Sunday, October 2, 2016

Faith? Duty?

Today’s lectionary passage (Luke 17: 5-10) is about faith and duty. In the passage the two seem to be interlinked. The disciples ask about faith and the story told in response is about duty.

It is another in Luke’s series of strange, hard to understand passages. Another one where there will be as many interpretations as readers. Another passage where I am glad that I am freed from approaching the texts in a way that seeks for the “right” or the “only” interpretation.

As always, one of my main considerations with any passage is how does the tale speak today. Is it relevant? Can I learn from it? Does it help me live my life in a better way?

The poor disciples must have been mind-boggled. They had just heard story after story about acceptance, diligence, listening, honesty, shrewdness, not causing harm to another, to name a few of the themes. 

I think they must have felt as if they were falling well short of the mark! That is a feeling I suspect most people can identify with. Not feeling good enough, wanting to be better. I know I thought that lots of times. Not in any self-pitying way, but simply wishing I could do more. 

The disciples expressed it in a simple request, “Increase our faith.” They still didn’t get a straight answer. They were given a metaphorical answer that if they had enough faith they could uproot trees and plant them elsewhere. Of course, it is not a literal analogy. No-one moves trees by faith. There have been a few instances of people who can bend spoons (mind over matter) but I never heard of anyone moving a tree. Correct me if I’m wrong! 

Those who have visited us will know that we have lots of trees in our garden. Big, solid, old trees. We love our trees. It is part of the draw towards the Celtic saints and lifestyle. Their love of nature which illustrates the times and seasons, reflecting the whole cycle of life. Occasionally one of our trees starts to wither and has to be removed for safety. It happened this summer. Experts were called in and they chopped the tree down, they observed that getting the roots out would be a whole different matter. Roots are not easily removed. Directly in front of our lounge windows we have two small bushes. They have been dead for a few years. even so we can’t get them to move. Someone suggested that we tie a rope round them , connect them to the car, drive forward to try and pull them out. Not a helpful suggestion as that would entail removing the fence and churning up the lawn! Nevertheless, it illustrates how hard trees are to move. 

To say, a grain of faith will move a tree is setting an impossible task. So, at this point, I have to wonder if Jesus is telling the disciples that their thinking about faith is faulty. It is not going to be this wonderful thing that they can be given to them to enable them to perform impossible tasks. Nor will it miraculously enable them to meet all the standards that seem to be required in the previous stories.  

An illustration is then given which, at first glance, seems to change the subject completely. A story is told about slavery. Of course, slavery is abhorrent in contemporary times, but at the time these words were penned it was common for the rich. 

Yet, continuing in the theme of the previous stories, these are more confusing words. They twist in an unexpected way. The disciples are asked hypothetically if a slave had just come in from the fields would they be invited to take a place at the table. In light of previous passages, I would want to give a resounding, “yes”. Surely, the message of the gospel is equality, kindness, sharing resources and caring for those less fortunate. Those would seem a fitting explanation of what faith would look like. 

But not so in this tale, the answer is not yes but no. The slaves are expected, after a days’ work, to don aprons and serve, with the implication that they receive no thanks for their continued work. The punchline is that ultimately the slaves consider that they have only done their duty. So, I ask myself, is this faith? Is this how faith is increased? Doing our duty in serving our fellow human beings without hope or expectation of further reward. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dishonest? Shrewd?

Today’s text is a difficult one. It is one that would be easier to skip over. On first reading it seems to be affirming dishonesty. So long as the end result is good it doesn’t matter what means are used to get there.

The story is usually entitled “The Shrewd Manager” or “The Dishonest Manager” (Luke 6:1-13)

The tale tells of a rich man whose manager was accused by a third party of squandering his resources. The manager was being sacked. He was worried. He knew he did not have the ability to compete in the market place for a job doing manual labour nor did he want to have to beg for sustenance. So he schemed! He went to all the people who owed the rich man money and reduced their bills. His rational being that when he was destitute they would remember his kindness and welcome him into their homes.

