Badgering God (or not)

October 19, 2019

Pentecost 19 – 2019
Luke 18:1-14
Marian Free
In the name of God who is ever faithful. Amen.

Recently I was told a shocking story that I really hope is not true. According to my source, in a particular faith community, the Pastor assured a childless couple that if they made a donation of $50,000 to the church God would bless them with a child. When after a year the longed-for conception had still not occurred, the Pastor attributed the failure of the miracle to a lack of faith on the part of the couple. The fact of money changing hands is not something I had heard of previously, but many people report that they were informed that their answered prayers were a consequence of their lack of faith on their part.

Perhaps one of the most problematic areas of faith relates to answered (or, more particularly, unanswered) prayer. In more than one place the gospels seem to suggest that if we pray, miracles will occur. In Luke 11 Jesus states: “Ask, and it will be given you.” Later, in chapter 17 Jesus says: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It seems unequivocal – if we pray, our prayers will be answered. This view seems to be confirmed by today’s parable in which the persistence of the widow (and the threat of violence) results in  her getting what she seeks.

A proper analysis of these and other texts would require more time than we have this morning. What we can note is that these verses do not stand alone as proof texts but, in every case, are part of a larger context that fills out and provides a more nuanced meaning. (For example, in Chapter 11 Jesus implies that God, who is vastly different from the unwilling, neighbour will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask and in chapter 17 the context is disciple’s request for faith – if they pray their faith will be increased).

In today’s gospel we have two parables, I will concentrate on the first commonly called ‘the persistent widow’. Neither the judge not the widow are presented as particularly attractive people here. By his own admission, the judge neither fears God or respects humankind, and the widow’s nature is such that the judge fears that she will use violence against him (the Greek word usually translated ‘wear out’ can equally mean ‘use violence against’)[1].

We do well to remember that the parables are fiction. There is no judge and there is no widow, just a story about a judge and a widow. Further, in many instances, the parables as reported in the gospels are inserted into contexts that are almost certainly different from those in which Jesus told them and the gospel writers often insert interpretative verses. In this instance Luke introduces the parable with a statement about the need to pray always and not to lose heart and he concludes with a question about whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth. A careful reading of the parable suggests that Luke is encouraging those who suffer injustice to hold fast, to continue to trust in and to cry out to God who is just and who will at the end of time grant justice to “his chosen ones”. (Luke is not promising that God will answer all prayer.

It is clear from their context that Jesus’ sayings (parables) on prayer as recorded by Luke do not promise the miraculous. Instead they suggest that if we pray our faith will be deepened and that we will receive the Holy Spirit. We are encouraged to persevere when times are tough, confident that God will hear our cries for justice and that at the end times God will make all things right. If we are honest, we know that it is foolish to believe that we can bend God’s will to our own by continually battering at God’s door (as the widow did the judge). What is more it would be an insult to God to assume that God responds to the loudest voice or the most persistent hammering.

Howard Thurman (quoted by Richard Rohr 22/7/19) reflects: “This is the miracle, the heights and depths of wonder and awe. God reveals His Presence out of the mystery of Being. With all of my passionate endeavour, I cannot command that He obey. All of my prayers, my meditation, my vast and compelling urgency or need cannot order, woo or beg God into the revealing of His Presence. Even my need and my desperation cannot command Him. There is an overwhelming autonomy here; God does move in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. But He is so full of such wonderful and heartening surprises.

In the total religious experience we learn how to wait; we learn how to ready the mind and the spirit. It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me. . . .”
Prayer is so much more than asking God for what we want. Through prayer we open ourselves to God’s presence, we form and build a relationship with God and we listen to hear what it is that God wants from us. Through prayer we learn patience and we discover how to be content with what we have and where we are. Through prayer we allow the divine within us to flourish and grow.

We persist, not because we want to force God to do what we want, but because knowing God, being formed in the image of God and finally being united with God is worth so much more than anything that is temporary, earthly and finite.

[1] It is interesting to note that Luke often uses unsympathetic characters to make a point (think for example of ‘the dishonest steward’ and the reluctant neighbor of chapter 11).

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The proper place to worship

October 12, 2019

Pentecost 18 – 2019

Luke 17:11-19[i]

Marian Free

In the name of God, from whom nothing can separate us. Amen.

While it is part of a long, historic conflict, modern Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria represents some of the malaise of the modern world. In Israel, the United States and in parts of Europe, nations are building boundaries to separate themselves from their enemies (real or perceived) and to protect their interests and to provide a barrier between themselves and any kind of danger. Nations feel that not only their safety is at risk, but that their identity is being compromised and their resources stretched, so they create borders not only to bolster their own security and so that they can determine who goes out and who comes in. At the same time those whom they wish to exclude are stereotyped, demonised and excluded.

