“Daddy, Is it our Turn to do the Bread?”

“Daddy, is it our turn to do the bread yet?” my little girls asks, her big brown eyes gazing up at mine awaiting the point in the church service when she gets to “do the bread.”

I am often beside myself at how much truth comes from the mouths of babes, especially my own.

This past Sunday we were running slightly behind on our way to church. As we entered the church, we took our seats in the back to not disturb the service that had just begun. And it’s a good thing to because my little girl was super ready to do the bread that day, so much so that I felt like we were on a long car ride and I kept being repetitively asked, “are we there yet?”

After the opening hymn, “is it our turn yet?”

During the lessons, “is it our turn yet?”

During the passing of the peace, “is it our turn yet?”

Even during the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, “is it our turn yet?” To which I could finally say, “almost, it is almost our turn.”

The most striking part about this engagement is that my little girl knew what was important. Not that the entire service wasn’t important, but she knew there was something special coming to her, her coming to it, and she almost couldn’t wait for her turn. The part with the bread is unique, totally unlike the rest of the service. She knew that at the end of all the details there is a meeting that happens, at this time, in this way, and she was ready for that event.

Lord, grant that we all would be so excited to meet you.

I will resist the urge to discuss liturgy as pedagogy, but I can think of fewer things that teach children more than the rituals of the faith.

She has not been in the Episcopal Church long, but she has learned there is a special time when we get to eat in church, and for her, it’s the most exciting part of the morning.

My little girl is only four years old. Her and I have not had deep conversations about eucharistic theology or the finer nuances of real presence, grace, and holiness that is extended to us in this holy meal. We have not discussed the history of its institution or the drama that it portends each time bread is broken over the altar.  She has not fathomed to the consider the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John.

She does not understand as we adults consider understanding, but she understands in the doing. In the doing grace comes to her beyond her understanding. She doesn’t know what she is receiving, but she knows she is receiving something. And this something is all that matters.

It is a pleasant surprise to be reminded by one’s daughter of the Anselmian dictum, “Fides quaerens intellectum.

We had come to the “Prayers of the People” in the service and she incessantly kept asking if it were her turn. As I knelt, my arm around her and whispering for her to be a little quieter, her petitions reminded me of the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5.17-26.

The narrative of Luke 5 is fascinating, it being one of my favorite biblical images of a persistent faith.

The story places Jesus inside a building of some kind and the entrance to the house, presumably, is blocked by crowds. A paralytic, lying on a bed, was being carried to the place to meet Jesus.

As the men carrying the bed surveyed the situation, the crowds, the impossibility of getting through the door, they decide to improvise and lower the man, on his bed, into the house and place him directly in front of Jesus. This story has been creatively imagined by many artists and the text is silent on exactly how this worked, looked, or transpired, but it is the only account in scripture of a men being so persistent that they lower their friend through a roof to see Jesus.

I can see the face of Jesus. If his clairvoyance had kicked in, perhaps a grin comes over his face, knowing what is about to happen. Maybe he is praying over a child, teaching a lesson on scripture, writing on the floor to make his point when suddenly, into the top of his sight, he sees a shadow slowly interrupting the light in the room and a bed making its way into the noise and crowded space of the home. The crowd probably began to murmur louder as they stood astonished that someone would be so rude as to drop a bed in front of Jesus.

Afterall, these folks had skipped the line.

Jesus, one who often embraces such radical expressions of faith, gives the man on the bed his full and undivided attention. Jesus was there. Jesus was event. To have an event happen to the man on the bed the men knew they needed to get to where events take place: the presence of Jesus.

This is a faithful picture of what we often see in the Gospels: Jesus’ presence attracted crowds, large unmanageable crowds, and sometimes these gatherings occurred in the small spaces of ancient society. The presence of Jesus drew people to him. Many who would come to him probably couldn’t have picked Jesus out of a lineup prior to their meeting him. There were no pictures, newspapers, or internet mediums to communicate who he was. They didn’t know what would happen or what he would do. They just knew they needed to get there because of what they had heard. They didn’t understand everything that was going to happen, but they knew they needed a turn.

A turn to “do the bread.” A turn at life.

They didn’t need to know the answers.  They didn’t need to have a full-scale theology of miracles or understand how Jesus would do anything. They just knew they needed to get there.

So, they acted. They went where Jesus was. They experienced what it is to be in the presence of Jesus.

While our situation on Sunday was vastly different, the persistence of these friends to bring someone that needed Jesus into his presence was also embodied in the persistence of my little girl to get to the place she didn’t understand but knew was special.

She was ready to go, to move, to see Jesus, even though she might not be able to talk about it in that way. Her spirit and childlike intuitions were drawing her to this special place, the same place everyone else would be going as well. There are times on Sunday when the entrance seems obstructed, plenty of people going to meet Jesus, but if we wait, we know that our time will come. We will get through the roofs of life, and the busyness of the rail on Sunday, and Jesus will be there with us.

Our turn finally came. We stepped out of the aisle, her hand in mine, and I have the holy honor of walking my daughter to the place where Jesus is present. She is shy, so she bows her head as she makes her way to the altar, to not see anyone looking at her. We arrive at the stairs, slowly step up into the chancel, and are now closer. It’s our turn. I bow, take her to the left, and she kneels with me at the rail. She extends her tiny, wonder filled hands to the priest, and she receives the bread. She holds the hands of Jesus and Jesus holds hers.

The cup makes its way to us, she looks at me as if to get approval, I nod and tell her it is ok to dip her bread, she dips it. For a moment she stares at it, this odd thing we are doing, this bread now wet with a red tint, and she puts it near her mouth. Again, she looks at me and I tell her its ok to eat. She takes a bite, as if to try it first, just to make sure this is good. She looks at me with a piece of the wafer missing, reminiscent of the Psalmist suggestion that we should “taste and see that God is good.” Then, without hesitation, she puts the whole thing in her mouth, chews quickly, and then looks at me with a smile you could stretch across the heavens.

