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For where your treasure is. . .

February 17th, 2012 No comments

“For where your treasure is…” (Luke 16:1-13)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
January 29, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Mennonite New Testament scholar, Mary Schertz, upon reflecting on this parable of the Unjust Steward says, “The parable of the shifty steward in Luke 16 was a delight to my friends and me in our coming-of-age years. Any adult defending a ‘one right answer’ approach to biblical interpretation had to be prepared to take on a barrage of questions about this parable from avid teenagers.”1

Her point is a valid one, as people can’t even seem to agree on a title for this parable, let alone an explanation. Is this the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward? Was this man a scoundrel, a conniving, greedy thief? Or did he act wisely, having earned the praise of his master? Does the master represent Jesus or simply a wealthy landowner of the first century? Does Jesus commend the actions of one who acts in such an underhanded way?

Each commentary that I read in preparation for this morning seemed to offer a different interpretation from the others. In fact, some readers even wonder if Luke wasn’t sure what to do with this story, as it seems as though he continued to tack on saying after saying of Jesus to the end of this parable in an effort to make sense of it.

It is a rare sermon indeed that is told on the parable of the unrighteous manager. It is rarer still that we hear it as a Sunday School or Wednesday evening lesson, for no one quite seems to know what to do with this parable of Jesus.

Well, one day, Jesus was talking to the crowds who had gathered around him to hear him preach. He had just finished talking to the Pharisees and the scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ practice of eating with tax-collectors and sinners, and he had told them three little stories about the lost: the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons2. But after finishing with these stories, he turns to his disciples, and the crowds and Pharisees fade into the background, as Jesus begins to tell his disciples this story:

There once was a rich master, a wealthy landowner, who had a manager, which was a common practice of the day. The master was most likely an absentee landlord who had hired someone else, this manager or steward, to be in charge of his property and who would be responsible for collecting rent from the tenants who farmed the land. Now this steward would not have necessarily been considered a wealthy man in comparison to the landowner, but he certainly did not live in want either. And, as an added benefit of his comfortable position, when he collected the debts from those who farmed the land, the steward would most likely tack on a little extra for himself to the bill, as his “commission” if you would.

Now it comes to the master’s attention that this steward that he has hired to oversee his land and his accounts had been squandering his property. It would appear that Wall Street excess, greedy lending practices, and the wealthy 1% are not common only to our own day, but that lust for possessions and wishing to build bigger and better storehouses and mansions to store all of the latest gadgets and things were also common in Jesus’ day.

So when the master hears about the steward squandering his property, he grows suspicious and angry and calls this steward in to talk with him and says, “What is this I hear about you? I’m giving you your pink slip. Clear out your office, and turn in your books because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

And the steward is fired; he has now lost his job, his livelihood, his position of status, his cushy lifestyle.

“What shall I do?” he despairs. “How can I possibly hope to compete with the day laborers who have worked most of their lives and who know how to work the fields? My own hands have never held a shovel of a hoe; they’re much too soft and well-manicured. Who would hire me when compared to the muscled, skilled, lower-class workers who have done this for years? They were built for this, but not me!

But what other option do I have besides seeking employment as a day laborer? I am too ashamed to beg. I don’t want to miss meals or catch any strange diseases from the other beggars. No doubt this option would lead to an early grave! What will I do, now that my master is taking my position away from me?”

And he sits and he thinks and the wheels begin to turn, for he knows that he is fighting for his very livelihood and lifestyle. And he thinks for a time, and suddenly the light bulb turns on, and he says to himself, “Ah, I know what I will do. If I’m going to be fired, I am going to ensure a way that I can be welcomed into the homes of others so that I may continue to be taken care of.” Now perhaps the steward was hoping to be welcomed into the homes of the tenant farmers, after they see how kindly he will treat them by reducing their debts; he’s scratched their backs, now they should turn around and scratch his. Or perhaps the steward was hoping to get another job once the other wealthy landowners see how cleverly he acts in trying circumstances and what good public relation skills he has.

Regardless, the steward is acting in such a way that, no matter what happens, he will be well taken care of. He will either get his old job back, or get a new job as a steward with someone else, or he will be welcomed into the homes of those whose backs he has just scratched, whose debts he has just reduced. He is a quick thinker, that one. So he quickly calls his master’s debtors to come and see him, one by one, for they have no idea yet that this man has been fired and that he is acting of his own accord. The debtors still believe that he is acting under the orders of the wealthy landowner.

And the steward calls one of the debtors in, and asks, “How much do you owe my master?” To which the debtor replies, “100 jugs of olive oil.” The crafty steward says to the debtor, “You’ve been a good renter, always quick to pay back your debts. Sit down, take your bill, cross out 100 and make it 50.” A move that any debtor can appreciate; his bill seems much more manageable now that it has been cut in half. No doubt the debtor is elated as he leaves, and will go off singing the praise of the master who would treat him so kindly.

And the steward calls in another debtor and asks him the same question, “How much do you owe?” To which the debtor replies, “100 containers of wheat.” And the steward again tells the debtor to reduce the debt, “Sit down, take your bill, cross out 100 and make it 80.” And so on, and so forth, the steward continues to call in the debtors one by one and tells them to reduce their debts.

Now some scholars have speculated whether the steward was simply removing the interest that the debtors owed the master, which might account for the differing amounts by which the debts were reduced.

Or perhaps the steward was simply removing his own cut of the profit, the portion that he would have been paid from the rent.

Regardless, the master hears what the steward has done, and the master is left with a choice. If he cares about the money that he has lost, if it was indeed interest that was owed to him, he can call in the debtors and inform them that the steward was acting of his own accord and that the debts still stand as they originally were: 100 jugs of olive oil and 100 containers of wheat. But of course, this option would leave the now elated debtors breathing threats and murder against their master, which may have ended in a worker’s strike, a revolt, or worse.

OR the master can leave the canceled debts as they are and reap the benefit of having his debtors praise him for being such a generous and kind landlord. The steward has played his cards well.

Faced with this choice, the master once again calls the steward in to talk with him. “Well done, you shrewd and clever servant, for you have come up with a way to make me look good with the tenants who farm my land, as well as devised a scheme that will save your own hide and allow you to remain in luxury.”

And it appears that the steward is reinstated to his post, although Jesus doesn’t say. At the very least, he has earned a good recommendation from his master as one who has good public relation skills and who acts cleverly under trying circumstances.

And this is the parable that Jesus tells his disciples. He had just finished telling the Pharisees and the scribes who had gathered these three, lovely, gentle parables (the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons); stories that we have grown up hearing ourselves that communicate God’s deep love for all humankind.

But this story that Jesus tells directly afterward, to his disciples, to those who have already committed their lives to following him, is not nearly as lovely or gentle or clear as those that he just finished telling the Pharisees.

The Pharisees get God’s amazing grace. The disciples get the Bernie Madoff scandal. Is this really what we’re supposed to mimic as followers of Jesus?

You can just see the disciples turning to each other after this parable and quietly mouthing, “What?! What in the world is he trying to tell us this time? And we thought the one about the unjust judge was confusing…”3

And what do you suppose the tax-collectors turned disciples were thinking? “Okay, okay… Let me get this straight. You called us to repent of these greedy and self-serving ways of collecting taxes, but now you’re telling this story about a man who acts only to save his hide and continue living the cushy life of a rent collector? What are we supposed to do with this? We’re being a little hypocritical, aren’t we, Jesus?”

But before they can ponder even further what Jesus could have possibly meant by this parable, they would have heard him say, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves out of the wealth of injustice so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal dwellings.”4

As if this confusing parable wasn’t enough! Now he’s gone on to talk about making friends by means of unrighteous wealth! And you can just imagine Levi, an ex-tax collector, leaning over and whispering to Andrew, “It looks as though Jesus has been spending a little too much time celebrating at weddings in Cana, if you know what I mean…”

Then louder, to Jesus, “First you tell us that in order to experience salvation we need to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor. And what about the story you told us about the rich man who built up his barns and storehouses, yet lost it all because his treasures lay in the possessions of this world rather than the treasures of your kingdom?

But now you’re telling us to make friends by means of wealth, and unrighteous wealth at that? What, are we supposed to go play the slots and black jack and use this wealth to make friends? Are we supposed to go steal it from one of these wealthy landowners? Are we supposed to use the ill-gotten wealth that tax collectors and rent collectors tack on to the bills of the poor peasant farmers? Talk sense, Jesus! Are we supposed to seek after wealth or aren’t we? Doesn’t mimicking this scoundrel go against everything you’ve already taught us?”

Perhaps the disciples were so caught up in their confusion and questions over the meaning of this parable that they missed it when Jesus said to them, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”5 “I wish the children of light, I wish the people of God, I wish that those of you who have already committed your life to follow me, were as shrewd for the gospel and the way of the cross as those greedy, unrighteous stewards and landowners are for themselves and for accumulating the wealth of this world.”6

I wonder if this parable is functioning in a way similar to that of the unjust judge, where if some cruel and selfish judge could act in such a way that brings justice, how much more so will God seek for justice? So too, if the crafty, unjust steward would do everything possible to save his own hide and cushy lifestyle, how much more so should we, as citizens of the kingdom of God, be just as crafty, put forth just as much effort, and do everything within our power for the sake of the gospel?

It’s almost as if Jesus was saying to his disciples, “You are right to hear of God’s amazing grace that I told to the Pharisees, for God’s grace certainly abounds throughout creation. But you who have already received such grace should know that such grace is costly. Consider well the cost, for from those who have been given much, much will be expected. I have called you to take up your cross daily and follow after me, and I am willing to lay down my life for the sake of God’s good news. In what way will you follow me and put forth just as much passion, just as much cunning, just as much effort for the sake of God’s kingdom?

For you cannot serve both God and wealth.7 See how much the slaves of worldly wealth do to seek after their god? How much more should you, who are slaves to the good news of the one true God do to seek after and live for the gospel and the ways that I have taught you?”

From we who have been given much, much will be expected. Do we spend more of our efforts seeking after the ways and wealth of this world? Or do we spend more of our efforts seeking after God’s purposes and good news? Where does our treasure lie? Where is our heart?

We meet today for our annual meeting to pray together and discern where we as a congregation are headed, where our passions and energies are, and how we will best serve God together. How will what we discuss in our meeting reflect where our treasure and our heart is as a congregation?

And after we leave today, how will our lives reflect where our treasure and our heart is as a follower of Jesus? May we be just as clever and cunning as the children of this age in our living for the gospel and in our following the way of the cross. Our lives will reflect, one way or the other, where our heart truly is. The question is, how will our lives witness to where our treasure lies?

Notes:
1. Mary H. Schertz, “The Word: Shrewd Steward” from The Christian Century, September 4, 2007.
2. Perhaps better known as the Prodigal Son.
3. This was the Scripture passage preached the Sunday before this sermon, which accounts for this reference. The author acknowledges that the parable of the unjust judge appears after the parable of the unjust steward in Luke’s gospel.
4. Luke 16:9 (author’s translation from the Greek)
5. Luke 16:8 (NRSV)
6. Similar to what Thomas Long does with this verse in his sermon, “Making Friends.”
7. Luke 16:13 (NRSV).

The Long Haul

February 16th, 2012 No comments

“The Long Haul” (Luke 18:1-8)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
January 22, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

If you ever have the opportunity to take a class on preaching or even go to a seminar on storytelling, you’ll learn one major rule of thumb: When you tell a story in a sermon, never, unless you are absolutely certain you know what you are doing, do you explain the story. If you have to explain it, it’s not worth telling. It’s like with jokes – if it has to be explained, it’s no longer funny, and it’s hardly worth telling. You’ll find this is true with most of the parables in the gospels, but, with this story, Luke tips his hand ahead of time. He gives the point of the story away up front. Listen to the story of the persistent widow, which Jesus told that his disciples might pray always and not lose heart. . .

[Read Parable]

. . . And he told them this story that they might pray always and not lose heart.

