Unjust Judges and Widows

crosswButterfliesThe introduction to the Parable of the Unjust Judge tells us that we should keep on praying and never give up. At the end of the parable, Jesus tells us that we should keep on praying even when our prayers go unanswered for so long that we think we are praying to one who does not care and perhaps is not even just.

It happens that in life, nagging and nagging is often the only way to get justice, or what we think is justice. There are some people who are eager to help and will hop to a request as soon as it is spoken, but many people are rather slow to do what is asked of them, and many people have vested interests in denying pleas for justice. These are the people who have more power than others and they usually use that power to take advantage of those who are weaker. Do the people with power take an initiative in renouncing their power for the benefit of others? Do people with power renounce it when politely requested to do so? We all know that doesn’t happen very often. Even in the top-down case of Czar Alexander II freeing the serfs in Russia, the class structure in Russia didn’t change very much.

Most of us instinctively identify with the widow who is trying to get justice. As widows, we expect that God’s granting of justice involves God strong-arming the unjust judges of the world until all of us widows get our rights. But that is not what happened with Jesus. Far from dismantling the unjust rule of the Romans, Jesus himself was condemned to death by the unjust judges among the Jewish leaders, the Roman governor, and the rest of us in the crowd. As the culmination of the persecuted prophets, Jesus reveals God to be the widow who is pleading with us, for justice.

That is. we are the unjust judges. Even people with little power overall tend to be unjust judges over those (such as children) who have even less power. This portrait of humanity raises the question as to whether it is God who delays justice. If humans act unjustly and delay justice to the point that injustice is a longstanding epidemic, then God could have been working overtime since the dawn of civilization and still have no hope of keeping up with the injustice.

Jesus as the crucified widow who died at our hands, the unjust judges, is not what we were looking for when we thought of ourselves as widows. But that is what we got. Not only that, but we also got the resurrected widow who still pleads for justice without ceasing. As the resurrected widow, Jesus has offered us, the unjust judges, forgiveness and the offer to enter into the kingship of Jesus. The parable suggests that we enter as importunate widows who plead with forgiveness and love for the unjust judges as some of our greatest leaders have done, leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Desmond Tutu. But we also enter the kingship of Heaven as repentant unjust judges. In the parable, the Unjust Judge only relents because he is more miserable from being hassled by the widow than he is with any power he might lose by giving her justice. But at least the Unjust Judge finally does the right thing, even if his motives are as selfish as those of the Dishonest Steward in the earlier parable. (Lk. 16: 10–13) Maybe if we start to do the right thing, however grudgingly, we might find that doing the right thing, of granting justice to those weaker than we, isn’t so bad after all. Maybe giving justice can become a habit.

What does this parable teach us about prayer? It surely teaches us to pray constantly like the importunate widow, and to thirst for justice, as the Sermon on the Mount would have us do. However, we are not praying to a strong man who will manhandle the bad guys for us. (We would be among those so manhandled in that case.) We are praying with God the Crucified and Risen Widow who offers us freedom from our own injustice so that we can spread justice to others with a burning desire.

A Rogue and God’s Kingship

purpleFlower1Can a charming rogue be an example of how to enter the Kingship of God? Jesus’ Parable of the Dishonest Manager invites us to explore that question.

The Rich Man has heard rumors that his Manager is squandering his property and decides immediately to fire the Manager without giving the Manager a chance to defend himself. In a most helpful article on the parable, David Landry makes the Rich Man’s swift action understandable by explaining the importance of honor in ancient society. In an honor system, the notoriety of a delinquent subordinate reflects badly on the pater familias who is supposed to control everybody under his authority. The public rumors about the Manager threaten the Rich Man with social disgrace and he is running scared.

The inner dialogue of the Dishonest Manager shows no honor as his desperate scheming leads to an inventive solution to his dilemma. Generous with the Rich Man’s money, he quickly acts to reduce the debts owed the Rich Man. These debts strengthen the portrait of the Rich Man as a ruthless person who uses economic power to oppress others, a common practice of absentee landlords in Jesus’ time. He is the sort of rich man who the prophet Amos accused of “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” (Amos 6) Although the Dishonest Manager is acting only out of self-interest, he is still helping other people in the process.

The Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager is perhaps the most puzzling turn in the parable. Landry’s discussion of honor is helpful here as well. He suggests that the Manager’s reducing the debts has brought admiration and honor to the Rich Man, something the Rich Man has probably had very little of in the past. The same person who had brought dishonor on the Rich Man has now used his agency to bring the Rich Man more honor than he has ever had.

