Text Study for Matthew 5:1-12 (Part Three)

Things are coming into a bit more focus now. The first four beatitudes form a stanza in this programmatic poem. Those beatitudes offer examples of the Great Reversal promised in the coming Kin(g)dom of God. Jesus has announced, in line with John the Baptist and carrying through on that preview, that the Kin(g)dom is drawing near.

“Fundamental to all the beatitudes,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary, “is the establishment of God’s justice or righteousness by removing oppressive societal relationships and inadequate distribution of resources” (page 131).

Jesus demonstrates the truth of that announcement by enacting it through teaching, healing, and casting out demons. He shows what the world looks like when the Great Reversal is put into action. The first and third beatitudes parallel one another. And we know we have seen the people mentioned in these beatitudes. They are part of the crowd that Jesus healed in chapter four and who overhear the Sermon on the Mount now.

Those who have been drained of any hope for the future will receive the Kingdom of Heaven and will inherit the earth. Carter describes them as “economically poor and whose spirits are crushed by economic injustice” (page 131). Those who mourn the victory of oppressors will see that victory reversed. They will be filled with the justice of God (Beatitudes two and four).

“The first four beatitudes critique the political, economic, social, religious and personal distress that results from the powerful elite who enrich their own position at the expense of the rest,” Warren Carter writes in his commentary. “They delineate the terrible consequences of Roman power” (page 131).

The Great Reversal has been launched in the ministry and mission of Jesus. He has called at least the first four of the frontline troops who will continue that ministry and mission. How are they to participate in that ministry and mission in the here and now?

We come to the second stanza. Offering mercy and doing peace are two of the practices of that ministry and mission. Clean hearts filled with a passion for God’s justice are requisites for those who will be part of the work. It’s worth quoting Carter at length here.

“The focus in the second group of beatitudes moves from the circumstances which God is reversing to human actions that manifest God’s empire. These and similar actions (this is not a complete list) enact God’s purposes for just societal relationships and access to resources. Such a way of life is blessed now and rewarded by God in the future, at the completion of God’s purposes. That is, while the “empire of the heavens” is God’s rule, this emphasis on human actions indicates a partnership between God and those living in accord with God’s purposes” (page 134).

The work of mercy and peace, purity and justice – that work in itself is the reward. Those who engage in such practices become more and more of what God created them to be in the beginning. “To act like God is to be one of God’s children now (5:45; 6:9),” Carter writes, “which will mean intimacy with God in the future completion of God’s purposes. God’s children are shaped not by ethnicity (cf. Deut 14:1) but by imitating God (cf. Matt 3:9)” (page 136).

So, first we have the promise of the Great Reversal. Then we have the job description for those who will be part of the work. And third, we see the response of the world and the freedom of those who do it. Yes, the system that depends on poverty, oppression, humiliation, and injustice will react badly to any changes.

Yet, those reactions will be signs that the system cannot stand forever. “Disciples, like prophets, know a liminal role,” Warren Carter notes, “They live in but at odds with their dominant culture. Yet they cannot retreat from it because they have a God-given mission to it and in it” page 137).

Those involved in this process are to be “greatly honored.” I think that’s the best translation of “Makarios.” The English word “blessed” has been stretched to cover so many things that it has become nearly meaningless.

In our text, two groups of people are “greatly honored.” First, there are those whom the system regards as being without honor. They are among those whom Carter might describe as the “involuntarily marginalized.” They are the expendables, the people who can be disregarded and discarded. They are the ones who’ve been told their lives don’t matter.

The first stanza radically reverses this evaluation. The good news for these people is that their situation is not permanent. It is not God’s judgment. It is a failure of a system in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. The system stands under judgment and will come to an end. That is the promise of the Kin(g)dom which is beginning to bear fruit here and now in Jesus.

Second to be greatly honored, I think, are the voluntarily marginalized. These are the disciples (and not just the four who have been named). These are the ones who accept the call to be part of the struggle and to do so by means of nonviolent resistance rooted in God’s grace and mercy. As a result of answering the call, the marginalized all find one another in the Kin(g)dom of God (notice the double mention in verses 3 and 10).

The Great Reversal calls for the Great Resistance. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount gives further details about how that Great Resistance works.

