Peace, Even Now

Psalm 72:18-19 Blessed be God, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous deeds! And blessed be God’s glorious Name for ever! and may all the earth be filled with God’s glory. Amen. Amen.

Introduction

Do we know what peace is? I mean, do we really know what peace is? I know we know how to use the word, but I’m not convinced we use it correctly. Peace isn’t necessarily about being calm or having control; and it’s not about being alone. Yet we use the word “peace” synonymously with all of those words. Peace carries qualities of those words, but also isn’t those words.

Peace seems to be something received through the process of becoming separated from something entangling and holding me captive. Peace comes as I am pulled out of the thing entangling me, placed on different ground from that which entangled me, and I’m found as me even in the midst of not-calm, in chaos, and with others—those things having lost their control and influence over me. Peace becomes mine because it is given to me from elsewhere in the collision of another story disrupting and interrupting the story I’m trapped in. In this way I have peace not because I have mustered up calm, or have asserted control, or am (finally) alone but in spite of having none of them. Peace is given to me, it becomes mine, and I move forward with it and in it.

But what happens to peace if my world can only offer me more of the same, and it’s not a very good same? What is peace in a world catapulted into a pandemic turned endemic? What is peace in a world where you don’t know when the next tragedy and catastrophe will happen? What is peace in a world where you must fortify your boundaries and never cease being hyper-vigilant? What is peace in a world where some get liberty and others don’t? What thing can the world offer me to intersect and disrupt me?

The heartbeat of peace weakens.

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Isaiah 11:1-4

Isaiah greets us with a prophetic utterance declaring a new thing in the midst of something old. Caught up in the divine pathos[1]—the divine passion—of God for all of God’s people,[2] Isaiah declares to the people that what was destroyed will be made new. God will not abandon God’s people to their world with its stories of exile and separation, of isolation and captivity.[3] God will step in and alter not only the trajectory of the history of God’s people, but will disrupt them and intersect them where they are and usher in something new and glorious in their midst.[4]

For Isaiah’s audience, the imagery of a shoot—a branch—coming up from a stump invoked thoughts of divine activity[5] and disruption. The stump is the result of destruction; everything looks as if it’s done, dead, and gone. The only life a stump partakes in is the life of the devourers, the creatures returning the stump to the earth. But Isaiah declares, that which looks dead is the medium for divine life: a shoot shall come forth. In other words, according to Isaiah, this shoot from the stump of Jesse is by God’s doing and not by human hand. No work of humanity—no matter how glorious—can summon anything from a stump if that stump is unable to generate anything. In other words, the rule of humanity is eclipsed by the reign of God,[6] and humanity’s conception of right and wrong, justice and injustice, peace and tumult are exposed as corrupted, unable to bring forth the liberation of the captives God desires.[7] God will bring it forth according to God’s will of love and life and righteousness and liberation.[8]

For Isaiah the actuality of what is—even if dire—is the realm of possibility for God’s creative word out nothing. The day rises and the day sets; out of the setting of the sun the rising of the sun is ushered in. The actuality of the night works toward the possibility of morning, as it was yesterday, so it is today, and so may it be tomorrow. As prophet, Isaiah’s hope is anchored not in actuality (the descending night) but in possibility (in the coming morning, the new day[9]). It’s anchored in something outside of himself, outside of his world as he knows it; it’s anchored in God and that in God there’s another and better way to live and this better way is disruptive. Here, Isaiah is encountered and intersected, lifted out of the muck and mire of the situation Israel finds itself in and placed on the ground of a different story told by God and not humanity; in this does Isaiah find his peace.[10] And not just any peace, but the peace of God, rendering the entire cosmos complicit in God’s love,[11] transcending boundaries of flora and fauna, and restoring creation unto God and unto itself.[12]

The heartbeat of peace revives.

Conclusion

Last week I told you, “Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world.”[13] By the same means does peace exist. This hope—this other way to be in the world because of a different story—is the means by which peace becomes a gift to us even now. Too often we jump to the peaceful imagery of the lion laying down with the lamb imagining that nothing happens with us—waiting for peace to come to our environment. But, like last week, it’s a mistake thinking Isaiah advocates for passivity. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Peace exists because God is and God is within us.

We are principle characters in this story, we are the object of divine desire—the whole cosmos and us—and in being the object of divine desire we are intercepted and disrupted. The one who comes, the righteous one, will beckon and call God’s people unto God. The burgeoning shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the stump signifying a lack of hope becomes the foundation of hope and the means of peace not just around Israel, but within them. God is not finished with Israel. As Isaiah declares, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of [God] as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious,” (Is. 11:9-10). God will contend with Israel but not in terms of death and destruction (not on their terms) but in terms of life and love (on God’s terms).

Peace exists because the story of God outside of us interrupts our cobbled together Frankenstein stories and the narratives the world hands us, the ones we’ve swallowed whole unable to imagine something better and different. Peace exists because this story of God causes us to stop and look up; in this story we’re given a moment to pause, to resist succumbing even more to the enslavement of working ourselves to death, to a hierarchy of human beings based on skin color, gender, and sexual orientation, to losing ourselves for material gain. Peace exists because we are called to consider the shoot of the stump, God’s activity intruding into our world and here we are detangled from frantic and anxious behavior desperate to control something…anything in any way. Peace exists because somehow in the midst of the chaos and tumult of our world we have hope, and if we have hope then we have peace.

The heartbeat of peace quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. In the midst of all that appears dead and forsaken, a tiny, vulnerable baby will be born to a single, unwed mother, in a cave; and this word will draw all who have ears to hear unto God, On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of [God], and [God’s] dwelling shall be glorious.”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 310. “It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third, person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[2] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5). Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 183. No longer looking at Nineveh but Jerusalem “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious (Isa. 11:10).”

[5] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 102. “The naming of Jesse signals a sure continuity with Israel’s past, but serves as a reminder of David’s humble beginnings and of a promise grounded in divine election rather on human pride and royal pretension (2 Samuel 7). … [stump] the of God’s purpose after the hardening, after the destruction of the land, and after the unbelief of Ahaz, true Israel still has a future because of Immanuel.”

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 102-103. “The following verse proceeds to describe the charismata suitable to the office. He is endowed by the spirit of God to be the bearer of ‘the whole fullness of divine powers’ (Delitzsch). The gifts are set forth in couplets: wisdom and insight, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord. The spirit is the source of all new life, and a contrast is immediately who did not understand (1:3). And who heard but did not comprehend, who saw but did not perceive (6:9).”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on [humanity’s] ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on [humanity’s] power to achieve redemption, they would not have insisted upon the promise of messianic redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In other words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. [Humanity’s] conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. [Humanity’s] perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “These verses then portray the nature of the coming ruler’s reign according to the will of God, which has been assured by his spirit-filled-endowments. The dominant emphasis falls on the righteousness (sedeq) and equity toward the weak and vulnerable of the world. In this sense, vv. 1-9 continue a major theme introduced in 9:6ff. Again one hears the implied contrast with Israel’s unrighteous behavior that resulted in oppression of the poor and senseless acts of violence (3:5,14). For the prophet Isaiah, the coming of the messianic age is not construed as one of heavenly sweetness and light. Rather, the attributes of counsel and might in governing are exercised in forcefully constraining the wicked and adroitly discerning both the good and the evil of human society (v. 3b).”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 185. “The prophet is a person who, living in dismay, has the power to transcend his dismay. Over all the darkness of experience hovers the vision of a different day.”

[10] Childs, Isaiah, 103. “The effect of the righteous rule of the Messiah is depicted in terms of age of universal peace that embraces both the human and animal world.”

[11] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Isaiah envisioned was not a return to a mythical age of primordial innocence, but the sovereign execution of a new act of creation in which the righteous will of God is embraced and the whole earth now reflects a devotion ‘as water covers the sea.’”

[12] Childs, Isaiah, 104. “Prophetic picture is not a return to an ideal past, but the restoration of creation by a new act of God through the vehicle of a righteous ruler. The description in vv. 6-9 is a massive extension of the promise in chapter 9 that focuses on the eschatological deliverance of God’s people.”

[13] Lauren R. E. Larkin “Advent 1 11.27.22”; “Hope, Even Now” https://laurenrelarkin.com/2022/11/27/hope-even-now/

Hope, Even Now

Psalm 122:7-9 Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of God our God, I will seek to do you good.

Introduction

If you’re feeling a bit reticent jumping into upcoming seasonal festivities, I don’t blame you. The atmosphere is more pregnant with dread than with hope, more threaded with despair than expectation, more infused with turmoil than peace. Advent arrives and it feels too early. Not yet…I cannot feel the things I should feel. My inner world is threatened with lethargy and plagued with thoughts of giving up. More death? More hate? More lives lost, families thrust into grief and mourning, more senselessness and violence? Festive lights bedecking houses and trees look less like stars and more like tear-drops frozen in time.

I struggle with the energy to try to understand how such malice against beautiful and beloved bodies holds people so tightly. How was their self-acceptance and joy a problem to you? The safety of space dedicated to Queer celebration and revelry torn asunder by the invasion of contempt and rancor. Why? I keep asking. And just months after Uvalde? When do we learn? How much longer do we pretend this isn’t a massive issue? When will the lies and cognitive dissonance fail to numb and keep us locked in destructive patterns of social and political life together? How much longer will the despotic tyranny of hate, evil, and death hold life captive? Is this all there is?

The heartbeat of hope weakens.

Isaiah 2:1-5

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

The prophet Isaiah declares the reign of God. Prophetic witness oriented toward God’s union with God’s people, and the union of God’s people among themselves.[1] Isaiah heralds the coming kingdom of God, and in doing so highlights the discrepancy between the reign of God and the rule of humanity. Under the rule of humanity, kingdoms and nations are set against each other, each poised in aggressive defense against the other—the enemy. But Isaiah declares that under the reign of God nations and kingdoms will be united, rendering boundaries and battlements pointless for nations will stream into the house of God set high above all other human made castles of brick and mortar.

Isaiah declares that under the reign of God many peoples seek to gather in the House of God to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths. Rather than choosing the failing and long expired ways and paths of humanity,[2] the people will choose what is different intending to chart different courses from the ones they charted for themselves ending in war and death fueled by hatred and obsessive self-supremacy and power.[3] According to Isaiah, it’s God’s loving desire for all people, the entire earth, to live in the realm of love and life, the realm of God, [4] leaving behind the kingdom and rule of humanity and the atmosphere infused with antagonism and death.

Isaiah’s proclamation punctures the blinds his people wear, letting the light of divine glory and desire shine and illuminate better ways. As the people keep drunk on cups of violence and arrogance, power and avarice, Isaiah introduces the living and restoring water of God.[5] God will come to dwell among this lowly nation, weak in comparison to neighboring kingdoms, and will take up the royal seat here. Not the great nations of humanity, but the small nation of God, Jerusalem,[6] will be the epicenter of divine love and life, tendrils emanating outward, impacting all the other nations, beckoning them to follow the way of God, the way of love and life. From Jerusalem, all will be beckoned to ditch that which makes sense according to human standards and is in opposition to the will of God. From Jerusalem the people will be lured to walk bold rather than timid in the midst of a world throbbing with pain and agony; they will bend toward the justice and judgment of God and not of their own machinations.[7] Instead of forging new weapons bent on destruction and death—the fruit of war[8]—the people will turn their weapons into tools to nourish and flourish the fruit of life. Rather than being students of violence and destruction under the rule of humanity, they will drink in and feed on the knowledge of God; “Passion for war will be subdued by a greater passion: the passion to discover God’s ways.”[9] For Isaiah, and the other prophets, humanity’s obsession with power and might, is indicative of a terminal sickness ending only in death; there’s a better way, say the prophets, a way leading to life and liberty, joy and community.[10]

The heartbeat of hope revives.

Conclusion

Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world. One of the mistakes we make is reading Isaiah through the lens of passivity; when we do, we neglect the core of what Isaiah declares to his people: Behold, Israel; shema, Israel! Look and listen to your God; resist the evil machinations of human hearts bent on power and weaponized violence, on destruction and death and follow the way of your God, the way of love and life. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Hope exists because God is and God is within us.

When Isaiah implores, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!” He turns the focus of the narrative away from the ways of his people—stuck under the rule of humanity—and refocuses the narrative on God. In this way the people are beckoned out of themselves and toward God. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave his people just staring at God, just listening to God. Let us walk; let us look, let us hear, and let us walk. To be beckoned out of one’s self and to God is, in God’s anthropological economy, to be beckoned into God and thus into one’s self walking in the world in with love and life and not death and destruction.

Hope exists because what we see, what we hear, what we experience in the world under the rule of humanity isn’t the only thing to see, hear, and experience. Hope exists because things can be different, love can silence destruction, life can triumph over death. Hope exists because two patrons of Club Q said “No!” resisting hate and death in the name of love and life. Hope exists because we, too, can say “No!” and resist the lies and myths the kingdom of humanity keeps handing to us. As one of the patrons of Club Q wrestled the death dealing weapon from the hands of the shooter, we can yank the narrative and the story out of the hands of those telling us this is the only way to live. No. We don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be stuck under lies that another person’s self-acceptance and joy threaten us.