In the Hebrew world, boundaries related to personal purity rather than to personal safety. Six whole chapters in Leviticus deal with the issue of purity, the ways in which uncleanness can be avoided and the ways in which purity can be restored. Pollution or contamination could be communicated by the consumption of impure foods, the release of bodily discharges, by menstruation and childbirth and through skin disease. The first of these pertain to boundaries between the body and the external world. Approved and unapproved foods enter the body through the mouth; blood, children and bodily discharges cross the boundary of the body through other openings. “Leprosy[ii]” is a little different from other forms of contagion because it concerns an external skin complaint – a flaky, repulsive or scaly condition that crossed the boundaries of skin, clothes and walls. It was impossible for those with a skin disease to keep their contamination to themselves, so they were thrust out of their families and communities and forced to live on the outskirts of society. Like anyone who was considered to be unclean, they were also excluded from the Temple and therefor from the worship of God.

According to anthropologists, cultures that are concerned with the maintenance of safe and secure bodily boundaries, are often as concerned about societal and geographic boundaries – in part, because they risk being polluted by those who do not observe the same restrictions as they do.

We usually associate the account of the ten lepers with gratitude, but in fact it is as much about worship and about boundaries. The scene is set in an in-between place, the boundary between Galilee and Samaria. Differing views of scripture, worship and what it means to be holy had created tensions between the two peoples. Centuries of hostility between the Samaritans and the Jews meant that most people would prefer to make the much longer journey to Jerusalem rather than to travel through Samaria. Anyone travelling to Jerusalem would not want to risk exclusion from the Temple (usually the point of their journey) by being polluted by association with the Samaritans.

Throughout the gospel, Jesus has demonstrated that he finds boundaries restrictive, limiting and even inhumane. He mixes with sinners, allows himself to be touched by a woman with a haemorrhage and comes into contact with the dead. He is not afraid of pollution or contamination. Jesus’ own godliness or purity means that rather than impurity flowing from the unclean to himself, Jesus’ presence and goodness make clean, restore and heal those with whom he comes into contact. Jesus has no need to be afraid of being contaminated by the Samaritans.

He has barely entered Samaria when he is confronted by a group of lepers who dare not cross the invisible boundaries that separate them from their families, their communities and him. They beg Jesus, not for healing, but for mercy – a word that means he should meet his obligations to them! As Jews, they were “owed” membership in the holy community of Israel, freedom to return to their families, freedom to worship God in the Temple and they ask Jesus to make this possible – to break down the barriers that prevent their return. Jesus responds to their request by telling them to: “Go and show yourselves to the priests”. In other words: “Go to the Temple and worship God”.

Jesus’ instruction is all well and good for nine of the ten. Once certified as clean by the priests they will be free to enter the Temple and to worship God with other members of their community. But the tenth, the Samaritan, is caught in a dilemma. He sets off with the others but stops short. He knows will not be welcome in the Jewish Temple and that nothing the Jewish priests say or do will make him fit (in their eyes) to be a member of their worshipping community. Does he go instead to the Samaritan place of worship on Mount Gerizim and to his own priests? Where does he go to worship God? Then it comes to him – God is no longer to be found either in Jerusalem or at Gerizim. God is to be found in the person of Jesus.

The Samaritan turns back “praising God”. He bows his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanks him – using a word only used in the Greek for thanks and praise given to God.[iii] He is commended and the nine are censured, not for giving thanks, but for returning to Jesus and giving praise to God.

The Samaritan, the outsider, recognised what the others from their privileged position of inclusion did not, that God was no longer to be encountered in the exclusive space of the Temple, but in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, the boundaries between clean and unclean, sacred and profane, insider and outsider are broken-down. The barriers between God and humanity have been torn apart. Through Jesus we have direct access to God. We do not need intermediaries to intercede for us or to praise God on our behalf. We are free to worship as we are and where we are. We have no need to feel worthy enough or holy enough to worship God.

It doesn’t matter where we are as long as together and individually we recognise all that God has done for us, and that we respond with praise and thanksgiving.

 

[i] I am indebted to John J. Pilch and Denis Hamm for some of these insights. (see http://www.liturgy.slu.edu for October 13, 2019)

[ii] What we know as leprosy is not very contagious and was not known in antiquity.

[iii] “eucharistein” is used in the Greek bible only for thanks and praise given to God.

No expectation of reward

October 5, 2019

Pentecost 17 – 2019

Luke 17:5-10 (Thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. Amen.

One of the problems that we face when we approach the gospel in the bite-sized pieces that we are given Sunday by Sunday is that, not seeing the whole, or even where our small piece fits into the whole, we are liable to place emphasis (or to draw out meaning) that is not intended by the author (and therefore probably not by Jesus before him). This has become more evident to me over the past few weeks as I have become conscious of the links that seem to weave their way through this section of Luke’s gospel.

The broader setting for the sayings of Jesus which we have heard this morning is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and his premonition regarding the fate that awaits him there. In other words, it is with the threat of crucifixion hanging over his head that Jesus speaks – particularly to his disciples, but also to those within earshot – about the cost of discipleship.

