infinite generosity and inexhaustible love, then we can take in the vision of Isaiah 55, of free-flowing wine and milk for all, of an everlasting covenant made with an undeserving but humble king and realized in his crucified and risen heir.

Thanks be to God!

August 23, 2004 in Ecclesiastes, Luke, Ordinary Time, Wisdom Literature, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 16, Year C

Luke 13:22-30 - link to NRSV text

I blogged on this passage back in Lent, when it was an optional set of verses one could read with Luke 13:31-35. I think if I were preaching this coming Sunday, I'd go with basically the same take, but perhaps adding something that I think I recall Brian McLaren saying (I couldn't find the quote -- perhaps it was said in personal conversation, or perhaps I'm saying what I think he'd say): If you claim to be a Christian and you don't think that universalism -- the idea that everyone will benefit from Christ's saving work -- is true, you should WISH with all your heart it were true.

Here's what I'd preach on, if I were preaching this Sunday: if you were asking Jesus the question, "Lord, are only a few being saved?" what answer would you be hoping to hear? What answer would make you breathe a sigh of relief, and what answer would make you want to weep or push for a different answer? If you can't say, with all your heart, that you hope Jesus would say that EVERYONE, including each one with whom you disagree and each one whom you see as an enemy, is being saved -- right now, as they are -- then here's my advice as a person with a passion for evangelism:

Before you go to do whatever you think needs to be done to make your neighbor save-able, ask God to work on your own heart. Until you want your neighbor's joy and peace more than you want to be right, you won't be able to communicate very effectively about the God who is Love, or about the man we testify is Love Incarnate.

That said, here's my blog entry from the Second Sunday of Lent, including comment on this coming Sunday's gospel:

Luke 13:(22-30)31-35 - link to NRSV text

This is a long entry, but I'm such a fan of Luke's craft as a writer that I can't keep myself from examining and admiring it here.

I can see why the good folks who crafted our lectionary decided to make verses 22-30 optional. A lot of commentary authors comment on it in a section apart from their comment on verses 31-35.

But Luke is a VERY careful writer, and I see a possible thematic connection here. It seems clearer to me when I read a larger section -- say, starting from Luke 11:37 and continuing through 18:14. I wouldn't say that this whole thing is one big thematic section, but there's a much higher concentration of material that mentions the Pharisees, or seems -- at least in Luke's seemingly idiosyncratic portrayal of the Pharisees -- to be targeted at them. And I'm interested in this, in part because I think it helps to answer the question most interests most folks commenting on Luke 13:31-35, the section in which Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is out to get him -- namely, were the Pharisees here trying to do Jesus a favor, or were they trying to set him up in some destructive way?

So, check out Luke 13:10-17, the section just before the optional section of this Sunday's gospel. It's one of those controversial healings in a synagogue on the sabbath, criticized by "the leader of the synagogue." Jesus answers by saying that someone with a thirsty ox or donkey would untie it on the sabbath to give it water. Who met in synagogues? Pharisees. So even though the word isn't used here, Pharisees are Jesus' foils in the passage. And then look at Luke 13:31-35 -- it's the Pharisees again. Look at Luke 14:1-6.  It's another story of a controversial healing in front of Pharisees on the sabbath -- and to top it off, Jesus again (in some manuscripts, at least) talks about how one would treat an ox or donkey on the sabbath. And look at Luke 14:7-23, which, with 14:1-6, completes a trilogy of stories involving a host giving a dinner and pointing toward Pharisees. It's a good bet that that Luke 13:20-30 (and vs. 18-20 before that) little bit of text in between, also, for Luke's readers, has something to do with Pharisees. That's Luke's style.

This Sunday's gospel, including the optional part, ties well into the themes Luke is raising in this large section of the gospel. In the opening and optional part of the gospel, Luke 13:22-30, someone asks Jesus whether only a few will be saved. That was a live question, in Jesus' day. I wonder whether the questioner hoped the answer was "yes" -- only a few will be saved -- or "no" -- a great many will be saved.

Jesus' answer leads me to believe that he saw his questioner as exactly the sort of person Luke criticizes in Luke 11:53-54 -- a person who wants to see others tripped up, someone who takes more pleasure in seeing someone, or at least an "unrighteous" person, destroyed than in seeing that person saved. Jesus starts off talking about a "narrow door," and about "many" who will strive to enter it and won't be able to get in. His questioner probably would have perked up considerably at that point; he's being invited to think of himself not only as an insider, but as a very select group of insiders. Then the questioner hears about all those on the outside weeping and gnashing their teeth. So far, so good.

And then Jesus pulls the rug out. He talks about people coming "from east and west, from north and south" to "eat in the kingdom of God." That's a vision of the nations, ta ethne -- AKA "the Gentiles" -- feasting in God's kingdom. And Jesus says, "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30). Jesus doesn't condemn any group wholesale, but he observes that it's going to be very hard for people to get in who want to be invited to the feast because they think it's a selective affair. Once they see the guest list, they're going to have to tame some pretty major revulsion about the person who'd be passing them the salt at the feast, and that's just too hard for some folks who see themselves as among the "first." So some may find themselves shut out from Jesus' table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited.

And then comes the Pharisees' warning to Jesus: Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him. Were they trying to help him or harm him? Either way, they are trying to tame him. If they are doing Jesus a "favor," it's worth remembering that this is what anthropologists call an honor-shame culture, in which any favor someone pays you will be called in for a favor to be given in exchange at some point (think of the film The Godfather as a helpful comparison). If they are helping Jesus by encouraging him to flee from Galilee and Herod's power, Jesus will owe them one, and he'll be in their power.