We’re beckoned by Isaiah, Beloved, to stop and still, to look and hear. We are asked to see that there’s the way of humanity and the way of God. We are beseeched and implored to reconsider, to refocus, to reimagine something better and bigger. We are summoned out of the necropolis suffocated by the tyranny of death’s cold, bony hand into the country of the living as citizens of God. We are lured by the fullness of divine love and life to be ramparts and bastions against death and destruction, to be God’s threat to powers dead set on violence, to be—referring to Helmut Gollwitzer—a little bit dangerous advocating for life and love in the face of death and hate.[11]

The heartbeat of hope quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. And this other word God is so passionate about God will become this Word to liberate the captives imprisoned by destruction and death, calling out to all who have ears to hear, [C]ome, let us walk in the light of God!”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[2] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 30-31. “In v. 4 God’s role is described as adjudicating justly among the nations. His reign is universal in scope, and the ‘many peoples’ portrayed as now living in peace and harmony are those who have gone to the mountain of the Lord to walk in his ways. The description of eschatological rule is not part of a human social program; indeed, the demonic threat of a return to war remains still virulent (Joel 4:9ff. = ET 3:9ff.). Rather, ‘the holy city, New Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21:2).”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “The sword is the pride of man; arsenals, forts, and chariots lend supremacy to nations, War is the climax of human ingenuity, the object of supreme efforts: men slaughtering each other, cities battered into ruins. What is left behind is agony, death, and desolation. At the same time, men think very highly of themselves; ‘they are wise in their own hearts, shrewd in their own sight’ (Isa. 5:21). Idols of silver and gold are what they worship. Nineveh, ‘the bloody city, all full of lies and booty,’ held the world in spell with her ‘countless harlotries,’ with her ‘graceful and deadly charms’ (Nah. 3:1, 4).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “Isaiah proclaimed God’s purpose and design ‘concerning the whole earth’ (14:26), and actually addressed himself to ‘all you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth’ (Isa. 18:3; c£ 33:13; 34:1), delivering special prophecies concerning Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Tyre, and others (chs. 13-23). It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5), Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall worship in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Into a world fascinated with idolatry, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word that the swords will be beaten into plowshares, that nations will search, not for gold, power or harlotries, but for God’s word.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Jerusalem, in contrast, was ‘a quiet habitation,’ little known to the nations except as a target for invaders. But in the vision of Isaiah the nations will no more turn their eyes to Nineveh, the seat of human power, but to Jerusalem, the seat of divine learning, eager to learn God’s ways, eager to learn how to walk in His paths.”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on man’s ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on man’s power to achieve redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In her words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. Man’s conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. His perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 73. “War spawns death. But Isaiah was looking to the time when the Lord ‘will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’…. Israel’s security lim. (25:8; see p. 183). Israel’s security lies in the covenant with God, not in covenants with Egypt or other nations. The mysterious power of faith maintains: God alone is true protection. Such power will not collapse in the hour of disaster…”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 184.

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 160. “When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed.”

[11] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1017).150-151. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

The Untamed God of Life

Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

Canticle 9 Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid. For God is my stronghold and my sure defense, and God will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.

Introduction

In CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says this about Aslan,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

CS Lewis does a great job telling a fantastic story pointing to something beyond us. Aslan, the lion—Lewis’s representation of God in Christ, the one whom Mr. Beaver is talking about, is an untamed lion, the one no one controls and whom no one can determine and disclose. Aslan is big, striking, protective and inviting, warm and fierce, and full of life—death can’t hold this lion.

What’s striking to me is how trapped we are in thinking God is rather tame, small, quaint, proper, more concerned about etiquette than existence. We prefer the pocket-sized God, neatly tucked into back-pockets and handbags. This tiny-origami God is a very small God who could never reverse the laws of nature surrounding the scientifically demonstrated irreversibility of life and death, would never dare do anything disrupting the status quo, and is completely practical and predictable. We don’t much like Mr. Beaver’s unsafe, disruptive Aslan.

Funny thing is, I can’t find our tame and safe God among the splendor and magnificence of the cosmos from the smallest star in our night sky to the brilliant light of the noon sun, or in the technicolor coat of the flora covering the earth, nourishing the equally diverse and rich clusters of fauna calling earth home. Tell me where this safe and tame God is within the First and Second testaments. From the first page to the very last, the entire Bible speaks of a God who is big and quite untamed: a God willing to contend with Israel’s oppressors, destroy temples, tear open the earth, divide waters to the right and left, flip tables, whisper instead of yell, be born vulnerable and die as such, and call forth the living from the dead.

All that to say: God is not small. God is not tame or safe. An encounter with God will sweep you up into God through death and into new life. Even if we prefer to shrink God, make God safe, tame, and predictable, God refuses our insistences and remains big, forever outside of our grasp, and beyond the limits of our imaginations. So, to quote Mr. Beaver with slight alteration, “‘Tame? … Who said anything about tame? ‘Course [God] isn’t tame…’”

Luke 21:5-19

“Now, before all of these things they will place their hands upon you, and they will persecute, delivering [you] to the synagogues and prisons, being lead to kings and governors on account of my name. It will become to you a witness. Therefore, fix in your heart not to premeditate in order to give an account of yourself. For I, I will give you speech and wisdom which all who oppose you will not be able to resist or contradict. And you will be delivered also by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. And not a hair from your head will be destroyed. In your enduring you will acquire your soul.”[1]

Lk 21:12-19

Luke begins by telling his audience about what the coming demise[2] of the temple.[3]In reply to some casual admiration of the structural magnificence of the temple, Jesus says: these things which you gaze, a day will come in which not one stone upon another stone will be left alone.[4]I imagine the look of the disciples communicated something between: Way to cut to not-so-casual warnings pertaining to the end times, and

It’s this awkward entrance through warnings of the temple’s total destruction that Jesus ushers in a(nother) discussion about how to exist after he’s gone: be on your guard because God’s great reversal will bring a bunch of discomfort![5]Jesus follows up by promising that it wont go well for those who proclaim good news in Jesus’s name. He alerts them to keep their eyes open, Watch(!)[6] [so that] you might not be led astray! Jesus declares that many men will come in my name saying, I, I am and the time has come near!” Then, as they are still perceiving, he tells them to keep their ears open so that whenever you may hear of wars and upheavals, be not struck with panic!And then he adds as a rejoinder, these will not be the end but the first things. He goes on, nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earth quakes and in many places famines and pestilences, there will be scares and great signs of heaven. Jesus then makes it personal, oh, and in case you thought you would escape it, they’ll come for you, too…and by “they” I mean your own darn family. Those who follow the Christ and proclaim his message will end up experiencing the same rejection and fate he did.[7]

Starting with the spiritual realm (represented by the Temple) through the temporal realm (represented by the advent of false Christs and national, tectonic, and viral chaos), to the deeply personal realm, Jesus indicates in all-encompassing fashion that God’s great reversal will consume their whole entire lives. There will be nowhere to run where you don’t suffer some exposure to death on a personal level as God rights wrongs, brings justice where there has been injustice, liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, brings in the ostracized, heals the sick, and resurrects the dead. [8] Be prepared; it will be very hard!

This is the good news? What happened to my safe and comforting God? Where did my tame God go?

According to Jesus, the tame God is a myth of status-quo proportions.[9] There is no way to live in both ages—this one and that one—at the exact same time and without disruption to one or the other.[10] Consider this passage a blown-up version—cosmically big—of Jesus’s previous discussion about mammon: you cannot serve both God and mammon. Thus, you cannot follow the Christ, live into the message and activity of Christ, represent Christ when he’s gone, and think that the world is going to be fine with it. They won’t be, not even the one who bore you. This all feels like so much. Where is the hope in the midst of the advent of the new age, where is the good news in the wake of this untamed God?

It’s here in what Jesus says by way of closing. He doesn’t leave them without a word of comfort. Rather, he presses into the promises of God, But, BUT in all of it I’ll be with you, and you’ll not be destroyed (not even a hair on your head will be lost) for in this active endurance you’ll gain your soul because you’ll be found in God and God lives![11]In other words, I might be gone, but I am with you[12] as you are with each other in solidarity;[13] wherever two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst. Whether you live or die, I am with you and you’ll not be lost or destroyed. Jesus’s God is a big, untamed God bringing a great reversal ushering in the new age teeming with life and destroying the old age burdened by death. This great reversal isn’t easy for anyone. But, take heart Beloved; this untamed God is the author of love and life, and where love and life are death and destruction cannot be also… So, Beloved, hold tight, stand firm together, take heart the fight for life is worth it for you are on God’s side. Beloved, rejoice and behold …

Conclusion

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;

for they shall be offspring blessed by the [God]–
and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says [God].


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 238. “The siege and destruction of Jerusalem are described in terms, and even with words, that are parallel to the account of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Verses 12-19 are almost an outline of what Luke will later tell in Acts about the subsequent history of the Christian community, although obviously the phrase ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ must be taken as either a hyperbole or even better as a sign that even death is not defeat, for at the time of this writing Luke already knew of the deaths of at least Stephen and James. Even before the tall of Jerusalem and its awesome events of death and destruction, the disciples of Jesus will be persecuted.”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 733. “The Jerusalem temple admired by those with Jesus was the project of Herod the Great, who in 20/19 B.C.E. began a reconstruction of the temple that essentially doubled its size and otherwise reflected his own aggrandizing character. Pilgrims pouring into the city from the rustic environs of Palestine and the wider diaspora could not help but be impressed, even overwhelmed, by its sheer size and magnificence, by the brilliance of the gold plates that covered its façade, and by (he while marble that adorned its upper reaches, 12 What is more, its splendor as an architectural feat would have been for the faithful more than matched by the awe it inspired as the abode of God and socio-religio-political center of the Jewish universe. Jesus’ emphatic prediction of total annihilation (leaving no “stone upon stone”), echoing his earlier words in 19:44 as well as prophetic oracles of judgment in the OT, must have been stunning on both accounts.”

[4] Gonzales, Luke, 236-237. “The rest of chapter 21 is devoted to a series of announcements and warnings about the time to come, or rather, to what is constructed as a single discourse about future events and the disciples’ lives as they await such events. The setting is the temple, where Jesus has been teaching, and the occasion is the admiration of ‘some’ not necessarily the disciples. In response to such admiration, Jesus comments that the time will come when even the temple will be utterly destroyed, a destruction so thorough that “not one stone will be left upon another.”

[5] Gonzales, Luke,237. “For these reasons, it seems best to interpret the text as bearing the same general thrust as many of the parables of stewardship: telling the disciples how to behave while awaiting the end. On this score, Jesus’ main warning is not to believe any who claim to know when the end will come…”

[6] Green, Luke, 735. “They are not to follow after those making such claims, but neither are they to respond in terror. They are, instead, ‘to watch,’ to exercise their faith in such a way that they have insight into what God is doing.”

[7] Green, Luke, 736. “‘Persecution’ is the heading under which this material can be gathered – persecution resulting from the identification of Jesus’ followers first with his message and then, consequently, with his fate.”

[8] Gonzales, Luke,239-240. “But we prefer a ‘gospel’ without eschatology—a ‘good news’ without hope—because for many of us such ‘good news’ is not so good. We prefer a gospel without eschatology, because the good of the great reversal that Luke has been proclaiming all along does not seem so good to us. If the promised great reversal is for the benefit of sinners rather than properly religious folk, for the exploited, for the poor, for those who have no other hope, where does that leave us? How can such a reversal be a promise of hope for us who are now, so to speak, on top of the heap? This is why, while for most Christians eschatology is a matter of hope, for many others it has become a matter of fear. When the latter is the case, change ceases being a promise and becomes a threat.”

[9] Green, Luke, 736. “The coming resistance is, according to Jesus, not limited to that exacted by official bodies within Judaism and the realm of Rome, but would extend as well to one’s own kin. The inventory of those who would betray the faithful is reminiscent of the list in 14:12, including those with whom, under normal je wo… share relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity. The coming of the kingdom, however, renders normal conventions obsolete, with the result that the faithful have repeatedly been called upon to redraw kinship lines, to find their familial attachments with those ‘who hear the word of God and do it’ (esp. 8:21; cf. 18:29). Of course, it is precisely this disregard for normal conventions, this embracing of the purpose of God as it unfolds in and overtakes the present world order, that leads to the despising of Jesus’ disciples among those who fail to recognize or serve God’s redemptive project. Marked as deviants by their behavior, they will find themselves detested, by those who uphold the accepted protocols of their social world.”

[10] Gonzales, Luke,240. “There is only one way, and it is to this that Jesus refers in verses 12-19. It is the way of living now as those who know that a different future awaits. It is a difficult way, for those who live out of a different order than the existing one will necessarily clash with the present order. The good news does not at first sound so good: ‘they will arrest you and persecute you… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.’ This sounds so alien to us! Persecuted for being a Christian? Rejected by family and friends for our faith? That may have been true in the first century, but not in these enlightened times…

[11] Green, Luke, 737. v. 18 “Its proximity to v 17 suggests, further, the Jesus promises that persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful.”

[12] Green, Luke, 737. “Moreover, Jesus thus portends his continual presence with the disciples even as they face the tribunal, following his death; only with the onset of Acts do we understand fully that he will be present to the community of his followers by means of the Holy Spirit poured out among them. That this witness cannot withstood or contradicted finds ready fulfillment in Acts 4:14; 6:10, as well. This, however, does not guarantee that the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses will win the day, only that the resistance they attract and even the executions they undergo are not to be perceived as testimony against the truth or vitality of their witness or the authenticity of their understanding of God’s purpose. This is a pivotal message for Jesus’ disciples, who thus far have been unable to correlate humiliation and suffering with the divine purpose (e.g., 9:44-50; 18:31-34).”

[13] Gonzales, Luke,240-241. “What then about those of us who are not poor or disinherited, whose religion makes us socially respectable, whose mainline churches are the moral and social mainstay of our communities? If all that Luke says about the great reversal is true, there is only one way open to us: solidarity. The doctor of the law cannot suddenly become a Samaritan. He is who he is. The only alternative left to him is to act like the good Samaritan. The Pharisee cannot leave behind his faith, his piety, and his obedience to the law. The only alternative left to him is to join ‘sinners’ in their pain and their trust in God. Zacchaeus cannot undo the evil he may have done while becoming rich on the basis of exploitation and collaboration with an oppressive regime. The only alternative left to him is to use the wealth and the power he has acquired to undo as much as he can of the evil he has produced. Those of us whom society considers ‘mainline’ Christians must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the promise and hope of the great reversal, make the very phrase ‘mainline Christian’ a contradiction in terms-that the very name of ‘Christian’ requires being at the sidelines, at the margins where people suffer and are exploited or ignored. This is the proper consequence of genuine Christian hope—and it is precisely for that reason that we would much rather leave eschatology aside.”

God of the Living

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Psalm 145: 18-20 God is righteous in all God’s ways and loving in all God’s works. God is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully. God fulfills the desire of those who fear God; God hears their cry and helps them.

