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Friday, 19 August 2016

cherry picking Jesus

(August 21st) 2016


Jeremiah 1:4-19
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

It is tempting to cherry pick our images of God, designing God to suit ourselves. By and large the words of scripture should be or only source for images of God, but even within those 66 books (as Marie reminded us last week) of the Protestant canon (I prefer the Catholic collection with its greater scope) there is an inexhaustible forest of imagery. Cherry picking to suit ourselves even within that forest of resources is dangerous.  As a rule of thumb I stress that all that we need to know of the Father is revealed in the person of the Son; in the birth, life, teachings, death, resurrection and promises of the Son we find all we need to know, and we don’t need to dig deeper than that. But even that is a vast resource pool; Jesus is wise, feisty, gentle, vulnerable, rebellious, obedient, bold, fearful, righteous, compassionate, even irritating … where do we stop?

We don’t! We grow through a lifespan of faith into more and more knowledges of the Son and through him into more and more knowledges of the Father. I use the plural ‘knowledges’ deliberately; no one person or culture has a copyright on the knowledge of the Son made known, revealed and made known by the Spirit. God knows us better than we know ourselves, knowing the journeys we shall be led on, the mistakes we will make, the redemptions we will find, the tears we’ll shed whether of laughter and joy or suffering and pain. God knows them and journeys with us through them: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.’

The author of Hebrews, like many authors in the Bible, makes one thing abundantly clear: God is not our playmate, not a chum or a household god, to be brought out in times of trouble and forgotten when no longer obviously needed. God is a being of terror; I confess I become a little frustrated with those who say we should never speak of ‘fearing’ God: we must fear God, though perhaps nothing and no one else. Yet we are called too to love and be loved by God. For as long as we serve and obey God’s call to justice and love and compassion then the love of the God who knits us together in our mother’s womb, the love of God rather than the wrath of God, will be our light and our way.

But the God of the bible is not afraid of wrath, and the writers of the bible are not afraid to tell of God’s wrath, and we must not be complacent about God’s wrath. The attitude of much Christian preaching is to pretend that we can direct God’s wrath on others, the big fore-finger pointing away from ourselves.  Gays, Muslims, atheists, whatever: I suggest over and again that we should leave others to God and watch instead, as many have noted, the three fingers pointing back at ourselves. God’s wrath may be seen as directed at me, at you and me, at us as we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. ‘See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!’ says the author of Hebrews. When we sign up for the love of God we sign up, too, to be the targets of God’s healing, redeeming wrath as well.

One of God’s tried and true techniques is to hand us, individually, collectively, or both, over to the ramifications of our own choices. Paul warns of this in his opening to the letter to the Romans; there he speaks of God’s ‘delivering’ or ‘handing over’ human beings to our inclinations. If we are currently witnessing in the world’s most powerful nation the politics of mediocrity and selfishness, of hatred and racism and sexism, then it is because we as the human race have not stopped the voices of mediocrity and selfishness, of hatred and racism and sexism in our own spheres of influence, perhaps even our own hearts and minds. If we are witnessing the overheating of planet earth, God’s garden gift to us, then it is because we have not stopped the exploitation of the earth’s resources in our search for an ever more self-indulgent lifestyle. If we are witnessing the growing opportunistic anger of oppressed peoples in a post-colonial world it is because we have failed to redress questions of justice, of genocide, exploitation, and nonchalance on the part of the Haves towards the plight of the Have-nots.

You and I can’t set the entire world to rights. We can however see the way in which Jesus over and again turns his gaze on us and challenges us to set to right our infinitesimally small pixel of the universe. We can’t cherry pick the bits of God we like and don’t like, want and don’t want, but we can see through the actions and words of Jesus the aspects of our own lives that God wants and doesn’t want, likes and doesn’t like. Above all in this and many similar passages Jesus makes abundantly clear his dislike of religious hypocrisy, the type of hypocrisy that uses the name of Jesus or indeed of Christianity as an excuse for hatred, bigotry, oppression and a myriad other evils.

