Thirty-Second Sunday: I am the Resurrection

This week’s Gospel story is easy to understand, but its lessons are harder to find.

The Sadducees ask Jesus a trick question: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?  For all seven had been married to her.” 

Jesus responds that it’s a false dilemma, but his reasoning gets more and more strange.

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First, he says there is no marriage—which answers the question by making it worse: does that mean that heaven will destroys our earthly loves? 

Second, he explains why there is no marriage: “because they cannot die.”  (Our translation leaves out the “because,” but “because” is a fascinating word when you’re trying to understand a reading; it shows how the writer thinks the sentence is relevant.)  What does the inability to die have to do with not getting married?  And even more, what does it have to do with earthly marriage disappearing?

Third, he explains the not dying: “because they are like the angels.”  (It’s a funny word, literally “angel-equals.”)  Does that mean we resurrect without human bodies?  Or that angels have human bodies?  The Tradition answers both those answers “no”—but how are they like angels?

And fourth, he gives his final answer: Since at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Abraham must have risen from the dead.  I don’t find that argument convincing at all.  If I say the United States is the country of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I am not making any claims about the resurrection. 

Jesus’s argument seems a bizarre chaining together of claims that do not clarify each other.  And anyway, who cares?  That there is a resurrection is of course important.  But what does this encounter with the Sadducees add to my understanding of it?

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A first clue is the word “age.”  The Sadducees conclude without that word: “At the resurrection whose wife will that woman be?”  But Jesus responds by introducing it: “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are made worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead . . . .”

More than angel-equality or inability to die, these two “ages” suggest mystery.  Like the Sadducees, we imagine that heaven is just a slight tweak on this life.  Okay, we can’t die anymore, maybe we grow wings, but we imagine things will be about the same on the other side of death.

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But here, at the beginning of his response to the Sadducees, Jesus tells us that the key to thinking about the Resurrection is to realize that it’s a different world, a different “age.”  (The Greek word means something like “forever”—and Jesus is saying there is “this forever” and a different “forever.”) 

He is saying that the Sadducees—and we—lack imagination in our thinking about heaven.  Or perhaps we are using our imaginations too much, trying to picture something that matches our experience here.  To the contrary, says Jesus, no eye has seen, no ear has heard.  You have no idea what it will be like. 

Rather than trying to iron out the details—or to disprove the Resurrection because we can’t iron out the details—we need to realize that all will be transformed. 

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(How will things be transformed?  No sin and no death is a pretty big change.  Try to imagine a new world where everyone loves each other perfectly—where everyone has been “made worthy of the resurrection.”  Spiritually, maybe it’s not that the earthly love of marriage will be wiped away, but that it will be perfected, so that we all love one another with the intensity of spousal and familial love, no longer need to guard our modesty from prying eyes, and no longer need sexual intimacy to kindle our love.  And what will the body be like, without death and suffering, including the ache of longing?  Pretty hard to imagine!) 

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A second key to this reading is Jesus’s interpretation of Scripture. 

What he says about the burning bush is not convincing.  He hasn’t found a proof text that proves to every skeptical reader that the writer of Exodus believed in the Resurrection.

But it is an interesting rereading of that story.  Jesus finds in God’s words to Moses a deeper, fuller meaning than we would have expected.  There’s more to the story, a deeper statement about who God is, and how he relates to Moses, and to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and to us. 

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The Scripture is not confirming Jesus’s authority.  Rather, Jesus is lending his authority to Scripture.  He is showing that he understands Scripture at a deeper level, takes Scripture to a deeper level, than we could find without him. 

And how?  Because Jesus knows that other “age” with the intimacy of someone who lives there.  He can talk about the God of the Burning Bush as someone who knows the Father face-to-face, who burns with the same light and heat.

In fact, what we learn is not something about the Resurrection, but something about Jesus, and about the God of that coming “age.”  Because Jesus himself is the Resurrection and the Life. 

How could you contemplate Jesus as heaven himself?

Thirtieth Sunday: His Mercy, Not My Self-Justification

Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; Psalm 34; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

This week’s Gospel gives us the tax collector and the Pharisee: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  This is the root of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” which the Eastern tradition urges us to pray constantly.

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The other readings cast helpful light.  Sirach tells us God is “not unduly partial toward the weak.”  We can misread much of Luke’s Gospel, as if just being poor, or miserable, or a sinner, is enough to get you into heaven.  Careful.

Rather, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds . . . and the Lord will not delay.”  The point is not our wretchedness, but God’s action.  The key is not just that we need salvation, but that he saves.  That’s what prayer is all about, and that’s the difference between the tax collector and the Pharisee.