As we see at the beginning of the journey, it only by sheer force of will that Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem’ (9:51). As we follow Jesus and the disciples on the way it becomes obvious that from time to time Jesus is throwing out a challenge, he is needling the disciples and the crowds that gather around him, he is, as it were, testing their mettle. Do they really have what it takes to follow him? Will they really be able to go the distance?

We can only guess what was in the minds of the disciples as they joined him on this journey. They must have been buoyed by the success of their mission (10:17f) and by Jesus’ evident confidence in them. Jesus has not only entrusted them with the message of the gospel, but he has likened them to him: “whoever listens to you listens to me” (10:16). It would be difficult (I imagine) for them not to be caught up in the excitement of their achievements and to feel a surge in confidence. Not only are they disciples of this man but they share his power to overcome demons – they are invincible!

The crowds that follow are also drawn into the atmosphere of expectation that surrounds Jesus. If he can defeat demons, heal the sick and teach with authority, is there anything that he cannot do? Those who are following Jesus want to be a part of whatever happens next. They don’t want to miss out on the excitement whatever it is.

Jesus knows however that he is heading into the lion’s den. This is not a story that ends well, it doesn’t lead to victory and glory but to defeat and ignominy. No wonder Jesus wants to test the resilience of those who follow him. No wonder that he wants to see if they can go the distance. Despite the hopes and expectations of the crowds, Jesus knows that this journey will end badly. Rather than have them disappointed or stretched beyond their capacities Jesus both warns them of the dangers and encourages them to think about what it is that they want from following him.

Discipleship involves cutting ties with family and one’s social group, it means reconsidering one’s attitude to wealth and the value that one places on life itself, it means asking oneself if you can finish what you have started and above all it means a willingness to take up one’s cross – literally if need be.

It is against this background that we can have a better understanding of the second of today’s sayings: “we have only done what was necessary” (Luke 17:10). In other words, at the end of the journey we must be ready to say that we were not along for the ride, we were not followers of Jesus so that we could bathe in reflected glory or usurp Jesus’ power for our own and that we did not expect reward or even recognition, but rather that, captivated by Jesus’ message and compelled by Jesus’ relationship with God, we were willing and even grateful to be able to put everything on the line, to give ourselves utterly and completely to Jesus expecting nothing in return.

Who is sitting at your gate? And what are you doing about it?

September 28, 2019

Pentecost 16 – 2019

Luke 16:19-31 (some thoughts)

Marian Free

In the name of God who protects the widows, the orphans and the strangers in the land and asks us to do the same. Amen.

In his book The Nazareth Manifesto, Sam Wells argues there are many different explanations and theories of poverty. He quotes Jeffrey Sachs who points out “that the very poor countries are unable to reach even the “bottom rung” of the ladder of development and that a major problem is that the populations of such countries is often growing faster than capital can be accumulated which means that such countries are continually going backwards. The same argument could be applies to families who live in poverty. Lacking the resources to equip their children with good education, good health care and other things that we take for granted, they spiral downwards becoming more deeply impoverished with each generation unable to break the spell that has them in its grip.” Loans from wealthier countries have only limited benefit because they have, at some time to be paid back. Meantime, nations and individuals who do have resources are able to improve their relative place in the economic system with the end result that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer .

Poverty is by no means a new phenomenon. Luke is very aware of the disparity between rich and poor and, more than any other gospel writer, points out the futility of building up wealth for oneself (Luke 12:13f, the Barn Builder); encourages his followers to make shrewd choices about their possessions (Luke 16:1f, enduring short-term pain for long-term gain ); exposes the thoughtlessness (or complacency of the rich) (Luke 16:19f, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man; and describes a community that holds all things in common such that no one is in need (Acts 4:32ff). Further, in Luke’s gospel Jesus tells would-be followers that they must give up all their possessions and let the dead bury the dead (Luke 14:25f) and he refuses to enter into debate with the man who asks a question about inheritance (Luke 12:13f). The third gospel focuses on the reversal of fortunes that Jesus’ birth heralds. Mary sings: “God has brought down the lofty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52).

When we read Luke we are forced to consider our attitude towards our possessions and to ask ourselves whether we use our wealth wisely or simply for our own benefit or enrichment.

The story of Lazarus and the rich man is one of Jesus’ more confronting parables, not least because it has nothing to do with piety or goodness. There is no evidence that the rich man was a bad or selfish person nor that Lazarus was a victim of circumstances. Goodness (or the absence of goodness) is not at issue here. The rich man may have fulfilled his religious obligations and Lazarus may never have performed a good deed in his life. At the centre of this narrative is the rich man’s wealth and his failure to see the chasm between himself and Lazarus that his wealth created.

In today’s context the parable challenges us to think of our place in the world relative to others and to consider whether our need for security and comfort is bought at the expense of those are (and who remain) less well off. It forces us to examine about our attitudes to poverty and towards those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Do we assume that those who are poor have brought it upon themselves or do we believe that if they made an affront they could pull themselves out of their present situation? Perhaps most importantly, the parable forces to identify the social, cultural and political conditions that create such huge disparities between the rich and the poor and the systemic failures that mean that for some poverty is a trap from which they cannot escape.