I try to imagine, first, how these words landed with the Matthean community. Matthew’s gospel, according to Carter, “is a counternarrative. It is a work of resistance,” he continues, “written for a largely Jewish religious group” (page 1). The Matthean community resists the pressures of the larger Jewish community (in Antioch or Galilee) on the one hand and Roman imperial power on the other.

Carter argues that the gospel is also “a work of advocacy and hope. The gospel constructs an alternative worldview and community. It affirms a way of life marginal to the dominant structures. It challenges its audience to live this resistant way of life faithfully in its present circumstances. And,” he concludes, “it promises that Jesus will return to establish God’s empire and salvation in full” (page 1).

To challenge an audience to live in a resistant way – I think that’s my task as a preacher in the setting where I live and work. When I think about how that might turn out, I’m not sure that I will be rejoicing and being very glad. But too often, I think I sell people short. I find in surprising places a hunger and thirst for God’s justice in a world of injustice.

“Reading the gospel is a world-advocating and world-rejecting,” Carter writes, “world-unveiling and world-decentering, world-affirming and world-exposing process” (page 3). And this reading urges people to abandon old ways, ways that only produce death and despair. “One of the effects of reading this story of Jesus is to see God’s reign or empire at work,” Carter continues, “to notice it in unlikely places, to understand its goals and methods, to hear its call to live in and for a just and compassionate world, and to participate in its final triumph over all” (page 3).

I suppose I’m writing this to give myself another personal pep talk. This gospel is at work among us. We who claim to follow Jesus are called to be part of the work. I am surprised by how often the people I serve seek to answer that call. It’s not without some weeping and gnashing of teeth, on their part and on mine. But the gospel shapes disciples far beyond my meager efforts. I’m glad once in a while to be part of that process.

A Letter to Bishop Eaton and her response.

In response to the Bishop’s column in the Jan/Feb edition of Living Lutheran I offered the following comments to ELCA churchwide bishop Elizabeth Eaton. I attach her response as well. I would only say that I had hoped for something other than a report of a reader response poll.

Dear Bishop Eaton:

I have read your “Presiding Bishop” column in the January/February 2023 edition of Living Lutheran several times. I am puzzled and distressed by what I read.

You express concern that the Lutheran understanding of the word of God as both Law and Gospel and the distinction necessary for that understanding “is getting blurred.” If that is indeed the case, then I would share that concern.

You note that “some define the gospel as social justice…” I’m not sure if that is the case. I am sure that I don’t find the “some people are saying” language to be helpful or compelling. If there are specific examples of the issue you identify, I’d like to hear about them. But the “some people” language is a bit like saying there’s trouble right here in River City.

I understand you have limited space in the column, but this language is too general to be helpful or actionable. I would have wished for greater clarity and specificity. Or it would have been best to omit this generic accusation.

I have concerns as well about the historical theology and the theological analysis you offer in your column. The categories of “Law” and “Gospel” in our theological tradition are dynamic realities rather than static categories. The very same word of Scripture can function as Law for one person and Gospel for another, depending on one’s position and circumstance.

I hear echoes of the in-house Lutheran debates that preceded the final version of the Formula of Concord. On the one hand, there were those who argued that good works are necessary for salvation. On the other hand, there were those who argued that good works are dangerous to our salvation. Neither reflects Luther’s position. However, you seem to flirt a bit with that latter assertion.

You note that works of social justice are not the gospel. Rather these works flow from the liberation we receive by means of the Gospel. I find that to be a description from a position of colonizing privilege. Works of social justice are indeed good news for the poor – part of the proclamation included in Jesus’ own inaugural sermon in Luke 4. Again, the Scriptural functions of Law and Gospel are dynamic, not static.

I am concerned that your analysis focuses exclusively on the “work” of Christ and does not adequately include the “person” of Christ. The work of justification is certainly central to the Gospel. However, the presence of Christ through faith in the heart of the believer is also central to the Gospel. Luther makes precisely this point in his 1535 commentary on Galatians.

The “wonderful exchange” which you reference in your writing encapsulates this inclusion of the “person” of Christ in the gospel. Through this exchange, the believer is freed and equipped for a life of loving service to the neighbor. We are not, by the way, free (at least according to Luther’s own analysis of the bondage of the will).