Years ago, before the days of Facebook and Twitter and texting, we had to use less sophisticated tools for doing our instant digital communication – like email (some of you still remember email, I believe). Well, my older brother, a particularly brilliant computer scientist, introduced me to a computer program that we could use to have a live chat with each other on the computer. Now the really neat thing about this program was that you could see what the other person in the chat was typing as he or she typed it – including all the mistakes and backspaces and beginnings of statements that ended up being reconsidered. But it also drove me nuts because I would start typing a question to my brother, but then he was so smart that he would guess what my question was going to be, and he could type so fast that he would have his answer finished before I finished my question.

Well, there’s a story about prayer in the Old Testament that’s kinda like that. The book of Daniel tells the story of the title character, Daniel, a prophet, a seer, a visionary, and Daniel is in exile with the people of Israel in Babylon. They have suffered the brutality of empires for decades, and they are longing, praying, hoping to go home, groaning with the same groans that arose from the soils of this land as African captives longed for home, for freedom, for justice.

And Daniel is driven to his knees in anguished and eloquent prayer to God (Daniel 9). He pours out the grief and the bone-wrenching confession and the supplication not only of his own heart, but of the entire people, before God. He pleads with God to hear, to open his eyes. Daniel humbly invokes the mercy and the power of God – the power that delivered the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt so many centuries before – and makes his supplication that God not withhold that power any longer and not delay in restoring the people to Jerusalem. “O Lord, listen and act and do not delay!” he cries. It is a prayer for restoration, for justice.

And like that, before he finishes speaking, before the prayer’s grand flourish and finale, the angel Gabriel shows up in answer to his prayer, saying, “At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it.”

Isn’t that how we’d like prayer to work all the time? I know I would! Start typing, “Dear Lord,” and at that very moment, the messengers of God are alighting upon the heavenly information network with a message in response, and before I can even hit the send button and say the final “Amen,” the answer arrives.

Wouldn’t it be just great to get text messages from God?! Even if the answer is no, it would still be good to have an answer. “How can I glorify you where I work?” Answer. “Whom should I marry, or should I marry?” Answer. “How can I use my gifts to serve you?” Answer. “Where are you working, and what can I do to join in?” Answer. “Black socks or tan socks?” Answer. “Do I go through with the surgery?” Answer. “What are three things for me to focus on this week?” Answer. “Is it time to discontinue life support?” Answer. I know I for one would sign up for that kind of service!

Our times are, after all, the times of the now. Ours is a culture of near-sighted self-interest, of instant gratification, instant fixes, instant weather forecast, instant noodles, instant communication, instant contact, and instant answers. We want to be told what to think in a few sound bytes, rather than think for ourselves. We approach the Scriptures hoping to glean a quick nugget of truth, rather than a lifetime of immersing ourselves in the stories, the psalms, the wisdom, the instruction, the prophecy, and the gospels. Any notion of the long haul seems to elude this age as people abandon friendships, spouses, and even churches, at the first sign of discomfort, dissatisfaction, conflict, or lack of instant results. So quickly do we lose heart!

The same has invaded our life of prayer, it seems. If you were to interview congregations across America about prayer, I wager that you would find story after story after story of starting a new prayer regimen, a new Bible Study, even, but then giving up after a few weeks or a few months and losing heart. Why? “Because it just wasn’t working out for me.” Some say that it can take years for a new spiritual discipline to take root and begin to change our lives. Years! How quickly we lose heart.

Problems with Prayer1
Now, we might be tempted to look around at ourselves, at our culture – at our present age – and assume that our problems with prayer are a modern phenomenon. But Luke knew better. Luke knew that the problems with prayer have always been with us, for even Jesus’ disciples needed a story to teach them to pray always and not lose heart. He knew that the problems with prayer have always been with us.

I suppose we could probably name a number of our problems with prayer pretty easily. Some of us – perhaps most of us – have the most basic problem with prayer: “I just don’t have the time to pray, and there’s so much else going on, it’s hard to find some quiet time.” Some of us have some ethical problems with prayer: “How can I pray for myself, for my family, when there are so many in the world who are so much worse off, and I can’t pray for them by name?” Others of us have theological problems with prayer: “If I pray for healing for a member who is sick in the hospital, and that member dies, does that mean that God didn’t listen to my prayer? Or if I pray, and the person gets better, does that mean that I changed God’s plan – that God would not have deigned to heal that person were it not for that prayer?” What does it mean to ask God to do something for us?

Well, we could put together a plenty long list of our problems with prayer, but Jesus knew that the underlying problem, the problem behind all our problems with prayer is that we lose heart.

We were in Bethlehem a little over a year ago. And in Bethlehem, there stands a 30 foot wall as a concretized reminder of the deep-rooted and intractable on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The night before we arrived in Bethlehem, there had been a politically-motivated murder. Soldiers had sought out someone who had been throwing stones, but ended up shooting an elderly man in his sleep.

We visited with a man named Sami, and Sami’s own grandfather had been killed in his village during the 1948 war. Sami and his family, as followers of Jesus, have worked tirelessly for peace and mercy in the name of Christ ever since, and he spoke with excitement and energy about his hope that peace will return to the land. It was certain to happen, and they were trying to be a foretaste and agent of that certainty. How could they be so sure, with nearly every political reality, every newspaper headline, indicating otherwise? “Because,” he said, “we have been praying for it for over sixty years.”

Would I have the fortitude to pray for over sixty years while countless lives, hopes, and dreams spiral down the drain of senseless violence? I don’t know. I think I might just lose heart. If we really believed that praying could be crucial in bringing peace to Somalia or Afghanistan or Iran or the Middle East; if we really thought that our prayers would be instrumental to bringing relief to the sickness and suffering of the world; that our prayers would be gathered into the “redemptive mercy of God” and became crucial in bringing healing and hope the the world, you couldn’t keep us from praying.2 Jesus told this parable that we might pray always, and not lose heart.

Give me justice!”
The story he told them is a story about a widow who needs justice and a really bad judge – the sort of judge, many have observed, that makes “your honor” into a mockery. By his own admission, this judge had no regard for God or for people. Maybe he thought that made him less partial, or maybe he just knew how complicated justice really is, and he doesn’t let people get to him.

But this widow, she gets to him. She gets under his skin. Now this widow, she had nothing – no husband, no family, no station in society, no money, no power, nothing. Ordinarily her husband’s estate would pass to her sons or her brothers-in-law, but she could still live off of it, and her family would go to court for her for any inheritance disputes. But this widow has none of that, and she just keeps pestering this judge for justice. She interrupts his courtroom, “Give me justice!” She comes persistently to his office, “Give me justice!” She slides little notes under his door. She leaves messages on his voicemail and persists in every way possible to wear him down, until he finally says to himself, “Fine! I don’t care about this widow. I don’t like God or people, but she is embarrassing me, and I can get no peace! I’ll grant her ‘justice’ just to get her off my back!”

Don’t Lose Heart!
Jesus told that parable that we might pray always and not lose heart. What do you suppose Jesus was hoping we would learn in that story? Well, maybe, just maybe, he wanted us to see that story from the perspective of the judge – he points us that way, “Pay attention to what the judge says!” Maybe he wants us to see that in the same way that the judge – even though he was unjust – could still grant justice, so also in our world, despite all the senseless suffering and distortion of God’s intention, God has ordered that the grain of the universe nevertheless should run in the direction of justice, and we can catch it if we just have eyes to see.

There is a long-standing tradition in Baseball, wherein young boys will bring their oversized baseball gloves to a Big Leagues game, in the hopes that they might catch that stray foul ball or homerun driven in their direction. Now of course, it is highly improbable that a ball will come directly to you at any given game, but oh the rush of hope and excitement as the batter takes a mighty swing, and the ball rises high into the air, arcing up and up and up right in your direction, as if a gift bestowed directly to you, only descend with disappointment some number seats to the left or the right, and most hopeful boys go home with empty gloves.

And so there is an equally long-standing baseball tradition wherein if an adult, sitting nearby one such ardent youngster, does happen to catch a fly-ball, that adult is supposed to give the ball to the kid. And should the adult delay or fail to notice the disappointed boy nearby, the crowd nearby will begin to chant, “Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball!”

Well, a number of years ago, there was a group of boys in the left field stands at the old Yankee Stadium,3 laughing together and enjoying the game. Now among these boys, there was a sort of tag-along, a kid with a Yankees cap that was way too big and a glove that was so big he could barely hold it up. And in the second inning, a batter took a mighty swing, and the ball rose up and up and up into foul ball territory, and it descended right for that boy, and he reached out with his glove to catch it, but then, at the last minute, a man in his thirties with horn-rimmed glasses reached over and snatched the ball away. And the poor kid was devastated.

Someone nearby began the chant, “Give the kid the ball!” And soon others were joining in, “Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball!” Old Horn Rims just shook his head and stuck the ball in his pocket and crossed his arms. But inning after inning, the chant went on persistently, “Give the kid the ball! Give the kid the ball!” until it had spread throughout the lower left-field stands, though most people didn’t even know what they were chanting about. Meanwhile the most amazing thing was happening. People around this tag-along kid were getting him peanuts and soda and ice cream.

Then one of the other boys went over to Horn Rims and said something in his ear, and Horn Rims reached into his pocket, leaned over, and gave the kid the ball. Then someone yelled, “He gave the kid the ball!” And the crowd was on its feet, clapping and yelling, “He gave the kid the ball! He gave the kid the ball!” And there was more excitement in the lower left-field stands than on the field.

And then a man in the front row caught another foul ball and got up and gave it to the kid. And there was another round of thunderous applause in the lower left-field stands. And as the boy was leaving the ballpark, yet another fan gave the kid a foul ball. And hundreds of fans at a plain old baseball game were grinning cheering, as the boy went home with three baseballs and a huge smile across his face.

Even there in the Bronx, at long last, after five innings of persistent chanting, there was justice in the stands of the House that Ruth built. Maybe that is what this parable is about, that somewhere, somehow, beneath all the corruption and suffering and senseless violence in our world, God has ordained that the universe turn on the axis of justice.

Well, no doubt, that is true, but if that’s why Jesus told this parable, then the message would be, “Do not lose heart; there really is justice in the world.”4 But Jesus told this parable that they might “Pray always and not lose heart.”

Pray Always!
Well, if not the unjust judge, then maybe Jesus wants us to focus on the widow. Maybe Jesus wants us to notice her persistence, that by sheer strength of will, she was able to wrest justice from this unjust judge.

The famous preacher and New Testament scholar Thomas Long tells the story about the day that Mother Teresa went to visit Edward Bennett Williams. Williams was a powerful Washington lawyer. He owned the Washington Redskins and the Baltimore Orioles and he was the lawyer for Richard Nixon, among others. Long tells it as follows:

Evan Thomas’s biography of Williams tells the story about when Mother Teresa visited Edward Bennett Williams because she was raising money for an AIDS hospice. Williams was in charge of a charity that she hoped would help. Before she arrived for the appointment, Williams said to his partner, Paul Dietrich, “You know, Paul, AIDS is not my favorite disease. I don’t really want to make a contribution, but I’ve got this Catholic saint coming to see me, and I don’t know what to do.” Well, they agreed that they would be polite, hear her out, but then say no.

Well, Mother Teresa arrived. . . She made her appeal for the hospice, and Williams said, “We’re touched by your appeal, but no.” Mother Teresa said simply, “Let us pray.” Williams looked at Dietrich; they bowed their heads and after the prayer, Mother Teresa made the same pitch, word for word, for the hospice. Again Williams politely said no. Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.” Williams, exasperated, looked up at the ceiling, “All right, all right, get me my checkbook!”

Maybe Jesus wants us to be like that, to cry out insistently, to be persistent until justice is accomplished. Well, that may be true, but if that were so, then the lesson would be (as Long notes) “Be feisty and pray always.”5 But the lesson of the story is “Pray always and don’t lose heart.”

Pray always, and don’t lose heart!
No, the story isn’t a motivational speech about dealing with injustice, and it’s not a humorous anecdote about what you can accomplish by being persistent. Rather, it’s about God, and it’s about us. If even a powerless widow can find justice from an unjust judge, how much more will God, who has known us from before we were born down to the number of hairs on our head, who has given up everything to redeem us, whose love exceeds time and eternity, how much more will we find a God who will listen and grant justice.

