Table (Etiquette) Turned

Luke 14:1,7-14 (Sermon)

Introduction

I don’t talk about this fact of my life often, but I was raised in a wealthy environment. In the world of the elite and the privileged, I am comfortable. Among hunt clubs, country clubs, cotillion, and the weekend house in Vermont, I was raised and trained to be skilled for any social situation. I understand not only the demands and pressures of this type of life, but also the demand for right social etiquette. So, whenever Jesus is addressing the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful, I feel the weight of his exhortations. Jesus’s words hit too close to home. I prefer it when Jesus speaks of another group of people, one that I’m not associated with through birth and upbringing. But, alas, here we are in Luke 14 with the elite and their etiquette being called out, and I’m guilty. My number’s been pulled (again), and I have no choice but to listen to the voice of my Lord and my savior.

1, 7-10

At a dinner party, Jesus engages the guests with a story about what to do when invited to a dinner. Don’t take the foremost seat, Jesus says. Take the lower seat and allow yourself to be invited to the position of honor. Here’s the reason: you’ll avoid the shame[1] of being asked to move to take possession of the last place[2]. While avoiding risk, you may also incur reward: you’ll receive the glory[3] being asked to move to the more honorable place.[4] Finally, this makes sense to us. Isn’t Jesus’s reasoning in vv. 7-10 logical? Sit lower at the table to avoid being embarrassed by being asked to move. And maybe, you’ll even gain some pleasure in being called friend and given the place of honor! [5] This is win/win. Right? This is etiquette Emily Post can get behind!

Or is it?

v.11 [Because] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Verse 11 is the right-hook of right-hooks in this passage. We should’ve known better than to trust that Jesus and Luke were finally on our side. While at first glance v. 11 looks to be the tl:dr of the previous discussion about choosing your seat at the next wedding banquet you attend, it’s anything but. To seize the place of honor with hopes it would not be taken away would validate one’s elite position in society.[6] But, like the healing of the bent woman on the Sabbath in chapter 13, Jesus challenges our allegiance to laws and rules. He’s saying: do not vie for the top seat; forgo that affirmation. Sit, Jesus says, sit for all to see in the last seat; let honor be given to you and do not seize it for yourself.[7]

Receive honor; not take it. Let it be placed in the hand. But what if we don’t get the honor we think we deserve? Could you imagine being so empty handed, waiting for your host to call you forth, giving you the place of honor, the place you swore was rightfully yours? Could you watch as someone else was given that seat? Could you admit maybe you didn’t deserve it?

Humility is not about relinquishing your personhood and self; it’s not about stripping the self of dignity and humanity. Rather, humility is the art of being in the fullness of your embodied self, and intentionally stepping aside, saying, “No…you.” It’s the voluntary full-self self-sacrifice bringing life to others where there should’ve been death. It’s the moment where you shrug off what’s rightfully yours, to identify with those significantly below your status. This is the level of humility that is the call on every disciple who follows Christ.[8]

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)

vv.12-14

Apart from the exhortation to follow after Christ, taking the lesser station over and against the higher station you believe you deserve, there’s a deeper eschatological[9] (last) aspect at play. This “last” (eschatological) aspect incorporates the view to a new order inaugurated by the advent of the Christ into the world. [10] In the most beautiful of all divine subterfuge, Jesus steals the position of host[11] and offers his host (now guest) a lesson about the true table etiquette of heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus explains: do not invite those people who’ll bolster your status in society (friends, brothers, relatives, and wealthy neighbors[12]), who can repay the invite. Rather, invite those who are not worthy according to society’s standard. According to Jesus, it’s about using what you have to bless those who have not and (precisely because they) cannot repay you for your hospitality. [13] Those who are beggarly and cowering over, the maimed, and the blind[14] are the unworthy of society and thus the most worthy in the economy of the reign of God. [15] Standard social and religious conventions are met (once again) with divine the sentence in Christ: XXX. [16]

Inviting those who are from the fringe of society, the “unclean/untouchables,” would be death to one’s social status, according to the system of the day. And yet it is precisely these that Jesus exhorts his hearers to invite to their banquettes—even if the invitation is wasted, and the one invited cannot reciprocate. [17] Both the rich and the poor knew the system; thus this command form Jesus, this exhortation, puts both the rich and the poor into one bind: risk your pride. The etiquette of the kingdom of humanity collapses under the weight of Jesus’s inaugurated new order of the reign of God .[18]

It’s hard to receive a gift you haven’t earned and can’t repay. It is hard to give a gift without expectation of gratitude in the form of repayment. Jesus folds these extremes in and makes them meet at one point: the reign of God. The war is waged not with human beings but on behalf of them; not with creation, but on behalf of it. The war Jesus leads is against those forces that keep division and placing intact to keep people from people; those forces of sin and death that keep the rich from the poor and poor from the rich.

There’s no way around it, according to Jesus, we’re to engage and give to those who cannot repay in kind; this is “blessed.” Those who receive and cannot repay and those who give without expecting repayment: they are the blessed. These who are first are last and these last are first.

The reign of God comes to fruition in this meager and simple act. It’s not grand and abundant sacrifice; it is an invitation to dinner. Jesus rewrites the symphonic tones of what it means to be in communion; the orchestra plays and the band responds; each gives as needed and takes as is given. And community, real, true community abounds. The kind of community that is marked by the characteristic of divine love that causes heads to turn: those are Christians.

Conclusion

As a priest called by God to tend the flock, I now set for and serve you from the table of the banquette of the wilderness; a humble table set for one (one cup, one plate) that is for all people. Bread placed in the diversity of hands having done everything to those that have yet to do a thing—the bread of heaven knows no distinctions. I get to participate in the event of baptism ushering you in to this whacky and absurd reign of God that turns everything upside; I get to wash you and welcome you. In short, I get the opportunity to serve you, invite you to the table and to the water, tend to your cares and concerns, remind you that God is good and that you are the beloved.