I can make neither head nor tails of the last two paragraphs of your column. We Lutherans aren’t quietists, you say. I hope that is more and more true. However, we must be careful not to blur our in-house theological distinctions as we seek to be more active. I think that’s all true, but I’m not clear what you would urge me to do with those two paragraphs.

I am distressed that this cautionary column is the last word in an issue that begins with a reflection on Dr. King’s words and work. Whatever your intention, the very structure of the issue could give the impression that you are offering a corrective to over-eager attempts at self-justification by social justice. As we read this issue during Black History month, I find the conjunction unfortunate and unhelpful.

If I have misunderstood your words and argument, I gladly will be corrected. If that is the case, I will offer my heartfelt apologies. I hope you will have the time to read this over-long query.

Thank you for your time and leadership.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Lowell Hennigs

Omaha, NE

Dear Pr. Hennigs,

I appreciate receiving your comments about my article in Living Lutheran. I was aware that some faithful members of the ELCA would raise questions and concerns.  Other faithful members have been encouraged and grateful.

My prayer is that God’s Holy Spirit continue to guide us all in the ways of faithfulness and love as we live together in Jesus Christ.

God’s blessings,

Elizabeth A. Eaton

Presiding Bishop

It’s been a week…

Friends, it’s been a week where I haven’t had much to post. Pro-tip on Christ the King Sunday: watch the film Bruce Almighty. It’s one of my favorite theological meditations on the nature of divine power and grace.

Now it’s time to go on to Matthew’s gospel. This is my fourth-favorite of the Christian canonical gospels. Challenge accepted. I experience a new church year like the beginning of a new semester — new learning and lots of potential. So, I’m getting started with some new resources and thoughts. I’ll look forward to walking through this year with you.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Book Review: Black Ghosts of Empire, Kris Manjapra

This past summer, the United States Treasury Department began a blog series which focuses on the economics of racial equity (or, to be more precise, I think, racial inequity). The September 15 post describes and discusses “the racial wealth gap.” The authors, Assistant Secretary for Economic Policy Benjamin Harris and Economist Sydney Schreiner Wertz, note that “racial differences in household wealth are some of the most visible and impactful manifestations of racial inequality in the United States.”

The authors describe the racial wealth gap as an historic and current problem to be solved. They also note that “under current conditions, the racial wealth gap will continue to widen.” Apart from specific and sustained policy interventions at multiple levels of government, the racial wealth gap is likely to increase in the future rather than to decrease. This trend runs counter to the economic interests of the national economy, the authors argue. “The basic economic premise,” they conclude, “that returns to investment exhibit diminishing returns suggests that the largest gains to our economic potential as a nation come from addressing disparities that hinder the ability of the least advantaged families to invest in their future.”

The biggest bang for the GDP buck comes from investment in closing the gap.

Most experts on this topic treat the racial wealth gap as a “bug” in the American economic system. But the persistence and the resilience of the the racial wealth gap is strong evidence for the fact that the gap is a “feature” of the system. The existence and growth of the racial wealth gap can be seen as evidence that the system is operating as designed, not that the system has deviated from its purpose and goals.

Western economic systems in the post-slavery era have been designed to compensate the ranks of White wealth for the “losses” they incurred when enslaved and indentured free labor was no longer available to them. The various “emancipations” which have been enacted in the West since the 1700s have shared this feature in common. “Emancipations conserved and then reactivated the racial caste system of slavery,” argues Kris Manjapra, “putting it to new uses that still structure the disequilibrium of life chances in our present societies” (page 15).

In Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation (Scribner, 2022), Manjapra reviews the sad histories of five “emancipations” in the United States and Great Britain. I put “emancipations” in scare quotes because of the inaccuracy of the term in our common usage. I won’t bother with that below, for the most part, but please keep those scare quotes in mind. In essence, enslavers stole the bodies and labor of the enslaved. Then, when that system went away, the thieves demanded to compensated for their “loss.” And national systems complied and continue to comply, willingly and happily, with those demands.

