Where Grace Comes From

Another hard teaching of Jesus hits us in the face this week — the parable of the dishonest manager!

1 [Jesus] also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2 And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3 And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7 Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8 The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:1–13 ESV)

This is hard and difficult story. It seems, at one point, that Jesus is telling us to make friend “by means of unrighteous wealth.”

In fact, Jesus is telling us to make friends with “unrighteous wealth” (μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας, literally “mammon of unjustness”). Because when that wealth fails (as it does for the rich fool in Luke 12–21), all that will remain are the relationships you have made from the grace you have shown.

Because … Grace. But first, a little bit about this phrase the ESV translates as “unrighteous wealth.” It makes it seem as if there is righteous wealth. I’m not sure there is is. At the end of this passage, Jesus tells all those who will listen that they cannot serve God and money (οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ). And this is a big deal, because Luke immediately describes the Pharisees as “lovers of money” (ESV, in the Greek literally “fond of silver”). So, there probably isn’t any such thing as “righteous” wealth in Luke’s conception.

There is, however, wealth righteously used. Not for self-aggrandizement — to build big barns and allow the owner to rest contentedly. But wealth shared, with the poor.

Grace given. Because in some ways this parable almost sounds like a description of Jesus’ ministry — he is the dishonest manager. And the grace given here are the debts forgiven. Perhaps they could be paid, and perhaps not. But the people who owed 100, and suddenly found their bills slashed to 50 and 80, found themselves receiving unearned grace. Their lives haver been changed by something far out of their control.

That said, rich man/king and manager/steward parables often strike me as trying to communicate something about the story of God and Israel. That the owner (God) is about to put the place (Israel) under new management. The old managers, who have not been faithful, will be removed — violently. Victory goes to those who flee, to those who get out of the way, or to those who are simply called to the feast.

This may be another such parable. The old management, through faithlessness, is doomed. It is being replaced. So, the old managers (the Pharisees), if any wish to survive, needs to be clever, needs to understand there is no going back, no saving itself.

I think this is why Jesus’s words and deeds work on sinners. They are already outside, and they have little to protect and little to defend. To be outsiders is not so much to be included in the established order (which is going to be blown up anyway), but it is to know that God is reaching to the outsiders first to build a new order once the old one is blown up and the dust begins to settle.

Grace to those who owe. And a call to serve God, rather than love silver.

Church in the Wilderness

I love this place.

Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Moses Lake. It’s a quiet place. It’s the kind of church, the kind of monastery, the kind of religious place, that I have dreamt of.

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For years. For decades.

I have been attended daily mass here in the mornings. I love daily mass. I love daily worship. Even if I wasn’t the best Muslim, I loved the idea that secular time comes to a halt for a bit so that God can become the focus of our time, our thinking, our efforts. I’m not the best attendee of daily mass either, but I went often when I lived close to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in Chicago (where they did the mass in Latin!) and then St. Peter and St. Paul Church (part of the Blessed Sacrament Parish in McKinley Park, Chicago) as a kind of daily devotion.

But I also because … I need Jesus. I need grace.

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But there’s something about this place that feels … right. It’s low, quiet, subdued. It has a courtyard with a fountain. The baptismal font is a wading pool, and the water flows. It’s not quite in the middle of the desert, but Central Washington is dry and dusty. And there’s something about the desert that feels sacred to me. A place where I could find God if I wandered far enough into the wilderness so I could hear nothing but the wind blow, and rustle the brush.

The chapel is simple, small, brightly lit (though it would feel better if it was lit by natural as opposed to electric light). The priests are friendly; so far, I’ve not been growled at like I’m a homeless man sitting in the church steps or lectured that saying “and with thy spirit” is changing the words of the very mass that Jesus himself established.

On Wednesday, Father Rodriguez explained to worshipers that yes, priests do have to make confession. “But we try not to confess our sins to the bishop. You don’t want to confess your sins to the bishop!” he said. To much laughter.

Which is true. I can attest to that.

Sitting here in this place, singing the hymns, repeating the words I am supposed to receive, looking at the large crucifix on the wall, I know I belong here.

I feel an ache I have felt for as long as I can remember — I want to give myself to God. Body and soul. Mind and spirit. I want to give myself over to this most important work of proclaiming grace, of listening to the sorrow and suffering of human souls and knowing — as I meet human suffering — I have met Christ’s suffering, and the suffering of God.

I want this simple life. This profound life.

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The genius of the Reformation was an acknowledgment that this holiness, this surrender to God, could and did belong to everyone. Everything can be a sacred vocation. But the Reformation also discarded the reality that some of us are called to more. God may love us all and call us all, but God does love some people more and call some people with greater fervor and purpose.

I want that more.

And this place reminds that more is possible. I will likely never live it, but someone does. And that is enough for me right now.