The world will not change unless we change.

Who is sitting at our gate and what are we doing to make a difference that is meaningful and lasting?

What we do now matters

September 22, 2019

Pentecost 15 – 2019

Luke 16:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver. Amen.

The parable of the shrewd steward is the most confronting of all of Jesus’ parables. This is primarily because Jesus appears to commend dishonesty (at worst) or self interest (at best) as a means to earn salvation. A number of factors contribute to this interpretation. The first is the ‘helpful’ but not original heading provided by most English translations – ‘The unjust (dishonest) steward’. This means that before we even begun to read the parable we have formed a view based on the title that it has been given. A second problem is that most readers are not equipped to discern where Jesus’ words end and the editor’s comments begin. As a consequence we tend to read the author’s comments as if they were a part of the parable rather than understanding that they were almost certainly added later. Equally problematic is the fact that very often the reader forgets that Jesus is telling a parable and instead reads or hears it as a story from life – that is, we hear it as if Jesus is commending an actual manager rather than using the parable to make a point.

In reality there are a number of curious aspects to this parable, a number of questions that we often fail to ask ourselves or points that we fail to notice. For example, we do not know that the steward has been squandering his master’s property – only that reports to this effect have reached the landowner. We don’t tend to ask ourselves how a person can ‘borrow’ oil or grain! We assume that the dishonest action relates to the reduction of the master’s debts whereas in fact this happens only after the steward has been accused. In reality we have no information about the steward prior to the incident that is recorded other than that a rumour about his behaviour has cost him his job. The steward has no opportunity to defend himself – the rumour alone is sufficient to besmirch the honour of the landowner, who in order to retain his place in the social order has to dismiss the steward.

The act of writing down the debts is almost certainly not what led to the steward’s dismissal. As is the case with managers of modern day sheep or cattle stations, the day-to-day running of a first-century land holding would have been entirely in the hands of the manager who would from time to time produce the books as a form of accountability. Landowners (then as now) would vary in their direct involvement. An absentee landowner might not even live in the country and would be satisfied with the management as long as the property seemed to be making the expected amount return. This, of course, makes a manager susceptible to gossip and slander and gives him (or her) the freedom to act dishonestly. It also means that it would have been entirely possible for the steward might let out some of the property or extend loans on which he would charge interest, some of which he would keep for himself. This being the case, when the steward writes down the debts he may not be defrauding the landowner but may in fact be reducing his own expected income. It is a wise activity because while it reduces the steward’s present income, it assures him of some sort of comfort in the future. Those whose debts are reduced could express their gratitude by welcoming him into their homes. According to this view, the manager is not commended for acting dishonestly but for behaving sensibly. That is, instead of holding on to his wealth, he sacrifices some in the present for the greater reward of a more comfortable future.

Most scholars argue that the parable proper ends at 8a (Jesus’ commending the manger for his shrewdness). 8b does not belong to the parable and could be Jesus’ words addressed to the disciples or a comment added by the author. The saying about making friends by means of dishonest wealth (v 9) does not belong to the parable or to Jesus. So the parable ends, ‘The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.’ He was less concerned with his present wealth and more concerned about his future existence. The challenge for Jesus’ disciples (a group that is almost certainly greater than the 12) is to be less concerned with their present comfort and to act in ways that will ensure their future security (a place in heaven).

As we have seen, during the journey to Jerusalem Jesus has made it abundantly clear that following him will not lead to a comfortable existence in the present – it will separate families and may lead to persecution. He suggests that there is no point starting the journey unless they are prepared to ‘take up their cross, to understand the consequences of discipleship and be prepared to see the journey through to its end. It may mean that there are sacrifices to be made in the present – letting the dead bury the dead and letting go of creature comforts, but the consequences of not letting go, and their rewards of trusting God are beyond compare.

The parable of the steward gives a sense of urgency to Jesus’ message. The landowner takes no time to think before he fires the steward and the steward barely hesitates before he writes down the debts of others.

There is no time like the present to act – to examine our lives and to consider whether or not our behaviour and attitudes in the present match the behaviour and attitudes that we associate with the kingdom of heaven. Are we complacent in the present and heedless of the future? Does our desire for stability and security in this world mean that we are not paying attention to the next? What does the shrewdness of the steward have to teach us?

So easy to get lost

September 14, 2019

Pentecost 14 – 2019

Luke 15:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who searches out the lost and brings them home rejoicing. Amen.

Will Patterson describes himself as an ordinary man – an ordinary man who went to jail. He was married with one son, had a good job in an insurance company, a house, a beach house and mounting debts As he explains it, it was when he extended his home that his finances got out of control. One day a cheque bearing his name came across his desk at work. Normally, Will would cancel any returned insurance payments but he put this this cheque in a drawer. After a few days of feeling guilt stricken, Will realised that no one had missed the cheque and he banked it into his account. So began a process of using, not only his own company identity, but also those of his wife and co-workers. Over time, he defrauded the company of $300,000. He explains that while he never felt good about it, once he had committed the first deceit subsequent deceits became easier. After all, he seemed to be getting away with it. When finally the company caught on to what was happening, Will felt an enormous sense of relief and freely admitted to what he had done.