You and I can’t set the entire world to rights. We can set ourselves to rights, by the aid of God’s Spirit, and we can intercede over and again for God’s world. As we set about doing that then the God who loves, heals and redeems will love, heal and redeem us and those we love and pray for, and will do so even when we can’t see it (for God’s perspective is eternal).


Thursday, 18 August 2016

carpe diem and repent?

23rd Sunday After Pentecost (7th November) 2004


Haggai 1,15b-2.9-18:
Psalm 98                  
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17
Luke 20.27-40          

Back at the beginnings of the dawning of consciousness of the people Israel, as they began to see the remarkable intervention of God that had delivered them from Egyptian tyranny, their memories gave birth to a powerful strand of challenging thinkers and speakers. These are those we call the prophets, men, perhaps women too, who dared to speak out whenever the people of God forgot their origins.

Only two aspects of those origins really mattered to them. First, they were a people who God had chosen to rescue. Second, they had been rescued from slavery, that most brutal form of oppression. As a result of those two historical observations God had given them a powerful challenge; re-member.

When we come to the part of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving that says “You have gathered us together to feed on Christ and to remember all he does for us” I make two slight changes. Firstly, I add the words “and make known”: “You have gathered us together to feed on Christ and to remember and make known all he does for us.” Secondly I pronounce the word “remember” in an unusual way. This is not a kiwi aberration, but an attempt to emphasize that, especially in Hebrew thought, to re-member is not merely to make a vague observation that something happened long ago, but rather to re-collect and make present (to re-present or “present again”!) once again moments that God has enabled in human history. Those sacred moments are knit back together again and made present once more in the sacred acts of ritual. They are “membered together” once again.

The job of the prophets was to challenge the people of God to re-membrance of simply those two aspects of their story: they were a people who God had chosen to rescue. They were a people who had been rescued from slavery – the most brutal form of oppression. But if “re-membrance” is not mere acknowledgement that something happened long ago, if re-membrance is a making present of past events, then there are powerful implications of the prophets’ call. Haggai’s call to his shattered people, (he was speaking to a broken people in exile, a people who had lost their story) was not merely “chin up old son,” but far closer to the famous carpe diem, “seize the day.” Seize the day not because of some wishy-washy sense that this is a nice thing to do, or a feel good thing to do, but because, in the words of the psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has made,” a day in which to rejoice and be glad precisely because it is a day planned in the purposes of God.

These words of Haggai, “Take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord” were spoken in a time of terrible turmoil and brokenness. God’s people were shattered; their temple was in ruins, their children were no longer practicing the liturgies and faith of their ancestors, and those that continued to believe in God were mocked and persecuted for their troubles. Strangely, the response of the people to Haggai was on the whole not “Oh that’s okay then” but “Shut up and leave us alone.” Nevertheless in the end the purposes of God prevailed, and the hope of the People of God was restored once more.

The lesson they had to learn was a brutal one. They had neglected the compassion and justice of God. When things were going well and they were living in a land of plenty they had forgotten to show compassion on those who had nothing, or on those who had fled to them for help. They had forgotten that God had heard the cries of their ancestors when they were in trouble, and that they in turn needed to listen to the cries of those in trouble now. Haggai and the prophets dared to say that the doom that befell the people of Israel was the will, even the punishment, of God.

The implications of this for contemporary western Christianity are inescapable.  Where we as the people of God have forgotten our baptismal promises to live out the justice seeking, compassion proclaiming Way of the Cross, then we like the ancient people of God have lost our way. It may be that we as a western world need to see the decay of our much vaunted civilization. It may be that our vast infrastructures need to crumble or be destroyed around our ears.  That may include the structures of our Anglican Church. It may be that our children leave the traditions and faith of our forebears in droves. At least since the 1960s that has clearly been the case. It may be that our churches close. 