JOSHUA A Few Final Thoughts

The last few weeks I have spent reflecting on passages from the Book of Joshua have gotten me to thinking about things. Which is good, I suppose, though some might argue that I think too much.

But I have drawn some conclusions from this little romp through Joshua that are going to stick with me.

First, leading the people of God is a thankless task doomed to failure. By all accounts, Joshua is a successful leader. He accomplishes much, wins most of the battles he leads, and appears to be a faithful a man as possible.

Yet the enterprise he leads is doomed and he knows it. “You are not able to serve the Lord,” he tells Israel. And he’s not wrong. Joshua knows a thing or two about this people. He knows what they are not capable of. Perhaps he paid attention to the warnings given by God through Moses in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. The blessings and curses. He knows that even despite the presence of God in Israel’s midst, fighting its battles, winning its victories, that this endeavor will end in defeat, conquest, and slavery. (“And the Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, a journey that I promised that you should never make again; there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.” Deuteronomy 28:68)

Joshua did not worry about Israel’s success, at least not in the long term. He followed God’s appointment to lead God’s people, and he did so faithfully. But he also did so knowing how this would end, that this stiff-necked, faithless people of God would fail and would do so utterly. That everything he accomplished in conquest and building would eventually come to nothing as others would, in turn, conquer and destroy all he’d done. Joshua was faithful in the face eventual failure. He was still faithful.

Nor did God worry about Israel’s success. God laid out the consequences for Israel’s faithlessness, and the history of Israel bears witness to the rise and fall of Israel. God understood Israel would eventually fail, and yet God led Israel into the land of promise, fought for Israel, and gave the land and its cities (and even some of its people) over. God was faithful even in the face of eventual failure.

A reader wondered as I began this whether I would read Joshua Christologically, that is, see Christ in the figure of Joshua. It’s hard because I find Joshua a stern and unyielding figure, a forbidding man hard to square with the Jesus who calls “softly and tenderly.” (Though I will be the first to say Jesus mostly doesn’t call “softly and tenderly.”) One place where they meet is in faithfulness. Success is not the creation of a lasting empire — there are no permanent empires anyway — but rather following the call of God, being the presence of God, doing God’s work right here and right now and not worrying about descendants or legacies or the future. Jesus taught and healed and cast out and raised the dead having at least some idea of where it all would end — on a cross, alone and abandoned to despair and death. He set his face toward Jerusalem anyway.

So pastoral ministry and faithful discipleship must always be aware that while there are victories to be had in the here and now (with God as the author of those victories, as at Jericho), God’s people are a ragtag group who are doomed to defeat. Which is okay. We lead them faithfully anyway. Because the victory we have faith in — a victory foreshadowed even in the blessings and curses laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy — is resurrection and repentance.

And to rise, we must first die.

Second, Israel’s only real sin is idolatry, and we need to remember that. The sin that gets Israel exiled from the land — that results in Israel’s conquest and exile — is not abortion, or the tolerance of homosexuality, or the creation of a welfare state, or even the failure to properly care for the poor (though the prophets are big on that as a reason for Israel’s doom). Israel’s sin — the sin that causes all the suffering and dislocation — is idolatry. And Joshua makes that clear in his warnings to Israel to “put away the gods of Egypt” and to ignore the gods of Canaan.

Which is something Israel cannot do.

It’s intriguing that Israel finds idolatry — the worship of gods who cannot do and have not done anything for Israel — so attractive. Scripture does not appear to say why this is the case, gives no reason for this constant temptation to idolatry, only that Israel will face this temptation and will fail to resist it. The very tempting gods of the Canaanites were the very reason Israel was to make no covenant with them, and to wage war mercilessly as God drove the people of Canaan out. Because whenever Israel gets a chance, it worships those worthless gods. Without fail.

Why is this? The Canaanites who misrepresented themselves in order to do a deal and seek Israel’s protection weren’t afraid of Israel — they were afraid of Israel’s God. They heard what he had done for Israel in Egypt, and against the Amorite kings. It would seem that, after such works, idolatry would be impossible. We have a God who fights for us! A mere lord of clay or a male fertility symbol or a golden calf ought to be meaningless.

And yet they aren’t. Israel isn’t done in by the mere toleration of sin (David’s entire career of murder and adultery should prove that, though idolatry and sin — especially sexual sin — are to a certain extent linked in scripture), or the acceptance of other religions in its midst (I see few American Christians tempted by Islam), or even the proclaiming of sin as righteousness. Israel is done in by its worship of that which cannot save it. Any conversation about the failures of the church to be a faithful people has to begin here, with the question: If our God is an awesome God who has saved us again and again, why are idols so tempting? Why aren’t we faithful to that God?

Why can’t we be?

