Archive for the ‘Luke’s gospel’ Category

Second-guessing God

April 29, 2017

Easter 3 – 2017

Luke 24:13-31

Marian Free

 In the name of God who alone knows all things. Amen.

Too often, we make up our minds about people and situations without having all the facts at our disposal. For example, many of us (myself included) feel that we are in a position to make statements about the present political situation in the United States and elsewhere, about the war in Syria or about the housing crisis in Australia. Using information that we glean from news sources, radio or TV programmes or from our own experience, we confidently utter what we believe to be truths even though we do not necessarily know the complexities of the situation. Truth be told we would probably find it difficult to engage in social conversation if we hadn’t formed some sort of opinion on these issues. With any luck our conversation partner might add some further information that helps us to rethink our position or to engage in some proper research around the issue so that we are properly informed.

We do the same with people don’t we? Sometimes we form an opinion on the basis of only half the story. When someone behaves in a way that we don’t expect or that doesn’t meet with our approval, we can be quick to form a judgement about him or her. On closer acquaintance with the person we may learn something about their background and history that not only explains their behaviour, but that also challenges our first impression and forces us to rethink our opinion.

Cleopas and his companion (his wife? have made up their minds about the recent events in Jerusalem. They are returning home from the festival of the Passover – despondent and confused. So much has happened over the past few days and, try as they might they cannot make sense of it. Based on their preconceptions, they had come to believe that they knew who Jesus was and what he might mean for Israel. Although (unusually) we have the name of one of the pair, we know very little about them. Apparently they, with thousands of others, have been in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. Given that they know the disciples, it is possible that they themselves were already members of Jesus’ circle. At the very least they had been drawn into the excitement and anticipation that attended Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. They had been caught up in the things that he had said and done over the past few days. Along with many in the crowds they had believed that Jesus was “the one who was going to redeem Israel”. But all their hopes and expectations were dashed when, on the eve of the Passover, Jesus was put to death in the most horrible and unexpected way.

Now they do not know what to think. They are ill equipped to interpret Jesus’ violent and shameful death. Even though there are reports that Jesus has risen they are returning home as planned assuming that the story has ended – that Jesus was not “the one”. Their life, they believe will go back to the way it always was and they will continue to wait for a Redeemer.

Cleopas and his companion leave Jerusalem and begin walking the seven miles to their home. As they walk they revisit the events of the last few days, trying to make sense of what had happened. How could something that began so well end so badly? How could it be that something that appeared to be so certain came to nothing – worse than nothing? What could it possibly mean? Where was God in all of this?

The pair is so caught up in their own thoughts that they don’t pay attention when someone catches up and begins to walk with them. They certainly don’t recognise the person as Jesus. The stranger recognises their grief and draws them out. Using the scriptures he explains that the events of the past few days make perfect sense in the context of Moses and the prophets. More than that the idea of a suffering Messiah is perfectly consistent with God’s purpose and will.

It is not clear whether or not the two are comforted or reassured by Jesus’ words, but he has said enough that they seem anxious to continue the conversation when night falls and Jesus makes as if to walk on further. When they are at table and Jesus breaks the bread they finally see that it is the risen Jesus who has joined them. At last all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Once they have seen for themselves that Jesus really has risen from the dead, everything else becomes clear, the words of scripture begin to make sense. Jesus’ death was not the end that they had thought it was! They had drawn the wrong conclusion – everything had happened just as it was supposed to. God had acted in history as Moses and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Redeemer of Israel! Even though it is now evening, Cleopas and his wife leave for Jerusalem at once so that they can share the good news with the remainder of the disciples.

Having all the information enables us to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to put events into perspective and to make intelligent judgments about current affairs as well as about the people we encounter.

When things trouble us, when the world does not make sense, it is important not to jump to conclusions, not to believe we can work things out for ourselves and most importantly, not to second-guess God. Sometimes, with the benefit of hindsight, we will be able to find meaning in events that at first didn’t make sense. Sometimes we will be given or will find information that fills in the details that were missing and that helps us to put the pieces of the puzzle together. At other times we will simply have to keep going with our lives, believing that Jesus will draw beside us as a source of strength and meaning.

Only God has the whole picture. Hard as it is, there are times when we will have to put all our trust in God, believing that God will pull us through and that at some point – in the near or distant future – we will at least come to understand the rich tapestry of joy and sorrow, tragedy and triumph that makes up our lives.

 

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Standing with our feet in two worlds

February 4, 2017

Candlemas – 2017

Luke 2:22-40

Marian Free

Candlemas

         Candlemas

Loving God, light in our darkness; give us the courage to allow your light to reveal the darkness in our lives. Amen.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – an event in Jesus’ life that is recorded only by Luke. As early as the fourth century, the Church Fathers considered that this was an event of such significance that it needed its own feast day. At that time, the Presentation was marked on the fourteenth of February – 40 days after the feast of the Nativity on the 6th of January. Four hundred years later, sometime after the celebration of Christmas had been moved back to December 25, the feast of the Presentation was moved to February 2 where it remains to this day.

It appears that around that time, in the 700s, influences from the pagan festival of Imbolc began to creep in to the Christian celebration. Imbolc is the word for ewe’s milk in old Irish. In Northern Europe Imbolc marked the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In a world in which winters were dark and bleak, the lengthening of days and the first signs of spring growth were a cause for celebration. They were proof yet again that the darkness had not triumphed over light and that the earth would once again bring forth life and growth. It was a time of promise and possibility. White candles were lit as a symbol of purifying fire and of the rays of the sun.

Imbolc took place at the same time as the feast of the Presentation – on February 1st or 2nd. It appears that the church absorbed the practice of lighting candles into its own practice. The liturgy incorporated a procession of candles followed by a blessing of the candles for use that year hence the alternate name for the feast – Candlemas.