It may be that we, the remnant so often mentioned and addressed by Paul in his writings, need to be a people who seek God in sorrow. We need to read our sacred scriptures and to meet in prayer and study, for the future of our faith is at least in part in the hands God has given us. Yet even in our sackcloth and our ashes (and there must be plenty of those) we are called to re-member: “take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord.” Take courage and seize the day, for this is God’s day, and in all its bewilderment it is a part of the unquestionable purpose of the one who created us and those we love.


Saturday, 13 August 2016

it's all about me, dude



Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18:
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1.11-23
Luke 6.20-31              

It is critical from time to time (if not every time and all the time) to take ourselves on an outside body experience, to look in at ourselves from the outside. It is a maxim that we should apply to every facet of our lives. How do we as a nation look to outsiders? How do we as a town or district look to outsiders? How do we as a faith look to outsiders? How do we as a faith community look to outsiders? In the case of these last two we might also look for any disparity between the two sets of observations; do we as a faith community demonstrate the same strengths and weaknesses we as a faith might demonstrate? That is a question we might place on notice for a while.

There are many in the community around us, and in the wider world of other religions and of the rejection of religion, who see selfishness at the heart of the gospel. Much of Christianity portrays itself as a religion obsessed with something called the ‘salvation’ of the believer’s soul, the passport of the individual believer from the trials of this world into a more benevolent world as yet unseen. To make it worse there are forms of Christianity that make that observation all too true. Taking words of Paul wildly out of context, these interpreters see ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ as an invitation to disregard human or environmental suffering as something of no moment to the believer: ‘the present form of this world is passing away’ so why care, for I have my passport to the next world?

I have a hunch that this is in part at the heart of the growing western, and especially Australian, rejection of Christianity. The tough environment in which our forebears made their way offered little encouragement for God-botherers. Why suffer deprivation in the present in order to take a chance on an unseen future?

The Buddhist observer might add another dimension to the question: can your own future good time with God, your salvation and future existence in some state called heaven, ever be a state of wholeness when there are others who will not share it? The Archbishop of Sydney, so much in the news at present, has been very public about his fears that his mother, who died without public confession of faith, is unable to share God’s reign with him. The Buddhist would ask whether, in that case, the Archbishop of Sydney would ever be able to embrace the eternities of God, when the population of heaven is so deplete and the mother who gave him life is not invited to share in the eschatological banquet. The very act of enjoying such circumstances would be to the Buddhist an act and a state of selfishness. A look from the outside at our readings from Daniel and Ephesians would do little to dispel their doubts; the first celebrates the future of the ‘holy ones of the Most High’ who ‘shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever,’ while the second announces with seeming smugness ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance.’

How then, are we, (if we believe our encounter with the risen Lord is genuinely a message of hope for God’s world) to project a gospel of hope, and not one of selfish reality-denial? It may in fact be that the Buddhist observer can give us a hint as to how the saints should live. For at the heart of Buddhism, and, one would hope, at the heart of our faith too, is a call to reject selfishness. The Buddhists might say a call to reject ‘self’ altogether, and there we might part company with them. We might instead say with the great and grumpy saint Paul, that ours is a call to de-prioritize self: it is no longer I who lives (no longer I who matters), but Christ who lives in me. Or, as John the Baptist puts it in the Fourth Gospel, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ The motivation for our life becomes, in that case, no longer our own happy time in the eternal futures of God, but our call to bring others to know the compassionate Christ who whispers words of justice and compassion into the ears and hearts of the most lonely and broken and wretched of the earth. We are called, as German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, to live for others.

If, wearing our outsider mask, we were to walk into much Christian worship or conversation, we would hear much self-centred singing about the gatherers. Many songs would be about the exclusive, even elite, relationship we claim to enjoy with God: ‘I’ve been redeemed by the blood of the lamb,’ or of the auto-erotic ‘just let me say how much I love you’ varieties. Such songs wallow in the ‘me and Jesus’ relationship, and say nothing of what that relationship does to challenge us to proclaim by loving action God’s reign in the world. That is one major reason why Anne and I are very careful about the songs we allow in worship: what we sing and how we worship dictates the types of believer that we become. It also tells those on the outside looking in who we are. Are we a selfish people of god, or a people of God challenged by God to exercise transforming love in the world that is lent to us? We are called to be the public face of God, and that is no slight challenge.