The last one into the Jordan was the first one out; it is he who is the first to embrace a death he didn’t deserve to be called to the place of honor. It is he who arrives at the banquette table in the wilderness of the new heavens and the new earth to make room for us, the very last. And we come, anxious, limping, hunched over, exhausted, with nothing to offer but our deep gratitude for the free gift of life that we could never ever repay. You are the beloved. God is good.

 

 

[1] From the Greek text..και ελθων ο σε και αθτον καλεσας ερει σοι «δος τουτω τοπον,» και τοτε αρξε μετα αισχθνης τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν.

[2] From the Greek text see the second half of fn 1 (τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν)

[3] From the Greek text “φιλε, προσαναβηθι ανωτερον; τοτε εσται σοι δοξα ενωπιον παντων των σθνανακειμενων σοι.

[4] From the Greek text

[5] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). 551, “…he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, that might not be granted.”

[6] Green 550, “…where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating arrangements was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society, one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more, because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”

[7] Green 552, “The aphorism of v 11, then, must first be read as an indication of what God values, of what is most highly valued in the kingdom of God, and of the basis on which judgment will be enacted. …those whose dispositions have been transformed to reflect the divine economy, v 11 can be read as moral guidance, reflected in behavior advised in vv. 8-10; read in this way, Jesus’ “parable” is not designed to provide one with a new strategy by which one might obtain the commendation of one’s peers. Instead, it insists that the only commendation one needs comes from the God who is unimpressed with such social credentials as govern social relations in Luke’s world…”

[8] Green 542-3, “Relative to his table companions in 14:1-24, Jesus has a distinctive view of the world, shaped fundamentally by his experience of the Spirit, his understanding of the merciful God, and his awareness of the presence of God’s redemptive project, the kingdom of God, in his ministry. Within this immediate co-text, Jesus’ version of dining etiquette, shaped fundamentally by these preunderstandings and dispositions, comes to expression as a warning and invitation to his companions at the table, Pharisees and scribes. Within its larger co-text in the Third Gospel, however, the reach of Jesus’ message is more inclusive, calling for an embodiment of the kingdom of God in the social practices of Pharisees and legal experts, yes, but also in the behavior of his followers and the people as a whole.”

[9] A potential play on words here considering that the word Luke puts in Jesus’s mouth to describe the last spot is “εσχατον” to speak of the “last place” at the table.

[10] Justo Gonzalez Luke “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible” Louisville, KY: WJK 2010 180, “But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension of the final judgment and the new order of the kingdom, which reverses the present human order: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

[11] Gonzalez 179

[12] From the Greek text “…μη φωνει τους φιλους σου μηδε τους αδελφους σου μεηδε τους συγγεωεις σου μηδε γειτονας πλουσιους…”

[13] Gonzalez 180, “The reason invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the day, at the resurrection of the righteous.”

[14] From the Greek text: πτωχους, αναπειρους, χωλους, τυφλπυς

[15] Green 553, “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’—notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world—as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”

[16] Gonzalez 180, “What Jesus now says and proposes is contrary to all rules of etiquette. Then, as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues…When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us. This would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid. While we might consider this an advantage, or at least the normal order of things. Jesus proposes inviting those who cannot repay…Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention.”

[17] Green 550, “To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation. The powerful and privileged would not ordinarily think to invite the poor to their meals, for this would (1) possibly endanger the social status of the host; (2) be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated; and (3) ensue in embarrassment for the poor, who could not reciprocate and, therefore, would be required by social protocols to decline the invitation.”

[18] Green 553, “The behaviors Jesus demands would collapse the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider; reverting to anthropological models of economic exchange, such relations would be characterized by ‘generalized reciprocity’—that is, by the giving of gifts, the extension of hospitality, without expectation of return…”

Vigilant, Fidelitous, Stewards

Luke 12:32-40 (Sermon)

Introduction

I wear this crown of [dirt]/Upon my liar’s chair/Full of broken thoughts/I cannot repair/Beneath the stains of time/The feelings disappear/You are someone else/I am still right here/If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way[1]

Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” resonates with the crisis of our world: caught in the tragedy defining contemporary human existence. The reality of our incapability to do anything renders us helpless. The vivacity of hopefulness submits to the dead weight of numbness. When we crave to be entertained, distracted, and to escape, we are in the clutches of the deep lethargic sleep of numbness. We smile and say everything is great, but we’re merely seated upon our liar’s chair. Things aren’t okay, we aren’t well, the world isn’t fine. We close our eyes and ears and let the old age consume us. No one’s coming to help; all is lost.

Do not fear, small little-flock, because your father is well pleased to give to you the kingdom. Sell the things that are in your possession and give alms. Create for yourselves purses [that] do not grow old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where a thief neither comes near nor a moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be. (vv. 32-34)

Our text is connected to the preceding section. It’s not an independent section. Thus, the command not to fear is connected to the preceding command not to be anxious (vv.22-31). Pulling the ravens from the sky and the lilies from the ground, Jesus demonstrates it’s wiser to be as these than the rich fool building up barns, gathering and storing “grains and goods” to secure himself.

The comparison isn’t between food and clothes and us; but between the rich fool and us. God knows what we need; according to Jesus, those needs are important to God. The importance resides in this reality: even the ravens are fed and the lilies clothed. We, who’ve heard our names called, don’t need act like the rich fool building large barns for “grains and goods.” When we do, we’re no better than those who’ve not heard.[2] In this anxiety we are like the rich fool, frantically building barns.

Jesus’s solution? Seek the reign of God and these things will be added (v.31). Luke plays his two cards: hear and respond. Have you heard? If so, why are you anxious? Why are you afraid? God is well pleased to give to you the kingdom! (v.32) Jesus’s command isn’t an inactive one but an active one. Recall the story about Mary and Martha from Luke 10. The theme wasn’t activity v passivity but the paradox of human existence. We are both Mary and Martha—at the feet of the Lord and needing to be called out of ourselves. Both are active; so, too, here. The prohibition of anxiety and fear isn’t a command to an abstractly conceived rest that results in non-action. To seek the reign of God brings peace and rest to our bodies—peace that surpasses all understanding because our orientation is to God and to others and no longer focused on ourselves. We’re freed up for activity resonant with the Lord’s prayer,

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation“ (vv 2c-4).