Just as Imbolc marked a mid-point in the astronomic calendar, in the Christian practice, Candlemas signified a movement away from the wonder and joy of Christmas and Epiphany and a movement closer to the sobriety of Lent and thus to the shadow of the cross. The changing seasons and longer days encouraged spring cleaning and the preparation of the ground for sowing and in the church Candlemass signified a movement away from festivity and feasting towards self-reflection and fasting.

Today’s gospel clearly depicts the tensions of being caught between celebration and solemnity, joy and apprehension, between Christmas and Good Friday. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple, Simeon’s gratitude and relief was matched by Anna’s exuberance and excitement as they both responded in their own ways to the encounter with their long-awaited Saviour. The joy of the meeting was tempered by Simeon’s warning and sense of foreboding as he says to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon might have identified Jesus as the one who was promised as “light to the gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel” but at the same time he cautioned that God’s promised salvation is not without cost.

Light, you see, is a mixed blessing. Light is threatening and benign, welcome and unwelcome. Light lifts the burden of darkness and enables us to see clearly. It allows us to walk without stumbling, but it has the potential to expose the dark corners and secret places of our lives – the cobwebs and dust that have built up over a long winter of neglect, the self-deception and arrogance that have been allowed to hide in the shadows, the inner thoughts that we would prefer to keep to ourselves.

When Simeon announced that Jesus was “the light to the Gentiles” he was fully aware that not everyone would welcome his presence among them. There would be many who would prefer to remain in the shadows rather than have their shallowness exposed and their self-deception revealed. He predicted that they would resent, resist and even oppose Jesus whose very presence would show them up for the charlatans that they were. The light of Jesus’ goodness and love would be greeted with delight by those who, like Simeon have looked forward to a time when God’s presence will be more fully known and who would feel the warmth and glow of that presence in Jesus. That same love and goodness, would serve to reveal the complacency, self-satisfaction and blindness of those who thought that neither the world nor themselves needed changing and who experienced the light as a scorching flame and a glaring beam that must be extinguished so that their lives could remain the same and their falsehoods unchallenged.

For those who recognise that the world lies in darkness, light is a welcome relief, but that same light is perceived dangerous and threatening by those who recognise that the light will shake and shatter their place in the world.

Today, as we celebrate Candlemas and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, we stand as it were with our feet in both worlds – between Jesus’ birth and the cross, between joy and sorrow, between the darkness and the light. As we follow the church calendar from Epiphany to Lent, we have time to consider whether we will allow our darkness to be exposed to the light or whether, content with the way things are and unwilling to accept that different could be better, we will turn our backs on the promise of change and renewal and consign ourselves to the shadows.

In vulnerably lies our salvation

November 19, 2016

The Reign of Christ – 2016

Luke 23:33-43

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose contradictions keep us always guessing. Amen.

Periander had sent a herald to Thrasybulus and inquired in what way he would best and most safely govern his city. Thrasybulus led the man who had come from Periander outside the town, and entered into a sown field. As he walked through the wheat, continually asking why the messenger had come to him from Cypselus, he kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop. Then, after passing through the place and speaking no word of counsel, he sent the herald away. When the herald returned to Cypselus, Periander desired to hear what counsel he brought, but the man said that Thrasybulus had given him none. The herald added that it was a strange man to whom he had been sent, a madman and a destroyer of his own possessions, telling Periander what he had seen Thrasybulus do. Periander, however, understood what had been done, and perceived that Thrasybulus had counselled him to slay those of his townsmen who were outstanding in influence or ability; with that he began to deal with his citizens in an evil manner[1].

According to Wikipedia this tale, which dates from at least the 4th century BCE is the origin of what we know as the Tall Poppy Syndrome – the desire to cut down anyone whom we believe to have “risen above their station”. That same site quotes Peter Harcher from the Sydney Morning Herald who defines the Australian version of the syndrome in the following way, “(Australian) citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others… But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision. It has a name—The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood…It isn’t success that offends Australians. It’s the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs[2].”

Sociologists like Max Weber believe that believe that in some groups, especially those that are disadvantaged socially or economically, there is only a “limited amount of prestige to go around”. As a result those who gain a degree of power or influence are resented for absorbing more than their fair share, which in turn restricts the ability of others to gain attention and authority[3]. In Australia, it seems that another person’s success offends our sense of egalitarianism. If someone is more successful than his or her peers, it is (in the minds of their peers) a sign that they think more highly of themselves than they should. They have broken the bonds of solidarity that provide strength and dignity to those on the lower rungs of the social scale and have set themselves apart to the chagrin of their peers.

Those left behind seek to humiliate if not destroy those who by good fortune or hard work have improved their place in the world. They try to bring that person down to their own level, to prove that they are just as human and flawed as the next person.

Should that person experience a reversal in fortune or a fall from grace, his or her peers will crow with delight, gather like vultures to pick over the bones, boast with delight that they knew that no good could come from someone overreaching themselves. They think to themselves how wise they were to have predicted the inevitable outcome of another’s ambition and pride. They express no sympathy for the plight of the fallen, just gleeful spite and self-congratulation.

If we understand this characteristic of human nature (the desire to cut others down to size), we will not surprised that this is how a majority of people react to Jesus’ arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. After all Jesus, in the minds of many, is just some peasant upstart from the far-flung region of Galilee who despite being a nobody has been causing mayhem in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Egged on by the leaders (whose apparent power derives from Rome), those present at the cross deride and mock Jesus, pointing out his powerlessness and the contrast between his present situations and that to which he might have aspired. What right does he have to set himself above others? What makes him different from the rest of the poor peasants who make up 99% of the population? Why should he receive the adulation and support of the crowds? What gives him the right to challenge the leaders and to critique Temple worship? Those who have no power – the soldiers, the crowd and even one of Jesus’ co-condemned – ridicule Jesus and demand that he demonstrate the power that he claimed to have. They want him to prove himself. If he is better than them, if he is able to perform miracles, if he is closer to God than they are then now is the time to prove it.

