Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

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

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Three)

“In the resurrection, therefore,” the Sadducees ask, “whose wife will the woman be?” She won’t be anyone’s wife in the resurrection, Jesus replies. That’s a revolutionary statement. In the first-century Mediterranean, a woman was usually defined by her relationship to a man. She started out life as a man’s daughter. She got married and became a man’s wife. If she bore sons, she would become a man’s mother. Her identity as a person was derived from her connection to a man.

It’s not that there were no “independent” women in the ancient world. We know about Lydia in the book of Acts, the dealer in fine purple cloth. While the text is mum about her marital status, there is no mention of a man in her life. A number of women, as we read in Luke 8, underwrite the costs of Jesus’ preaching tour in Galilee. One is married. At least some of the others are not.

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Widows in the ancient world occupied a liminal space. Widows had once been married and now are not. I can tell you, from experience as a widower, that this in-between experience of the formerly married is not limited to the ancient world. Widows were stereotypically regarded as in need of male protection and resourcing. They were often portrayed as economically and socially vulnerable. They were viewed as living on the edges of “normal” male/female relationships.

Childless widows would be particularly vulnerable. They were probably beyond the protection and care of a father. They had lost the connection to and identity with a husband. They did not have the “social security” of children duty-bound to provide for them in old age. Thus, the system of levirate marriage (assumed in the thought experiment proposed by the Sadducees) was intended to provide both some measure of security for the widow and a way for the name of the deceased husband to continue in Israel.

All that being said, we need to also remember that in ancient Israelite legal theory, marriage was first and foremost a property relationship. Therefore, for example, adultery was a property crime. It was the theft of one man’s “property” (the sexual function of the wife) by another man. The property of the family was owned and controlled by the husband and his family.  Of course, that is familiar to some of us as well. I can clearly remember the days when my mom couldn’t have a checking account or credit card without the co-signature of her husband.

Whose wife will the woman be? The socially conservative Sadducees presume a property understanding of marriage. “Whose” is a possessive pronoun. And the wife, in this question, is a possession of each of the seven brothers. More than that, she derives her position, status, and identity from that connection to a man. If there’s no man, whose is that woman? And who is that woman? In the resurrection she is, Jesus declares, isaggeloi – “like the angels.”

“This story, properly understood,” Anna Beresford writes, “emphasizes the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of the resurrection life” (page 6). The woman will be a child of God and of the resurrection without the need for a male anchor in the scheme of existence. She will not require the validation of connection to another human being for that status. She will be seen and valued for herself and not for the sake of another.

Beresford notes that the Lukan author portrays an ambiguous picture of women in the gospel account. She suggests that this treatment of women is part of the Lukan strategy to subvert existing social relationship for the sake of the Kin(g)dom without posing a radical threat to the established authorities who might cause trouble for the Lukan community. “Rather than silencing or sidelining women,” Beresford writes, “Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequalities of the time and make a theological point” (page 7).

Beresford argues that the Lukan author tells the story of the nameless widow in our text to demonstrate “the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom” (page 7). The Sadducees, as the representatives and guarantors of the established order, were not interested in any doctrine or practice that might threaten to upset that order.

It’s clear as we read Luke 20, that many folks saw Jesus as a threat to that established order. The questions Jesus fields in this section try to show him as a problem for the Temple system, the economic system, and the political system. Beresford notes that our text immediately follows the question about paying taxes to the Emperor. “To whom does this coin belong?” is the previous question. “To whom does the woman belong?” is the current question.

According to Beresford, Jesus’ answer is the same in each case: “just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and belong to God alone.” This identifying mark, for the woman, is not dependent on a property relationship to a man. “The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection,” Beresford argues, “is that, in the resurrection, women, make in God’s image, shall cease to be property” (page 10).

Instead, the woman (like the men) shall become “like the angels.” This doesn’t mean that dead people “become” angels. I write that with a certain amount of trepidation, no matter how much I know it’s true. In our time, many people are quite certain that their dead loved ones have become their “guardian angels” who watch over them from heaven. That’s not what our text says. “Like” the angels in immortality and ceasing to marry is not the same as being angels.

I want to digress for a moment in this regard. I am not saying that I think our deceased loved ones cease to have a relationship with us who are still in this life. I take great comfort from the image in the book of Hebrews of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the heavenly bleachers in the stadium of the New Creation. I have experienced connections with deceased loved ones at important moments of my life. I believe in the communion of saints, and I think that communion transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s just that this doesn’t make my deceased loved ones into “guardian angels.” That job, in Christian tradition is already taken by, well, the guardian angels.

The angels live in the presence of God and have their life from God. So, too, Jesus argues later in the text, do those patriarchs (and matriarchs) upon which he bases his exegetical argument. “God’s relationship with people does not end when they die,” Beresford writes, instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal. And, as Jesus’ words implied,” she continues, “that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God” (page 11).

As Beresford notes, the Sadduceean thought experiment portrays numerous features of their worldview. The ownership of women by men is assumed. Women have no choice but to acquiesce to the needs and directives of those men. The age to come would differ little from the present age (if there was any age to come at all). Things might be a bit different but not much. And death seems to be more powerful than God.

Jesus’ reply describes a different worldview, as Beresford summarizes. Death cannot destroy God’s relationship with God’s creatures. Men and women are equal participants in the age to come. That age has come near in Jesus and is beginning to unfold in the here and now.

I would add that Jesus reverses our frame of reference. This age is not the standard by which we judge the age to come. That is the Sadduceean perspective. Instead, the fulfillment of God’s creative intent in the age to come is the standard by which we are called to evaluate and change this age.

For example, how we do marriage now does not tell us what relationships in the age to come should be like. Instead, what we can discern of the age to come should tell us how our relationships in this age are to be – at least for Jesus followers. If the fulfillment of creation is that we should be like the angels, then we are called to start acting more “angelic” in the here and now.

Marriage should not be defined as property and power but rather as partnership. Human status and position don’t confer identity. God does. Marriage can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the quality of relationships among all people in the age to come. But that can only be the case if marriage reflects the quality of relationship we can discern in the age to come. The current status quo cannot be used to judge the nature of the age to come. Rather, the age to come provides the standards by which to judge the current status quo.

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

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

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Two)

What is Jesus’ argument here? Let’s look at his interpretive conclusion in Luke 20:38. This is going to be a bit nerdy and grammatical. But bear with me. I always want to read the text as it is written rather than how I think it’s written. I think Jesus roots his conclusion in the character of God. And I think a focused reading of the text produces this understanding.

A literal translation of that verse goes something like this. “But [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living to him.” The final prepositional phrase is a dative and can be translated in a variety of ways. I want to argue that it is a “dative of means.”

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“The dative substantive is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished,” Daniel Wallace writes. “Before the noun in the dative, supply the words by means of, or simply with” (page 162). As the NRSV renders the phrase, we get the sense that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all “in the presence of God’ as living.

But I think Jesus says more than that. He wants to show that God raises the dead (verse 37). “If they are still alive in the future,” N. T. Wright argues, “they will be raised in the future. Nobody supposed, after all,” Wright continues, “that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already been raised from the dead…The patriarchs are still alive,” Jesus argues, “and therefore will be raised in the future. Prove the first,” Wright concludes, “and (within the worldview assumed by both parties in the debate, and any listening Pharisees) you have proved the second” (page 425).

Life comes from and belongs to God, the Creator. It is in the Creator’s character to create and sustain the living. Jesus argues that we find that character of God in the very texts which the Sadducees would argue preclude such an understanding.

So, Jesus’ conclusion goes something like this. “But even Moses showed, based upon the [burning] bush that the dead are raised, as he says, ‘the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob;’ [God] is not the God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living by means of [God]” (Luke 20:37-38, my translation).