This activity is striving. We are to strive, but rightly.[3] Often we confuse the reign of God with our own piety. We aren’t to strive for religiousness—when we do this we force our works do what they can’t: toiling to self-justify and make us righteous. Rather, we strive for the reign of God, the new age started in the advent Christ. Luke holds a mirror up to his audience: Are you more like the rich fool who hasn’t heard and is storing up treasures in barns that will decay and be destroyed? Or, are you striving like Mary who has heard and responded, storing up treasures where neither thief nor moth can go?[4]

Luke doesn’t merely ask about the location of our hearts and focus; using the words of Christ, he describes what seeking after the reign of God looks like. Again, it’s not about piety, but about others. How is this seeking done? Selling possessions and giving alms. Loving the Lord our God with all our heart is to love our neighbor as ourselves; this is the foundation and substance of the entreaty in the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come…” According to Proverbs, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (19:17).[5]

Like the situation of the two sisters, we face the paradox of the reign of God as gift and obligation. We receive. We come to the table empty handed but we must grasp the food being offered. Someone can give you a gift and you can refuse it. Reception demands two people and reciprocal actions: giving and taking. We quibble over concepts of free will and determinism while the answer resides in a paradoxical yes that defines our present.

The future is an abstract concept that materializes only long enough to become history, another abstract concept. When we place our eggs in the basket of the future, we grow anxious because it’s out of our control. When we place our eggs in the basket of the past, we are fearful because failure haunts us. The day is given; seize it.

Disciples of Christ are the small little-flock ushered into the present of the new age. We’re reoriented in the world in the event of encounter with God in faith; this silences the fear of the past and alleviates the anxiety of the future. As we live into the gifted-present as disciples of Christ, we participate in the cosmic battle God wages against the enslaving powers of sin and death. We live as living and embodied creatures alongside other living and embodied creatures. We are to be disciple-ing—not strictly by making disciples (though that’s great) but storing up treasure in heaven by setting our hearts on the reign of God expressed through outward-oriented, other-centered activity.[6] This is love. This love loves because it’s the product of being first loved, and does not love to demand returned love.[7] It doesn’t hold hostages; it just loves. This is the substance of our prayer in today’s collect, “Grant to us, Lord,…the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”[8]

Gird your loins for active work and light lamps; and you [be] like the people who expect their lord might depart at some time from the wedding feast, in order that after he comes and strikes at the door, they may open it for him immediately. Blessed [are] those slaves whom the Lord will find being awake after he comes; truly I say to you that he will gird himself for active work and he will make them recline and after coming to them he will serve them. And if in the second and if in the third watch he might come and find in this way, blessed are those [slaves]. Now this you know, if the ruler of the house had been aware of what hour the thief comes, he would not permit him to dig trough the house. And you, you become prepared, you do not [know] which the Son of [Hu]Man comes. (vv 38-40)

The same small little-flock is still in view here as the intended audience, and so are we.[9] There’s also no thematic break, either. Jesus is—as he has been—speaking about vigilance. The vigilance of possessions gives way to the vigilance of faithfulness; both material goods and faith are given to us, and thus vigilance is necessary[10] because while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and we love slipping back into the grip of that old age we know. What we know brings comfort; it’s why we destructively cling to myths and “facts” even when they’ve long expired.

Like the burn of lights to eyes accustomed to the dark, those who have been saved by Christ and reoriented in the world in the new age, bear the pain of this new birth into a new reality that is radically upside-down from the one they were accustomed to. Those who’ve heard, can’t unhear what they’ve heard; those who’ve seen can’t unsee what they’ve seen. But we can numb ourselves, pull the covers over our head, self-medicate, perform intellectual gymnastics to make wrong things right. As disciples of Christ in a world enslaved to the powers of sin and death, we must be vigilant.

The characteristics of this vigilance and discipleship run counter not only to the socio-political situation of Jesus’s day, but also our own. To be faithful is to be countercultural: rather than store up possessions, it’s sell them and give alms; rather than build bigger barns it’s store up treasures in heaven; rather than lording over others it’s identifying with slaves just as the One who has gone before us does.[11] “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Lk 1:47-48). And not merely “looked with favor” but become identified with.

The Lord comes, Luke tells us, but we don’t know when; remain vigilant, he encourages. The delay precludes a “life of abandonment” and includes active engagement with the reign of God inaugurated in Christ. We are to be dressed, lamps lit, prepared and ready, being faithful, working, knowing, and doing.[12] The delay Luke is highlighting means there’s a period of time between now and then. Again, the questions come to us from eons past: have you heard? If so, what are you going to do while the master is gone? [13] Thus: stewardship. While this word is often used in pleas to get you to tithe, it’s not strictly about that. It’s about your entire material being. Stewardship, what we do now, “…is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’…”[14] As Christians, as those who have heard, we live as those expectant of a future commensurate with the reign of God consummated in Christ.[15]

And while the master is gone and while we wait, we will be brought into conflict and crisis; we will have to choose our fidelity to Christ and the new age over the allure of the powers of sin and death of the old age.[16] We are obligated to be fidelitous stewards of what we are given in the present with an eye to the future. Not clinging to the old age and its destructive power. Existing here, we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, look to participate in the new age and in the struggle against those powers of sin and death.

Stewardship goes beyond tithing and isn’t charity; it involves our entire being and things. What we have is not always a product of God’s blessing. We live in a world that is both just and unjust, and we have things from both just and unjust systems.[17] We are both complicit and held captive by the ways of the old age, even now, even today. Stewardship and fidelity, thus vigilance, demand that we be aware and awake to call things what they are and to act rightly.

