SERMON Beloved Child

I didn’t reach today, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

I remember a conversation once with Kaylie Mendoza. She was talking about how much she hated language of adoption in scripture. Because in all her years in the foster system, no one adopted her — and for some fairly complex reasons I won’t explain here, no one could — and so, she wasn’t really anyone’s beloved child.

Which is why it has always been important to me to say to the kids who look to me as a parent-figure of some kind (and you know who you are), to say what this voice says from heaven.

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I have said it to Kaylie. Not as often, perhaps, as I should. I have said it Michaela, because as bright as she is, as successful as she has been in here life so far, she struggles and fears and wonders what will come of any of it. She fears failure. And so to her I say what I say to Kaylie or to any of those young people who stick around longer than to simply find safety:

“You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. And John — troubled, bug-eating, misfit and malcontent John — knew that. He knew this man had no need of repentance, no need of water and word, of the promises of God. Jesus is the promise of God. Made flesh in our midst. He doesn’t need this.

But we need him to do it. We need him in the water with us, wet, soaked, penitent, having words of blessing pronounced as he goes under and dies that symbolic death we all die when we go under.

We need him.

Because when we come to that water, when we go under, when promises are spoken and the blessing of God called down upon us, we join him. In the water. On the road. On the cross. In the tomb. Bearing wounds. Calling disciples to follow. Ascending to the heavens.

And he joins us. In school. Eating dinner. At boring, repetitive, poorly paid work that means little and seems to accomplish less. With friends, hanging out.

He joins us. At night, when we’re alone and frightened, when those who creep and lurk and hurt come and do their worst. He has been there, alone, frightened, beaten, broken, tortured.

He went into the water. And came out beloved child of God.

And so when we go in, we too come out, and even if we do not hear those words — because I didn’t — God speaks over us:

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Child of God. You. Me. All of us. Whether that water is a river or a font or a bowl on a pedestal, or tears are have cried in sorrow and shame and loneliness, we have been washed. Clean.

We are his. We are children, beloved and adopted, of one heavenly Father who is there with us. No matter how alone or scared or abandoned we have been. Beloved children of God.

Wanted. Needed. Called. Cared for. Redeemed. Risen. Alive.

Amen.

SERMON A Dangerous Man

I didn’t preach on Sunday. But if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)

And so we have, tossed off here, one of the most horrific passages of scripture we may ever encounter. In a book full of horror, needless, pointless, purposeless violence.

Jesus is saved. In a dream, his foster father Joseph is told to flee with him, and Mary, to the safety of another land. Herod, who jealous and angry and very, very afraid. Jesus is a usurper, “the king of the Jews,” and he threatens Herod’s very own throne. Herod wants to keep his throne. He rather likes it, the wealth and the power and the privilege that come with being King of Judea, even if it means accepting Roman rule and Roman occupation.

He likes being king. Why wouldn’t he? Who would want to give up a throne, and all that came with it? So babies, toddlers, threaten him. If the cosmos has anointed him King of Judea, King of the Jews, then Herod’s has lost his throne. It is only a matter of time.

But no man goes quietly. King Saul lost his throne when he was faithless toward God, who commanded Samuel to go find and anoint a new king for all Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young David struggled with Saul for years, perhaps decades, before he came into the kingdom that had been promised to him, fleeing and fighting and even giving himself in service to Israel’s enemies.

Herod will not go quietly either. If a mere toddler from Bethlehem threatens his throne, well … it is better to do away with all of the little boys in Bethlehem than to risk that loss.

That’s fear.

There’s a sad fact about scripture. It is not sentimental about the dead. That strikes us as strange, because we revere our dead. We seek purpose and meaning in their lives, their suffering, their deaths. They are still with us in many ways, telling us what our lives mean and what our purposes are, what we will live for. We fight hard against meaningless suffering, against pointless death, especially against innocent suffering and death.

Scripture doesn’t do that. The dead … are dead. They are gone. There is lament for the dead of Israel after Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries its people into far away exile, but the message of scripture is not about the dead. It is about the living, the survivors, the remnant. Yes, we mourn our dead, and we bury them. But as we sit in the midst if the rubble of the city and lament our loss, we also know — we look forward in hope to a future, to the promise of God. And not backwards, to what we have lost. To what is no more.

In this, I believe the story of Israel that we have in scripture appreciates that we live in a violent, capricious, often times meaningless world, in which little is clear. In this passage, Jesus is saved, he flees the murderous violence of a jealous and frightened tyrant. But as a result, that tyrant murders anyway. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of children die.

Frightened and angry, Herod is a dangerous man. He kills what he fears, hoping the power to inflict death will make him less afraid.

It doesn’t work. Note well, he dies anyway.