I don’t have answers to the many mysteries of prayer. I wish I did. I don’t know why we pray for one person, and that person is healed, and we pray for another, and that person continues to suffer. I don’t know why we pray for peace in our world only to see it pass just beyond our grasp. I wish answers would come – as an angel came to Daniel – before I even finish praying. I’d even settle for a little while after. But somehow, that often – maybe usually – isn’t the case.

Daniel knew that too. The grief of exile continues to weigh heavily on Daniel even after his encounter with the angel, and the next time we find him (Daniel 10), he is again praying, and he begins to fast, and he fasts for 21 days. Now it has been observed that physiological and psychological changes begin taking place after only three days of fasting, but Daniel has been fasting for three weeks. Three weeks with the gnawing, aching, maddening, empty silence in his prayer, when at last the angel shows up, and says again, “From the first day that you [began to fast and pray], your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.”

And Daniel must have been thinking, “Yeah, and did you walk all the way from the far side of Heaven to get here, stop to see some family on the way maybe?”

But the angel continues, “The prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for 21 days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia, and have come to help you” (NRSV).

Daniel prayed, and the response was dispatched immediately, but took 21 days to arrive because there were forces who were opposed to the sovereign purposes of God that delayed the messenger.

Jesus said that God will quickly grant justice to his chosen ones, but so often it is delayed in its arrival. Perhaps it is in prayer that we stand our greatest chance of confronting those forces in the world running contrary to the purposes of God; perhaps it is in prayer that we become drawn into God’s kingdom of justice and shalom.

In Ephesians, Paul’s final counsel for dealing with such forces that operate contrary to the sovereign purposes of God is to “Pray always in the Spirit. . .” to “persevere in supplication” to God (Eph. 6:18). If a poor widow can find justice before an unjust judge, will not God grant justice to God’s children, and will it not come at long last? May we pray always and not lose heart. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. Thanks to Thomas Long’s article “Praying Without Losing Heart” (http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/long_5101.htm) for some of the ideas in the central section of this sermon.
2. Paraphrase of an idea from Long.
3. Told by John J. Healey in “Give the Kid the Ball,” Chick Soup for the Sports Fan’s Soul, 307-308.
4. Long summarizes it “Take heart. Things are not as bad as they seem.”
5. Long’s turn of phrase.

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Banquet Guests

February 10th, 2012 No comments

“Banquet Guests” (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
January 15, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Introducing the Parable
In our gospel stories for this morning, Jesus is weaving another one of his yarns, another parable, about yet another great banquet.

Now apparently, he especially enjoyed this story, because he told it more than once, or maybe the gospel writers in weaving together their accounts simply found it rhetorically useful to situate this story at different ways in their narrative, or maybe a little of both; who knows? We already heard the story from Luke, the one about the great banquet. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, when he crashes a local clergy Sabbath dinner, and they get to talking about parties and guest lists and such, and the grand banquet to come.

But in Matthew, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem ministerial alliance types come up and get in a dispute about authority, as in “who said you could preach on our turf?” Now as I tell the version from Matthew, you’ll notice that the basic story is the same, but it’s told in a different way.

We’ll spend most of our time in Matthew’s parable, but we’ll also take a couple of peeks at Luke. Listen again to the story of the great banquet, as told in Matthew 22.

Read Parable

Defining Parable
Well, I want to say up front that I don’t think it’s going to be easy to figure out exactly what Jesus wants us to get from this parable about the great banquet – or any parable for that matter – especially since he told this one in two different ways. You see, even the word “parable” has always been difficult to define. It means literally something that’s “cast alongside” – something that’s “thrown out there.” “Let me throw this out there,” I’ll often say when pitching some food for thought. “What do you think about this?” Jesus said (Mt. 21:28) as he began a trio of parables ending with the one we just heard. Most of the parables, you see, aren’t explained.

The biblical scholar C.H. Dodd once famously said that a parable is a “metaphor or simile drawn from everyday life, the meaning of which is sufficiently in doubt to tease the imagination into faithful thought.” You see, that’s part of the beauty of stories, of parables – you can’t ever exhaust their meaning. You can’t preach a sermon on the prodigal son and wax eloquent about God’s grace, for instance, and conclude nice and tidy and say, “and that is the meaning of the parable of the prodigal son,” because there’s always, always, more to be said.

Did you notice the differences between Matthew and Luke? How the same basic parable about a banquet host whose initial guests stood him up could be used in two different settings and lead the listeners to ponder different aspects of it?

Another definition of a parable that I like is that a parable is like a riddle – it’s some puzzle to be solved, and just when you think you’re finally standing on solid ground, the earth beneath you begins to shift yet again. You know, I think we often forget that Jesus’ favorite method of teaching wasn’t in quick maxims or clever proverbs or rules and laws or “three things I want you to do this week.” At one point, the text even says, “He never said anything to them except in parables” (Mt. 13:34; Mark 4:34) – in riddles!

Now, you can imagine how that wore on his disciples, and in fact one day after he’d been going on and on with these parables, these riddles, they finally took him aside and asked him why he always taught the crowds in riddles (Mt. 13:10), as if to say, if you’ve got something to say, don’t mince words or speak in riddles, just say it. And, if you look up his response, you’ll see that it sounds like, you guessed it, another riddle.

Prior Commitment
Well, one day in the Temple, Jesus got a twinkle in his eye again and said, “What do you think about this?” and he told them a parable about a great banquet. In Matthew, it’s a wedding banquet that a king is giving for his son.

So the breads were baked, and the meats were roasted, and the king sent out his servants to tell the guests that the banquet was ready. But the guests wouldn’t come, so the king sent the servants back out to plead with them, but the guests made light of it and went away, one to his farm, one to his business. There’s little time for partying, after all, when there are important affairs of state and commerce to attend, when there is money to be made and family responsibilities that cannot be neglected.

Seems like almost every time I get invited to a party (most of which are Saturday evening, which is prime sermon preparation time), I have to respond and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t make it. I have a previous commitment.” “I have a prior commitment,” which is really a polite way of saying “other things I’m doing have a higher priority to this. This isn’t as important as the other stuff I’m doing, and I must decline. Maybe some other time.”

You know, my freshman year in college, I had some classes with a guy I’ll call Ben. Now Ben was on the football team, but even so, he hadn’t really made a lot of friends yet. Now Ben’s father was a recruitment colonel in the Marines. Bethel College is, of course, a Mennonite college, and we Mennonites try to commit ourselves to Jesus’ call to be peacemakers.

But I’m very sorry to say that there were a couple of my fellow students who felt that it was more important to prove that they were right about their convictions on paper than it was to practice them in humility, grace, and love, and Ben was getting frustrated by what he kept hearing, or maybe it was the way he heard it.

Now I felt as if the Lord was saying to me, “Peter, I think Ben needs you to be a friend to him.” And I think – I don’t know, but I think that there are certain times in my life when a window opens1 and there’s God’s kingdom right there, an invitation, a chance to be a part of God’s kingdom in the world. Now that window may not stay open long, but if I take that chance, I can a part of God’s action and celebration. There it is! But I said, in so many words, “No thanks, Lord. I’ve already got enough friends. Don’t have the time. I’ll have to pass. I have a prior commitment, you see.” Which is really a polite way of saying, “I’ve got my own plans, and I’d rather live free of your interference, Lord.”

“I’d rather live free of your your interference, Lord.”2 Isn’t that just about the most ridiculous thing a follower of Jesus can say? As the parable is told in Luke’s gospel, Jesus spins out that part of the story – when the initial guests refuse to come – a little more. One has purchased a piece of land and has to go look it over.

Now I know there are some farmers here, and I have to wonder how many of you would purchase a piece of land before looking it over. I’m no farmer, but wouldn’t you want to go and see if it’s in a flood plain, or if it’s on an incline, whether it’s properly terraced, and whether the top soil is any good before you take out a loan for it? And the same with oxen, the tractors of the first century. I mean that would be like calling home and saying, “I can’t make it to dinner tonight because I just bought a tractor over the phone, and I’m on my way to the dealer to find out its model and year, and see if it’ll start.”3

You’d have to be either a fool or an outright liar to say something like that, and of course it is both foolish and dishonest to say to God, “I’m sorry, I’ve got a prior commitment – engagements and affairs of greater significance than one of your parties.” A window opens, and a window closes.

Anger and Grace
Now when Jesus tells it in Matthew, these guests are downright hostile to the extreme, and they even kill the king’s messengers, so sick and tired are they of that king’s interference in their lives. And then, then, this banquet host gets upset. And I mean downright boiling, hopping mad. Here he’s got the whole banquet ready. Table after table after table has been set the food is hot and ready to eat, but the guests rudely refuse to show up. And the host is fuming.

And here, the same parable goes in two different directions. In Matthew, the furious king sends the army to destroy those murderous guests and burn their city to the ground. I suppose you might expect that of any old king. Even so, I don’t know how long it takes a king to marshal up an army, march to another city, and burn it to the ground, but I would have to think that the food must have gotten cold in the meantime; maybe even a little stale. It seems there is more than meets the eye in this riddle.

Now step across the street from Matthew’s church to Luke’s church for a second. In Luke’s telling, that doesn’t happen. The host doesn’t go and vent his fury on those belligerent guests. Instead, in Jesus’ telling in Luke, “The owner of the house,” Jesus said, “became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’” All that shock and anger and disappointment get refocused into an even greater grace.

In the telling in Luke, you’ll recall, Jesus was hanging out with the local clergy for a Sabbath breakfast or some such meal, and they get to discussing banquets (and you’ll find Jesus’ recommended guest list to be particularly intriguing if you look it up), and another guest blurts out, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

Now these are of course clergy types at this dinner, and clergy types tend to spend a good deal of time studying Scriptures, and when they get together, oh dear, oh dear, when they get together, they tend to make merry filling the air with all manner of theological jargon, using subtle hints to call to mind broad topics of discussion. “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God,” says this clergyman with a nod and a wink, as suddenly all the guests grin knowingly and call to mind the great banquet prophesied by Isaiah, when the Lord of hosts will make for all nations “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear” (Isa. 25:6, NRSV).

The gathered clergymen knew the passage well, for they had discussed it and similar passages much. You know how it is when every so many years, there’s some sort of a faith-based book that hits the shelves, and it seems that just about every church in America is reading it? Remember Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life? Or more recently, books like Heaven Is for Real. Well, there were books like that in Jesus’ day, as well, and a number of them had some comment or another on the great Messianic Banquet to come. Except that most of these books didn’t particularly like Isaiah’s perspective on things, what with the unjust foreigners being included in this banquet and such.4 They even imagined the elect at the banquet laughing as the foreigners were kicked out and slaughtered. The foreigners would be lured there as a trap to meet their doom. And there was a sect along the Dead Sea that believed that only the pious of Israel who observed the law and kept the purity would be able to attend, and it explicitly rejected those so-called self-evident sinners, namely the lame, the blind, and the deaf.

Room at the Table
It seems Jesus preferred the way Isaiah had put it to begin with, and so the host sends them out to bring in the outcasts – the poor, the lame, the blind and the deaf of the village. And the hall begins to fill as people start taking that opportunity, that window.

I remember when I was in grade school, there was a family who lived in Goessel – several kids and a single mom. And these kids were outcasts. Their clothes always smelled like they hadn’t been washed, and so did they. And it seemed like no one would have anything to do with them. But there was an elderly woman who lived by herself in Goessel. And every Wednesday night, she would go and pick these kids up, and she would bring them to church for the meal and for the evening programming, and then this elderly woman would go about the church rounding up these rambunctious kids, and she would take them back home. Why? Because the host had said to bring them to the banquet, and that’s where the host wanted them to be.

But even the outcasts from the town weren’t able to fill these banquet seats, and so the host directed his servants to go out even further, beyond their city, beyond the folks they knew, beyond, to the highways and byways, and compel people to come in. And you can imagine they’d need some compelling to come. Walk up to a couple strangers and invite them to a banquet and they’ll think it’s some kind of sick joke! But the banquet must be filled!