Three times the challenge rings out: “If he is the Christ let him save himself.” “If you are the King of the Jews save yourself.” “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” Three times Jesus is challenged to “save”. Save! Save! Save! they cry in mockery, knowing that the cross holds Jesus tight.

What we can see and the crowds cannot, is that the cross is unable to hold Jesus. The leaders, the soldiers, the man condemned to death have completely misunderstood the way in which Jesus will save (will bring about salvation). He will not “save himself from the cross, but his submission to the cross will bring about the salvation of the whole world. What the leaders and the soldiers and the condemned man have failed to understand is that it is precisely Jesus’ willingness to be powerless and vulnerable, his readiness to submit himself completely to God and his total obedience to and reliance on God that will lead not only to his own “rescue” from death, but also to the salvation of the whole of humankind.

As is often the case in the gospels, it is the most unlikely figure who can see the truth. A condemned man, who within two days will have died the most horrific of deaths, recognises Jesus’ paradoxical kingship. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, knowing the authority that he does have, promises “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

Crucifixion does not look like salvation, death does not look like life, vulnerability does not look like control but Jesus’ knew and the thief discerned, that it is only when we give up our independence and sense of control, only when we place ourselves completely and utterly in God’s hands that we can and will be saved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The concept originates from accounts in HerodotusThe Histories (Book 5, 92f), Aristotle‘s Politics (1284a), and Livy‘s History of Rome, Book I. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tall_poppy_syndrome

[2] op cit

[3] op cit

Telling it how it is

November 12, 2016

Pentecost 26 – 2016

Luke 21:5-19

Marian Free

 In the name of God who gives us courage to carry on when all hope seems lost and the future is out of our hands. Amen.

 

“We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven and sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood, and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains. It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three officers out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils!” so wrote John Raws from Pozieres on the fourth of August 1916[1].

That same day the Australians joined the attack at Fromelles. It was a disaster. Five and a half thousand young Australian men died – the greatest loss of soldiers in a single day during the war. Fighting continued on the Somme through the autumn mud and a bitterly cold winter. Australian casualties continued to mount, and the men’s health deteriorated in the conditions.

In November that same year, Hugh Anderson wrote home to his mother in New South Wales from Fromelles: “The Big Push has a 12 mile front and a depth of 6 miles and a curved front,” he wrote. “It has cost us half a million casualties at least and goodness knows how much money and animals. This is in six months. The German line is bent but not broken, at this rate to blow the Germans back to the Rhine, Britain will be broken for money and men. How it will end is very hard to say. I give him two years more at least. That’s my opinion from what I’ve seen and read.”[2]

This year marks 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. Between the 1st of July 1916 and the 18th of November, the Allied forces took on the Germans along the Somme River. The battle front was 30 kilometres long, the Germans well entrenched and when it was over the British and Dominion forces had lost an astounding 430,000 young men and the French 200,000 soldiers. In three and a half months the troops had advanced only 12 kilometers.

Three years later on the 11th of November, the Armistice of Compiegne went into effect. At the time, what we now know as the First World War was called the Great War – the war to end all wars. One hundred years later, we have witnessed a second world war and Australian troops have been involved in countless other engagements in countries too many to name.

Despite lessons from the past, the world has barely changed since 1916. Humanity, it seems, is destined to live with conflict and war, rioting and revolutions, oppression and injustice – not just in the last 100 years, but from the beginning of time. Not only must we contend with our inability to live together peaceably, we are also subject to the instability of the planet, the earth’s uncontrollable weather systems and the constant threat of illness or disease. For many people life is a daily struggle simply to survive and most of us at some time or another face some sort of adversity as a consequence of belonging to the human race on planet Earth.

It is important then to recognise that the words of today’s gospel are not prophetic in the sense that Jesus is predicting what might happen in a far distant future. Nor is he providing a check-list of signs that will precede the end. He is speaking of the world as it is – a world that is flawed, erratic and often dangerous. Jesus is describing the world as the disciples will experience it. His words are prophetic only in as much as he is describing the difficulties and dangers that the disciples in every age can expect to encounter. His words are prophetic only in as much as every generation has lived through wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues. At the same time, his words are not prophetic in the sense that though these events have occurred over and over again in the last 2000 years, they have not presaged the end.

In fact Jesus makes it clear that we are not to look for signs or to come to any conclusions as to the timing of the end. He cautions about being led astray by those who think that they know better than God when the end will come.

Rather than foretelling the future, Jesus is telling the disciples what they can expect in the present. Their lives might have changed as a result of their coming to faith, but the world will remain much the same. The only significant change in the disciples’ external environment is the risk that they will be misunderstood, that their faith in Jesus’ message may expose them to ridicule, misunderstanding, isolation and even arrest and imprisonment. He does not want them to be unprepared for a future that will be uncertain and ultimately unpredictable.

Behind the warning Jesus offers assurance and encouragement. “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” No matter how hard it gets, no matter what external or internal threats present themselves, Jesus assures that God will not abandon us. No matter what adversities we face, God will give us the courage and strength to endure. If we are able to trust in God’s steadfastness, if we maintain our faith to the end – no matter what life throws at us – God will keep faith with us. If our relationship with God through Jesus remains unbroken, we are assured that that relationship will defy even death and that in the present and for eternity we will be alive together with God.