His story, like that other other white collar criminals demonstrates how one false move can be the first on a slippery slope to ruin. Every fraud is the ‘last one’; the perpetrator often does not act without a sense of guilt and a fear of discovery; often they commit the fraud believing that they will pay the money back and, while seriously embarrassed, they are glad when they are finally caught out as that means that the stealing must stop.

In his own words: “The problem with breaking your moral compass is that nothing tethers you to your morals anymore. And after a week when you haven’t been caught and you’ve worked out that ‘here’s a way where I could maybe help me make ends meet’, you do it one more time. But it’s just one more time, and then you do it one more time but that’s the last time — and then you get used to having the money.”

In relating the story and his time in prison, Will states that there were a number of instances of grace that got him through to the other side and back into the workplace. One relates to his confessing his crime to his son. Will had used his wife’s security identity as part of the deceit. Not surprisingly, she informed him that he could not live with her anymore. Will moved in with his father, but did not immediately tell his son the reason why. One day the 12 year old asked why he couldn’t live at home anymore. Will told him what he had done and was surprised to hear his son take a leaf out of his own book.

Again, quoting Will: “The year before [he] had an incident where he bullied at school, and I had said to him ‘I am so mad at you right now, I can’t tell you what the consequences are going to be but there’s going to be a consequence because if you do something badly wrong you have to pay the price. When I told him what I’d done, he said to me ‘you will go to jail, dad’ and I went, ‘well that’s a possibility’. “He said ‘well good, because if you do something wrong you have to pay the price’.” Will could not have known the previous year that his response to his son’s behaviour would enable his son to cope with the possibility of his father going to prison.

Another instance of grace (and there were many) occurred when Will returned to the community and got a job with a Funeral Parlour. At first he didn’t share his criminal record. It was only when he was promoted to a position in which he was handling money that he felt that his employer should know of his past. To his surprise, when he confessed his employer said something to the effect of ‘that’s behind you now, we’ll leave it there.”

Will feels that he was able to resume his life thanks to the moments of grace that he experienced along the way. He knows what he has done and how easy it was to slip into it and he has put things in place to ensure that it never happens again.

When Jesus is criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them, he tells the parables of the lost – those who have slipped from the path, taken a wrong turn, broken the law or done any number of things that separate them from from ‘law-abiding citizens’ and ‘decent folk’. The shepherd doesn’t ask why the sheep is lost or consider the safety of the 99 left behind. The shepherd doesn’t ask the 99 if they will welcome back the one who has gone missing. The shepherd knows and accepts the brokenness of the one who has strayed, knows how easy it is for someone to slip from good to bad and knows how easy it is to fall into despair when it seems that there is no way back. And so the shepherd, knowing the good in those who are lost, seeks them out and brings them back into the fold.

Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. He offered (and offers) moments of grace that proved salvific. When we, like Jesus, extend a welcome (share moments of grace) to those who have crossed a line, we are like the woman and the shepherd who know that a person who is lost is very often waiting for someone to find them and bring them home.

You have been warned!

September 7, 2019

Pentecost 13 – 2019

Luke 14:25-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who ask nothing less than all we have to give. Amen.

Earlier this year a father and son went missing on Cradle Mountain. Grave fears were held for their safety as the weather had closed in and there had been a heavy snow fall. If you stay in a youth hostel anywhere in Tasmania you will be confronted by posters that warn you that the weather in that state is variable and can turn bleak without warning. It would be unwise, the warnings suggest, to set our on a walk unless you are adequately prepared. Even on a sunny, summer day there is no guarantee that it will not turn bitterly cold or even snow, or that visibility will not be seriously reduced. A wise tramper, even if only planning a day trip, will at the very least take a sleeping bag and more food and drink than needed. Better still, that hiker will also pack a tent so that if they are caught out, they will at least have shelter and warmth until the clouds lift or the snow stops falling. Fortunately the father and son duo were no novices. When they realised that conditions had changed they simply set up camp instead of taking the risk of trying to make it to the next shelter. They were found unscathed because they had been prepared for all eventualities.

Today’s gospel acts as a warning for those who set out believing that following Jesus is like a walk in the park. Like the posters in Tasmanian youth hostels, the gospel warns would-be disciples that the journey is not one to be undertaken lightly and should only be entered into if one understands the terrain and is prepared, not only for the journey, but for its possible end.

Jesus has ‘set his face towards Jerusalem’. The turn of phrase suggests a steely determination and an awareness of what awaits him there. The large crowds who follow him have no idea what lies ahead. They have presumably been attracted to Jesus by his healing miracles, his compassion or his teaching. Whatever their reason for following, Jesus needs to warn them that being a disciple is much more than basking in his reflected glory, taking comfort in his compassionate nature, reveling in his revolutionary teaching or rejoicing at his humiliation of the religious leaders.