Introduction

The excitement of the holidays is upon us!

However, if you feel anything but excited and more exhausted about now, I don’t blame you. I feel it. While I love the descent of cold weather and the pep that returns to my step, October’s close ushering in November brings with it the weight of another year nearly gone. I tend to roll into November like Santa rolls out on December 24th: carrying sack upon sack of all that has been created over the past months. Sadly, unlike Santa, I’m not distributing these “goods” and making things lighter. I’m storing these “goodies” for myself, my weary shoulders and back—and it feels heavy right about now.

I know it might be social conditioning, and I know nothing magical happens on January 1st, but there’s still something profoundly psychological that occurs in my inner world on 1/1. Bundled in the blankets of coldness, crispness, and bareness, there’s so much newness embedded into that day. Like a clean and clear canvas, the upcoming year lays out before me beckoning me to paint anything anywhere. By the time I hit November, I’m squinting my eyes, pallet knife in hand, looking to peel back layers of paint sloppily placed sometime back in June or maybe it was that spill in April?

I go through the motions, lumbering from one day to another murmuring like a Zombie. Instead of “brains” it’s something about “Friday” and “after Christmas” and “next year.” In other words, I’m trapped in the routine of duties and obligations, demands and deadlines, days in and days out. I’m the walking dead among the living, unable to summon myself out of it, dependent on whatever reserves of energy I have left, and growing too comfortable with the heaviness of existence and the powerlessness to do anything but give in to death’s bony claim on my life.

Luke 20:27-38

And Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but the ones who are deemed worthy to happen to be at that age and of the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. For they are not able to die still, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being children of resurrection. And that the dead are being raised, Moses made known on the basis of the bramble, as it says, ‘The lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Now God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.”[1]

Luke 20:34-38

Luke introduces us to a new religious group strolling temple grounds: the Sadducees. They differed from the Pharisees in the content of their ideology—they denied resurrection,[2] spent their time among the aristocratic of the Holy City, were a bit more conservative,[3] and adhered to Torah above all other writings.[4]Yet, they shared some characteristics: a preference for power, privilege, and elitism.[5] They, like the Pharisees before them, attempt to ensnare Jesus in an intellectual trap cloaked under the façade of an appeal to marriage and resurrection.[6] Their recourse through Moses, though, reveals their trap; the real crux of the question: do you, Rabbi, faithfully follow Moses?[7]

Jesus’s not-so-subtle answer? Uh, yeah, I do. Jesus’s oh-so-subtle question back: Is it about obeying Moses or understanding Moses?[8]The thrust of Jesus’s answer to the Sadducees anchors the discussion about marriage, being given in marriage, and resurrection in a right understanding of Moses and the Scriptures. it’s not about obeying what was; it’s about stepping into what will be. Starting off with a comparison of two ages (this age and that age, literally: τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου and τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου, respectively), Jesus makes a distinction between those who are stuck in the present order (this age) and those who are alive in the eschatological order (that age).[9] In other words, are you following in the ways of the kingdom of humanity or are you following in the way of the reign of God?[10]

The clues are in the language Jesus uses to speak of marriage, and it’s the clues that are lost in our translation. The Sadducees use language of “take” to speak of marriage (λάβῃ/λαμβάνω, I receive/take). We get lost in this text because of our conception of what it means “to marry” which carries with it—mostly—ideas of mutuality and equality. But the Sadducees are saying that this one man was given this woman to be his wife and then when he died the subsequent brothers then took her. They then appeal to the resurrection—something they do not believe in—to ask Jesus, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus’s reply indicates that their question is absurd, and they do not understand Moses or resurrection.[11] You do not see that you are stuck in this age and blind to that one.[12], [13] Jesus flips the language back on them, it’s in this age that human beings are taken and given as if they don’t matter;[14] but in the age of God, no such thing happens because they are children of life and not of death and do no perpetuate systems treating human beings like belongings.[15] In that age, no one owns this woman as an object; she is alive and not dead.

In this way, Jesus affirms resurrection from the dead not only as some future eschatological, end times fulfillment of all things, but as something that occurs now. Now, God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.[16] According to the trajectory of Jesus’s logic here: those who die in God—Jesus’s ancestors—transition into God and thus they live because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for God is not dead but alive. (Is not the substance of God love, and is not love living and not dying?) God is the source of all life and if the source of all life; all those who transition into God live.[17]

If in death we are alive in God through transition into the liveliness of God, then how much more should we be alive now? [18] As those who participate in God from this material angle, should we not also participate in life and not in death? [19] Shouldn’t we live with faces turned toward possibility, brazen with the bright sunlight of what will be rather than with strained necks looking backward, spines broken by weighted burdens?[20]

Conclusion

Back to the introduction.

We confuse survival mode for living. It’s not living. This is the tragedy of our moment in time; are any of us really alive? Living? And by this I do not mean “are you pursuing your passions?” or “calling”, for such language brings condemnation to already burdened bodies. What I mean is: are you here, right now? Can you breathe…deep? Can you look forward and see others or are you straining to look backwards refusing to let what is be what was? Would you see a shooting star in the night sky or are you busy looking down? Have you already succumbed to death? Are you, like me, the walking dead?

Our fears turn us in onto our own ego. Not only the feelings of guilt that overcome many people in their fear of death do this; other forms of ‘cares, grief, and personal woes’ can also hold us hostage and take complete control over us. We only become free in looking away from ourselves, which always means also leaving one’s present [curved in] situation.[21]

Right now, I need interruption. I need the trajectory of my material form altered. I need something that’ll call to me causing me to harken to it. I need to be beckoned out of myself. If anything is going to change for me at this point in the year—under the weight of these burdens—it has to come from the outside. In this way, as simple and pedestrian as it may sound, I’m dependent on an encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the story of God’s profound love for the cosmos thus for me, for you thus for me that I’m transported out of death and into life, out of this age and into that one. Truly, I cannot resurrect myself from this walking-deadness; I must be resurrected. I’m caused to stop, listen, see, hear, to turn and look by a humble proclamation of love so grand. In that moment I gain life because I gain a moment and in that moment is God; wherever life is there is God, wherever there is God there is love, and wherever there is love there is life.

So you, too, beloved, need to be interrupted to gain life, to be called into life out of death so that you can live now in God, by faith in Christ and in the power of the holy spirit and then live again in God, with those having transitioned into God before us. Shema, O Israel, the God who loves you is life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 234. “For the sake of his Gentile readers, he explains that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection. On the matter of the resurrection, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees, who do believe in it. So the Sadducees are questioning both him and the Pharisees.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 521. “I said that the Sadducees were the priestly party of the aristocracy, even more conservative than the Pharisees, who were the priestly party of the middle class. It was through their conservatism that they didn’t believe in resurrection, for they accepted only the first five Books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), and in them the concept of resurrection does not appear, for it is a late concept in the Bible. Politically they were allied to the Romans, and they were the most strongly opposed to any messianic movement of the people that would endanger their privileges.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 718. “The Sadducees, known for their emphasis on the Torah, attempt to set Jesus up; appealing to Moses, they concoct a scenario that, in essence, requires to answer the question, Do you follow Moses?” See also fn2.

[5] Green, Luke, 718-719. “Members of the Sanhedrin and their agents have been shamed and confounded into silence (vv 19, 26), leaving an opening for some Sadducees to engage Jesus in discussion. This is our first introduction to the Sadducees in the Third Gospel, but from an historical perspective this is not surprising. Sadducees, after all, exercised their aristocratic influence in the Holy City. Surprisingly little is known of them, undoubtedly owing to their loss of position following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Josephus observes that they had the confidence only of the wealthy, and this comports well with their appearance in the Third Gospel at this juncture. Luke has and will continue to represent Jesus in controversial encounters with those of highest status in the city, and this would include the Sadducees.”

[6] Green, Luke, 717. “Within this co-text, however, it can hardly be read as anything but a further attempt to ensnare Jesus by embarrassing him before the people. The artificiality of the question is suggested, moreover, by its absurdity…”

[7] Green, Luke, 718. “In fact, the staging of this scene indicates that the real issue at stake is one of scriptural faithfulness, and then authority to interpret Scripture faithfully.”

[8] Green, Luke, 718. “The Sadducees are not the only ones to cite Moses, however; so does Jesus. The baseline of Jesus’ answer may be surprising to his audience but harmonious with a central sense, he turns the question away from obedience to Moses to one of understanding Moses. Who interprets Moses (and the Scriptures) faithfully?”

[9] Green, Luke, 720. “Fundamental to Jesus’ first point is his contrast between two sorts of piety, two aeons, and two forms of practice vis-à-vis marriage.”

[10] Green, Luke, 718. Scriptures are read with the right perspective, they are not self-interpreting. “As he lays it out, this perspective is an eschatological one, one that takes into account the presently unfolding purpose of God, and that generates in the present both faithful interpretation and faithful response.”

[11] Green, Luke, 721. “Jesus thus underscores the absurdity of the Sadducees’ question by undermining its major premises. The scenario they had painted has failed, first, in its perception of the nature of the age to come. Second, it fails to account for the reality that the age to come impinges already on life in the present.”

[12] Green, Luke, 720. “The Third Gospel often depicts persons, both male and female, as ‘sons of…,’ not as a matter of literal descent but as a way of denoting their character, their behavior. One sort of person is thus orientated toward ‘this age,’ with its concerns for status honor, relationships of debt and reciprocity, and the … .) The other group consists of ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age….’ The apposition of the two expressions ‘this age’ and ‘that age’ assumes a division of time into two aeons, the present age and the age to come.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “A better interpretation is simply to say that Jesus is arguing that the conditions of the present age do not obtain after the resurrection. The question, ‘Whose wife will she be?’ ignores the radical newness of the coming kingdom. There are many similar questions that have no answer (and that are similar to those that the Corinthians seem to have been asking, and to which Paul responds in 1 Cor. 15)… Jesus does not attempt to answer such questions, but simply calls his listeners to trust the God who has made all things, and who will make the kingdom come to pass.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “An interesting note having to do with marriage is that Jesus says that in the new order people ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ For a woman to be ‘given in marriage’ implies subjection to others: the father who gives her, and the groom who takes her. In an order of peace, justice, and freedom, people are not ‘given’ to others.”

[15] Green, Luke, 721. “Although typically represented as passive verbs, the instances of the two verbs translated ‘are given in marriage’ (NRSV) actually appear in the middle voice: ‘to allow oneself to be married.’ The focus shifts from a man ‘taking a wife’; (wv 28, 29, 31) to include the woman’s participation in the decision to marry. This is important because the basic concern here is with a reorientation of human relations through a reorientation of eschatological vision. One sort of person is aligned with the needs of the present age; such persons participate in the system envisioned and advocated by the Sadducees, itself rooted in the legislation governing levirate marriage, with women given and taken, even participating in their own objectification as necessary vehicles for the continuation of the family name and heritage. The other draws its ethos from the age to come, where people will resemble angels insofar as they no longer face death.95 Absent the threat of death, the need for levirate marriage is erased. The undermining of the levirate marriage ordinance is itself a radical critique of marriage as this has been defined around the necessity of procreation. No longer must women find their value in producing children for patrimony. Jesus’ message thus finds its interpretive antecedent in his instruction about family relations of all kinds: Hearing faithfully the good news relativizes all family relationships …”

[16] Green, Luke, 722. “At the close of this argument, Jesus uses a clause, ‘for to him all of them are alive,’ meant to serve as a basis for his argumentation. …Instead, in some sense, these texts affirm, these persons are given life by God, Luke has already provided insight into the nature of resurrection life in his earlier reference to Lazarus, who was carried away by angels to Abraham (who is still alive[!]….”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “Having responded to the objections of the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with his own argument: Moses says that God is the God of his ancestors and, since God is not a God of the dead, but only of the living, this means that for God those ancestors are still alive.”

[18] Cardenal, Solentiname, 523. “OSCAR: ‘Yes, I agree with that, too, because I’m beginning to think that to be able to rise again you ought to begin to rise now in this life, first. In order to be able to have the hope of resurrection, I say, of God. But if you die in selfishness, what hope do you have!’”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 521-522. “I: ‘For the Jews, and for Christ, there was no distinction between soul and body, as there was for the Greeks, who said that the soul came out from the ‘prison’ of the body. According to biblical thinking, resurrection, if it existed, had to be complete and material.’”

[20] Cardenal, Solentiname, 525-526. “I: ‘Also, Yahweh told Moses (when Yahweh appeared for the first time in history) to tell the people that Yahweh was the God of their forebears, of their past, of their history; Jesus is now saying that the people of the past continue to live, because the God of history is also God of the future. To be alive for God is to be alive for the future.’”

[21] Dorothee Sölle The Mystery of Death Trans. Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-RumScheidt. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 119:140-142 Your word [, God,] has been tested to the uttermost, and your servant holds it dear. I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments. Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is the truth.

Introduction

We’re submerged in the waters of identities and self-conceptions anchored in being exceptional—as if our worth and dignity are dependent on it. I think it’s one thing participating in our distinction from animals. Even with their individual quirks and personalities, I don’t think—as far as I understand them—dogs wonder much about their identity or if they are exceptional. My dog, Angie, spends what seems like zero minutes being concerned about her place in the world, if she has status, prestige, and power. I mean, she’s 97% Pitbull, so she’s got plenty of power. She isn’t wondering if other dogs think she’s dogging in the right way—her goodness isn’t dependent on what these other dogs think, I don’t even think it’s dependent on what she thinks. In general, Angie dogs around, chases light reflections, barks (relentlessly) at the mail woman, the fed-ex guy, and the UPS person—she doesn’t even care if it’s completely cliché to do so. She just dogs—wags her whole entire body when her family comes home, obeys any command for a treat, and loves stealing mama’s warm spot on the bed early in the morning. Cats cat. Horses horse. Spiders spider. Flies fly. Elephants elephant.

People do anything but just people around. How can we? We’re not only born into but are stuck on a relentless hamster-wheel of identity and dignity defined by our exceptionalism, our actions, our works, what we bring to the table. We are told that we are not good unless we…. (fill in the blank).