There was a family who moved in next to us when I was growing up – a boy, his mom, and his step-dad. Now this boy’s parents, they were really quite wealthy, but, truth be told, they weren’t always the most congenial sorts, and the community wanted little to do with them. I suppose it’s fair to say that some of the parents rubbed off on the son too, as is the way of things, but he was a good kid, and my older brother befriended him. Now his parents eventually moved to a different house, farther away, but I remember that when he was in high school, my parents would drive a half hour out of their way to go pick him up and take him to church on Wednesday evenings. Every Wednesday, we’d leave a half hour early and get back a half hour late (and you know how youth groups tend to run a little late anyway)! Every Wednesday, because there was still room at the table for this outsider.

Wedding Clothes
Well, at last the banquet table is filled, and the host gives his blessing, and the meal begins, and all is well, and you think you’re finally on solid ground. . . and than the ground beneath your feet begins to shift. Now in Luke’s church, the ground shifts just a little bit, just a mild tremor. Jesus finishes by saying, “For I tell you all, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” The window opens, and if the guests are too caught up in their way of life to be troubled by God, well, then the window closes. You remember my classmate Ben from college, the one who was struggling and when the Lord said in my heart, “Peter, I think Ben needs you to be a friend to him,” and I said, “No thanks, I’ve got my own plans; don’t bother me now.” Well, Ben did make friends – if you want to call them that – and long story short, he ended up getting expelled. And the window closed.

Well, if there’s a small tremor in Luke’s church, Matthew’s listeners are in for a major earthquake. No sooner have the seats been filled and the meal begun at last, than the king walks in and he sees a man that’s not wearing a wedding robe, and he says to him, “Hey pal, how’d you get in here without a robe?” And he boots him out into the darkness in a nasty part of town.

Well, I’m guessing that none of the other guests had the courage to say it, but surely they were thinking, “Um, sire? You can’t expect someone to come in off the street wearing a wedding robe. I mean, if you’re going to compel us to come in, be reasonable!”

There’s more to the riddle than meets the eye, you see. Did you catch that in Matthew, the host is a king? And did you notice that this is a wedding banquet for his son? Hmmmm. And did you notice how this king sent certain messengers to the guest, but they rejected them, and so the king widened the invitation? Same basic parable as Luke, but this one, this one is starting to smell like an allegory for God’s history of seeking partners in redeeming the creation.

You see, God had called a people to be his special vessels of blessing for the world (Gen. 12:3; Ex. 19:5-6, etc.), but over time the people – or at least the leader-types like the Jerusalem Ministerial Alliance started to get pre-occupied with their own plans and schemes, and they started to enjoy running things themselves and didn’t much like it when God interrupted their lives to remind them of the original plan. And they rejected such prophets and even killed some of them, even God’s own Son.

I don’t know exactly what they wanted – maybe it was security, maybe it was autonomy or wealth or power. At any rate, the people experienced the fruits of these misdirected desires as they violently rebelled, putting their hopes in power of steel and the might of chariots. And the holy city, Jerusalem, was destroyed and burned by the Roman Empire in AD 70.

[Here it’s worth mentioning that a parable is a parable and nothing more or less; an allegory is an allegory and nothing more or less; a metaphor is a metaphor and neither more nor less. If you push a story too far, it will fall apart. It’s like the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. It says something about our prayer life with God, but we don’t want to push it so far as to say that God is unjust. Likewise, in today’s parable, we might be tempted to push the story too far by equating God’s kingdom with the brutal ways and history of the Roman Empire (as it “burned” Jerusalem and slaughtered many). However, precisely the opposite is the case in the New Testament (e.g. Mt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:24-27; John 18:36; Col. 2:15; Rev. 12-13). But we should not neglect the truth, either, that when we indicate our preference for the ways and values of the world above God, God allows us to have our preference, and we come fully under those ways (see the history in Judges here, e.g. 2:11-19; 10:6-9) and ultimately suffer greatly for it.]

But God wasn’t through. God widened the invitation through his Son, and many new folks came in, became included, and things were going great. But then, as always, the ground shifted beneath their feet. You see, once you’re in, then you’re and insider, and the story cycles through, and suddenly you’re the insiders, the ones resisting giving their plans and lives to God.

But when you come to the wedding banquet, you can’t really do anything but behave like a wedding guest. You trade in your old clothes of your plans and priorities and you put on the new clothes woven of practicing the “weightier matters” of justice and mercy and faithfulness and the love of God, as Jesus put it (Mt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). Because it’s really quite simple: you can’t come face to face with the love of God and remain unchanged. You and everyone else all change clothes!

And you know what? In our culture, in our heavily-churched rural Kansas culture, ironically, this is one of the hardest things to get. Somewhere over the years, you see, we got clever. Sometime ago – I don’t know when – we discovered that you can just put your wedding robe over your old clothes (like a graduation gown), and it’s a lot easier, because that way, you don’t have to change clothes. You don’t have to change. But then suddenly you have to start obsessing about being sure you don’t slip up and show a little of your old overalls, or your silk blouse, and boy howdy, if you catch someone else slipping up, well, guess who’s gonna be the talk on the gossip train this week. And you’re stuck because you can’t truly change without revealing what you’re wearing already.

The hardest part, you see, isn’t putting the new on. The wedding hosts would keep all the robes they needed on hand (at least that’s the theory). The hardest part is letting go of the old, the old priorities, the old agendas, the old plans and schemes and powers and affairs. It’s letting go and letting God’s Spirit work God’s steadfast love.

That youth that my parents drove thirty minutes out of the way to bring to church – a number of years ago, my folks got a letter from him, long after they’d lost track of him. I don’t remember exactly what the letter said, but the gist of it was this: “Thanks for taking an interest in me. I’ve never forgotten. I thought you’d like to know I’m studying to become a youth pastor.”

You can’t truly allow yourself to come face-to-face with God’s love and not be changed. And when that happens, then there is partying in heaven and on earth. The invitation is before us; the robes are ready. Let’s come and change (aka repent) into the steadfast love of God. May it be so.

Notes:
1. Thomas Long uses this image in a sermon on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man.
2. Paraphrase of David Buttrick’s take in Speaking in Parables, 162.
3. Paraphrase of Kenneth Bailey in Through Peasant Eyes, 98.
4. See Kenneth Bailey’s survey in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, 310-311.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

The Lost and Found Files

February 10th, 2012 No comments

“The Lost and Found Files” (Luke 15:11-32)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
January 8, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Lost!
My mom periodically reminds me that when I was little, every day I used to get hurt, and every day I would lose something. I’d lose my shoes, my cap, my baseball, that all-important piece to complete the Lego set, a toy car. Katherine can tell you that some things don’t change much over time. I still misplace my keys, my billfold, my cell phone, my pencils and pens, my paper documents, wrenches and knives, and there was a tape measure that I had lost for nearly a year. And I’ll go and search high and low for my lost items, usually when I’m already late and need to go.

Our parable for this morning is about a father who has lost his son, and he’s out to find him again. But this poor father, he’s almost as bad off with losing things as I am. Did you notice there are two lost sons in this story, two prodigals, and the father’s out to find them both? Lost son number one, he’s the younger boy – he says “Dad, you’ve held on long enough already. Just give me my share of the inheritance, and I’m outta here.”

The father could say, “No way, son, you’ll wait until the proper time, then you’ll get your inheritance. You stay here with me.” But this isn’t any ordinary father. You know what he does, he lets him go, watches him sell off a portion of the family farm and walk out on the family, sees him walk out on his father’s love. You see, the thing with love is, you can’t force anyone to love you. Even Almighty God knows all too well, it just doesn’t work that way. This father, he knew he’d lost his son even before the boy ran off with his money. He could have forced the boy to stay. He had to let him go in order to find him.

Found!
Now we’ll leave what happens with the younger son until later and stay with the father for now. And this father, he was watching and waiting, waiting and watching and hoping through many seasons, until one day, he saw his son’s figure on the horizon. Most folks wouldn’t have been able to tell who it was, but this father, he knew his boys, and he knew it was his son. The father just throws all propriety to the wind, hikes up his long robes and dashes off to find his long-lost son, showering him with a mother’s tender compassion of hugs and kisses.

Can’t you just see this guy’s neighbors shaming him at the grain elevator the next Monday, about how “Any respectable Hebrew landowning father would have had nothing to do with that boy who had so dishonored him. He dishonored you. You don’t go running willy-nilly after him to give him hugs and kisses. You’re a upstanding Hebrew father (at least you were). You excommunicate him.” But not this father. He’s no ordinary father. So thrilled is he that he has found his son that he throws a party, a great, big party, with music and singing and dancing and table after table after table of fine food and great joy. “What’s lost has now been found, and it’s time to celebrate!”1 he says.

Lost again!
But no sooner has the party begun for the father who has found his son, no sooner has the whole household started to celebrate that this son who had been dead is alive again, that the father starts searching again. He looks around, and he can’t see his elder son anywhere at the party. It’s like when I find my billfold and I’m finally ready to leave and rush out to the car only to discover I’ve lost my keys! He’s lost another son! And the search begins again, for lost son number two, the elder son.

Now you’ll remember that this is no ordinary father. He wouldn’t have to search for his son, who had brought even more shame upon him by making a public spectacle of the dysfunctional family. But the father goes out to his elder son, just like he went out to his younger son to receive him back and reconcile him. He goes out to the older son and begins to plead with him to come on in and join the party, for his brother was lost but has now been found, and it’s time to celebrate!

Some things we just can’t celebrate
Seems like it’s inherent in the human race that we like to celebrate. I remember both of my nephews turning 1 year old, and we had a party. Is a one-year-old going to remember that? No, but we like to party! Or you know how when a couple gets married out-of-state, we’ll have a reception for them when they get back home? Or how about how we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the church coming to the U.S. back in 1999, and then celebrated our 200th anniversary of the congregation forming just this past year? We love to celebrate! You remember a couple of years back when we had a big ol’ hog roast with live music just because God is good?

But this was one party the older brother just couldn’t attend. It wasn’t just ‘cause his brother was there and he didn’t like his brother. And some people, they don’t like to celebrate because they think it’s premature. Go to a one-year-old’s birthday party? Ehhhh, I don’t know how the kid’s gonna turn out just yet. Go to a wedding reception? Ehhhh, better hold off to see if it’ll last. The older brother, he’s not one of those folks either, though.

You see, he knows that there are some parties you just can’t attend because there are certain things in life that you don’t celebrate. You don’t throw a party for someone who just got busted for dealing drugs. You know, I once had a neighbor who beat the rap for providing alcohol to minors because the officer didn’t show up. What did he do? He threw a party! You remember all the partying back when Osama bin Laden was killed? God said, “As I live, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11). There are some parties even God doesn’t attend.

You just don’t reward someone who has shamed your family, wasted the money in extravagant excess of lecherous living, but beats the rap by sounding all religious and coming running home to put some food in his hungry body! You don’t do that. What lesson is that going to teach the wayward lad? There are some parties you just can’t attend, aren’t there? The older brother knew that. And he wasn’t about to join the party for this deadbeat son of his father. What was this father thinking, anyway? What lesson was he trying to teach?

Party-shy Pharisees
Well, back up just a second. You know why Jesus told this parable? You know whom he told it to? Anyone? It was a group of Pharisees and scribes. Now there’s a part of the story that we don’t often catch. The Pharisees and scribes weren’t the villains we often make them out to be. They were devoted to worship, prayer, and the careful study of Scripture. They were generous to the poor and hungry and sought to live simply. They resisted being co-opted by the culture around them.

You can image that they understood, like the older brother, that there are some parties one cannot attend, but they especially misunderstood the sort of celebrations Jesus had, what with eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes and the like, and welcoming them. What lesson would that teach them, after all?

Parable Part 1: Lost and Found Sheep
So Jesus told them a parable (singular v. 3) in three parts. The first was about shepherd with a hundred sheep. And this shepherd lost one of those sheep, and without even thinking, he left the 99 to go and find the one. And he looked high and low, through the cold, dark night, until there, trapped in the ravine, he found that one lost sheep, and he hoisted it up on his shoulders and brought it back. And when he got home, he called up his friends and neighbors and said to them, “Look, this sheep, which once was lost, has now been found! Let’s go celebrate!”