From the moment that he ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’, Jesus has made it absolutely clear to any who seek to follow him clear that becoming a disciple involves a radical re-orientation of their life. It is not something to be undertaken lightly because discipleship means giving up everything that matters – family, possessions and even life itself. Discipleship, Jesus insists, means putting God at the centre of their life and seeing everything else from that perspective.

This is not the first time that Luke’s Jesus has insisted that a follower give up their family, or at least make them second to him and it is not the first (and it will not be the last) time that he encourages the disciples to make life-changing decisions about their possessions. Not only must Jesus’ followers be prepared to relinquish everything that they hold dear, but, Jesus insists, that they should not even bother starting out on the journey if they are uncertain as to whether or not they can go the distance. There is no point in starting, he claims, if they are going to fall by the wayside or need rescuing simply because they have started out ill-prepared, unaware of the conditions or of the nature of the path that lies ahead. Once again, this is not a new theme for Jesus. When he first set out on this journey, Jesus demanded that “the dead bury the dead” and that one should not “turn back having their hand to the plough” and warned future disciples that he ‘had nowhere to lay his head.’

Indeed, throughout the gospel, Jesus tells his would-be followers that being a disciple is no guarantee that the path will be smooth or that they will be protected from hardship and grief. In fact, he suggests that the reality of discipleship may well be just the opposite. Being a disciple is as likely to lead to degradation and humiliation as it is to recognition, to apparent failure as it is to lead to success. Those who follow Jesus must be prepared to share Jesus’ fate. They must bear the consequences of following to the point of being willing to ‘take up their cross’ should that be their fate.

It is quite clear that the only way to truly follow Jesus is to relinquish our dependence on everything else – our identity, our self-interest, our need for self-preservation, our ambition, our pretense, our false conception of the world and our need for control. Most of us, I believe, make a faltering start on our journey. Despite Jesus’ demands and the warnings the gospels have preserved for us, few of us surrender everything all at once. Our lifetimes are a process of gradually letting go of all that stands between ourselves and God – possessions, friendships and family, achievements and so on.

We do know know the road ahead, but we cannot say that we haven’t been warned. Let it never be said that we did not know what we were getting into or what is required of us and let us hope that at the end we will not be found to be holding on to anything but will have given ourselves (heart, souls and body) entirely into the hands of God.

Cooperation not competition

August 31, 2019

Pentecost 12 – 2019

Luke 14:1 (2-6) 7-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no favourites. Amen.

I believe that in Japan and Korea today, children as young as four are enrolled in special schools designed to give them an advantage with regard to getting themselves into the right primary schools, which in turn will gain them entry into the high schools that will ensure their acceptance into university. A recent report on the ABC asked the question as to whether athletes in the future would be genetically selected – that is, would the Australian Institute of Sport choose children who were genetically equipped to run, to swim or to play tennis and begin to train them from a very early age . Instagram has just removed the “like” function from its app because too many young people were becoming distressed if their post did not compare favourably with those of others.

We live in a world that is dominated by competition, by a desire to prove ourselves, to enrich ourselves or to gain power for ourselves. Everyone, it seems, wants to be better than everyone else – whether it is a desire to fill our emptiness, to build our self-esteem or to expand our authority. Despite our relative wealth and education, we seem to be constantly anxious that we are not good enough, significant enough or clever enough and so we seek external signs to prove our worth to ourselves if not to others.

One of the consequences of such a competitive environment is a constant striving for what we are not or what we do not have rather than contentment with what is already ours. Another is the temptation to constantly judge ourselves against others, with the result that we feel a certain satisfaction when we come across someone who is not as fast, not as rich, not as fast as ourselves. Even worse is that coming first – in our careers, in our bank accounts, in our spheres of influence – very often comes at the expense of someone else. On an international level, on a national level and a community and personal level, competition for resources, means that few have more and many have less. At best competition leads to isolation and introversion and at worst competition leads to civil strife and to war, oppression and injustice.

In a recent speech, Sam Wells (the Vicar of St Martin’s in the Fields) pointed out that for too long we (the church) have concentrated on the things that make us different “where we have come from” or how we come to have a particular point of view . He suggests that our focus should instead be on what we what we have in common, in particular the belief that, as Paul suggests, “we are citizens of heaven” (Phil 3:20). Our focus, he claims, should not be on the past, but on the future and, in particular how that future impacts upon the present. By this he means that all of us, no matter what our theology or our place in the world should be trying to live now as we expect to live in heaven.

In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there was competition for status which, at a dinner party, determined where and next to whom one sat and whom one did or did not invite. Jesus turns both of these cultural norms on their head in today’s gospel. In the first instance he suggests that it is not our place to determine where we fit in a crowd of people. It is better not to measure ourselves against others as only the host (one assumes this is God) knows where we belong. Secondly, Jesus challenges those rich enough to hold a dinner party to invite those who will not increase his (her) status in the community, but to invite those who will not only compromise his (her) status, but who will be unable to return the favour.