Third, we focus on the word/will of God when we should be far more concerned with the presence of God. As God’s people, we tend to focus on the written word that we have – instructions, commandments, teaching, story. It has become for us the law. And adherence to this teaching is what makes us God’s people, is the standard by which God will judge us, and it keeps us safe from God’s wrath.

It’s easy to focus on the teaching. It is words, it seems clear and frequently unambiguous, and this teaching can tie us together. Joshua, however, shows that we ignore the actual presence of God in our midsts at our own peril.

The Lord gives a clear teaching to Israel in Deuteronomy 7 — make no covenant with the Canaanites. Show them no mercy. This is the law, the teaching, the word and will of God for Israel.

And Israel follows it, until the Hivites of Gibeon show up, pretending to be someone else, making a covenant with Israel. Even though Israel discovers the deception, Israel still keeps to the deal, and God then makes the sun stand still and fights for Israel in defense of its newly acquired allies.

Israel makes a covenant with Canaanites, and then God — who commanded Israel to make no covenant with Canaanites — fights the battle with and for Israel to defend those very same Canaanites.

This is the presence of God in Israel’s midst.

Did God ever rescind the command to make no covenant? No. Did God command Israel to remember the law? No. God took the circumstance — Gibeon’s deception, Israel’s agreement — to show his glory and bestow his blessing. To Israel and to the Canaanites (who were already terrified of the Lord God anyway). Is there a consequence for Israel enslaving and covenanting with Canaanites? Of course. Their gods will prove a constant distraction for Israel, and that distraction will eventually lead to disaster.

But God is present with Israel regardless. God works in and with Israel’s disobedience, not merely to impose consequences, but to bless and redeem Israel as well. God acts in new ways in the midst of our disobedience — with our disobedience — to bless and redeem and be present. To show that God’s desire for us isn’t merely words on a paper, but alive in the world all around us.

This is hard for us, because the rules seem so clear, and we believe that by obeying them we will avert disaster. But even in scripture, in this word and will, we have constant examples of God acting situationally in violation of God’s very own commands. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch even though Deuteronomy 23 is clear he cannot be part of the assembly. Jesus heals, again and again, on the sabbath.

This presence is hard to discern, however. Those who focus on the will/word are right to ask — what distinguishes your experience of God’s presence from mere hedonistic law-breaking? There is no easy answer to that question, and no easy way sometimes to point to God’s presence in our midst. I do believe we should “sin boldly” and trust God (“He eats with sinners!”), but that’s not an answer all will find faithful. Or honest.

I’m not saying the law is invalid. We need that law. Maybe to show us we are sinners as Lutherans confess. But more importantly, without those bounds, we cannot know when God is gracious and when God is truly present. The story of Israel is not the story of a people who obeyed God and lived happily ever after sending sacrifices to heaven; it is the story of a sinful people who disobeyed and who constantly needed the redeeming presence of God. Without the law, the will of God, we cannot violate it, and without violating that law, we cannot truly experience the presence of God. We cannot be found unless we are first lost. We cannot be redeemed unless we are first held captive.

We cannot know grace unless we have first sinned. And we cannot know the presence of God — truly know — unless we have first forgotten what that presence is like. And what it does for us.

Israel will forget. And will need frequent reminding.

Lastly, it’s interesting the no one in scripture seems to claim Joshua as their ancestor. I once noted it was curious that no one claimed Moses as an ancestor. The same applies to Joshua, too. He appears in no genealogies, is in no one’s family tree, and no one seems to claim descent from him.

I find this odd. We worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — we know who our ancestors are. Yet this great leader, who speaks of his family, and who has his own inheritance in Israel, is not succeeded by anyone from that family. Perhaps this reflects the early Israelite opposition to monarchy, and perhaps it reflects an understanding of what it means for God to pick Israel’s rulers rather than the Israelites to pick them theirselves. (Though the first of the judges, Othniel, will possess a solid pedigree in his relation to Caleb, who along with Joshua were the only two spies to return from Canaan confident of God’s ability to defeat the Canaanites.)

I would have imagined many would have tried to claim descent from Moses and Joshua in order to procure political, social, and religious legitimacy for themselves. That they don’t — that we have no record in scripture or history of anyone doing so — is curious. And I have no answer for that.

JOSHUA The Stones Won’t Be Silent

So, in Joshua 24, after Israel promises to adhere to its covenant with God — to put away the gods of Egypt and avoid the gods of Canaan — Joshua responds, rather firmly, to this stiff-necked people:

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance. (Joshua 24:19–28 ESV)

I’m not sure I’d like to meet Joshua. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man you could sit down and have a beer with. He seems every bit the stern, angry, and possibly even self-righteous believer and follower of God that I’m certain he was. He scares me, and it’s no coincidence that the folks at The Brick Testament portrayed Joshua with a permanent, angry scowl.

So while this answer — “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” — is just that kind of stern and unyielding, it’s also absolutely correct. Israel can’t serve their God. And the history shows … they won’t.

