Top Five from 2004

Bob Carlton has asked bloggers to supply lists of their top five posts from 2004, so as a toast to the theological and emerging-church blogging communities, here's my list:

  1. Good Friday, Year C: "Christ Our Passover: Our Exodus from the Narrow Places"
  2. Proper 19, Year C: "The Parable of the Ninety-Nine, Or Why It's Probably a Good Thing that Sheep Don't Talk"
  3. Proper 21, Year C: "Bridging the Chasm"
  4. Fifth Sunday in Easter, Year C: "The Anglican Altar Call"
  5. Proper 20, Year C: "Unjustly Forgiven"

I've valued the dialogue on this site and others in the community a great deal over the last year.  Thanks, all!



December 17, 2004 in Best of 2004, Special Feature | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

Romans 1:1-7 - link to NRSV text
Matthew 1:18-25 - link to NRSV text

Rules are rules.

We need it to be that way. Rules make life predictable, and to make meaning, we need things to be at least somewhat predictable. Rules are how we know what's what -- something we need especially with respect to something that's really important. In some ways, you can tell what's really important in our culture by where we tend most to stick to rules -- things you do because that's how it's done.

Rules help us make sense of the senseless. When I was growing up in the 70's and 80's, there was a rule that had become law, and we called it "Mutually Assured Destruction." There were two superpowers: the U.S.S.R. and the United States. We each had nuclear weapons. We each were held back from launching them by the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch theirs ... but we knew that couldn't last forever. When I was in high school, there was a television miniseries called The Day After that gave voice to what most people my age believed would happen before we had the chance to see old age: by mistake or intention, someone launches theirs, and we launch ours, and the world ends -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. Mutually Assured Destruction -- the rule that accounted for how we didn't kill each other, and told us how we would eventually kill each other.

But not all rules are so grim. Weddings are important in our culture. Women who, in their day-to-day lives, have not only assumed responsibility for themselves and their decisions as adults, but are responsible for many others as heads of organizations, companies, or families often choose on their wedding day to be "given away" by their fathers -- not because they belong to their fathers to be given to another man, but just because "that's how it's done." Men who are already living and sharing household expenses with the woman they love go to incredible lengths to squirrel away enough to buy a diamond ring (and for a woman who doesn't wear jewelry) when they want to propose marriage because, well, "that's how it's done."

Imagine that amped up about ten thousand times, and you have some idea of how set ancient customs about betrothals (which go WAY beyond our ideas about "engagement") and marriages were. I highly recommend the treatment given to this in Bruce Malina's and Richard Rorhbaugh's Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. It's serious stuff.

And rules are rules. That's what justice is, isn't it?

That's what Jesus upsets from the beginning -- even before he's born.

Here's the rule about what happens if you think the woman to whom you're engaged is bearing someone else's child: both the woman and the man whose child it is get death by stoning -- assuming you know the identity of the father, and that the woman is seized in an area in which someone could have heard her screams if she cried out. Joseph is a righteous (dikaios) man, but he refuses to expose Mary to public disgrace to carry this out.

So Joseph plans to divorce (a measure that would have to be taken to nullify a betrothal) Mary quietly. It's the best option he can take to avoid claiming a child that wasn't his (Who knows? He may have assumed that Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby.)

Of course, the dilemma Joseph faces stems from another "rules are rules" issue, this one biological: Children have fathers. God knows that children were meant to have two parents: one man, one woman! If Joseph didn't have sex with Mary, then somebody else did.

I guess rules were made to be broken.

There are a few other rules that get broken in this passage. They're rules of far less importance in ancient Mediterranean cultures, but they are important in some cultures we encounter -- rules like, "the written word -- especially in Scripture -- is of utmost importance, and all pious people must be faithful to it." They whole "THEY shall call his name Emmanuel" thing is not in Isaiah 7:14; Matthew was either quoting from a version of that text which is not preserved in any version of what we Christians or Jews call scripture, or the author was taking liberties with the biblical text -- something that many 20th- and 21st-century people find uncomfortable.

Ancient biographies , unlike modern ones, weren't interested in stages of development, and they certainly weren't interested in surprises. Subjects of ancient biographies were shown as being the same to their dying day as they were the day they were born -- the same the stars proclaimed they'd be at their birth. Jesus was no exception, in Matthew's biography.