Yet in the end, we all know people along the way who have inspired us by their ability to be that public face of God and (to slaughter my grammar) to be it well. Some are famous: the great saints down through the ages. Others are those known to us alone, the people who touched and transformed our lives, breathed the breath of God into our lungs, and encouraged us along life’s journey. It is these we celebrate this day.


Thursday, 11 August 2016

Re-clothe us in our rightful mind



1 Kings 19.1-15a
Psalm 42
Gal. 3.10-14, 23-29
Luke 8.26-39

 Being a faith community well trained by its leaders, you will be aware of the critical importance not only of reading the scriptures but of reading with a quizzical mind. “Why is this story being told?” Scholars call this a “hermeneutics of suspicion” – readiness to challenge the scriptures so that we might be challenged and transformed by them. The second part of that equation, often perhaps forgotten in the processes of theological scholarship, is the basis on which our faith will grow. We must be challenged by the scriptures. But the challenge they and their authors offer us will be heightened if we do them the decency of taking them seriously.

In particular we need to work with these questions as we read Matthew, Mark and Luke. Why does Luke tell us this story? Why does he tell it to us in a different way – a different location, for example, with a different number of demoniacs, to Matthew? Does he make any changes to the way in which Mark tells the story? Why does Luke add the detail, not supplied by Mark, that the man is naked? Is this no more than a prurient interest, or is there literary or even theological purpose here?

Likewise we should read a passage such as this exorcism story noting what it is that remains the same between the telling of Matthew, Mark & Luke. At one level we can simply say, “well, that’s the way it happened.” But often these three gospel writers do change the order or location of events. Why here then does sequence remain the same? Why is it important that this story is told after the events of the stilling of a storm, severed from our reading here by the demands of lectionary-based worship?

The manuscripts of the Greek differ as to where Jesus actually was, and Matthew gives a different location altogether, but in Luke’s hands, this is the deepest incursion Jesus makes into gentile territory – for Luke omits the story of the Syrophoenecian woman told by Mark and Matthew. The storm scene has told us that no territory is beyond the reach of the Christ. As if to emphasize that, Jesus is now with his followers in deepest foreign territory. This is not only gentile territory, but serious gentile territory. This is the territory of swineherds, abhorrent to the Jew. This is the territory to which only a prodigal son might venture, a Far Country. This is the nadir, the low-point of the Incarnation – or it is so at until the depths of Good Friday are plumbed and the Son reaches the Farthest Country Of All. This though is the Far Country, unclean country, perhaps even, dare I say it (for Luke does) our country.

This is the country in which still greater depths of the compassion of Jesus can be exposed. A week ago we saw the desperation of a so-called “sinful woman,” despised and yet used by society, recognizing in Jesus the compassion and justice and healing that society would never give her. Here Jesus encounters something beyond our compre­hension. The demons that torment this man are “legion,” a word borrowed from the Latin to describe a company of 4-6,000 soldiers. Here we are in the company of serious evil: here we are in Abu Ghraib, piling naked bodies in a tortured heap. Here we are in the plotting cells of Al Qaeda, plotting death and destruction. Here we are in the depths of a paedophile racket, wantonly and selfishly destroying lives perhaps even in the name of the Church. Here we are in the furthest country of uncleanness and possession.

Jesus has in the stilling of the storm demonstrated power over the darknesses of creation, speaking resurrection victory into that great terror of the Hebrews, death by drowning. Now he is to reach yet further, further than the demons guess. As they flee into the swine the swine flee into this same sea that Jesus has mastered. They are destroyed, not merely with the temporary restraint of the terrifying abyss of which they had been afraid, but with the total destruction that befalls those that seek to play games with God.

Luke’s purpose in presenting this entire block of material is revealed at 9.1. Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure disease. Here the actions of Jesus foreshadow the ministry the disciples themselves are going to receive. And the empowerment of the disciples is no more than a precursor to the empowerment that we, the Pentecostal People of God, are to receive.