I would have understood “emancipation” as primarily a positive event and process prior to reading Manjapra’s work here. That positive reading is itself a feature of the system. A positive presentation of emancipation, he writes, “obscures that when white societies began implementing their antislavery ideas, they did so in ways that prolonged and extended the captivity and oppression of black people around the world. The politicians, administrators, and social elites who implemented emancipation established a historical manual,” Manjapra argues, “for how to breach human rights” (page 5).

I was mildly aware of this process in the case of Haiti. The French response to the Haitian revolution was to punish Haiti and Haitians economically. The first goal of the punishment was to restore Haiti to French control and to reinstitute the enslavement system there. Once that approach was no longer feasible, the secondary goal was to protect the French government and the French banking system from taking any responsibility for the Haitian enslavement system and the economic devastation of the punishment program. Instead, the French system continued to make restitution to the heirs and beneficiaries of the former slaveholders. A brief examination of Haitian history demonstrates that this approach to Haiti is a major cause of that small nation’s continuing impoverishment.

France was supported in this stance toward Haiti by all the other former slaveholding and colonial regimes — the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, and several other nations. This is not an historical curiosity. The United States assisted in the ouster of President Aristide when he became too energetic in demands for post-slavery reparations from France. Western nations continue to turn a largely blind eye to the problems of Haiti because to take an active interest would raise questions about the need for real reparations within their own borders.

“Haiti was the first nation-state laden with emancipation debt as the price for its self-liberation,” Manjapra notes, “in stark contrast to the claims of independence by white settler nations that were universally recognized under international law” (page 63). The United States declared independence, for example, and simply renounced its debts to England at the time. But Haiti was not allowed that same freedom. “To pay the former French masters,” Manjapra writes, “Haiti would be forced to starve its children and deprive its communities for generations” (page 64). As Faulkner might note, even the past in Haiti isn’t really past.

The Haitian case, however, is only one of several such emancipations. Manjapra notes that historic emancipations in the Western system have a number of features in common. In most cases, emancipation was (and is) agonizingly gradual with the effect of extending White supremacist rule and the regime of anti-Blackness.

A second common feature of such emancipations is that they require the formerly enslaved to compensate the former enslavers for their economic “loss.” This is the reality that grabs me by the historical and moral throat. Post-slavery reparations have been paid and continue to be paid. But they have been paid and continue to be paid by the formerly enslaved to the former enslavers. The question is not whether reparations are to be paid. The question is, rather, by whom and to whom those reparations are being paid. I quote Manjapra at length here.

“…emancipation never required slave-owning society to make amends with the enslaved. Even as the formal institution of slavery was abolished, the rights of erstwhile slave-owners and the broader structure of racial domination was preserved. Emancipation ensured the compensation and gratification of slave-owners and their beneficiaries and disregarded any responsibility to the enslaved. Governments empower perpetrators to shape the postslavery future with their own hands” (page 6, my emphasis). This isn’t some historian’s hyperbole. Manjapra documents the receipts.

To repeat the point: reparations have been paid and are being paid. To argue whether we Americans, for example, should pay reparations is really a red herring. The pertinent question has to do with who pays and who gets paid. We have made that decision and enforced it for two centuries and more. This is a way, I think, to view the “racial wealth gap” and why it will continue to grow without radical policy interventions. This gap is the result of the ongoing payment by the formerly enslaved to the former enslavers and their beneficiaries. As a White man who lives on the positive side of that gap, I am therefore one of the “beneficiaries.” The past is not even past.

And, the system is operating as designed. “Emancipations provided a failed pathway to justice,” Manjapra writes, “just as they were designed to do. This failure was not accidental,” he continues, “but systematic” (page 5, my emphasis). He tracks this failure through the gradual emancipations in the American North, the Caribbean, and Great Britain. He describes this failure in the revolutionary emancipation in Haiti and the violent emancipation in the American South. He tracks the structural realities of this systemic and systematic feature through the colonial conquests and extractive administrations in Africa and Asia following the era of legalized enslavement. In every case, White supremacist regimes stole all they could and then forced the victims to pay for their “losses” when imperial larceny was no longer in vogue.