Here the story twists, instead of the rich man being angry he commends the manager for being shrewd and praises him for ensuring his future. The story ends with a discourse about faithfulness in serving.

Very complex!

Firstly, I want to make the point I have made many previous times about understanding parables. Don’t assign roles. Don’t assume that the central character is representing God. If one does that it often ends up with a significant problem in seeing undesirable characteristics for God. Read parables simply as stories to illustrate a point.

Next I want to glance at the context. This story is the fourth in a series of parables told by the author of the Gospel of Luke to a mixed audience of “tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes”. The prior ones are the story of the sheep who was found, the coin which was found, and the son who squandered his inheritance but was lovingly received back into his family. This seems to continue the theme of riches with comments on a just way to use them and administer them. Time doesn’t allow but a parallel study of the manager who squandered his employer’s wealth and the son who squandered his father’s wealth could prove very fruitful.

It is hard to read this story and understand it. (I’m sure there will be as many interpretations as readers) One of the reasons it is hard is because we live in a capitalist economic system where what the manager did would be criminal if it happened today. So our minds don't get beyond the thought that what he did was wrong.

The story starts with no detail of what the manager actually did to get dismissed. All it says is that he “squandered” the rich man’s property. Then after hearing he would be fired, he reduced the bills of those owing the rich man. Note that he reduced the amounts he did not cancel the debt.

So questions must be asked (and I have no answers only, I hope, some thought-provoking ideas).

Who was really the dishonest one?

Often people described as “rich” in the parables are seen as those who are unjust. Their riches are gained at the expense of others. Certainly, worth remembering that the first group of people named as the audience for this story were the tax collectors. Those who were renowned for getting rich at the expense of others. The latter verses of this story certainly hint at the money being dishonestly gained.  That later reference can’t refer to the manager because he gained nothing monetary from adjusting the bills. His effort was all a hope for a future home.

How was the rich man’s wealth/property/oil squandered by the manager?

Was it to help the poor? Was it to ease the suffering of the sick? Was it his own way of bringing a more equitable economic system? Or was he simply greedy?

Why did the rich man commend him?

Did the manager provide a challenge to the rich man about his own overpricing system? Was the rich man’s conscience bothering him?

Was it acceptable for the manager to try to find a way to assure a future for himself without resorting to begging?

The text certainly indicates that looking for economic stability in the future is a good thing. It is certainly something that contemporary society does both collectively and individually.

Was the reference to being “faithful with dishonest wealth” a commendation of the manager?

The underlying message of riches, service to the poor, redistribution of wealth was obviously in the mind of those who compiled the lectionary. This week there were two alternative texts for the Old Testament reading, both offered concern for poor and advocated sharing wealth (Amos 8, Jeremiah 8). Although I don’t want to jump ahead next week’s story continues the theme as it moves to another tale which talks about the rich and the poor (Luke 6:19-31). It is an important story in helping us to understand this one in context.

So ultimately, what do we do with a text like this one? Often it seems contradictory. At the very least it is confusing and hard to understand. We can’t really comprehend the impact on the first century readers as we can’t fully know how the relationship between owners and managers worked.

I think we can only try to let it challenge us. . .
about our handling of riches,
about our relationship with those we work for and with
about our response it we feel others are being harmed by those we work for
about our relationship and care for those who work for us
about our own planning for the future

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Which Bits of the Bible do we Follow!

Today the lectionary gospel passage (Luke 14:25-33) is a hard one for us to understand in contemporary times. None of us follow it. None of us do what it says.

There are three main instructions for discipleship contained within the passage:

          1. Hate mother, father, brothers, sisters, spouse, children, self.
      2. Give up all your possessions.
      3. Check you are willing to do all that before you try to be a follower.

It was a passage I read and almost wanted to skip but decided to pursue it. I will follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake the passage in the hope it will yield a blessing.