Her turn came. She was finally able to “do the bread.” We walked back to our seats and I couldn’t help but think if this is what it might have been like for all those that came to Jesus in the pages of scripture, coming to an event they didn’t quite understand but smiling after they met him because they knew that something had happened, even if they didn’t quite understand it.

“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19.13-15

Lord, that we would be as fervent and undeterred in our desire to meet you where you are and may we persist into the mystery of your presence, believing that in the end the holy smiles upon our faces are reflections of your good work in us. Amen.

Lent as Re-Membering: Reflections on Luke 4

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Luke 4 is the traditional text that comes to mind when we consider the beginning of Lent: the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday (Sunday celebration days withstanding) in which we reflect upon the journey of Christ into the wilderness and the temptations he encounters while there. During the season of Lent, we Christians embody some form of practice that allows us, however weakly, to walk with Jesus into the wilderness. This takes the shape of denying ourselves of something significant in order to participate in the self-denial of Jesus during this wilderness period. We, as Jesus, must rely on God to sustain us, just as we must rely upon God to save us. Lent becomes the acting out of our finitude within the context of God’s infinite redemption revealed in Easter. Thus, this is a season in which we focus on Christ’s movement toward the events of Easter and we rely upon God to carry us through the parched arid land of the wilderness, to the pinnacle of Golgotha, and toward the tenebrosity of the grave.

The wilderness period of Luke 4 functions on many levels textually and canonically but two things should be immediately noted: it connects the ministry of Jesus with the wilderness wandering of the people of God for 40 years and, consequently, connects the ministry of Jesus as the one who exits the wilderness in order to redeem the world, bringing the world safely to harbor in the kingdom of God. This is the episode upon which the Gospel of Luke moves the readers from Jesus, the one born of God, called, baptized, and properly vetted in the wilderness, into the full-blown son of God, prophet, and harbinger of the Kingdom of God. Jesus exits the river and, after a brief genealogical postlude, heads straightway into the wilderness. The wilderness, in a sense, prepares him (and us) for the ministry ahead. Ultimately, it prepares us for the Paschal events.

The biblical account of the actual time in the wilderness is short, however. The text does not tell us what happened or of the trials encountered by Christ. We learn he was tempted, but we do not know what that means or by what means. Perhaps we are to imagine similar temptations encountered by Christ as were encountered by Israel as they wandered about a lifeless, foodless, waterless landscape in the Book of Exodus . Indeed, for such a significant moment in the life of Jesus, (which is also embodied in the liturgical time keeping of the church) precious little is made of the 40 days; it gets 2 verses in Luke. The text is abrupt,

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan [where he was baptized] and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to him…”

The most salient feature of this text is the contention between Jesus and the devil. Luke himself gives this aspect of the story the most attention. In the process, however, readers often conflate these 3 final temptations with the sorts of temptations, or the very temptations, Jesus was encountering in the wilderness. The wilderness period itself is overlooked by Luke, either unavailable to him or simply unimportant for his story.

Clearly, Jesus experiences something in the wilderness that is unavailable to us, and he survives with flying colors this period of personal wandering, emulating the wandering of the ones to whom he has been given by God. At the end of the wilderness period, after he has survived this Spirit led sojourn into the jaws of the devil, the devil arrives one final time to take advantage of the vulnerability of Jesus’ humanity.
The devil comes to Jesus and tempts him to forget the perils he has been through in the wilderness, as if to attempt one last-ditch effort to derail the ministry of Jesus. Will Jesus be like the people of God, the ones who came to be delivered through the Reed Sea yet on the other side make a golden calf to worship? Will he buckle under the weight of wilderness exasperation?

Unlike a host of prior biblical characters (many of whom are in the genealogy of Jesus listed in 3.23-38), Jesus passes this test of the devil, quoting scripture in response to temptation and remaining resolute despite his human longings for food. Jesus does not fail this test. He lives into the reality of his baptism and is apparently strengthened by this tribulatory episode. He is now ready to pursue his calling and he doesn’t waste any time causing a stir in the synagogue on the sabbath further in Luke 4.

Whoever this one is who has come out of the wilderness victorious, he is something totally other than any character to yet emerge from the annals of Israel’s history. Of course, Luke wastes no time in identifying Jesus, if not as Christ, someone like Elijah that had been prophesied from the Isaiah Scroll. Jesus emerges from the unforgiving wilderness, surviving the devil, only to be threatened with death by his neighbors. If the devil can’t single-handedly take down Jesus, it seems the characters in the story are eager to pick up where the devil left off. See Luke 4.14-30.

The exegetical issues in this text are many. There is a myriad of ways in which the scholar can move around in the text in order to capture the full scope of what is being communicated in this strange wilderness text, with very few details, and the odd verbatim discussion between diametrically opposed forces: Jesus and the devil.

Admittedly, I read this text and often come away with as many questions as I do answers, yet I always leave this text feeling more comforted. When a season of life tempts me away from who I am, or who I was baptized to be, I read this story and I am reminded of what the writer of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15). Luke 4 demands much of readers, and our imaginations, but it remains a classic example of overcoming temptation in the face of insurmountable need and desperate relief. Despite its brevity, it remains the classic Lenten text of initiation.

But what of these final 3 temptations, the ones that we often consider as happening in the wilderness to Jesus, when in fact these happen after Jesus has exited the wilderness? As if often the case, it seems we survive times of tribulation, and then once the pressure begins to subside, we let our guards down and are defeated by things that have no business defeating us. Why do we do that? We are people that can run 25 miles of the marathon, yet the last mile finds us failing, even with the ribbon in sight. To say it biblically, we can travel the wilderness for years, and remain faithful, and then as we near the promised land we find ourselves getting mad like Moses, succumbing to temptation, and being kept from the Promised Land indefinitely. One of the many morals of Luke 4 is: be like Jesus, not like Moses.

