Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part Two)

I have sometimes taken the risk and asked people, “Why do you attend worship.?” One of the top five answers is always something like, “I need to get my spiritual batteries recharged.” The week has taken it out of me, and my onboard supply of faith is running low.

I wonder how much that metaphor has been enhanced by our experience with cell phones. Right now, my phone is telling me that my battery may run out soon. If I don’t plug it back in to the power source in the next half hour or so, my phone will “die.” Fortunately, I’m right next to a recharging cable. I’m letting the phone run down as part of my periodic battery maintenance.

It’s an interesting metaphor in connection with our text. When it comes to my phone or laptop, I can unplug from the power source. I can go off on my own for a while, separate from the thing that provides the energy. I can usually return to that power source when I need to, but in between recharges, I don’t really have to be connected. I don’t have to think about the power source until I really need it.

I’m not sure that’s a helpful image for our relationship with Jesus if we are his disciples. When it comes to my phone or laptop, unplugging from the charger is a source of freedom. One of the prime selling points for many electronic devices is the amount of time I can be free from the tether of that charging cable. But I don’t think that’s the case with “faith,” at least not as Jesus means it in our text.

The “power source” metaphor indicates that I can unplug from Jesus and have life on my own. That makes “faith” a commodity that can be expended and replenished. But what if faith isn’t a commodity? What if the question isn’t about the “amount” of faith I have or don’t have at the present moment? What if “faith” is not about a quantity I possess but rather the quality of a relationship of trust?

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Francisco J. Garcia notes that “Jesus’ loaded response to the disciple’s request for more faith—telling them that all they required was the faith of a tiny mustard seed to do the impossible—tells us that they are asking for the wrong thing. But,” Garcia wonders, “what’s wrong with wanting just a little more faith to meet the urgent call of their fearless leader?”

Garcia observes that faith can’t be quantified and plotted on a line graph. Or as Rolf Jacobson puts it in one of the “Sermon Brainwave” podcasts, it’s not that we have a battery icon on our hearts to indicate the amount of faith we have and when we might be running low. “Faith does not increase like magic,” Garcia writes, “It is felt and known through lived experience. This can only come through practice,” he continues, “in those challenging moments when faith is put to the test.”

Garcia notes that this “test” is not like a school exam where we can pass or fail. Rather, the test he describes is the act of trusting in the one in whom we have faith. Faith is experienced and built as we live in a trusting relationship. It’s not a commodity to be stored for future need. He suggests that faith is a “praxis,” a practice that shapes how we live – “an ongoing spiral-like process of reflection, action, and grace that only ‘increases’ as the process itself unfolds and expands in breadth and depth.”

If “faith” is not the juice that recharges, our spiritual batteries, then what is it? Another cultural metaphor that people know is the “leap of faith.” I am betraying my age here, but I can’t help but think of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Joy J. Moore reminded me of this scene during a “Sermon Brainwave” podcast. Here’s a YouTube clip of the scene.

It’s a desperate moment. Without the help of the Holy Grail, Indiana’s father will die in minutes. Yet, it seems that there’s no path forward. Indiana has to step out in “blind” faith, trusting that the path will appear. The bridge was there all along, although it was invisible except to “the eyes of faith.” I think that many of our folks understand faith as of necessity “blind” in this sense.

It’s a compelling scene. But it’s all about what’s happening “inside of” Indiana Jones. The question is whether he can muster up the courage to step out blindly. Once he has done so, his daring is rewarded. It’s really all about Indiana and has little to do with whatever person or force might have actually provided the sturdy bridge to the future. Faith may not be a commodity in this scene. Instead, it’s a personal accomplishment. And because of his heroic effort and risk, no one else has to take the leap like Indiana.

The notion of the “leap” of faith comes most clearly from the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. I would recommend to you the brief article by Olivia Goldhill in this regard on Quartz. She notes that Joe Biden has found solace in the words of Kierkegaard. The words that have sustained him most were given to him by Jill Biden, taped to his mirror. “Faith sees best,” Kierkegaard wrote in Gospel of Sufferings, “in the dark.”

Goldhill provides the larger context for that quote. Since it is Kierkegaard, the thought is far more complex than we might hope. Kierkegaard criticized the easy and “rational” faith of the European Christians of his time. Following Jesus, according to the consensus of that moment, was simple, reasonable, and asked little of decent, middle-class people. But that view of faith, Kierkegaard knew, leaves us in the lurch when we face the real darkness of human existence.

When faith makes perfect sense, Kierkegaard says, we can no longer see God. Kierkegaard calls that perspective human “sagacity.” God is hidden by the bright light of human wisdom. That bright light obscures everything in the false notion that life is good, and faith is simple. It is only, he continues, “when in the dark night of suffering sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it, then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark.”

What is the difference between Indiana Jones and Soren Kierkegaard, besides the hat and the bullwhip? For Indiana Jones, it’s about the quantity of his faith. It’s really about Indiana Jones and no one else. The question is whether he will take the necessary step or not. That makes perfect sense in the movie. Jones is the hero, after all. I’d like to be the hero of my own dramatic adventures. But it usually doesn’t work out that way. If this is about the quantity of my faith, then, most of the time, I’m screwed.

For Kierkegaard (and for Martin Luther, and for Jesus), the question isn’t the quantity of my faith. The question is the faithfulness of the One in whom I trust. Indiana Jones had no reason to believe that the stone bridge would appear. He had no previous experience, no tradition, no earlier witnesses that would testify to the existence of that bridge in spite of the evidence of his senses. Jones stepped out in desperation as much as he did in faith.

Jesus followers claim to know something about this Jesus in whom we put our trust. We claim to know that he was faithful to and through death, even death on a cross. We claim to know that God raised him from the tomb and lifted him to lordship over all of Creation. We claim to know that we have the record of Jesus’ character in the gospel accounts. We claim to know that trust in Jesus as our Lord is not “blind” faith. Rather it is rooted in knowing through Jesus what God is like.

God’s character is “grace.” When we know that, then we can stake our lives on that fact. That’s why, in his Commentary on Romans, Martin Luther gives this description of faith. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His (sic) creatures.” My confidence is in God’s character, not in the quantity of my “faith.”

This faith does not see best in the dark because of anything about me or my character. My experience of this faith in the midst of suffering is like seeing the stars come out at night. The stars are always there, but sunlight renders them invisible. It’s only when the sun goes down that the stars appear. I may have to wait for the bright light of my own resources to fade before I can see what has always been there – God’s love for me in Jesus.

Some nights are cloudy, and the stars remain invisible. But I trust that they are still there. After a week of overcast nights, I might begin to wonder if the stars will shine again, but they always do. I don’t think God sends us suffering to make sure we can see God in faith. Instead, suffering and trials come all on their own. Yet, it is in the midst of the darkness that I have most often seen the light of Christ – and seen that light most clearly.

On this basis, we Christians confess that even faith itself is a gift from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is a gift that calls forth action and response. More on that in the next post.

Text Study for Luke 17:1-10 (Part One)

17 Pentecost C; October 2, 2022

Some critical editions of the text label this section simply as “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The thought is that the Lukan author stitched some independent stories together in this section. Similar texts are separated in the Matthean account. Luke 17:1-3 resemble Matthew 18:6-7. The note on forgiving another disciple seven times a day resembles Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:22. The image of something big happening because of faith resembles Jesus’ words in Mark 11:23. The small parable in Luke 17:7-10 is exclusive to the Lukan account.

I rehearse this not because I’m interested in form criticism or tradition history. Instead, I just want to remind myself that the Lukan author makes choices about what to include in the account and where to put those texts. The section heading, “Some Sayings of Jesus,” could be heard as a description of a purported randomness or catch-all nature of this section. I don’t think that’s ever the case in the Lukan account. We may struggle to discern how the Lukan author is connecting all this material to the larger context. But just because we struggle doesn’t mean the Lukan author struggled in the same way.