It’s easy to write off this argument as an example of arcane rabbinic exegesis which no longer means anything to us in the twenty-first century. I’m not persuaded by that dismissal. Levine and Witherington spend some time on these verses and this exegesis. I think it’s worth discussing their work here.

They quote John Nolland in summarizing Jesus’ argument. “God will not have continued to advertise himself as God of the Patriarchs,” Nolland writes, “if he had finished with them and abandoned them to the grave” (Levine and Witherington, page 555). What is at stake here is God’s faithfulness, not merely the postmortem continuation of human lives and institutions. Does death derail God’s promises?

This is the foundation of Jewish and Christian theologizing about the resurrection of the dead. While I think it’s a wonderful idea that I will continue in a better way after I die, that’s not God’s goal in the resurrection. My individual continuation (whatever that actually means) is an outcome of God’s goal, a fringe benefit to me of God’s faithfulness to all of Creation.

The question that resurrection answers, Levine and Witherington argue, “is not, ‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather, ‘Has God given up on his promises to his people?” (page 555). They suggest that Jesus stands in line with some of the Jewish thinking of his time – that the patriarchs and others from the past are alive in the present, awaiting the general resurrection of the dead.

Levine and Witherington refer to the imagery of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus at this point as well. They suggest “that Jesus believed that God preserves the righteous dead in a place of glory, where they await the resurrection” (page 555). I think that may be a theological bridge too far. It appears to me that the parable relies on the imagery of Sheol from the Hebrew bible more than it does to any conception of a resurrection from the dead. Be that as it may, Jesus is concerned about the restoration of divine justice after life in this world is over.

“The evidence suggests,” N. T. Wright argues, “that by the time of Jesus…most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew it was standard teaching (Son of God, page 129). The Sadducees were among the minority who held to the view that a general resurrection of the dead from the dead was not a valid teaching based on authoritative Jewish scripture. However, Wright continues, it is not accurate to see the Sadducees as theological radicals. Instead, they were the conservatives (page 131).

Josephus reports, in The Jewish War, that the Sadducees reject the idea of “the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards” (see Wright, page 134). For the Sadducees, when you’re dead, you’re dead. And that’s that. They are at least accused of believing that there is no “age to come” when God’s faithfulness would set all things right. The way things are is the way things will be.

Of course, that’s an excellent theology for those who see themselves in charge and who don’t wish for things to change. “The real problem was that resurrection was,” Wright notes, “from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12,” for example, “resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom” (page 138). If God intends to turn everything right-side up in the end, then those who are on “God’s side” can and should be in the business of turning things right-side up in the here and now.

The Sadduceean problem with resurrection “was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it,” Wright continues, “are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world, and this age are the only ones there will ever be” (page 138).

It is, therefore, no accident that the synoptic writers put this exchange in the “challenge the authorities” section of the narrative. Our text is, as Wright puts it, “in a highly polemical and adversarial context, where the issue is emphatically not abstract debates about the finer points of theology or belief about a future life, but the immediate political meaning of what Jesus has just done in the Temple” (page 419). The debate here is about politics, not metaphysics.

The resurrection of the dead, in the New Testament, is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is not the opiate of the masses, designed to calm down the dissatisfied with promises of a final reward. “Resurrection is precisely concerned with the present world and its renewal,” Wright argues, “not with escaping the present world and going somewhere else; and in its early Jewish forms right through to its developed Christian forms, it was always concerned with divine judgment, with the creator god acting within history to put right that which is wrong” (page 138).

Therefore, Jesus argues to the Sadducees, from the beginning it is the character of God to give and to sustain the living. God makes promises of life to the living. God will not allow death to derail such promises, because God is faithful. That faithfulness to the promise of life will always be a threat to forces that depend on the power of death. “Resurrection,” N. T. Wright observes, “depending as it did on a strong belief in justice and the sovereign power of the good creator god, was always bound to be a revolutionary doctrine” (page 139).

At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this revolutionary doctrine meant two things to the majority of Jews. It referred to the restoration of Israel. We can see that expectation in the question of the disciples in Acts 1:6 – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And it also referred to the general resurrection of the dead for God’s people at the end of the present age.

“But nobody imagined that any individuals had already been raised,” Wright reminds us, “or would be raised in advance of the great last day” (page 205). That reality would have to wait until the first Easter morning. “Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, in fact, does point towards the refocusing of the resurrection hope which was to take place later,” Wright concludes, “not the least through the work of Paul” (page 426). But we aren’t there yet – at least not in the Lukan narrative.

References and Resources

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

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.

Sermon for October 30, 2022

“The Great Pretender”

Luke 19:1-10 (11-27)

That’s how most people know Zacchaeus. He’s a rich, short guy who wants to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way. He climbs a tree to see Jesus. Instead, Jesus sees him. Jesus invites himself to dinner. Zacchaeus is so happy he starts handing out cash. Jesus says nice things about Zacchaeus. They all live happily ever after.

It’s a good story. But it’s not the story in the Bible. The real song for Zacchaeus is this one. “Oh, yes! I’m the Great Pretender!”

Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? Have you ever hoped people would see you as one person even when you know you’re another? Have you ever been an outsider looking in? Have you ever known that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never belong?

Then you “get” Zacchaeus. He’s the Great Pretender. But his pretending is ending.

Tomorrow is Halloween. It’s the high holy day for being something we’re not. We wear masks and costumes. Little tykes come to our doors. We ask, “Oh, who (or what) are you?” The kiddos are dead serious about their identities. Some of them really are, at least for the moment, Batman or Elsa or the Hulk or Moana.

Why do we like those masks and costumes? It’s fun to dress up and pretend. Psychologically, it’s also about escaping from ourselves for a while. That’s true for adults as well as kids. Historically, it’s about hiding from death for a while. If we have a good enough disguise, death might miss us – at least for the moment.

Pretending to be someone else. Hiding from death. We’re getting to know Zacchaeus a bit better.

Zacchaeus was head tax collector in the Jericho jurisdiction. He didn’t manage the regional IRS office. Zacchaeus was more like the local mob boss. Collecting taxes for the Romans wasn’t processing Form 1040s. It was more like theft, fraud, and extortion.

We shouldn’t be surprised that his neighbors spat on the ground whenever he walked past. We shouldn’t be surprised that they called him a sinner with their spit. We shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t budge an inch to let him see Jesus.

We should be surprised  that Jesus invited himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’ house.

Or maybe not. A few weeks ago, we heard two of the Lost and Found stories in Luke fifteen. We heard about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. You might not remember the verses that introduce those stories.

“But all the tax collectors and sinners wee coming near to hear Jesus,” we read in Luke fifteen, verse one. In verse two we read this. “And some of the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling as they said, ‘This one is welcoming sinners and sharing meals with them.”

As that great philosopher, Garth Brooks, might say, “Jesus has friends in low places.” We shouldn’t be surprised by Jesus’ actions. Welcoming and eating with miserable sinners is what he does. That’s always worth remembering.

Zacchaeus is the one who surprises us. When that crowd along the Jericho road saw what happened, they weren’t happy. The started grumbling. They were just like some of the Pharisees and scribes in Luke fifteen. Jesus had no business going to Zacchaeus’ house, they said. Zacchaeus was a sinful man.

At that point, Zacchaeus had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height. Of course, his full height might have been all of four and a half feet. Maybe he climbed up on something to be seen and heard. Anyway, he stood up and set the record straight. He was talking to Jesus. But he was addressing the crowd.

“Look,” Zacchaeus shouted, “I’m giving half of what I own to the poor. If I’ve defrauded anyone, I’m paying four hundred percent in damages. Get off my back, you ungrateful fools!” I added that last part. But I think Zacchaeus would approve.