Manjapra notes that this is a feature of enslavement systems beyond the horizon of White Western hegemony. “Emancipation, regardless of whether we’re talking about racial slavery or ancient Roman slavery,” he notes, “insisted on indebtedness of the previously enslaved to the slave-owning society” (page 58).

One needs only to examine the manumission records and contracts from Roman imperial archives to see that this is the case. While the Roman enslaver might grant “freedom” to the formerly enslaved, that was not the end of obligations by the formerly enslaved to the former enslaver. Obligations continued — social, political, economic, and personal. Most of the time, the enslaver benefited from ongoing support from the formerly enslaved while no longer being responsible for the physical upkeep of these “freedmen” and their dependents.

In the United States, this system of “emancipation” took institutional form in the repudiation of Reconstruction following the Civil War. “As before the Civil War, the social order conspired to deprive black people of land, capital, money, and civil rights. These developments marked not an interruption of emancipation,” Manjapra asserts, “but its promulgation. Emancipation represented an effort in continuity, a process that perpetuated the war on black people, rather than ending it” (page 141). The continuing and increasing racial wealth gap is one sign among many that this war on black people continues. The system operates as designed.

The first step in walking a different path is to hear this clear testimony and simply get our terms straight. As long as emancipation is for the benefit of former enslavers and their beneficiaries, the system will function as it does now. Reparations are being paid. The challenge is to reverse that transaction so that the formerly enslaved and their beneficiaries are on the receiving end rather than the paying end.

I see no alternative other than a massive and multi-generational repatriation of wealth to those communities who have been footing the bill for most of the past five centuries. I’m not optimistic about the prospect, but I’m not completely cynical about it either. And that reversal in the system must be accompanied by some real human contact and reciprocity, as Manjapra notes in his concluding remarks.

When the system works as designed, the only real change comes with changing the system.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Luke 15:1-10 (Part One)

14 Pentecost C 2022

The three parables in Luke 15 fit together in some fashion or other. However, the Revised Common Lectionary separates them in Year C. The Parable of the Two Sons shows up on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Reflecting on that text requires taking the other two parables into account – at least if we are to interpret the intentions of the Lukan author. Reflecting on the first two parables likewise requires some attention to the third one as well as to the larger Lukan context.

With that in mind, I will reuse some of the material from the 4 Lent text study. I’m never one to reinvent a perfectly good wheel.

Photo by Edoardo Tommasini on Pexels.com

Robert Farrar Capon argues that the Parable of the Prodigal Son was “for Luke, the organizing principle of the entire tire sequence of passages in chapters 14 and 15” (Kindle Location 3652). The first twenty-four verses of Luke 14 happen at a Sabbath dinner party at the house of a leader of the Pharisees (see Luke 14:1). The dinner party presents Jesus with opportunities for both parabolic teaching and political challenge to the elites around the table.

More important, it sets up the homecoming party in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “As far as I am concerned therefore,” Capon writes, “the parable of the Prodigal is the sun around which Luke has made the rest of these materials orbit” (Kindle Locations 3659-3660). If that’s the case, and I think there’s good reason for the assertion, then we should look at the lead-in to chapter fifteen for interpretive clues to our text.

Luke 13 ends with Jesus’ lament over unwilling Jerusalem and the veiled reference to the Passion Sunday parade. The Pharisees who have come to warn Jesus about Herod’s threat are cast as opponents and adversaries. “And it so happened,” the Lukan author slyly continues, “that when he was going into the house of a certain ruler of the Pharisees on a Sabbath to eat bread, they also were watching him closely” (Luke 14:1, my translation).

Quite without preparation or explanation, a man with dropsy appears in his presence. The man presents Jesus with yet another opportunity to challenge the teachings of his opponents. Now, we should be clear that healing on the Sabbath was not regarded as a sin in later Jewish generations. So, let’s be careful not to generalize in such a way that we may Jews look bad in order to make Jesus look good (see Amy-Jill Levine’s repeated cautions and exhortations in this regard).

We need only think about how we might respond if an uninvited guest were to crash a dinner party we had thrown for a select crowd of people. It’s pretty easy to put our priorities ahead of the needs of others, especially when our reputation is at stake, or our plans are in danger of being disrupted. Especially in the honor and shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean world, the rule of “kiss up and piss down” would certainly have been in effect at the table.