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Unless there is some clear reason to do otherwise, we should assume that a Lukan text is tightly connected to its immediate context. The audience addressed in the second half of Luke 16 is the scoffing Pharisees. We see this in Luke 16:15. In Luke 17:1, we get a clear shift in the addressed audience. We have an adversative de. Jesus speaks to his disciples. They overheard the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Now Jesus unpacks (or complexifies) that parable as it applies to their life together.

I don’t see how it is responsible to read Luke 17:5-10 without reading Luke 17:1-4. I understand that this multiplies the problems in an already issue-laden text. But the urgent plea from the disciples, “Increase our faith!” doesn’t come in a rhetorical vacuum. Jesus calls the disciples to take care of the “little ones” in the community. This includes both accountability and reconciliation – even if the same process needs to happen seven times a day.

In light of verses one through four, I would be asking for additional resources as well. I need to remember that these “disciple” texts in the Lukan account are especially addressed to the Lukan audience. They are even more especially addressed to the leaders of the Lukan faith communities. Therefore, it is no accident that we switch from “disciples” to “apostles” in Luke 17:5. Perhaps the leaders in those communities were being too hard on members who didn’t have the luxury to participate as faithfully and as fully as those leaders would have liked.

It’s important to note that the Lukan author identifies Jesus as “the Lord” in verses four and five. That reinforces the notion that this exchange is really happening in the Lukan community more than it is between Jesus and his disciples on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem. It should be clear by this time in the Lukan account that the leaders of the Lukan communities were having some trouble figuring out the nature and scope of their own accountability as leaders.

“It is impossible for stumbling blocks not to come along,” Jesus tells his disciples (Luke 17:1a, my translation). As a parish pastor, I should have read that reminder every day of my ministry. Far too many times I treated everyday human failings as personal bothers and insults. Why couldn’t these people do better so that I could focus on the real stuff of ministry? I learned through hard and halting lessons that normal human failings are the real stuff of ministry. And I learned through those hard and halting lessons that my responses to those normal human failings could have a profound impact on the life and faith of my members.

I think with chagrin about a brief conversation in my first parish. A faithful member asked a question in good faith at a congregational meeting. My response was too snarky by half. On reflection I realized that the question had tapped my insecurities as a leader, and I punished the poor fellow in return. He was publicly embarrassed by my response, but I ignored that outcome.

It was only when he was absent from worship that I realized something was wrong. I asked forgiveness and offered a public apology for my behavior. I created a stumbling block for his participation in the community of faith through my poor leadership and personal limitations. I was the one who sinned and needed forgiveness. I’m grateful that my parishioner was able to offer that undeserved gift and to return to worship and service. But it was a close scrape for me as a leader.

I wonder if one of these little ones mentioned in Luke 17:2 includes a reference to Lazarus in the previous parable. I am sure that my bad behavior led to some dark thoughts on the part of my parishioner, thoughts that did not enhance his life and faith. I can imagine that as Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate day after day, some of his thoughts and imaginings shaded into darkness.

I would have been hard pressed not to wish ill for the rich man if I were in Lazarus’ place. Knowing myself and my reactions, I can imagine that I would have been filled with resentment. I would have externalized my pain with wishes that similar harm might come to the rich man. I would have coveted – not merely desired but coveted – the food on the rich man’s table. I would have cursed even the dogs, who were, after all, just doing what dogs do.

“Pay attention to yourselves!” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke 17:3 (my translation). This is one of the primary emotional tasks of leaders – to be attentive to ourselves. As leaders in any community, we need to monitor our own responses and reactions. We need to make sure that we are aware of what motivates and moves us in response to stimuli that come at us from our community.

In this regard, it’s always worth remembering the great Viktor Frankl quote from Man’s Search for Meaning. “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” Frankl writes, “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It’s important to remember that Frankl wrote this as he described his experiences in the Nazi death camps. For Frankl, this kind of self-awareness was part of his path to survival.

I find it interesting that Jesus moves from the second person plural (“yourselves”) to the second person singular (“your”) in verse three. The rebuke, repentance, and reconciliation envisioned in this passage is clearly at a personal level, between two members of the Lukan faith community. “If your sibling sins, you must rebuke that one,” Jesus says, “and if that one repents, you must forgive” (Luke 173b, my translation). That move to the second person singular continues into verse 4.

The most immediate context for the request for increased faith, therefore, is the command to forgive a repentant sibling seven times a day. Of course, that number isn’t an upper limit. It’s a symbol of ongoing and complete forgiveness. The command is to forgive the repentant one as many times as it takes to maintain the relationship.

This will drive some people justifiably crazy. It seems like a sure formula, for example, for perpetuating an abusive relationship. I don’t think for a moment that this is what Jesus intends. We tend to have an over-developed sense of what it means to forgive.

And we have an under-developed of what it means to repent. Repentance is far more than expressing sorrow for a previous action. It is a change of mind that demonstrates evidence that the offender is now a different sort of person. The standard is very high for disciples who have been wronged. The standard is at least as high for the disciple who seeks forgiveness. Repentance is no small or momentary thing.

The connective between verses four and five is a “kai.” It’s an “and.” Rhetorically, the request from the apostles continues the conversation happening in verses one through four. The disciples are portrayed as seeing a continuity between Jesus’ command to forgive and their desire for increased faith. If we’re commanded to engage in that sort of behavior in the faith community, the disciples seem to say, we’re going to need more resources to get the job done.

That’s a response that makes sense to us as readers. But it’s not what Jesus intends. Verse six has a “de,” a “but.” The conversation was headed in one direction, and Jesus needs it to go another direction. The apostles seem to have gotten the wrong end of stick on this one. Jesus needs to reorient the conversation. He does that with some outlandish imagery and a disgusting little parable (disgusting, I hope, from our twenty-first century vantage point).

It’s that rhetorical whipsaw between verses five and six that makes the reading of verses one through four so important for our interpretation. The disciples are headed off in the wrong direction and need a course correction in their thinking. We probably need that course correction as well. We’ll look more closely at how Jesus responds in our next post.

Message for Luke 16:19-31

16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022

Last week we read the hardest parable in the Gospels. This week we read the easiest one. The main point of this parable is clear. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. If I follow Jesus, then how I treat my neighbor in need must matter to me.

The story is simple. A rich man spends all his wealth eating, drinking, and partying. He’s rich enough to do that every day. Outside his front gate lies Lazarus. Lazarus is desperately poor, chronically ill, and painfully hungry. Every day the rich man celebrates. Every day Lazarus suffers. Nothing changes.

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Both men die. Then everything changes. Lazarus arrives at “the bosom of Abraham.” The bosom of Abraham is the best seat at the paradise party. The rich man arrives in the fiery depths of Hades. Lazarus celebrates. The rich man suffers. Nothing changes.

So, that’s it, right? If I don’t take care of poor people, I burn in hell. It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? I could argue that I’m no Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. That’s certainly true. But I know I’m richer than most other people on the planet. I know I’m richer than millions of my American neighbors. I know I’m richer than thousands of my neighbors in the city where I live.

Pleading my poverty relative to the super-rich won’t work. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. That takes some of the fun out of that used camper we bought last week.

Is that the purpose of the parable? Does Jesus try to literally scare the hell out of me, so I’ll part with some of my moldy money? I think that is the purpose.

But why does that matter to Jesus? Does Jesus hate rich people? I don’t think so. Jesus wants the best for me. Jesus comes to make me the person God created me to be. That’s what it means in this life to be saved. Jesus tells this story to make me better, not to scare me to death.