The truth was out. No more pretending. No more hiding. No more masks. No more double life.

Zacchaeus had lived on the shadowy boundary between two worlds. When he was around rich people, he was the wealthy businessman. He was backed by the full might of the Roman Empire. No one messed with Zacchaeus.

But all the old money types in Jericho wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this new-money social climber.

Behind the scenes, away from the powerful, Zacchaeus tried to put things right. He kept poor people from starving. He paid restitution and reparations when his employees got too enthusiastic about their work. There were people in that Jericho crowd who had jobs and homes and food because of Zacchaeus.

But all his neighbors wrinkled their noses when he walked by. They sniffed in disgust. They turned their backs on this thief, this fraud, this extortioner.

Zacchaeus was the Great Pretender. And all his pretending got him precisely…nothing. He was rich. He was powerful. And he was seeking something more. So, he climbed a tree.

But the seeker became the “seek-ee.” Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. But Jesus saw him first. There Zacchaeus was, in that tree, with nowhere to hide. He was exposed for who and what he was. He was revealed for what he needed. The Great Pretender could pretend no more.

Have you ever been up that tree with Zacchaeus? Have you ever lived in the world of “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”? This story is for you. Zacchaeus was a sinner. There was no pretending that away. But that’s not all he was.

“Each one of us,” Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Zacchaeus needed to hear that message. So do we today.

Zacchaeus also needed to become a Beatles fan. He needed to learn that money can’t buy me love. “Look at what I’ve done!” Zacchaeus shouts in frustration. “Can’t you see that I’ve earned your love and respect? What else do you want from me?”

They don’t want anything from you, Zacchaeus. Money won’t buy you love.

Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house. He goes after he knows Zacchaeus is a sinner. He goes before he knows this man is a saint. Jesus goes to Zacchaeus’ house because God loves Zacchaeus no matter what. For even this man, this Great Pretender, really is a child of Abraham. He was lost and has been found. He was dead and is alive.

What are some take-homes from the Zacchaeus story?

First, each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes in Romans three, verses twenty-three and twenty-four, “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” This is the great reminder of the Reformation we remember today.

Second, if we follow Jesus then what we do, we do for love.

We don’t do good deeds for God’s approval or for human rewards. Zacchaeus learned that money can’t buy you love. But it can buy food, clothing, and shelter for our neighbor in need. As Martin Luther often said, God doesn’t need our good works. But our neighbor surely does.

Third, doing justice for Jesus is more likely to get us rejected than rewarded.

Zacchaeus outed himself that day on the road out of Jericho. I imagine his Roman bosses weren’t very happy about his covert good deeds. When we challenge unjust and oppressive systems, those systems are going to hit back.

If you want some additional reading this week, read the Parable of the Pounds that follows our gospel reading. This is a story about what happens when brave people refuse to be part of corrupt systems. Jesus tells that story to help us understand Zacchaeus.

No more pretending for us. Through Jesus, we are freed from sin and freed for service. We are called to come down and rejoice. Jesus has come to our house today. Where will he lead us tomorrow?

Let’s pray…

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part One)

22 Pentecost C/All Saints Sunday 2022

In his workingpreacher.org commentary, Kyle Brooks notes that some might compare the controversy in this week’s reading to the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Brooks does not reduce the debate to such triviality, but he doesn’t address the real and quite personal questions this text will raise for many of our listeners. For those in our pews and on our feeds who are widowed and/or divorced, this debate will have immediate resonance.

We can dispense with the notion that the wife might remain the property of a husband in the afterlife. We may return to that downstream, but for now, let us stipulate that this is not an issue worthy of our attention for the moment. Instead, the question that will ring through the minds of many is clear. In the next life, whatever it looks like, what will remain of and/or carry over from this life?

“Love you” and “forever” go together in our normal discourse like “peanut butter” and “jelly.” A large fraction of pop love songs would disappear if we did not have this notion of “eternal” love. Some religious traditions make this a part of their theological and moral foundations. The idea that marriages formed in this life endure beyond this life is common and treasured by many.

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Even when the marriage ends in this life through divorce, the question still remains. That’s especially true for Christians. After all, Jesus is the one who emphasizes the “one flesh” nature of the marital bond. And he is the one who says that what God has put together no human being should put asunder. If one has forged multiple marriage bonds in this life, what part if any of those multiple bonds will remain and/or carry over into another life?

I am a widower. I have the great blessing of being married to two of the finest women ever to walk this earth. I am, of course, completely unbiased in that opinion (ha! Ha!). I should clarify that I have been married to these two women serially rather than concurrently. I believe and trust that the Holy Spirit has forged bonds in each of these marriages beyond human will and preference. If that is the case, to whom (if anyone) will I be “married” in the next and new life?

Therefore, the question from the Sadducees to Jesus may be one of the most contemporary questions possible for some in our pews (and pulpits). It is neither academic nor esoteric. The situation may seem comic in its exaggeration. But the question is serious in its implications.

“The sons of this age marry and give in marriage,” Jesus replies to the Sadducees, “but those who have been counted as worthy to obtain that age and to the resurrection from the dead shall neither marry nor give in marriage” (Luke 20:34b-35, my translation). Marrying and giving in marriage are both male activities in this context. Men marry women. Fathers give daughters. Those institutions will not continue in the age to come.

One reason for this change, of course, is that the need for procreation shall cease. “For neither shall they be able to die,” Jesus continues in verse thirty-six, “for they are like angels, and they are sons of God, being children of the resurrection” (my translation). As most commentators note, Jesus is not suggesting that people become “angels” when they die. The word is quite clear here. They become like angels since they are no longer subject to mortality.

More to the point, they are no longer offspring of human beings. That physical birth is not what begins and sustains their life in the age to come. Instead, they are “offspring of the resurrection.” It is the resurrection which gives them the life that is like that of the angels. That life is not rooted in human procreation. Nor is it rooted in a human “family unit.” Institutions of human family – whether biological or otherwise – do not have the same reality and force in the age to come.

I think this line of thinking can produce immense pain for those who have lost a spouse – either to death or through a painful divorce. It’s easy to hear in this analysis that our closest relationships in this life don’t matter much in the next life. Sometimes that sense leaches into our conversation in the here and now, with traumatizing consequences.

When my first spouse died, I was inconsolable. I mean that people found it hard to find the words to comfort me. And I was pissed off by most words of comfort. One well-meaning soul said to me, for example, that God needed my spouse. That’s why she died so young and so unexpectedly. I replied that as far as I could tell, I needed her more. You can imagine that it was an uncomfortable exchange for all. I experienced the comment as a way to diminish the importance of our relationship to one another. If only I could put my loss in that divine perspective, the argument ran, then I wouldn’t be so hard to console.

That’s the danger here, I think, for preachers. We can easily make these relationships into zero sum commodities. We can hear Jesus saying that being married is of value for this life. But it ceases to have value in the next and new life. The more we value our relationship with God in Christ for eternity, the less we must value our relationships and commitments in this life. If that’s how I must view my first marriage and my loss of my first spouse, then frankly I’m not very interested in the whole conversation.

This is the risk in any Christian conversation about this life and the next. We are so often tempted to make the next life “more” by describing this life as “less.” We are known historically (at least in White western Christianity) as describing this life as a “vale of tears.” We focus on how wonderful heaven will be in comparison. We describe the Resurrection as an escape hatch from this miserable existence and heaven as pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. We make the new life more by making this life less.

As we’ll discuss further this week, that’s not the New Testament view of the Resurrection and the New Life. For example, our connections and commitments in this life will not be discarded in the next and new life as unimportant. Instead, they will be fulfilled and transcended in the next and new life. Our ability to relate to one another as married people, for example, is possible because God has created us to not be alone (see Genesis 1-3). We Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Out of that connection arise our other experiences of Christian community.