A heavenly existence is one that refuses to be determined by the values of this world. It resists the temptation to pit one person against another or to determine where someone fits in a hierarchy of worth. A heavenly existence is inclusive of all people – rich and poor, clever and not so clever, great athletes and those who cannot play sport to save themselves. In heaven the marginalised, the differently abled, the refugee, the addict, the homeless will be welcomed along with everyone else. There will be no distinction.

When we truly understand that God’s love is not withheld from those whom we consider less deserving, when we realise that we are all invited to the heavenly banquet, we will accept that there are no places at God’s table, that everyone – those who have led exemplary lives and those that have not, those who have been conventionally “good” and those who have tested the boundaries will be seated together. And when we truly grasp that Jesus calls us to live our heavenly existence in the present, we will find it more and more difficult to make distinctions with or to measure ourselves against others.

A heavenly existence is one that enables us to see clearly and to recognise that, in common with everyone around us, that we have weaknesses as well as strengths, that a focus on material wealth might cover our spiritual poverty and that measuring ourselves and our achievements against those of others degrades both our self and the other.

A heavenly existence replaces competition with cooperation and enables us to see ourselves for who we are and to see the worth in every other person.

Scripture in service of abuse

August 24, 2019

Pentecost 11 – 2019
Luke 13:10-17
Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver. Amen.

Here’s a question: “Did you know that there are two versions of the Ten Commandments and, if you did, did you realise that they differ in regard to keeping the sabbath?”

As you know, the Ten Commandments are given to Moses when the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness. When at last they are about to enter the promised land, Moses reminds the people of all that has happened since God led them out of Egypt. In this second version, Moses changes the fourth commandment and provides a different reason for “observing the sabbath and keeping it holy”. Unless it is pointed out to us, we might not notice the difference because, apart from a slight rearrangement of words the two versions are the same apart from the justification. So, when Moses receives the commandments the creation story is given as the basis for sabbath keeping. “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8) Moses’ farewell speech as recorded in Deuteronomy emphasises the liberation of Israel from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” (Deut 5:15)

The two explanations complement rather than contradict each other. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day of creation God blessed and hallowed the day. We are not to understand that God was exhausted, but rather that God was taking the time to revel in all that God had made. The sabbath was intended to be a day of delight, a time to appreciate God’s gifts and to allow oneself to be held in and by the presence of God.

Deuteronomy recounts the tale of liberation– from Egypt, through the wilderness to the present – and God’s role in bringing the people from slavery to freedom in the promised land. Not surprisingly, the sabbath is associated with redemption. It is set aside as a constant reminder that God has set the people from free from slavery – from everything that limits or prevents human flourishing.

The sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people – a day in which to delight in God’s blessings or to remember with gratitude the freedom God has won for them. “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy”.

So far so good, but around 613 BCE it seems that people began to worry about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy, in particular what did it mean to “do no work”. The attempt to define “work” produced rules and regulations that were so detailed and unwieldy with the result that, rather than being a day of rest (of delight or redemption), the sabbath became a day of anxious concern that one or other rule might inadvertently be broken.

It is in this context that we have to read this morning’s gospel. What appears at first glance as a healing story is in reality a story that primarily serves to illustrate the disagreement between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue with regard to the observation of the sabbath. (A debate that is very much in the public domain as we can see through the reaction of the observers). It appears that the synagogue leader views the sabbath commandment through a very narrow and literal lens. He believes (as Jesus points out) that an ox or a donkey can be unloosed and led to water on the sabbath, but because the law has nothing to say on the matter, he refuses to accept that a woman who is bound can similarly be set free on the sabbath in order to be able to make the most of her life.

Jesus has no such difficulty. Informed by both versions of the fourth commandment and by using the refinements that have been added to it, Jesus looses the woman from that which binds her. He liberates her from her ailment, from the ungodly power that has her in its thrall and he sets her free to stand tall and to live life to the full. Surely on this day of redemption, this is the way in which to understand the commandment. The woman is freed to delight in creation – which she does by immediately standing and praising God. The sabbath is the perfect day on which to set someone free!

It is no longer the sabbath law that is misinterpreted and misused. During the course of my own lifetime the church has been forced to acknowledge that our inherited laws had become laws that had power to oppress and even to destroy the lives of many. Battered women were sent home to abusive husbands because of Jesus’ injunction against divorce. Children have been subject to abuse because they were taught not “to talk back” to adults or worse that they had to “honour their father and their mother”. Gay men and women continue to be denigrated and excluded and denied the comfort and joy of being in relationship with one another because the bible says one thing or another.