The act of forgiveness, self-centered as it is, has thrown a monkey wrench into the economic system which up to this time has been one of economic exploitation of the weak. This is what trickster rogues like the Dishonest Manager do. The Rich Man, hard-hearted up to this point, confirms the forgiven debts, which are a fait accompli anyway. What kind of chain reaction might occur out of this action that could transform the economic system into one based on forgiveness and love? What transformation of character might there be on the part of both the Manager and the Rich Man? At the beginning of the parable, the Rich Man believes the accusations against his Dishonest Manager out of fear that his honor is compromised. By the end of the parable, the Rich Man has gained honor for being generous, a challenge to gain even more honor through more generosity, honor that can be enhanced by keeping the Manager.

When we note that this parable in Luke’s Gospel follows directly the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the probability that the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is indeed about forgiveness is heightened. Moreover, there are some significant links between the two parables. Most prominently, each features a man who has squandered the resources of somebody else. Indeed, the same otherwise rare Greek verb diaskorpizo is used both times. The theme of honor plays a contrasting role in these parables. The Rich Man clings to his honor, but he does shift from being a slave to the opinions of those accusing the Manager to accepting honor from those whose debts have been forgiven. The Father of the Prodigal Son, on the other hand, throws honor to the winds throughout, first by allowing the younger son to insult him by asking for his inheritance, then by frantically running out to meet the younger son when he returns. Might the Rich Man eventually take this final step in renouncing his sense of honor out of love for those indebted to him? Is such renunciation of honor what it means to serve God rather than wealth, since honor is a form of wealth? (Lk. 15: 13)

Right after the Rich Man’s commendation of the Manager, Jesus adds: “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Lk. 16: 8) Here, Jesus poses a powerful question to his followers: Do we actually forgive others even as much as the Dishonest Manager forgave the debts owed the Rich Man? Is there a chance that the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man will enter the Kingdom of God before us?

God’s Sabbath Rest

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyJesus’ healing of the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years (Lk. 13: 13–17) is one of many healing miracles where the Evangelist emphasizes its occurrence on the Sabbath. These healings were provocative to the Jewish leaders because they interpreted the Sabbath law to preclude any kind of work. Jesus clearly intended to challenge that interpretation but there is a deeper teaching about the Sabbath that he wants us to learn.

We see hints of this deeper teaching in these stirring words from Isaiah about the Sabbath:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 58: 13–14)

For the prophet, one dishonors the Sabbath by grimly pursuing one’s own interests instead of delighting in the Lord. In healing the crippled woman, Jesus was not pursuing his own interests, but that of another. More important, the healing caused much delight in the Lord on the part of the people who witnessed it except for the Leader of the Synagogue. A bit earlier, before speaking specifically of the Sabbath, Isaiah expressed God’s commendation of those who offer food to the hungry and “satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” ( Is. 58: 10) Jesus obviously thought that satisfying the need of an afflicted woman is a way of honoring the Sabbath.

Psalm 95 refers to God’s “Rest” to mean both entry into the Promised Land and the Sabbath Rest as God’s intended end for humanity. The rebellion of the Israelites in the desert threatens to prevent the Israelites from entering God’s “Rest” on both levels. (Ps. 95: 11) The author of Hebrews picks up this theme in its eschatological dimension, noting that Joshua had not led the Israelites into the ultimate Rest when we cease from [our] labors as God did from his.” (Heb. 4: 10)

The author of Hebrews returns to this eschatological theme at the end of the letter when he contrasts the frightening dark cloud of Mount Sinai that the Israelites came to with our coming to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb. 12: 22–24) Once again, we have corporate rejoicing. More important, we have the “better word” of Jesus, the Forgiving Victim in contrast to Abel’s blood that inspired vengeance from which God had to shield the murderer.

The Psalmist’s warning that those who murmur against God and Moses will not enter into God’s Rest and the author of Hebrews’s use of the same threatening tone for those who refuse the warning from Heaven sound vindictive but the “better word than Abel” suggests otherwise. I think we do better to realize that God’s Sabbath Rest isn’t so restful as long as we grumble like the Leader of the Synagogue. Nobody was casting him out of God’s Sabbath Rest; he just wasn’t having any part of it.