Last week, I invited you to compare a parable to a Bugs Bunny cartoon. This week I want to compare this parable to Charles Dickens’ story, A Christmas Carol. I think that will help us understand a bit better.

Ebenezer Scrooge loved money. No, that’s not quite right. Ebenezer Scrooge hated generosity. He hated giving of any kind. He hated sharing himself or his stuff with others. He hated Christmas giving. He hated giving to the poor.

Scrooge hated anything that connected him to the needs of another person. Dickens described Scrooge as “Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Even the rich man in our parable sounds good compared to old Ebenezer, at least for the moment.

On Christmas Eve, Scrooge gets a ghostly visit from Jacob Marley – Scrooge’s business partner, dead seven years that night. Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit the old miser. Those spirits will bring Scrooge the chance and hope to be a different person. We travel with Scrooge on the journey through Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

This journey connects Scrooge with other human beings. Each spirit hammers on the hard shell of that man who was “secret and self-contained, as solitary as an oyster.” We meet Scrooge’s beloved sister, Fan. We party with dear old Fezziwig. Scrooge falls in love and out of love. As his fiancé ends their engagement, she says, “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you, [Ebenezer] in the time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

The “idol” Scrooge’s fiancé mentioned was his love of money. That great love of his life tolerated no rivals. Scrooge was left alone, just as he wished.

Only human connection, compassion, and community could save the old skinflint. The spirits bring him to the stool of Tiny Tim. In spite of himself, Scrooge begins to care for the boy. Without help and support, Tiny Tim will soon die. Suddenly Scrooge has an unfamiliar feeling.

“Spirit,” he says, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.” Unlikely, the Spirit says, if nothing changes. “What then?” the Spirit proclaims, “If he be like to die, he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge, to his shame, had spoken those very words just a few hours before.

We come to Christmas Future. Scrooge witnesses the aftermath of his own death. He has died neither missed nor mourned. Some of his wealth enriches the poor whether he likes it or not. Tiny Tim has also died, but his memory is cherished.

As Scrooge faces the open mouth of his own grave, he shouts his repentance. “Spirit!” he cries, “hear me! I am not the man that I was. I will not be that man I must have been except for this intercourse. Why show me this,” Scrooge demands, “if I am past all hope!”

Now we come back to our parable. Lord Jesus, why show me all this, if I am past all hope! The most important character in the parable isn’t the rich man. The most important character isn’t Abraham or even Lazarus. The most important characters are those five brothers, still alive, still able to repent.

I am the sixth brother in the story. Why show me all this if I am past all hope!

Scrooge’s story has a happy ending, unlike the story of the rich man. After his Christmas Eve travels, Scrooge is still alive. But he gets more than a reprieve. Scrooge really is not the man that he was. He gets a new life. That new life means connection, compassion, and community. He finds family with Fred, his nephew. He finds friendship with Tiny Tim, who did not die after all. He finds the joy of giving as he pays for the relief of the poor.

As Dickens puts it, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the old city knew…” Scrooge became the person he was made to be. And he was truly happy.

How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus. How I treat my neighbor in need matters to Jesus now and forever. Jesus loves my neighbor in need and wants the best for my neighbor. Jesus also loves me and wants the best for me. Jesus longs for me to become as good a person as the good old city knew. Jesus wants that for you too.

We cannot follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. Money is a wonderful tool but a terrible lord.

In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life,” as we read in our second lesson. That’s what is at stake in our parable. The rich man had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us. Jesus wants us to have the life that really is life. Will we accept that gift and do the giving?

Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part Four)

What does Jesus have against rich people (especially in Luke’s gospel)? Problems for rich people start before Jesus is even born. In Mary’s song in chapter one, she declares that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:53). In Luke 6:24, Jesus pronounces one of his woes on the rich, for they have already received their “comfort.” By the way, that’s the same word Jesus uses in Luke 16:25 to describe Lazarus’ postmortem situation.

In his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, Jesus calls the concerns and riches and pleasures of this life thorns that choke out the life-giving power of the word. We’ve read the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. The punch line for that joke is stark and simple. The rich man’s pointless life and empty death is the fate of all “who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God” (Luke 12:21, NRSV). That’s true because our life does not consist in an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15, my emphasis).

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In Luke 18, we hear the story of the rich ruler. We won’t get that story this year, since it is covered in other lectionary years.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the man asks Jesus. “Sell all you own and give the proceeds to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus says, “then, come and follow me.” That was a nonstarter for the guy. “He went away sad because he was very rich.” Jesus then declares that a camel can go through the eye of a needle easier than a rich person can enter the Kingdom of God.

We get some exceptions to this worry about wealth in the Lukan account. But the question stands. What does Jesus have against rich people? Klyne Snodgrass notes that simply based on the number of mentions in the Gospel accounts, “more focus is given specifically to money than to any other subject in Jesus’ teaching” (page 137).

In fact, the basis of Jesus’ mission, as he describes it scripturally in Luke 4, is to proclaim good news to the poor. It seems to go without saying that this may also involve proclaiming bad news to the rich. “There is no place to hide from the strength and confrontation of Jesus’ words on money,” Snodgrass writes, “Nor can we say that the stringent commands are only for the clergy or those of a higher spirituality” (page 139).

In the parable, Jesus doesn’t accuse the rich man of any particular sin. Nor does he commend Lazarus for any particular virtue, Father Abraham simply describes the Great Reversal so characteristic of the Lukan account. “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things,” Father Abraham calls across the chasm, “but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25, NRSV).

Maybe I’ve gotten the question wrong. Jesus has nothing against rich people. Wealth, by itself, is just stuff. What matters is my relationship to riches. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” we read in 1 Timothy 6:10 (NRSV), “and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

In fact, Jesus wants to save rich people just as much as Jesus wants to save poor people. It’s just that the realities of riches apparently make that saving a lot harder. “[I]f the world could have been saved by successful living,” Robert Farrar Capon observes, “it would have been tidied up long ago” (Kindle Locations 4017-4018). It remains true that the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

It isn’t that Jesus has something against rich people. Instead, he’s worried that wealth will deprive us of the very life Jesus wants us to have – the abundant life of being rich toward God. Snodgrass comments on the Parable of the Rich Fool in this regard. “Jesus’ words directly contradict our society’s assumption that our identity is determined by our possessions. The parable serves to illustrate,” Snodgrass continues, “that possessions are not life and provide no secure basis for life…The vulnerability of life,” Snodgrass concludes, “shows he has no permanent relation to his things. They are not really his” (page 140).

The rich man in our current parable hasn’t gotten the memo on this one. Here’s a clue, I think, to help us hear the story. The rich man is still giving orders! Did you notice that? “Father Abraham,” the rich man calls, “do me a favor and send Lazarus over with a bit of cool water. You may not have noticed, but it’s pretty hot over here.” Even in Hades, the rich man expects that poor Lazarus will wait on him. He expects that the values and structures at work in this life are all that matter.

That’s a symptom of the rich man’s spiritual illness. Now, I don’t want to make Lazarus and the rich man equal in this story. They are not. If I do that, I cooperate with the rich man and victimize Lazarus all over again. But the parable shows how the rich man lost his humanity in this life. In that way, there was really nothing left to save in the next life.

The philosopher Samantha Vice describes “the ordinary vices of domination.” She is writing as a white person in post-Apartheid South Africa. But I think her insights are applicable to any and all of us who live privileged lives of any sort. One of the benefits of privilege is that we see ourselves as “normal” and as the center of existence, the objective standard for what it means to be an authentic human being. Our privilege is most powerful when it wears the cloak of invisibility that domination provides.