When I think about the new and next life, I have a humorous image in my imagination. I can see my two spouses from our earthly life sitting together talking about me. They are laughing until they cry about my quirks and foibles. After all, who could understand one another better than two women who had been married to me? This sharing would have no malice in it. I will laugh as hard and enjoy the conversation just as much as they will. And we will have this conversation as siblings in Christ, living together in the eternal communion of the saints.

As N. T. Wright so often reminds us, in the Resurrection nothing good in this life will be lost. We don’t have to make the realities of this life less in order to experience the hope of the next and new life as more. All that is good about my marriages will be kept for the life to come – not because marriage is “forever,” but because God the Creator is faithful. That’s the real punchline of this story in Luke 20: “but [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for to [God] all are living” (my translation). We may get the chance to discuss “Christian presentism” in a downstream post. But for now, let’s be clear that whatever gives life in this life will be part of the next and new life.

I’ve been asked many times, “Will I see my loved one in heaven?” That loved one may be a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a child, a friend, or a pet. I always answer with firm conviction, “Yes, you will. I am sure of that.” Part of the question, however, often is like this. “Will I have the same relationship with my loved one in the next and new life that I’ve had in this life?” Some hope the answer will be yes. Others pray the answer will be no.

I think Christian tradition tells us that our relationships of love in this life will endure into the next and new life. However, what is broken in those relationships will be healed or discarded. What is good in those relationships will remain and be enhanced. Our relationships will be more in the next and new life, not merely different. We will be in the communion of saints, connected with one another and all of the New Creation in the ways that the Creator intended for us from the beginning.

While this line of thought is not the center of the controversy in the Lukan account, I am certain it will be in the minds of many of our listeners. I think it’s pastorally necessary in many settings to offer this sort of conversation and counsel this week. And it can lead to a fruitful conversation about the nature of Resurrection and trust in the Communion of Saints.

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Five)

It’s difficult to read “tone” in any written account, including the Gospel accounts. The Lukan author gives clues here and there in the text. For example, when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner, all those who saw this “grumbled.” We don’t have to guess at the tone of the indictment. “He [Jesus] has gone in to take lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7, my translation).

It isn’t quite so easy to get the tone of Zacchaeus’ response to this public critique. As I’ve noted, I think we should go with the present tense of the verbs in Luke 19:8. So, this isn’t a promise or a vow. Instead, it’s a personal defense. “Look, one half of what belongs to me, Lord, I’m giving to the poor,” Zacchaeus says, “and if I have extorted something from someone, I am repaying it four times over” (Luke 19:8, my translation).

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That’s what Zacchaeus says. But how does he say it, and to whom? It’s clear that he makes his personal apologia to Jesus, whom he addresses as “Lord.” His apologia is in response to the criticism from the crowd. I wonder if Zacchaeus is more exasperated than solicitous. He makes this response “standing.” There’s a lot of body language in the Lukan account, and I’ve learned to take that language seriously in a close reading of the text.

As a small man, Zacchaeus perhaps draws himself up to full height. Perhaps he has to stand up (or even on something else) in order to be seen and heard. I can imagine him drawing a full breath and letting it out in frustration. “Look at me!” he says to the crowd (and Jesus). See me for what I am! For crying out loud, I give away half my stuff to poor people. Some of you here are beneficiaries of my generosity. If my contractors take advantage of you, I make repairs four times over. What more do I have to do to get your respect!

That’s what I hear in this text at the moment. Zacchaeus is an outsider in multiple ways. He works with the Roman imperial oppressors. He’s rich and is therefore suspect because of the sources of his wealth. He has new money at the expense of others, so he’s not welcome at all the fancy dinner parties. He’s a short man in a world where Apollo and Adonis provide the ideals of maleness and masculinity. He’s a faithful Jew in a system that expects him to be a selfish scoundrel.

What does he have to do to get their respect? Nothing. Money can’t buy respect. Power doesn’t bring belonging. Zacchaeus does it all right, and he’s still regarded as all wrong. Nothing Zacchaeus does is going to put him right in the eyes of his neighbors. It’s no wonder he explodes in exasperation when those neighbors treat him like crap in front of Jesus.

Could any treatment do more to bring a “high” person low? It’s obvious that Zacchaeus is caught doing his “fan boy” thing as Jesus passes through town. He just wants to see this famous (and perhaps infamous) peasant rabbi who has become something when he should really still be nothing. Zacchaeus would like to just slip through the crowd to get a look, but the crowd’s not having it.

On an impulse, he sprints ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree. As he’s climbing the tree, Jesus notices him. I know it’s presumptuous, but I think the NRSV misses the point in Luke 19:5. The NRSV reads, “When Jesus came to the place…” This place is where Zacchaeus has climbed the tree. So far, so good.

The pronouns in this verse, however, are not quite that clear. The text reads “and as he came upon the place.” The referent of “he” is not certain. It could be Jesus. It could be Zacchaeus. I think the latter is more likely. The Lukan author uses the same preposition, “epi,” as we find in verse four. In verse four, the preposition describes how Zacchaeus climbs the tree. I think verse five should read, “And as he [Zacchaeus] came upon that spot [up in the tree], Jesus looked up and said to him…”

Why does this matter? At precisely the moment when Zacchaeus is the most vulnerable, even though he clearly doesn’t wish to be seen, Jesus notices him and points him out. If Jesus had wished to join in the community ridicule and rejection directed toward Zacchaeus, this would be precisely the moment to do so. Zacchaeus was exposed, alone, and a bit ridiculous in that moment. I think the expected response was that Jesus would pounce on the opportunity to shame this powerful and rich man.

Of course, Jesus does precisely the opposite. He sees and recognizes Zacchaeus in his moment of potential shame. He says, “Come down directly, Zacchaeus. For today it is necessary for me to dwell in your house” (Luke 19:7b, my translation). We have the verb, “dei,” which so often indicates divine necessity and will. This meeting isn’t any chance encounter. God is doing something important, and Jesus is making it happen.

Jesus isn’t merely popping in to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus intends to remain there for a while. The verb is “meno,” which means to dwell or remain. This intention to stick around for a while is part of what bothers the grumblers. The word they use to describe Jesus’ actions is that he is going to “take up lodging with a sinful man” (Luke 19:7c, my translation). The word for “take up lodging” is related to the Greek work for an “inn” or a “guest room” (kataluma). Jesus is making a deep connection.

Twice in our text we get the word “today.” Jesus tells Zacchaeus that it’s necessary for him to dwell in Zacchaeus’ house “today.” In Luke 16:9, we hear that salvation has come this house “today.” We might think ahead to Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There is no delay, no condition, no hesitation. It’s happening here and now. And what’s happening is an immediate embrace of one who is rejected and excluded.

What does Zacchaeus have to do to get their respect? Nothing – because nothing is going to do it. No matter how many hoops Zacchaeus jumps through, he’s always going to be on the outside looking in. But that’s not the case with Jesus. Jesus’ connection with Zacchaeus comes before his declarations of personal piety and practice. We could speculate, as do some commentators, that Jesus knows this in advance. But that’s not what the text says. Jesus embraces Zacchaeus, and the crowds do not.

It’s clear that this story is about belonging. Part of the punchline is that even Zacchaeus, despised and detested as he is, is “a son of Abraham.” The little Greek word “kai” is doing a lot of work in Luke 19:9. Perhaps it means “also” as the NRSV renders it. But I wonder if the translation shouldn’t be “because even he [Zacchaeus] is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9b, my translation and emphasis). If Zacchaeus, the outsider par excellence, is a child of Abraham, then perhaps there’s hope for us as well.