The quote that Matthew takes from Jeremiah is part of a longer promise of God to the “people who survived the sword,” the exiles of Israel who shall be regathered in the land of promise. God specifically uses the name Ephraim in the prophesy he speaks to Jeremiah. Ephraim is one of the sons of Joseph, and a name synonymous with the northern kingdom that was destroyed by Assyria many years after renouncing its share in the promises to David and going its own way as a separate state.

There is a second part to Jeremiah’s prophesy, a response to Rachel’s crying:

16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Jeremiah 31:16-17 (ESV)

Tears at the loss of innocence. Comfort from God for the one who will not be comforted — they shall return. “There is hope for your future, your children shall come back.”

Who is Rachel weeping for? Matthew has her weeping for the murdered children of Bethlehem. But she isn’t weeping for the dead in Jeremiah, she’s weeping for the lost. Perhaps Rachel here is also weeping for Jesus, who has gone into exile and lives among a foreign people, and who — so far as we know — never returned to Bethlehem.

Jesus too, is a dangerous man. Even as a baby, even as a toddler, dangerous enough to have his birth written somehow in the stars, to draw wise men from the east — possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Iran — bearing treasure and gifts. Dangerous enough because he is, as Matthew says, the son of David, the son of Abraham, inheritor and fulfillment of the promises made to both — land, blessing, descendants, a kingdom forever. Dangerous because, as the angel told his foster father Jospeh, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Into this world he came, a world full of dangerous men who inflict suffering and death out of fear or lust or rage. But in this one dangerous man, this Jesus who fled to Egypt in the dark of night, who died on a cross and who rose from the tomb, there is hope. He has come to share joy and sorrow, gladness and suffering, tedium and excitement, life and death. In this living and dying and rising, rather than in battle and killing, in hope rather than in fear, he conquers. And he rules.

ADVENT 11 / Words Matter

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.


You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34 ESV)

Words matter.

It matters what we say, because what we say reflects what we think, what we feel, what we understand, what we truly believe and confess. It what we say publicly to people, about them, what we conclude. Because in our words and thoughts and feelings are the buds from which will flower and bear our fruit.

Good fruit or bad fruit. A tree is known by the fruit it bears.

So what we say matters. What we think matters. What we feel matters. What’s in our heart matters. Because from all this spring our deeds, and the deeds that matter, as Matthew notes, are simple ones, acts of kindness and mercy and in a cruel and merciless world — food for the hungry, a cup of water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and company for the sick, lonely, and imprisoned.

It is hard to work deeds of love and mercy when your heart is cruel and unkind. The heart will out. Thoughts and feelings will out.

Jesus says our words and our deeds will be measured. We will be judged on the basis of what we say and do.

So our words matter.

The Brutality That Was Rome

Keith Hopkins over at History Today tells us why Christians who try to frame the limits of ethical acts (particularly nonviolence) through the question, “But what about Hitler?”, really need to remember how essential and foundational were cruelty, brutality, and violence to the Greco-Roman world and Roman civic and social order:

Why did Romans popularise fights to the death between armed gladiators? Why did they encourage the public slaughter of unarmed criminals? What was it which transformed men who were timid and peaceable enough in private, as Tertullian put it, and made them shout gleefully for the merciless destruction of their fellow men? Part of the answer may lie in the simple development of a tradition, which fed on itself and its own success. Men liked blood and cried out for more. Part of the answer may also lie in the social psychology of the crowd, which relieved individuals of responsibility for their actions, and in the psychological mechanisms by which some spectators identified more easily with the victory of the aggressor than with the sufferings of the vanquished. Slavery and the steep stratification of society must also have contributed. Slaves were at the mercy of their owners. Those who were destroyed for public edification and entertainment were considered worthless, as non-persons; or, like Christian martyrs, they were considered social outcasts, and tortured as one Christian martyr put it ‘as if we no longer existed’. The brutalisation of the spectators fed on the dehumanisation of the victims.

Rome was a cruel society. Brutality was built into its culture in private life, as well as in public shows. The tone was set by military discipline and by slavery. [Emphasis mine] The state had no legal monopoly of capital punishment until the second century AD. Before then, a master could crucify his slaves publicly if he wished. Seneca recorded from his own observations the various ways in which crucifixions were carried out, in order to increase pain. At private dinner-parties, rich Romans regularly presented two or three pairs of gladiators: ‘when they have finished dining and are filled with drink’, wrote a critic in the time of Augustus, ‘they call in the gladiators. As soon as one has his throat cut, the diners applaud with delight’. It is worth stressing that we are dealing here not with individual sadistic psycho-pathology, but with a deep cultural difference. Roman commitment to cruelty presents us with a cultural gap which it is difficult to cross.