Jesus doesn’t promise that life with him will be without challenges or will isolate and protect us from suffering, but he does assure us over and over again that life with him will give us the ability to endure. Let us thank God that, relatively speaking our lives are not subject to the desperation of poverty, displacement, disease faced by millions. Let us trust God that whatever life throws at us, we will find the courage to endure and face the future with confidence in God’s love for us and the certainty that we are destined for life eternal.

[1] Lieutenant John Raws, 23rd Battalion, 4 August 1916

[2] http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/stories/stories_war=W1_id=99.html

If these walls could speak

November 6, 2016

All Saints – 2016

The 150th Anniversary of All Saints, Marburg

Luke 6:20-31

Marian Free

In the name of God whom we are privileged to serve. Amen.

 

In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer

for the saints who before us have found their reward;

when the shadow of death fell upon them, we sorrowed,

but now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord.

 

In the morning of life, and at noon, and at even,

he called them away from our worship below;

but not till his love, at the font and the altar,

had girt them with grace for the way they should go.

 

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,

and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;

yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,

and still they were seeking the city of God.

 

Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found him,

whose journey is ended, whose perils are past:

they believed in the Light; and its glory is round them,

where the clouds of earth’s sorrow are lifted at last.

Words: William Henry Draper, 1894

Music: St. Catherine’s Court (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxV3fOrCwsQ)

 

I had never heard this hymn until Monday and then I was completely captivated by the third verse. “These stones that have echoed their praises are holy.” In this context we would sing “These timbers that have absorbed their praises are holy.” I am reminded of a story that the priest who was our post-ordination trainer told. The story related to his time as a Parish Priest in Canberra. Once a week on cold winter mornings, he would rise early and rug himself up to celebrate communion with a congregation of one. On one particularly cold morning, this priest finally plucked up the courage to ask whether the elderly woman (for that was who faithfully got herself out of bed each week) felt that it was time to abandon the practice. Didn’t she feel lonely he wondered. “Oh no”, she replied. “I am never alone. I am surrounded by all the saints who have worshipped here before me.”

On a day such as this, we are made acutely aware of the 150 years of saints who have gone before us and whose praises have over that time have sunk into the very fabric of this building and into the fabric of our faith lives, saints whose names have been synonymous with this church and this community. Saints who may not have met the standards of holiness demanded by Rome, but whose faithfulness and loyalty would never have been doubted. There have been saints who have made us laugh and others who have made us cringe and there have been saints who have put the fear of God into us and others whose high standards we were afraid that we could never meet.

One hundred and fifty years of saints worshipping at All Saints! What an amazing achievement. Apart from anything else it makes this worshipping community one of the longest-serving Anglican communities in Brisbane.

Imagine the stories these walls could tell – of suffering and despair of jubilation and laughter. For a century and a half, Anglicans in this community have supported each other through good times and bad, on joyous occasions and when grief seemed unbearable. Together they will have endured two world wars and two depressions. They will have watched as the young people made lives for themselves elsewhere and as the highway gouged out a path through the church grounds, making worship impossible for a considerable time. The saints of All Saints will have encouraged and supported a constant stream of clergy, leaving them richer for their experience in this place.

These walls have witnessed so many wonderful events and they hold the memories of all the saints who have ever worshipped here. If only they could speak we might learn much that would enrich and sustain our own faith journeys. We would learn how faith has sustained people in good times and in bad, how it helped them face adversity and reminded them to be grateful. If these walls could talk, they would share with us the faithfulness of members of this community that has kept this church and this hall beautifully maintained. If these walls could talk, we would be reminded that it is not just the deeply pious and obviously holy who are counted among the saints, but also the flawed and imperfect whose relationship with the risen Christ and whose confidence in the resurrection has earned them a place among the faithful.

The hymn with which we began carefully avoids extolling the “saints” or crediting them with extraordinary behaviour. It does not imply that there is some exalted standard that we have to reach in order to join their company. Instead the words remind us that what sets them apart is their understanding that they were strangers and pilgrims seeking the city of God.

That saints were a chosen few who stood out from the crowd was not the understanding of the earliest church. Paul, in addressing his congregations, refers to each one of them as “saints” (hagios or holy ones). We, with all those who have gone before us, are included among the saints – the vast majority of whom are people like you and I muddling their way through this life with the help of God, conscious that something greater and better awaits us at the end.

I suspect that few of us can claim the selflessness, courage and dedication of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Bishop Romero, but we are saints none the less. What distinguishes as saints is not that we are better than anyone else, or that we are more trusting or more worthy. What sets us apart is our awareness that we are pilgrims and strangers on earth and our knowledge that this life is not only temporary but that no matter how good it bears no resemblance to the life that is to come.

All the same, let us live our Christian journey, conscious that these walls that have witnessed so much, are likewise witness to our faith. Let us live in such a way that we will not be ashamed of the stories they will have to tell.

No really! An honest and moral tax-collector?

October 29, 2016

Pentecost 24 – 2016

Luke 19:1-10

Marian Free

 In the name of God who, through the Holy Spirit makes intelligible the unintelligible and continually opens our eyes to new ways of seeing. Amen.

 

The art of translation is a complex one. A translator cannot simply and mechanically change one word for another, but must make a number of crucial decisions, some of which can completely alter the intention of the speaker or of the writer. It is not just a matter of exchanging one word for another, but about determining the mood or the meaning behind the words and about creating a text that flows. This means that all kinds of decisions need to be made along the way. This is as true of Bible translations as it is of any other translation.