Inspired by Jesus’ resurrection on the first day of the week, most Christians celebrate the Sabbath on that day when we celebrate the Paschal Mystery of Christ at the altar. Since the Resurrection points to the ultimate meaning of the Sabbath, I would think it is not too much to see this healing by Jesus as one of many foretastes of the Resurrection, an encouragement to celebrate new life from the bondage of illness and injury and social oppression. The healing of just one person seems a small thing compared to the heavenly crowd in Hebrews but the whole crowd rejoiced in the healing, indicating that healing one person entailed healing the whole community. This group rejoicing suggests that the Sabbath Rest is hardly a boring, static existence but a dynamic rejoicing in the interests and healing of others which leaves no room for murmuring and rejecting God’s blessings. We should be too busy rejoicing for that.

Born of a Woman

MaryIn most churches, the Blessed Virgin Mary is either given very high honor, sometimes exuberantly so, or she is cast out of mind except at Christmas where she might be allowed in a manger scene.

As with many other things, the Anglican Communion is funny about the matter. One sees both extremes and much in the middle. As a result, an Anglican preaching on the Feast of Saint Mary is apt to feel called upon to explain the place, or lack of place, of Mary in Christian devotion in just a few minutes.

Fortunately, St. Paul does most of the job for me with these words from Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 4–5) These words are so sober and so far from holy cards of Mary ascending into Heaven that they might seem to dismiss that sort of thing, but they don’t. The important thing is that Jesus was born of a woman and we know from elsewhere in scripture that her name was Mary. If we are going to take the humanity of Jesus seriously, we have to take seriously the fact that he was born of a woman and suckled by a woman. If we push her off to the side in our theology and devotion, we risk losing the humanity Jesus shares with us by having a human mother. However, Paul not only stresses the humanity of Jesus, but the raising of humans to a divine level in the sense that we are adopted as sons and daughters of Jesus’ heavenly Abba. This adoption obviously includes his mother who gave birth to him and raised the child who would be raised up on the cross and then raised to heaven. Celebrating Mary’s assumption into heaven, then, entails celebrating our assumption into heaven as well. Jesus did a great thing for Mary because Jesus is going to do a great thing for us.

In Mary’s song, the Magnificat, Mary sings that “the Mighty One” has done great things for her and that God has mercy “for those who fear him from generation to generation.” (Lk. 1: 50) To honor Mary, then, is to honor her willing submission to her son’s Abba. Since it is her son’s Abba who does great things, there is no need to appeal to Mother Mary for fear that Jesus or his Abba are having a bad day. On the other hand, Mary wants what her son’s Abba wants for us, and so she prays for all of us as do all the saints in Heaven. Mary goes on to sing about God bringing down the mighty and raising up the lowly, of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. That is to say, when a young woman gives birth to a child who is God just as much as he is human, the world is in for a shakeup. Since the shakeup is as gentle as a young maiden saying “Yes,” it is easy to look at the world and not realize that it has been turned upside down. If we haven’t noticed that, we’re missing something

Learning How to Pray to Our Abba

HolyFamilybyGutierrezWhen Jesus’ disciples asked their master how they should pray, he taught them a prayer that has us learn by doing. We are taken aback by Luke’s shorter version of this prayer (Lk. 11: 2–4) since the liturgical use of Matthew’s version with an added doxology causes us to think it is the only form it has. We will find, however, that this shorter version has the main elements of the longer one.

The opening word, Abba, is startling. The English word “father” fails to capture the tone of the Aramaic word believed by scholars to be the one Jesus used here. Even those of us who know this word from preachers and scholars can easily forget the impact of addressing God so intimately, the way a small child addresses his or her father. It is easier to identify with Abraham who speaks deferentially to God when interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. He seems very much afraid of pestering God too much, perhaps afraid God will rain fire and brimstone on him if he keeps at it. (Gen. 18: 20–32) Unfortunately, many people experience their earthly fathers in this way, and project such experiences on our heavenly Abba.

The petition: “Hallowed be your name,” asks that God vindicate God’s name as when God delivered the Israelites from Egypt. Such acts make God so awesome they make us forget that God is our Abba. But perhaps Jesus is teaching us that what we thought was such an awesome god is really as close, even closer, than a parent to a small child, a different kind of awesome. Miracles can be intimate.

“Your kingdom come” is a prayer for this awesomely intimate God to establish the kingship, the right ordering of human relationships, that Jesus has been preaching in his teaching ministry. Hallowing God’s name in this way and establishing God’s kingship both constitute God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.