Firstly, as one with an interest in feminist theology. I want to comment on the verse about hating your family. In my list of the requirements for discipleship I use the word spouse, that is how we understand it in contemporary times. However, the actual word is “gunaika” which means woman and wife. Therefore, when the author of Luke penned these verses they were being spoken to males. The females were, as is often the case in the scriptures, invisible. They were not thought of or included. The people who were being called to discipleship were told to hate their wives. If the verses are taken literally they are not for women! I think that is worth taking very seriously and pondering.

Secondly I want to comment on the requirement to give up all one’s possessions. It would be easy to conclude that in this passage the possessions are wife, children and family. The wife and children belong to the male. Once again confirming the patriarchal nature of the passage. It may, of course, also refer to material possessions yet in the Lucan passage there is no thought of selling to give to the poor. This is not a passage about sharing means with those less fortunate. The poor are never mentioned. It is merely a leaving behind and renouncing of all one owns.

In our culture both family and possessions are understood very differently. Society functions in a completely different way. If everyone gave up their homes, their means of income, and disowned family members then society would collapse. The few people who try to do this become reliant on others to support them.

Many years ago I had a colleague who chose not to have a car. It was not for religious reasons but to try and live more simply and care for the environment. A laudable aim. This colleague happily used public transport to work but then wanted to go on vacation. She asked me to take her to the airport about 50 miles away. I agreed. Then I realized not only would I have to take her but also pick her up ten days later. This colleague’s living simply actually meant I did two one-hundred-mile round trips!

I’m not using the story to say that the colleague should not have followed her conscience, trying to reduce car emissions is a good thing. Nor am I saying that I resented taking her to the airport, I did so gladly. What I want to do is use the story to say that if everyone followed the recommendations in this Lukan passage our whole society would change. It would be inevitable. At the barest level everyone who took the scripture seriously would be homeless with no supportive relationships.

So can the passage be interpreted in a way that is relevant for  us today?
Or should the passage simply be disregarded as irrelevant?

When interpreting scripture I often use a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. I used it extensively in my work looking at corporal punishment which I quickly realized was, in large part, a religious argument.

The term redemptive-movement hermeneutic was first suggested by William Webb. It bears much resemblance to other forms of interpretation, in particular the historical-critical method. What is suggested is that when looking at practices in the scripture one has to take into account the practices of surrounding culture. Then note the way the practices advocated are modified so they are somewhat redeemed. This process happens continually as humanity develops and progresses.

A classic example is slavery. To our mindset slavery is abhorrent. Yet it was accepted as the norm in the scriptures. In the Old Testament there are many regulations for the treatment of slaves (Deuteronomy). When the redemptive-movement hermeneutic is applied the contrast between the practices of the surrounding tribes and the treatment prescribed in the text is noted. This shows that improved conditions were insisted upon for slaves. In another of the lectionary readings for today Paul advocated for a slave who had served him in prison. Paul did not advocate that the slave was freed but that he was to be treated as a brother (Philemon 1:16). Time and space don’t allow for fully tracing the history of slavery in the scriptures but even these two citations show a movement in the way slaves were viewed. Of course, neither reflects a contemporary view on slavery. The redemptive-movement hermeneutic allows things to continue moving towards a better position beyond the time frame of the scriptures.

If the redemptive-movement is applied to the passage it allows the freedom to not take it literally. The text can be understood within its own culture. It was said at a time when women and children were possessions, not partners in a relationship. It was said to a comparatively small group of people in a localized setting. Today, everyone would fall far short.

Recognizing that this passage, if taken literally, has little relevance today gives a freedom to explore what seeking after spirituality and discipleship means. So often when a text such as this is read it produces guilt. Often expressed as, “I’m too fond of my family” or “I haven’t given away all my possessions” or “I’m not being true to the scriptures.”