I find myself exhausted from endless pursuits trying to validate myself through and defend how special and good I am. The more I pursue, the more I’m terrified of it ceasing. If I stake my claim to the right to life on my virtue, what happens when that goes away and I become unvirtuous? Do I lose my right to life? If I stake my identity on my ability, what happens when that goes away and I become unable? Do I lose my identity? If I stake my importance on my work, what happens when that goes away and I am unable to work? Do I become unimportant? If I stake my indispensability on my intelligence or creativity, what happens when either of those things go away? Do I become dispensable? If everything I stand for depends on me being right, what happens to the ground under my feet when I’m wrong? Do I lose everything? If my goodness and lovability come through being exceptional in some regard, what happens when I cease to be exceptional in any regard? Do I cease to be good and loveable?

Am I less worthy of respect and love, am I not good if I have absolutely nothing exceptional to bring to the table but my vulnerable body and empty hands?

Luke 19:1-10

Now Zacchaeus stood and said to [Jesus], “Behold, half of my possessions…I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded a certain one, I return fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come into being in this house, in what manner he, he is a child of Abraham. For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.”[1]

Luke 19:8-10

Luke introduces an infamous character of Gospel proportions, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief of tax collectors. So, according to many a Pharisee, the worst of the worst.[2] Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus with reference to stature was little. He struggles to see through and around the crowds when Jesus enters Jericho and passes by. His struggle may mean he was short in height or too young. What is likely is that he was short with reference to status in his community, and the crowds presented an obstacle to him because they didn’t care to let him through. The crowd prevented him from seeing Jesus and coming to know who he is.[3] Even as wealthy and powerful as he was, he was blocked from seeing Jesus because he was the chief tax-collector. In other words, he and his wealth were despised.[4] In the eyes of the crowd, he had no dignity or worth. He wasn’t good.

Zacchaeus, determined to know who Jesus is,[5] ascends a tree. Now! Now I have a clear view of Jesus…and Jesus has a clear view of him.[6] In a moment, Zacchaeus went from disgraced tax-collector to graced host of the Christ when Jesus sees him and announces he’ll be staying with Zacchaeus that day—Jesus chooses Zacchaeus as if the crowd wasn’t even there.[7] The crowd was determined to push Zacchaeus out, now they find themselves on the outside as Zacchaeus proudly and happily hosts Jesus in his home. To whom were they an obstacle? Themselves or Zacchaeus? Who here is lost to destruction and who has been sought out of it?[8]

As Zacchaeus hosts Jesus—while the people grumble about Jesus staying with a sinner[9] misunderstanding the divine mission of the Christ[10]—he immediately addresses his wealth.[11] Pulling no punches—as if knowing his means of acquiring wealth were troublesome—Zacchaeus is compelled to explain himself.[12] He blurts out, Okay, I know,…I know I’m not the greatest guy and a bit trapped in this system, but I give half of my gain to the poor and if I ever take by means of exploitation, I give it back fourfold. I wonder if Jesus was taken aback from the sudden confession—he certainly wasn’t looking for one, nor was his presence in that home dependent on such a thing. Jesus just loved Zacchaeus. I imagine Jesus smiled right before he said, Today salvation has come into being in this house…For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.

Zacchaeus knows who he is, so he now knows who Jesus is. He knows that his wealth must lovingly[13] serve his community, that he should not exploit others, and that he is unworthy if based on his own accomplishments. He can’t measure up. Zaccheaus cannot justify himself; he knows he is irreligious, despised,[14] and small in the eyes of his community.[15] If God’s love is dependent on these things, he falls short. Then Jesus shows up. Into this moment of confession of smallness, Jesus pronounces a divine bigness upon Zacchaeus: he’s very much a worthy child of God[16] and a son of Abraham.[17] Not for any reason other than love: Zacchaeus is loved and loves; Zacchaeus is good.

As it frequently is in Luke’s stories, it’s those who are small who are big, it’s those who are lost who are found, it’s those whose are weak who are strong, it’s those who strive to see Jesus who finally see who they are, it’s those who seek their dignity and worth in God who know that they have dignity and worth apart from their actions. It’s those who feel the farthest away who are the closest. It’s those dead set on their unloveliness who are the lovely. It’s those made to feel bad because they don’t measure up who are called good by God in Christ.

Conclusion

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again
And I feel unsafe

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Unfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me[18]

Sia “Breathe Me”

It’s when I’m small when I experience the fullness of God surrounding me. It’s when I’m weak, when I give up, when I realize I have nothing, when I look around and see hopelessness, when I look deep into the mirror and know that I’m only a random collection of muscles, bones, sinew, and blood—nothing exceptional—that I need to be reminded by this tremendous love story between God and humanity that I’m worthy apart from what I can offer anyone else other than basic existence. It’s when I realize I don’t care for being exceptional (because that standard is so death dealing), that I rather prefer being loved for no other reason than just because and beyond what I can bring to the table. In the quiet of letting go, releasing my grip, giving into gravity, and falling, surrendering, I’m caught in the love of God manifest in Christ encountered in the Spirit. In that encounter, in hearing God’s love proclaimed to me again (and again) in word and deed, I’m unfolded, made warm, and comforted. In that moment everything becomes quite exceptional, I’m found, I’m saved, I’m reborn. I’m good.

Beloved, you do not need to prove yourself to God. You do not need to get your act together, strive for some abstract conception of perfection, kill yourself in a human made system thriving off of your livelihood, your energy, your quickly depleting spirit. You do not need to be exceptional by any human standard. That you exist—in that your being and your life is a huge miracle—you’re amazing. You are loved for no other reason than juts because. You. Are. Good.[19]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 670. “Thus, it is not simply that Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd; rather, the crowd itself is present as an obstacle to him. On account of their negative assessment of Zacchaeus (cf. v 7), the people refused him the privilege of seeing Jesus as he passed by. Whether short or young, then, Zacchaeus is presented as a person of diminutive status in Jericho, thus rendering him as a member of the unenviable association of the lowly…”

[4] Green, Luke,  668-669. “By way of analogy with other Lukan texts, however, it is clear that Zacchaeus is thus presented as a person of advanced status, even if only among other toll collectors. More specifically, as a ‘ruler’ in the Greco-Roman world Zacchaeus would have enjoyed relative power and privilege, though from the perspective of the Lukan narrative we would anticipate his opposing the mission of Jesus. That Zacchaeus is wealthy is emphasized within the narrative by its being enumerated separately, as a quality distinct from that of the others. Within the larger Greco-Roman world, possessing wealth was an ambiguous characteristic. Although wealth was required if one were to reach the upper echelons of nobility, how one got one’s wealth was equally determinative. Zacchaeus’s fortune was not ‘landed wealth’ but was the consequence of his own entrepreneurial activity; hence, it would not have qualified him for enviable status. Within the Lukan narrative, such ambiguity dissipates rapidly, since the wealthy are thus far repeatedly cast in a negative light. Most recently, Jesus had remarked on the impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (18:24-25).”

[5] Green, Luke, 669. “He is not interested merely in ‘seeing Jesus’ but wants to know ‘who Jesus is’ (cf. 10:21-22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy ‘ruler,’ however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness, to be sure, but is also a consequence of the crowd, which has positioned itself as a barrier to his endeavor.”

[6] Green, Luke, 667. “We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.”

[7] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.  505. “ALEJANDRO: ‘Other times we’ve seen Jesus against the rich, but here we see he wasn’t a prejudiced man or a fanatic. He chooses to stay in a rich man’s house without getting an invitation. He invites himself. Even when there were plenty of other places where he could stay, because there were swarms of people welcoming him.’”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “He is one more example of the lost that have been found.”

[9] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “I: ‘They don’t criticize that he’s gone to stay with a rich man but that he’s gone to stay with a sinner. This rich man belonged to the class that were then called ‘publicans,’ people who weren’t religious and who were despised by the Pharisees even though they were rich. You have to keep in mind that in that society … the ruling class wasn’t people that just had money, like Zacchaeus, but people that belonged to a religious caste which had money as well. The scandal is that Jesus has gone to stay with someone who isn’t religious, and it seems that’s why Jesus sent to his house.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “TOMAS: ‘People didn’t understand or even know what Jesus was looking for. They didn’t know his mystery. He was coming to save sinners, not to destroy them. That guy that was on the edge of the pit, he came to pull him back and set him on the good road.’”

[11] Green, Luke, 671. “Zacchaeus answers first, not with reference to behaviors or commitments that might mark him as acceptable according to standards developed heretofore—for example, fasting, praying, tithing (cf. 18:11-12), or even his choice of knowledge of the messages of John (esp. 3:10-14) and Jesus regarding economic justice and almsgiving. That is, he lists behaviors appropriate to those who have oriented themselves around the kingdom of God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 672. “According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as ‘Lord.’ Jesus’ reference to ‘salvation’ (v 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose ‘repentance’ lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing-and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined.”

[14] Green, Luke, 669. “On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a toll collector. Within the Greco-Roman world, he would have belonged to a circle of persons almost universally despised.”

[15] Gonzales, Luke, 221. “From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had clashed with those who presumed on their piety and their obedience to the law as guaranteeing their salvation, and insisted on a great reversal that would result in great joy at the conversion of sinners and the finding of what was lost.”

[16] Green, Luke, 670. “In this respect, Jesus’ use of the term ‘today’ is highly suggestive, since elsewhere in Luke’s narrative it is used to communicate the immediacy of salvation. Because of the association of ‘joy’ with news of divine intervention and salvation, that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus with joy (NRSV: ‘happy’) signifies genuine receptivity on the part of Zacchaeus, intimating that he is one who embraces the values and claims of the kingdom of God.” And, “Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices. Jesus assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.” 672.

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “Zacchaeus stands in contrast with the fool that thought his possessions were truly his, and with the ruler who was saddened because he wished to hold on to what he had. This story also corrects the sell all and give it to the poor. He decides to give to the poor half of his possessions-not all, as the ruler was told. He adds that, if any of his wealth is ill-gotten, he will repay it fourfold. Jesus accepts this as a true act of repentance, and announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

[19] Thank you to the podcast “You Are Good” discussing movies and feelings. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-are-good/id1527948382 The theme of this sermon was completely and totally inspired by the work they do. Thanks Sarah and Alex, you make this world better!

Solidarity in the Margins

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Psalm 65:4-5 4 Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.

Introduction

Have you every felt unworthy? Like, you weren’t good enough? As if other people, or the space, or the thing carried a demand for purity that you didn’t have? Like, maybe you should hang back, keep your distance, and look on from afar? Afraid? Scared that if someone saw you—really saw you—you’d be thrown out, rejected, ostracized, because you didn’t belong in that space, or with that group of people, or with that thing?

Caught in the muck and mire of feelings of being outcast and unacceptable, we hope Maybe one day I’ll be worthy, if I can just… (fill in the blank). Maybe we’ll be worthy when we finally achieve that certain level of perfection we’re sold on—some mythical conception of human existence that doesn’t actually exist. We’ve become convinced by brilliant marketing campaigns dependent on our desire for inclusion that there’s such a thing as “normal” and “regular” and that, somehow, we just don’t measure up. And we really want to measure up, to fit in, to be “normal” and “regular”, to be chosen and selected. But maybe I’m too fractured and broken to fit in…At times we find ourselves desperate to feel good about ourselves, so we elevate ourselves above others hoping that identification with the culture of the dominant group will put our fears at rest…at least I’m not that person over there…

Sadly, this always bleeds into our relationship with God. Does God really love me just because? Does God really need me? Want me? Choose me? It doesn’t help when the church and its leaders are also dead-set on the mythical notions of “normal” and “regular” peddled as “God’s will”. Bombarded on all sides, our doubt moves us farther and farther back. God is too much for us. So, we grow more and more afraid to come close, to be human—really human—in the presence of God, afraid to pray because we’re not good enough and don’t have the right words, afraid to approach because we’re impure, afraid to touch because our touch is unclean and cursed. So, we stand farther and farther and farther back…

Luke 18:9-14

And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… “…Now the tax collector having stood from afar not even willing to lift up [his] eyes to the heavens, but he was striking his breast, saying, ‘God, please show favor to me, a sinner.’ Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified…because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Luke 18:9, 13-14

Getting started, Luke tells us to whom Jesus addresses this parable: And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… The parable features two men: one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. Jesus tells the story featuring the Pharisee first: he goes in, stands by himself to maintain ritual purity, and prays. What follows is a litany of ways he is righteous: he is not like those sinners—the unjust extortioners, the adulterers, and this tax-collector—and performs his ritualistic duties—fasts on the sabbath and pays his tithe on all he has and gets. Next up, the tax-collector. The tax-collector stands far off refusing to lift up his eyes to heaven. All he can do is remorsefully beat his chest and plead for divine mercy because he is a sinner. Jesus wraps up the parable with a quick and short (and familiar): Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified more than that one, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.

It’s tempting to look at this short and clear parable and deduce the motto: don’t be like those bad Pharisees! Ironically, as soon as we do that we become the self-exalted one in the story.[2] It’s not about the Pharisee being bad. They aren’t “bad”, their the most religious of all the children of Israel; they loved God and God’s law, wished to be obedient to it, to study it, discuss it, and teach it.[3] It’s about Jesus up-righting upside-down systems, even religious ones.