Taking the New Testament as our example, the translator is confronted with a number of issues that include:

  • deciding on which of the surviving texts is likely to be the most original[1]
  • determining where the punctuation should go[2]
  • and, where a word has multiple meanings making a decision as to which meaning best fits the context.

A good example of the latter is the word “πάσχω” (pascho from which our word Paschal comes) that can mean either “to suffer” or “to experience”. The meaning of a particular passage would change dramatically depending on which of the two possibilities the translator decided would work best in that situation. Given that there is an emphasis on suffering in the gospels, it is not surprising that “pascho” is more often translated as suffering in other New Testament writings.

By and large, translators endeavour to be objective but that can be difficult when it comes to Holy Scripture. Centuries of prior interpretations and theological understandings intrude on the process as do centuries of picturing Jesus in one way or another. It can happen that a translator is unable to give an exact translation because to do so would conflict with the way in which he or she have become accustomed to think of the meaning of a story or parable, or because they are unable to shed the ways in which they have become used to thinking of the person and nature of Jesus.

None of the above explains the usual translation of the story of Zacchaeus. Most of us know the story of Zacchaeus well. Zacchaeus is a tax-collector (one of the most reviled people in Israel because not only does he work for the Romans, but he almost certainly has enriched himself at the expense of his own people). He is also short. When Jesus comes into the town, Zacchaeus finds that he is unable to see because of the crowds – crowds who definitely will not move to provide a space for him to move towards the front. So he forsakes his dignity and climbs a tree in order to be able to see Jesus. This has the added benefit that Jesus can see him. To the shock and surprise of the crowd Jesus invites himself to dinner. In their eyes, Jesus is not only insulting them, but worse he is validating someone whose lifestyle clearly declares him to be a sinner.

According to this version of the story, Zacchaeus has a conversion experience as a consequence of Jesus’ acceptance of him. He declares: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” It is an extraordinary and extravagant response to Jesus in the vein of the woman (a sinner) who anointed Jesus. It makes perfect sense, but is this the best translation, is this the meaning intended by the author?

In this instance Greek verbs – “give” and “repay” are unambiguously in the present (not the future) tense. In fact, translated accurately the text has Zacchaeus say: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I pay back four times as much”. This throws an entirely different light on the story. Read this way it appears that Zacchaeus is already more generous than every other pious Jew who only gave away 10% of his income. Further, it may well be that Zacchaeus is very careful not to defraud anyone so that he can avoid repaying four times the amount.

Zacchaeus seems to be the exception to the rule. He is an honest and moral tax collector – one who has been unjustifiably excluded from society by his neighbours. This is a surprising and shocking revelation. We are much more comfortable with our first century prejudices that have allowed us to judge and exclude Zacchaeus on the basis of externals, his role as a tax collector? It is much easier to believe that Zacchaeus’ extravagance is a result of his encounter with Jesus than it is to accept that his largesse precedes his relationship with Jesus and is the reason why he is so keen to seek Jesus out and why Jesus finds him in the crowd.

If we accept this version of the story, then we have to accept that it is not Zacchaeus who needs conversion, but the crowd who grumble and who are resentful that Jesus has chosen Zacchaeus with whom to eat. They have not understood Jesus’ message of God’s inclusive love, they cannot bear to witness Jesus’ befriending/eating with the marginalised and outcast and they are quick to pass judgement even though they do not know the full story.

How often do we do the same – judge and exclude on the basis of externals? How often do we take the easy route and allow stereotypes to inform the way that we think about a person or group of people. How often do we take the view that we know as well as God who should be included and who excluded from our company, from our church?

The story of Zacchaeus is a stark reminder that there are always, always exceptions to the rule, and that while we are busy judging, we may simply be demonstrating our meanness and small-mindedness in comparison to the others generosity and openness.

What a tragedy it would be if we were to discover that those we whom exclude and revile are in fact closer to heaven than ourselves; that our attitudes to others, rather than demonstrating our righteousness expose our prejudices and readiness to judge. Would we rather be able to share Jesus’ wisdom, Jesus’ inclusive love and Jesus’ welcome or would we rather stand with the crowd and grumble that he doesn’t behave the way we expect him to? The choice is ours.

Only God can see the secrets of the heart so let us look to our own hearts and leave the judging to God.

[1] No original texts exist. Translators work from copies of copies that naturally include mistakes made by the copyists.

[2] Ancient Greek was written in capital letters, with no gaps between the words and no punctuation

Under the influence

October 22, 2016

Pentecost 23 – 2016

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks that we place our trust in God alone. Amen.

“Under the influence” is an apt description of someone who is an alcoholic. It reflects the reality that their lives are determined by something external to themselves, that they have ceded power over their lives to another. Addiction is like that. It can completely take over a person, often making them utterly unable to think of anything other than the next hit, the next drink, the next bet. Sometimes they are so focused on whatever the perceived benefit of the addiction is, that they are unable to see the effect that their behaviour is having on those around them.

It is only possible an addict to escape the hold of addiction if they recognise it to be a problem. Breaking a habit, giving up substance abuse, takes an enormous act of the will. It means learning to depend on/place one’s trust in someone or something else. “Recovery” will involve will power, grit and determination and the support of others. Some people will never break the habit, they will continue to engage in the destructive behaviour even if it threatens to cost them their jobs, their families and their lives. Nothing else exerts the same power and influence over their lives and in the end, many of them give everything away, because they cannot stop themselves having one more drink, one more bet.

There are of course success stories. Some addicts do realise that they have a problem. They enter rehab programmes, join A.A. and other support groups and they follow the advice that they are given. With appropriate support systems they are able to sever their relationship with their addiction and replace it with relationships that are less destructive and disempowering.