While there is much to be said about the contents of Luke 4,  I want to focus on the progression of these final words of the devil to Jesus. Temptation is rarely linear, or to say it in Lenten perspective, self-reliance is rarely linear, but it can progressively move to higher stakes. First, the temptations Jesus experiences happen because he has already rejected temptation. He already defeated what was trying to drag him down in the wilderness…yet it still hangs around, talking to him after the wilderness period! Would that the wilderness critters stay in the trees rather than follow us home! Jesus is hungry. The text says that “when they had ended…he became hungry…” “They” refer to the days in the wilderness. The wilderness is over, Jesus is emerging, done. Temptation is still near, that stray dog following close behind, brushing up against the heals of Jesus.

The first thing to notice, then, is that these 3 famous temptations come to Jesus only after he has proven himself. He has nothing left to demonstrate, yet it seems something larger was not yet decided in the wilderness. Secondly, we should note that the temptations have a progressive nature to them. Jesus exits the wilderness period hungry, because he had been fasting for 40 days. The devil comes to Jesus at this point of departure first, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus has already gone without food for 40 days, what’s one more afternoon? Jesus replies with the same wisdom he surely used in the wilderness fasting and he quotes Deuteronomy 8.3, a reflection upon the 40 years wandering in the wilderness by Israel, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus being undaunted, having come through much worse, deflects the devil’s stupid suggestion and holds fast to being sustained by God.

Next, the devil raises the stakes. If Jesus cannot be tempted with a primal need, perhaps he can be tempted with a primal urge: power. The devil led Jesus “up” (perhaps suspending him in order to view. The text does not clarify the “up” from which the two looked together) and showed him the kingdoms of the world (political power) and offered him dominion of those powers if Jesus would worship him. Here, Jesus is tempted with power, admiration, and possessions, all things that most humans work their entire lives for! But one who would be led by the Spirit into a vast wilderness and was baptized by one who also lives in the wilderness, has little need for such things. If a hungry Jesus won’t even turn a stone into food (recall that Moses made water come out of one) there is little chance he’ll be enticed with power. The opportunity to worship the devil falls flat in the face of Jesus’ commitment to God, the Lord of Israel.

Finally, in an act of desperation, the devil decides to move away from primal urges and focuses on the last thing Jesus has left: his identity. If Jesus cannot be tempted to feed himself or with power, perhaps he can be tempted to prove he is as good as he thinks he is, perhaps he can be tempted to prove his identity! If the devil cannot tempt Jesus away from his ministry, perhaps he can immobilize Jesus by calling his being into question. Ironically, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem (the very symbol of God’s presence with the people) and gets right to it, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” The devil knew he needed to use scripture against Jesus because Jesus would use it against him, and surprise, Jesus returns the scriptural favor with Deuteronomy 6, “it is said, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Wilderness period of no avail, final temptations handily dismissed, the text says the devil then leaves Jesus until an opportune time. Jesus has withstood a personal assault by the devil and is now ready to boldly perform his ministry. The result of surviving satanic onslaught is a Jesus of whom the text says returns to “Galilee in the power of the Spirit.” The powerful thing about the wilderness is this: if we can survive…we come out stronger. Jesus survived. The same spirit that descended upon him in baptism was the catalytic power that would animate his ministry.

This wilderness episode is intriguing. It is cataloged in all 3 synoptic Gospels, with Matthew and Luke sharing the most similarity and Mark simply mentioning the event with 1 verse. Under the category of multiple attestation, it would seem that this is an event so thoroughly connected with the historical Jesus that it is highly likely Jesus did in fact receive baptism by John, and then, as if to make pilgrimage with the historical people of God, purposefully went into the wilderness to experience that same journey. The event must have been so well known among the early followers of Jesus that to omit from accounts of his life would have been likely impossible, and it must have been so formative for Jesus, that each Gospel author except John found it impossible to tell their story of Jesus without including it. Such universal inclusion and divine parallelism must indicate that this is an episode in the life of Jesus that should not only be read, but pondered, deliberated, and prayed over regardless of the brevity or absence of wilderness detail. For reasons we can deduct from the text, and also reasons lost in history, the wilderness retreat of Jesus prior to his ministry must have happened and was of necessity.

Let me suggest, however, that this pre-ministerial event in the life of Jesus, and our inaugural Lenten text, gets part of its primary importance because of its ability to re-member the story of God with the world, with his people, with us. One of Luke 4’s theological tasks is to re-member two realities in the life of Jesus, and so to the life of us. First, it puts back together the historical memory of Gods people; it recalls God’s initial saving activity from Egypt. Jesus is a part of that story, a continuation of it, that will find its denouement in Easter. Secondly, it puts back together the memory God has of us, collectively and individually. The temptations themselves are curious and major parts of the story, but it is the re-membering that happens in the wilderness that is of primary importance. Before Jesus can remake history, it must be re-membered by him, in him and through him.

Consequently, this is what Lent does: it re-members for us parts of the story that have been torn asunder, parts of the story that connect God to world, God to people, God to us, our story to Gods, creation’s story to it’s Creator. Our world has forgotten its stories; they are strained and fraying from connections barely visible yet still present. In lent, we re-member them; they come back together in order to remind us who we really are, who God is in Christ, and who we can be when we put those stories back together.
It is this re-membering that Jesus does in the wilderness. The temptations matter because, ultimately, the temptations of the devil are about dis-memberment; the temptations are the devils means of having us forget our story.

First, Jesus literally remembers the Exodus with his body. He experiences the first season of Lent, so to speak. What he did those 40 days is lost, but he did it, rehearsed it, and relived the arid landscape of those who he came to serve. Unlike Moses, he will go into the wilderness AND come out of it, entering the Promised Land of new creation. Thus, Jesus lives into a biblical liturgical calendar in order to place his ministry within the context of God’s call from the land of slavery, death, and futility.