Matthew's Jesus is "King of the Judeans," but the first people to recognize his coming, other than Joseph and Mary, are not Jews, but are astrologers, or magi, from eastern kingdoms. Jesus is the person who showed us what true honor is by acting shamelessly, befriending tax collectors and sinners and dying a death on a Roman cross that would -- by the rules, anyway -- be called shameful. Jesus, who has no human father and had no children of his own, incarnates for us the one who is Father to the fatherless.

In other words, Jesus' whole life -- and his being raised to life by the God of Israel after his death -- is, like his conception and birth, a paradox, a justly broken rule.

Here's another rule, one that's trustworthy, by sensible reckonings: you reap what you sow.

But consider that the angel's word to Joseph in this Sunday's gospel is true: Jesus came to save to save people from their sins.

Take a moment to think about what sin is and where it leaves the world -- about everything that speaks and enacts brokenness, despair, dehumanizing people made in the image of God, despising God's good gifts. Think about it. Think about the solutions people have proposed for those things -- a war on poverty, a war on terrorism, eugenics as a "final solution" to make sure that humanity's weaknesses become extinct. Those are from the optimists. The pessimists among us say that there is no salvation from our sins: the poor get poorer, the sick stay poor and (no insurance? sorry -- can't help you!) thus get sicker, violence begets violence, and there is no out -- just doing the best that you can to keep what you've got and protect those who are yours in a world that is steadily going to hell, with or without a handbasket.

Think about it: an angel of the God of the universe told Joseph that the child who was to be born -- the child whose birth we anticipate in this last Sunday of Advent -- will save people from their sins.

We will not reap what we sow, what our parents sowed.

I started out this week's mediation talking a little bit about the world I grew up in, the world of the Cold War and of Mutually Assured Destruction. And I can tell you about the day when I saw that world come tumbling down. I was in seminary at St. Andrews University in Scotland, and one morning while we were all having coffee in the common room, someone told us that the Berlin Wall was coming down.

That wall was more than a wall -- it was a world. The world of the Cold War was coming down, and people were dancing on it as it was crumbling. Students left St. Andrews in droves and hitchhiked to ports, bought tickets on ferries, did whatever they had to do to get there and dance with the dancers. They brought back chips of the wall, that thing that was built before we were born and told us how we and the world would die.

One of the few regrets I have in my life so far is that I didn't go.

I had things to do -- classes to attend, papers to write. I had a job waiting on tables. I was afraid to lose it, afraid the little money I had wouldn't get me to Berlin or wouldn't get me back. I was so busy with the life I was living in the world that was ending that I didn't read the signs: that world was ending, and I had the chance to dance with those who were welcoming a new world, one that wasn't doomed to end in massive fireballs or nuclear winter.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We have spent the last few weeks waiting, listening, watching as people in darkness who yearn for a sign of the light. And the Light of the World is on the horizon now: his name is Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.

The whole world of sin is ending. It's ending now. It's bigger than the end of communism, the end of terrorism; it's the end of ending and the beginning of beginning.  I was a fool to miss the fall of the Berlin Wall because I was afraid of missing a few classes on the theology of John's gospel. I don't want to make that mistake again. So now, I look to Jesus' Advent, to Jesus' birth. I see that the world of sin is falling, and when I'm really in touch with that, there's nothing I wouldn't drop to dance on the ruins as they fall.

I'm serious -- a world-changing event that makes the fall of the Berlin Wall look like trivia is on its way. It's not a pie in the sky; it's a tree growing from an undying root planted when Mary said "here I am" to God's call, and nurtured by Joseph's doing the right thing by refusing to do what the Law required. It's the end of every damn thing that damns us. Who wouldn't skip class, risk hitching a ride, do what it takes to get to where God's people are dancing there?

It's all happening! There are five days of Advent left to watch for it and get there -- figure out what's holding you back from going to where the stars will reveal the Christ, and make a decision to drop it. The time in which rules are rules is over. What would you do if the ONLY thing to do were to seek God and God's anointed?

We have received grace and apostleship to bring that to the peoples of the world ... starting with us, here, now.

Thanks be to God!

December 13, 2004 in Advent, Best of 2004, Eschatology, Matthew, Romans, Year A | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 21, Year C

Luke 16:19-31 - link to NRSV text

Another hard text from Luke ... it must be Sunday!

This one's follows pretty logically from the Lucan Beatitudes and Woes. That was a pretty harsh text to preach on too, and for much the same reason. Luke's Beatitudes and Woes say, in a fairly straightforward fashion:

Honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ...
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

I encourage you to stop by the Global Rich List as an initial impetus for reflection. It's a site where you can enter your annual income, in American or Canadian dollars, Euro, Yen, or Pounds, and then click a button to find out how many of the world's people are richer than you, and how many are poorer.