Likewise, Jesus said, when there’s a sinner who repents, the heavenly host say to each other, “look what once was lost has now been found! Let’s go and celebrate!” For there is more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous who need no repentance.

Parable Part 2: Lost and Found Coin
And the second part of the parable was about a woman who had ten silver coins, each worth about a days’ wages, and one day she discovered that she had lost one, and turned on all the lights and swept out the house and searched high and low, until there, in the cushions of the couch she found that coin. And then she calls together her friends and neighbors, and says to them, “Look, this coin, which once was lost, has now been found! Let’s go and celebrate!” “Likewise, Jesus said, there is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents!

Parable Part 3: Lost and Found Son(s)
And for the third part of the parable, Jesus told about this father with his two prodigal sons. About how the first prodigal, the younger one, dishonored his family by selling off his portion of the family farm ahead of time, and ran off to a distant country, where he lived extravagantly. Robes and fine dining and comfortable living, I imagine. And, if his older brother’s assumptions were correct, he not only lost his money in that foreign land; he also lost what was left of his morals. He ended up tending the pigs, eating with the pigs, living like a pig.

And you know what happened next? Did he come home? No, it says he came to himself. This young scoundrel thought up a plan to find his home and security again. He decided he’d borrow a few words from ol’ King Pharaoh and start sounding like he found religion all of a sudden and say, “Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired hands” (Cf. Ex. 10:16).

Such was his scheme to find his way home again, but even he knew where it was going to leave him, and had a word for it: unworthy. How would you like to live like that the rest of your life, “unworthy.” But at least it was better than starving, and he set off to find his way home.

But as you may have figured out by now that these aren’t stories about finding home; they’re about being found. This son hadn’t lost home; he was lost, and his father found him and ran out to shower him with hugs and kisses, and he returned home and said to his friends and neighbors, “Look, this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost, but now is found. Let’s go and celebrate!”

Which brings us back, of course, to the second lost son, the elder son, standing outside the party, just unable to join it. And what does the father do? Again he searches. He leaves behind the party, and again he “goes out,” saying, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Everything.

Both villains in this story come out winners. Amazing grace is offered to both sons. No doubt the younger son has the lead role in this drama, but the play is all about the father, who gives his land, gives his robe, gives his livestock and riches and “gives and gives and gives and gives until he is reduced to nothing,”2 hardly anything more than a naked, laughable man, almost as ridiculous as a naked Jesus upon a Roman cross.3

Lost and Found Celebration
The younger son didn’t find his way home; he accepted being found. I suppose there’s something that comes easier about accepting to be found when you’re at the end of your rope. The older brother didn’t even know he was lost, but he was going to have to also accept his father’s scoundrel of a younger son as his brother in order to accept being found, in order to come on in and join the celebration. The thing is, accepting being found, accepting being called a son again, joining the celebration, means “having the same mind” (cf. Php. 2:5) and speaking the same words of peace and welcome and forgiveness and hope as the father, always extending loving arms of embrace, and reciprocating the father’s love (i.e. repentance, as in parts 1 and 2).

The parable ends there, with the elder brother – with us? – standing outside, deciding whether we also will accept being found and come in to join the party.

You see it turns out the father was teaching his younger a son a lesson after all. And it wasn’t “We’ll let it slide, or ah, it’s no big deal son,” because it was a big deal, and no doubt there’d be a conversation about that, but not now. No, it’s the same lesson the older son had yet to understand. It’s the lesson that changes everything, and it’s simply this: “Son, we love you. We forgive you. We’re glad your home, and we’re glad we’ve found you in peace.” Now there’s a reason to celebrate and in heaven!

Think of a father – no, think of God – who’s willing to give up everything, even give up the status or rights of being God, to paraphrase Paul (Php. 2:6-8) – there’s the laughable (e.g. Mt. 27:29) Lord Jesus Christ on the cross outside Jerusalem – in order to find us all. For what once was lost has now been found. Let’s go and celebrate.

Notes:
1. A modification of Eugene Lowry’s general approach to this parable.
2. David Buttrick, Speaking in Parables, 207.
3. Jesus was mocked, ridiculed, and shamed upon the cross.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Echoes of Forgiveness

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“Echoes of Forgiveness” (Matthew 18:21-35)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

“Pay what you owe!”
Next week, we’ll get to look at the prequel to this story – Jesus’ famous teaching to his disciples about how to deal with conflict and discipline in the church. Well, after class, Peter was looking over his notes, and he had a question – a good question, really. How many times must I forgive? How much grace is needed before someone finally must come under judgment and face the full brunt of consequence for his actions? Where do you draw the line? How long before you say, “Look, this just isn’t working”? Seven times sounded like a generous, nice, round number. How many times must I forgive?

Well, Jesus had a story to help Peter out with this one – a challenging parable about the king of a large kingdom and his servants – probably his regional governors. Well, to skip ahead in the story a bit, one of these governors had been generous enough lend some money to a fellow governor when he had come up short – a hundred denarii, maybe a few thousand bucks. Not exactly pocket change, but among governors, not exactly a life’s savings either.

When the loan comes due, the governor discovers that his debtor is a deadbeat. He isn’t good for it. He doesn’t have the cash. Finally the governor has had enough of it. He takes hold of this delinquent debtor and demands payment. When his fellow governor still can’t pay, he does what any sensible creditor or bank would do. He forecloses on him and throws him into debtor’s prison until his family pays off the full balance of the debt.

That’s what you have to do with delinquent debtors. If you let everyone’s debt slide, soon you go bankrupt yourself. It is his money, after all. Why would he let it slide? Wouldn’t that let the debtor off the hook? Wouldn’t that encourage others to do the same? Wouldn’t that be dethroning justice? Wouldn’t that be condoning the delinquent behavior?

Why should he forgive the debt? Forget forgiving seven times. Why forgive even once? Besides, don’t most of the wounds we carry run much deeper than our bank account balance? Sure, maybe it makes sense to forgive when someone unintentionally hurts us. But even so, why let offenders off the hook? Doesn’t it send the message that their actions have no consequences? Moreover, doesn’t forgiveness passively condone evil? What about abusers, murderers, terrorists, and the world’s evil dictators? Surely their unspeakable crimes are unforgivable. Wouldn’t forgiveness deny the suffering of their victims? Wouldn’t it be a horrible offense to justice? How does forgiveness help the victim?

We are left with the question, Why should we forgive? What’s wrong with enthroning the claims of justice? What’s wrong with reclaiming the debt?

So also to every one of you
Well, as you and I know, the king in this story has ten thousand reasons why this governor was wrong to reclaim the debt, and to our satisfaction, he hands this ungrateful governor over to be tortured until he can pay the full balance of his debt. That’s all fine and good, but the way Jesus wraps up the parable has always been challenging for me: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” he says, “if you do not forgive your brother o sister from your heart.”

It’s one thing to cancel someone’s loan, or to forgive a minor offense. It’s quite another to be deeply physically, emotionally, or spiritually violated. What I wanna know is, Why place this added requirement on someone who has already been so deeply wounded? Why burden the wounded with the guilt of hurting too much to be able to forgive? Isn’t that like saying to the victim, “It’s your responsibility to fix this”?

We followers of Christ may utter the words “I forgive you” freely enough, but do we every truly forgive from the heart? Do we ever really let go of the resentment? Think of those people who have hurt you over and over and over throughout your life? Wouldn’t it be great if someone would finally put ‘em in their place? Don’t we say to ourselves in the secret of our hearts, “Forgive them not, Father, for they knew what they did”? Can we ever truly forgive from the heart?

In Jerusalem, we met a man named Rami. One day, there was a suicide bombing in his community, and his 14-year-old daughter didn’t come home. He went searching from hospital to hospital, but finally found her at the morgue. How could anyone expect Rami to even begin to forgive those who had planned and executed such senseless destruction and murderous evil, which robbed him and his family of their young daughter, let alone to forgive from the depths of his heart?

Maybe our question isn’t just, “Why should we forgive?” but also, “How can we truly forgive from the heart?”

10,000 Talents
Well, I think that the king in our story would answer both of these questions with the same 10,000 reasons. Back up to the beginning of the parable. There was a powerful king who wanted to settle accounts with his regional governors. Well, there was one governor – the one we’ve gotten to know already – who owed 10,000 talents, an unbelievable sum of money comparable to the national debt.

But what’s even more unbelievable is his plea: “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything – all 10,000 talents.” “Just give me a few more days, and I’ll pay off the national debt.”

Yeah, right.

Now the king had in mind to confiscate all the governor’s possessions, and to sell not only the governor, but also his wife and children, into slavery. At least he’d recover some of his losses and get something for this pathetic governor. But upon hearing this miserable governor’s outrageous plea, which was clearly a lie, he decides to cancel the debt – all 10,000 talents. Apparently this king is a poor judge of character. Or he has a merciful sense of humor.

Well, as this fortunate governor is scurrying out before the king changes his mind, he runs into another governor, who owes him a relatively small sum of money, another governor who makes the vary same plea: “Just a little longer, and I’ll repay you.” And we know how the first governor chooses to respond.

10,000 Talents vs. 100 Dinarii
Back to the first question. Why should we forgive? To put it simply, we should forgive others because God has uncalculatingly and immeasurably forgiven us. “I forgave you all that debt,” the king said to the governor. “Should you not have had mercy as well?” We should forgive others because God has immeasurably forgiven us, because the vastness of God’s ocean of grace washes over all sin.

And there is also more, I think, to why we should forgive. It’s true that forgiveness is a sort of injustice in the strict sense. I give up my just claim on the guilty party. But the problem with justice is that it too quickly becomes retribution. It’s all too easy to charge interest on the debt. But more importantly, others’ lives – even those of our offenders – are so infinitely more complex than we can imagine that we mortals cannot possibly contrive true justice for any situation (more on this in a bit).

And in most cases, strict justice is simply impossible. The governor couldn’t possibly pay the king. No one could restore Rami’s 14-year-old daughter to him. We cannot undo the wounds we deal to one another, however much our hearts may ache to be able to do so.

But forgiveness enthrones justice. Forgiveness implies that the standard of justice is good and valid, and it has been violated. The king named the debt that was owed. That’s why it hurts a little to hear someone say, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness carries with it a condemnation of the wrong. Otherwise, there would be nothing to be forgiven. Perhaps that’s also why it’s difficult for some of us to say, “I forgive you,” for fear of being judgmental. It’s also why forgiveness can be manipulative. But when offered from the heart, forgiveness upholds God’s scandalous justice and grace.

A friend told me the story of his mother, who was afraid of death not because of God’s judgment, but because of God’s scandalous grace. She was afraid of seeing her husband again, who had abused her for many years before he died. A victim of Fidel Castro’s regime, worrying that Castro might repent before he died, bluntly said, “If Fidel gets to heaven, I don’t want to be there.”1

God’s forgiveness is truly a scandal to our cool sense of retributive eye-for-an-eye justice. And that is why our own forgiveness should not look like cool justice, but rather enthrone God’s scandalous justice and grace.

The Power of 10,000 Talents
But the second question still lingers: How can we forgive from the heart, when we have been wounded so deeply? Back to the 10,000 talents. The governor’s unbelievable debt had him destined for debt slavery. But the king’s merciful cancellation of the debt freed the governor. Without the burden of immeasurable debt hanging over his head, he was free to show mercy to his fellow governor.

I don’t know about you all, but I’ve made my fair share of poor decisions I wish I could reverse, said my fair share of things I wish I could take back. But I can’t. My decisions, my choices, my words, the things I say, are irreversible. As I was reflecting on this text, I was reminded of a time in Jr. High, when a very poor choice of mine hurt a good friend.

Years later, this friend talked with me about it, and I discovered that I hadn’t realized just how severely I had hurt him, a wound that he continued to carry. I wished with all my heart I could redo it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t. My friend had every reason to carry a grudge, had every reason never to want to see me again, every reason to blame me, to despise me. But he didn’t. “I want you to know we’re still friends,” he said.

What happens when we are forgiven? That surprising gift of forgiveness, though only a fraction of the 10,000 talents, has inspired and challenged and empowered me to forgive others as well. It has freed me, I think and I hope, to be more compassionate.