Secondly, and less conspicuously, Jesus re-members his identity in the wilderness. The wilderness was a time of introspection, recollection, rehearsal and through those things a time of re-membering what led him to the river, what happened to him in the river, and where he was being called once emerging from the baptismal waters. This stop in the wilderness was the place Jesus surely found is identity in God, solidified it, and his mission became central. Through fasting in the wilderness, he learned to rely upon God for sustenance and learned to subdue his body. With each passing day, Jesus learned his body was Gods and surely wrestled with all his inner demons that tried to make him doubt his identity and mission. The temptations of the devil at his emergence from the wilderness is the icing on the cake of an already intense time of personal spiritual questing.

The final temptation Jesus faces in Luke, after having already survived parched soil, is the temptation to forget. The devil, not able to move Jesus with primal temptations, tries to get Jesus to forget who he is, even though who he is is precisely what he would have learned in the wilderness for 40 days! Jesus did not become who he wasn’t in the wilderness. The wilderness did not make Jesus Jesus; Jesus was “made” via his sending from above and called out in his baptism. The wilderness was the time of reminding, re-membering his identity in God and identification with God’s people. One could protest that Jesus needed no re-membering at this point in his ministry, that he needed nothing to re-purpose him.

True as that may be, there is nothing that will challenge a person’s faith as fasting from food, true removal from society in order to come face to face with one’s inner demons. When Jesus decided to experience what the people of God experienced, he agreed not only to do what they did, paralleling a Sinai experience, he also agreed to be subject to the same temptations that would have been distant thoughts emerging victoriously through the Reed Sea.

It is easy to be faithful to the God that is destroying our enemies; this God is easily worshiped as Egyptian chariots sink in freshly made mud. It is quite another thing to wander the wilderness for an indefinite period, apparently led there by God, placed there because of God’s victory, but given nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no map for directions. A faithful people can become forgetful quite easily as a simple stroll through the Old Testament will easily attest.

Likewise, we are naive to assume that Jesus, emerging from the waters of redemption like his for-bearers, would not also be tempted in the wilderness on the other side of the water. Jesus did not become someone new in this experience; he became what he already was, God re-membering in Jesus what the human Jesus may have been tempted to forget…but a temptation he needed to experience before serving the children of those recalcitrant people. We hear silent foreshadowing echoed in the words of the Devil, “If you are…the son of God…”

It is in re-membering that we find the temptations of the devil most significant because it is precisely forced forgetting that is the goal of the devil. If you don’t like “devil” language, we can appropriate the Gospel of Matthew and call it “the tempter.” The wilderness is the place we are most likely to be tempted to forget who we are and who we are called to be (has anyone read Numbers lately??!). Ironically these temptations only come to us as people who have already experienced God’s living water of forgiveness/redemption. We cannot be tempted to leave something we have never had in our possession. We cannot be tempted to forget something we have never experienced or never been.

Enter Lent. If there is a time when we will lose our way, it is in the nothingness of nothing while relying on a God we cannot see for sustenance we never knew would be enough.

In other words, if we are going to forget who we are, it is during Lent; ironically, if we are going to find ourselves, it is also in Lent. Lent does not make us something we are not; it re-members what God always holds together in his own memory about us. Re-membering is the process of putting back together what God already knows about us, for us, and calls us to live into. Lent is the process whereby we allow the spirit to re-member in us God’s predestined naming of us.

In the wilderness Jesus re-membered; In Lent, we are called to re-member. The Devil tempts us to forget our names, our identity, our mission as those baptized, forgiven, called. In Lent, God helps us remember our identity in Christ; in Lent we discover our true selves even as we are tempted to forget.

Lent is a time of preparation because if we participate in it to the extent that Israel wandered in the Sinai, and Jesus wandered in the land beyond the Jordan, then we are doing the heavy soul searching that is necessary to come out of the desert alive. Not just anyone can survive the wilderness. The biblical narrative is full of persons, examples, that entered the wilderness never to return. If, however, we place our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves in the hands of the creator, we will discover not only our true self during Lent, but that our true self is never divorced from the identity God gives to us. “Let us make mankind in our image” writes the author of Genesis. God knows and re-members that image; Our identity is grounded in God. In Lent, we are invited to re-member our names.

 

Stealing Your Way Into Heaven

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GOSPEL OF LUKE 16.1-13

 

Couched in between two of Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and the Rich Man and Lazarus, we discover one of Jesus’ most unassuming and most difficult parables throughout the pages of the Gospel. I suppose this parable, the parable of the Unjust Steward…did you hear that…the parable of the UNJUST steward, not the good steward, but an UNJUST steward, gets squeezed from both sides of the text. This parable gets flattened beside its more famous friends.

Like the 3 three famous Kardashian sisters who constantly in the news: a famous one, a pretty one and an ugly one…this parable is the ugly sister that doesn’t get much attention. And rightfully so. It’s not a very helpful parable on our first reading.

Here Jesus’ 4 points in this parable:
1. Manage your money shrewdly like non-believers manager their money and Jesus will praise you for it. Jesus exact words, “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light.”
2. Make friends with others by means of unrighteous wealth, dishonest wealth.
3. If you can’t use dishonest wealth, how can you use true riches?
4. You can’t serve two masters. You can’t live to make money and also live to serve God.

Talk about a confusing sermon. Jesus just outdid himself here.

As I come to this parable, the entire scene makes sense to me…at first.
The characters in this parable are not far removed from the characters and narratives I have encountered in the business world these past 7 years.

For a business to be successful it must have managers that manage resources. It must have supervisors to oversee their management of those resources. And it must have people that the managers can manage to procure the good or product that is consistent with the mission of the business. When the managers or supervisor doesn’t do their part of the job…the LORD, the master of the house, is quick to hold them accountable as we see in this parable. Businesses and estates exist to make money and to solidify their status as deposits of wealth. This must be carefully guarded and the Lord in this parable is simply looking out for what best for his own business or estate. When he knew he was being cheated he cannot continue to support this Stewards behavior. This parable is a reflection of how the steward responded to that act accountability.