“Give us today our daily bread” is a petition indicating that God’s kingship, God’s will, is that each person have reasonable and needed sustenance and nobody should go without. “Forgive us our sins” as we forgive those “indebted to us” makes forgiveness central to the right ordering of human relationships. The final petition: “And do not bring us to the time of trial” is a prayer that we not suffer the social disorder, turmoil and violence that comes of neither feeding each other nor forgiving one another. This time of trial, of course, is also the evil we pray to be delivered from. These petitions taught by Jesus teach us to pray that we treat people with the same intimacy that our Abba offers us.

Looking back at Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah, we begin to suspect that it was human violence that destroyed the cities, and not God’s, since Jesus is making it clear that God’s kingship is not about destroying cities. It is worth noting that, although Abraham is afraid of asking too much of God, God shows no impatience with each request and perhaps would have been patient even with bargaining all the way down to zero.

Jesus’ model prayer raises questions about possible differences between our Abba’s intentions and our projections. Would we rather hoard sustenance rather than share it? Would we rather hold grudges than forgive? Jesus speaks to these questions in a pair of mini-parables that elaborate on the prayer he has just taught us. Do we think that our Abba is as grudging and stingy as a family that has gone to bed for the night and does not want to be inconvenienced by a neighbor’s emergency need for three loaves of bread? Would any of us give our own child a snake or a scorpion instead of a fish or an egg? The statistics on cruelty to children suggest that many people do just that. These mini-parables on prayer suggest that if we sincerely pray for God’s name to be hallowed and for God’s kingship to come, then we would willingly suffer inconvenience to give sustenance to a neighbor and would want all children to have fish and eggs rather than snakes or scorpions.

St. Paul admonishes us to be rooted and built up in Christ, (Col. 2: 7) the very person who taught us how to pray. The homely images of Jesus’ mini-parables give way to Paul’s cosmic imagery of “rulers and authorities” who run the world through the violence of withholding necessities and stoking vengeance. Paul says that Jesus has nailed all of this violence to the cross so that the intimacy of nurturing and forgiveness triumphs in Jesus. To be rooted in Christ is to give fish and eggs and forgiveness to one another. This is how the cosmos should operate.

Holding Back the Fire—Embracing the Beloved Community

GuestsoutsideWhen called by the prophet Elijah, (1 Kings 19: 19–21) Elisha asks to kiss his mother and father first. When he is rebuked for this demurral, he slaughters his oxen, breaks the yokes and burns them, and then follows Elijah. That is, he burns his bridges in making a clean break. Elisha makes this break, however, to join a brotherhood of prophets who have set up an alternate community to the violent and idolatrous kingdom of Ahab and Jezebel. Unfortunately, this community is also compromised by violence as Elijah calls fire down on his enemies (2 Kings 1: 10–12) and one of the prophets anoints Jehu to pull of a violent coup d’état. (2 Kings 9)

We see the same dynamics of making a clean break in the stories of Jesus calling his disciples. The earlier callings of Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others were successful as they left their boats and families and followed Jesus. But when Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, we have what appear to be three failed callings. (Lk. 9: 57-62) In each case, Jesus is stressing the homelessness and the break with the culture these people have known, just as Elijah was asking Elishah to do. They will have no place to lay their heads because, with Jesus, they will no longer have a place in the culture. The dead can bury the dead because the culture they would be leaving is dead. Like a farmer at the plow, they must look ahead, towards Jerusalem, not back the way they came.

We normally think the cultures we live in are pretty good. After all, they have nurtured us from infancy and we owe a lot to them. But the story preceding the failed callings shows up the problem with our cultures. The solidarity with our “own” people tends to put us at enmity with those who are “other.” The beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem takes him through Samaria, where a village there did not “receive” them. Whether or not they were actually rejected by the Samaritans is not clear, but the suggestion of James and John that they command fire to rain down on the Samaritans suggests they probably were. This quick escalation from rejection to total destruction is the trademark of human culture that builds up such enmity and violence. Jesus rebukes his disciples for suggesting such a thing. Interestingly, some manuscripts add a verse where Jesus says: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” Even if this added verse is not authentic, Jesus’s rebuke already conveys that sentiment. Rejection and raining down fire is the culture of violence that the disciples and would-be disciples are commanded to turn away from.

Turning away from one’s own culture, in itself, is negative. As long as it is negative, it is fueled by alienation and resentment, which leads to the seething irrational anger of the Underground Man as Dostoevsky calls him. Cutting oneself off from everybody is also a violent act, one that can lead to senseless violence as it does with the Underground Man who eventually attacks another person out of sheer spite. I myself was mired in such alienation and resentment for some years when the problems with my own culture became evident through the Viet Nam War, racist practices and other social ills. This attitude felt like freedom until I was freed by God from the resentment and discovered it had really been a prison.