We read this particularly in Luke’s second volume, the Acts. In Acts 16.16-34, we find Paul driving demons from a slave girl who has a spirit of divination – fortune telling. Her owners are furious and have Paul imprisoned for his destruction of their livelihood. But there is a warning, too, in Acts. In Acts 19 “seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva,” imitating Paul, attempt to drive out demons in the name of Jesus despite not knowing the risen Lord. “We know Jesus and Paul,” say the demons, “But we don’t know you.” Phoniness is exposed, and the impostors are overpowered by the demons. There is no room for game-playing in the purposes of God, and the authority and power of God is to be used, Luke wants us to see, only by those who walk on the costly Way of the Cross.

There is no social thanksgiving for the exorcism of demons. On the contrary, both the Gerasene community of our story and the Macedonian community where Silas and Paul exorcise the slave girl, are livid. They would rather remain entrapped in the demonic than experience the delivering love of Christ. In our story this is despite the economic hardship that the demoniac brings to the region. Economic loss, Luke suggests, is the price some will pay in order not to be challenged by the goodness of God.

There is here no attempt at a prosperity gospel, no suggestion of “come to Jesus and your pockets will be filled,” for the opposite was often the experience of the early Christians. Paul at Ephesus and Philippi sees communities of faith brought into economic isolation and hardship by their choice to follow Jesus: such may sometimes be the cost of following the one who had nowhere to lay his head. The challenge of living a life answerable to the demands of God great, sometimes too great, and we would prefer to live in a world crippled by its ugly underbellies of racial intolerance, chemical addiction and throwaway relationships than receive the freedom of deliverance by Christ.

We as a contemporary community of faith can expect no thanks for our proclamation. Where we betray the gospel and our Lord, taking God’s name in vain by perpetrating abuse in the name of the Church, or failing to deal adequately with those who have done so, we will rightly be pilloried. But where we offer a compassionate challenge to society, living lives of credibility and daring to speak uncomfortable words of reconciliation or forgiveness or grace, we will receive no greater thanks than when we fail. The way of Jesus is not the way of adulation but the Way of the Cross.

Nevertheless, like our demoniac, we receive the touch of Christ and, as the hymnist put it, Jesus “reclothe[s] us in our rightful mind.” That is why Luke corrects Mark’s omission of the detail of nakedness at the beginning of the story: he wants us to see that this is a story of reclothing with the mind of Christ. But the demoniac lives in a society which wants no cycle-breaking words of reconciliation, forgiveness and healing. His society wants to keep its demons. In Mark’s version this healed demoniac is one of the few in the gospel story who successfully proclaims the good news: “and all people marvelled” (Mk.5.20). We are called, like the now healed demoniac, “Go … tell.”


Saturday, 6 August 2016

the desperate the predatory, the summons


Readings:        Jeremiah 31.27-34
                        Psalm 119.97-104
                        2 Timothy 3.10-4.5
                        Luke 18.1-14