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;/remove the evil of your doings/from before my eyes;/cease to do evil,/learn to do good;/seek justice,/rescue the oppressed,/defend the orphan,/plead for the widow./ Come now, let us argue it out,/says the Lord:/though your sins are like scarlet,/they shall be like snow;/though they are red like crimson,/they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:16-18)

In this tension of the inbetween where we receive and strive, we must be aware when we are participating in unjust systems. In being aware, in being vigilant we are caused and exhorted to live according to the new age and not the old one, to tear down unjust systems and build up just ones.[18] Christians are not the same from age to age; each age demands a different Christian presence. We are contextual and that is the last thing the powers of sin and death of the old age want you to know. Because knowing this makes you the wild card. Fidelitous Christians as vigilant stewards of their lives, time, and possessions, keeping their lamps lit and eyes and ears trained toward the door where their lord will wrap, are the ones who are, paradoxically, the most earthly good for the present day.[19]

Conclusion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.…By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible….They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:1)

I know the challenge of hope. Our world is hurting in so many ways and we in our fleshy existence can feel so helpless to fix it; so why bother. Let it burn; I’ll wait for Christ’s return. But then the other thing I know is that God, by God’s own word, can create something out of nothing. In divine language, possibility has priority over actuality; in other words: all things are possible with God. It’s the magnitude of divine possibility that makes Christians an odd and unique breed. It’s no longer Moses who is left alone to bear the burden of a radiant face tanned by God’s glory; we brazenly bear the radiance of divine Glory into the world. We’re in the world but not of the old age.

We are vigilant fidelitous stewards, living here and now, our lamps lit, wicks trimmed, ears trained to the knock of our Lord. Stuck in the inbetween–waiting–we tend to our brothers and sisters—victims of the old age. Like the good Samaritan we bind and dress their wounds and bring them in; like our Lord we go to the fringe; with our lights always on, our homes, our classrooms, our offices, our cubicles, our very bodies are beacons of hope, lights conquering darkness, lives conquering death. All is not lost.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,/on those who wait upon his love,/To pluck their lives from death,/and to feed them in time of famine./Our soul waits for the Lord;/he is our help and our shield./Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,/for in his holy Name we put our trust. (Ps 33:18-21)

 

 

 

[1] NIN “Hurt”

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). “Although this entire passage has often been interpreted in the sense that food and clothing are not important (an interpretation that comes quite easily to those who have an abundance of both), what the passage says is exactly the opposite. We are not to worry about food and clothing precisely because God knows they are important! Indeed, they are so important that God provides them even to birds and grass. This is why it is ‘the nations of the world’ (i.e., the Gentiles, the pagan world) that strive after these things. Their struggle is a result of their not knowing the God who provides even for ravens and for lilies. Thus when Christians who have all we really need still worry anxiously about having enough, and thus seek to accumulate more and more, we are failing once again into a form of Christopaganism…”161

[3] Gonzalez 161-2, “The alternative to worrying is not a happy-go-lucky, careless attitude. On the contrary, it is a serious struggle, striving for the kingdom. This does not mean, as some might surmise, simply being more religious and pious. The kingdom of God is a new order; the new order that has come nigh in Jesus. It is an order in which Gods will is done, as Matthews version of the Lord s Prayer makes abundantly clear: your kingdom come, your will be done…to strive for the kingdom is among other things to make certain that all are fed and all are clothed. We are not to worry about securing such things, for they are important to God; but precisely because they are important to God we must oppose everything that precludes all from having them. This is why in the very passage about not worrying over food or clothing Jesus invites his followers to give alms (12:33), that is, to provide for those who are hungry or naked.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997). 495. “Here we encounter both the foundation and the resolution of his message on faithfulness regarding possessions. Fear, in this instance, refers to the anxiety and misgivings associated with the uncertainty of life, modeled so well by the wealthy farmer-landholder in Jesus’ parable (vv. 16-20). Jesus’ disciples, referred to in language that recalls God’ care for his people as a shepherd for the flock, need experience no such dread. This is because God’s pleasure (or will) is manifest in his gift of the kingdom. It is likely that we are to understand the kingdom as having already been given—undoubtedly, then, a reference to the ministry of Jesus among them.”

[5] Gonzalez 162, “The ending of this section connects it with the parable of the Rich Fool, for the two are parallel: it is a matter of where ones treasure is. If on earth, as in the case of the rich man who decided to build bigger barns, it will have no lasting value. If in heaven, it will have lasting value, for in heaven neither do thieves steal one’s treasure, nor do moths eat at it…Verses 33-34 give clear guidelines as to how this is to be done: “sell your possessions—your earthly treasure—and give: alms’- thus building up a treasure in heaven. In early patristic literature, one constantly finds the assertion that “when you give to the poor you lend to God” a theme drawn from Proverbs 19:17. In this passage one finds echoes of that theme.”

[6] Green 495. The little flock (disciples) are “the recipients of God’s dominion. This makes possible lifestyles that are not consumed with anxiety and fear but, instead, have as their perpetual objective the service of the kingdom. The nature of this kingdom-service is spelled out clearly in this co-text, demonstrating that the kingdom of God is not only a gift but also an obligation. Rather then being occupied with the buildup of treasures with an eye to self-security in this life (v 21), disciples need to be concerned with ensuring that they possess treasures in heaven. Therefore, seeking the kingdom (v 31) is tantamount to setting one’s heart on the kingdom (v 34), and the consequence of this orientation of life is a heavenly treasure that is neither subject to the exigencies of earthly existence nor endangered by the unexpected intervention of God.”

[7] Green 495-6 “…throughout the Roman world. Normally, one with treasures to share does so in order to place others in her debt; gifts are given in order to secure or even advance one’s position in the community. Inherent to the giving of ‘gifts’ in this economy is the obligation of repayment. The sharing Jesus counsels has a different complexion. Disinvestment and almsgiving grounded in a thoroughgoing commitment to the kingdom of God are to be practiced in recognition that God is the Supreme Benefactor who provides both for the giver and for the recipient. Such giving has the effect not of placing persons in debt, but rather of embracing the needy as members of one’s own inner circle. In the economy intrinsic to the kingdom, those who give without exacting reciprocation, for example, in the form of loyalty or service, are actually repaid by God. Such giving, then, is translated into solidarity with the needy on earth into heavenly treasure (see 6:35).”