If you have ever known anyone in the grip of addiction, you will know that it is a terrible thing that overcomes all rational thought and decision-making. Whether it be gambling, drugs or alcohol, the addiction takes such a firm grasp that the sufferer can find it almost impossible to break free. They are seemingly able to tolerate their ability to hold a job decline, their health deteriorate and their family fall apart rather than give up whatever it is that has them in its thrall.

Addiction is fairly easily recognised and most of us can feel smug that we have never allowed ourselves to be caught in its grip. In reality though many of us allow all kinds of things to control our lives, some are physical and relatively easy to identify, others are emotional and can disguise themselves in a variety of ways. We can be bound by a need to be in control or by a need for security. It is possible to allow anger, fear, resentment or bitterness to take over our lives, to determine how we live, how we interact with others.

Dependence on anything – drugs, relationships, gambling, wealth – can be limiting and life destroying, (metaphorically and physically). It means ceding control of one’s life to a substance or habit, rather than taking control and making decisions that are life-giving, liberating and empowering. What is more, dependence on substances, activities, possessions or even on our emotional needs for security are a clear sign that our relationship with God is superficial and dependent on much as outward show as it is on a deep and abiding trust in God’s love and care for us.

A first reading of today’s gospel can lead us to think that the story about the ruler is all about money. After all, don’t those who enter the religious life give everything away, didn’t the disciples leave everything to follow Jesus, doesn’t Jesus command the ruler to sell his possessions and to follow him?

It is easy to believe that Jesus’ words to the ruler apply to all of us, but that would be to miss the point. Luke is reporting a conversation between Jesus and one other person. The ruler has come to Jesus with a specific question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

On examination Jesus discovers that the ruler already keeps the commandments – the most obvious way to attain eternal life. Despite this however, the ruler appears to be aware that something is missing from his life and his faith. That is why he has come to Jesus – not to boast in what he is doing, but to discover what it is that he is not doing. Jesus’ reply is specific to the ruler. He has in effect asked what is lacking in his faith and in his life, and Jesus recognises that it is his dependence on his possessions that is keeping him from feeling secure in God’s love, that is filling him with doubts about his worthiness to inherit eternal life. Jesus discerns that the ruler will only be truly free to accept God’s love, if he is to stop trusting in his possessions and to trust in God instead. If in the present he is not sure of God’s love, how will he be able to trust God with eternity?

The problem for the ruler was not so much that he was rich but that he couldn’t imagine life without his wealth, and without his possessions. They had such a hold on him that he could not let go. His desire for eternal life was not so strong that he was able to let that desire determine how he lived. He was so dependent on his possessions that he could not and would not exchange them for dependence on God.

When Jesus orders the ruler “to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and to come follow him”, Jesus is helping the ruler to identify his dependence on his possessions that prevents him placing his dependence in God.

In response to the gospel there are questions that we can ask ourselves: “Where do we place our trust?” “What are we unwilling to let go?” “What habit, emotion or fear has us in its thrall? And would we give it up for the surpassing power of knowing the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?”

 

 

Keeping faith with God

October 15, 2016

Pentecost 22 – 2016

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

 In the name of God, who is patiently waiting for the world to come to its senses and to allow the kingdom to come on earth. Amen.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel as though my prayers fall on deaf ears, or perhaps more accurately that no matter how much or how regularly I pray, the world will still be blighted by greed and the desire for power that leads to oppression, injustice and war. Surely there must be millions of people praying right now for an end to the bombardment of Aleppo – and yet the shelling continues, the hospitals have been destroyed, food has run out and those who are not yet dead are injured and/or starving. Week after week we pray for the leaders of the world, for care for the environment and all for what? The world seems to go on much as before, people selfishly getting on with their own lives, heedless of the cost to others or to the consequences of their actions for future generations.

We pray, but to be honest, sometimes it feels as though we are banging our heads against a brick wall. Does it make any difference? Will the world ever change? Is God listening? Does God even care?

Luke seems to relish complex, confusing parables. Not so long ago we grappled with the parable in which the actions of the dishonest or unjust steward were commended. Today we have another difficult parable. This time God is being compared to an uncaring, obstructionist judge who only responds to injustice when he is at risk of receiving a black eye. What are we to make of such a comparison? Are we being told that God will consistently put off our requests for justice until we are finally able to wear God down? Are we being warned that we are as vulnerable and defenseless as a first century woman who has no one to stand up for her?

It is a shocking thought – an indifferent God, unconcerned with the injustices that plague the world, getting on with goodness knows what while we bang futilely at God’s door.

I suspect however, that none of us really think of God this way and that we simply put this uncomfortable parable to a side (much in the same way that we try not to puzzle too hard over the parable of the dishonest steward. It seems that Luke (or the Jesus of Luke) uses shock intentionally. It is an attempt to get our attention, to make us think a little bit differently and to ensure that we absorb and remember the point that is being made. The parable rewards us with new insights if we take the trouble to unpack it.

In this instance Luke, instead of allowing the parable to speak for itself, gives us an interpretation before the parable begins – it is about persistence in prayer.

In the wider context of the gospel, the parable follows Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Kingdom. Jesus has just warned the disciples that the kingdom is not coming with signs that can be observed and that when it does come it will come without warning.

This parable then, and the one that follows, are intended to teach the disciples how to pray in the “in-between” time – the time between Jesus and the coming of the kingdom. Remember that Luke is writing sometime between 80 and 100 CE. The Temple has been completely destroyed, the Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem and those who have accepted Jesus as the Christ are experiencing a degree of hardship and ostracism because they no longer belong anywhere. Those who were Jews can no longer associate with their fellow Jews and those who of Gentile origin have likewise set themselves apart from their neighbours. It is not a comfortable or easy time to be someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ.