In Mark 2, Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. The scribes in attendance complain in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus didn’t disagree. It is God alone who can truly forgive sins.

Try as we might, we simply cannot. We cannot scrub all resentment from our hearts. Our scars remind us of our pain. We cannot overcome the anger and desire for revenge. As the great healer, Jesus knows that guilting hurting people into forgiving their offenders is not true forgiveness. I think he knows that true forgiveness from the heart is impossible.

He also knows that with God, all things are possible. I used to get frustrated when people would say that. It sounded like an easy answer, too simplistic. Now I see it just the opposite. I see how challenging it is. I see how difficult it is to let go of control, anxiety, pride, pain, and resentment, and yield to God’s purposes and Spirit. I see how difficult it is to put myself completely into the hands of God.

Yang-Won Son, one of the Korean martyrs, placed himself in God’s hands. Almost all his ministry was centered on the spiritual and material care of the residents of leper colonies. He resisted bowing down to the Japanese emperor, and suffered six years of imprisonment and cruel treatment. . . Son’s two teenaged sons were shot to death by. . . rioters when they witnessed to their Christian faith. . .Instead of being engulfed by hatred and revengeful thoughts, however, Son forgave the shooter, petitioned for his release from the death penalty, and adopted him as his son. We know how hard it is to forgive others. . . [yet] to even the hint of a suggestion that we cannot forgive, Jesus still responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26)2

The forgiveness we extend to one another is but an echo of Christ’s forgiveness.

Paul once said it in a different way: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:20). We might say, “It is not I who forgive, but Christ who forgives within me.”

And that is powerful. We may need to be angry at our offenders for a while. We may even join the Psalmist in raging against God. But anger placed intentionally in the presence of a God who cares looks different than the sort of anger that runs amok in people’s lives. Indwelt by the healing presence of Christ, 10,000 talents become power to forgive.

77 Times
When we’re hurt, we want justice. Often we want to claim retribution upon those who wound us. Rami, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber, wondered what he would do with his burden, with his anger. Would he get even? Would killing someone bring her back? Would causing pain to someone else ease his own?

He chose instead the difficult and costly path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Rami joined 500 other bereaved families from both sides of the conflict, who hope to spare others their pain. Family members donated blood to victims on the other side. When asked why he would give blood to the enemy, they responded, “It is far less painful to donate blood to the needy than to spill it unnecessarily.”3

That is the power of forgiveness. Rami could have returned the volley of hatred, but forgiveness causes cycles of vengeance and retribution and enmity to come to a stop. All the awkward posturing can come to an end now. The deathly tit-for-tat games we play can stop. We no longer need to bury the our resentment under a smiley veneer.

And finally, regardless of the benefit of inner peace, of inner freedom, of forgiving, forgiveness is costly to the forgiver. This Ash Wednesday, as Lent begins, we will be reminded of the cost of forgiveness as we receive the sign of the cross. In his forgiving grace, Christ has put to death hostility, broken the power of vengeance, and made peace.

The old spiral of vengeance broken by Jesus is as old as human history, Genesis tells us in the story of Lamech, who boasted of repaying murder for a mere wound, and vowed to avenge himself not merely sevenfold, but 77-fold. One day after class, Peter asked Jesus, “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus responded, by undoing the legacy of Lamech: “Not seven times, but 77 times.” May it be so.

Notes:
1 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 178.
2 In-Yong Lee, Chrstian Century (6 September 2005), 18. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3251
3 http://www.theparentscircle.com/stories/Rami_Elchanan.doc

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

March 15th, 2011 No comments

“The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:19-14)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
February 28, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

I spent many a Saturday morning curled up on the couch with some cinnamon toast and chocolate milk watching “Garfield and Friends” and the “Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show.” Now the Looney Tunes episodes with Bugs Bunny often had a similar plot line that goes something like this: Bugs is simply minding his own business, enjoying life, when some antagonist comes along and upsets Bugs’ peaceful little world by some evil act or another. And then comes the famous line: “Of course you realize, this means war.” And of course we realize that this innocent “widdle wabbit” would not do anything mean unless he was provoked, but provoked he has been, and so he feels the very human tendency to retaliate on the one who has treated him so unfairly. So the rest of the 7 minute episode often involves Bugs’ very creative ways of getting back at the one who was mean to him in the first place. It is a very satisfying plot line, especially for anyone who has ever been mistreated by another. We love to see good triumph over evil, and we especially like to see “evil” get what is coming. This is the type of justice we long for, where every person gets exactly what he or she deserves.

We read this hope that everyone will get what they deserve into this parable. We see the Pharisee as an arrogant and self-righteous man more confident in his own merit than God’s grace. And we see the tax collector as a humble and good-hearted man who is truly repentant for his past wrong-doings (just like Zaccheus, whose story is told in the next chapter of Luke). Each goes home with exactly what he deserved: the one who exalts himself is humbled and the one who humbles himself is exalted. From a reading of this parable, many have concluded that a repentant tax collector ranks higher in God’s sight than a self-righteous Pharisee, as they each get what they deserve. And indeed, “many of us have only a negative attitude towards Pharisees and warm feelings towards repentant tax collectors.”1

I wonder if this is how Jesus’ first listeners would have heard this parable, though. Unlike us, they have not been trained to think of all Pharisees as pompous villains and all tax collectors as generous and good-hearted people. This parable has completely lost its original expectation-shattering, surprising reversal with its familiarity.

Would the crowds who sat among the hillsides straining to hear Jesus speak have understood these two characters as we do today? For those listening to Jesus’ first telling of this parable, would their assumptions and conclusions match our own? What sort of connotations jumped to their minds when they heard “tax collector” and what did they think of when they heard the word “Pharisee?”

Well, with tax season drawing closer and all of the frustrated grumbling that this causes in our households, we are reminded that throughout history, no tax collector has really been looked upon in a favorable light. But perhaps Jesus’ fellow Jews would have looked upon them with even more ferocity and hatred. If anyone within the Jewish community would not go home justified, it would be a tax collector.2 They were considered traitors for working with the occupying Romans; they were serving the oppressors! They were cheating and bleeding their own people dry to pad the pockets of their enemies. They were religiously unclean and reprehensible people whose very lives were considered offensive. Surely when Jesus’ first listeners heard the tax collector cry to God to have mercy on him, a contemptuous and scoffing laugh rippled through the crowds. A just God would never show mercy to a man who had “robbed so much from the poor to give to the rich,” a man who had ripped off his own people only to serve the interests of their enemies. Surly our merciful and just God would not make an atonement for such a reprehensible and vile man.3

No, they thought, the tax collector would not be justified, but the Pharisee would surely receive favor in God’s sight. After all, Pharisees were models of piety and faithfulness; they were widely respected for their good deeds and their zeal for God’s Law. And though his words may sound arrogant to our ears, this Pharisee was simply praying according to the approved way of his time. Indeed, his prayer sounds very similar to a common rabbinic prayer: “I give thanks to thee, O Lord, my God, that thou hast given me my lot with those who sit in the seat of learning, and not with those who sit at the street corner; for I am early to work, and they are early to work; I am early to work on the words of the Torah and they are early to work on things of no moment. I weary myself and they weary themselves, but I weary myself and profit thereby, while they weary themselves to no profit. I run and they run; I run toward the life of the Age to Come, and they run toward the pit of destruction.”4

And his prayer seems to be in the same spirit as Psalm 17: “If you try my heart, if you visit me by night, if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me; my mouth does not transgress. As for what others do, by the word of your lips I have avoided the ways of the violent. My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped.”5 It was very appropriate for this Pharisee to thank God for a righteous life. It is considered that Jews kept the Law as a grateful response to God’s salvation and mercy, and if this is indeed the case, it could be concluded that this Pharisee was perhaps only referring to his obedience as a way to assure God of his gratefulness.6 Jesus’ first century listeners would not have viewed this Pharisee as an arrogant and self-righteous man, but as a faithful and godly man, whose prayer they would have liked to have been able to repeat themselves.7

But these aren’t the connotations that spring to our minds when we hear this parable. It has lost all of its punch to our modern ears. Perhaps if Jesus would have told this parable in the following way, we would be as surprised as the crowds who had first gathered to hear him:

Two men went up to the local Mennonite Church early on a Sunday morning. One a Mennonite pastor, and the other, a Methamphetamine dealer. The Mennonite pastor was well respected within the congregation, he loved his family, and he always made himself available to the members of the congregation. When he entered the church building, he saw the meth dealer sprawled out on the sidewalk. The pastor knew that this meth dealer, who of course didn’t use the drug himself, had already caused a lot of damage in their community; the pastor even knew of one situation where the daughter of one of his parishioners, who had once been active in the youth group, had become addicted to meth and had nearly lost her life last fall. The image of this vile man stayed with the pastor throughout the morning, so that when it came to be the time in worship for the congregational prayer, the pastor silently prayed: “Merciful God, I thank you for the many ways that you have blessed my life: with a loving wife, two children who make good grades in school, and who, for the most part, listen to their mother and me, for a faithful and generous congregation, a house that keeps me warm in the winter, the bounties of the local farmers, and the many other ways that you provide for us. In response to your many blessings, I have tried to faithfully follow your ways. I volunteer at the homeless shelter; I give money to MCC. I have tried to have a positive effect on this community, unlike the horrid, worthless meth dealer I saw outside, who has ruined families for his own profit. I thank you for your just dealing with each of us and that he will eventually be repaid for every life he has destroyed.”

But the meth dealer, who had stayed outside on the church steps, knowing that he would never be welcome inside, fell on his knees and cried: “God, forgive me, for I am a wretched and despicable man!” And it was this man who went home justified, rather than the other.

Perhaps this retelling begins to capture some of the expectation-shattering surprise that Jesus’ original parable carried when he told about God’s justification of the tax collector rather than the Pharisee. But Why? Why would God do this? Neither man got what he deserved. Why would God justify such a corrupt and repulsive man rather than the one who had gone above and beyond all for the sake of God’s Law? Perhaps it was not because he was arrogant and prayed in such a self-centered way (Indeed, inevitably, all of our prayers are self-centered). Perhaps it was not because he seemingly focused on works-righteousness. Perhaps it was because he had forgotten that this tax collector was also created in God’s image and beloved by the Creator. He had narrowed the wideness of God’s mercy and in his disgust and contempt for the sins of the tax collector, in his self-righteous pointing, he denied the tax collector’s humanity before God.8

For God’s grace and mercy are infinite and broader than our understanding. Do we truly have “the power to comprehend, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of God that surpasses knowledge?”9 Are we able to understand how wide God’s mercy and grace extend?

We, like the Pharisee, know God’s grace and mercy when it comes to us and those whose lives are similar to our own and we are grateful for God’s grace and loving-kindness towards us. But don’t we also long for the day when God will give what’s coming to those we don’t like? We draw lines in the sand about who is within God’s grace and who is outside of God’s grace, and very few people ever draw the line in such a way that they themselves are outside of the “qualifications” for God’s mercy and grace. In fact, God often looks suspiciously as we do, and loves what we love, hates what we hate, and excludes who we exclude.

We even do this within our churches and we point our self-righteous fingers at those who sit in the pews beside us. In The Mennonite Starter Kit there is a humorous, yet prophetic parody of this parable as told by different factions within the Mennonite Church today:

Two Mennonites went up front in church to pray; the one a liberal and the other a conservative.