Several years ago, in our own business, we experimented with whether or not to include Asst. Managers in our bonus program. As a business, we felt that it was in the best interest of our customers, our future growth and our profit margins, to give the Asst. manager position a greater sense of ownership in how well the business does. Up until this point, the General Managers of our stores had been the principal beneficiaries of the profit of our business through means of a bonus program that we had structured around various goals. But we wanted to give the General Managers of our stores the benefit of a manager that would work hard at helping them accomplish store goals and really function as a 2 person team inside each local store.

To this end, we experimented with involving Asst. Managers in the bonus program.
We pulled our lone asst manager into our office, disclosed to her our plans and she was excited about the opportunity. She thanked us for the job, the potential earnings, and the sense of appreciation we had for her. We thought we had made a smart move and encouraged good stewardship with our business by extended an added benefit that wouldn’t really require much additional work.

We were wrong.

The next morning as I was going through our old school paperwork, the kind of paper work that is produced by type key registers and detail tape, I noticed we were short $450 from the night before. I was shocked. More than half this money, as I could tell, was missing from the shift that was run by our asst manager, the same one whom we had just included into our manager bonus program for performance. After we had announced to her our plans, she drove to our store, shook our hands and thanked us again for the opportunity…then she drove to work and over saw a major shortage for which she had no explanation.

You see, she had intentionally cancelled orders from our registers and taken the money for her own personal use…so the store didn’t even look like it was short because those funds had already been deducted from the day’s totals. I wouldn’t have found this out if I hadn’t actually dug through register transaction tape and seen canceled orders without justification. I called other ownership, told him finding, and he said he’d get back to me.

Needless to say, we eventually called her into our office, shook her hand and congratulated her on trying to trick us out of money. We knew she had been hard up for cash and was really struggling and she had figured out a loophole that would almost allow her to steal money without getting caught…and we saw the genius in her attempt and commended her for this shrewdness, we actually promoted her to a store manager and she went on to make huge bonus checks.

And that makes absolutely no sense, Right?

Well something similar is what Jesus is asking us to believe about this parable.

Jesus commends a dishonest manager, who after he is caught stealing, continues to be shrewd and outwit the Lord of the house, or business, in order to secure to him his own future after he is officially fired for stealing. The master of the house learns of this plan also, and rather than demanding he be thrown in jail, he praises his shrewdness, perhaps the same type of shrewdness that put him in hot water to begin with, and he commends him for what he was just firing him for…and then Jesus goes on to say…

“His Master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness so that when it fails, they will receive you into eternal dwellings.”

So we get Jesus’ first two points: Be shrewd managers when handling money. Don’t be gullible. And use dishonest money to make friends for yourself so that you will inherent heaven or eternal dwelling places.
What is going on here?

This parable is utterly ridiculous. It makes us as hearers of it want to recoil and argue with Jesus. Jesus stands up in the midst of his disciples, after just having told to us the parable of the Prodigal son…a parable that is the epitome of bad stewardship, and then tells us some nonsense about how being unjust and using dishonest money can be to our benefit and should offer us an example how we should relate to money and wealth.

If it sounds ridiculous to us, we are in good company. The early church wasn’t sure how to handle it either. Even St. Augustine, one of the churches greatest preachers and theologians, didn’t want a real piece of this parable as he interpreted it in a purely allegorical fashion.

The ancient church wasn’t much clearer on what to do with this parable. If you’ll notice verses 9-13…these are all answers by Jesus, to account for this difficult parable originally told by Jesus, answers or interpretations that had been remembered in the church. Luke gives us answer after answer beginning in v9 and then he concludes with v13 to basically summarize that regardless of the tensions in this parable, the end game, is that we cannot serve two masters.

Luke picks up on Matthew 6.24 where this saying is the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is busy teaching his disciples about how they should relate to wealth and things.

But Luke’s summary statement still doesn’t help us resolve the tensions of this parable. It doesn’t help us make sense of its dense content and seemingly contradictory advice. It is precisely the tension that Luke wants to evoke in us…Luke is intentional in placing this parable here, right before one of the parables that commands our imaginations about death and how it relates to our relationship to wealth.

He wants us to stand up after hearing this parable, those of us who are disciples, and say, “No, Jesus! That’s not right!” He wants those of us who have made our livings working for banks and owning our own businesses to react against this parable and say “no”! Us, the group of disciples, are many and different. We have come from many different backgrounds and made our livings in many different ways…we can relate to this usual set of circumstances. What we can’t relate to is Jesus’ handling of these circumstances and his lessons from them.

It’s like Mark Twain’s famous quote regarding scripture. “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand.”

And here we almost see too clearly what Jesus is doing and what Luke is doing by crafting this vision of Jesus through these parables.

One of the themes that Luke has been working on in this Gospel is wealth. Not just a proper use of wealth, but understanding our relationship to wealth. Luke hammers the theme of wealth, its proper place, our use of it and he condemns on multiple occasions visions of wealth offered by the world that are not consistent with the kingdom of God.

In Luke, Jesus hammers wealth over and over…one is left asking the question, “Is Jesus really opposed to wealth, is it evil, or is Jesus warning of its dangers for some other reason?” And in this particular parable, “Is Jesus telling us to obtain wealth dishonestly and makes friends with ill gotten means to save our own skin?”
What this parable epitomizes is the breakdown of social barriers and the construal of wealth as an object to be used as a part of God’s sovereign kingdom…it is a means, not an ends. Notice, Jesus does not praise the unjust steward for his relationship with God; Jesus praises him for his use of money and shrewdness…his relationship with God and the Master (who may be the same in this parable) is withstanding.

For Luke’s Jesus, wealth is a problem (the very immediate context of this passage being the prodigal that uses wealth for pleasure, and the rich man after this parable that dresses and lives in comfort while the world and people Like Lazarus suffer immeasurably) because “it presents itself as a temptation to prestige and security apart from God and for this reason it is suspect” (NTT, Joel Green, 113).