It is easy, in an era of instant answers, to take particularly the first of these two parables, as a “how to do it” instruction on the processes of prayer. If this is the case, and we are invited to take the usual parabolic leap from unjust judge to loving God, then we have in this parable permission to badger God endlessly, earning with some justification the title “God-botherers” that we are sometimes given.
To some extent that is a fair response to this parable. But, before we make that extrapolation, we need to remember that Jesus has already given his one and only answer to the question “how do I pray.” The answer to that all too human question is that prayer that we incorporate, in one translation or another, into our every liturgy: “Our Father …”. It is a series of approaches and petitions addressed to the Creator, addressed quite formally as “pater”, not the familiar “Abba” with which Jesus approaches the Creator. Amongst the five petitions, only one is for the speaker’s own material needs. That one, “give us this day our daily bread” limits itself only to the most basic of needs. There is no petition for this week’s lotto numbers, or for good rains, no petition for my team to win the election, not even a petition for church growth and wondrous impact on the community. It addresses only the basest of human needs: basic belly food.
That in fact we have all received immeasurably more than that places us well and truly into the realms of underserved bonus. The rain often, or at least sometimes, falls not only enough to give us our bread, but to top up our bank accounts as well. We sometimes have a holiday, sometimes have cake, sometimes own a television. Few in the world are so lucky.
In fact our two parables this day are not primarily about prayer at all. They are known only to Luke, and are dislocated from their original context: we don’t know when or in what context Jesus originally used them. But Luke places them into the context of teaching not on prayer but on the second coming of the one he calls “the Son of Man.” That longing too has been one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come.” Here it is expounded.
The key word by which it is expounded in Luke’s method is lost to us in translation. It does not immediately leap at us from the English text, but each of these two parables centres on the word ἐκδικήσω, a word that means “to grant justice.” In the two parables, first the persecuted judge of the first parable, and then the prayer-answering Creator of the second are concerned to “set things aright”, to justify or ameliorate the situation of their central characters. The persistent woman and the self-aware tax-collector are set right before the God who brings all things to their close.
This question of being right with God in the close of time is, therefore, the central issue of these parables, rather than the subject of prayer per se. The first parable as retold by Luke assumes that the audience knows the “thy/your kingdom come” petition of the prayer of Jesus. It assumes also, however that the Jesus-community of Luke is losing heart. It has prayed for the coming of the kingdom, but continues to be persecuted, to see its members suffer and die. There is and will continue to be much of the same in the history of Christianity, not least in the present day. With two thousand years of praying for the kingdom, we may indeed be all the more tempted to lose heart.
The widow, who is the central character in the first parable, is a symbol of powerlessness and helplessness. As her persistence demonstrates, she is a seriously un-nice person to boot! Widows in Luke’s time were utterly without formal support, and largely without hope of family support either. They were on the edge of society, desperate to survive. Her desperation is our message.
For our human experience is of a delayed end to human history, and, in passing, often of unanswered prayers for lesser longings, too. In part we must allow ourselves to be answers to our prayer: can we pray for rain? But what of our environmental errors that are altering the globe’s climates and making the weather patterns that were known to our forebears no more than a fading memory? Can we pray for rain while we desperately alter the environment that God gave us? Can we pray for peace? Peace in the Old Testament scriptures is never merely the absence of war, but always the presence of justice. What of international monetary imbalances? Can we pray for peace when so much of the world’s opportunity is in the hands of so few, and you and I and our nation are in the top rungs of world wealth? Can we pray for peace when our lives continue to perpetrate economic injustice on a local and a global scale?
A black American pastor once said of the widow in our parable, “Unless you have stood at the door and knocked until bleeding, you do not know what prayer is.” It is a brutal image, and not one that it comforts us to hear. But we must ask the question that originally spurred our imaginary widow into action: what action can we take to provide the answer to the prayers and longings of our hearts?
Our second parable was deeply shocking to Luke’s audience: a tax collector was, at the time of Jesus, an utterly unjustifiable human being. The equivalent in our society is more likely to be the sexual predator that we hear so tragically much about. Could we face the implications of this parable if the second character in this parable was a sexual opportunist, downloading child pornography, and yet now making full public confession of his sin? Could we forgive? We should remember that Jesus nowhere offers cheap grace, a pat on the back and an issue-avoiding “never mind.” Always this is the proviso: go and sin no more. When the tax collector Matthew in another scene seeks to follow Jesus he offers to make full reparation of the damage he has caused before he does so.  Yet even with those requisites fulfilled would we allow the sexual predator the grace of God, or would we flog him or her (the latter increasingly apparent as social power imbalances shift) and execute them outside the city walls? Can we be the answer to our prayers?
For our response is not to be “thank God I am not like the Pharisee” of the second parable, but to wonder where in us the Pharisee is dwelling. Do we dare to offer ourselves, as we will at the end of this liturgy, as “a living sacrifice” in the service and the message of the gospel of grace, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation and judgement?
The persistent woman and the tax collector are seriously un-nice people. Yet each is crying out of their brokenness for the encounter with grace. Do we risk the same? Do we dare to offer ourselves as the answer top our own prayers, even when we pray for daily bread and for the coming of God’s Reign?