Jesus concludes by declaring that the Son of Man came to seek out and to save “the lost.” This word in both subject and verb forms appears in the Lost and Found parables of Luke 15 seven times. Remember that those parables are told, according to the Lukan author, in response to the “grumbling” (yes, same verb) of the Pharisees and the scribes. The lost ones in the parables are restored to the flock, the piggy bank, and the family. “Lost” in those contexts means separated from the group. “Found” means restored to the community.

In each of those parables, and in our text, the “finding” produces a party! The one who does the finding is the host of the party. That’s true of the sheep owner, the woman, and the Forgiving Father. It’s true in our text as well. We read, of course, that Zacchaeus comes down out of the tree and joyfully welcomes Jesus (Luke 19:6). And the complaint in verse seven is that Jesus is a guest in Zacchaeus’ house.

“Ironically,” Mittelstadt writes, “the statement of the crowd fails to anticipate Luke’s reversal. Zacchaeus may have entertained and nourished Jesus,” Mittelstadt continues, “but Zacchaeus becomes the guest of Jesus’ hospitality” (page 136). When someone is found, Jesus throws a party, and Jesus is the host. When Jesus comes, salvation arrives and takes up residence. When that happens, the stranger becomes guest. The outsider becomes a member of the family. That’s true no matter what the grumbling crowd may believe.

What do I have to do to get some respect around here? Nothing, Zacchaeus! Nobody has that much money. Inclusion in the family of God comes as a gift of grace, not a commodity that can be purchased. We can play the buying and selling game for a lifetime if we wish. And we’ll never win. No matter how many billions we accumulate, it’s never enough to buy belonging. This is the real celebration of the Reformation – justified by grace through faith.

And that’s why Jesus next tells a parable about one who has resigned from the buying and selling game. If the third servant in the Parable of the Pounds is the hero, this is part of what that parable means. You see, Zacchaeus, the buying and selling game may get you power. But it won’t get you love and respect. Resigning from that game comes with a cost, that’s true. But it’s a cost disciples pay because we’ve already been given everything that truly matters.

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Mittelstadt, Martin William. “Eat, drink, and be merry: A theology of hospitality in Luke-Acts.” Word & World 34, no. 2 (2014): 131-139.

Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.

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

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Four)

Zacchaeus’ parents had high hopes for their little boy. The name they gave him means, in Hebrew, “pure one.” It can mean “innocent” or “righteous.” It may be a combination with the shortened form of the Hebrew name for the God of Israel. So, little Zacchy’s parents named him “Yahweh is righteous.” Levine and Witherington title this section of their commentary as “Zacchaeus, ‘Mr. Righteous’” (page 510).

That’s a lot for anyone to live up to. On first glance this appears similar to calling Al Capone “Mr. Compassion.” The neighbors must have shaken their heads often at the bitter irony of it all. The one whom they regarded as a “sinner” had a name that meant anything but that. I suspect the Lukan audience would have reacted in a similar way on the first hearing. The character’s name would have prepared them to laugh sardonically at the unrighteous behavior of “Mr. Righteous.”

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Except, the joke was on all those who jumped to conclusions. The Lukan author devotes six Greek words to the identification of this character – “And, look, there was a man who was called by the name of Zacchaeus” (Luke 19:2a, my translation). This is more words than required to get the point across. I don’t know if I’m over-reading the text (well, that never happens!), but it seems to me that the Lukan author wants to get our attention by inserting the participle for “called” in this phrase.

“Mr. Righteous” was more than Zacchaeus’ name. It was his “calling,” his vocation.

Zacchy was an “architelones.”  The NRSV translates this as “chief tax collector.” That’s fine, but it’s not based on much. This is the only place the term appears in the New Testament. It doesn’t appear outside the New Testament in Roman imperial documents that we have. It’s not an official administrative title or political position. Jesus, or the Lukan author, makes it up. The Lukan audience would certainly know that from daily experience. Here’s another signal that something unusual is happening at this point.

The made-up title is a combination of the Greek words for “ruler” and “tax collector.” Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to steal anything personally. He had people for that. “The tax collectors familiar in the Synoptic tradition were for the most part employees of the chief tax collector and were often rootless persons unable to find other work,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Evidence from the late imperial period suggests that cheating or extortion on their part would be less likely to benefit them than the chief tax collector for whom they worked” (pages 387-388).

Zacchaeus was in charge of an organized system of tax collection. He may have had rules against extortion and fraud. However, he didn’t control the day-to-day behavior of the small-time contractors who worked for him. They may well have engaged in the extortion and fraud which is mentioned in our text. Zacchaeus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note, was the one who benefitted most from that criminal behavior. He was also the one in the best position to do something about it. He was the “ruler” of that system.

Zacchaeus, as head of the regional tax system and rich, occupied an “in-between” social position. Solevag notes that, on the one hand, Zacchaeus was rich. This wealth certainly came from his work as the head tax collector. Therefore, his wealth was “new” money, not connected to land or inheritance. Therefore, the old money people would have regarded Zacchaeus as a gauche social climber (yes, that pun was intentional) who deserved ridicule rather than respect.

On the other hand, his fellow Jews would have seen him as a collaborator with the Romans. He was probably perceived as a traitor and was thus despised. This gives us some concrete data to deal with the language, for example, of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee may not regard all other people as beneath contempt. But in the parable, that’s certainly how the Pharisee regards the tax collector (one of the little fish in that extractive pool) who has come to the Temple to pray.

“Zacchaeus, then, is cast as a character whose social location is quite complex,” Solevag writes, “On the one hand, he is as an outsider, belonging to the generally despised category of tax collectors. On the other, he is powerful and privileged as a rich man and a leader within his guild” (page 12). Yet, as she notes, Jesus doesn’t treat Zacchaeus as the crowd expects. Jesus welcomes tax collectors and eats with them. In fact, “tax collectors are among those most responsive to Jesus’s ‘good news’ in the Gospel” (page 12).

Zacchaeus faces another obstacle in his quest to see Jesus. “And he sought to see who Jesus was, and he was not able to do so on account of the crowd because he was of small stature” (Luke 19:3, my translation). Long-time church people will find it hard not to hum the children’s song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” Yet, the word translated as “stature” rarely refers to physical height. It more often refers to age. Zacchaeus was of “small span.”

I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as young, although that may be part of the intent. Instead, I think we are dealing, as is so often the case in Luke, with an intentional double entendre. Zacchaeus is reduced in social stature, as far as both his Greco-Roman and Jewish neighbors are concerned. He is regarded by them as “less than.” The crowd grumbles because Jesus is going to share a table with this notorious “man who is a sinner” (see Luke 19:7).

The Lukan author also makes clear that Zacchaeus is a physically short man. Solevag argues that, in fact, the Lukan author portrays Zacchaeus as a dwarf. She does not draw that as a firm conclusion since the language in verse three is not that typically used in ancient literature to identify dwarfs. However, she points to a number of recognizable literary conventions in the story that would have led listeners to conclude that Zacchaeus was in fact a dwarf.

First, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a comic figure in the story. He runs ahead and climbs a tree. Zacchaeus doesn’t embody the self-control and measured gait of an honorable man in the ancient world. He more closely resembles the “running slave,” a stock figure in Roman comedy. Such a character was stereotyped as infantile and unable to manage even simple tasks. Of course, we might note that another character in the Lukan account who runs in this way is the Forgiving Father in Luke 15.

“Zacchaeus’s behavior goes against cultural expectations of how a man was supposed to behave,” Solevag writes, “but at the same time it aligns with the performative role of dwarfs, where dwarfs often were represented as comic figures” (page 14). He is marginalized because of his “non-normative body” and his slavish, comic actions.