Thus the parable is not a warning against being a hypocrite, but an exhortation to be as those who do not elevate themselves over others. It’s about those who stand far off because they know who they are—sinners, people who miss the mark, fail, stumble, tumble, and get back up. When the people expected those who are technically perfect[4] and can stand on their own to be declared righteous;[5] Jesus says the righteous are those who can’t stand on their own, who aren’t perfect and know it.[6] It is not about thinking oneself better than the rest because of your deeds, your status, your birth, your dogmas and doctrines; it’s about realizing exactly who you are.[7]

Even when you find yourself casting your eyes downward, standing far off for fear of being unable to fit in, for fear of not being accepted as you are, for fear of making others impure because of your impurity, you may find yourself a humble creature square in the presence of a Creator who adores you[8] and receiving the fullness of divine love, favor, and mercy.[9]

Conclusion

The parable is a paradox. The farther you back away, stand from a distance, the more you find yourself in God, accepted, loved, adored, cherished, as you are. That’s the reversal. It’s not those who are holy, pure, perfect, obedient, abiding the law at every turn who are closest to God, it’s actually the ones who are aware of how far they miss the mark who throw themselves on God’s mercy and lean into God’s love. It’s the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus dwells, it’s those who know God because they know themselves.[10]

The thing is, knowing who you are—faults and all, shame and all, vulnerability and all, weakness and all—the more you know who God is: the one who stands in solidarity with the outcasts, with you. God in Christ chooses, desires, and identifies with the outcasts, (literally!) those on the fringe, those on the margins, those who just don’t measure up and fit in. You are never too far away to be square in the middle of God.

I’ll close with a story from my favorite childhood novel, Black Beauty:[11]

“No doubt a horse fair is a very amusing place to those who have nothing to lose; at any rate, there is plenty to see.

“There was a great deal of bargaining; of running up and beating down, and if a horse may speak his mind so far as he understands, I should say, there were more lies told, and more trickery at that horse fair, than a clever man could give an account of. I was put with two or three other strong, useful-looking horses, and a good many people came to look at us. The gentlemen always turned from me when they saw my broken knees, though the man who had me swore it was only a slip in the stall.

“There was one man, I thought, if he would buy me, I should be happy. He was not a gentleman, nor yet one of the loud flashy sort that called themselves so. He was rather a small man, but well made and quick in all his motions. I knew in a moment by the way he handled me, that he was used to horses; he spoke gently, and his gray eye had a kindly, cheery look in it. It may seem strange to say—but it is true all the same—that the clean fresh smell there was about him made me take to him; no smell of old beer and tobacco, which I hated, but a fresh smell as if he had come out of a hayloft. He offered twenty-three pounds for me; but that was refused, and he walked away. I looked after him, but he was gone, and a very hard-looking, loud-voiced man came; I was dreadfully afraid he’d have me; but he walked off. One or two more came who did not mean business. Then the hard-faced man came back again and offered twenty-three pounds. A very close bargain was being driven; for my salesman began to think he should not get all he asked, and must come down; but just then the gray-eyed man came back again. I could not help reaching out my head towards him. He stroked my face kindly.

“‘Well, old chap,’ he said, ‘I think we should suit each other. I’ll give twenty-four him.’

“‘Say twenty-five and you shall have him.’

“‘Twenty-four ten,’ said my friend, in a very decided tone, ‘and not another sixpence—yes or no?’

“‘Done,’ said the salesman, ‘and you may depend upon it there’s a monstrous deal of quality in that horse, and if you want him for cab work, he’s a bargain.’

“The money was paid on the spot, and my new master took my halter, and led me out of the fair to an inn, where he had a saddle and bridle ready. He gave me a good feed of oats, and stood by whilst I ate it, talking to himself, and talking to me. Half-an-hour after, we were on our way to London, through pleasant lanes and country roads, until we came into the great London thoroughfare, on which we traveled steadily, till in the twilight, we reached the great City. The gas lamps were already lighted; there were streets to the right, and streets to the left, and streets crossing each other for mile upon mile. I thought we should never come to the end of them. At last, in passing through one, we came to a long cab stand, when my rider led out in a cheery voice, ‘Good night, Governor!’

“‘Halloo!’ cried a voice, ‘have you got a good one?’

“‘I think so,’ replied my owner.

“‘I wish you luck with him.’

“‘Thank ye, Governor,’ and he rode on. We soon turned up one of the side streets, and about half way up that, we turned into a very narrow street, with rather poor-looking houses on one side, and what seemed to be coach-houses and stables on the other.

“My owner pulled up at one of the houses and whistled. The door flew open, and a young woman, followed by a little girl and boy, ran out. There was a very lively greeting as my rider dismounted.

“‘Now then, Harry, my boy, open the gates, and mother will bring us the lantern.’

“The next minute they were all standing round me in a small stable yard.

“‘Is he gentle, father?’

“‘Yes, Dolly, as gentle as your own kitten; come and pat him.’

“At once the little hand was patting all over my shoulder without fear. How good it felt!

“‘Let me get him a bran mash while you rub him down,’ said the mother.

“‘Do, Poly, it’s just what he wants, and I know you’re got a beautiful mash ready for me.’

“‘Sausage dumpling and apple turnover,’ shouted the boy, which set them all laughing. I was led into a comfortable clean-smelling stall with plenty of dry straw, and after a capital supper, I lay down, thinking I was going to be happy.”


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 645. “Insofar as Luke’s audience will identify themselves with one or the other of these characters, then, Luke has structured this account so as to render the choices starkly and to ensure that the toll collector will be viewed, however paradoxically, as the positive model.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 212. “…in fact the Pharisees were among the most religious—sincerely religious—people in Israel. Their desire to be obedient to the law led them to study it assiduously, and to discuss how it ought to be interpreted and obeyed in all circumstances of life. Thus the parable is not about hypocrisy and sincerity but rather about the great reversal that is so clear throughout the Gospel of Luke.” and the reversal is religious!

[4] Green, Luke, 647. “Jesus’ portrayal of this Pharisee operates at two levels. On the one hand, he is engaged in and admits to behavior characteristic of Pharisees: praying, fasting, and tithing (5:33; 11:42). In and of themselves, these are admirable practices for which scriptural warrant is easily found….”

[5] Green, Luke, 646. “First, having become convinced of their own righteousness, they have come to depend on themselves. They are self-possessed, able, at least in their own minds, to live Honorably before God quite apart from divine mercy. On the other hand, they disdain others, their concerns with holiness manifested in the exclusion of others from their circles.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 212-213. “Both the Pharisee and the tax collector stand, one ‘by himself’ and the other ‘far off,’ One stands by himself so as not to be contaminated by others less pure than he. The other stands far off because he does not consider himself worthy. Yet, the one who stands far off is in fact nearer to God.”

[7] Green, Luke, 649. “Within his social world, the toll collector is a person of low status, a deviant; he has no place among the others, nor does he attempt to seize a place by asserting his honor. Averting his eyes, beating his breasts-these are demonstrations of humility and shame that are consistent with his request for divine favor.”

[8] Green, Luke, 649. “…One claims superior status for himself by comparing himself with and separating himself from others; the other makes no claims to status at all, but acknowledges his position as a sinner who can take refuge only in the beneficence of God. Convinced of his righteousness, dependent on his own acts of piety, one asks for and receives nothing from God. The other comes to God in humility and receives that for which he asks, compassion and restoration. Like other ‘sinners’ in the Third Gospel, he finds himself included among God’s people…”

[9]  Green, Luke, 643. “The basic issue is this: Who recognizes God as the gracious benefactor? Who are those who not only come to God openhandedly in trust and expectation, but also behave accordingly, with graciousness, toward others.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 213. “All that the Pharisee says he does he should be doing; and all he says he is not, he should not be…Jesus is not saying that people should not do what the Pharisee does (fasting and tithing) nor that they should become collaborators with the powerful and the ungodly, as tax collectors were. He is saying that, when the Pharisee uses his piety and religious practices to consider himself better than the tax collector, he will not be justified; and that even a tax collector who acknowledges his sin and his shortcomings will be justified. The reversal is that the one who brings piety, purity, and obedience, and who trusts in all these, is farther away from God than the one who simply brings misery, weakness, and dependence.”

[11] Anna Sewell Black Beauty New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950. Original Publication: UK: Jarrold & Sons, 1877. pp.180-185.

Know Story, Know Vision

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

Psalm 66:1-3 Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of God’s Name; sing the glory of God’s praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your Name.”

Introduction

Stories speak to us on many levels. This is not news. Humans are storied creatures: we write stories, tell stories, spread stories, cherish stories. There’s a weird assumption in our post-enlightenment context that everything valuable is fact—the things we can see and touch. Anything not fact isn’t worth our time. Thus, we’ve lost our stories; exchanged them for “reality” which will always wither away unto dust. We’ve surrendered our correspondence with myth and eternal substance to something far inferior: nothing.

Unlike phones and social apps, stories give us something when we succumb to their lure. I become wrapped up in the most wonderful of worlds unfamiliar to my own; I’m given glimpses of otherness that provokes to life longing and desire for that otherness; my vulnerability isn’t demanded in stories. It’s lovingly solicited through imagery and phantasy; I’m given space for atrophied emotional limbs tingling to life in resurrection without fear they’ll be consumed by another. In stories, I can just exist, carried and swept by words creating worlds unbefore seen and traveled. In a story I’m given a vision of something other than that tyrant reality. Without stories and myths, how else do I step into the potentiality of something else, something better?

Stories share in essence of eternal love. We may be handing over our storied natures, but that’s our loss. Stories will continue just as love continues, even if we opt out. Stories will exist long after we’re gone, resurrected into the midst of others willing to embrace this nature, vulnerable enough to dream and have visions. Stories will have the last word.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Luke 17:11-19

Now one of them, perceiving that he was healed, turned back and with a great voice he was praising God, and he fell upon his face before the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he, he was a Samaritan. Now Jesus answering him said, “By no means the ten men were made clean? But where are the nine? They are found not turning back to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And [Jesus] said to [the Samaritan], “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.”[1]

Luke 17:15-19

Luke is busy telling us another story. Jesus is traveling between[2] the regions of Samaria and Galilee headed to Jerusalem.[3] Luke wastes no time getting to the heart of the story: a group of ostracized and alienated lepers standing at a distance call out to Jesus, desperate in their plea for mercy, they, they lifted up a voice saying, ‘Jesus, master! Please have mercy on us! (v.13). These human beings—forced to uphold their own ostracization and alienation[4] (the men stood far off)—mustered all their hope that this one to whom they called would see, heal, and liberate them[5] from this divine curse.[6] They hoped that this one to whom they called was as God, able to show mercy.[7] How these lepers knew of Jesus is of no interest to Luke. The reality is, those who are alienated and ostracized know the one who stands in solidarity with them. These men know who this man was: Jesus, the master, the one of God.[8]

Jesus does not respond in the way the reader anticipates; he doesn’t go to them and heal them in some material fashion or declare they’re healed.[9] He just…looked upon them and said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The men respond as if they’ve been healed and made clean,[10] and then they are healed[11]And it happened as they were going way they were made clean. All ten believed Jesus, demonstrated by active response to go show themselves to the priests and nine of these continue to obey even after noticing healing.[12] These nine will return to their villages and families; the tenth now-former-leper—and Samaritan—will disobey Jesus, forgo his desired reunions because he perceived he’s been made clean, and in seeing he is redeemed,[13]—ushered into and included in the coming kingdom of God.[14] Again, those who know alienation and exclusion know radical liberation and inclusion; this Samaritan was not only healed of leprosy but brought in close to and by God in Christ as a Samaritan.[15]

Thus the former-leper Samaritan man returns, praising God with a great voice, falling prostrate before Jesus in all submission consumed with utmost gratitude.[16] Jesus’s response? Rise and go. Your faith has saved you. He who was lost is now found; he who was abandoned is now cherished; he who was shunned is now counted among the beloved. He who was deprived of participation in a story and relegated to the shadows of human existence stripped of vision, now walks illuminated by the light of God carrying (once again) this most precious gift: a story of liberation and a vision of restoration and inclusion as a result of divine encounter.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Conclusion

We’ve been given a gift in being storied creatures, those who create and share stories. Yet it seems we are doing our darndest to drown these stories, to ignore them, dismiss them, and consider them childish. In dismissing our own stories, we inherently reject the stories of other peoples or reject the peoples who have stories. And we have done so violently, forcing peoples different from us not only to abandon their stories but to relinquish their vision. And only so that we can own them and their land as a commodity for our consumption. A people who only consumes confesses not only their lack of story but also their lack of vision; they confess they are of death and not of life.

But stories will always have the last word. Just as the former-leper Samaritan man carries a story and a vision no one can take from him, so too do those who have stories today. And if a people have a story, they have a vision; and if they have these they are a force for life—their life as well as the lives of others. These will find strength in their spirits and support from the ground under their feet as they travel the hard way of love resisting the tyranny of alienation and ostracization, of othering and domination, and sure death of the leprosy of consumption.

Ancient One (Told by Bearwalker)[17]

“Ancient one sat in the shade of his tree in front of his cave. Red People came to him and he said to Red People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Red People answered, ‘The elders have told us to pray in this manner, and that manner, and I is important that only we pray as we have been taught for this has been handed down to us by the elders.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Black People came to him and he said to Black People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Black People answered, ‘Our mothers have said to go to this building and that building and pray in this manner and that manner. And our fathers have said to bow in this manner and that manner when we pray. And it is important that we do only this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Yellow People came to him and he said to Yellow People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Yellow Peole answered, ‘Our teachers have told us to sit in this manner and that manner and to say this thing and that thing when we pray. And it is important that we do only this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“The White People came to him and he said to White People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And White People answered, ‘Our Book has told us to pray in this way and that way and to do this thing and that thing, and it is very important that we do this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Ancient One spoke to the Earth and said, ‘Have you given the people a vision?’ And Earth said, ‘Yes, a special gift for each one, but the people were so busy speaking and arguing about which way is right they could not see the gift I gave each one of them.’ And the Ancient one asked the same question of Water and Fire and Air and got the same answer.

“Then Ancient One asked Animal, and Bird, and Insect, and Tree, and Flower, and Sky, and Moon, and Sun, and Stars, and all of the other Spirits and each told him the same. Ancient One thought this was very sad. He called Red People, Black People, Yellow People, and White People to him and said to them, ‘The ways taught to you by your Elders, and your Mothers and Father, and Teachers, and Books are sacred. It is good that your respect those ways, for they are the ways of your ancestors. But the ancestors no longer walk on the Face of the Earth Mother. You have forgotten your own Vision. Your Vision is right for you but no one else. Now each of you must pray for your own Visions, and be still enough to see them, so you can follow the way of the heart. It is a hard way. It is a good way.’”

