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?

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.

It Was Necessary

yellowTulips1Easter is an occasion of great rejoicing with bells, boisterous singing, and feasting. But do we really know what we are celebrating? The Gospel reading, doesn’t exactly ring out with Christmas joy of angels filling the skies with songs of God’s glory. Instead, we get “two men in dazzling clothes” who tell the women who came to the grave to anoint Jesus’ body that Jesus was not there but had risen. They had come to the wrong place.

A small group of confused women running off to stammer the news to the disciples isn’t exactly a celebration either. The disciples’s thinking the news is an “idle tale” may reflect a masculine condescending attitude towards women, but their reaction also shows how totally disorienting the news was. The Gospel reading ends with Peter running to the tomb to take a look for himself, seeing the empty linen clothes lying about, and then going home, “amazed at what had happened.” (Lk. 24: 12) Still no celebration; just a lot of unanswered questions. Luke continues his Resurrection narrative with two followers of Jesus walking to Emmaus with no indication of why they should be going there, implying that they are going the wrong way. Their conversation with a stranger on the way confirms their sense of confusion. Should we, too, be too disoriented to celebrate?

I think the key to understanding the problem lies in the words of the angelic beings: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24: 6–7) The stranger who met up with the two disciples asked them rhetorically: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Lk. 24: 26) The word “must” is the key here. The Greek word dei is often translated “it is necessary.” In this case, for whom was it “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners to be crucified and then rise on the third day? There is a tendency to think the death was necessary for God, but that suggests that God needed to have God’s own son die a painful death. Many people have a problem with that notion, I among them.

I find the French thinker René Girard helpful here. He interprets the available anthropological evidence as indicating a tendency of archaic societies to solve social tensions by a process that transforms competitive relationships throughout the society into a shared desire to focus on one person and then kill that person who is deemed responsible for the social tensions. The ensuing peace (for a time) is so strong that the victim is then worshiped as a deity. It is this social mechanism that convinces people that it is necessary for “god” that the victim be killed. Throughout this process, the truth of the victim is precisely what nobody knows, except possibly the victim.

This truth of the victim was gradually being revealed in the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people, most prominently in the verses about the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, whom the people accounted “stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” (Is. 53: 4) But then the people realized that they, not the victim, were the guilty ones. God had vindicated the “stricken one,” not the persecutors. It was these passages in Isaiah that most helped Jesus’ followers begin to make sense of what had happened to Jesus.

But on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the disciples had not thought to connect Jesus with the Suffering Servant. Jesus had told them many times that it was “necessary” that he be handed over to be crucified, but they could not understand. How could it be “necessary” that the man who they thought was going to restore Israel should be handed over to death? They assumed it was “necessary” that the guilty ones be handed over, not the innocent. Then, at Passover time, Jesus was deemed to be the guilty one who was causing the tumult by both religious and civil authorities, and so he was handed over. But the disciples had thought Jesus was innocent. Had they gotten their man wrong? Their fleeing when Jesus was arrested suggests they weren’t so sure.

The empty tomb was the first hint that Jesus’ death wasn’t business as usual. A tomb was supposed to have the corpse of the guilty one, but this one didn’t. The announcement of the angelic beings to the women was a stronger hint that Jesus was innocent after all. The women were told that it, although it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over and killed, it was even more necessary that Jesus be raised from the dead. By raising Jesus from the dead, God showed Jesus’ followers that the “necessity” that Jesus die was a human necessity, a necessity of human factors, and that it was Jesus’ rising from the dead that was the true divine necessity. Only then could the disciples have their minds opened to understand the scriptures when the Risen Lord met with them himself. (Lk. 24: 45)

It is gloriously great news and a wondrous cause for rejoicing that we are freed from the human “necessity” to blame a victim who is put to death for the crimes of a society. That is, unless we feel too disoriented about not having scapegoats. Maybe that is why rejoicing in Jesus’ Resurrection is a much greater challenge than rejoicing in the birth of a child who is going to accomplish something great—what, we don’t know. Rejoicing in the necessity that Jesus be raised from the dead requires us to change our minds and hearts in radical ways to take in this news. Most challenging of all, we have to accept and then embody the forgiveness of the Risen Victim when storms of accusation remain the status quo even at this present day. Are we up to the challenge? Will we come to the party?

For an introduction to the thought of René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

On Living with Temptation

altarDistance1The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.

The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.

Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.

The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)

Celebrating our Baptism

baptism_of_christ_by_tiffany (2)Luke stresses the contrast between John the Baptist and Jesus much more than the three other evangelists. Most strikingly, Luke does not specifically say that John himself baptized Jesus. Luke describes John’s ministry and then says Herod added to all his other crimes by putting John in prison. (Lk. 3: 19–20) Then Luke puts Jesus front and center by saying the he was baptized “when all the people were baptized.” (Lk. 3:21)

The Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the “bodily form of a dove” and the voice from Heaven proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son, “the beloved,” (Lk. 3: 21–22) could not be a greater contrast to John’s closing words that the one who is “more powerful” was going to bring a winnowing fork to baptize by burning the chaff with “unquenchable fire.” John’s water baptism was a rite of purification and he expected the one who was coming to bring fire to do a more powerful job of purifying. But instead Jesus’ first act of preaching was to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk. 4: 16–19) Quite a different approach than John’s! Jesus was going for transformation, not purification.

We celebrate our own baptism on this day as we follow Jesus to the river Jordan, see the dove for ourselves and listen to the voice from Heaven proclaim us sons and daughters of God. Our baptism, too, is a call to spread God’s love and favor to others. We are used to living in a culture built on wrath and disfavor, where we bind and oppress captives rather than free them. The call of baptism is a constant call to leave this culture of wrath to journey towards a culture of love and the freeing of captives.

Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s return from exile gives us powerful images for our own return from exile through baptism. Isaiah grounds this call in creation, linking baptism with God’s calling us into being. The journey is arduous, as Jesus’ journey in the desert was an arduous testing by Satan. We will pass through waters and rivers but God will be with us and they will not overwhelm us. We will walk through fire but the flame will not consume us. (Is. 43: 2) As with the Flood from which Noah was delivered and the waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites fled from Egypt, we can see the waters and the fire as images of the wrathful culture that is trying to pull us back. In his exuberance, Isaiah himself stumbles by suggesting that other nations are given in ransom for the freeing and gathering of Israel. Jesus’ baptism, on the other hand, is the first step of bearing the sins of all people so that he will be a ransom for everybody, Egypt, Ethiopia, and even Babylon, included.

Each of us receives a unique call to play our part in the baptismal journey. Can we hear the voice from Heaven declaring God’s love for us and moving us in the direction we are each to go to perform our part of the journey?