Second, Zacchaeus is portrayed as a sinner. In the ancient world, Solevag notes, body size and type was thought to reflect the mind and moral character of a person. “Read physiognomically, Zacchaeus’s short body would indicate greed and corroborate the suspicion already tied to his profession as a tax-collector,” Solevag writes, “When Jesus invites himself to come to Zacchaeus’ house, the onlookers grumble and say that Zacchaeus is a sinner (Luke 19.7). This judgment from the people could thus be a physiognomic assessment of Zacchaeus” (page 14).

Third, the story portrays Zacchaeus “as host and included ‘other’.” Jesus chooses to dine with Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus proves his moral character by vowing to (or by already engaging in) his charitable donations and reparations. Zacchaeus is not the punchline of a joke or a social pretender and fraud. Instead, he is a son of Abraham. This idea is used elsewhere in the Lukan account (Luke 13:16) to include an ‘other’ (page 15).

In addition, if Zacchaeus is portrayed as a dwarf, there is another Great Reversal in this text. Dwarfs in ancient literature and practice were usually the entertainment and/or enslaved waiters at such banquets. Entertainers and enslaved persons were lowest in the social hierarchy since control of their bodies was in varying senses taken from them. Jesus honors Zacchaeus as host and benefactor and puts him at the top of the social scale. Zacchaeus fits the ancient literary category (both in Scripture and secular writing) of the unexpected host (page 16).

How does this story function in the Lukan narrative, given the above considerations? “The narrative fits the profile Luke has as a writer of a gospel for outcasts,” Solevag argues, “Throughout the gospel, Luke has a particular focus on how Jesus includes those formerly excluded in Judean society” (page 16).

Interestingly, Solevag argues against this story as a healing account. In fact, Zacchaeus’ lack of physical stature, if that exists, is not remedied but rather embraced. “In other words, this parable grants a different place to the social experience of disability than the healing narratives,” she concludes, “As a biblical scholar interpreting the Bible from a disability perspective, I think it is important to map this variety, not only in representations of disability, but also in the literary and theological uses of disability” (page 18).

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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

Solevåg, Anna Rebecca. “Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke: Comic Figure, Sinner, and Included” Other”.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 14, no. 2 (2020): 225-240.

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

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Three)

How shall I preach on a text that I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten “wrong” for the past four decades? And, as far I can tell, I’m not alone in getting that text “wrong.” The consensus view of the Zacchaeus story, as represented by the NRSV translation of those verbs in question, has steered largely in the wrong direction. I’d love to explain that to folks in a Bible text study like this. But I’ll be doing a sermon on Sunday, not a Bible study.

Oh, well, it’s still early in the week. I’m sure the Spirit will work out something useful for me to say.

The Lukan connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable of the Pounds is rhetorically rock solid. “But while they were hearing these things [that the Son of Man came to seek out and to rescue the perishing], he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was close to Jerusalem and it seemed to them that the Kingdom of God was about to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11, my translation).

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Some commentators suggest that the location and timing of the telling of the parable is in some doubt. I’m not sure how they get that. The text itself couldn’t make the connection any clearer. Jesus tells this parable, at least in the Lukan account, at dinner in the house of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Jesus tells this parable in response to the events and pronouncements at that dinner. The parable connects the events in Jericho to the coming Palm Sunday protest parade in Jerusalem.

“Jesus sets the Parable of the Pounds in the context of the chief tax collector’s affirmation of his actions,” Levine and Witherington write. “Luke presents Zacchaeus as using his resources honestly and generously,” they continue, “and thus as an appropriate steward” (page 513). Jesus’ followers (and therefore, the Lukan audience) expect the end of the age to arrive shortly – perhaps on the following day! But they are mistaken.

Even though the Kingdom of God is among them, as Jesus has previously said, it is not yet coming in its fullness. The resistance by (or conversion of) a ruler among the tax collectors – the worst sort of collaborator — is very good evidence of the presence of that Kingdom. But it is not a sign that the Kingdom is ready to come in its fullness right here and right now.

Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house on that day, but it has not yet come to all of Creation. “For Luke,” Levine and Witherington write, “the eschaton is far off, coming only after the world has been evangelized. The disciples are the stewards who must do what Zacchaeus does,” they argue, “use their talents wisely in growing the mission” (page 513).

I think that Jesus recognizes Zacchaeus as a resistor rather than a collaborator. The village sees him as a hated traitor who uses his position both to fund the Roman imperial machine and to line his pockets in the process. His actual practice, however – whether it is current or prospective – is to use his ill-gotten gains in order to give to the poor and make reparations when his actions end up defrauding others.

I think Zacchaeus, at least as a Lukan character, is working the system against itself in order to do justice. He’s a concrete example of one who has made friends with unrighteous Mammon. He is using that friendship to subvert the system in the ways he can. As Holmer Szesnat argues in his study, the Parable of the Pounds is about “refusing to participate in practices of exploitation” (page 21). The solid connection between the Zacchaeus story and the Parable shows that these texts should be used to interpret one another.

The Parable of the Pounds never shows up in the Revised Common Lectionary. We get the Parable of the Talents in Year A, and we allow the Matthean version to dictate how we remember the Lukan version (if we remember it at all). The parables may or may not have the same origin, a common source, or at least arise from the same stream of memory. But as they exist in their respective accounts now, they are not the same parable.

One feature of the Lukan parable is the use of the Rule of Three. We know from previous study that when we get a Rule of Three, we should expect the third character to be different from the first two. In the Lukan account, the third character tends to be the one in the story who gets it right. The parade example of this literary practice, of course, is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. It is the third character who is neighbor to the man left in the ditch to die.

Thus, the third character in the Parable of the Pounds is the one who gives us the guidance we should take from the parable. The first two slaves do business with the aristocrat’s wealth and produce unimaginable profit margins – one thousand percent in one case and five hundred percent in the other. Szesnat notes that a thirty percent margin would have been an exceptionally good annual return in a reputable business. The huge returns on investment create “the first point in this story where the first-century listeners are given a signal that something unusual is going on here” (page 23).

No “legal” business produces that sort of return. The slaves are loan sharks of some kind. They get promoted as a reward for their actions. The third slave won’t play the game. As a result, the rich man punishes the slave who has done the “right” thing. He takes what the third slave has and gives it to the one who has the ten pounds. That’s what happens in a corrupt and abusive system when the resistors are exposed.

That resistance is not limited to the third slave (who sounds a lot like Zacchaeus). There’s that delegation from the home country that protests to the high king that this rich guy should not have any more power. That protest falls on deaf ears, and the opposition is liquidated. “The king cleans up in more than one way,” Szesnat writes, “he has confirmed which of his slaves are going to make more money for him in the future, in whatever ruthless and brutal way they can, and he has taken care of his political enemies” (page 25).

Numerous commentators have noted that this parable sounds a lot like the behavior of one or more of the Herods in first-century Palestine. Herod the Great made such a trip to Rome to get his reign over Judah, Samaria, and Galilee. Herod Archelaus made a similar trip to get himself declared a king like his father. He had to settle for being an ethnarch and was exiled just a few years later. But the stories would have rung all sorts of historical and political bells for both Jesus’ listeners and the Lukan audience.

So, what’s the point of the story in Luke, Szesnat asks. How we answer that question can make a great deal of difference in our interpretation of the Zacchaeus story. This section of the Lukan account says a lot about rulers and being ruled. A rich ruler wants to know how to have “eternal life.” Jesus says that for him what’s necessary is to resign from the system altogether. But he’s just too deeply entangled. Because of that, the rich ruler goes away grieving. He can’t give it up.