Seeing that there is movement within and beyond scripture allows common sense to be applied.
It doesn’t deter people from seeking spirituality. It is not rejecting family and leaving possessions that are the face of true spirituality for contemporary society. It is helping those who are marginalized or being a voice for those who have no voice or serving society or simply being as Christ to those we meet.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bargaining with God.

Two of the lectionary readings today have caused me to think deeply about the subjects they raise. Or maybe, I should say subject as they are somewhat related.

The first tale is the Old Testament reading (Genesis 18:20-32). The story depicts a conversation between God and Abraham. God is intending to destroy a city, but Abraham challenges God to have a change of mind if fifty righteous people are found. God agrees. Abraham continues to bargain, and through a series of incremental drops, it is finally agreed that if ten righteous people are found the city will not be destroyed.

The second story is the gospel reading where an unexpected guest has arrived at midnight. The host has no bread to offer so goes to a friend. At first the friend will not open the door as the household is settled for the night, but in the end persistence wins the day. The picture then changes asking the listeners if a child asks for an egg or a fish, would they be given a scorpion or a snake (unclean foods).

So in both the stories there is the idea of bargaining with God. Abraham is persistent to get a mind change from God. The host is persistent to get bread from a friend.

My concern is what life do these stories have for us today.

The stories in themselves have elements that are concerning. The first one is about destruction of a city and judgement about who is righteous. It all sounds a bit too like modern warfare to sit comfortably. The second one causes one to consider friendship. If someone banged on the door at midnight and was first told to go away, would a good friend continue to knock? In our times we would probably consider it harassment.

Of course, in the minds of the lectionary compilers these two stories are about prayer. In the second one the parable is told as a response to the disciples. It follows their request to be taught to pray.

Is that how we understand prayer, as a bargaining tool to get what we want. I suspect for all of us that is the case on occasion. A crisis happens, we want a good resolution, we persist in prayer hoping for a good outcome. That would be answered prayer. Yet, if the prayer is unanswered could it be considered a snake or a scorpion has been given?

Of course, it is good to pray for our friends in times of crisis or need. Please don’t hear me say anything different. I would always want to do that. But prayer has to be more than just a response to needs.

Often prayers are accompanied by an element of bargaining. “God if you do this, I’ll serve you more or I’ll love you more.” Often the bargain offered is the perceived lack in the person’s life. Something they feel needs to change to improve themselves.

In our modern context, this sounds a lot like the third of the five stages of grief . . . denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as identified by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. First published in 1969, these stages of grief were initially observed in people who had lost or were losing a loved one. However, they were later applied to a lot of other situations.

So this need to petition God or a higher being in time of trouble is a very natural and a very human response. It is a good response on a journey towards healing.  For Christians it is called prayer.

Yet, prayer has to be so much more than the portrayal in the stories in these verses where it is used as a technique to get what the people who are praying want.

I want to add two insights, both are taken from The Celtic Way of Prayer by Esther de Waal. In the book de Waal talks about her journey of discovery into prayer. I take one insight right from the beginning of the book and one from the end of her journey into prayer. In many ways these reflect her journey.

“To pray the Celtic way means above all to be aware of this rhythm of dark and light, The dark and the light are themselves symbols of the Celtic refusal to deny darkness, pain, suffering and yet to exult in rejoicing, celebration in the fullness and goodness of life.” (x)

“As I learn not to take for granted, to wonder anew, I find that a constant attitude of gratitude is life-giving. In the face of such amazing grace and generosity, the only possible response must become that of continuing and ever deepening praise.” (211)

Prayer is linked with our spirituality. I’m going to say little more today. I leave questions as a challenge, something to consider deeply over the week.

What does prayer mean to you?
What does prayer mean to you in times of personal need?
What does prayer mean to you in times of friend’s needs?
What does prayer mean to you in times of national, and international, tragedy?
What does prayer mean to you in the current political situation?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Whose Life Matters?