And if we will look at our world and ourselves…and be honest, it is surely the case that wealth does tempt us and it does estrange us from God and one another. Who needs the Kingdom of God when you have your own perfect kingdom on your acre of land, money in the bank and closets overflowing with stuff?
Our wealth determines our social customs and interactions.

In the ancient world, giving and sharing to the poor is not the same as writing a check to a non-profit or doing good works through Nazarene Compassionate Ministry. When you shared your wealth you were very literally engaging with those to whom it was being given, bringing them into your active social sphere. To share with someone, or to relieve someone of debt, was to treat them as family or kin. They were no longer an object from which you extracted wealth, they were partakers in it.

Now if we understand this parable from this lens, then what the unjust steward is doing is extremely shrewd and to be emulated.

Think of this manager as the tax collector Levi, aka Matthew, that we find in this Gospel chapter 5. He was hated and despised because of his job. Jesus was accused of being a sinner because he had an entourage of people like this around him. Levi was in a position of authority as a Roman tax collector because of what he could extract and give to Rome. He was given the assignment of collecting polls for an occupying military force and then given the freedom to expend more for his own use.

Do you suppose Levi ate with people whom owed him taxes? Do you suppose Levi ever cut their bill in half or told them to take half of it off? Well, if he did, he was a rare tax collector and that certainly wasn’t the reputation of tax collectors. It would have been a shock to the system, a vision of a new kind of kingdom or authority, if Levi had ever acted that way prior to becoming a disciple of Jesus.

Returning to this parable, the manager was being reprimanded because he had already shown that he was squandering resources from his master. He was being unjust. He was taking advantage of his position. As a manager in charge of collecting debts, he most likely did not have those whom were indebted to his master within his inner circles. They were debtors…he was a collector. The two didn’t mix, yet when the master finds out his sin, he has to act shrewdly and act kindly toward those from whom he usually collected dues and he needed to do so quickly. There was no time to waste.

So he frantically devises a plan to extend forgiveness to them, yes, his wiping away of their debt before he was fired was his way of forgiving them. It’s reminiscent of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lord forgive us our trespasses , as we forgive those who trespass against us…”may also be translated “Lord forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.”

He has now brought himself into a new kind of relationship with these debtors through his shrewd and even sinful activity. He has created a relationship where there was originally no relationship and rather than taking their money and squandering it…he has finally done something good with money. He has decided to not squander it, but to restore people to a sense of wholeness by forgiving them of that which kept them bound to their toils. He uses his shrewdness to forgive debt rather than squander its abundances and usury charges.

Yes, he stands to benefit from the forgiveness (just like those who received his forgiveness), but in so doing he is changing the shape of the world, especially the world of those who find themselves receiving forgiveness.

This time of crisis in his life evoked a radical response from this once complacent and deceitful manager…and rather than use his deceit for selfishness he uses it for restorative purposes, both to restore himself and those that were beneficiaries of his act.

And here is where Luke really reinforces a proper understanding of wealth. Wealth has the reputation of creating boundaries and separating people, yet in this parable, boundaries are broken down as the manager creates a new social class with his debtors and even Jesus advises us based on his actions to make friends with wealth of the world, to use unrighteous wealth for the benefit of becoming friends with others, so that when we are dead, we will be able to find entrance into the dwelling place of God, essentially saying we can steal our way into heaven.

But what is the crisis, the imminent crisis that evokes our radical response to the way we use money as a means rather than an ends? It is a means whereby we are shown to be faithful to God and his creation, rather than becoming an end for which we strive to give ourselves more things…things that we see will later put us on the side of the Rich Man who stares at Lazarus in paradise.

What is this crisis moment and why does the parable take place in this context of suddenness and light footed expectation?

For the steward, the crisis was his pending job loss and he needed to prepare for the result of that final judgment.

Luke has couched this parable, this ugly sister of the three, in the middle of parables that capture our imaginations about the end of the world and the kingdom of God.

The crisis moment for Luke and for Jesus is the pending expectation and threats that they will have to handle courageously, wisely and resolutely to prepare for the future. The Christian mission has fell on deaf ears at the time of Luke’s Gospel and now the mission is pushing into pagan Greek areas as resistance makes itself known in Jerusalem and from the people of the original promise. The future is breaking into our present; the Master has found creation wanting in its squandering of love and goodness. The Kingdom of God is upon Jesus, Luke and their hearers.

Jesus is preparing us for living in the shadow of the crises that is the image of the risen Jesus overtaking creation as he emerges from his earthen tomb…a crises that requires prudent action and the extension of forgiveness to those who have done nothing to deserve it…even if forgiving them is also beneficial for us…in other words, even if we make friends…cause at the end of the day, when the money is spent, it is the relationships we have built that will last beyond our own lives.

The ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the crises moment that requires we not sit idly back, but that we act prudently as sons and daughters of this world and begin extending forgiveness to others who will soon stand in the shadow of Jesus the resurrected one.

And for this reason, Jesus can say, the sons of this world are more prudent than the sons of light.
You see, as sons and daughters of light…we are complacent. We don’t always act prudently and for the future. We expect God to be the one that shapes the future and we’re just along for the ride. We want to be like John the Baptist or the Essenes at Qumran and await God’s final vindication as we remove ourselves from the fray, from being shrewd, from making friends with the wealth of unrighteousness.

That’s one way to go about it.

The other is to see our mundane daily activities with Money and others…as caught in the constant expectation that God is busy about recreating the world through us and to act with the same sense of urgency and haste that even unjust stewards possess.

In the end, it may not be the sons of light that offer us examples on how to live, it may be the ones that we’ve often called sinner that can teach us the greatest lessons about the kingdom…cause it’s the sinner who usually find themselves most closely standing in the shadow of one that has become sin for us all.

Christ of Chaos- a sermon in Luke

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

Is this really what Jesus was talking about?