That rule is patently obvious in Luke 14:7-11. The language of verse seven is interesting. “But he spoke a parable toward the ones having been invited…” (Luke 14:1a, my translation). The NRSV translation is just fine, of course, but it does not convey some of the verbal nuances. Jesus speaks “toward” (pros) some of the guests. This could be quite innocent, but I think the Lukan author means that the parable is about them as much as it is to them.

The “guests” are actually those “having been called.” The verb is the perfect middle of kaleo. This can mean to be called, to be summoned, or to be invited. It can refer to those who have been called to follow Jesus as disciples and apostles. I think the Lukan author wants to make sure that we who have been called will hear this parable as directed to us as well as to those who were gathered around the table with Jesus. I think that double meaning carries throughout the parable and should be remembered every time the verb “invite” shows up.

The Lukan author wants us to wrestle with who has a place at the table and where that place should be. The default understanding of room at the table is that the number of seats is a fixed quantity. Therefore, the seating chart is a zero-sum game. If I get a seat at the table, that may mean that you do not. Therefore, table seating becomes a competitive sport, where you earn your spot by some measure of “worth” or entitlement.

The throughline that connects the narrative in Luke 14 with the parables in Luke 15 is really quite clear. It’s not really about forgiveness or acceptance. It’s about who gets a place at the table. Now, this isn’t just any old table. This is the table God sets for people in the Kin(g)dom – the Wedding Banquet at which Jesus is the host and all of Creation are the invited guests. If that’s the Table that matters in this conversation, and if we are responding to Jesus’ call to follow him, then our table manners need to match those appropriate to the etiquette of the Kin(g)dom.

First, Jesus talks to those who have been invited. Don’t assume that you are the big fish in the little pond. Who knows, a bigger fish might show up. By the time you figure out the pecking order, everyone else will be in their places, and you’ll be stuck at the far end of the table – away from all the action and lucky to get a few crumbs by the time the platter arrives at your place. The host decides who gets honored, not the guests.

Second, Jesus talks to those who do the inviting. He once again attacks the principle of mutual reciprocity that provides the social grease for Greco-Roman political and business wheels. Luke 14:12-14 takes us back to the “woes” for the rich in the Sermon on the Plain. If you want to live by that system of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” that’s fine. But that’s not how the Real Table works in the Kin(g)dom of God. You have nothing to offer in exchange for a place at that table. So, manage your table in the here and now the way God does.

The truth is that many people aren’t interested in a table where merit doesn’t matter, and money can’t buy happiness. It seems that one of the guests didn’t quite get the points of the parables (well, one spoke up and was outed, at least). We come to the Parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14:15-24. The parable portrays a contradiction in values. The invited quests want it to be a big enough deal to be worth their time. The host wants the tables filled, no matter what it takes.

Capon gives a humorous description the man who didn’t quite get Jesus’ parables. His response, Capon writes, “is pure gush. The gentleman in question has been just as mystified as everyone else by the idea of giving dinner parties for the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.” Instead of asking for some clarification and/or reexamining his own thinking, the man “does what so many of us do when confronted with paradox: he takes the first spiritual bus that comes along and gets out of town” (Kindle Locations 3670-3671).

I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you mention inviting all those misfits, the respondent says. But resurrection! I can hook on to that idea and give you a compliment to move the conversation on to other ground. “Earlier in the evening, when Jesus saw the guests vying for the best seats, he gave them a little lecture (appealing to enlightened self-interest) interest) about how their efforts at being winners could very well spoil their enjoyment of the party,” Capon writes, “But now, in the parable, he portrays the pursuit of a sensible, successful life as something that will keep them – and us – out of the parry altogether” (Kindle Locations 3678-3681).

Capon reminds us to resist making this about Jew/Gentile distinctions in the ministry of Jesus, the thinking of the Lukan author, or the life of the Church. Instead, “The point is that none of the people who had a right to be at a proper party came,” Capon concludes, “and that all the people who came had no right whatsoever to be there. Which means, therefore, that the one thing that has nothing to do with anything is rights” (Kindle Location 3709-3710).