[8] BCP “Collect” Lessons Appointed for Use on the Sunday Closest to August 10.

[9] Green 497, “As though he were using a telephoto lens, Luke has centered our attention on the disciples, but the presence of many others continues to be felt. This contributes to the ambiguity Luke’s readers may experience as they attempt to discern the nature of Jesus’ audience at this juncture…Irrespective of which characters within the story readers have come to identify with, the collapsing significance of Jesus’ teaching for everyone.”

[10] Green 497, “…Jesus has not moved abruptly from a discourse on ‘possessions’ to a discourse on ‘watchfulness.’ Not only this section but the whole of this address, beginning in v 1, has an eschatological timber…Throughout, Jesus has expounded on the theme of ‘vigilance in the face of eschatological crisis,’ including as motifs vigilance with respect to persecution (vv 1-12), possessions (vv 13-35), and, now, more faithfulness within the household of God. What is more, Jesus’ words to his disciples—‘Do not be afraid … for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (v 32)—already applied to questions of security and material goods, are equally relevant to his present instruction on fidelity with respect to what ‘has been given’(v 48b).”

[11] Green 499, “In presenting his picture of faithful response, Jesus borrows from standard images of the household in Roman times, but also redefines household relations. His most surprising—and no doubt to some, outlandish is his implicit request that, in order to identify oneself among the faithful in the household of God, one should identify oneself with the slaves of his example; this innovation embraces even the authority figure, the master/Iord, whose actions upon his return are themselves servile. By serving those who are slaves, the returning lord esteems the humble, overturning socio-religious and socio-political norms, just as Mary’s Song had foretold (1:52b).”

[12] Green 500, “Luke’s presentation leaves room for a delay in the return of the Lord, but his dominant emphasis falls elsewhere—first, on the certainty of his coming and, second, on the uncertainty of its timing. This dual focus leads directly into the primary emphasis of this passage, not on living a life of abandonment in light of the eschaton, but on the present need and opportunity for alertness and fidelity…this segment of Jesus’ discourse employs a wide range of images to present in positive and negative terms the sought-after comportment of the disciple: dressed for action, lamps lit, waiting expectantly, alert, ready, the unexpected hour, the faithful and prudent manager (rather than the unfaithful), working (rather than eating and drinking and getting drunk), being prepared, and knowing and doing (rather than knowing and not doing or not knowing).”

[13] Gonzalez 165, “The theme of the absence of God is central to the teachings of Jesus. …But in other parables it would seem that the issue is not our absence from God, but rather God’s absence from us. We call these stories ‘parables of stewardship.’ And this is an excellent name for them, for stewardship is precisely what a steward practices when the master is away. While the master is there, a steward’s role is limited. It is when the master is away that the steward must take responsibility.”

[14] Gonazalez 162

[15] Gonzalez 162-3, “The theme of stewardship now comes to the foreground. In the previous section Jesus was teaching about one of the most common issues of stewardship, the management of possessions. Now he comes to another central issue of stewardship, the ‘in between’ times.…This is because stewardship, properly understood, is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’ … In all of these, we are told that we are living in expectation of a future, and must therefore live and manage our resources according to that future, rather than to the present situation.”

[16] Green 502, “Instead, Jesus provides for his audience a vision of the eschaton, of a household reality wherein hierarchies of status are nullified; with this vision he both declares nature of fidelity in the interim and in the eschaton.”

[17] Gonzalez 163. “Too often the typical stewardship sermon says simply that all we have God has given us to manage. This leaves out two fundamental issues. The first is that we must not simply affirm that all we have has been given to us by God. We live in an unjust world, and to attribute the present order to God is to attribute injustice to God. It may well be that we have some things unjustly, and not as a gift of God.”

[18] Gonzalez 163, “…The second issue that should not be left out of our discussions on stewardship is the crucial dimension of hope and expectation. We are to manage things, not just out of a general sense of morality or even of justice, and certainly not just to support the church and its institutions—which we certainly must do. We are to manage things in view of the future we expect In the previous section, this was expressed in terms of building up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and in terms of striving for the kingdom.”

[19] Gonzalez 163-4, “In this passage, that eschatological sense of expectancy or inbetweenness comes forth in the image of lamps that must remain lit …What for us is a fairly passive activity—all we do is flick a switch and the lights remain on—for people in the first century required frequent attention. One had to replenish the oil in the lamp. One had to adjust the wick. Today, we may go to bed leaving the lights on. Then, if one forgot about the lamp it would bum out. Thus keeping the lamp lit, as this passage instructs, is a matter that requires constant attention and watchfulness. This is the central theme of the passage.”

“Trees Planted by Streams of Water”

Proverbs 31, Mark 9:30-37: True Discipleship #LikeAGirl (Sermon)

Introduction

You either love her or hate her; but all of you are opinionated about her. She’s either revered as the ultimate example of womanhood or she is despised as nothing but oppressive idealism unattainable by human standards. In academic circles she’s rarely if ever the topic of conversation: she’s relegated to an inferior position; that’s just about woman’s work.

Personally, I’m fascinated by her, ever since becoming a Christian I’ve marveled over her. At multiple points in my life, I’ve tried to be her only to fail. I’ve meditated on and prayed through the poem multiple times. It is no surprise to hear that I wrote a 100 page thesis on her. My question leading up to writing my MDiv thesis was: Why? Why is she here?

In and through my intellectual digging, I discovered an answer I wasn’t expecting. Rather than being a checklist for the proper execution of womanhood and wifery or some abstract communication about the people of God, the Church, she is, from head to toe, the manifestation of hope. And not just hope in general, but hope specific. She is the hope of restoration: restoration of woman to God and the restoration of the relationship between men and women. And even more than those two things, she is the manifestation of hope for humanity: what it means to be a good disciple.