Wednesday, 3 August 2016

the inconvenient socialist Christ?



Jeremiah 8:18 - 9.1
Psalm 79: 1-9
1 Timothy 3:14 - 4.6
Luke 16:1-13

It was a young friend of mine many years ago, the son of an evangelical theologian and biblical scholar, but the son rapidly eschewing evangelical interpretation, who first drummed home to me the insight that Luke’s was a gospel of socialism. Scholars have I think played with the idea before and since (I don’t currently have access to my scholarship resources to check), but his was the aha moment in my journey of interpretation of Luke’s writings. Luke was, shock horror, a socialist.

Perhaps because he was living in what he thought was the shadow of the End Time, the final consummation that was the second coming of Christ, he saw property as a gospel encumbrance. Wealth should be disposed in the service of proclaiming God’s Reign, and the very act of disposal itself demonstrated believers’ commitment to the highest ideals of faith. Wealth was to be used only in the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As Jesus journeyed towards Jerusalem and death, this was an inevitable strand of his teaching, probably not only merely as Luke portrayed matters but in what we might (struggling with the English language) call “historical reality,” too. Luke 16:1-13 ought to be, must be read in conjunction with Luke 16:14-31; separation of the two passages does the gospel (and the Gospel) an injustice, a disservice.

The Parable of the Shrewd manager is addressed to the disciples of Jesus, who have been given custody of great treasure. We are called to place ourselves in their shoes, as indeed they place themselves in the shoes of the shrewd manager. Are we urgent and shrewd in our management of the gospel treasure entrusted to us? Luke is probably adding commentary to the original words of Jesus – all the New Testament writers did – but the urgency of the scene is the urgency of Jesus’ original proclamation.

Jesus we can assume does not commend the dishonesty of the shrewd manager, but applauds his energy. The manager engages in urgent reprioritizing of his task, precisely because (as Boswell put it), “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” This perhaps is not a hanging that he faces, but it may as well be: his end as a manager is scarily near. (It is incidentally, a frequent ploy of Jesus to illustrate his teachings of and about God by means of a villain!)

The shrewd nature of the manager can have ramifications for countless aspects of our lives, not least for our intellect. Shrewd scheming is, after all, an intellectual, cerebral activity, reminding us that we are to love God with our hearts and minds, as well as bodies and souls, all our being. My young friend was doing that, applying intellect to faith. Sadly though the later journey he took away from Christianity may indicate that he saw too little inauthenticity and integrity in the lives of those who stayed in the fold, too little to attract his continued belief in the God of Christianity.

We are called by Jesus to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. It is not a bad juxtaposition, not a bad calling! It is possible to manage our possessions in service of gospel-urgency, even though we might avoid the cultlike surrender of all demanded by some cult-leaders (I suspect this preacher would receive short shrift if he attempted that approach to possessions here!).

In our passage verses 10-13 are stand-alone sayings not dependent on the parable. They too remind us, as Luke intended, that we are called to be faithful in the minutiae of life – in this … in this … in this … Luke has Jesus say, in every nook and cranny of our being. I know only too well how much I fail in that regard, yet the journey is a constant one of fall and redemption, and we are challenged simply to create the habit of fidelity to Christ over all else as we stumble along God’s way.


Friday, 29 July 2016

God's besiegers from a distant land?

(12th September) 2004


Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1.1-2, 12-19a
Luke 15.1-10

Jeremiah the prophet was such an unflinching and outspoken character that his name, twenty-five centuries after his death, came to be used as a nickname for a party-pooper or spoilsport, a Jeremiah. Yet this use of his name was not altogether fair; he is a party-pooper only when the party involves neglect of the relationship between God and the people of God, and neglect of the standards of compassion and justice demanded by God in return for the privileges God had provided. In other words, Jeremiah is the conscience of a nation (much as Sir William Deane was in this country a few years back (whether or not that was his role).