*A sermon on Jesus, judgment and some difficult words of The Christ in the recent Lectionary reading of Luke 12.49-53*

“When life has become old and the spirit faint, it is in the beginnings that we again find the living springs from which the vital energies flow” Jurgen Moltmann, “Hope and Reality: Contradiction and Correspondence,” in God Will be All in All

Life has become old, and the spirit of Luke’s readers has become faint, as the words of Jesus echo through the corridors of the churches and continue reverberating to our own. As Jesus speaks these shocking words into a ministry that is taking now itself toward Jerusalem, the roads along the hills and valleys of The Galilee that lead to the Holy City are filled with visible reminders of the imminent end, the end that Jesus feels pushing himself toward the ultimate hill upon a hill. Christ is moving toward the Pinnacle event in his life, an event that will end on a pinnacle for those of us who know where Luke is taking Jesus in his narrative. Why is Luke taking us to this place? Because it is from this place that the end of creation will occur and a new beginning be resurrected. And along the way, we get a view of the teaching of Jesus that seemed to frame his entire work within the paradigm of the pending end of time, the much feared last days. Jesus is not heading toward Jerusalem, leaving the comfort and serenity of The Galilee, in order to anticipate the coming vindication of the righteous through a final fiery judgment. Jesus is marching toward Jerusalem because the end is already here.

This is why along the way, in Luke, we get these familiar teachings we call parables merged so frequently within sayings that have to do with readiness, ending, approaching, consummation, and judgment. These are the primary means of Jesus’ teaching and also the primary content. Jesus is challenging us to embody a parabolic way of life because this is the way the world will look when the work of Christ is completed. He is not preparing us for the coming end; he is opening our eyes that the end is now. And with Luke’s hearers, we, like them, are able to recognize this because life has become old, our spirits have become faint. From this ending, we recognize that a new beginning is on the horizon…and as we peer into the land of the text, Luke’s narrative, that end is seen in the silhouette of the Christ that is walking toward Jerusalem…yet leaving behind some very troubling things, troubling words. With our brothers and sisters in Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus approaching but what is he bringing with him as his shadow moves closer to the middle of the earth, the hill to which Luke is taking us where the end will be a new beginning?

In a sudden breach of Jesus’ typical demeanor, Jesus uses some of his most difficult rhetoric to express his frustrations with Jerusalem, the known world. Jesus becomes negative, going a step further than rehashing his most beloved stories such as separating sheep’s from goats, bridesmaids and bridegrooms, thieves and masters. Here, Jesus gets as graphic as anywhere in the Gospels. His emerging from The Galilee has produced a fiery prophet with great intent and fire in his eyes…determined to counteract the expectations of the disciples, his own disciples, perceptions of what he desires for the world and what he has truly come to do to.

Jesus, in the middle of a long diatribe, quickly turns to his disciples specifically for this teaching. As he stands amidst the crowds, he finishes his final thought then swiftly turns to his disciples, to us, and says… as if with contempt In his voice…”you think I have come to bring peace, to make your life easy, you think I have come to give you purpose, to caste off your oppression without event…wrong”

“I have come to cast Fire upon the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo and how distressed I am until this is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, NO, but rather division. For from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in law against daughter in law and daughter in law against mother in law.”

The theme of Jesus and conflict starts early in Luke’s Gospel. While we may seem affronted with Jesus’ rhetoric in chapter 12, this is a theme that has been building throughout the Gospel of Luke and will very literally bleed into the second half of Luke’s Gospel, Acts.

The very beginning of Jesus starts with a prediction of conflict in Luke…The adult Jesus is simply fulfilling the plot line that has already been laid out by Luke. In Luke chapter 2 Jesus is presented to the temple, and an old man named Simeon, who was already filled with the Holy Spirit (which btw won’t happen in the narrative for many years to come in The Acts), is able to ascertain through the power of the Spirit that in this baby Jesus is the consolation of Israel. Simeon tells Mary, what must have been a very chilling prediction, “this child is appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel…a sword will even pierce your own soul.” At the time, we as readers are not sure how this will unfold but conflict quickly pursues Jesus in his first act of Public ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus fills the entire synagogue with rage because of his teachings. They tried to kill him before his ministry had even started…Jesus had already begun to wield his sword, but the sword will get more mighty and polarizing as Luke’s story continues.

And time would fail us to rehearse the polarity of the narrative of the Baptist, the public acts of choosing to call tax collectors over the proper house of Israel, breaking the Sabbath observances, and the much infamous Sermon on the Plain wherein Jesus corrects Moses on multiple occasions…and these to just name a few. By the time we get to chapter 12, Jesus has begun his ascent from the Galilee toward Jerusalem, his heart and head are weary, his spirit must be growing faint with lack of faith he finds…so at this point in the narrative Jesus states explicitly what has been unraveling throughout the narrative to this point. He is fed up with these people who are not understanding his message and continually perpetuating non-parabolic forms of life that revolve around their customs, power, positions, economics, …and if it would just begin happening right now, if fire would already be set ablaze then the purging of creation and a new beginning could occur.

So it’s not only the message of Jesus that is rote with conflict; it is his very presence. The presence of Jesus the Gospels call Christ is the entrance of conflict into the story of the world because he is the entrance of the end. His presence is the weighing of the scales of judgment. He is our beginning that has entered our end so that we can have a future beginning. And this is what is so disconcerting to these characters that oppose him in the story, to those families that are divided because of his teaching. Jesus has entered a narrative that begins with “loud Hosannas” and “glory to God on the highest”…his entrance is hailed by those that have no business recognizing the Baby Jesus whose notoriety is seen in the public announcements we see at Christmas time “Joy to the world, Peace on earth, Goodwill toward humanity”…remnants of a Gospel story that says Jesus came to bring peace rather than a sword. The unassuming announcement that is brought by none other than Gabriel in Luke 1 reminds us of Daniel wherein Gabriel seems to be a bearer of messages concerning the last things…the announcement of Jesus is the eschatological sign that the words Jesus echos in Luke 12 are also connected to his very life. Jesus is the end and he is speaking judgment and conflict not only to Luke’s hearers but also to us. The birth of the Christ, in ironic fashion, was the judgment of God into the world…and only thereby might peace be found on the other side of the life that Jesus must live…is living in our text.