Therefore, Capon labels the Lukan version of the Parable of the Great Banquet as a parable of grace. It is about what we are given and not about what we think we can earn. “Grace as portrayed here,” he argues, “works only on the untouchable, the unpardonable, and the unacceptable. It works, in short, by raising the dead, not by rewarding the living” (Kindle Locations 3711-3712).

This, then, is the narrative and rhetorical context that sets up Luke 15. The Lukan author makes the connection explicit in the beginning of the chapter. The Pharisees and the scribes are grumbling. They are murmuring, as did the ancient Israelites when they didn’t like what God was up to. They said, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1).

The lost are now found at the Great Banquet, welcomed by the host and brought in from the four corners of the earth. The sheep did nothing to deserve being sought or saved. Neither did the coin. Most of all, the son did everything possible NOT to be sought or saved. Yet, he receives a place at the Table of the Father, and the Party begins.

So, the Father says, let’s get this party started! But will those who have played by the rules join in the celebration? That’s the unanswered question in the Lukan account.

Resources and References

Abraham, Heather R. “Segregation Autopilot: How the Government Perpetuates Segregation and How to Stop It.” https://ssrn.comb/abstract=4006587.

Burke, Trevor J. “The parable of the prodigal father: an interpretative key to the third Gospel (Luke 15: 11-32).” Tyndale bulletin 64, no. 2 (2013): 216-238.

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

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

Kilgallen, John. “Was Jesus Right to Eat with Sinners and Tax Collectors?” Biblica 93, no. 4 (2012): 590–600. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42617310.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

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

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 13:10-17 (Part Two)

First, a correction to the previous post. The healing of the man with dropsy in in Luke 14, not in Luke 6. While there are parallels between the healing in Luke 6 and our text, the parallels are more pronounced in the Luke 14 text. In fact, it would appear that the healing of the woman in Luke 13 and that of the man in Luke 14 create a small inclusio.

If this is the case, then the material between the two healing stories offers some interpretive clues for both of the healing stories. And the healing stories create both framework and interpretive context for the material between them. I’m going to go with the assumption that the Lukan author has created a small framework here for the listeners.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

As the Lukan story was told aloud, it would only be a few minutes of listening from the one story to the next. Thus, the parallels would be far more obvious to those listeners than to those of us who read or hear the text piecemeal in our lectionary schedule.

The settings of the two healings are different. However, the content of the controversy is virtually the same. We see in this repetition the Lukan tendency to double stories so that we have a female lead in the one scene and a male lead in the other. The controversy is about whether healing on the Sabbath is permitted by the Torah.

While Jesus heals the woman on the Sabbath in a synagogue, he heals the man in the house of a Pharisee on a day that we can assume was not the Sabbath. In the woman’s story, the question is pressed by the ruler of the synagogue. In the man’s story, Jesus pushes the question toward his host and his host’s colleagues. In the woman’s story, the healing precedes the controversy. In the man’s story, the controversy climaxes in the healing.

These small differences give a sort of chiastic structure to the two healings when placed side by side. This is further evidence that the Lukan author intends for the one healing to lead into a sort of theological discourse, and for the other healing to lead out of it. Despite the differences, Jesus’ response to the controversy is remarkably consistent.

In each case, Jesus reasons from a lesser case to a greater case. You certainly feed or rescue your livestock (or a child), whether it is the Sabbath or not. Should you not then rescue this woman or this man as well, whether it is the Sabbath or not? In each case the opponents do not answer the question, thus rendering it rhetorical. The answer, it would seem, is obvious. Of course, we would effect the feeding or rescue, regardless of the day. And, of course, we would effect the healing, regardless of the day.

The issue is that the religious leaders know what needs to be done. Yet, they put other needs and priorities higher than the rescue and release of the suffering children of Abraham. Perhaps you noticed the label “hypocrites” jumping out from our text again this week. As I discussed previously, this accusatory naming points to the pretense of Jesus’ opponents. Don’t pretend that you are unable to tell the time, he argued last week. And don’t pretend that you are confused about what needs to be done for the suffering, he argues this week.