Our rich friend in the parable demonstrates no sense that anything is “wrong” in his earthly life. His wealth and comfort seem “normal” to him. In fact, it would be “wrong” not to enjoy all the good things of this life. The rich man’s lifestyle is habitual, unquestioned, and even (at least in his view) unremarkable. Of course, this renders Lazarus just as invisible to him as the rest of his life is.

Samantha Vice wants us to see that the impact of such privilege is anything but unremarkable. In fact, we who are privileged suffer profound and ongoing moral damage in our positions as oppressors. Not that we should feel sorry for the rich man (or for our privileged selves). The habits of privilege damage us, personally and generationally. We can confront those habits personally and structurally and begin to redress the damage.

Or we can remain in blissful ignorance as our humanity, our real life, ebbs away into nothing. This blissful ignorance will look quite ordinary. Samantha Vice points to “indifference or callousness, cowardice or dishonesty, the failure of imagination and empathy, or just plain laziness” (page 327). We could apply that list as a diagnostic in our text. While the rich man is not guilty of any particular sin or heinous crime, these ordinary vices are draining him of his remaining humanity, leaving only a self-absorbed husk to be consumed by the flames of Hades.

“Discipleship in the kingdom of God requires a major redirection of how we think about and use material possessions,” Snodgrass writes. “We should not be unintentional about anything related to faith, and therefore, possessions are tools for living, not something to amass. There is no basis for or wisdom in hoarding” (page 142). Nor, we should add, is there any basis for or wisdom in selfish squandering while ignoring the needs of others.

Snodgrass raises several final issues for our consideration. Do we get our identity from God or from our stuff? Do we find our security in God or in our stuff? Are we wrapped up in anxiety over stuff rather than bathed in the peace of God? Do we operate based on greed or generosity? We cannot claim to follow Jesus and hide from the poor. Greed hides us from the poor. Generosity connects us. “Money is a wonderful tool,” Snodgrass summarizes, “but a terrible lord” (page 143).

It’s not often that the second lesson offers as much support for interpreting the gospel reading as it does this week. But the closing paragraph of our second reading offers counsel and encouragement in response to the parable. I wonder now if perhaps it would be best (as is often the case) to read the gospel prior to the second lesson.

In any event, we who are rich are called to resist the temptation to set our hopes on the uncertainty of riches. Succumbing to that temptation results in ruin and destruction (see 1 Timothy 6:9). That catastrophe is not likely to be a material one since we who are rich can buy our way out of such troubles. It must be a moral and spiritual crisis, one that deprives us of the life which the Lord wishes would be ours.

God provides for our enjoyment and for doing good works (which we should enjoy too!). In using wealth as a tool for God, we can “take hold of the life that really is life.” That’s what is at stake in our parable. Our rich friend had his hands full of a life that really is not life. At the end of the game, his hands were empty, his humanity drained away. Jesus wants better for us.

References and Resources

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/3261067.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Rossing, Barbara. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Westview Press, 2004.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “Jesus and Money—No Place to Hide and No Easy Answers.” Word & World 30, no. 2 (2010): 135-43.

Somov, Alexey, and Vitaly Voinov. “” Abraham’s Bosom”(Luke 16: 22–23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” The catholic biblical quarterly 79, no. 4 (2017): 615-633.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Van Eck, E., 2009, ‘When patrons are not patrons: A social-scientific reading of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–26)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 65(1), Art. #309, 11 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.309.

Vice, Samantha. “How do I live in this strange place?.” Journal of Social Philosophy 41, no. 3 (2010): 323-342.

Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part Three)

Last week, I spent time comparing the Unjust Steward to Bugs Bunny. This week, it’s time for Christmas!

My spouse is ready for Christmas all the year round. We begin thinking about Christmas gifts in February. We begin securing those gifts in earnest starting in July. We are thinking about Christmas decorations in September. We even have a Christmas tree currently masquerading as a “fall tree” in our living room. We leave the lights and decorations up until the Presentation of Jesus in February, when it’s time to begin thinking about the next Christmas!

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

I don’t share my spouse’s enthusiasm for all the signs of the season as year-round realities. However, I am never far from making a textual connection to some element of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Brief and brilliant, this novella is an unending source of illustrations and quotations. This week the connection is more than incidental. Instead, Dickens’ story gives us an interpretive key to our text and, for me at least, a way into preaching it in worship.

“With its vivid journey to the afterlife, and its exaggerated imagery of contrast, this parable fits the form of an apocalypse,” Barbara Rossing writes in her 2016 workingpreacher.org commentary, “An apocalypse serves as a wake-up call, pulling back a curtain to open our eyes to something we urgently need to see before it is too late.” Rossing wrote in greater detail about our text in her 2004 book, The Rapture Racket. Page numbers in my references will refer to that book.

Rossing reminds us that apocalyptic accounts are not limited to ancient sources. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has all the features of an apocalypse. “The threat to Scrooge was not that he would end up dragging literal chains made of cash-boxes, keys, and padlocks,” Rossing writes, “He was bound by the chains in his life and his heart. The vision’s realism made them fearful,” she continues, “but not as literal predictions of the future” (page 85). Instead, the experiences gave Scrooge and urgent call to change his life while he still could.

As Rossing notes, the most important question Scrooge asks is, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” The rich man in our story is, indeed, past all hope. But we, as listeners and readers, are not.

Our story has the characteristics of an apocalyptic tale. What we see on the surface and in the earthly realm is not an accurate picture of how things really are. The true nature of things is revealed, uncovered, as the story unfolds. That is the meaning of the word, “apocalypse:” to uncover or unveil something that is hidden. An apocalypse lifts the covers and allows us to see the real story.

Journeys to the heavenly realm and to the underworld are also features of apocalyptic tales. These descriptions highlight both the blessings Lazarus now experiences and the agonies the rich man suffers. The contrast is elevated because the rich man can see the difference. But he can’t get there from here. Abraham serves as the supernatural guide for the journey, another feature of apocalyptic tales.

As the guide, he reminds the rich man that in his earthly life, he had already received his good things. Lazarus had received evil things. I can almost hear the voice of Jacob Marley amid the rattling of chains and the wailing of spirits. “These are the chains I forged in life!”

“The purpose of Jesus’ story is not to predict the details of actual future sufferings or blessings,” Rossing writes. “Abraham’s bosom is not a literal place, after all!” (page 86). We’ve examined the symbolism of that description in a previous post. “Jesus tells the story as a wake-up call for those who are still alive,” Rossing continues, “helping us to see the poor at our gate and do something before it is too late, before the terrifying chasm is fixed” (page 86).

In our literary context, Jesus speaks to the Pharisees. They turned their noses up at his criticism of their hypocrisy. That’s the literal meaning of the verb translated as “scoffed at.” They were “lovers of money.” The literal meaning of that word is “friends of silver.” While Jesus urges us to “make friends with unrighteous Mammon,” the Pharisees in the text had developed too deep a friendship with wealth and couldn’t see the consequences of that cozy relationship.

If I mention the Pharisees in this regard in my message, I will take some time to make sure I don’t perpetuate several anti-Semitic tropes. It is too easy for Christians to portray Jews as greedy and corrupt money-grubbers. It is even easier to use any resistance to Jesus’ message as a subtle reminder of the “Christ-killer” label Christians have placed on Jews for millennia. I think we have to say as forcefully as possible that the Lukan author is not talking about “real” Pharisees. Unfortunately, the gospel writers, and especially the Lukan author, use the Pharisees as stand-ins for wealthy Christians who need to get their priorities straight. We need to be clear about that.

“Where does Luke intend the audience to see itself in this parable?” Rossing asks. Not in the bosom of Abraham – that seems clear. Instead, Rossing – in her workingpreacher.org commentary – tells us to look at Abraham’s responses to the rich man. Three times, the answer is “no,” even though Abraham acknowledges the rich man as one of his “children.” It is too late for the rich man.