Popular gladiatorial shows were a by-product of war, discipline and death. For centuries, Rome had been devoted to war and to the mass participation of citizens in battle. They won their huge empire by discipline and control. Public executions were a gruesome reminder to non-combatants, citizens, subjects and slaves, that vengeance would be exacted if they rebelled or betrayed their country. The arena provided a living enactment of the hell portrayed by Christian preachers. Public punishment ritually re-established the moral and political order. The power of the state was dramatically reconfirmed.

When long-term peace came to the heartlands of the empire, after 31 BC, militaristic traditions were preserved at Rome in the domesticated battlefield of the amphitheatre. War had been converted into a game, a drama repeatedly replayed, of cruelty, violence, blood and death. But order still needed to be preserved. The fear of death still had to be assuaged by ritual. In a city as large as Rome, with a population of close on a million by the end of the last century BC, without an adequate police force, disorder always threatened.

Slavery and military disciplines. Hopkins notes that decimation — the choosing by lots to kill one of every ten soldiers in a disobedient or cowardly military unit — was a punishment the Romans inflicted upon themselves. (Specifically, the soldiers left unselected did the killing of their former mates.) “When Romans were so unmerciful to each other, what mercy could prisoners of war expect?” he asks. And he’s correct.

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The Nazi Final Solution may have been the logical outcome of party ideology, but it was primarily the product of total war, the brutal and bloody fighting in the east, where lawlessness and desperation made possible (and maybe even necessary) the methodical extermination of human beings on an industrial scale. But the Final Solution lasted only a few years; the Romans managed their brutality and killing for centuries.

They were very, very, very good at it.

So when we consider the Beatitudes, Jesus isn’t just talking about rude and obnoxious and impolite people, or mere sinners — he’s also talking about conquerors and occupiers who don’t even hold the lives of their fellow Romans and soldiers in high regard. Beating and enslaving and killing is easy for them. It’s sport, politics, and public devotion all wrapped into one. And these are the people we are commanded to “turn the other cheek” to and go a second mile when compelled to walk one.

These are the enemies and the persecutors Jesus calls us to love.

A Quick Observation

I do like Andrew Perriman over at postost.net, and I think there is a lot to his thesis that Jesus and Paul were envisioning something akin to Christendom in speaking of judgment upon the nations and Christ’s rule over the nations.

Something. I’m not sure what yet. I do believe we ignore the historical context of scripture at our risk, and scripture is mostly a message of hope to a conquered and exiled people yearning for their redemption.

It is most definitely not written to a comfortable people either confident of their power or frightened they could lose it. In the story of scripture, much of what could be lost, is lost.

But saying the nations would be subject to Christ is not the same as saying the nations would be subject to the followers of Christ. The church in Christendom has come to see itself in that role, and in that place. A world subject to Christ is a world subject to us, subject to the church, which is what I think much of the struggle Christians (particularly conservatives) are having right now.

Of course, it isn’t. The world is still subject to Christ in post-Christendom, we’re just going to have to learn to see God at work in our enemies in ways Christians in Christendom rarely have. Because we’ve had order and power on our side.

SERMON It Doesn’t Take Hardly Any Faith At All

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 17th Chapter.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

7 “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? 8 Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:5–10 ESV)

I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life that talk about our faith from the standpoint of the disciples — if a little can do so much, imagine what a lot could accomplish?

If we just had lives that overflowed with faith, if we really, truly, actually believed, we could do more than command the trees or move the mountains! We could change the world! We could maybe even save the world!

With that much faith, there are no limits to what we could do.

After all, the mustard seed is a small thing that grows and gives brith to a tree big enough for birds to build nests and seek shelter in! A tiny thing can become a great thing!

So, if we had more than a mustard seed, imagine — a redwood tree, growing hundreds of feet in to the air! Something for all the world to see!

But … what if that’s not the point of this parable? Yes, Jesus is serious. Even a tiny amount of faith can move things, change things, command things, incredible and amazing and astounding things.

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What if we can’t have that faith? What if we can’t have more? What if we cannot even manage something as tiny and unimportant as a mustard seed? What if all the faith we have is something smaller — a grain of pollen, a long chain hydrocarbon molecule, or even two atoms of hydrogen and oxygen that make water. Or even less – an atom’s worth of faith, and not something heavy and complex like uranium, but the simplest and smallest thing there is — one proton and one electron, hydrogen?

What if all the faith we have is so small it cannot be seen, and is more empty space than substance? What if that mustard seed is more faith than we could conjure up in a dozen lifetimes?