And then it's worth pointing out that the Herod in question is Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee -- these people are telling Jesus to flee from Galilee to Jerusalem. They could full well be counseling Jesus to go where he is most likely to run afoul of Roman authority, and furthermore to look like a coward in doing so.

Jesus is too smart to be tamed that way. In his response, he says what we already know is true from Luke 9:31, which I blogged on a couple of weeks ago. That's in the story of Jesus' Transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' "departure," his exodus, "which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." Jesus knows he's headed for Jerusalem, regardless of what Herod Antipas does or does not want. He's not going to be distracted from his mission: freeing people from the powers and illnesses that hold them down and apart from community, and then finishing his work in Jerusalem (Luke 13:32). He refuses to act as the Pharisees' client or as Herod Antipas' subject here -- ironically, because he is headed for Jerusalem to be exposed, made vulnerable, and treated as a slave to all.

Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees is complicated; throughout Luke-Acts, some are friendly to Jesus and his disciples (see, for example, Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39, and the Christian Pharisees who are present at the "apostolic council" in Acts 15:5). But in Luke's gospel (as in the work of the ancient historian Josephus), Pharisees are shown as having significant power and influence, and as a result Jesus' dealings with them are fraught. Whether they are trying to recruit him or trap him (and is there always such a big difference between those two things?), they present serious challenges. These are good people seeking to do right, but they're caught in a system, a kosmos or world order, in which good people seeking to do right sometimes end up persecuting prophets. When we who seek to follow Jesus read passages in which Jesus interacts with Pharisees, we're tempted to identify with Jesus. But I think that it's a good discipline for us, especially in Lent, to prayerfully ask how much we're like the Pharisees -- how much we good, religious folk manage, through our participation and complicity in unjust systems, end up despising those whom God honors, hurting God's healers, trying to silence God's prophets.

Thanks be to God for Jesus' life, ministry, and death, through which Jesus defeated the powers that oppress, and that turn us into oppressors.

August 16, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Pharisees, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 15, Year C

Luke 12:49-56 - link to NRSV text

This is a puzzling or even disturbing passage, and more so when taken out of context. I think it's important to let the shock of what Jesus is saying sink in as fully as possible before trying to resolve it.

Jesus is saying here that his mission will divide people from one another. Specifically, Jesus says that his mission will divide families, setting children against parents and parents against children.

So much for "family values." Why on earth would Jesus say such a thing?

I have a feeling that anyone who followed Jesus' ministry up until his crucifixion would have been forced to agree with Jesus on this point: his call did set parents against children and children against parents.

For starters, Jesus doesn't acknowledge blood kinship, the nuclear and extended family, as family at all. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus is presented as turning away his mother and his brothers with the retort, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." In Jesus' eyes, the only father to whom a son or daughter is accountable is a heavenly one (Luke 9:57-62, as I blogged about for Proper 8, Year C here. (I also highly recommend this Biblical Theology Bulletin article by S. Scott Bartchy on the subject of an earthly father's authority, or lack thereof, in Jesus' and Paul's teaching.) And check out Luke 18:28-30, which speaks clearly of those who have "left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God." Hard to interpret -- unless, that is, there were actually some people, commended by Jesus for it, who were leaving their parents, spouse, siblings, and children.

I think it's clear that Jesus meant this "call no one on earth 'father'" and "follow me, and let the dead bury the dead" stuff pretty literally. A good test of whether this is so would be to take a look at the canonical gospels and see whether you can find a single instance of Jesus suggesting that those he called needed their earthly father's permission or blessing to do anything, including abandoning fields or fishnets as well as family to follow him. Indeed, when someone called by Jesus asks to go back only to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says, "no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 8:62). St. Paul understood how radical this redefinition of "family" was -- you'll notice, for example, in his advice to unmarried Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 about whether and whom they should marry, Paul assumes that the prospective partners will make their own decision and stick to it -- despite that in the cultures Paul addressed, marriages would have been arranged between fathers of the prospective partners, and refusing to go along with the fathers' choice would have been seen by Jews as a clear violation of the commandment to "honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12), and by Greeks and Romans as a violation of the filial duty that all civilized people recognized.

Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens for a lot less. It's not surprising that Jesus had people agitating for his arrest and death by the time he reached Jerusalem,  and we haven't even started looking at all of the ways that the kind of behavior Jesus advocates -- hanging out and eating with anyone, turning the other cheek rather than retaliating (as a real and honorable man would do) when struck -- would bring deep shame on the family of one of Jesus' followers.

So yes, Jesus' ministry could and did divide families, who just couldn't understand what the person they knew was doing in following someone who taught such shocking things. There wasn't much that was conventionally respectable about following Jesus, which is one reason, I think, that Jesus was known for attracting the marginalized.

Where's the good news in this -- especially for those of us who are, more or less, among the respectable? Where's the good news in this for those of us who have families that give us joy and love, families we have no wish to leave?

I think the Good News for us in this is that, dislocated from the constraints of forming and ordering families according to convention and duty, we are freed in our families to relate to one another for who we really are -- sisters and brothers in Christ, called as disciples. Freed from the constraints of solely or primarily identifying as our fathers' and mothers' children or our children's parents, we can order our family as a community centered in Christ. What if we saw our vocation in our relationships with parents, children, and siblings something along the lines of Ephesians 4:12-16 -- as equipping one another for maturity and ministry? What if we saw our families as sanctified and blessed not by legal status and community recognition, but by Jesus' presence as two or three gather? Could be interesting, and challenging, and empowering.

Thanks be to God!

August 9, 2004 in Kinship/Family, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)