When we meet the blind man on the Jericho road, the political stakes get higher. The blind man addresses Jesus as “son of David.” That may be a lovely honorific, but it’s also a political title. The only Kingdom of God that people have really known so far, at least in their ideology, is the Kingdom of David. “In other words,” Szesnat writes, “it is the poor, the marginalized, who see who Jesus is, and they are received in God’s kingdom” (page 26). Who Jesus is, in this story, is described in explicitly political terms.

Then we get Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus should be like the first two slaves in the Parable of the Pounds. He should be the ruler of the loan sharks, the regional mob boss for the Roman imperial machine. Instead, he is either a current resistor (my view) or he is converted to resistance when Jesus comes to his house (Szesnat’s view). In either case, this is an astonishing revelation. The Kingdom of God is present, at least in part, in the everyday acts of resistance taken by Jesus’ followers.

“The story of entrusted money is a story of what happens when we act the way God wants us to,” Szesnat concludes. “The point of the story is simply this,” he argues, “Be warned – if you refuse to participate in systems of oppression and exploitation, which is what the righteous are supposed to be doing, you should still expect to be persecuted. The reign of God has not fully broken into the world yet. The wicked will still punish and sometimes kill the righteous, just as they get rid of any other enemy” (page 27).

If Zacchaeus is covertly resisting already (as I think is the case) he is outed by the end of his story. If he repents and makes a public declaration of his intentions, he is no less at risk. There’s no going back for Zacchaeus at this point. There’s no eschatological escape hatch opening up for him in the next day or two.

That fullness of God’s reign will arrive in the end, but first comes the cross. “Telling the truth to the powerful, refusing to do what they want us to do: all that can and probably will get us into serious trouble,” Szesnat writes, “in some contexts, it can even get us killed. But it must be done” (page 27).

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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

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

Szesnat, Holger. “Bible Study on Economic Justice: Luke 19: 11–28.” (See https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:17819/).

Text Study for Luke 19:1-10 (Part Two)

One of the central issues in this text comes down to verb tenses. I’m not just nerding out on this, although there is that. The verbs in Luke 19:8 are translated, for example, in the NRSV in the future tense. “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “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” (my emphasis). However, in the Greek, the verbs are “I am giving,” and “I am repaying.” That’s a problem.

If the verbs really are future in their connotation, then this text is about repentance and reparations. That’s the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard and would embrace. If the verbs are really present in their connotation, then this text is about defending Zacchaeus from the slanderous opinions of his neighbors. That’s not the traditional interpretation that many of us have heard. Nor are we, I suspect, very excited about embracing it. But there it is.

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Some interpreters and translators render these verbs as a present tense that contains or implies action in the future. I suppose that’s a possibility. The problem is that when interpreters and translators do this, the only real example of this rendering is (wait for it) Luke 19:8. In fact, this is circular reasoning that doesn’t get us very far.

So, let’s see what we think about the translation. And then let’s think about what we do with it (when we’ve decided that it really is just a couple of garden variety present tense verbs). Sorry for the spoiler – not!

Richard Swanson takes the verbs to be, without question, present tense. For him, our text is in part about Jewish rituals of caring for the poor. “An observant Jew practices her faith by acting out the ritual and letting it shape her life,” Swanson writes. “That is why it is so significant that, at the end of this scene, Zacchaeus reveals to the audience that he is already giving half of his possessions to the poor and that any offense is repaid at ruinous rates. Zacchaeus,” Swanson continues, “practices the ritual of binding the world together and thus reveals himself to be an observant Jew, even though his status as a tax gatherer puts him outside that community line” (page 221).

If we read the text in this way, then we see that the Zacchaeus story continues the Lukan emphasis on the surprising and unpredictable character of God’s grace in Jesus. Zacchaeus should be a bad guy in this story. We’ve been set up for this by the Lukan author in numerous ways. Zacchaeus is rich. Rich people in the Lukan account tend not to fare well, as we have just seen with the Rich Ruler. Zacchaeus is a tax collector – one of the villains in first-century Palestinian life. There’s no way that he should be a hero in the gospels.

Yet here he is. Zacchaeus is the concluding and climactic example of discipleship in the Lukan travel narrative. “Anyone who says they saw this coming is lying,” Swanson says, “even though Luke provided hints early in his story” (page 221). Those hints included tax collectors coming to John for baptism and repentance. When they ask what they should do, the Baptizer doesn’t tell them to get another job. He tells them to be faithful in their current job. It may be, in fact, that the Baptizer tells them to be like Zacchaeus.

“Zacchaeus is still a surprise,” Swanson writes, “That is the point, I think.” Swanson interprets this story as a scene of revelation, not of redemption. It’s not that Zacchaeus has an epiphany and announces a change in behavior. Instead, he already gives to the poor and pays fourfold reparations if he defrauds anyone. Zacchaeus is, as Jesus reminds us, “a son of Abraham.” Remember that just before John the Baptizer gave his ethical counsel to the tax collectors, he told the crowd that “God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.” Abe’s kids might pop up anywhere and often in the last places we’d expect!

Swanson concludes his provocation by remembering the story of Schneeweiss, a Jewish collaborator in the Janowska concentration camp. I would encourage you to read that story here. As Swanson notes, it makes for a powerful interweaving with the story of Zacchaeus.

Levine and Witherington agree that the verbs are present tense and not future. They disagree on what to do with those verbs. Levine notes that the text makes no mention of repentance. Therefore, Zacchaeus is not repenting. Instead, “the tax collector is explaining that he has been judged, incorrectly, as sinful.” Remember that it is the crowd, not Jesus, who identify Zacchaeus as a “sinner.”

The “salvation” that comes to his house, in Levine’s view, is “the restitution of the man to the community, which occurs when he states what he actually does, rather than what the crowd thinks he has been doing.” Jesus gives Zacchaeus a platform upon which to defend and rehabilitate his public standing. And Jesus approves that defense, I would add, by going to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner.

Witherington reads the verbs as say that Zacchaeus is ready to make repayment and reparations. He takes support in the text from the assertion that salvation has come to the tax collector’s house “today” (and not before). In this way, the verbs indicate a behavior that is happening now (for the first time) and will continue into the future. “Something happened on that day,” according to Witherington, “that changed him” (page 512).

Levine and Witherington can share the same conclusion even as they take different paths to get there. Zacchaeus remains a tax collector. He is one of those Jesus has come to seek and to save. He is a child of Abraham, no matter what his neighbors might say and think. Even though Zacchaeus is identified as rich, he isn’t condemned (or labelled as a fool). Instead, he uses his wealth appropriately. Zacchaeus “shows that the rich, through divine grace and appropriate income distribution, can enter the Kingdom” (page 513).

I find it interesting and surprising that this is the message the Lukan author presents as the climax and conclusion of the major Lukan addition to the gospel accounts. In discussing the story of the Rich Ruler, Justo Gonzalez offers this conjecture. “Quite possibly, Luke is writing this account at a time when the presence in the Christian community of some who are in better economic condition than others,” Gonzalez suggests, “poses problems and raises questions, much as was the case in Corinth when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians” (Kindle Location 4085).

A gospel account that is often seen as hammering the rich for unfaithfulness may in fact be an apology for the presence of faithful rich people in the early Christian community. How’s that for a reversal?

Gonzalez understands the verbs to be future in connotation, although he doesn’t make a big issue of this concern. Zacchaeus is a “sinner among sinners.” Thus, the grumbling of the crowd is not at all surprising. Jesus makes Zacchaeus a parade example of the lost who have been found.

When it comes to wealth, Gonzalez sees this story as a commentary on and corrective to some of the previous “rich person stories.” Zacchaeus is no fool when it comes to his wealth. He doesn’t see it as “his,” nor does he treat it as something to be hoarded. Nor is he sad when he parts with his wealth, as was the rich ruler. In addition, the story makes clear that it’s not necessary to sell everything in order to follow Jesus. Gonzalez gives this interpretation.