The world, instead of being dramatically changed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, continues much as it did before – perhaps worse for those who have chosen to follow Jesus. What are they to make of this? Surely the world be a better place as a consequence of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Today’s parable then, is intended to help believers make sense of the present, to pray in the face of apparent inaction on God’s part and to retain their faith despite the fact that nothing seems to have changed.

So back to the widow. Widows, as I am sure you recall were the most vulnerable members of first century society. Without a male family member to support them or to speak for them, they were thrown on the mercy and charity of those around them. At the same time they were, after orphans, the ones to whom most care and compassion was meant to be extended. It is the judge’s responsibility to take a widow’s concerns seriously, to give her needs priority over those of others. His disinterest in her case serves to highlight his callousness. It is only when he becomes afraid that the widow will give him a black eye that he relents. He doesn’t want to lose face in front of everyone.

Jesus suggests that if someone as base as the judge responds to the widow’s plea, how much more will a just and compassionate God respond to us if we continue to have faith that God is listening and if, despite evidence to the contrary, we remain confident that God is active in the world, working to establish God’s kingdom.

So rather than comparing God to an unresponsive judge, who will only act when his honour is threatened, the parable encourages us to be confident that God will respond if we persist with our pursuit for justice and peace in the world. Even if it appears that nothing is happening, we are to go on praying, believing that God is acting in the world to bring about justice and peace.

In this time – the “in between” time, we are called to keep faith with God as God keeps faith with us, believing that humanity is capable of better things, convinced that humanity is indeed worth saving, and confident that no matter how selfish, unjust and hateful we are, that God will never ever abandon us, but will keep on hoping that we, with God, will continue to work and pray for peace and justice until at last God’s kingdom is established on the earth.

 

 

More to it than meets the eye

October 8, 2016

Pentecost 21 – 2016

Luke 17:11-19

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=342912842

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who opens our eyes to a world that could be. Amen.

Today through the internet, mobile phones, social media we have access to world events 24/7. On many occasions we learn of events as they take place and not after the journalists have had time to write and file their reports. It is possible to see earthquakes almost at the same time as they are happening, videos of the shooting of black men in America come to our phones in vivid detail, as do the effect of violence against rioters in Egypt and in other places that are experiencing civil unrest. Even without our tablets and phones, our newspapers and television stations are able to give us details on Hurricanes almost as they happen. We appear to know more than we have ever known but at the same time because we only receive “sound-bites” on our devices or even in the regular media, we really only ever know what other people tell us, what they want us to see and hear and very often our understanding is determined by the way the information is interpreted, rather than hearing both sides in a dispassionate way and being allowed to form our own opinions.

Newspapers have to sell, TV stations need to attract viewers so as often as not it is the more sensational news that reaches us. What we see and hear is always selected for us and few of us go to the trouble of looking further to discover the background to the story, what led up to the events that are being reported, what really took place and who, if anyone really is to blame.

So often we see only what we want to see. We pass judgement before we have all the facts at our disposal and we form opinions on what other – sometimes biased – people tell us. Too many times we fail to look beyond the obvious, contenting ourselves with the superficial – not willing or not interested enough to look deeper.

The same, dare I say it, is as true of the way we sometimes approach the bible. Take this morning’s gospel for example. I am sure that you, like I, hear the account of Jesus’ healing the ten lepers and think to ourselves: “We know what this is about. It is about gratitude. In particular it is about the ingratitude of the nine who were Jews and the gratitude of the tenth – the outsider.” That is all well and good, and there is no real problem is we are content with that way of seeing and understanding the text. But if we go to the trouble of examining this simple story in more detail we will discover that it has much more to reveal than a superficial reading would have us believe.[1]

For example, were we to place these verses in the context of the whole gospel we would see among other things that this is Luke’s fourth reference to Jesus’ healing of lepers (Luke 4:27, 5:12-14, 7:22). If we were able to do a word search we would discover that Jesus’ final words to the Samaritan “get up and go” are the same words used when Mary “gets up and goes” to Elizabeth and the Prodigal “gets up and goes” home. A careful study of Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ life would reveal that it begins and ends with people glorifying Jesus (2:20 – the shepherds, 23:47 – the centurion). In fact, we would discover so much about the text that we would see it in a completely new and more sophisticated light.

Comparing the story to the account of the healing of Namaan the Syrian,

Dennis Hamm SJ suggests that this is not so much a story about healing and thankfulness, as it is about “discerning the presence of God”[2]. Namaan whose leprosy is healed when he deigns to dip in the insignificant waters of the Jordan comes to realise that the God of Israel is the God of all the world. His eyes are opened to a new and radically different truth[3].

In today’s gospel we are told that Jesus is “along the borders of Samaria and Galilee” – a reminder that Jesus meets people at the boundaries but also a geographical clue. When Jesus tells the lepers to present themselves to the priests they must go south – to Jerusalem. Ordered by Jesus, all men set off in a southerly direction. All are healed, but of the ten, it is the Samaritan (Hamm suggests) who is faced with a dilemma. Surely, when Jesus suggests showing himself to the priests he means the Temple in Jerusalem. Here however, the Samaritan will not be welcome. He will face another boundary, one that confines him to the Court of the Gentiles. Should he instead go to Gerizim – the place where the Samaritan priests are and the place that they believe is where God’s presence is mediated?

Here, “along the borders”, in a place of uncertainty, the Samaritan suddenly sees clearly. God is not to be found either in Jerusalem or in Gerizim but in the person of Jesus. He returns to give “thanks” – but this is no ordinary gratitude. The Greek word “euchariston” is the word we used for our Eucharist. In the Greek Bible it is used only for “thanks and praise to God”. The Samaritan has come to the realisation that Jesus is both the place where the sacred is to be found and also the one to whom thanks and praise are to be offered.