For example, my annual income of USD$36,000 per year puts me in the top 4.33% of the world's richest. That information sure puts me on the edge of my seat when I hear "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:24). And it puts me on the edge of my seat for this Sunday's parable too, because much as Luke's "woes" don't say anything like, "woe to you who are rich and ungenerous"; they just say, "woe to you who are rich." As one of the world's richest people, that has to give me pause.

Like the Lucan "woes," the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is unique to Luke. And like the woes, it gives us rich folk some serious things to think about. Just as the woes don't say "woe to you ungenerous rich," verses 25 and 26 of this Sunday's gospel give as the sole explanation of the rich man's torment and Lazarus' being gathered to Abraham:

During your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus likewise received evil things. And now he is being comforted here, but you are suffering. And in all these things, there is a great divide set up between us and you people, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.

I'm following Luke Timothy Johnson in translating the beginning of verse 26 as "And in all these things, there is a great divide set up," rather than "Besides all this, there is a great divide set up," because I think there's something of Luke's eschatology -- and of God's prophetic word to us in this passage -- in the distinction.

The great divide between Lazarus and the rich man didn't spring up upon their deaths or after the last judgment; it was created by the rich man while both of them lived.

It's a financial divide between the haves and the have-nots, between those who feast and those who hunger. But there are other divides that follow from that and perpetuate it. You can get a solid and very brief description of conditions in the pre-industrial city that are relevant to this Sundays gospel from Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's notes on Luke 14:15-24 in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (a one-volume paperback that I recommend VERY highly, as I do John J. Pilch's "Cultural World" lectionary commentaries). Here's some of what comes to my mind:

The rich man not only controls resources like land and money, but also controls systems of taxation that perpetuate the "great divide" between him and Lazarus. Furthermore, the rich control the Temple and related institutions that place value on avoiding impurities that the rich could hire others to deal with, but the poor could not. These divides in arenas of wealth, civic power, and religious power (which is also political power!) are clearly visible as well in the physical layout of the city, as elites occupy the geographical center of the city as well as the center of power. The neighborhoods in which the elites lived alongside Temple and palace were often protected with fortifications, while poorer residents of the city lived in ethnic and occupational groups at the city's edge, and the poorest --- beggars, prostitutes, and those in marginalized occupations, lived completely outside the protection of the city walls. During the day, the poorer people in the community were let in through the walls to provide the goods and services the elites wanted; at night, they were locked out.

A lot of things are different for we who live in industrialized cities in wealthy countries like the U.S. Some things are remarkably (and disturbingly) similar, though. There is still a "great chasm" or "great divide" between the haves and the have-nots. In the neighborhood in Pasadena, California, where I used to live, the physical chasm was the one cut for the freeway. North of the freeway had the concentrations of poorer residents, and especially recent immigrant families whose primary language was Spanish. South of the freeway were the upscale shops and restaurants the northerners cooked for and cleaned, and south of that were palatial homes (again, with gardens tended and rooms cleaned by northerners). Baltimore has physical features like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a street that can't in a single green light be crossed on foot from the poor neighborhoods of Sandtown and Pigtown to the wealthy neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins medical school. Anne Arundel County, where I work in Maryland, has divides of its own fixed between rich and poor. Even full-time professionals like teachers, police officers, and firefighters often can't afford to live anywhere near where they work, let alone the person who staffs the counter at Dunkin' Donuts or washes dishes at the upscale Woodfire Grill.

There's still a vast chasm, fixed and maintained by elites, between rich and poor, and as I pointed out in a recent sermon, that chasm is in many ways growing, even within U.S. cities. And then there's the rest of the world -- and this Sunday's gospel warns us in the sternest possible terms not to turn national borders into a chasm beyond which we neither look nor work for reconciliation and justice!

Looking hard at all of this will, one hopes, put the fear of God in us. But the difference, in my mind, between "the fear of God" and just plain FEAR is that while fear causes us to retreat or become paralyzed, the fear of God motivates us and empowers us to DO SOMETHING to live into the kingdom of God, God's justice, peace, and freedom.

In Anne Arundel County, people of faith are organizing around the principle, "If you're good enough to work here, you're good enough to live here." An initiative has been introduced in the county council to set aside a percentage of new housing for pricing affordable to teachers, police officers, and firefighters -- and, if we can garner enough support, another percentage will be set aside that's affordable for dishwashers, gardeners, and housecleaners. If it passes, the effects will include better schools, less pollution and traffic congestion, and improved quality of life for all (and if you're anywhere near the area, do come to the October 3 BRIDGE public meeting in Baltimore!). But there's another effect that the rich man in this Sunday's gospel implores us to consider:

Whenever we create or maintain an unbridgeable chasm between people, we automatically are on the wrong side of it.