It is my contention that she is an expression of the hope for the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3. She is hope for the longed for reversal that is to be completed in the coming Messiah—the Messiah to whom all of the Old Testament points. It is my belief that she is the signpost on the way to through the metanarrative of scripture that points to what comes in Christ. She is the embodiment of the hope embedded in the protoevangelium (the first gospel promise) uttered way back when in Gen 3:15 when God cursed the snake: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,/and between your offspring and hers;/he will strike your head,/and you will strike his heel.”

She doesn’t just point to Genesis 3 when everything goes bad; but to Genesis 1 and 2 when everything was very good. The poem draws us back to the cool air of the garden, when woman walked alongside man and they communed together in the presence of God, as co-vice-regents of the earth. The Proverbs 31 Woman is fighting a battle, not just keeping house. The warfare imagery throughout the poem leads us, the reader, to see a woman, to see a person who is fighting against the chaos established by the fall. The Proverbs 31 Woman is pointing back to Eve and Adam, and at the same time pointing forward—through the chaos of the fall—to Christ—who is the very image of God his Father in his divine substance (God of very God) and of Mary his Mother in his humanity. When God walked the earth he carried her face into the world. The woman was not forgotten when God became man. To over emphasize the masculinity of Jesus the Christ at the expense of the femininity of the one whom he looked like, is to devolve into a very bad Christology and a malnourished and weak God-talk (theology). Let us talk rightly, for ourselves and because the children are listening.

V.10: “An excellent wife who can find?/She is far more precious than jewels.” The way this question is phrased in the original language expects a negative answer. Who can find this excellent wife? No one. She is so “rare” that jewels do not compare to her. Even if you could “find” her, you couldn’t afford her anyway! VV.11-12: “The heart of her husband trusts in her,/and he will have no lack of gain./12 She does him good, and not harm,/all the days of her life.” She is mature in age and in spirit. Their relationship has weathered the trials of the passing years; she is not young nor is she a newly wed. She operates in love towards her husband, just as in the New Testament those who are in Christ are encouraged to operate in love towards one another.[1] He knows that she loves him; there is no doubt, no worry, no wonder; he is confident in her love toward her. And in that he knows she loves him, his heart trusts in her. Much like a child trusts his mother.

V.13: “She seeks wool and flax,/and works with willing hands.” She can use a broad spectrum of materials to create things—she is capable, creative and astute. There is nothing wasteful about her handling of materials; everything is put to use in some way or another (v.13). V.14: “She is like the ships of the merchant;/she brings her food from afar.” She provides for her family. She’s not just making meals, she’s enjoying the bounty created by God and deemed enjoyable by Him.[2] She takes pleasure in the world just as God did and does; just as humanity did and should. V.15: “She rises while it is yet night/and provides food for her household/and portions for her maidens.” She is not given to too much sleep; she is not lazy. However, though she is diligent throughout her days, her work is not her lord (work is its proper place, under her dominion). She does not neglect her household—those who depend on her—for her own pleasures. Both men and women are to be active and care for others and not act like disinterested selfish slugabeds.[3] Oh, and by the way, she’s wealthy: she has servant girls! Even if this was about “works,” She does NOT bare that responsibility alone.

V.16: “She considers a field and buys it;/with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” She has investment-like foresight. She re-invests; she does not earn gain for gain’s sake. Her very fruitfulness (prosperity) is evidence that she is sowing righteous seed in righteous soil and continually replants the fruits of her hand.[4] V.17: “She dresses herself with strength/and makes her arms strong.” Strength is one of her foremost qualities. Her arms are strong for the task…she is able to get things done, especially in ‘planting’ a vineyard. She is not afraid of hard work or of labor. [5] Meek and mild? Think again! Think: Princess Xena. Think: Wonder Woman: Think: Amazon. Think: Frontier Woman. Weaker sex, eh?

V.18: “She perceives that her merchandise is profitable./Her lamp does not go out at night.” This is not about having a home-based business. This is creational language reminiscent of Genesis, “And God saw that it was good.”[6] She is a creature that was gifted to use her mind and her hands to make. And she uses this ability to purchase the oil for her lamp and keep a store of oil so that her lamp will not go out. She is, essentially, prepared with enough oil to provide light for a long time; she’s one of the wise virgins with a trimmed wick waiting for the Lord to return.[7] V.19: “She puts her hands to the distaff,/and her hands hold the spindle.” There’s more to the imagery here than sewing. What is the distaff and spindle imagery depicting? A valid definition for the Hebrew word translated as spindle is “district”.[8] She puts her hands to the district; she extends her hands and subdues the earth as the manifestation of one of the commands of God in the Garden (reversal of 3:16ff). [9]

V.20: “She opens her hand to the poor/and reaches out her hands to the needy.” She is caring for the poor and afflicted by “extending her hands” as was required by every Israelite (Deut. 15:11). She is the godly person for whom Micah seeks as he walks around the streets, for her hands stretch out and do “good” (7:1-7). She represents what it means to be truly human: caring for the disenfranchised; she is being used as what it means to love your neighbor as yourself;.[10] V.21-22: “She is not afraid of snow for her household,/for all her household are clothed in scarlet./She makes bed coverings for herself;/her clothing is fine linen and purple.” The poem covers many seasons, winter being one of them. The poem does not just cover this woman’s day, but this woman’s entire life. The reference to her household being clothed in scarlet is synonymous with her wealth; she is a wealthy woman and has clothed her household in good, warm clothing.