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Green, Luke, 622. “…traveling ‘along the border between’ Galilee and Samaria renders ambiguous the identity of any persons Jesus might meet along the way. Without taking away from the pivotal, startling identification of one of these lepers as a Samaritan in v 16, this allows for the possibility of interaction m a non-Jew.”

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 204. “In any case, the reference is Luke’s way of reminding us that Jesus is still on his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. It also provides the background for the story itself, in which a Samaritan plays an important role.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 204-205. “The worst part of being a leper was often not the disease itself, but the ostracism it entailed. The law of Israel made this very clear: ‘Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous’ (Num. 5:2) Furthermore, the lepers themselves were made responsible for the enforcement of such ostracism, announcing their condition to any who might approach them: ‘The person who has the leprous disease, shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean’ (Lev. 13:45-46). To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but also to be cast out from family and society.”

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “On the other hand, a leper was not without hope. Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[6] Green, Luke, 623. “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating social disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.”

[7] Green, Luke, 623. “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers Place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[8] Green, Luke, 623. “When used elsewhere in the Third Gospel ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here. Of course, this begs, the questions, (1) How did these ten lepers know Jesus by name, and (2) How did they know him to be an agent of miraculous power?”

[9] Green, Luke, 624. “In this case, though Luke has not yet provided his audience with any notation about their being cleansed. Jesus nevertheless refers the ten lepers to their priests, who, presumably, would be able to confirm their cure.”

[10] Green, Luke, 624. “Acting on Jesus directive, the lepers are cleansed. Luke uses the normal word to describe the recovery from a leprous condition, ‘to be made clean.’ The same term appears in v 17, but other words are found in vv 15 and 19—‘to be healed’ and ‘to be saved’—and all follow as a consequence of the request of the ten lepers for divine mercy. The collocation of these terms both accents the benefit conferred and draws on the reality that, in this social situation, the condition of leprosy was viewed in holistic terms fully embracing human existence in its physical, spiritual, and psychosocial unity. In this setting ‘cleansing’ would denote forgiveness, physical recovery, and restoration, and all of this as a gift of God to be recognized by the community of God’s people.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “…one notes that Jesus does not immediately heal the ten lepers. He merely tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, as if they were already healed. Significantly, all ten have enough faith to heed his word even while they are not yet healed. It is along the way to see the priests that they are healed.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “Upon noticing that they are indeed healed, one returns to thank Jesus, and the other nine continue along their way to healing and to restoration to their communities. We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[13] Green, Luke, 627. “Here, something more than healing must be intended, since (1) the efficacy of faith is mentioned and (2) all ten lepers experienced cleansing. The Samaritan was not only cleansed, but on account of faith gained something more—namely, insight into Jesus’ role in the inbreaking kingdom. He is enabled to see and is thus enlightened, itself a metaphor for redemption.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “But the oddball among these ten, upon discovering that he has been healed, postpones his visit to the priests and returns to thank Jesus. In so doing, he is disobeying Jesus (or at least postponing his obedience), who had told him to go before the priests. But even more, by his very act of gratitude he is postponing his restoration to his family and community. In a way, his actions are an application of what Jesus said earlier, about not loving ‘father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,’ above him and the new community of the kingdom.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 206. “All ten were outcasts because of their leprosy. This one is doubly an outcast, for he is a Samaritan. The one who has healed him, Jesus, is a member of the Jewish community, which despises Samaritans. One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper. Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[16] Green, Luke, 624-625. “‘Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority: it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and honoring Jesus with gratitude follow immediately from Jesus’ gracious answer to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Unknown Author. Ancient One (Told by Bearwalker). https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Ancient-One-Unknown.html

Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 3:21-23 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.

Introduction

If you’ve been in Christendom long enough you’ve heard the faith the size of a mustard seed exhortation. Various forms of itinerant faith healers, gospel preachers, and downright charlatans prey on the gullibility of humanity through the proclamation of material promises of radical healing if you believe just really really believe and abundant prosperity if you give just really really give all you have. The declarations and exhortations are couched in terms of just believe and you will receive; sadly, few received that for which they staked their livelihood. Many people have been led a long a treacherous path ending in despair and spiritual demise.

I wish you knew how angry I get when I hear stories of spiritual abuse such as this. People bombarded with accusations of not enough faith because they never saw the fulfillment of prayers. The material failure of the prayer renders the one praying in a state of personal condemnation (why can’t I have enough faith? What’s wrong with me?) and angry at God (what kind of God would do this? Why would a loving God make things so impossible?). This combination of condemnation and anger produces spiritual despair leading to rejecting God.

It makes sense to me. When I hear these stories, I don’t blame the person for giving up faith in that god. Ditching that god is the best choice. That god is slavery and captivity, forever demanding you play monkey games to earn your desired reward (God’s love!). The world would be better without this god. In these instances, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite short stories by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parable of the Madman. In this short story, a madman hollers in the market place, “‘I seek God!’ I seek god!’”[1] Met with mocking jeers and jeering mockery by passersby,

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eye. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this?”[2]

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

The accusation is delivered; the question is never answered. The reader is left with that dual gift. We are left with that dual gift as the dawn of realization unfolds upon us in the wake of story upon story of spiritual trauma: we have woefully misrepresented God, recreated God in our own image, forgetting we are created in God’s image.

Luke 17:5-10

Now the apostles said the Lord, “Please add faith to us!”[3] But the Lord said, “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”[4]

Luke 17:5-6

Luke has some more fun things up his story-telling sleeve. Our gospel passage is a collection of odd statements—the heading in the NSRV bible translation literally reads: “Some Sayings of Jesus.” Sadly, and once again, our lectionary has jumped the bridge; and within the bridge is the key: woe to those who cause sinful stumbling for that fate is worse than stumbling (vv. 1-2),[5] and you must forgive, forgive, forgive… (vv. 3-4).[6] In these few verses the disciples are warned:[7] don’t become a stumbling block to anyone especially in terms of being unforgiving.[8]

This is heavy; heavier than they have been. See, Jesus is eager to teach his disciples all that he can for the end is approaching and these moments are some of the last moments before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The disciples are coming up against the long, hard journey continuing on with the coming of God’s kingdom…without Jesus.[9] Thus the exhortation not to be a stumbling block and to be forgiving as often as possible are the very tools that will assist the disciples on their daily and continued practice when their good Rabbi is gone.[10]

Herein lies the plea of the apostles, “Please add faith to us!” Now, doesn’t that exclamation make more sense? The disciples feel the weight of Jesus’s exhortations; they know it’s impossible to walk that narrow pathway! The disciples know that others will stumble because of them—they aren’t perfect; they know human nature and the inability therein to forgive those who hurt them, and repeatedly—they themselves carry anger and resentment![11] So, these humble human beings do the only thing they know to do: throw themselves at the mercy of God, Give us more faith, Lord!!

The very next thing Jesus says in reply to the plea is: “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”

Big Bang Theory Panic GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Herein is the problem: taken out of context it sounds as if Jesus is imploring them to have more faith thus indicating that they don’t have enough faith. But, take a step back and look at what Jesus is saying: it’s ridiculous. It’s an impossible solution to an impossible demand. Both forgiving seven times every day for the rest of your life is a weighty task, demanding faith, even more than verbally uprooting a sycamore tree and making it plant and root itself in the sea.[12] Therein is the resolution: it’s not about the disciples lacking anything; it’s about the disciples realizing who they are: the beloved of God; and realizing who God is: Love.

Here, look at the next story, a parable about a master and slave. I know this parable falls coarsely on our ears, but stay with me. Culturally and historically[13] the master would not ask the slave to come in and dine at the table after working the fields and herds; the slave, according to this parable, would expect to continue with their duties—serve the master.[14] As with the slave, so to the disciples: they are expected to do what they are expected to do, nothing more and nothing less.[15] And they are to do it humbly—faults and all—in the spirit of love and forgiveness as they have been loved and forgiven.[16] This isn’t about great, big, heroic heavenly acts of faith demonstrating one’s power over the divine; rather, it’s about miniscule, small, unheroic, earthly acts of faith informed by humility, mercy, kindness, justice, peace, and love in submission to this God of love.[17] The disciples need not extra faith; they just need to do faithfully[18] what they can with what they have leaning (hard) into the love of God made known in Christ in their hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.[19]

Conclusion

We’ve killed God, Nietzsche isn’t wrong. We’ve taken God’s self-disclosed image and ran it through the mud forcing it into forms and fittings unsuited for such beauty. We’ve conformed God into our image, reduced God to our desires, rendered God’s word in service to our words. We’ve even framed our self-composed deeds of ownership over the doctrines of God, declaring to many in unnegotiable terms who and what God is, what God wills, whom God condemns; and we’ve crushed people, desperate, hungry lovers of God rendered to ashes in our outrage over and adherence to being right. All of it cloaked in the tyranny of religiosity.[20] How many have been wounded, harmed, victimized, oppressed, and traumatized because of this tendency to make God some object under human determination? How many people have been driven from God because of self-righteous claims? How many people can’t imagine a loving God because we’ve turned God into a cruel despot?

But there’s good news, paradoxically, in Nietzsche’s accusation: God is only dead as long as we keep misrepresenting God. If we, humbly follow Jesus the Christ—God’s baptized representative[21]—by loving others, showing mercy, granting forgiveness, confessing error and fault, embracing our humanity and the humanity of others by participating in liberation and justice, we can let Nietzsche’s madman find whom he seeks: God.[22] So, remember whose you are; remember you are born of love; in remembering this, you can’t help but bring that love into the world. Thus, God will cease being dead, and those who seek God will find God.

To all of you who hurt, nurse wounds, hide scars; to all of you who are afraid to speak, to ask questions, to push back for fear of punishment; to all of you who were and still are traumatized from an early age by images of wrath and hellfire; to all of you who became convinced that you were not enough, unworthy, unwelcome, and unloved for being unique in anyway, standing outside of the status-quo… I’m sorry. None of that is God, was God, will be God; that God is dead. It was all a sham anyway, created by human beings cloaked in fancy colors and robes drunk on their own power and image.

God loves you—not another version of you that’s cleaner, better, happier, or whatever—God loves you…as you are, right now, faults and all. God needs no great work of faith from you to earn God’s love—you cannot earn God’s love, it’s yours right now even if you are not ready to receive it. God loves you—always has, always will—and that’s all you need.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science “Parable of the Madman” Trans Walter Kaufman. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House, 1974. 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] aorist active imperative second person, addressed to a superior (polite command). The aorist imperative carries the emphasis on the action as a whole rather than a continuation of an action from now into the future. Thus, we could look at it as a request for the faith that is needed (full stop); rather than give us some faith and keep giving us faith for a period of time.

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The warning is that, even though people will continue to stumble, any who become a stumbling block for others bear a responsibility even greater than the ones who stumble.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. Be on your guard (vv.3-4), “On the basis of the preceding, it is a warning that the disciples are in danger of becoming stumbling blocks to ‘these little ones’….But the possible stumbling block on which Jesus focuses is unwillingness to forgive.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The first saying (w. 1-2) places the rest in their proper setting. It is a warning to the disciples.”

[8] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 612. “Disciples are to be on their guard against a mindset that works against justice and compassion for the ‘little ones,’ but also against dispositions that obstruct the restoration of sinners to community.”

[9] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 199 “What Luke is stressing in this entire section is the continued life of discipleship. Forgiveness must then be not only unlimited, but also daily and repeated. It is a continued practice rather than a magnanimous action.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “But for the time being, in the last stages of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he is preparing his disciples for the continuous, lifelong trek after him, carrying crosses and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “…’Increase our faith!’ Read in the context of the foregoing, this points to the wise recognition that what Jesus is demanding of them is impossible. Forgiving even our worst offenders seven times a day? That would take much faith indeed! Hence the disciples’ request.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. “Then, given the context in which the saying appears in Luke, there is still another possible interpretation. Jesus has just commanded them to do the impossible: to forgive others seven times, and then to do it all over again the next day. The disciples ask for more faith in order to be able to obey this injunction. Jesus recognizes that what he is asking of his disciples is difficult and requires much faith, even more faith than would be necessary to command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the middle of the sea. This last interpretation would then lead into the fourth and last of the sayings in this section, which has to do with the impossibility and yet the need to obey the Master in all things.”

[13] Green, Luke, 614. “In this instance, the parable turns on the observation that a slave who is simply completing his work does not by doing so place his master under any obligation to reward him in some way. That is, the absurdity Jesus outlines draws on a particular, taken-for-granted social script apparent to ancient readers but easily missed by many contemporary ones. In this script, ‘thanks’ would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his mater’s patron? Of course not!”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. Begins with a ridiculous proposition. “The parable begins by focusing on a slaves master Apparently, this is a fairly small household, in which a single slave is expected first to work in the fields—‘plowing or tending sheep’—and then top prepare the master’s meal and serve him. In that setting, the slave returning form the fields would not expect the master to feed him on the contrary, he knows that he must now prepare food for the master and serve him. This is no more than would expected of the slave, and the master would not even thank him for doing it.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 202-203. “The point then is that all that a slave can do for a master is no more than is his due, and that the same is true of the disciples. Going back to the beginning of this series of sayings, this would mean that, even when the disciples have forgiven someone seven times daily, and done this day after day, they have done no more than is expected of them.”

[16] Green, Luke, 613. “Elsewhere Luke speaks of the daily demands of discipleship…by collocating ‘daily’ with forgiveness ‘seven times’ he points to the need to forgive as a matter of course and ‘without limit.’ To do so is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the merciful God…”

[17] Green, Luke, 613. “In each case, ‘faith’ is not so much a possession as a disposition: Faith leads to faithful behavior; lack of faith leads to anxiety and fear…If for Luke faith manifests itself in faithfulness, then the request of Jesus’ followers, ‘give us faith,’ is tantamount to saying, ‘Make us faithful people!’”

[18] Green, Luke, 614-615. “…Jesus opposes any suggestion that obedience might be construed as a means to gain honor, or that one might engage in obedience in order to receive a reward. Remembering those in need with justice and compassion, working for the restoration of the sinner into the community of God’s family…—practices of this nature are simply the daily fare of discipleship. Extraordinary in no way, neither do they provide the basis for status advancement with the community.”