If we grant the tension that the Gospel gives us a Christ that declares division while also proclaiming peace, yet his ministry somehow embodies both, causes both, what are we to presume this cryptic saying of Jesus is to mean? How do we make sense of this eschatological prophet whose story lead many of Luke’s hearers, and us, to proclaim that we are not only dealing with a unique prophet grounded in history but one that we must also confess as son of God, Christ, Messiah…and of what is he Christ, for what purpose is this derisive character known of Messiah entering the world of Luke’s Gospel, and our lives, with some words that subtly challenge the comfort of our seats and the peace with which we idealize our ideas of the world and creation?

The most striking thing about this passage is that it occurs prior to Jesus once again returning his gaze to the crowds. Jesus is still speaking in the absent presence of Peters words, “Lord, are you addressing this parable to us or to everyone else as well?” The tone of the texts indicates Jesus is speaking these words to the disciples…for after he tells them of this conflict and sword that he brings, then the text says, “he was also speaking to the crowds…saying.”

Jesus is addressing this difficult saying to Luke’s churches, to those who were then currently living the tensions of families broken up because of the gospel, to families that had lost their inheritances because of their allegiance to Christ, to families that we on different ideological sides of the role of the temple that had by the time of Luke’s Gospel been destroyed. Jesus is speaking this to disciples; people in the conflict…and the reminder that he comes to bring conflict is a reminder that Jesus has prepared them for this difficult time.

While the Gospel did seem to have a euphoric sense to it, a sense of ultimacy that if Jesus was followed then new creation would emerge in a way consistent with all of their prior conceptions, the stark words of Jesus here is that his ministry will divide the very homes his ministry will also unite…and if he could expedite the process even the Son of God wishes that fire would consume creation and hold the powers that be accountable for their evil and oppression. Luke is using this discourse of Christ to remind them that the division they are now experiencing is not unexpected…even Christ knew such would happen…and the message of Acts tells us what a life proclaiming the Gospel looks like for those bound to this very divisiveness…how do they survive such division? The power of the Holy Spirit.

But what makes Jesus direct this very strong verbiage to his disciples?? Why doesn’t he point out the superstructures of society that are suppressing his people and keeping Israel in occupied bondage? Why doesn’t he come right out and say to whom this judgment and division is going to be directed? Why not a call to social-action like the prophets of old here? Why not attack the overtly political actions that are necessitating the presence of a judgment and a coming Christ? Why not address this warning to people that are not followers of Jesus? What is Jesus doing here?

He wants his disciples to see and feel the role reversal that takes place in the pending judgment of God visa vi his death, resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit that will later unfold in Luke/Acts. The Kingdom of God, the coming God of whom Jesus is the living presence, has come, and is coming, into history to judge those very folks who think they are not subject to judgment…rather they think they provide and do the judging. The judgment of Christ comes about under the indictment of resurrection and victory and is purged by the fires of cleansing…fires that Jesus presumably believed would be quite literal.

Conflict and division is central to the Gospel of Jesus and the hell that Jesus wishes here upon the characters of the text, perhaps even us in the present, (remember he is responding to Peter) is a judgment upon our very ideas of judgment and role in preserving the status quo of the current system that is not enlivened by the parabolic vision of the Christ and the pending kingdom. Our judgment, even as disciples, establishes a foreign kingdom, one not beholden to God or divine purpose. In a world where Luke’s Gospel is very political, Jesus is seeing through the ideological powers that bring judgment and peace (ideologies we often support even as disciples)…yet these will in fact be proclaimed as garbage under the microscope of the Gospel…fit to be burned and destroyed as a part of God’s weighing of creation. Jesus is fed up with this complicity. He sees all this and he wishes it would go ahead and start raining sulfur…yet he knows that just as his ministry started with a baptism by John so too his purpose must end in another baptism into the earth. The effect of this baptism and the belief it has produced in Jesus will be a division amongst people that were already being lived by Luke’s churches…and has been lived historically throughout Christianity.

You see disciples often forget a very central point of Jesus’ messages. While the disciples of Jesus then, like us today, like to take the words of scripture and use it to indict those that are not faithful…if we keep with this text we find that Jesus is directing these words to his disciples because they are often confused about their own complicity in guilt, and therein, judgment. We like to direct this discourse to some ominous event in which “god is going to get them” and we are on the winning team…only problem is, Jesus is not using this as warning outside the community of faith. He is using it to warn his disciples…that they should understand the risky business of following the Christ. Following Jesus is difficult. It’s divisive. It may not lead us to the Purpose Driven life that looks like the American dream. It may not lead us to powerful positions within secularity…it may lead us up a hill we are not prepared to walk.

…Chances are…it will lead us into division with others, our family and even ourselves because it lays bare our thirst for the dominant configurations of power and narcissism that plague our lives…and what will judge those misplaced configurations of power? In Luke’s Gospel, the resurrection and ascension of Jesus has already done this. The presence of Jesus and his words is the arrival of judgment of the last days…We already stand under these words because God, who is the end of the world, has come into our presence. But Jesus has prepared us for this with these very words.

So while multitudes read Luke 12 and rehash fantastic scenarios in which this will happen at some grand event when all of time and eternity collide into the presence of an end times that is only given vision through the writers of facetious fiction…Luke’s is showing us his hand. It’s not about when. It’s about now…and the judgment of Christ is already finished. Despite our hardships or that divisiveness of the person of Jesus…the cost of following him, which in America is precious little, despite this…the jokes on us. Christ does bring a sword, but he swallows his own sword up when the garden spits him out of his earthy cage. While we await this judgment and its victory…Luke will later remind us…we are already judged on Calvary…and we’ve already had victory. Jesus is telling us about what will happen cast within Luke’s narrative of what has happened.

It’s a little thing we call Easter.