So we are called to do what we can to "prepare the way of the Lord" by filling in the chasms, making the paths straight, tearing down the walls so that no one is let in for our convenience and shut out when we think we no longer have need of her. Indeed, just saying, with our lips or our lives, "I have no need of you" to a sister or brother is an insult to the Holy Spirit who makes us one (1 Cor. 12:21).

And there's something else Luke in particular enjoins us to do in response to this Sunday's gospel, and it's a point of stewardship. It's true that the rich in Luke's writings are in big trouble. But if you read carefully, you might notice that there are some people with substantial material resources who don't seem to be included in the woes. For starters, there's Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Suzanna (Luke 8:1), and there's Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37).

These are people who take seriously what the Holy Spirit says: that we are one family of sisters and brothers, and so we are called to have all things in common. Resources that legally might belong to one person rightfully belong to the whole, to be used to help any in need and to build up the whole community. These are people who take seriously that "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1).

These are not people donating to a cause. As much as I love National Public Radio, I don't think their pledge drives are any model for stewardship. We do not give our own resources to encourage the development of particular programs or to support what we agree with; we share what wasn't our own to begin with, and do it because we want to know Christ's compassion and the unity of the Body more deeply. We do it because of who we are in Christ.

And as we make use of possessions to live more deeply as a community into who we are in Christ, we will see not only how much we have used our power and resources to dig chasms, but how powerful Christ's love is to bring us to repentance and reconciliation to bridge them.

Thanks be to God!

September 20, 2004 in Best of 2004, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)

Proper 20, Year C

Luke 16:1-13 - link to NRSV text

I'm tremendously excited, and don't tell me you're not excited too. It's a very special day coming this Sunday -- like a holiday that only that only comes once in every three years.

It's ... "Unjust Steward Sunday"!

OK, so maybe you're not that excited. But I am. I did my master's thesis on the parable, often called "The Parable of the Unjust Steward," in this coming Sunday's gospel. I spent the better part of a year or two thinking about these thirteen verses. And this Sunday will be the first time I've ever had a chance to preach on them (unless you count the children's chapel I did to audition for my current job, in which I did this parable in biblical storytelling, using a few of the kids gathered as human puppets -- a story I'll be happy to tell if you're interested. I really ought to get around to putting up some kind of 'About Me' page, for those who want to know who the heck I am).

So woo-hoo! Go Unjust Steward!

I said in a previous blog that I have a strange attraction to what are called the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and that's how I ended up pouring so much energy into the parable of Luke 16. I did it because I read in an article (I can't remember off-hand which one, and am too lazy at the moment to dig up my old thesis to look it up) that this parable posed problems that are "insoluble." With the considerable hubris that a nineteen-year-old can muster, I decided to tackle it. Here's what I came up with. It's summarizing about 60 pages of writing, so I hope you can take my word for it on a lot of things and overlook gaps.

The parable is not as obscure as it might seem; we just need to get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. The biggest questions that commentators seem to be ask about the parable is "who is 'the master' or 'the lord' (kurios in verse 8 could mean either): the steward's employer, or Jesus?" and "Why did this person commend the steward?"

First, a summary of the plot of the parable (told with some contemporary terms to make it more readily apprehended):

A very, very rich man lives in a big city (like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He's hired a manager (steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. Now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward -- someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

The landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources (and "squandering" isn't necessarily a bad word here -- the sower in another of Jesus' parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last week's parable potentially squanders the ninety-nine by running after one lost sheep). So the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master's name. The farmers from whom he probably came aren't about to take him in either, given that up until now he's allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That's why the steward is called "the steward of unrighteousness" in verse 8.

So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of "a million bazillion kajillion dollars" to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, this involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger's) pen -- much like what students do in changing a handwritten 'D' to a 'B' on a report card.

The steward doesn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and the steward is also, by extension.

The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging:

The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They're shouting his name, telling him he's a hero.

He finds out (probably when he arrives at the estate house) what the steward has done in telling the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.

The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd -- the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward's generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won't hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos, and I wouldn't want to be the landowner then.

Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he'll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers (who are honoring him -- you know how much I talk about how important honor is in the first-century Mediterranean world!), but he'll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord's generous forgiveness (pun intended) in the future, and the crowd might turn on him. I don't doubt what a sane person in the landowner's situation would do in such circumstances, but either way, the steward goes from scab and scumbag to hero. When he retires, the farmers will gladly take him in, if the landowner won't.

Here's the big problem, for most commentators:

What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he's guilty of all charges, taking the landlord's property and squandering it -- even after he was fired, and therefore not authorized to do anything in the landowner's name.

Most commentators I read who were looking for the point of the parable came up with something like this:

"The steward is confronted with a crisis, and he acts decisively. Jesus is saying that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God calls upon us all to act decisively."

No offense to commentators, but that rings hollow for me. What's the crisis or decision? And what about the direction of the decisive decision is commendable? After all, if the story had gone something like, "There was a rich man who had a steward and fired him, so the steward decisively concluded that he should form a boy band and inaugurate a tour of Galilee and Judea," we probably wouldn't get quite the same point.

So here's the big question that I haven't seen commentators in print ask:

Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?

A: The steward forgives debts.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.

So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, this (Luke) is the guy whose version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive (the monetary debts of -- it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could forgive other nations their debts for the reason Bono cited in his appearance on the O'Reilly Factor: to raise or maintain the value of the American brand, letting the rest of the world associate "USA" with health and freedom. Or we could do it because of what Jesus said about forgiving debts. Or we could do it because we think the leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike in a manner more worthy of Adbusters, just do it.

Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.

I cannot escape the kind of awareness that an Anglican has while awaiting the report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion (AKA the Eames Commission), or an employee has while working in a congregation experiencing some serious conflict. What's a good reason to remain in fellowship (or "in communion," if you want a more technical term)? What's a good reason to be gracious toward those on the winning (or the losing) side of a political debate? What's a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping?

Pick one of the above, or none, or all. It doesn't matter. If a guy who was a scab and a scalywag can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net if his firing proves final, we have who experienced real grace -- we who believe that "the earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1), and therefore forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping is up to the only one to whom anything of value belongs -- have better reason to forgive. We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on: the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

September 13, 2004 in Best of 2004, Forgiveness, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (24)

Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10 - link to NRSV text

I'm going to do something a little different this week ...

The Parable of the Ninety-Nine
(or why it's probably a good thing that sheep don't talk)

Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray. The shepherd's colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherd's part -- after all, when the shepherd had been a farmer, he had repeatedly been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and pigeon hangouts without much thought as to whether anything would actually grow there, so he had acquired a reputation for being a little loopy.

The ninety-nine sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action ... or discussion, anyway. One loudly announced that the Historic Flock had never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore that the stray was probably a goat, or perhaps a marmoset, and should not be bothered with. If a wolf got it, that's what it deserved for straying from the flock, or for being a marmoset, or whatever its problem was.

Factions gathered in response to that announcement, some suggesting that perhaps a message could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a marmoset and instead become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making...what noise is it that marmosets make? (cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue) she could rejoin the flock. A website and glossy magazine ads were put in place to further this effort, as were a series of dialogues, in which each member of a panel of three sheep would present its view of what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very nice and moving liturgy.

Another faction formed to try to win over the first group. They poured their resources into a public relations campaign in the flock to celebrate the contributions of all sheep, even the ones reputed to be marmosets or goats. Since their raison d'etre was to convince the Historic Flockers, though, it was very important not to engage in any precipitous action that might offend them. So when rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves and a voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something outght to be done, another of the ninety-nine sheep produced a marvelous-looking PowerPoint presentation documenting the decline in wolf attacks by well over 30% over the last fifteen years. "And there used to be 78 strays per year," she noted, "that we've got it down to one is most impressive!" The faction responded with a loud cheer and rumbled off to a celebratory ball and fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

All of this "pro-stray" rhetoric greatly annoyed the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to sheephood, and the sheep who didn't want the stray back in the flock at all were furious, threatening to leave the flock. Much hubub ensued, and hours later, if you could somehow manage to listen beyond all of the loud bleating and blaring loudspeakers and committee deliberations and rousing choruses of "Bringing In the Sheep" and a new hymn, "Goading Out the Goats," you might have heard a few sheep quietly noting the shepherd's absence and wondering where the shepherd had gone, as one silhouetted figure made its way toward the horizon and the stray ... and some wolf howls echoed in the distance.

Three questions:

  1. Where is the shepherd?
  2. Where are the ninety-nine?
  3. If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?

silvery marmoset

September 6, 2004 in Best of 2004, Inclusion, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (11)