Therefore, that’s not where the Lukan author intends the audience to see itself in the parable either. Instead, Rossing argues, the audience should see itself as the five siblings who are still alive. They “have time to open their eyes,” Rossing writes, “They have time to see the poor people at their gates, before the chasm becomes permanent.” The frightening apocalyptic tale is meant to be a wake-up call for the living, not a prediction of postmortem realities.

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” Rossing suggests, “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation…We have Moses and the prophets,” she continues, “we have the scriptures, we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and the hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is,” Rossing concludes, “Will we – the five sisters and brothers – see? Will we heed the warning before it is too late?”

If that’s where we end up in our reflection, then the parable seems to be all threat and no promise. But, in her book, Rossing doesn’t leave us in that desperate place. Instead, she goes on to describe the role of Christian prophecy, which she describes as “God’s word of salvation and justice for the world” (page 88). Our parable is not a prediction of the future. Instead, it is a desperate plea for our repentance and conversion. After all, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

Rossing points to the example of another (fictional) apocalyptic prophet, Jonah. Jonah predicts quite clearly that in forty days Nineveh will be destroyed. The king and people of Nineveh hear the word of the Lord, and they change. In response to their change, God changes. “The goal of prophecy is…to turn the world to God, to lift up a vision, so that threats of destruction will not be carried out,” Rossing writes. “God does not want to hurt or destroy the world,” she continues, “and God certainly does not determine the script in advance” (page 91).

I am thinking of the relationship between Scrooge and Tiny Tim in Dickens’ tale. As Scrooge’s journey progresses, he sees Tiny Tim. A spark of compassionate concern is kindled in Ebenezer’s heart of stone. Scrooge wonders if Tiny Tim will survive. “If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost [of Christmas Present], “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge is cut to the heart when he hears his own words quoted back to him. This is the real warning in the story. It is not merely Scrooge’s life which is at stake here. Without a change in Scrooge’s heart, Tiny Tim will not live to see another Christmas. This is a life-and-death matter not merely for old Ebenezer but for any and all who might benefit from his compassion and generosity.

It is this kindling of compassion which opens the door to Scrooge’s salvation. Yes, Tiny Tim is saved and becomes best friends with the old man. But the one who’s life is really saved – and really saved in the here and now – is Ebenezer Scrooge. In his conversion to generous compassion, Scrooge finds his humanity once again, a humanity he had sacrificed in his love of money. Unrighteous Mammon may give us a world of wealth, but it will be at the price of our souls, Dickens says.

An apocalyptic tale raises the stakes to cosmic heights. Yet, I face this reality every day. Lazarus is always outside my gate. Will I share my table with him today?

References and Resources

Hock, Ronald F. “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19-31.” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (1987): 447–63. https://doi.org/10.2307/3261067.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Rossing, Barbara. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. Westview Press, 2004.

Snodgrass, Klyne. “Jesus and Money—No Place to Hide and No Easy Answers.” Word & World 30, no. 2 (2010): 135-43.

Somov, Alexey, and Vitaly Voinov. “” Abraham’s Bosom”(Luke 16: 22–23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” The catholic biblical quarterly 79, no. 4 (2017): 615-633.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Van Eck, E., 2009, ‘When patrons are not patrons: A social-scientific reading of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19–26)’, HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies 65(1), Art. #309, 11 pages. DOI: 10.4102/hts.v65i1.309

Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part Two)

One way I am thinking about this parable is as a “Tale of Two Tables.” Somov and Voinov examine the image of “the bosom of Abraham” in their article, and assist me in this line of thinking. In Luke 16:22, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “to be with Abraham.” In Luke 16:23, the NRSV translates this Greek phrase as “by [Abraham’s] side.” Neither rendering captures the intensity and intimacy of this image or the real impact of the two tables in our text.

Somov and Voinov argue that this metaphor of Abraham’s bosom “plays a key role in the composition of Luke 16:19-31…we argue that it represents a complex concept involving fellowship at a banquet/feast. Luke makes an opposition between two banquets,” the authors continue, “although there is no place for Lazarus at the earthly banquet at which the inhospitable rich man feasted, he is granted the most honored position at the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality” (page 616).

Photo by Nicole Michalou on Pexels.com

The article reviews the theories which stand behind the work of the authors. That’s interesting, but if you read the work, you might want to jump to the second section, which deals specifically with our text (and you might want to skip over the diagrams based on the theories). The theories upon which the work is based help us to identify the system and structure of the metaphors used in a piece of text. In translation, we can then try to replicate not only the denotation of the words themselves but also the structure of the metaphors being employed.

In our text, the metaphor system is primarily spatial. According to the authors, we get lots of “up-down” imagery in the parable. The gate is lower and the rich man’s table is higher. The food scraps fall down from the rich man’s table while Lazarus looks up, hoping to (at least in his fond desire) catch some of the scraps. Lazarus is carried up to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man finds himself in Hades, the underworld.

In addition to the spatial imagery, the parable uses banquet imagery to show the reversal evidenced in the text. In this life, the rich man feasts every day, and Lazarus is in want. In the next life, the rich man is in want (for water). The parallel would be that Lazarus is the one who is satisfied. “In other words,” they summarize, “the opposition of hunger and satiation plays an additional role in the reversal of fates in this story” (page 621).

The authors note, along with most other commentators, that this parable illustrates the proclamation Jesus makes in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-26. ““Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled (v. 21) …Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (v. 25, both NRSV). The Lukan author uses the banquet imagery throughout the middle section of the Gospel account. We have encountered those descriptions of “kingdom table manners” in the previous weeks of the lectionary readings.

The authors remind us that Abraham is mentioned frequently in the Lukan account – at least twelve times. In seven of those cases, Abraham is described as the “father” of Israel. He shows up in the afterlife both here in in Luke 20:37-38.  Lying in Abraham’s bosom, they argue, gives us a complex of three images. It describes what it means to be gathered with the righteous ancestors of Israel. It also shows a child lying in a parent’s loving embrace. And it illustrates the closeness of a guest to the host at a banquet (see page 626).

Lying in the bosom of a father is the image and language the Johannine author uses in John 1:18 to describe the relationship between the Son of God and the Father. This is more than an emotional experience. The image is intended to show physical proximity and intimacy. The Son, in John 1:18, is not just close to the Father’s heart in emotional terms. That imagery shows physical proximity and connection.

More to the point the image of “reclining next to the host at the same dining couch in the closest and most honored position” appears in John 13:23. This is the position of “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is the position of highest honor at a first-century banquet. This is, perhaps, the very kind of position for which people jockeyed when Jesus made his observations about seating charts earlier in the Lukan account.

Therefore, the imagery in our text may well indicate that Lazarus is now in the position of highest honor at the messianic banquet. This does not exclude the idea of close connection and intimacy. In fact, the two ideas are related and give structure to the parable, according to the authors. The fact that Abraham is known for his hospitality toward and intimacy with strangers (in Genesis 18:1-8) makes Abraham the ideal dining partner for Lazarus.

So, the parable is a tale of two tables. At the earthly banquet of the rich man, he is hospitable only to himself and to his guests. Lazarus is far away from (and far lower than) the rich man, who is the host of the banquet. The rich man is satisfied with physical food, while Lazarus hungers and longs to be filled.

At the heavenly banquet, Abraham is hospitable to Lazarus, as one would expect of the host of the banquet at Mamre (whether Lazarus is to be seen as a representative of God in the parable, therefore, is another conversation). Lazarus is close to Abraham, the host. The rich man is far away (and far lower). Lazarus is filled and satisfied. The rich man thirsts and longs to have something to drink. The use of the banquet metaphor makes the realities of the reversal much clearer and sharper (page 630).