That’s the hypocrisy that receives criticism throughout this part of the Lukan account. Jesus’ accusation is heightened in our text this week. It is perhaps subtle, but the difference is there. In Luke 13:15a, we read, “But the Lord answered him and said, ‘Hypocrites!” Up until that verse, our text refers to “Jesus” in the narrative. But the accusation of hypocrisy comes from “the Lord.” That raises the stakes of what’s happening here. I suspect that the Lukan author would like us to think about the words of Luke 6:5 where Jesus tells his opponents that “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

I’m not sure we should judge the ruler of the synagogue too harshly. Rather, I suspect that the Lukan author wishes for us to identify, at least to a degree, with that character. I think the character is legitimately concerned about faithful practice and good order in the life of the synagogue.

It is, after all, only a few hours until sundown. Can’t the whole matter wait that long? If so, then there is no controversy. But throughout this section of the Lukan account, Jesus’ point is that matters of the Kin(g)dom of God will not wait and must not be put off for any reason. The ruler of the synagogue perhaps wishes to be more cautious, to slow down and take all the details into consideration before acting with such haste.

I have made many of the worst mistakes of my life, in church and out, by acting in haste and without due consideration. I have spent hours in meetings with church councils, especially in conflict situations, encouraging everyone to take a breath, to sleep on it, to give it some thought, to spend time in prayer, to reflect and discern – to just slow down, for God’s sake! If only I had taken my own counsel on numerous occasions. There are times when the best advice is, “Don’t just do something; sit there!”

Yet, that’s not the case here. When we actually know what needs doing for the sake of the Kin(g)dom, the best advice, it would seem, is “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Well, more to the point, “Do the right thing!” That’s easier when the “right thing” is a clear and unambiguous choice.

Our anti-racism book group continues to read Beverly Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? She has a massively informative chapter on affirmative action. The chapter deals not only with the history and structure of affirmative action programs in the United States. She details studies that explore how and when employment discrimination is most likely to happen within process-based affirmative action programs.

Process-based affirmative action programs, where the emphasis is on “equal opportunity,” tend not to produce any improvements in equal outcomes. We White people should be clear that we cannot be “color-blind” or “non-racist” in our interactions with people of color. Even those most firmly committed to cultural values of fairness and justice for all still act based on unconscious bias. If you’ve never taken one of Harvard University’s “Implicit Association Tests,” take ten minutes and find out the deep truth of unconscious bias.

Tatum describes studies with interesting conclusions. “When the norms for appropriate, non-discriminatory behavior are clear and unambiguous,” Tatum writes, people committed to racial equality “’do the right thing,’ because to behave otherwise would threaten the nonprejudiced self-image they hold.” But when the “right thing is not so clear and unambiguous,” Tatum continues, “or if an action can be justified on the basis of some factor other than race, racial bias will reveal itself” (page 221).

This is why we White people have to be so alert to efforts to “change the subject” in conversations about race. If “the issue” is something other than race – class, economics, ethnicity, politics, etc. – then we will likely succumb to the temptation to make choices based on our (largely unconscious, I hope) bias. And we will feel justified in those choices because we have reasonable bases that happen to suit our preference for White privilege. “Social science research is also conclusive,” Tatum writes, “that, while explicit bias is infrequent, implicit bias (automatic race preference) is pervasive and contributes to the racial discrimination against Black Americans” (page 225).

I don’t think the ruler of the synagogue hated disabled women. Instead, he may well have had what were in his mind legitimate conflicting interests. Given that ambiguity, the ruler of the synagogue went with what suited his interests and agendas – maintaining the status quo and supporting what was, for him, the traditional understanding of how to apply Sabbath Torah.

We (church people) can find all sorts of rationales to maintain our own status quo and sustain our own privilege and power. We can dither and delay all day in order to maintain our own comfort and the niceness of our privileged communities. Most of us do that, not in order to be cruel, but rather in order (we think) “to do the right thing.” In what we experience as ambiguous situations, we choose what is safe and selfish.

Jesus declares that there is no ambiguity or uncertainty. The suffering woman is the priority. The man with dropsy is the priority. That’s how the values of the Kin(g)dom work. If our discernment is in line with the Lord’s priorities, we are less likely to make unconsciously biased choices. If our discernment is not clear in that regard, we are more likely to cooperate in the bondage to Satan that describes the lives of many of our human siblings.