[19] Gonzalez, Luke, 203. “Taken together, these four sayings are both an indictment and a word of grace, both law and gospel. They set impossible standards. They show how faulty all human discipleship is, yet they also free the slave—and the disciples—from the burden of believing that one can do all that is expected, and therefore should somehow earn God’s love by means of absolute obedience. one could easily apply to them Luther’s saying to the effect that the law is like lighting striking a tree: it kills the three, and yet it makes it branches point skyward.”

[20] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “Too often we Christians are so self-assured in our righteousness, in our orthodox beliefs and in our certainty on what it is that God wills that we convince ourselves that we have reason not to forgive those whose beliefs, lifestyle, or understanding of the will of God differ from ours. We know that this is uncharitable; yet we justify it by our adherence to the true faith, or to the straight and narrow. In so doing we may well be precisely the sort of stumbling block that Jesus is talking about in this passage. And we would do well to heed the words about the millstone!”

[21] Dorothee Sölle Christ The Representative: An Essay in Theology after the ‘Death of God’ Trans. David Lewis. London, England: SCM Press LTD, 1967. German original: stellvertretung—Ein Kapitel Theologie nach dem ‘Tode Gottes’ Kreuz Verlag, 1965.,132. “Christ represents the absent God so long as God does not permit us to see himself. For the time being Christ takes God’s place, stands in for the God who no longer presents himself to us directly, and who no longer brings us into his presence in the manner claimed by earlier religious experience. Christ holds the place of this now absent God open for him in our midst. For without Christ, we should have to ‘sack’ the God who does not show up, who has left us.”

[22] Sölle, Representative, 133-134. “But in view of this hope, what Nietzsche calls the ‘death of God’, the fact ‘that the highest values are devalued’, is in fact only the death of God’s immediacy—the death of his unmediated first form, the dissolving of a particular conception of God in the consciousness. It is therefore unnecessary for Christ to counter Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God by affirming a naïve consciousness of God. If the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is simply a tedious exchange of affirmative and negative statements, it is certainly not Christ who speaks in this way. To assert that God ‘is’ is no answer to the contemporary challenge, for Nietzsche does not in fact assert that God ‘is not’. His madman does not announce the commonplace wisdom of an atheism which imagines it has something to say objectively about the existence or non-existence of a supreme supernatural being. Unlike the multitude of the sane, Nietzsche’s madman goes about saying, ‘I seek God’. Nietzsche is no more concerned with God, as he is ‘in himself’, than the Christian faith is. This God ‘in himself’ is dead, is no more an object directly present to the consciousness, Nietzsche is concerned with the God who lives for us and with us. His madman mourns the manifest inactivity of God, but the thought of denying God’s reality does not occur to him. Yet this inactivity is taken seriously and at the same time transformed when someone who is conscious of it (but has the hope which resists this consciousness) stands in for God. When the inactive God is provisionally represented, then the two experiences—of the death of God and of faith in Christ’s resurrection—are present simultaneously to join battle as to what is real.”

Common Sense Interrupted

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Psalm 91:1-2 1[They] who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, abide under the shadow of the Almighty. [They] shall say to God, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

Introduction

Here’s a friendly reminder: common sense is common. Common sense is derived from experience in the world, the perception of natural law, and the narratives and stories handed down from one generation to another. Common sense is informed by geographic location, cultural expression, moral sensitivities, and subjective experience turned localized objective fact correlated to and within the life of a group (thus, common). Common sense isn’t universal; common sense doesn’t have to be correct. It’s just common, agreed upon.

What’s common sense on the Front Range isn’t common sense here in the Western Slope. What’s common sense in America isn’t common sense in England. What’s common sense for kids, isn’t common sense for adults. And whatever is common sense for teenagers will always only be common sense to them. *chuckles

For instance, if I said, it’s common sense that every preteen girl start cotillion, you might look at me: huh? But for anyone raised in Southern Connecticut that’s very common, and many of us little girls were forced into patent leather shoes and ill-fitting dresses stumbling through waltzes against our will because it was common sense to do so. In our western context, it’s common sense to go to college right out of high school; but in other contexts around the world it might not be. If you ever want to see the limit of “common sense” read ancient medical texts and what they say about bodies presenting as female. That’s a completely what-in-the-world experience. If you’d like a disturbing way “common sense” has been employed, look no further than our history and slavery and segregation; within the world, genocides are conducted using the same metric.

These days I find myself growing weary with feeble attempts to appeal to common sense in order to stop violence in our society. I find myself asking, what if violence *is* common sense? What if oppression *is* common sense? What if working ourselves to death *is* common sense? What if our growing isolation and alienation from each other *is* common sense?

And then I find myself asking another question: what if we need uncommon sense, something from outside of us, something other, some interruption to our “common sense”?

Luke 16:19-31

Now [the rich man] said, “Therefore, I am requesting you, father, to send [Lazarus] to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, so that he may declare solemnly to them in order that they, they might not also come into the same place of torment. But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; they must listen (completely) to them.” But [the rich man] said, “By no means, father Abraham, but if one from the dead were to go to them they will change their mind.” But [Abraham] said to him, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither then will they be persuaded by one raised up out of the dead.”[1]

Luke 16:27-31

If you’re feeling targeted with Luke’s stories and Jesus’s parables articulating the demise of the rich and powerful, just remember he wrote this to the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). So, imagine being that guy receiving this text.

The lectionary skips over vv. 14-18 of chapter 16. Those verses bridge how a disciple of Christ uses mammon for the glory of the kingdom of God for others and our gospel passage. That bridge is: what’s prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God (v. 15, NRSVUE). The Pharisees who’ve been listening to Jesus teachings are offended at Jesus’s parables. Why wouldn’t they be? Jesus’s parables interrupt their common sense; his words intercept their conceptions of the law, humanity, the world, blessedness, and God. Where the Pharisees saw themselves as superior, of a higher social ranking, more favored and blessed by God than the average lay person,[2] Jesus articulated a radically reversed social order in God and redefined favor and blessedness. Leaning hard into the Law and the Prophets, Jesus flips the hierarchy and declares: now! it’s right side up![3]

So, Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is a continuation of this theme started with the dishonest about-to-be-former house-manager. Jesus mentions two men: one rich defined by his daily habits of feasting and the wearing purple;[4] the other poor, covered in many sores (divine curse[5]), with street mongrel dogs coming to feast on him, worsening his degradation.[6] Interestingly, the rich man is deprived of a name while the poor man, covered in sores, has a name, Lazarus (“God’s Help”). In human society, the rich and powerful are known by name while the poor and powerless are deprived of names—the unclean are unknown, and unseen, even when they lie at one’s gate.[7] Here, however, Jesus inaugurates a great reversal: what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.[8]

When both men die and go to Hades (the realm of the dead for all)[9], the reversal is heightened. Lazarus, the poor man with sores is whisked away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, while the nameless rich man—he is not evil, he is just rich[10]—is left to exist in torment (ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις). As the rich man’s pain and suffering consumes him, he calls out to Abraham requesting Lazarus serve him some water and then go witness to his brothers so that they don’t end up where he is. Abraham denies both requests. The first one is denied because the distance is too great between the two men—a great space has been fixed firmly. The second request is denied because, well, it won’t make a difference if one out of the dead is raised up, they will not be persuaded.

Ugh. Neither signs nor wonders will convince these brothers—that doesn’t make sense!; they’re too consumed with and by the things of their world to change their mind (repent). Not even the dead raised again will alter their trajectory. They won’t believe because it goes against everything they hold to be true: the rich are the blessed of God; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Both their experience and power run in opposition to the kingdom of God, clearly and boldly articulated in, to quote Abraham, Moses and the Prophets. However, if the rich man’s brothers can read the testament—the scrolls of Torah and Nevi’im—and walk away unchanged, there’s no proof on this side of earth that’ll cause them to change their mind.[11]

Because…

Get this…

Why would there be change? The rich man (himself) still doesn’t get it. In Hades, being tormented, among the dead, faced with the vision of Abraham and Lazarus resting on his bosom—literally experiencing the divine reversal—there’s no change of heart, no alteration of mind, no acknowledgement that he got it wrong (he’s still ordering Lazarus about[12] and arguing with Abraham from his assumed position of privilege[13]). If this man hasn’t experienced his wake-up call, his brothers will not do so either, no matter how big the sign and wonder.[14]

Because it’s not common sense.[15]

Conclusion

Our common sense needs to be checked. While it helps us navigate our world (to some extent), it also helps us to remain blind, deaf, and dumb to the problems of our society. Solely relying on it and never checking it, will lead us further into our captivity and complicity in social structures causing us to ignore those whom God loves, those whom God declares blessed. In fact, in coming here every Sunday our common sense is set on a definite collision course with God’s uncommon sense; here you are guaranteed to be confronted, common sense shook with the echoes of Mary’s declarations in Luke 1,[16]

“God has shown strength with his arm;
    God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has come to the aid of God’s child Israel,
    in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:51-55, NRSVUE

Do we believe this? If so, we must let common sense go by the wayside and dare to embrace the uncommon sense of God so articulated by Mary—where the rich and powerful are cast down and made low. Are we listening? Really listening? No longer can we declare those who have in abundance are the blessed. If we’re hearing things rightly, we have to say: blessed are you who are poor, hungry, thirsty, broken down, exhausted, oppressed, barely breathing for God is with you and will lift you up. If our eyes are opened by the proclamation of Christ, we can no longer trust in our storehouses of goods or our positions of power; we must do away with the seductiveness of a prosperity gospel.[17] For these are our creations built on shifting sands of our common sense and are antagonistic to the will of God.

What is the will of God? Jesus has shown us: to walk humbly, liberate the captives, love mercy, justice, and peace. Today and every Sunday, Beloved, we are lovingly interrupted and intercepted by profound and ancient stories declaring God’s love, not only for us but for those our society declares unlovely. From Genesis to Revelation, let us hear the stories of God’s radical break with what was and God’s ushering in of something new, something wonderful, something completely uncommon.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 193-194. “According to Luke, there is a connection between the Pharisees love of money and their ridiculing Jesus. This is a significant insight. Theological positions and religious opinions are not entirely disconnected from economic interests and agendas. The Pharisees consider themselves better than the ‘sinners and tax collectors’ in part because they think they belong to a ‘better’ social class. … The Pharisees seek to justify themselves ‘in the sight of others’ by claiming that what Jesus teaches is ridiculous. Jesus tells them that God sees things differently than do humans.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 194. “Jesus’ general response to the ridicule of the Pharisees, both directly beginning in verse 15, and by means of a parable beginning in verse 19, is to insist that what he is teaching is in full agreement with the Law and the Prophets.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “Roman law codified who had the right to wear purple, at that time a very expensive dye. Thus the original hearers and readers of this parable would understand that the rich man was sufficiently respected to merit this particular honor, and also indirectly that he had achieved this with the approval of Roman authorities. He an important, respected person—which immediately reminds us of what Jesus has just said in verse 14, that ‘What is prized by human beings is an aberration in the sight of God.’ He is so rich that he has sumptuous feasts, not only on special occasions, but every day.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 605 “In contrast with the wealthy man, the clothes Lazarus wore receive no mention. Instead, we are told, he is covered with sores condition that undoubtedly marked him as unclean. The term used in his description suggests that Lazarus would even have been regarded as suffering from divine punishment. In familiar to us from the common theology of Job’s friends, surely the wealthy man is blessed by God while Lazarus lives under the divine curse.”

[6] Green, Luke, 606 “Although we may be tempted to think of the dogs of Jesus’ story in sentimental terms, we should rather imagine pariahlike mongrels that roamed the outskirts of town in search of refuse. These curs have not come to ‘lick his wounds’ (as we would say), but to abuse him further and, in the story, to add one more reason for us to regard him as less than human, unclean, through-and-through an outcast.”

[7] Green, Luke, 605. “The rich man is depicted in excessive, even outrageous terms, while Lazarus is numbered among society’s ‘expendables,’ a man who had fallen prey to the ease with which, even in an advanced agrarian society, persons without secure landholdings might experience devastating downward mobility.”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “But the parable does not give the man’s name. This is significant as one more of Luke’s many examples of the great reversal Normally, it is important people who have a name. They have recognition. They are somebody. But in the parable the rich and apparently important man has no name, and the poor and insignificant man does. From the very beginning of the parable, Jesus is illustrating what he has just said, that ‘what is prized ne sight of God.’ The very name ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God’s help’; and the parable will show that this is indeed the case.”

[9] Green, Luke, 607. “Both Lazarus and the wealthy man are apparently in Hades, though segregated (“far away from each other. Thus, while Lazarus is in a blissful state, numbered with Abraham, the wealthy ma experiences Hades as torment and agony. This portrait has many analogues in contemporary Jewish literature, where Hades is represented as the universal destiny of all humans, sometimes with the expected outcome of the final judgment already mapped through they separation of person into wicked or righteous categories.”

[10] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 422. “I: ‘Christians usually believe that the good rich man is saved and only the bad rich man is condemned. But that’s not what is said here. The rich man isn’t called evil, he’s just called rich.’”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 197-198. “Jesus is telling his hearers, who are lovers of money, that they do not need special signs or wonders to know what they are to do. They have the Law and the Prophets, which are firmer and more durable than both heaven or earth (17). He is also telling them that their love of money prevents them from truly listening to the Law and the Prophets. At the end of the parable, when the rich man wants Lazarus to be sent to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have ‘Moses and the prophets,’ and that this should be enough for them. When the man insists that they would repent and do right ‘if someone goes to them from the dead,’ Abraham replies that this is not so. If they are not willing to obey Moses and the prophets, they will still remain disobedient ‘even if someone rises from the dead.’ In other words, there is no miracle capable of leading to faith and obedience when one has vested interests and values that one places above obedience to God, such as “the love of money” of the Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 196. “Even after such a reversal of fortunes, the rich man considers himself more important than Lazarus, whom he wants sent, first to him, and then to his brothers.”