What if Jesus’ answer is ironic, a way to tell the disciples that increasing faith isn’t what’s at stake here. Because even that tiny hydrogen atom of faith can do a great deal. Can love, reach out, can heal, can reconcile, can raise from the dead. It doesn’t take hardly any faith at all to live in this kingdom, to do the work of this kingdom, to bear the fruit of this kingdom.

And that’s a good thing. Because I don’t have mustard seed faith. I’m not sure how much faith I have, but it isn’t that much. No trees that can shelter birds sprout from my trust in God, much less obey my command to yank themselves out of the soil and hurl themselves several miles to the sea.

I do, however, have enough faith. Enough to do the work of love, mercy, and grace that I have been called to. That Christ invited me, commanded me, to do when he told me on that horrible day in September, 2001 underneath burning towers:

“My love is all that matters.”

But living in this kingdom, doing kingdom work, bearing kingdom fruit, being filled with even a tiny bit of kingdom faith, is not a thing we’re going to get much thanks for. There are no awards, no bonuses, no trophies, no not even much thanks for our trust, our faith, and our work. Most of use labor in obscurity, unknown by many except by the Jesus who called us. We are unworthy servants doing what Jesus has called us to do — the hard work of preaching, teaching, baptizing, proclaiming, and living the good news of a kingdom that will never end. God’s rule is here and now, in Christ’s love for us, on our love for each other and the world.

This is our calling. This is our duty. This is our love.

This is God’s love.

On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.

yomkippur

This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

Divorce & Grace

The lectionary reading for the coming week in Luke skips over an awkward bit of scripture (as if the parable of the dishonest manager isn’t awkward enough) and takes us straight to the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Of course, I’d like to deal with that awkward bit of scripture.

14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:14–18 ESV)

The Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for the previous parable, for a tough teaching on grace and survival in the face of looming judgment (for the Pharisees were the dishonest managers being dismissed, and Jesus was essentially telling them how to save themselves and at the same time show grace to those they managed).

I’m curious about everyone forcing their way into the kingdom. What does Jesus mean? How does this relate to the parable of the dishonest manager, to the reaction of the Pharisees (who don’t think there is conflict in their service of God and their love of silver, and who do not want to believe judgment is coming), to the teaching of the torah itself?

I don’t have an answer. I’m merely asking a question. Musing on the subject.

And here is that teaching on divorce. As I’ve written before, I’ve come to believe that the church’s historic teaching on divorce — that marriages are indissoluble — is probably correct, if for no other reason that with all the sin, disobedience, and faithlessness (murder, rape, war, adultery, wife stealing), we have no examples in scripture of divorce itself. The teaching does not specifically prohibit it (except when a man seduces or rapes a young woman not betrothed, he must marry her and can never divorce her, Deuteronomy 22:28–29), but the teaching also doesn’t encourage it either.

More to the point, the history doesn’t.

But … suppose what Jesus is saying here is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Meaning that he isn’t banning or forbidding second marriages or even adultery. The Torah forbids it, and yet we have plenty of it in the history (especially when we get to David). What does one do with sinners? What does Jesus do with sinners? He receives them, eats with them, and forgives them.

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Perhaps this is just a statement of a fact — you who abandon wives to marry new ones, you who marry women who have been divorced, you have sinned. Are sinners. This giving and taking is not the faithfulness of God, who loves Israel despite her clear and abhorrent infidelity.

That is the measure of a marriage — self-giving faithfulness in the face of betrayal and abandonment. Few of us can live that way

Now, whether Rome is right to deny the divorced the grace of the communion table, I don’t know. I do believe that for all Rome gets right, its love of Athens and reason force Rome (and much of the rest of the church) to believe, justify, and explain a good, created order order that scripture seems largely unconcerned with. The teaching may tell us how to behave, and demand that good behavior, but the grace and presence of God seems contingent on our needing to be redeemed, which means we have to be suffering the consequences of our sin (or of those who came before us), rather than compliantly behaving ourselves.

Grace is for sinners. Adulterers. Murderers. Thieves. Those invested in and who profit from an abusive and rapacious social order. And those they brutally exclude. It cannot be for anyone else.

Reading the Whole Story

N.T. Wright explains why the whole story of scripture is important, and why we need to understand our Sunday (or daily readings in the context of that entire story.

Whole Bible education. The New Testament makes no sense without the old. This story is our story, and we need to read it seriously, take it seriously, let it shape and form us, and live it seriously.

Also, this.

This is what I want to do: foster a congregation that lives embedded in this story, and the historic ritual of the church catholic and apostolic (daily prayer and eucharist, for example). It is worth doing, telling this story of God’s called out people, our failure to be faithful, and our redemption from exile and captivity — from the consequences of our failure.

That it is God’s acts which form us, and hold us together, and not our deeds. Not our obedience. Not our faithfulness.

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.