Now it all becomes clear. The Samaritan does not receive praise for saying “thank you”, but for his insight into the nature of Jesus and for giving glory to God through the person of Jesus. (“The other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”) The Samaritan, the outsider is not bound by the same traditions and influences of the Jews. This has freed him to see below the surface and to discern that Jesus is no ordinary man, but is in fact God incarnate.

The account of the ten lepers is less about gratitude, than it is about recognising God in unexpected places and in surprising people. Sometimes we only see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear. The tenth leper, the Samaritan challenges us to be open to other possibilities, to look beyond the obvious, to seek out more information and to discover God in people and places we cannot even begin to imagine.

 

[1] A useful site for getting to know the Sunday readings better it that of the St Louis University http://liturgy.slu.edu/28OrdC100916/theword.html

 

[2] See the liturgy.slu.edu. website for October 9, or Hamm’s article “”What the Samaritan Sees: The Narrative Christology of Luke 17:11-19.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 56.2 (1994) 273-87.

[3] (He is so taken with this idea that he wants to take home as much of the land of Israel as he possibly can (2 Kings 5:14-17).

God doesn’t owe us anything

October 1, 2016

Pentecost 20 – 2016

Luke 17:(1-4) 5-10

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whom we are pleased to serve. Amen.

An irrelevant piece of information: I am a Queen’s Guide. What that means is that I conscientiously fulfilled a number of requirements that enabled me to demonstrate that I had skills in a number of areas including cooking, camping, orienteering, sewing, collecting and so on. Over a number of years I earned badges of sufficient variety and quantity that I was deemed to have passed the requirements to receive the highest award in the guiding movement. It took a great deal of effort and though it barely matters now, I was glad to have my hard work recognised. Gaining the award was celebrated with a huge campfire, lots of singing, a special name and a certain amount of ceremony.

There are many things that we do with an expectation that we will be rewarded. Whether it is our school or university results, promotions at work, the success of our children or sporting prowess there is usually some sort of scale that tells us how well we have done, particularly how well we have done in comparison to others. So we get grades for our academic work, pay rises for promotions; we glow in our children’s reflected glory and accept medals or trophies for sporting success. When we have studied, worked or trained hard, it feels good to be rewarded for the effort we have expended.

Yet, even in this society which values and rewards success and achievement, there are still many who do things without any thought of reward. For example, the homicide detectives who put their personal lives on hold as they work tirelessly to ensure that a killer is found and a family is given some sort of answers in the face of awful tragedy[1]. They at least sometimes get thanked or commended for their sacrifices. There are however, literally hundreds and thousands of carers who look after an elderly or sick parent or spouse or who spend a lifetime caring for a child with a disability. These, the most draining and most demanding of tasks come with little to no recognition and yet those doing the caring mostly do so selflessly and lovingly – their only reward the knowledge that their parent, spouse or child is receiving the very best care that they can give.

Today’s gospel combines a number of Jesus’ sayings, that don’t necessarily seem to fit together until we remember that it is during Jesus journey to Jerusalem that he instructs his disciples. From the time that Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” (9:51) we have been confronted with a number of difficult sayings about discipleship – “let the dead bury the dead”, “no one who doesn’t not hate mother or father is not fit to be a disciple”, “take the lower seat”, “take up your cross” and so on. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem and he does not want his disciples to be naïve about the cost of following him – a journey that leads to the cross.

It is in this context that we have to look at this morning’s collection of sayings.

Jesus has recently told the complex parable of the dishonest steward and the challenging parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Now, as if Jesus hasn’t made enough demands, he warns the disciples against being the cause of someone else’s failures and insists that if someone offends them they are to forgive seven times each day!

No wonder the disciples respond by asking Jesus to increase their faith! What Jesus is asking of them must seem to be impossible – they are going to need all the help they can get.

As we have heard, Jesus’ response is two-fold. In the first instance they don’t need any more faith than they have. Even their small amount of faith is sufficient to achieve the impossible and even the improbable. What faith the disciples do have comes from God and God who gives them faith can use that faith if only they take the risk of faith and allow God’s power to work through them.

Secondly, Jesus reminds the disciples that it is important that they do not exercise their role in the believing community with the hope of reward. Serving God and serving each other should be its own reward[2]. In other words, the disciples and now ourselves live out our discipleship faithfully as our response to God’s presence in our lives, not because we are looking over our shoulder and hoping that God will to tap us on our shoulder and say “well done”.

The story of the slave and master is a reminder to them and to us that we cannot earn our own salvation. As Tom Wright puts it: “We cannot put God in our debt”[3]. The story is a warning against the temptation to try to build up credit points for ourselves, to rely on our own efforts rather than on what God has done for us, to create a superficial image of goodness and obedience, or to arrogantly think that we are as able as God to pass judgement on our own behaviour. In other words, if we serve God only for what we think we can get out of that service, then we have misunderstood.

Everything we have we have from God, including our faith. As disciples we serve God willingly and happily, not reluctantly or ungraciously. We serve God not with any thought of what we will get in return, but in joyful gratitude for what we already have.

Faith is not a duty or a burden, but a privilege and a gift. Surely that is sufficient reward for what little we may do in return.

[1] A detective who worked on the Jill Meagher case wiped away tears as he reported that over the years he had missed his children’s birthdays including his daughter’s 21st.

[2] We do not have to be uncomfortable about the image of slavery. Slavery was so commonplace in Jesus’ time that the original hearers would not have taken any offense in thinking of themselves as “worthless slaves”.

[3] N.T. Wright. Luke for Everyone. Great Britain: SPCK, 2002, 204.


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