Archive for September, 2001
Well what the hell is that all about?! Problems, problems, problems! The crafty steward is a preacher’s nightmare. Some writers reckon that the bunch of sayings tacked on at its end—which all seem to try and interpret it—are themselves leftovers from four or five different homilies given in Luke’s own community. And look how they contradict each other! What chance do we have?
Well … maybe in the context of the reading from Amos and in the context of the two standards we can have a stab at getting some sense out of it.
As Ignatius sees it the way evil works in the world is to look good on the surface but be horrible underneath. We know the attraction of temptation only too well—we might not be outrageous and exploitative capitalists but we all know the attraction of security, of having something material to fall back on, of having money in the bank. After all nothing soothes the aching heart like retail therapy. The strategy of evil is definitely alluring but it is also deadly. It starts with the very reasonable attraction to good things and ends up bullying us into murder. That’s what both Ignatius and Amos agree on even if we resist the thought. We can be deeply religious and yet complicit in outright evil. Don’t we sometimes feel trapped by the things we have and the economic situation we are part of—when we see the poverty of African children or the use and abuse of our tender planet. But, we say, you can’t just change the world. You have to live with its realities. Yet don’t we feel the guilt when we see the victims of our possession? That’s the trap of the evil one. We start by being attracted to good things but end up ensnared and un-free and unable to change. Look at the language of the evil standard—it is all about snares and chains, tempting, bullying. But that reality has to be unveiled: outwardly it is all good sense and good stewardship. The veil of ordinary life and its compromises has to be lifted free … and when it is we see the throne of fire and smoke underneath.
The other standard has the opposite problem. “Attract them to poverty, to contempt, to humility.” Right! As if they are, in any way, attractive values. Outwardly they are horrible and terrifying. Ask the steward who is threatened with a dose of poverty and contempt and humiliation! But the language is all gentleness: none of the bad spirit’s force and fury. Jesus recommends, he chooses, he attracts. And when the veil is drawn away from the outward hardship of those words what is underneath is the plain of Jerusalem, lowly, beautiful and attractive—and Jesus sitting there, himself lowly, beautiful, and attractive—inviting you to join him.
Amos leaves us no wiggle room—godliness is not about religion but about justice, about how we spend our money. Religion gets pulled into the most evil of systems. And you don’t have a third choice, a third flag to fly—either you are with the poor or exploiting them.
The battle lines have been drawn up. If the parable says anything, it says ‘watch out… you never know when you’ll be called to account, you never know when you’ll be asked to show your bank book to the world.’ I guess I mean that metaphorically. But isn’t that a literal terror too. What reveals your real values better than the money you spend and how you spend it?
At least the wasteful steward came up with a contingency plan—he worked out what he could do when suddenly his values were held to account. Damn good idea too! Use money to make some friends.
That’s the challenge I guess … what’s our contingency plan? Where will we end up when our real values are put on display? If we had half the nous of the steward, half the astuteness of the children of this world, we come up with something good.
September 23rd, 2001
These readings leave me somewhere between gasping and all numbed-out by too much good news! Who’d have thought you could have too much good news, too much blessing, too many promises of good fortune?! But that’s the strange economy that gets played out in both Paul and Luke today—a kind of tumbling, over-pouring, gush of words—as if saying it fast and saying it over and over might get it through our thick skulls. God has given us so much in an outpouring of generosity that we can be just as unstinting in our over-bubbling gratitude. But even then God will not be outdone and will overload us with even more—gifts in full measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into our over-burdened lap.
But like I said I’m a little to world–weary to take either Paul or Jesus at face value. I know there must be a catch. I know there has to be the small print … what’s in it for you God? And besides the last few days have shown the magnitude of the forgiveness the world demands and I’m not sure I have it in me.
In the face of all the over-pouring promises of God there is the icy realism of the prince of this world. “Don’t get carried away! Don’t give till you see what you need! Don’t build up your hopes they’ll only get dashed! Don’t take a risk you’ll only get hurt. Don’t let God get too close you’ll only be disappointed!”
Aren’t both these voices working already in the first days of retreat? The surprising, too-good-to-be-true, overwhelming what-ifs of God—what if God really loves me? what if God really has plans for my peace? what if God really thinks I don’t need to change?” And the sweet, safe, comfortable, reasonable, deadly voices of worry, of fear, of doubt, of regret.
But God is not reasonable—God’s calculations run in ever growing circles of ever greater gifts. And I know, despite my doubts, where my deepest desires lie—surprise me God!
September 20th, 2001
I say this with images of yesterdays horror still sharp and bright-edged in my mind’s eye—and maybe that places me—places us—closer to Paul and his hearers than we might otherwise be. Because it’s a shocking image he’s using here to catch an inkling of what it means to have a new life in Christ—it is like death.