And the liberal stood and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank you that I am not as other Mennonites are – militaristic, materialistic, sexist – or even as this [conservative]. I fast for El Salvador twice a week, I give to MCC tithes of all that I possess, which isn’t much since I’m trying to identify with the poor and avoid paying war taxes. I protest the death penalty and visit those in prison. I support [Ten Thousand Villages] craftspeople overseas and attend strategy meetings for all the correct causes at home…”

And the conservative stood and prayed thus with himself: “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other Mennonites are – humanistic, [unbiblical], immoral – or even as this liberal. I watch Christian broadcasting twice a week, I give them tithes of all that I possess, which is much since Thou hast prospered me as a reward for clean living. I protest abortion and have adopted unwanted babies. I support missionaries overseas and attend revivals at home…”

Which of these went home justified?10

It is human nature to draw lines in the sand, to point fingers at those we consider outside of God’s grace, and to believe that God wants to get even with those we despise as much as we do. But where is the good news in this? Is this mentality of an “eye for an eye” a part of God’s infinite, life-changing, expectation-shattering, merciful Grace? God’s grace is much broader than we could have ever imagined. God’s grace is not limited to the children who we think are most deserving. God’s grace extends even to those children who we think are outside of the realm of God’s grace. “For what good is grace – this unconditional love of God – if it is not extended to those who deserve it the least but need it the most?”11

It is human nature to show grace only to those who deserve it, to love those who love us. But it is divine to show grace even to those who we do not believe are deserving of such grace. But is this not our divine calling, as those who follow Christ in our lives, to love as extravagantly as Christ loved, to be merciful as God is merciful, even to go so far as to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? For remember who Jesus showed grace to: the unloved, the unwanted, the undeserving. “He healed lepers. He comforted prostitutes. He ate with tax collectors. He forgave sinners. Those whom the world despised, he befriended. [And even amidst the hateful mocking of the crowds and the cruel shouts of the criminals who hung beside him,] He died with love on his lips: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.12‘”13

Notes:
1 Walter L. Liefeld, “Parables on Prayer” in The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables, ed. Richard N. Longenecker.
2 Fred Craddock, Luke Commentary, Interpretation Series.
3 Ideas for this paragraph taken from: Craddock, Luke, and David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide.
4 Buttrick, Speaking Parables.
5 Psalm 17:3-5, NRSV.
6 Kent L. Yinger, The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction.
7 Ideas for this section taken from Buttrick, Speaking Parables, and Michael Farris, “A Tale of Two Taxations” in Jesus and His Parables: Interpreting the Parables of Jesus Today, ed. V. George Shillington.
8 Buttrick, Speaking Parables.
9 Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV.
10 Craig Haas and Steve Nolt, The Mennonite Starter Kit: A Handy Guide for the New Mennonite (with the liberal and the conservative switched in the retelling).
11 Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If Grace Is True.
12 Luke 23:34.
13 Gulley and Mulholland, If Grace Is True.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

Locked In

February 18th, 2011 No comments

“Locked In” (Luke 16:19-31)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
February 6, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A story of the great beyond

There are lots of Jokes about Saint Peter and the “Pearly Gates.” You’ve probably heard your fair share or even more than you’d care to hear. But one of my favorites goes like this:

There was a long line at the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter was poring over Book of Life of the Lamb who was Slain, and scratching his head. Well, there was a righteous fellow who’d lived a good life, done all the right things, and he had waited in line for hours. When he got to the front of the line, he asked St. Peter what the hold up was all about.

Peter replied, “Well, this happens from time to time. We’re having some trouble finding rooms for everyone, but I think I know what the hold up is. I’ve sent a couple of angels to investigate.” Soon the angels got back and said, “You were right, Peter. Jesus is out on the other side of heaven, hoisting the sinners and tax collectors over the back gate again!”1

Well, people were telling stories about the great beyond, about the “heavenly hereafter,” in Jesus’ day as well. It seems that rabbis – teachers such as Jesus – were especially fond of reciting these clever and imaginative stories.2 Surely Jesus was familiar with the ways such stories can communicate truths of eternal significance, and he told one about a nameless rich man and a beggar named Lazarus who meet up with Father Abraham in the great beyond.

Clothed in linen, Clothed in sores

Behind a high gate, there lived a rich, prosperous man. And every day, this rich man dined on the finest of foods – the freshest of the vine and garden, the most tender of the flock. And his closet was filled with fine linens from Egypt and purple cloth made from thousands upon thousands of seashells. He wore the Armani suits of the first century – the kind that presidents and CEOs keep in their closets, by the dozen. He shopped at his suburban shopping center. He had the finest chariot in town. He was living the dream; in everything he did, he prospered, there behind his high gate.

Now just in front of this gate, you see, there was another man. And his only clothes were the sores that the outcast dogs licked as they awaited his death. He was in constant torment, longing for a cool sip of water to quench his thirst, aching for the food the rich man so casually threw away. Lying there, just beyond the gate, he was conveniently invisible to the folks who mattered, just like our 1.2 billion hungry neighbors today, or the 30,000 children who starve to death each day.3

Surely this man’s parents would have chosen a different name than Lazarus, which means “the one whom God has saved,” had they known his future of suffering, lying there day after day, just outside the rich man’s gate.

Locking our gates

Of course, the rich man had no knowledge of this poor beggar’s name. He had made a name for himself so he didn’t have to pay attention to the likes of this beggar, if he could even see him all the way down by the gate.

Did not the rich man’s wealth prove his righteousness and the poor man’s torment prove his own wickedness? Who would dare to intervene with the divine judgment being visited upon this man in his agony? Certainly none of the Pharisees who were listening in to this parable, that’s for sure!

Fortunately, we have gates for such things – gates to separate the righteous from the wicked, lest their contagion spread. We have walls to keep suffering out and comfort in, so it doesn’t have to trouble those who have more important affairs to keep in order. The rich man couldn’t busy himself worrying about which anonymous Lazarus had let himself in to freeload off of the abundant table this time. That’s why we have gates, isn’t it?

No, the rich man had no time for this beggar Lazarus, who was so thin and miserable that as far as anyone was concerned, in the grand scheme of things, he was of no more consequence than the chaff that the wind blows away – here today and gone tomorrow. We lock our gates to keep the insignificant things out.

Locked in

But it turns out that the gates we build have an eternal significance. The rich man and Lazarus both died, the story goes. And the rich man’s life – everything he thought was important – crumbled away beneath him as the wall, the gate he had put up, became “a chasm driven down unimaginable depths.”4 The wall he had erected to guard his comfort and security, you see, had become his own eternal prison. He tried to lock the likes of Lazarus out, but he locked himself in. Permanently.

Shane Claiborne tells the tragic story of a friend’s family whose house caught fire. Their house was so heavily fortified with locks and bars that those inside could not escape – not even through a window, and everyone perished, “in part because they had so effectively locked themselves in.”5

Security becomes our prison. Gates and fences lock us in.

Next week in the evening, Katherine and I will show you pictures of a place called Masada, which means “Fortress.” Herod the Great fortified Masada on the top of a mountain along the Dead Sea. And this mountain is surrounded on all sides by deep chasms and valleys. Now Herod, you may have heard, was a tremendously paranoid man, and he had thousands upon thousands of gallons of water hauled up this desert mountain6 – more water than there was for the Temple in Jerusalem. He had grain bins and reserves for grapes. If ever he were in trouble, he could flee to his Masada. It was the fortress to end all fortresses, this Masada.

The fortress was later taken by a group of extremists during the Jewish rebellion against Rome. When Rome came to lay siege in the years to follow, legend has it that they committed mass suicide, locked within the walls of their own fortress, shut in by their own gates.

As we were leaving Masada, this fortress, Patty Shelly, our guide, said she likes to take groups to Masada, so we can see the tremendous fortification, and the tremendous effort people go to feel secure, to build these fortresses, these Masadas. And then she read Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress (“my Masada”), and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” And, as we were looking up at Masada, she said, “The Bible envisions a different sort of security.”

Whose hell?

It’s the poor man Lazarus, who had no gates to keep him comfortable, no fortresses to guard his security, who got the angel ride to Father Abraham’s bosom, where he finally enjoyed the security and comfort that he could once only dream of as he stared through the rich man’s gate.

As for the rich man, he was buried and entered Hades (or Sheol in the OT7), the land of the dead, where the flames of torment engulfed him in the daily agony he had never before even paused to consider in his comfort – the agony that daily tore at the poor man Lazarus just across the gate, the tormenting hunger in his bones and the sores constantly burning at his skin as he had lain at the rich man’s wall.

Though Jesus doesn’t use the word here, hell is the strongest word we have to describe that kind of agony,8 and we are left to ponder whether the suffering hell of the innocent – the hungry, the bleeding, the children, the heirs of Lazarus – or the suffering hell of the complacent and wicked is more troublesome to our sensitivities and frightening to our souls.9

Now the rich man was evidently religious – he called out to Father Abraham; he knew Moses and the Prophets – the Scriptures – as well as any Pharisee. And as a rich man, he had surely made a name for himself, but now it was he who was lying just beyond the gate and begging for a drop of water, while Lazarus, who “had lived nameless in the shadows of misery,”10 was now seated securely next to Father Abraham, and was called by his name, Lazarus, for truly it was he “whom God has saved.”

Since we’ve been back, people have often asked us if we were scared at all, being in the Middle East, or in communities where tensions run high. As I’ve thought about it, I wonder if I should be much more scared of my own comfortable neighborhood in North Newton.

“Jesus warns that we can fear those things which can hurt our bodies or those things which can destroy our souls, but we should be more fearful of the latter.”11 Is there any scarier place for a follower Christ to be than in a nice, safe, comfortable neighborhood, detached from the hungry, the thirsty, stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, from those who lie suffering on the other side of whatever physical or psychological gates we have created?12

Every time we lock someone out of our hearts or our compassion, every time we are too repulsed to care, too frightened to love, too self-righteous to embrace, too proud to forgive, we lock ourselves into our complacency, trapping ourselves with the rich man in the grave of isolation.

In Israel and the West Bank, we were reminded of how we’ve been building our gates and walls for millennia: Jericho, Dan, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Berlin, Arizona and Texas, and in countless human hearts. And the more gates and complacency and fear for comfort we have, we have to wonder how much farther away from God’s tears we are moving and how much closer to gates and chasms of the rich man’s hell we are stepping.13

Lift up your heads, O ye Gates!

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man ends on a bleak note. The despair of the endless chasm dividing the rich man and Lazarus invites us to rewrite the ending for ourselves, to heed the call of Moses, the Prophets, and the Risen Lord.

Jesus doesn’t desire his followers to share in the rich man’s fate; Jesus is in the business of lifting people like Lazarus out of whatever hell they’re in. Jesus is in the business of casting out the hell that burns so strongly within his enemies with love and forgiveness.

Jesus, you see, is in the business of walking through gates. Paul got the message when he wrote that Jesus, through the cross, has broken down the dividing wall between us. In Revelation’s vision of God’s future, Jesus has the keys to the gates of Death and Hades (aka Sheol, the abode of the dead) in his pocket, ready to to speak comfort and redemption to those who have suffered and died (Rev. 1:17-18).

Jesus mentions Hades just a couple of other times, most notably when he says to good old Saint Peter, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18).

Now often we think of the church fending off the gates of Hades, the church resisting the demons attacking us from the skies. But gates are defensive structures, designed to keep adversaries out. Maybe what Jesus has in mind for us is to be raiders of the gates of Hades, persistently attacking Hades’ sin, violence, starvation, and suffering with endless love and compassion.14 The gates of Hades can never withstand the onslaught of God’s grace.

In our meeting last week, we heard about how followers of Christ at the homeless shelter are joining Jesus in loving people out of their own personal hells. Or think of how many more Lazaruses – more “people whom God has saved” – God is creating every time MCC sends a container of school kits or a box of canned meets right through the gates separating. Most importantly, think of what happens every time God gives us the strength to fling open the gates we’ve placed between us and “those whose suffering would disrupt our comfort.”15

That’s what God’s future looks like, you see. In the New Jerusalem, in God’s kingdom, “the gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night.” Let’s pray for the courage to embody a little taste of God’s future today, for God’s sharpened word to disturb us a little, to overwhelm Hades’ gates with God’s grace, to walk through the gates of comfort and into “a world where people hunger and thirst, and claim them in love as our brothers and sisters, which, of course, in God’s sight they are,”16 to learn to know their names and share their tears.

And we trust that Jesus will give us the boost we also need to get over the gate.