One way in which Jeremiah ensured his own unpopularity and loneliness was by suggesting that the calamities that befell Judah and Jerusalem were the will and intention of God. One could imagine that it would not be a way to win popularity in contemporary Australia or the United States that the horrors currently befalling the West (and we could include Russia in that category) were the will of God. The Americans are a religiously conscious nation, for better or for worse, whereas in Australia generally we are not, for better or for worse. In either case, the message that suffering is the will of God would be a passport to ostracism and hatred.

Yet it was the message of Jeremiah:

Tell the nations, “Here they are!”
Proclaim against Jerusalem,
“Besiegers come from a distant land;
they shout against the cities of Judah.
They have closed in around her like watchers of a field,
because she has rebelled against me,
says the Lord.
Your ways and your doings
have brought this upon you.
This is your doom; how bitter it is!
It has reached your very heart.”

Jeremiah is suggesting that the enemies of God’s people are the instruments (but never the friends) of God. Isaiah is to go further, describing Cyrus, conqueror of Israel, as his chosen servant (Is. 45.1). The implications of such a claim are phenomenal: “Osama, my servant” would ring in our ears with the same cacophonous alarm. There is no room here for the inevitable horror that we all feel at the high human cost of bombings in New York, Washington, Denpasar, Madrid, Jakarta, or, most horrific of all since 9/11, Beslan.[1] The scriptures of the Hebrew prophets do not generally wrestle with the great philosophical questions as to how God allows horror and tragedy, but demand that the people of God learn from the tragedies that have befallen them.

How great a contrast this punitive God is with the gentle Jesus-as-shepherd of the Lukan parable or of the Fourth Gospel’s “I am” saying, “I am the good Shepherd.” With the Europeanization of the gospel, the rugged danger of the shepherd’s life has been watered down to images of gentle Southdown lambs and green pastures, rather than the rugged Palestinian sheep and ravishing wildlife of the original context. However even if this error is corrected the image of the shepherd God seems far removed from the furious and betrayed God of Jeremiah. So much so that one early church father, subsequently condemned as a heretic, sought to excise the Hebrew scriptures from the bible.

How wise it was that he, the heretic Marcion, was found to be wrong! for while we all to a person feel more comfortable with images of the compassionate God-in-Christ seeking lost sheep, it remains critical that we do not reduce God to domesticity and nicety. The God who flings the fires of stars across the heavens is not a god to be tamed to Europeanized domesticity. The God of the ugliness of Good Friday is not a god unable to bear the scars of Beslan or 9/11, however brutal they may be.

As the critics of Marcion rightly saw, we are not called to choose between Jeremiah’s God and the God revealed in Jesus Christ as an either/or. Even within the life of the one we have come to know as Good Shepherd Christ there is the discomforting image of a bull whip taken at the very least to the tables of the money changers in the Temple. This is no domesticated God revealed in the man Jesus. Yet it is the tender God already known in the Hebrew Scriptures from the Genesis story of the expulsion from Eden, the God who expels yet personally clothes the miscreant proto-humans.

In the end the witness of Hebrew and Greek scriptures are alike. God the compassionate reserves the right to be God the furious: “I am who I am” says YHWH in answer to the domesticating question “who are you.” I will be who I will be.

Anger in the scriptures is always directed at socio-religious hypocrisy, hypocrisy which may include cosy attempts to domesticate the Lord of heaven and earth. Yet in the life-revelation of Jesus of Nazareth the emphasis shifts fractionally. God is revealed not as domesticated, nor certainly as the good-time warm-fuzzy god of so much contemporary preaching, but as a God prepared to taken into God-self the unimaginable horror of the Cross, unimaginable horror of Beslan, of 9/11, of whatever else lies ahead, and whisper resurrection into its ugly scenes.

This then is the God we are called to choose and serve in humbleness, but never in domestic complacency.