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Paul’s words to Timothy nudge our parable in a different direction.  Paul brags: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me.” 

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The challenge is that, in some ways, the Pharisees are so very much like the saints.  The reason Jesus talks so much about Pharisees is that they are not easy to identify.  We can run from sanctity in the name of fleeing Pharisaism, and embrace Pharisaism in the name of sanctity.  Pride is the hardest sin, because it looks so much like righteousness.

But in the second paragraph, Paul differentiates.  “No one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me.  May it not be held against them!”  In the first sentence, Paul sounds his unique righteousness.  But in the second sentence, he shows its real heart: he forgives. 

Then, “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed.”  He preaches not himself, but Jesus Christ.  Jesus works in him—so intimately that Paul repeats his, “Father, forgive them”—but Paul knows it is only Jesus who makes him holy, and so he preaches only Jesus. 

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Key to our parable is Luke’s introduction: “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else” (or: counted the remainder of humanity as nothing).  The point is not just that the Pharisee rejects the tax collector.  The point is that he rejects everyone.  There’s a fine line between being grateful for God’s work in your life (like Paul) and despising everyone else (like the Pharisee).  Recognizing God’s work does mean knowing you’re special; it doesn’t mean being a Pharisee.

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The Pharisee is pretty righteous: fasting twice a week and tithing on his whole income is way better than most of us.  He’s right that humanity on the whole is “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.”  He’s right to oppose those vices.  He’s right to thank God for saving him (though it’s interesting that he thanks God “that I am” not “that you have made me”).  He’s right to give thanks, and to pray.  He’s doing so many things right.

And Jesus condemns him: “I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former.”  How we should pray that we will go home justified, that we will not be counted among the Pharisees.  How dangerous this accusation of Pharisaism is, since the one who accuses tends to be one!  How narrow the way, how straight the gate, that Jesus preaches!

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What should we be instead?  Tax collectors?  I don’t think that’s the point.  Again, so much of the danger here is that the Pharisee is right about so many things.

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But note that the tax collector, like the Pharisee, goes up to the temple to pray.  He knows the sacred geography.

But where is his focus?  The Pharisee looks at himself (“spoke this prayer to himself”) and at humanity (“not like the rest of humanity”) and at the tax collector (“or even like this tax collector”).

The tax collector would not raise his eyes to heaven, but prays to heaven, “O God, be merciful.”  He looks to himself, not to commend himself, or pray to himself, but to “beat his breast” and call himself “a sinner.”  His whole prayer—the whole parable—collapses if he is self-righteous, if he complacent in his sin.  The point is not that he should be a tax collector.  The point is that, unlike the Pharisee, he knows he needs to change.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Jesus Prayer is the key: to go, no longer to the Temple, but to Him who replaces the Temple, and pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” only location of my prayer, “have mercy on my a sinner.”  To know always my sin, and his mercy.  That is everything.

In what ways does your gaze shift from his abundant mercy to your self-justification?

Twenty-First Sunday: Seek

Exodus 17:8-13, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, Luke 18:1-8

Two weeks ago, the apostles said, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed.”  Last week, Jesus told the Samaritan leper, who knew to return to him, “Your faith has made you well.” 

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Interwoven with those exhortations to faith were warnings about meeting him when he comes again.  Two weeks ago, it was, “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’?”  And between last week’s reading and this week’s, we skip a passage that says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed,” “They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. . . . so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.” 

This week, he ties those two themes together: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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He does it with another strange parable.  Luke has beautiful parables, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  But also strange ones, like the dishonest servant, and perhaps the rich man and Lazarus.

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Here, he wants to teach us that he will “give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night.”  He could have used a straightforward story, like we have in our first reading: when Moses prays, the Israelites win. 

Instead, he has the parable of the widow.  Her insistent prayer makes sense.  What is strange is how he portrays himself in the story: “there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.”  He says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.”  Why portray himself as the one “who neither fears God nor respects man”? 

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God is good.  He is righteous, he upholds righteousness.  The Psalms tell us, “he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  “The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”  “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.”  He is not like that judge.

But as in the story of Moses praying for the Israelite army, he wants us to acknowledge that goodness.  Ironically, that means we have to cry out.

We are tempted to say, “God is good, he’ll take care of it.”  In practice, I think this thinking is more pervasive than we’d expect.  Christians and non-Christians alike say, if God is good, I don’t need to pray, I don’t need to work, I don’t need to be righteous.  God will take care of it.