Today’s gospel reading, from the lectionary, is the story often entitled “The Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-17). It is one of those stories which I think of as a Sunday School story. One of those as a child I heard many times. The details slipped into my sub-conscious. I know the story well. Jesus responding to a question about who is one’s neighbour replies with a tale about an injured traveller who was left at the side of the road. Three people pass by him, but only one stops to tend him.

At this point the story is subverted. It is not those who one would expect to exercise a duty of care who responded. They crossed the road. Sadly, that is a common response, both literally and figuratively. I remember when my children were very small I had a friend whose second baby died at birth. It was a hard time for the young family. Talking with the young mother some time later, she said that as she had tried to make things normal for her toddler son one of the hardest things was to watch people cross the road when they saw her approaching. She realized it was because they did not know what to say to her. For them, it had just been easier to cross the road than face the situation.

In the story the person who responded was the person least expected. It was a Samaritan. Samaritans were looked on with disdain by those to whom Jesus was speaking. Yet, this was the person who was truly a neighbour. Not only did the Samaritan respond to the immediate needs of the injured person but took care of future needs for him to ensure he was fully restored. As with many of the gospel stories this would have had a huge impact on the contemporary listeners. Even the fact that the Samaritan touched the injured person would have caused a ripple of shock. For those who took it seriously it would have been deeply challenging. It would have exposed their biases. They would have had to look at their own prejudices and change. To look at oneself and change deeply ingrained, cultural views is always a courageous thing to have to do, especially when it runs counter-culturally.

This story, which will be read in churches around the world today, seemed especially fitting after yet another week of violence. Violence that took place simply because people look different. It was the sort of violence that left one stunned, in the moment it felt incomprehensible.

Two young Black men, in different States, had been shot and killed by police officers. In response a young Black man had killed five police officers and injured several more. He, in turn, was killed.  Violence always begets more violence.

Slogans have filled social media #Blacklivesmatter, #copslivesmatter, #alllivesmatter

All of the above are true. Indeed, the life of all humanity is important. Yet, at this point in time, at this point in our history, it is the Black lives that need our attention. My thoughts today are how can we help those in the Black community feel safe?  

Please don’t read this as thinking that the lives of those police officers are of secondary importance. I deplore what happened in Dallas. My heart and prayers go out to the families of those killed. I was very moved to see the short video clip of people, Black and White, lining up to hug police officers in Dallas.

I would not want to say that individually all police officers are racist. I think that the police force, by large, do a good job of exercising their duty of care. Yet, the systemic racism is undeniably, many events over the last year have shown that it exists. Statistics of the numbers of Black people in prison show it exists. My personal PhD studies show it exists, Black children receive corporal punishment in schools at a much higher rate than White kids. This is all unacceptable.

In his “I have a Dream” speech Martin Luther King wrote,

“Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning . . . We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

Yet, fifty-tree years later I know the Black community still feel unsafe. And, unsafe even in the presence of police officers who should be offering protection. A few posts from Facebook friends made this abundantly clear. One said, “I feel like these days black and brown people are waking up in the morning asking themselves, "Will I be next?" I know I do.” Others talked about their fears, their isolation and their tears.

Because of our experience as foster parents Andy and I have experienced the difference in the way Black and White teens are treated. We have even seen racism here in Ithaca in our local stores. One Black teen was challenged that he had adjusted the price on a sale garment. He had not, I’d been with him when he found it and he was overjoyed at the reduction. As soon as Andy stepped forward and asked was there a problem the assistant immediately backed down. “Oh no, sir.” We know other foster and adoptive parents who have faced similar challenges raising Black children. It is simply not right, change needs to happen.

At present our Black friends are like the injured man in the Lukan passage, figuratively lying on the side of the road, “stripped, beaten and half-dead (v. 30) So, do Black lives matter? We have a choice. Do we cross the road and walk by? Or do we “pour oil and wine on the wounds, bandage them, take the injured to an inn and pay for care (34).”

King again,

“. . . many of our white brothers . . . have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.”

(I have a Dream.