“When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing—and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined” (Kindle Location 4174).

Malina and Rohrbaugh hear the verbs as present tense. Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as one with whom he can share table fellowship and thus community, in contrast to the attitude of the crowds. “Zacchaeus,” they write, “vindicates Jesus’ judgment about him by pointing out that he already gives half of what he owns to the poor and (already) repays fourfold anyone he discovers has been cheated” (page 387). The crowd doesn’t believe his assertions, but Jesus does.

Therefore, Jesus acknowledges him as “a son of Abraham.” This means, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh that Zacchaeus’ salvation consists of being restored to his rightful place in the covenant community. “In other words, this is a healing story: the restoration of abnormal or broken community relationships (caused by the stereotyping of Zacchaeus on the part of the community) has been effected by the power of Jesus,” they conclude. “The story is therefore not about Zacchaeus’s repentance but about the curing of his illness” (page 387).

If one combines this insight with Swanson’s story of Schneeweiss, we get a poignant picture of one (Schneeweiss) healed by dying for the sake of the community.

I’m convinced that we should read the verbs in the present tense. I’m not sure how to present that in a message on Sunday yet. Nor am I quite sure of what I think it all means. I have this suspicion that one of the keys is hidden in the text that follows and actually concludes the Lukan Travel Narrative, The Parable of the Pounds. I think we’ll go there next.

References and Resources

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

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

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

Message for October 23, 2022

Luke 18:9-14

20 Pentecost C

How are You Standing?

Here’s a story you know better than I do. It’s harvest time. A local farmer gets sick or injured. The farmer can’t bring in the harvest. It’s a crisis for that family.

Soon, help arrives. Neighbors come with combines, trucks, tractors, grain carts, and fuel. Meals are organized and delivered. In the blink of an eye, the farmer’s harvest is in the bin. Disaster is averted. Scenes of tearful gratitude make the local news.

Why do people do that? Well, it’s just what neighbors do, right? Most of you can’t imagine doing anything else. In that scene, differenced disappear. Old resentments recede into the background. Competition for ground is put on hold. We’re all in this together. Nothing else matters.

Why do you do it? It’s more than a sense of obligation. It’s not just repayment of previous help. Ignoring that neighbor would make us feel less human. Answering the call makes us happy. We get real joy in coming together around deep human need. Responding to that need makes us whole, content, more fully human.

It’s what God has made us for. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve helped a neighbor in need. I thank God today for all those times when you’ve dropped everything and answered the call. And I thank God for all those times when you’ll do it all again.

Stories of harvest help create a painful contrast to day’s Gospel reading. It’s the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. When we’re helping, we’re at our best. When we’re at our best, we stand with each other and for each other. When we’re at our worst, we stand apart from each other and against each other.

Today’s reading asks a question. How are we standing? I hope that question rattles in your brain this week. How are we standing?

Two men go up to the Jerusalem Temple to pray. One is a Pharisee. He’s not a bad guy. He does everything right. In fact, the Pharisee does everything more than right. He should be the hero. But’s he’s not.

I need you to listen closely here. The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. There’s a lot of anti-Jewish garbage floating on Christian parts of the Internet these days. It’s wrong – theologically, historically, and morally wrong. The New Testament is not a stick to beat the Jews. Anti-Jewish perspectives are un-Christian.

The Pharisee’s problem is NOT that he’s Jewish. His problem is how he stands. In verse eleven, we hear that the Pharisee is standing “by himself.” He stands apart from others. He rejects community and connection.

He stands “by himself.” That phrase can also mean “toward himself.” That’s the more literal translation. The Pharisee is focused on himself. He is turned away from God and neighbor. The Pharisee’s problem isn’t his identity. His problem is that he is turned in on himself. So, his prayer isn’t about gratitude. It’s about self-congratulation.

How are we standing? Don’t stand like that Pharisee.

The Pharisee stands toward himself. So, he turns away from others. “I’m so glad I’m not like the rest of those people,” he prays. “I’m really glad I’m not like that stinking Tax Collector.” Tax collectors make easy bad guys in the New Testament. They were a combination of thief, traitor, and torturer. No one wanted to be “like” the Tax Collector – not even the Tax Collector himself.

But the Pharisee got it wrong. The Pharisee is like the Tax Collector in all the ways that matter. The Pharisee is created in God’s image and likeness – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee is in bondage to sin, death, and evil – just like the Tax Collector. The Pharisee needs to be put right with God and his neighbor – just like the Tax Collector.

These two are different in one way. The Tax Collector knows what he needs. “God,” the Tax Collector prays, “be merciful to me, a sinner.” The Tax Collector doesn’t have low self-esteem. He just sees himself as he is. That’s what it means to humble oneself. Humbling oneself isn’t about feeling bad or small. It’s just about telling myself the truth about myself.

How are we standing? That’s a question about direction, not distance. The Pharisee is in the front pew. But he’s turned toward himself. The Tax Collector is barely inside the back door. But he is turned toward God. Jesus says the Tax Collector goes home “justified.”

God turns the Tax Collector in the right direction – toward God and neighbor. That’s what being “justified” means.

God stands “toward” you. That’s the good news today, and every day. God stands for you. God stands with you. God stands by you. That’s who Jesus is and what Jesus does. No matter how I twist and turn, God is there for me. When I stand far off – wrapped in my own wrongs and regrets – God comes to me in mercy and love.

I think about these words from the Letter to the Hebrews. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,” Hebrews 4:16 says, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” God comes to you in Jesus. Jesus untangles you from yourself. The Holy Spirit frees you to turn every day toward God and neighbor.

How are we standing? Do we stand toward ourselves? At our worst, we stand apart from God and against our neighbor. At our best, we stand with God and for our neighbor. Think about the joy in that harvest help story. Standing with God and for our neighbor is how we’re made. Standing that way keeps us straight with the world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve talked a couple of times with other ELCA pastors in our area. We’ve talked about the present and future ministries of our congregations. For some of those congregations, the present is challenging. And the future is troubling.

You know the issues facing those congregations. Average attendance is going down. Average age is going up. Their communities are declining. The way we did church forty years ago doesn’t work now. The way we did church ten years ago doesn’t work now. Those congregations can’t call full time pastors. Some might not last another ten years.

Well, Pastor, you might ask, what does have to do with Mamrelund Lutheran Church? That depends on how we’re standing. If we’re standing toward ourselves, those congregations have nothing to do with us. But I don’t think we can be right unless we stand with God and for our neighbor. It’s time for some of that harvest help in the church.

Mamrelund Lutheran Church is the “mother church” for many of these area congregations. Look at their histories. You’ll find Mamrelund pastors and members in many of those histories. Mamrelund has helped to birth new ministries in this community and across several counties.

When I started as an Iowa pastor forty years ago, I heard about Mamrelund Lutheran Church. I knew this was a leading congregation. I knew this place as the “cathedral on the prairie.”

Let’s remember this leadership role. I don’t know what that means for ministry here or with our neighbors. Neither does our synod staff. But we know the Holy Spirit knows. We trust that if we turn in the right direction, the Holy Spirit will lead us into a faithful future together.

Members of area congregations will discuss our futures on Sunday, November 13th. We’ll meet at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Red Oak from two to four p.m. We’ll speak plainly with and to one another. I’m inviting as many of you as possible to come to that meeting. I know it won’t work for some of you. But we need to have this conversation together. We need to do it for us and for our neighbors.

How are you standing? Toward yourself? Or toward God and neighbor? I’ll wrestle with that question this week. I hope you will too. Let’s pray…