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But Jesus calls us to a relationship.  And that relationship means that we do have to cry out, we do have to pray and work and beg for him to act.  Ironically, the only way to know God’s goodness is to have to work for it.  So Jesus tells this bizarre story where he compares himself to an unjust judge, one who doesn’t care about justice or about us.  Ironically, it’s only when we beg like that widow, when we act like we have to convince God to be good almost against his will, that we discover that he really is good.  That’s the mystery of prayer.

Of course, the widow in the story doesn’t get anything by her own works.  She’s not able to secure justice for herself, and she’s not even able to earn the judge’s intervention.  We’re not talking works righteousness here.  Like the widow, we are helpless unless God acts.  But ironically, we only discover that helplessness when we work to beg God to act.

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Our second reading, from Second Timothy, tells us about another practice where we discover God’s graciousness: reading Scripture.  Like the widow’s intercessory prayer, studying the Bible, searching the Scriptures, is a kind of proclamation of God’s goodness.  In the Scriptures themselves we find that he is good.  But even before we find him, the very practice of searching for him there is a confession of his goodness, a practice of knowing his providence for us. 

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And just as it makes sense to say we don’t need to beg God’s mercy, because he’ll do it anyway, so too it makes sense to say that we don’t need to look in Scripture, because God will speak to us anyway.  And yet he wants us to search for him, because it is in searching that we find, in knocking that the door is open to a relationship, a real confession of his goodness, not just a passive expectation that he’ll care for us while we ignore him.

While we wait for his coming, he calls us to be eager and watch.

Do you search for God?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: The Body of Christ

2 Kings 5:14-17; Psalm 98; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

This Sunday’s Gospel is a little complicated.

On one level, the story is easy to follow.  Jesus heals ten lepers.  Only one comes back.  “Your faith has saved you.”  A good homily could be given on that level.

But the complication begins with the difference of that one leper.  All ten had cried out, “Jesus, Master!  Have pity on us!”  Normally, that seems to be all it takes for him to say, “Your faith has saved you.”  For example, in the next chapter, the blind man will say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus will say, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (or “saved you,” or “healed you”: it’s all the same in the Greek).  But here, he says that only to the leper who returns.

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It’s all about geography.  Our reading begins, “As Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem”—the organizing theme of Luke’s Gospel—“he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Galilee is the north, Samaria is the middle, Judea, with Jerusalem, is the south.  The first half of Luke’s Gospel, and the early chapters of Jesus’s life, are in the north, in Galilee. 

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The turning point of Luke’s Gospel is Luke 9:51, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”: he heads south. The very next verses say, “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.  But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” 

His journey begins by entering Samaria.  The Samaritan religion was a variant of Judaism that didn’t recognize Jerusalem, but held onto the older tradition: before David built Jerusalem and Solomon built the temple, the previous version of the Temple, the wandering Tabernacle, had been kept in the central plains.  Samaritan means “the keepers”; the Samaritan version of Judaism guarded that older tradition, in defiance of David and Solomon’s Temple. 

It’s funny, then, that this Sunday our reading begins, “he traveled through Samaria and Galilee.”  Galilee should have been left behind.  I don’t know what to do with that, except to say that Luke is drawing our attention to this journey.  But I do notice: Jericho, to the east of Jerusalem and on the Jordan river, is also the route to Jerusalem that Galileans used to avoid going through Samaria.  Maybe Luke is thinking of Jericho again?

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The next appearance of Samaria was in the chapter after he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who fell among robbers was “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  Jerusalem is in the mountains.  You always “go up” to Jerusalem.  This man was leaving—on that Galileean road.

So was the priest who passed him by.  With the Levite who passes him by, it is unclear, except that it says he did “similarly” to the priest.  And it’s very clear: priests and Levites do their work in Jerusalem.  They work in the Temple.

But the Good Samaritan is just “travelling.”  It doesn’t say he was “going up” or “going down,” but it’s interesting that the priest and the Levite have their backs to Jerusalem.  Interesting, too, that when the Good Samaritan takes the man to an inn, the Greek word is literally, “a place that receives all people.”

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The third time Samaritans appear in Luke’s Gospel is in our reading this Sunday.  The lepers “stood at a distance,” because they were following the Law: leprosy is contagious, and lepers were supposed to keep far away.

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Jesus follows the Law on this, too.  He does not lay hands on them.  With the blind man in the next chapter, “Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him.”  But with the lepers, he does the opposite: he tells them to go away: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” 

He is following the Law in a second way.  The Law requires those who are healed of leprosy to have their healing confirmed by the priests.  And the priests are now in Jerusalem.  He is sending the lepers to Jerusalem.

The one who returns is a Samaritan, someone who doesn’t believe in Jerusalem. 

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“He fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him”—the word for thanks is eucharist.  Jesus said in reply, “. . . Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks?”