V.23: “Her husband is known in the gates/when he sits among the elders of the land.” Her husband sits among the elders so he is older, thus she is, too. Notice that there have been 12 verses since her husband has been mentioned. This woman is not defined by him and her service to him, but by her own qualities, V.24: “She makes linen garments and sells them;/she delivers sashes to the merchant.” She is aware that her deeds are worthy and, thus, she does not hesitate to capitalize on them. She is wise and can bring in her own income, which she uses to the benefit of her household.[11] V.25: “Strength and dignity are her clothing,/and she laughs at the time to come.” It is through her relationship with God, it is in her fear of the Lord (v.30) where these characteristics of strength and dignity are sourced. These characteristics are evident to everyone who meets her. V.26: “She opens her mouth with wisdom,/and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” And her words back this up; they are described as wise. Her outward appearance and inward manner are one in the same; she is not a white-washed tomb. The state and orientation of her heart is righteous for what flows out of her is righteous. In Mark 7, Jesus explains it is what comes out of and not what goes into that defiles a person; our Proverbs 31 woman speaks wisdom and thus is wise and you can only be wise if you know God (according to the Hebrew and our own tradition). She knows Torah (rare); she knows and is known by God.

V.27: “She looks well to the ways of her household/and does not eat the bread of idleness.” V.28-29: “Her children rise up and call her blessed;/her husband also, and he praises her:/“Many women have done excellently,/but you surpass them all.” “This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” is akin to the statement of the husband in the poem in Proverbs 31, “Many women have done well, But you surpass them all.”[12] V.30-31: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,/but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised./Give her of the fruit of her hands,/and let her works praise her in the gates.” This is the key to the whole poem! It is her inner-beauty, her fear of the Lord that has been the eye-catching aspect of this woman from v.11 to v.30. Her strength and dignity come from her relationship with God; her wisdom, too, is of God (Prov. 1:7).

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
everything they do shall prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)

The proverbs 31 woman is a glimpse of a restored Eve and a restored relationship of Eve to God; thus, a glimpse of the restoration of the relationship of woman to man.[13] But it’s not only about that. If we take the creation myth of Genesis 2 seriously, and see it primarily as a story about the creation of (thus the necessity of) community in likeness and difference (which is the extinguishing of loneliness), then what we see here, too, is the restoration of Humanity. The Proverbs 31 woman is clearly the embodiment of the ideal humanity yanked out of the chaos and myths of the world–a world broken by oppressive and deleterious systems of abuse in manifold forms–and placed into the Reign of God. Located in the reign of God in the event-encounter with God by faith in Christ alone. And this Reign of God is marked by love and kindness, by mercy and divine justice in restoration and reconciliation, in freedom for all or freedom for none, in the solidarity in suffering and pain and grief and sorrow, in the equality and mutuality in community that lives the very thing believed: that the dividing wall has been torn down, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female (Gal 3:28). To be truly human, to be the faithful disciple in the world, is to act as the Reign of God is; to act like the Proverbs 31 woman.

The remarkable thing about our readings today is not just the fact that we read the Proverbs 31 poem and that you happen to have in your midst a self-proclaimed P. 31 scholar (*wink), but that our Gospel passage, from Mark, works with the Proverbs reading. Jesus spends time explaining to his disciples what it means to be a good disciple (and the Gospel of Mark is directed at such a specific message): If anyone wishes to be first, he must be last and servant of all people (9:35, translation mine). He then (immediately) snags a small child and places that child in the midst of his cadre of disciples. Jesus lowers himself, puts his arms around the child and says this, Whoever receives one such as this child on the basis of my name, that person receives me; and whoever receives me, does not receive (only) me, but the one who sent me (v37, translation mine). Whoever receives into their arms, intimately, one such as this child receives me. Receives one such as this child. And I am relocated to when I reached for and held my first born son, just born; receive one such as this child. According to Jesus, to be and do the will of God is to love like a mother.

Even Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians uses mothering imagery to explain what agape love (divine love) looks like to the men/husbands in Ephesus. In a discussion about what mutual submission looks like, Paul shorthands a quick statement to the wives: each to their own husbands as unto the Lord. (Full Stop.) He then turns to the husbands: y’all best sit down for this…Paul begins. What do I mean by love and mutual submission the women get, but you don’t because you’ve never brought a child into the world. The washing imagery of 5:25-28 is less to do with “baptism” and everything to do with the washing of a child by the mother.

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

A regular practice of mothers in the ancient Greco-Roman society was to forgo their own cleanliness in order to wash their child. Just like our own bodies betray us in gestation, so to do our brains in consistently choosing the well being of our child over our own. It’s why mothers do weird things (because they’re tired and they’re in love). The men would’ve washed themselves first, but the mother would’ve washed the baby first. This Paul uses as an example for the men, they would’ve seen it practiced in their own homes and boy would that message had been radical. Paul knew that women understood “mutual submission”; not only because they had to endure it socially and politically but also because they couldn’t deny it relationally (as a mom). They knew instinctively what that agape love was.

If you’ve ever wondered why the women are always getting “it” in the gospels, if you’ve ever wondered why the women seem to understand what and why Jesus came, you now have your answer: the activity of God for the world has not only paternal but also significant maternal power. And if you know agape love you recognize agape love.

Mark 15, the women watch Jesus die; they knew. Mark 7, the Syrophoenician woman; she knew. Mark 14, the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany; she knew. Mark 5, the woman suffering from perpetual bleeding; she knew. John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well; she knew. Luke 10, Mary at Jesus’s feet; she knew. They all knew in the core of their being; they knew.

We see Jesus the man in his strong masculine form and forget that he’s God who is both male and female and thus embodies also the strength and dignity of the paradoxical gentleness and fierceness of the feminine. Both men and women, in Christ, justified by faith, are to receive and love all people unto the least, like a mother. It’s not reception as in tolerance; it’s life laying down neighbor love, the way a mother loves her child. Believe me, Jesus loves the whole world. He loves in the way that he bore the sins of the world just like a woman bears a child into it. In the same way she holds that child to her breast as she nurtures and sustains that child. In the same way a mother will lay her life down for her child no matter what the threat or possible destruction she herself will undergo.

Both men and women are encountered by God in the event of faith. Both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ marked by laying down of their lives and in bearing their crosses. Both men and women are brought unto death and into new life in Christ. Together.  Good news has come to the world in Christ Jesus this man who is God. And no longer bound to the systems and stories and lies of the world, believers are the ones who live into the world in a radical way; the one’s who know God and live as if they do. Today through the words of the poem of Proverbs 31 and in Jesus’s embracing a child, we are called to be the faithful witnesses of Christ in the world, to proclaim Christ crucified to the world in all that we say and in all that we do, and to love (radically) all people and the world as we have been loved (radically and unconditionally) by God. Let us love, let us love like a mother loves her child, love like the Proverbs 31 Woman, love like the women who knew, love #likeagirl.