And yet Israel swears it will serve. It will obey. It will worship. Big words from Israel. A big promise from Israel.

But I’m interested in this stone Joshua sets up as a witness of all that Israel has promised. All Joshua has said they cannot and will not do. And I am reminded of a passage from Luke:

37 As he was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:37–40 ESV)

The stones would cry out. Would bear witness to who Jesus was, would shout “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

We know stones cannot cry out. This stone will stand under this terebinth tree bear mute witness to Israel’s proclamation — “No, but we will serve the Lord.” And Jesus weeps over the city, over those very stones that would proclaim him Lord and King. “And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:44)

Stones bear better witness when they testify to what was rather than what is. Think of a ghost town, or an abandoned building, or the ruins of a lost and ancient civilization. It is the emptiness, the decay, the ruin, the disuse, that testifies. In silence, such things speak powerfully to what is no more.

This stone, underneath this tree, speaks of what is to come — failure, defeat, conquest, destruction, exile. Israel cannot know that, though I suspect Joshua has been given some insight. He may have some idea of what is coming.

And perhaps that is why he is such a stern and angry man. He has been given a thankless and unpleasant task, of faithfully leading and shepherding a faithless people. God’s people, whom God has called and formed and loved, but a people who will tread a hard and difficult path because they cannot do as they promise.

Joshua and his family follow the Lord, and all he gets for it … is the very same death every one of God’s people will die. Gathered to his fathers, to decay in the ground. The fate of the righteous and the sinner alike.

Count the Costs?

A reflection on the Gospel for this week, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C), is from Luke 14.

25 Now great crowds accompanied [Jesus], and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25–33 ESV)

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Another tough teaching from Jesus, one I don’t like. Because it has been the muttered justification for many who, in their self-righteousness, believe their suffering makes them better than those around them.

It’s amazing how small “bearing a cross” has become. Mostly, from my experience, it is used to describe annoying and difficult people who need or want or demand too much — people whose lives are something of an inconvenience. And maybe there is something to this, if we take Jesus’ bearing the unearned sins of the world, or an inconvenient and troubled humanity, in his Passion seriously.

We are all an inconvenience. Jesus never seems, at least to me, to respond self-righteously to us (“Look at all the suffering I do for you! And because of you!”), but maybe I’m not paying attention and I missed that.

I’m going to skip the bit about Jesus telling us that unless we hate our family, we cannot follow him, though I always think that has an interesting implication for the settled people who follow Jesus who also put family and place above all things.

Rather, I am interested in counting the costs, and wondering if there isn’t some irony here.

Because who can truly count the cost of discipleship, unless — of course — we consider failure and death as the eventual cost of true discipleship?

Jesus speaks of tower builders who don’t plan well and don’t consider the cost. But the Tower of Babel story of Genesis 11 comes to mind, in which I suspect there was much planning — but also much hubris (“Let us make a name for ourselves!”). The people of Babel worked hard, probably planned hard, to build that tower all the way to heaven. In fact, their ability to plan and work together was the problem the Lord encountered when he inspected the building site.

So, God intervened, confused their speech, and scattered them, making their work impossible. All that planning, come to naught.

Or about the king who rationally considers his possibilities as he leads his army to war, and if outnumbered, makes peace rather than risk his his throne and his country’s fortunes.

Except … every Israelite war God actively took part in on Israel’s behalf, Israel was outnumbered. Sometimes deliberately so. Gideon marches out with 32,000 soldiers, only to be told by the Lord

The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boats over me, saying, “My own hand has saved me.” (Judges 7:2 ESV)

Eventually, God winnows this army down to 300 men who drink from the river funny, and they route a much larger Midianite army. Gideon planned well, counted the costs, and led an army into battle, only to have God intervene and change everything.

How can we count the costs in a world in which God acts to save or confound?

What Jesus says makes sense — good, rational sense. But we’re not really governed by reason, are we? How many kings have marched off to war because honor was aggrieved or dignity was at stake and did not count the costs to them or the nation (such as Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35)? Israel’s impending rebellion against Rome was hardly a rational act, coming as it did against the supreme military power of the world. No one had ever successfully rebelled against Rome at this point in history. But that didn’t stop Israel from rising up and trying to shake off Roman rule. Roman power did not compel Israel’s leaders to count the costs.

I’m not sure Jesus even counted the costs. Perhaps if he had, his life would not have ended nailed to a cross on a desolate hill outside Jerusalem.

Where Jesus is honest and sincere here, however, is in renunciation. In leaving behind family, friends, even reason and cold calculation. It may be that when we follow Jesus, we cannot count the costs in any meaningful way, because we are given a cross to bear all the way to the Place of the Skull. That place of death. And few want that. We would avoid that at virtually any cost we can imagine.

And yet, we are called to follow.