Our first reading is Naaman the Syrian, another foreign leper.  That story too is earthy, geographical: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”  The waters of the Jordan heal him.  He takes two mule-loads of earth home with him so he can worship on holy ground.

Our second reading, from Second Timothy, shifts from land to the body of Jesus, “raised from the dead, a descendent of David.”  Salvation is “in Christ Jesus.”  “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him.”

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Jesus is the new temple, the new Jerusalem.  The place of worship matters.  We need to go up to the Temple.  God is everywhere, but we meet him by going to the place where he chooses to reveal himself to us.  The Samaritan is wrong to deny Jerusalem, so important to Jesus—but also right to replace Jerusalem with the higher temple of Jesus’s body. 

Jesus removes the ethnic attachments of Israel.  You don’t have to be born of Israel to come to the Temple.  But you do have to go to the Temple.  Just as Jesus had to go to Jerusalem, we have to go to Jesus.  We don’t eucharist just anywhere, but at his feet.

Does your religion ever get disembodied?  Could you be more Christ-centered?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Fake Love

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

One of the main features of Luke’s Gospel is his collection of moving parables.  This week we get the Rich Man and Lazarus.

The first two readings prepare us.  The prophet Amos is writing just before the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered.  He says, “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”  They are comfortable in their riches.

“Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!”  I think there is a double entendre here.  In the prophet’s present, Joseph refers to the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim (Joseph’s sons), the first and the final of the northern tribes to be conquered.  But in history, it also refers to the poor brother sold into slavery.  Amos argues that Israel will be conquered because they don’t care for their poor brothers. 

“Like David, they devise their own accompaniment” on the harp: metaphorically, their actions form the accompaniment of their affections.  Complacent hearts bear fruit in complacent lives.

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Against that complacency, our final reading from First Timothy says, “pursue righteousness.”  Paul reminds us that God gives life, and that Jesus gave testimony—two ways of saying we should be active, not complacent—and then points to the fulness of the commandments.

He concludes by reminding us to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the King of Kings, whose Lordship we must recognize—and contrasts that to the God in “unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.”  Its like Paul’s version of what First John says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  It makes no sense to call God, or Jesus, Lord, if it doesn’t affect the way we live in this world.

And it points us forward, to Matthew 25, “when did we see you hungry?”, and to Luke’s more colorful version of the same parable, the Rich Man and Lazarus.

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Where Matthew 25 moves directly from our treatment of the poor to our judgment when Jesus comes again, Luke’s version dwells in the human relationships.

The rich man has purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously every day.  But he doesn’t have a name.  He is depersonalized by his wealth.

The poor man has a name.  Lazarus is a Greek version of the Hebrew name Eleazar (or El-azar): God helps.  He looks to the crumbs that fall from the man’s table, while sickness oozes from his own body.  I always thought the dogs who licked his wounds were humiliating him, but I wonder if they are his only friends.

The poor man’s death is rich in relationships.  The angels carry him, to the bosom of Abraham.  I can’t find any other places where heaven is described this way—the parable is making a point about how relational heaven is.  It’s not just individuals floating in the ether with a depersonalized God.  Heaven is family. 

Luke says that the poor man and the rich man see their fortunes reversed.  But that reversal is not the whole story.  It’s not just that accounts are balanced.  It’s their quality of relationships that brings about the reversal.  Lazarus isn’t in heaven because he’s poor, but because he leans on God.

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The story takes a sophisticated turn when we see the rich man in hell.  Again, we are not told directly why he is in hell—but it plays out in the story.

“Father Abraham,” he calls.  A great theme of the Gospel is what it means to be a child of Abraham.  Many of the Jews think it is their birthright.  Jesus proclaims it a matter of faith.  The rich man has one, but not the other.

In our translation, Abraham says, “My son.”  But it’s important that he doesn’t say “my.”  He doesn’t recognize him as a true son of Abraham.  He just says, “child”—who knows whose child.

The rich man is pretending to have a relationship he doesn’t have.

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Then he pretends to have another relationship.  Again trying to call Abraham “father,” he says, “I have five brothers.”  No surprise, he asks that Abraham make Lazarus his messenger boy, to warn his brothers.  He cares, he says, about them, while instrumentalizing Lazarus.

But how often Jesus tells us that it is no love to love only those who give to you.  If the rich man had no concern for Lazarus at his gate, Abraham is not impressed by this “love” for his brothers. 

And we learn something about them: they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets.  That means, first, that they aren’t true children of Abraham; they may have his blood, but not his faith.  And it means, second, that they too are ignoring the call of Moses and the prophets to love your neighbor and care for the poor. 