Notes:
1 Adapted from Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President, 290.
2 Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Commentary for Teachers and Preachers, 195. Craddock says there were at least seven versions of this story alone among the rabbis. It appears that Jesus likely borrowed a popular story and modified it to make his point.
3 Ronald Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 5th ed. (2005), 2-3.
4 David Buttrick, Speaking Parables, 218.
5 Claiborne and Haw, 291.
6 It had a capacity of 1.3 million cubic feet of water storage.
7 Sheol is the abode of the dead in the OT, where all go (Eccl. 9:2-6, 10). Hades (interestingly enough from Greek mythology) is the LXX rendering of Sheol. The KJV misleadingly translates it in multiple ways, including hell, grave, and pit. NIV comes closer with using “grave” throughout. NRSV is probably best, leaving it as Sheol.
8 I use the term rhetorically, but not lightly. Jesus’ use of hell is itself by definition rhetorical, and serious. Gehenna (translated hell) was a burning garbage heap in the Hinnom Valley outside Jerusalem, which became a metaphor for judgment. Bodies were also thrown into the valley by various conquering armies to be burned. Perhaps for us today, “Auschwitz” captures some of the rhetorical and emotive freight of “Gehenna.”
9 The question, however, is not rhetorical. Are we more troubled by the suffering of the innocent? Or are we troubled by the implications of this story for those of us who are rich? This is a story of reversal of comfort and suffering. Lazarus experiences the rich man’s comfort. The rich man experiences Lazarus’s hell. While the parable, like our modern “St. Peter at the Gate” jokes, does not set out to articulate a detailed vision of the afterlife (it’s rather inconsistent with the NT vision, much like our jokes are), it does make the claim that wealth, security, and gates are not morally neutral but hold eternal significance.
10 Claiborne and Haw, 291.
11 Claiborne and Haw, 292.
12 Cf. the very dire consequences of detaching ourselves from the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned, Mt. 25:44-46.
13 Claiborne and Haw, 293.
14 The interpretation of this passage is much debated, with good arguments all around. Such is the gift of metaphor. One might also argue that rocks don’t move and can’t attack a gate. I would say the gates won’t prevail against the church (not the rock), because the church is built on the bedrock of confession. Or is “gates of Sheol/Hades” a metaphor for the “power of death/evil?” At any rate, Jesus seems to take the offensive against evil; the church is called to do the same.
15 Claiborne and Haw, 293.
16 Buttrick, 218.

Treasure for God

February 18th, 2011 No comments

“Treasure for God” (Luke 12:13-21)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
January 30, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A cry for justice!

Jesus had been stirring up quite the chatter as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem, it seems. He had just delivered a less-than-flattering speech to the local authorities, after all, and he had gotten some folks curious about him, about this edgy young teacher who wasn’t afraid to challenge the way things are.

Luke says that there were thousands – probably the peasant types who were suffering badly – who had gathered to check this guy out, actually – maybe to see if he’d be the one to stir up the way things were and improve their lot in life.

And they were an impatient lot, even trampling one-another as they tried to get within earshot, maybe a little like today’s crowds rushing after the doorbuster deals on Black Friday, hoping to find themselves the best deal possible. I imagine this feisty crowd cheering this brother on as he spoke up with his complaint, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!”

Who knows if Jesus could even tell where the voice came from, or who this someone, this person, was. Maybe it’s kind of fitting that way – this brother’s cry was everyone’s cry in the crowd that day: “Give us justice! Judge in our favor! Give us our fair share!”

The request isn’t so outlandish – modest, really. As the younger brother, he’ll get only a third of the inheritance. And surely the thousands who had gathered wouldn’t have asked for all that much either – just their fair share of the land that had been taken from them, just enough so they wouldn’t have to eat vetch or grass.

Those of you who are parents know just how talented and remarkably articulate children are at making a case for their view of what is just and fair, or if you’re a supervisor or hold any place of authority, you’ve likely heard your own version of this complaint over and over. Most often, though we hear it from our own voices: “Tell my brother to divide the inheritance!”

The mentality of division

Surely Jesus will hear and heed the cries of those who have been victimized! Surely Jesus, who declared that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, surely he would side with this younger brother; surely he would take the cause of the poor as his very own.

But to the crowd’s surprise, and most certainly to the brother’s disappointment, Jesus does not. Here he finally has a chance to put all this preaching about justice into practice, and what comes out sounds like a cop out:

“Who set me to be a judge or a divider over you? Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of insatiable desire; for one’s life does not consist in the surplus of possessions.”

And you can almost hear the disappointed sigh going through the crowds. Here’s a poor guy who just wants a portion of the inheritance so he can make a living, and Jesus says, “Don’t be greedy, now.” Another guy who’s all talk but can’t take a stand when he needs to.

No doubt, Jesus could have rightly ruled in favor of this plaintiff. Now doubt, he would have been justified to say, “Yes, divide the inheritance in accordance with the law.” No doubt he could have played the role of judge and divider. But in this case, for some reason, he will not.

This division mentality is, after all, a common solution to problems. When two people need something, you divide it among them. That way everyone gets their own slice of the pie. When I was in college, I even studied mathematical methods of fair division.

As we spent time in the West Bank and Israel, we discovered that the division mentality runs strong. What do you do when different groups are laying claim to the land, to the inheritance? You divide it, and as we crossed the Jordan River and traveled to Jerusalem, we crossed through a 30-ft concrete wall, a looming monument to the human desire for division, with armed soldiers boarding our private bus.

The famous missionary Lesslie Newbigin once said, “Our problem (as seen in the light of the gospel) is that each of us over-estimates what is due to him as compared with what is due to his neighbour. . . If I do not acknowledge a justice which judges the justice for which I fight, I am an agent, not of justice, but of lawless tyranny.”1 What kind of justice was this brother seeking? we are left to wonder.

A rich fool

Time for a story, Jesus says.

There was a certain rich man, a landowning man, a good, hardworking man, whose land produced abundantly. Well, this rich man, he figured he earned the increase. And in the absence of any friends or family he was willing to trust to talk with, discussed with himself, saying, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Can’t sell it on the saturated markets. No room left in the storage bins.”

(Like most folks in his position, it seems, the thought didn’t cross his mind that he was already rich and didn’t really need any of this surplus. Nor did he consider that maybe God had given the increase. After all, he’s only dealing with himself!)

Well, as he continues to discuss with himself, he comes to the obvious conclusion, “This is what I’ll do: I’ll pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.”

And at this, Jesus has the crowds – these thousands of peasants who are listening – nodding in approval (!). After all, they know the story well of how Joseph told the Pharaoh to store up his surplus harvest for the coming time of famine. Perhaps peasant folk like themselves would even be able to share in this abundant surplus being stored for the years of famine!

And any of the religious authorities present would have been pleased too, for the Levites would go around to such barns to collect the offerings. What a wise, compassionate, and pious man, this farmer is!

But the rich farmer, we soon find out, has none of this in mind. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; You’ve earned the good life; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Sounds like the American dream to me. Work hard. Invest wisely. Expand your holdings. Make something of yourself, and enjoy life and prosperity. Throw yourself a party!

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night they are demanding your soul of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”2 This rich farmer, the thought he had the accounting down. He thought he had it all figured out: “He thinks that the total needs of the total person [i.e. the “soul”] can be met by [the total of the] material surpluses well preserved for the owner’s exclusive use. . . Into this tidy equation comes the thundering voice of God.”3 It’s total foolishness is what it is! “Look at what you have done to yourself! You plan alone, build alone, indulge alone, and now you will die alone!”4 You Fool!

Now “fool,” that’s an interesting word in the Bible, a more serious word than how we use it today. The Psalmist says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1).

The fool considers God to be of no consequence, and because of this, he is corrupt, unable to look beyond himself to guard the well-being of others, even with his scandalous excess. He fails to realize that his well-being, indeed, his very life, is caught up in God’s grace and in his dependence on others.

Instead, the fool seeks his life in his own plans for well-secured barns, no doubt with his own walls to keep out any thieves or hungry peasants, so that his own comfort and sense of security may remain undisturbed. He thinks he can throw a party for his own soul. Surely this sort of scenario was just as familiar to Jesus audience as it is to us today. The rich get richer; the poor get poorer. After all, greed is not exactly a modern phenomenon.

Whose treasure?

So the rich fool in this story doesn’t get a lot of sympathy then or now when his soul, his entire being, is demanded of him. Just as he thought his abundant harvest was his alone, so also he believes that his life is his alone.

We don’t know who the “they” are who are demanding his life of him. It could be a polite way of talking about God. Or Jesus could be making a sort of popular religious reference in his parable to the idea of angels coming to take his soul.

Or it could even be the folks to whom the surplus should have gone – the poor, the peasants rising up against this rich landowner in their anger,5 crying out for justice but really seeking division, revenge, and tyranny, just as many such Zealots were plotting to do in Jesus’ time and ours as well.

Regardless of who’s demanding the rich fool’s soul, Jesus’ listeners are left with the question that the rich fool cannot answer: “Whose will all these things be?” We don’t know who will win the power struggle after the rich fool’s death. Most likely it will pass to some other rich landowner, and the story will repeat itself.

All the rich fool’s land, all the rich fool’s wealth, even the rich fool’s soul were not his own, despite his best attempts. Worst of all, he didn’t even realize that his goods and his life weren’t ultimately his own, but were on loan.

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not gathering riches for God,” Jesus says. The rich fool, it turns out, had ample storage for his riches in God’s kingdom, in the stomachs of the hungry surrounding him. But he was too self-absorbed, unable to see beyond his own soul, and so he served himself instead of serving God by serving others.

He exerted all his energy on enriching himself and his own security, but “such energy finally destroys the self that exerts it.”6 We’ll get to hear more about greed and complacency next week as we tell the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Treasure for God

But for today, as the parable ends, we’re left with this someone, this person, this anonymous brother in the crowd to wonder whether division of inheritance is the real problem. Sure, Jesus could have called for division. He could have told the brothers to divide up the inheritance. He could have fed that desire that we all have to divide things up, to find our security in constructing protective enclosures around ourselves, whether they’re 30-foot concrete walls, or barns-full of stuff, or those barriers we construct in our hearts to shield ourselves, to seek our security in cutting ourselves off, so that we are left with no one but our own soul.

But Jesus knows that division won’t solve the problem. He can see that the relationship between these brothers is crumbling, and he knows that dividing the inheritance isn’t going to address the real problem. How many inheritance disputes today are really about the stuff?

We had an opportunity to meet with one of MCC Palestine’s partner organizations called Wi’am, a reconciliation organization. Zoughbi Zoughbi, the founder and director wisely observed that it doesn’t matter so much what decision (if any) political leaders of Israel and Palestine reach, matters less how borders and divisions are drawn, as it matters that there is reconciliation among Israeli and Palestinian communities, if there will ever truly be peace.

This brother’s story is our story. We’re all too talented at crying for justice, at prescribing for others what they should do, without looking within ourselves first. And Jesus cares about justice, no doubt about it. But the security we seek too often shoves other out and locks us in, and becomes security just for us.

You see, Jesus knows that true justice, the sort of justice the Bible envisions, comes into focus when there is reconciliation and relationships are restored.

Dorothy Day, famous partner in solidarity with the poor, writes how time and again, the Catholic Worker gave away all it had, trusting in God to provide. One day, a girl came in asking for four blankets, but there were none left. That afternoon, four more blankets arrived.7 Like the widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17), they continually gave away all they had, and yet had enough. Day and her fellow workers lived in poverty, storing up treasure for God and finding their security in God’s provision.

“Seek first the Kingdom,” Jesus once said, putting it another way.

Jesus challenges us to look within, to seek our security and justice not in possessions or divisions, but in giving ourselves by serving and trusting God by serving others. Next time we have a surplus, we can ask, “How can I serve God in this?” For then we will be gathering riches for God, and in those riches we find our security, our abundance, and the reconciling justice that guards our neighbor’s well-being together with our own.

Notes:
1 Lessie Newbigin, The Open Secret, 124.
2 “They are demanding” is the literal translation.
3 Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 66-67. See also Bailey’s discussion of the Greek text: euphoreo (many things) producing euphron (the good life for the whole person/soul) is actually aphron (foolish, without mind, spirit, and emotions).
4 Bailey, 67.
5 Mary Ann Beavis, “The Foolish Landowner,” Jesus and His Parables ed. V. George Shillington, 65.
6 Bailey, 70.
7 Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Orbis, 2005), 59-62. The Worker even refused interest on property claimed by eminent domain, out of moral conviction, witness, and protest against the way their money had been used (294-298).

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