The authors are translators, and their task is to render the text accurately into a variety of human languages. The question for them is, how to do that. It is possible to do a simple one-to-one exchange of the Greek “kolpos” for “bosom” or “lap” or “breast.” The authors worry that most of the available terms (in English and other languages) evoke associations with maternal care, something that doesn’t work as well with the male Abraham.

I’m not sure that’s an issue in the first-century context as much as it is in the twenty-first century context, but I’m not a professional translator. That is precisely the option, for example, which Martin Luther chooses for his translation of the New Testament. The German term, “Schoss,” means “lap” or “womb” or “bosom.” It fits in idioms that have to do with resting in the care, for example, of one’s family or of the Church. It can have a sense of physical intimacy as well. A Schosshund, to illustrate, is a “lap dog,” a close family pet.

That being said, the “bosom” option may not convey the fullness of the connection portrayed here. We can go the NRSV route and use phrases like “beside” or “be with.” But, the authors argue, “such a rendering misses the idea that Lazarus is in the most important place by Abraham’s side as the guest of honor” (page 632). Some translations go ahead and fill in that detail. The CEV reads that Lazarus is brought to “the place of honor next to Abraham.”

The Kiswahili rendering is “kifuani,” which means “chest.” This word carries the sense of close familial connection and intimacy. An “urafiki wa kifuani” is a “bosom friendship.” That’s a dimension worth considering in our interpretation, with its sense not only of intimacy but of positive regard and fellowship. The term can also be used in Swahili to describe a chest cold. Translation is tricky business at best. Nonetheless, the emphasis here is on emotional closeness and connection.

The fullest translation (and interpretation) is going to include the senses of closeness and physical intimacy, the place of honor, and the setting of the feast or banquet. While it’s not clear to me what sort of rendering could accomplish this, we certainly have the opportunity as interpreters to make this clear to our listeners and readers as we grapple with this text.

The authors summarize their work in a concluding paragraph. I’ll quote portions of that paragraph here. “In this parable an opposition is evident between two banquets: the earthly banquet, at which the inhospitable rich man feasts and there is no place for Lazarus, and the heavenly banquet hosted by Abraham, who is known from the Genesis narrative for his hospitality, where Lazarus is granted the most honored position.” This opposition “makes the structure of the parable symmetrical and the reversal of the fates of the rich man and Lazarus more noticeable” (page 633).

As an interpreter, I don’t have to work out how to translate “eis ton kolpon Abraam” into English or any other language. But knowing the range and depth of this metaphor in our text does challenge me both to explain that structure fully and to wrestle with how that impacts the meaning of the parable in my preaching. If anything, this fuller understanding makes the proclamation of this parable more challenging and painful (at least for those of us who are more like the rich man than we are like Lazarus).

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of John. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Somov, Alexey, and Vitaly Voinov. “” Abraham’s Bosom”(Luke 16: 22–23) as a Key Metaphor in the Overall Composition of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” The catholic biblical quarterly 79, no. 4 (2017): 615-633.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Sermon for Luke 16:1-13; 15 Pentecost B

This is the hardest parable in the gospels. So, strap yourselves in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The rich landowner hears gossip about his farm manager. He goes from accusation to execution in two sentences. The manager doesn’t protest. He worries. Then he schemes. He cooks the books and conspires with debtors to defraud the rich guy. And then – and then – the guy who gets taken to the cleaners praises the crook for being such a sharp operator. Maybe we should cut our losses and just sing the hymn of the day.

Maybe not just yet. Here’s a framework that might help us understand. I grew up on a steady diet of Looney Tunes. Saturday mornings and after school, I spent time with Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Yosemite Sam, the Roadrunner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew, and the Tasmanian Devil.

The most popular cartoons featured Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. I can give you a list of things wrong with those cartoons. They used speech impediments for jokes. They were racist, sexist, ageist, and lots of other “ists.” But they were funny. And they often carried sharp social criticism just under the surface.

What is it about Bugs Bunny? He’s a rascally rabbit. He’s a loveable rogue. He’s always making life difficult for Elmer or Daffy or Porky or Martin the Martian. He makes wise cracks at the expense of others. He can’t read a map to save his life. He’s irreverent and rude and impulsive. And he’s our favorite.

Bugs Bunny is the underdog who comes out on top. Through sheer nerve, wit, and guile, he makes poor old Elmer look foolish time after time. Bugs turns the tables and lives to laugh another day. We can’t get enough of that. Think about the manager in our parable like Bugs Bunny. This is Looney Tunes in a gospel framework.

Assume the manager was an enslaved person. There would be no due process, no court proceedings. The manager was already as good as dead. He’s going to lose not only his job, but perhaps his hands, or his life. The enslaved person always understands the “system” better than the enslaver and has to be “shrewd” in order to survive.

So, the manager uses the one thing he still has – his brain. The rich man was probably charging his debtors loan shark interest rates. The system at the time was designed to squeeze as much production out of the debtors as they could get. At the same time, the landowners gradually increased the debt load until repayment was impossible. If the debtors owned any land, that was folded into the rich man’s property portfolio.

The manager used the system against itself. He knew which debtors were in danger of default. He had the authority, as manager, to write down the debt and cut the rich man’s losses. Word hadn’t gotten around yet that the manager was toast. He worked as quickly as possible to create an exit strategy. The manager wasn’t trying to preserve his 401k. He was trying to escape with his skin intact.

The scheme works! The manager gets the best of the rich man. The rich man, to his credit, knows when he’s licked. “Ok,” he says, “you got me. Pretty sharp operating there, my friend. Well done!” Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd can get us through verse eight. Then things get really hinky.

“And I tell you,” Jesus says in verse nine, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Just when we were having such a good time, Jesus tosses a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Jesus tells this parable to the disciples, even though the Pharisees are listening in to the conversation. Jesus tells his disciples to make friends with unjust mammon in order to have a soft-landing spot among the children of this age. But we disciples have to be careful. We disciples may well be able to use unjust mammon for short term tactics. But we must beware that possessions do not take possession of us.

There’s an interesting twist in this parable. The master praises the steward because everybody wins. The rich man gets some return on his investment. The debtors are freed to farm another year. The manager escapes with his head attached to his shoulders. The manager turns an unjust system upside down and inside out. And everyone is better off.

So, this is a story about subverting unfair and oppressive systems. We may find ourselves captive to unjust systems and structures. How can we work as Jesus followers to subvert those systems and do some good for the oppressed? Most of us can’t confront such systems directly. But with a combination of nerve, wit, and guile, we can make the world better reflect God’s justice.

With that perspective we can understand Jesus’ words that follow the parable. We’re all in positions of some kind of influence and power. We all have some kind of leverage. Whether we’re at home, at work, at school, in business, in government, or at church, Jesus puts us in positions where we can do some good. Many times, doing some good will mean challenging systems that produce winners and losers. Faithful stewards change systems so that everyone wins, and everyone is better off.

I think about where this whole section of Luke ends up – the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Jesus comes across Zacchaeus’ path and brings salvation to his house. Zacchaeus realizes that he is in a position to do good in response to having Jesus in his life. He realizes that any other choice is no longer possible if he is to follow Jesus. Zacchaeus chooses wisely, just as the steward in our parable chooses wisely in how to deal with the stuff of this age.

Jesus is in town today. He has come to dine at our house. That means salvation has arrived for me, for you, and for all of us. That happens before we do anything to deserve it. In fact, we’re just like the steward in the parable before Jesus comes along. We’re scheming for any way to survive.

But, as that great philosopher, Hank Williams once said, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

The good news is that this world isn’t the last word. Every broken system is a sign that death wants to have each of us and all of us. But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus comes to give us abundant life now and forever. When we know that, we can joyfully love God and faithfully serve our neighbors in hope.