[13] Green, Luke, 609. “Abraham thus refuses to grant an apocalyptic revelation of the fate of the dead, insisting that the witness of Moses and the prophets should suffice. The wealthy man, accustomed to extra considerations, will not take No for answer. Continuing to speak from his supposed position of privilege, the wealthy man insists that for his family, more is needed, that a special envoy is required.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof is an excess of other interests and investments—of time, money, dreams, and so on.”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 424. “I: ‘It seems to me that Jesus’ principal message is that the rich aren’t going to be convinced even with the Bible, not even with a dead man coming to life (and not even with Jesus’ resurrection).’”

[16] Gonzalez, Luke, 197. “Such an interpretation, while perhaps helpful, misses the point of the great reversal that is so central to the Gospel of Luke. The parable is not only about a rich man who ignored the poor, but also about the rich man ending up in poverty, and the poor man in abundance. The man who had daily feasts now goes not even have water to cool his tongue. The one whose sores had been licked by unclean dogs, and who therefore was not even worthy to be counted among the faithful children Abraham, is now in the bosom of Abraham. Once again we hear echoes of Mary’s song: ‘He has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (1:52-35).”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “But the truth is exactly the opposite: the rich man is accursed, and Lazarus is blessed. So much for the ‘gospel of prosperity’ that many find so attractive today! It may be as weak a reed as the rich man’s trust in his riches.”

Whom Do You Serve?

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

Psalm 79:8-9 Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us; for we have been brought very low. Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name; deliver us and forgive us our sins, for your Name’s sake.

Introduction

Have you ever tried to do two things at once…well? Data tells us we cannot multitask as well as we think we can. We can text; we can drive. But we cannot text and drive. The advent and surge of smart phones exposed our inability to be the expert multitaskers that we thought we were. We can’t do two different things at once and do them both well.

I can read; I can listen to music with lyrics. But everything goes haywire if I try to listen to music with lyrics while I’m reading. I can have a conversation; I can write. But woe to the reader who reads anything I’ve written while trying to manage a conversation. I can chop veggies really fast; I can look at someone while their talking to me. But pray for my fingers if I try to do both!

We are complex beings in our inner world and rather simple in our material existence. We cannot go in two directions. No matter how hard I try—and believe me, I’d love the ability to go in two directions at once—I cannot do it. I can go this way or that way, but I cannot go both ways at once. I must say yes to one and no to another.

As a priest called from the people for the people, I made a vow to serve the people in and with the Love of God; I can’t now also vow to serve myself. In other words, I can’t now vow to serve myself and my inanimate material things if my vow is to serve the people. I must switch the vow, move it from one to another but I cannot vow to both. I can either serve my robes and stoles, table and elements, or I can serve the people those things are for; I cannot serve both. I can serve my doctrines and dogmas, rules and rubrics, canons and councils or I can serve the people God has called me to; I cannot serve both. Every clergy person from deacon to presiding bishop must make this choice; there’s no way around it. One “master” will win out every time.

Regularly, I must ask myself: Whom do you serve?

Luke 16:1-13

Whoever [is] faithful in very little is [faithful] in much, and whoever [is] unjust in very little is [unjust] in much. Therefore, if you did not become faithful in the unjust mammon [riches/property/possessions], who will believe you for the genuine riches? And if you did not become faithful in the belongings of another, who will give to you your own? No servant is able to serve two lords. For either [the servant] will hate the one and love the other or [the servant] will cleave to one and disregard the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon [riches/property/ possessions]. [1]

Luke 16:10-13

After the parable of the “prodigal sons”, Luke tells his audience Jesus finds it necessary to tell his disciples a parable about a shrewd about-to-be-former house-manager. In fact, it might be better to call this house-manager a “scoundrel.”[2] Here’s why: the story opens on a rich man who received charges against this house-manager for “squandering” (τὰ ὑπάρχοντα) the things which were “ready at hand” (as in: things in his possession, the things he was managing for the rich man). Thus, the rich man calls the man to him and asks, What is this I hear about you? Return your word of house-manager, for you are not able to be a steward anymore.

Uh oh. The house-manager’s scoundrelly ways caught up with him; he treated as his that which was not his—he took advantage of his position thinking it couldn’t change.[3] But it did; a new order is commencing whether he likes it or not.[4] Thus, it dawns on him that once he’s removed from his position, he’ll lose his livelihood[5] with little recourse to other work—I am not strong to dig, I am ashamed to beg (v. 3c). So, with an anachronistic “Hail Mary” he uses his skillz to his advantage. The about-to-be-former house-manager devises a scheme securing for himself hospitality in the future.[6] He summons those who owe his boss money. Asking each one what they owe (large sums) he slashes them nearly in half (much smaller sums). This about-to-be-former house-manager is brilliant; he uses what he still has—he’s not quite fired yet—and fabricates a safety-net for himself.[7] Those debtors receiving reduced bills will certainly owe him something in the future, like maybe a roof and a couch.[8]

Clever guy! And he’s praised as such! Then Jesus exhorts: And I, I say to you make friends for yourself out of the unjust mammon [riches/possessions/property], so that whenever it comes to an end they might receive you into the eternal tent.[9]

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None of that makes sense. Jesus’s words are hard to swallow here, especially if you consider the rest of Luke’s gospel—a text oriented toward the liberation of the captives from injustice due to an imbalance in power and privilege, property and possessions. Yet, if we allow that lens to assist us with this portion of text, we might see how clever Jesus is. Jesus continues: Therefore, if you did not become faithful in the unjust mammon [riches/property/possessions], who will believe you for the genuine riches? (v.11)Essentially, it’s about being wise as serpents and gentle as doves: create community with things unjustly gained.[10] In other words: force that which was intended for evil to be used for good and as you do watch heaven unfold around you and those whom you serve as you gain the true riches of justice: love,[11] mercy, compassion, kindness.[12]

In other, other words: keep your eye on your priorities.[13] Jesus concludes with a statement that seems detached from everything else: No servant is able to serve two lords. For either [the servant] will hate the one and love the other or [the servant] will cleave to one and disregard the other. (v 13a-b). If you, the ones who follow the Christ—remember, he’s addressing his disciples—cannot be trusted to repurpose unjust mammon[14]—riches, property, possessions—for the justice and benefit of other people,[15] how can you be trusted with the genuine riches of the kingdom of God? You can’t have mammon for mammon’s sake if you are one of Jesus’s disciples.[16] Jesus concludes in clear terms, You are not able to serve God and mammon [riches/property/ possessions] (v13c). Mammon and God will never, ever, share the stage.[17]

So, I must pose the question to you, too, whom do you serve?

Conclusion

We live in an unjust world. There is no way we can make the most modicum income that isn’t impacted and infected by injustice. All I have to do is tell you to go home and check all the companies represented in any type of portfolio. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid being held captive in a system seemingly bent on devouring human life like a vampire taking blood from its victim. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid noticing the ways we are complicit in this system, contributing to pain of others further down the ladder. We are tar-babies; caught, stuck, covered.

It’s tempting to throw my hands up and just say 🚒it. I can’t have this much anxiety over a tomato. Everything I consume—in one way or another—is a few degrees of ecological, anthropological, economical, cosmical violence. So, do I quit? Do I give up and give in? How would that fit with my vows as a priest in God’s church for God’s people? How would that fit with being a mom, trying desperately to raise humans who care about our mother earth, our brothers and sisters, our flora and fauna friends? How would that fit with a deep and abiding love for you? Shouldn’t I at least try to make this world a bit better for you? for those coming after me? For those coming after them?

No. I can’t quit and give up. Because I made a vow; because I was and am encountered by God in the event of faith; because I serve God by following Christ in whom I’m anchored by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the option is to serve mammon or God, I choose God. For in God is life and love, in God is justice and peace, in God is heaven. And if I serve God, I cannot serve mammon. So, instead of quitting, I play smarter, I dodge and weave better, and every so often I use the very tools of this age to bring light and life where darkness and death have been ruthless despots for too long.

Dorothee Sölle closes the second to last chapter of her book, Choosing Life, with a story from Auschwitz (1943-44),

“…there was a family concentration camp in which children lived who had been taken there from Theresienstadt and who – in order to mislead world opinion – wrote postcards. In this camp—and now comes a resurrection story—education in various forms was carried on. Children who were already destined for the gas chambers learned French, mathematics and music. The teachers were completely clear about the hopelessness of the situation. Without a world themselves, they taught knowledge of the world. Exterminated themselves, they taught non-extermination and life. Humiliated themselves, they restored the dignity of human beings. Someone may say: ‘But it didn’t help them.’ But so say the Gentiles. Let us rather say, ‘It makes a difference.’ Let us say, in terms solely of this world: ‘God makes a difference.’”[18]

Dorothee Sölle, Choosing LIfe, 97.

Instead of giving up, Beloved, let us choose to serve God and life, because “choosing life [and God] is the very capacity for not putting up with the matter-of-course destruction of life surrounding us, and the matter-of-course cynicism that is our constant companion.”[19] Choosing to serve life means not choosing to serve death; serving God means not serving mammon.

You cannot serve two masters. So, whom do you serve?


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 190-191. “But this parable speaks of a man who is undoubtedly a scoundrel; and yet it praises him and his wisdom! It is not uncommon to see on our church windows portrayals of a father receiving a son who had strayed, or of a sower spreading seed, or of a Samaritan helping the man by the roadside. But I nave never seen a window depicting a man with a sly look, saying to another, ‘Falsify the bill, make it less than it really is.’ Yet it is precisely this sort of man that the parable turns into an example!”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 191. “The present order is not permanent, and our authority over life, goods, and all the rest is only temporary. We may well imagine that, until given notice, the manager felt quite secure in his position. So do we, until we are reminded that our management is provisional—that what we have is not really ours, and will be taken away from us.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 191-192. “The manager in chapter 16 asks the same question [like the wise barn building fool: what will I do?], not because he has too much, but because he suddenly realizes that what he has will be taken away from him. Thus there is a contrast between the two men. The fool thinks that he really owns what he has, and that he even owns his life. The manager knows that he does not really own what he has. The fool takes for granted that the present order will continue indefinitely. The manager realizes that there is a new order about to be established.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 590. “For him, loss of position as manager entails a forfeiture of social status, with the consequence that, initially, the only opt manual door and begging (v 3); these locate him prospectively among the ‘unclean and degraded’ or even ‘expendable’ of society…. What is more, his imminent departure as manager signifies his loss of household attachment, hence his  concomitant concern for a roof over his head (v 4).”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 191. “A steward has not actually been fired yet, but is certainly on notice. In this regard, he is in a situation similar to all human beings who for the present have a life, goods, talents, relations, and time to manage, but are also on notice of our firing.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 192. “But the manager in the parable does not follow either of these two paths [enjoy it all or ignore it all]. What he does is use the authority he still has in the present order to feather his bed for the future order. When his firing becomes effective, he will be rewarded in the new order for the use he made of what he had in the old order.”

[8] Green, Luke, 593. “He has become their benefactor and, in return, can expect them to by extending to him the hospitality of their homes. The manager has thus taken advantage of his now-short-lived status, using the lag time during which he was to make an accounting of his mage 2ty D and his D and his position to arrange for his future.”

[9] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 395. “OSCAR: I see it this way: that man, what he was really doing was stealing. He got himself some friends with his master’s money and what the master said was that he was a very clever thief. … And what Jesus says is: be clever thieves, that is, be clever rich people, and the money you’ve got give it to the poor so you’ll be saved.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 396. “OLIVIA: “It seems to me it’s a parable, a way of speaking, that we must understand in accordance with the rest of the Gospel. …And it seems to me that in this parable he’s saying you have to be intelligent, that you don’t give alms to get friends, or heaven (a selfish heaven), you give everything away so that everyone together can enjoy the kingdom of heaven.’”

[11] Cardenal, Solentiname, 397 “MARCELINO: “And it also says that it we’ve not been honest with unjust wealth, we won’t be given the true wealth. True wealth is love. If we have stolen wealth, false wealth, and we don’t distribute it, we won’t get the true wealth, love, because love is received only by people who give. If you’re rich in money you’re poor in love.’”

[12] Cardenal, Solentiname, 397 “I: ‘What the Gospel here calls what belongs to others’ is what the rich consider as their property. It says that we won’t receive our own (the kingdom of heaven) if we haven’t been honest with other people’s property. One is honest with wealth when one doesn’t appropriate it for oneself but distributes it among its legitimate owners.’”

[13] Green, Luke, 589. “In fact the theme of this narrative section concerns the appropriate use of wealth to overstep social boundaries between rich and poor in order to participate in a form of economic redistribution founded in kinship.”

[14] Green, Luke, 596. “Even though ‘dishonest wealth’ is a reality of the present age, one’s use of this wealth can either be ‘dishonest’ (i.e. determined by one’s commitment to the present world order) or ‘faithful’ (i.e. determined by the values of the new epoch).”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 401 “I: ‘That’s why Christ came to earth, to establish that society of love, his kingdom. That’s why he talks a lot about social life and economy. In this passage he talks to us of wealth: that it must be shared. In the following verse he tells us that ‘one cannot serve God and money.’ It’s because God is you can’t have love and selfishness at the same.”

[16] Green, Luke, 593. “If they did understand the ways of the new aeon, how would this be manifest in their practices? Simply put, they would use ‘dishonest wealth’ to ‘make friends’ in order that they might be welcomed into eternal homes. ‘Wealth’ (or mammon) is characterized as ‘dishonest’ in the same way that the manager was. Both belong to this aeon; indeed, in speaking of its demise, Jesus insinuates that mammon has no place in the age to come …”

[17] Green, Luke, 597. “Because these two masters demand such diametrically opposed forms of service, since each grounds its demands in such antithetical worldviews, one cannot serve them both. Jesus underscores the impossibility of dual service through his use of contradictory terms of association (love, hate) and shame (devote, despise).”

[18] Dorothee Sölle Choosing Life Trans. Margaret Kohl. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981. German Trans: Wählt das Leben Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1980. 97.

[19] Sölle, Choosing Life, 7.