Let that sink in—with all its images of falling bodies, crumbling buildings, fire and smoke and dust—being a Christian is like dying—“you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God”—and that’s not just died and risen—living a fourth-week life—the revelation of that glory has to await the time when “Christ our life is revealed”.
Being saved, living as a Christian, is for Paul so damned radical it is best compared to the absolute and irreversible change brought to us by death.
And since we have all been changed so dramatically—since we are all dead—what difference does it make if we were once Jew or Greek, Arab or Israeli or American, catholic or protestant, female or male. Put Paul and Luke together and we might hear it—“happy are you dead—life and peace should be yours!”
But I don’t believe that—death is not my cup of tea—be it slow or sudden, peaceful or violent, untimely or timely … I want my consolation now, my satisfaction now, my laughter now, my reputation and friends now.
Alas for me …
September 12th, 2001
What gets me here is the way people don’t meet. The centurion doesn’t go to Jesus himself, never speaks for himself—maybe he wants to go through the proper channels, maybe he wants whatever leverage he can get from the Jewish elders—and it must have been enough because Jesus does come to cure his beloved servant but then when Jesus is almost there the soldier sends out his friends this time to keep Jesus right where he is even as he is expressing by proxy confidence in his power to act at a distance. Jesus never gets to meet the centurion he praises so much—as having faith beyond any in Israel. But the boy, the soldier’s dear one, ends up in perfect health anyway. And Jesus learns something about faith—Luke uses that phrase ‘turning around’ exactly seven times and each one is a physical turning which implies a spiritual turning too …
But whatever faith the man expresses, and whatever cure the boy receives, and whatever Jesus learns about his calling, I’m left with a little sadness, a wistfulness. I wish they had met, face-to-face… Jesus and that faithful Roman. I wish they had done more than speak through go-betweens, exchange messages and authority, I wish they had got to know each other. Spoken about what they both held dear. Who. What they both loved. What they had each learned about life and love and God.
I wonder if their lives had been different, if they’d not both been bound by their own authority, their own callings, whether they might not have become friends. Because power is one thing, being healed is one thing, finding your way is one thing—but friendship, ah friendship, is something else, something greater, deeper, brighter, harder, finer…
And though God offers us power, and though God offers us healing, and though God offers us a way—these are nothing next to what God offers us—must long for us to accept—friendship.
September 3rd, 2001
Call, or vocation, or ministry often gets painted in the most macho terms. Maybe we’ve experienced it that way ourselves. As something heroic, demanding, self-denying. Joseph Campbell, the great student of myth, writes about the hero journey as archetypically involving leaving, leaving home, leaving family, leaving familiarity and setting out on a lone quest to slay the dragon, find the un-findable treasure, and become a man. There’s echoes of that in Jesus’ own calling—leaving the comfort of his life, his work, his home and heading out to meet John at the Jordan and be driven, dripping wet, into the desert to face his demons and embark on a short and heroic life. It’s there too in the call of the disciples. Leaving, leaving behind, growing up.
But that’s only the men. While the men are gadding about heroically slaying dragons, the women get to stay at home and mend socks. What does the women’s hero-journey look like? And is it even a journey at all?
That’s what’s so important about Ruth. She is every bit as much a disciple, every bit as much one called, as Nathaniel but her vocation is one of fidelity. Of holding tight instead of letting go. Of staying with instead of setting out. ‘Wherever you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.’ I’m not suggesting there’s one way for women and another for men. Exactly the opposite. All of us need to do what Ruth did—to feel our desire and let it live as love. ‘Wherever you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.’ And there she is in the lineage of Jesus—a foreigner, among the Hebrews, a women among the men. If she had not looked within and listened to her deepest desires and answered her call and spoken her words we would not have Jesus and we wouldn’t be here today.
September 3rd, 2001
If yesterday was all theory—all message and no meeting—today is the humble reality of practice. Out on the edge of things, between the gate and the grave, two crowds collide. One follows Jesus and another follows in the footsteps of death. And here it is like a lens clicking into focus: a dead man, the only son of his mother, and her, familiar with grief, a widow. Now she has nothing, no livelihood, even if she is surrounded by her whole town. And Jesus saw her.
What happens next is almost hidden in the English. “He felt sorry for her”, says the Jerusalem Bible. “Had compassion”, says the King James. The Revised English Bible gets the closest: “his heart went out to her”. In the Greek, the word literally means his bowels churned. Something about what Jesus saw affected him so physically that it hit him in his guts. The rest is almost anticlimax. Two abrupt commands: “stop crying” to the widow and “rise” to the young man. Luke makes the punch line almost comic—the corpse sat up and began talking. But the important thing is that the mother gets her child back, her life back.
The crowds are in awe. But what would you have felt? Are we willing to meet a Jesus who is that passionate? Someone who is sickened to the stomach by the sadness of the world? Are we willing to walk in his company? Be a friend of this man? Are we willing to let our own intestines cramp in the face of loss? Are we willing to follow where our bowels lead?
September 2nd, 2001