[1] (1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5, Love your neighbor as yourself)

[2](DBI 297) “God not only provides, and provides abundantly for his creatures, but he also provides an immense variety of pleasurable flavors, textures, colors, shapes and smells, all of which indicate the joy and delight of the creator with his creation”

[3] (Prov. 6:6, 9; 10:26; 13:4; 15:19; 19:24; 20:4; 21:25; 22:13; 24:30)

[4] (v. 16; Gen. 1:28; Mt. 25:14-30).

[5] “Both the arm and the hand are biblical images of power….[and] can represent power in action, either good or evil” (DBI 43)

[6] (Gen. 1:10b, 12c, 18c, 20e, 25c, 31b)

[7] (Mt. 25:1-13)

[8] (Moore 25-30; BDB 813; cf. Nehemiah)

[9] (Gen. 1:24, Gen. 2:18)

[10] (Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22;39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14)

[11] (Gen. 1:24, 28)

[12] “In order to understand what follows, we must turn at once to the final goal: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,’ is the cry of man when God brings him the woman. This exclamation, the expression of a recognition, the proclamation of a choice and decision made by man—the first saying of man expressly recorded in the saga—is not just a kind of epilogue to the creation of the woman, and therefore the completion of man’s creation, but it is with this express saying of man that the latter reaches its goal…The whole story aims at this exclamation by man. In this, and this alone, the creative work of God reaches its goal, for only now has man really been given the necessary help designed by God” (CD III I.41.3 291).

[13] Erika Moore’s Exegesis paper, “The Domestic Warrior: An Exegesis of Proverbs 31:10-31”. 1994. (14).

The Free Gift

Every semester in seminary there would be this one moment in the middle of the semester where all of my classes would collide on one theological or biblical concept; different teachers teaching different classes, yet the trajectory of the lectures landed each professor and each class here at this specific point. Divine. I loved it when it happened, pure joy all the way down. While I’m no longer in seminary and moving along a sizeable course load, I still get that sense of joy when books I’m reading overlap, when the fiction book I’m reading provides the picture for the theological concept I’m reading about in my theology book. Today, such a wonderful event happened: reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just a bit ago, I was given a wonderful little scene that put images to words that I had read in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians yesterday evening.

Luther:

I am not speaking at such great length without reason. It seems to be exceedingly inadequate to say that the Holy Spirit is granted solely through hearing with faith and that nothing at all is demanded of us but that we refrain from all our works and just listen to the Gospel. The human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize as the Holy Spirit can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but it thinks this way: ‘The forgiveness of sins, deliverance from sin and death, the granting of the Holy Spirit, of righteousness and of eternal life–this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts.’ The devil approves of this opinion and magnifies it in the heart. Therefore when reason hears: ‘You cannot do anything to obtain the forgiveness of sins except only to listen to the Word of God, it immediately exclaims: ‘Oh no! You are making the forgiveness of sins too meager and contemptible!’ Thus the greatness of the gift is responsible for our not accepting it. Because such a great treasure is being offered freely, it is despised Luther Lectures on Galatians 3:2 (213)

And Dostoevsky:

‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’ Raskolnikov went on, suddenly frowning and looking down. ‘Setting aside the question of payment–forgive me for referring to it’ (he turned to Zossimov) ‘–I really don’t know what I have done to deserve such special attention from you! I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it. I tell you so candidly’ (Raskolnikov to Zossimov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (195))

I think there’s an assumption that if something is done for someone else freely, in charity, that that free gift will not only be taken advantage of (along with the giver) but that it naturally perpetuates a taking-for-granted cycle. While maybe sometimes the case, I’m not sold that it’s always the case. There’s no part of Raskolnikov (here) where he’s taking the posture of taking for granted medical care that has come to him in a great time of need and freely at that. He’s done absolutely nothing to deserve or to earn such treatment. So Zossimov’s treatment given as a true gift, freely, breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason; it just doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make sense it weighs upon him. “‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’… I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it” isn’t the language of someone who is taking something for granted even though it was something freely given.

A gift freely given is a confusing thing. And the larger the free gift the harder it is to understand.

As the free medical care from Zossimov breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason, causing him to be both confused and weighed down, so it is with us and the free gift that is given to us by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are given deliverance from sin, justification, righteousness, life of very life, and God himself. All of this is given to us all by faith in Christ alone and none of it by anything we have to offer or what we bring to the table, and beyond any we attempt we could make to earn it, and this breaks from reason and weighs heavy upon us. To refer to Luther’s words, we want to despise the free gift; it’s offensive to us on so many levels.

But here is one of those moments where the Law and Gospel, death and life, collide at one point: the free gift (the very beautiful free gift) reveals that something is wrong, that we are not well, and that in fact we are near death (or dead in our trespasses). It’s a light in the darkness that exposes the situation for what it is: dire. But then it’s also the free gift that’s freely given that makes well, heals, and brings into existence a new life, a new creation; as it exposes it is given. And as we are exposed by the free gift we also receive this inestimable gift of God himself through faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith. (Luther, Lecture on Galatians 3:2 (214))

And what miraculously flows forth from our hearts is gratitude, which eclipses the reality that our flesh so despises this free gift because it doesn’t make sense. In not knowing how to thank Zossimov and expressing his confusion about the free gift, Raskolnikov articulates a deep and abiding gratitude that is beyond words that trumps the confusion. Gratitude is the furthest point from “taking for granted.” It is gratitude that  is produced by seeing that God so wills it that you have this inestimable gift. It is gratitude that produces the love and worship of this man Christ Jesus who is God who gave himself freely for you. And it is gratitude that drives us towards our neighbor in love to freely give to them as we have freely received.