We must always be on our guard against rigid interpretations of our faith that limit rather than encourage others. It is my belief that scripture should be read through the lens of God’s love and compassion, God’s inclusion of the marginalised and God’s desire for all people to be made whole. The lesson to be learned from today’s and other controversy stories in the New Testament is that scripture can be used as much to bind as to liberate and that the bible can be used as a tool of abuse as readily as it can be used as an instrument of compassion and respect.

Scripture is a tool for liberation and not for oppression. Let us pray that we will never find ourselves guilty of using scripture to limit, to bind or to repress, but only to encourage, to set free and to enliven.

What are we prepared to give, to give up?

August 17, 2019

Pentecost 10 – 2019

Luke 12:49-59

Marian Free

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

In Apartheid South Africa it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person or a coloured person or an Indian person or for a colored person to marry a black person or a white person, or an Indian person. If one was unlucky enough to fall in love with someone outside the prescribed parameters the consequences were serious – disgrace, arrest, followed by a jail sentence. Those who formed such relationships were usually isolated from their families and ostracized by their social circle. A white South African sex worker named Ethal, reported that she felt more accepted by her peers when she was a sex worker than when she married a black African man. For many in this situation, the threat of jail or of social censure led to self-imposed exile. In order to be with the one that they loved, they gave up home, family, friends and occupation.

As I have said many times, the first century Mediterranean culture was very different from our own. Greeks and Romans comfortably worshipped a number of gods. Their gods did not command the absolute loyalty of individuals but were variously responsible for the weather, the harvest and so on. It was no hardship for a Gentile to include Emperor worship to this diverse practice. On the other hand the one Jewish God demanded absolute loyalty and was worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Gentile gods could be worshipped wherever a Temple was to be found.

From a religious point of view, whether one’s starting point was as a Jew or a gentile, becoming a Christ-believer involved a radical realignment of one’s social, economic, religious and even political loyalties. Urban life was closely associated with both the local gods and with the imperial cult. It was essential for the well-being and protection of the city that all citizens fulfill their obligations to Rome and to the gods. Gentiles who came to believe in Christ could no longer associate with the gentile temples. When they stopped participating in sacrifices to the Emperor or to the local gods, they would be seen as putting the whole city in danger of losing the favour of the gods or the privileges extended by Rome.

If this were not enough to create tension, Engagement with the gods and their temples not only provided protection for the city, it was also central to the social life and cohesion of the community. Sacrifices of both meat and wine were part of the practice of worship. Temples were therefore not only gathering places for worship, but also marketplaces and venues in which people met to eat. Further, different gods were associated with different trades and the various guilds would hold their meetings in the relevant temple. A person who believed in Jesus was no longer able to visit the temple and so not only became isolated from his or her family and peers, but they were also excluded from membership in the guilds. This latter meant that they were not able to earn an income – at least not in the way that they had been used to. Christ-believers were regarded as dangerous because they placed their fellow citizens in jeopardy. They were isolated from their families and friends and unable to work.

The situation was not much better for Jews. Those who lived beyond Judea enjoyed many privileges that their fellow citizens did not. They were exempt from the Emperor cult and were free to send money to the Temple in Jerusalem. If some of their number chose to believe in Jesus, the whole Jewish community would be affected. Technically, Christ-believers were no longer Jews which meant that they were no longer under the protection of Rome. The problem for continuing Jews was that outsiders might not be able to distinguish the Christ-believers from the real thing. Jews were worried that they would be tainted by association and that they would be accused of sedition and lose their privileges. For this reason, among others, Jews too kept their distance from those who had come to believe in Jesus.

Whether Jew or Gentile, a person who chose to believe in Jesus was effectively cut off from all their previous relationships – family, friends and work. Faith in Jesus was divisive, potentially pitting “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Jesus’ words introducing this passage are perhaps the most passionate and, dare I say, violent that Jesus utters. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is not the first time that Jesus tells us that faith in him redefines what it means to be family, but this is the only time that he is explicit about the effect that coming to faith will have on relationships. In a culture in which family formed the basis for social relationships and for social cohesion, Jesus’ words will have been shocking, even frightening, but Jesus is describing the world as it will be for those who follow him. As he does on other occasions, Jesus is warning would-be disciples that following him means not only commitment but a willingness to leave everything behind to face a hostile and even dangerous world.

How reassuring these words must have been to those who found themselves ostracised and financially strapped as a consequence of faith? After all, isn’t this what Jesus said lay ahead? How difficult these words are for us in a world in which once again family is the bedrock of our society and, though the world is changing, a world in which having faith in Jesus puts us within, not outside the status quo? For most of us faith comes at no cost, only with benefits. The danger is that we will become complacent, that we will relegate Jesus’ uncomfortable words to irrelevancy instead of seeing them for what they are – a challenge to our complacency, a prick to our easy conscience, a call to action. Would our faith stand the test if it meant losing everything that is meaningful to us? Would we hold fast if we lost our work, our family and our friends? Would we stand our ground if society turned against us, harassed us, persecuted us or threatened to kill us?

The question is: What does our faith mean to us, and what are we prepared to give up for it?


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