If I am following Jesus, I’m going to be in places where I can do some good. I may have to be a bit rascally to do it. Doing good will likely cost me something. I am unlikely to be the only or prime beneficiary. I may even have to flee for my life on a few occasions, so I better have a good exit strategy in place. I can use unrighteous wealth to serve God. But I cannot use God to serve unrighteous wealth. Which will it be for me?

Text Study for Luke 16:19-31 (Part One)

16 Pentecost C; September 25, 2022

Prior to this text, the Lukan readers are encouraged to use their positions (even if enslaved managers) to love their neighbors and subvert unjust systems. That’s the upshot of the Parable of the Unjust Steward. That’s made clear in Jesus’ commentary that follows. And the Pharisees and scribes, who have subscribed to the existing system of power and privilege, are not on the side of God’s justice in that choice. Instead, they have allied themselves with those who break God’s law for personal preference and gain (thus the side comment about divorce in 16:18).

Levine and Witherington draw our attention to connections between this parable and the previous two – the Lost Sons and the Unjust Steward. While they don’t suggest this, their analysis can lead us to apply a Rule of Three approach to these three stories. In all three parables, money is an issue. More than that, “the rich man in our parable is in the same structural position as the father in the first parable and the master in the second” (page 451).

If that structural parallel matters, and if we look through the Rule of Three lens, then the third story has a twist in contrast to the first two. As Levine and Witherington note, the father is generous and thus receives back at least one lost son. The master is duped into being generous and likely benefits from the enhancement of his honor. “In the third parable, the rich man refuses to give up his funds,” they write, “whether through compassion or coercion. Keeping his money,” they suggest, “he is damned” (page 452).

Given our journey through this section of the Lukan account, I think that’s an interesting connection we might draw in our messages. I don’t know that it stands up to any strict literary or structural scrutiny. And I want to be clear that I am suggesting the Rule of Three connection, not Levine and Witherington. Nonetheless, this connection helps us to feel the arc of the Lukan account and see a consistent emphasis in this section of the overall story.

In Luke 16:24, the rich man refers to Abraham as “father.” In verse twenty-five, Abraham reciprocates by referring to the rich man as “child” (Greek = teknon). As Levine and Witherington note, this is the term the father uses to address the older son in the Parable of the Lost Sons. Is this also a parable of two “sons,” one who is found and alive, the other who is now lost and dead?

Again, we can find structural and thematic similarities. In the Parable of the Lost Sons, the father is still able to save both sons, although we don’t know how that works out. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, the steward is able to “save” both the debtors and the landowner (and himself, apparently) through the steward’s shrewd management of the crisis. In the third story, the outcome is different, as we might expect. The deed is done. Earthly life is over.

We can continue to draw parallels and make connections with the preceding parables. The older son complains to his father that he’s never even had a goat to make a feast with his friends. The older son wants to celebrate separately. The rich man uses his wealth and privilege to do precisely that. He feasts sumptuously, and by himself, every day. He is not inviting the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind to the feast (see Luke 14:13). We should note that in Luke 14:14, Jesus declares that those who do invite the oppressed will be “repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.”

“The rich man is,” Amy-Jill Levine writes, “a caricature; he is too rich even to be recognized and outside any system of social responsibility” (Short Stories, page 273). Both Roman and Jewish readers and listeners would have expected the rich man to participate in the patronage system that offered at least some support for those in poverty. “The rich man refused to give alms, even when a poor man was at his gate,” Levine continues, “Of course he will suffer in the afterlife. He had laid up nothing for it” (page 274).

Each of the preceding parables specifies a close connection between the two “sons” in the story. In the Parable of the Lost Sons, the sibling connection is literal, even though the older brother would prefer to deny it (“this son of yours,” he says to the father). The master and the debtors may have been strangers to one another, but they are intimately connected by money. And it seems likely, in the context of the story, that they did know one another.

In our text, the rich man knows Lazarus by name. The name means “God helps.” Lazarus is not a stranger at the rich man’s gate. “The rich man,” Levine and Witherington note, “has no plausible deniability” (page 455). The rich man “probably prided himself on knowing that name,” Richard Swanson muses, “This was not just some anonymous poor, sick man thrown at the gates of his house. This was his poor, sick man, thrown at the gates of his house” (page 203).

Swanson wonders about the previous relationship between the rich man and Lazarus. What if Lazarus had worked in the rich man’s household? It’s possible that, in the context of the story, Lazarus had been a free man working in that household. If we follow the logic of Roman social realities in the first century, however, we know that it would have been more likely that Lazarus had been enslaved in the rich man’s household. That certainly fits the way the rich man regards Lazarus later in the parable.

If we pursue this conjecture a bit further, we can come to a shocking realization. It was not unusual for Roman enslavers to free enslaved persons later in life. The enslavers regarded this as a generous gesture, worthy of honor and praise. However, the real reason for such manumissions was to free the enslavers from the costs of physically maintaining the lives of those who no longer produced economic value.

If Lazarus had a previous connection to the rich man’s household, poor Lazarus was now a discarded person. Unlike the younger son, he had not chosen to leave the comforts of the household and strike out on his own. Lazarus had been, literally, kicked to the curb when he began to cost more than he was worth. Swanson wonders if this is the meaning of the “sores” that cover his body. It may be, in the context of the story, that poor Lazarus (like too many people today) fell ill and as a result fell off the scale of demonstrable economic value.

“The outcome in the ancient world would be the same as the outcome now,” Swanson writes, “Lazarus would be finally let go, sores and all. He would be thrown out of his position,” Swanson continues. In this way, we should note, poor Lazarus was similar to the Unjust Steward. But Lazarus had no resources or relationships upon which to call for backup. He was a discarded enslaved person who would be best served by dying to reduce the excess population (thank you, Charles Dickens).

This doesn’t mean that Lazarus was tossed out like garbage, Amy-Jill Levine argues. The grammar suggests that someone cared for poor Lazarus and placed him at the rich man’s gate. “The anonymous people who placed the poor man at the gate may have put him there because they knew that the rich man had funds,” Levine writes in Short Stories by Jesus, “or because they knew that his friends and relatives would enter the gate and see him” (page 279). Of course, this does nothing to absolve the rich man, who clearly does not see Lazarus, until it is too late.

Three characters in our possible parabolic triad act as if they can presume upon their former privilege. The older son makes demands upon his father as if nothing in the household has changed and as if he can determine how the father’s love will be apportioned. The master assumes that, even after he has dismissed the manager, that the manager will continue to act in the master’s best interests. And the rich man assumes that Lazarus is still there to serve him, still there at his beck and call (as is Abraham, apparently), still a useful piece of human machinery for his convenience.

The three privileged characters in the triad share some other similarities. Both the older son and the rich man engage in hysterical hyperbole. The older son declares that he has “worked like a slave” for his father, without so much as a thank you. The rich man declares that he is in torment even though he “retains a remarkably eloquent and consistent appeal” (Levine and Witherington, page 455). Even the master in the Parable of the Unjust Steward jumps to judgment based on nothing but rumor and inuendo.

The three needy characters in the triad also share similarities. The younger son longs to eat the food for the pigs. But no one gives him a thing. The steward and the debtors are doing their best to stay out of the ranks of the impoverished. After all, the steward says, he’s too weak to dig and too proud to beg. Lazarus longs from scraps from the rich man’s table, of which there would have been many. It’s only the wealthy who have the luxury of wasting food, as we can see all too well in our own culture.