In Galatians 5, Paul illustrates the culture Jesus is calling us from, what he calls the “works of the flesh,” as “licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” and much, much more. It is precisely envy, quarreling, strife and the like that makes human culture so violent that rejection from other humans leads to raining down fire in retaliation. No wonder some people turn away in disgust and resentment. But Jesus would have us turn away from the culture of death and violence, not to close in on ourselves in impotent fury, but to embrace humanity in a much deeper, much more inclusive way. Paul says that the fruits of the Spirit, the spirit that comes to save lives, not destroy them, are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. “ (Gal. 5: 22–23) Just a bit further on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus illustrates the fruit of the Spirit with the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10: 25–37) where the enemy the disciples would rain fire on is the one who shows compassion for an enemy who, in turn, is challenged to accept love from an enemy. Paul says this is crucifying the “flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5: 24) As Jesus shows at the end of the road to Jerusalem, kindness, generosity, gentleness and the like end up on the cross where the strife, jealousy and envy of the people is absorbed. Once we embrace this culture of love, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the Beloved Community,” we embrace the culture we have renounced so as to bring it into the culture of the Spirit.

Pastoral Care and Ubuntu

goodShepherdThe Feast of Saints Peter and Paul celebrates the pastoral ministry of the Church initiated by two different personalities with some differences of opinion. Celebrating two formative pastors already points to pastoral ministry as one of relationships. Then there is the whole matter of shepherds, as we often call pastors, in relationship with their flocks.

Having just returned from a conference on the subject of Ubuntu, I am inclined to reflect on pastoral relationships in terms of this social vision. Forrest Harris, President of American Baptist College in Nashville, explained Ubuntu as giving full respect for the being of other people. Naomi Tutu imaged Ubuntu with the African practice of giving a bowl of food to the eldest child in an extended family. This child is expected to share the food with his or her siblings in such a way that all of them, especially the youngest, gets a full share. The oldest child is given to understand that taking more than a fair share may increase the food taken in, but it diminishes that same child even more than it diminishes the youngest who goes without. Ubuntu, then, is so simple that it seems like an insult to one’s intelligence. Even a five-year-old can understand it, which is the point, since the eldest child might be that age.

However, Ezekiel complains of a total breakdown of pastoral care and Ubuntu. The shepherds eat the fat and clothe themselves with wool. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34: 4) As a result, the flock is scattered. There is no Ubuntu here. These non-shepherds may be fat, but they are more diminished in their humanity than the starved sheep. If Ubuntu is so easy as to insult the intelligence, why is it so hard for anybody in Israel to practice it? Indeed, Ezekiel exclaims that God has given up on Israel’s shepherds: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezek. 34: 15–16) As Psalm 23 says, God is our shepherd. Ezekiel adds that God is our only shepherd. In John 10 Jesus, fulfilling the words of Ezekiel, announces that he is the Good Shepherd who gathers the flock, protects the flock from bandits and robbers and lays down his life for his flock. This is Ubuntu to the max, but it is a one-person show.

But after Jesus had finished laying down his life for his sheep and then rising again, he gathered his disciples who had been scattered by the thieves and bandits. At the Lake of Galilee, he asked Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (Jn. 21) Each time that Peter said he loved Jesus, Jesus told him to feed or tend his sheep. The Good Shepherd is telling Peter to be a good shepherd as he is a good shepherd, to participate in the shepherdness of Jesus.

Making Peter a shepherd was just the beginning of the proliferation of shepherds who would tend the flock of Christ, with Paul being the most prominent. But here we are at a point where the analogy between sheep and church congregations breaks down. Sheep never cease to be dependent on their shepherds, but with humans, it’s a different matter. A big part of Ubuntu is helping other people mature. The young child is given the bowl of food to distribute to the other siblings as an the opportunity to learn the responsibility of being a shepherd so he or she can pass that responsibility on to the next generation.

We are fed with so much wisdom in Paul’s epistles that we often fail to notice the final chapters that are filled with heart-filled greetings to his colleagues in ministry. But what these greetings show us is that Paul, having poured out his life like a drink offering, (2 Tim. 4: 6) has passed the bowl of responsibility to the people he ministered to so that we, today, can continue to pass the bowl of Ubuntu to others, making all of us shepherds of one another.