Whether these connections make it into a message is not clear at this point. However, this intertextual comparison brings some interesting light to our text for this week.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of John. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 16:1-13 (Part Seven)

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a sermon for Sunday yet. I think I’m getting closer to something that’ll preach. It’s just that the research is so darn much fun! I know, I have weird hobbies.

Garwood Anderson offers a general analysis of the parables in the Lukan account. However, he returns several times to the Parable of the Unjust Steward and offers some interesting thoughts. He deals with the parables in the Lukan account as part of the narrative and as edited and framed by the Lukan author. “I argue that Luke regarded the parables of his sources as both problematic and salvageable,” Anderson writes, “and that his treatment of the parables is a rehabilitation in which both conservative and adaptive tendencies are evident” (730).

Photo by Arthur Sparinskij on Pexels.com

The characters in the Lukan parables all face some sort of social and/or moral crisis in the course of their daily lives. While not all the protagonists are victims, all are in some sense “vulnerable to the vagaries of life.” They come from a variety of social and economic locations, yet, “what all characters share is a moment in which they must deliberate, internally or externally, and act, sometimes creatively” (page 731).

The Lukan parables feature a “rogues’ gallery” of protagonists. “One of the most arresting and charming features of the Lucan parables,” Anderson writes, “is that they are filled with an array of shady, picaresque, or otherwise unsavory characters” (page 731). I had to look up “picaresque” and was pleased to find “rascally” as a synonym for the word. As one who grew up on Looney Toons, I have a fond association of “rascally” (well, “wascawy”) with “rabbit” (well, “wabbit”) – namely Bugs Bunny, as pursued by the intrepid Elmer Fudd.

Anderson’s analysis and vocabulary is a reminder to me that I might really want to treat this parable as a comedy rather than a case study. Bugs Bunny was and is a loveable rogue. While I wouldn’t want him as a travel agent (“I musta taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque”), I can’t help but like him. I wonder if our parable paints a similar picture of the “Unjust Steward,” a clever fellow who always seems to get the better of ponderous and pompous rich guy.

“The charm of the Lucan parables lies in no small measure in this teasing playfulness and indulgence of wry humor,” Anderson continues, “yet the very strangeness that captures the interpreter’s attention creates a dilemma when these parables are integrated into a larger narrative that projects its own vision of the good” (page 733). Anderson notes that the steward is commended, perhaps, for embezzlement, but Ananias and Sapphira don’t turn out so well in Acts. Characters that should represent God in several of the parables are not figures we’d prefer to have in our immediate families. He notes that the Lukan author includes such tensions and does not avoid the questions such tensions present.

Anderson describes six “disambiguating interpretive practices” the Lukan author uses to smooth out the tensions. I’m not sure I’ll use “disambiguating” in a sentence again for a while (if ever), so I took the chance to do it twice here. Applicable to our parable is the identification and use of a narrative audience. The audience (as noted in previous posts) in Luke 15 is the Pharisees and the scribes. In our parable, the audience is the disciples. Jesus returns to the Pharisees and scribes for the rich man and Lazarus and back to the disciples in Luke 17:1.

Anderson suggests that the Lukan author uses three audience categories for three purposes. When the audience is the crowds, the parables tend to call for a decision. When the audience is the religious leaders, the Lukan author is scoring polemical points. When the audience is the disciples, the purpose is ethical and communal instruction. These are clues to the audience then and now as to the reading strategy and posture we should adopt.

Our text has the most significant example of the next Lukan practice Anderson lists – “aphoristic addenda.” That’s how he refers to Luke 16:10-13. He argues that “these aphorisms counterbalance the scandal of the parable, clarifying that it is only for [the steward’s] shrewd actions…not at all for his dishonesty, that the manager is commended” (pages 738-739). Yet the contrasts in these verses also further interpret the parable. The manager has made prudent use of another’s wealth in order to secure his future, Anderson argues.

We have examined Anderson’s final interpretive practice, use of internal monologue, at some length in an earlier post. But it is worth noting his conclusions on this practice. The use of the internal monologue makes the characters, including our manager, more human, vulnerable, and ambivalent. But the monologue also allows the Lukan author to clarify for us as the audience where things are headed. “By making the characters’ motives transparent,” Anderson writes, “Luke lets the readers see the actions for what they are and the characters for who they are” (page 748). We need not make the rascal less rascally in order to get something constructive out of the parable.

Anderson argues that Lukan parables are marked by “their startling employment of characters of questionable rectitude who respond to crises with dubious virtue” (page 748). Wow, do I resemble that remark! But I think that’s one of the joyous values of our parable. The Lord (not the landowner in the parable) can make loving use of even such characters as those in our text this week. If that’s the case, there may be hope for me too.

Anderson offers three conclusions. First, the Lukan author keeps the traditions the author has received and deals with them. We can wrestle with the author’s commentary on the tradition, but we don’t get to discount it, any more than the Lukan author could. Second, some of these parables may not be special to the Lukan author because no one else knew them but rather because no one else had the nerve to tackle them. Third, the Lukan author tames these wild parables to some extent. But by using them, the Lukan author allows most of the radical character of the stories to come through, allowing us to be shaken by them as well.

While I’m not sure I can go along with all his conclusions, I think the commentator who best reflects some of Anderson’s insight on our text is Robert Farrar Capon. He compares the Parable of the Unjust Steward to the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. He sees our parable as the reversal of that parable. In both cases, he argues for this punchline: “grace works only on those it finds dead enough to raise” (Kindle Location 3952).

In our parable, Capon continues, it’s the landowner who won’t die to the bookkeeping system that keeps them all in bondage. The steward is already dead to that system since he’s lost his position (and perhaps soon his physical life). “[A]nd because he is freed by his death to think things he could not have thought before,” Capon writes, “he is the one who, from the bottom of the heap, as it were, becomes the agent of life for everybody in the parable” (Kindle Locations 3955-3956).

Capon argues that the steward shakes the master loose from his bondage to an unjust system. Therefore, Capon continues, the unjust steward is a Christ-figure in the parable. He gives life by dying and in dying finds life. Most important, he declares, “the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus” (Kindle Location 3962). Grace cannot come to the world through established channels of respectability. Those channels are about life, success, and winning. Grace works through death, failure, and losing. This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

I wonder what the response will be if I announce that the steward is a crook like Jesus. Capon has no doubts about the response. We church folks won’t like it and don’t like it. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen” (Kindle Locations 3972-3973). Thus, we communicate the notion that church is a place where only respectable citizens are welcome.

I’ve only had fleeting glimpses of “Bugs Bunny churches.” Once in a while we Jesus followers in America have tweaked the nose and pulled down the cap of the establishment – but not very often. That’s because we have been and are “the establishment,” especially we White American middle and higher class Americans. The capacity for tweaking and cap pulling resides especially in the Black church traditions. We White Jesus followers are not the least bit skilled in poking fun at ourselves, much less at the systems that have served our privileged interests so well. We need to take lessons from our siblings in other traditions.

I think, however, that we’re going to have to become a lot more skilled at such nose-tweaking in the coming years as we cease to be part of the dominant cultural structures in Western societies. Who knows? That could be fun.

Resources and References

Anderson, Garwood P. “Seeking and Saving What Might Have Been Lost: Luke’s Restoration of an Enigmatic Parable Tradition.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2008): 729–49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726401.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Glancy, Jennifer A. Slavery in Early Christianity. Kindle Edition.

Goodrich, John K. “Voluntary Debt Remission and the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1—13).” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 3 (2012): 547–66. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488254.

Levine, Amy Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Sellew, Philip. “Interior Monologue as a Narrative Device in the Parables of Luke.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 239–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267542.

Sherouse, Alan. “The One Percent and the Gospel of Luke.” Review and Expositor 110 (Spring 2013): 285-293.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. The Pilgrim Press, 2006.