In short, Abraham calls him out on false love.  It’s easy to say we love others.  But the Gospel calls us to a more radical love. 

And so too, Abraham says at the end, it’s easy to say you believe in the resurrection of the dead.  But true faith means hearing the call of the Gospel and the call of the prophets, which includes the cry of the poor, and the call not just to love those who are convenient, but to love with the heart of Jesus.  Only that love can welcome us into the family of heaven.

How do you fake love?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cheat the World

Matthew’s Gospel has the famous story of the talents: those who make money get more.  To contradict a worldly interpretation of that parable, Luke’s Gospel gives a very different version, which we read this Sunday.

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Our first reading, from the Prophet Amos, sounds the theme: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!”  Interesting that they ask, “When will the new moon be over . . . that we may sell our grain, and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?”  They observe the Law.

But they also say, “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating!”  They cut corners.  They “buy the lowly for silver.”  And “The Lord has sworn . . . Never will I forget a thing they have done!”  Maybe we should start worrying about the way we do business.

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Our Gospel immediately follows last Sunday’s Prodigal Son.  Jesus tells the story of a steward getting fired “for squandering his property.”  His solution is to squander it more: “How much do you owe my master?”  “One hundred measures.”  “Quickly write [a new bill] for fifty.”  To get his employer’s debtors to “welcome me into their homes,” he helps them cheat his employer.  Pretty rotten. 

And somehow, Jesus says we should copy that conniving steward.

The key verse might be the one right after our reading ends.  Next week we will read Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  But we skip five verses between that story and this one.  The first of those verses says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.”

In last week’s Gospel, he told the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son—and the celebrations when they were found—to contradict the Pharisees’ scandal at him welcoming sinners.  But all of those stories leave us open to thinking that the real goal is to have prosperous farms, money, and parties.  We, who are like the Pharisees not only in our lack of mercy but also in our love of money, might get the wrong idea.

So Jesus launches into this story, and next week’s, about the Rich Man and Lazarus.

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Here’s the moral Jesus draws from this strange story of the dishonest steward: “Make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

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It’s one of Jesus’s weirder analogies, but it works: We are the dishonest steward.  The boss is this world.  He is going to fire us; he rejects us; he does not care for us; he will not provide for us, he will fail us. 

And so like the dishonest steward, we should cheat him right back.  Waste his money.  Deny his values.  Take his wealth away from him and use it for better things.  Serve God, not mammon.  Use the things of this world, not to grow richer in this world, not to impress the boss who will fire you.  Use the things of this world, as the dishonest steward did, saying, “I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes”—or rather, as Jesus later explains, “into eternal dwellings.” 

Focus not on what the world wants.  Cheat the world, and do what God wants.  That means, for example, caring for the Poor Man Lazarus.  It means that instead of cutting corners and trampling on the needy, you give and don’t count the cost.

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“What is exalted among men,” Jesus says, in the second verse between this week’s reading and next’s, “is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Live by a different standard.

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The fifth and last verse we skip is Luke’s only treatment of divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”  All the strength and punch of Jesus’s teaching.  But Luke cuts it down, and puts it in a different context.  What does it mean to live Jesus’s teaching on marriage?  It means rejecting worldly standards.  You can better understand what he says about marriage, Luke thinks, if you learn not to be worldly about money.

Our reading from First Timothy adds a parallel about government.  “There is one God.  There is also one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”  So approach even government, not with worldly perspectives—not with tribalism, not with attempts to get more money or honor or whatever for you and yours—but with a desire for unity, working for peace and quiet, not for war.

It’s not enough to follow the Law—observing the sabbath, or avoiding adultery, and then looking for how you can cheat your neighbor to get more money.  Jesus calls us to a new standard.  Subordinating our financial life to that standard is a good start in living a truly converted life.

Where could you cheat the world by being kinder?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Action of the Father

This Sunday we read—again: we read it during Lent, too—the magnificent story of the Prodigal Son.  But the context of the story, at the opening, is the Pharisees and scribes complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

We can think about this in terms of action and passivity.  Jesus seems to his critics to be too passive, as if he doesn’t care.  His answer is that they don’t understand just how active the Father is.

***

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We start with Moses arguing with God over the Golden Calf.  God tells Moses his plan “that my wrath may blaze against them to consume them.”  It often seems to us that God is active in punishment, and passive in relenting.  Because Jesus is not destroying sinners, he seems to be at odds with this active God of the Old Testament.

That wrath is real.  There is punishment.  But the surprising thing we learn is that punishment is God’s inactivity.  Salvation is his activity.

In our story, God has already acted to save them.  But they choose to worship a molten calf—which is dumb.  For God to ignore them is to leave them alone in the desert, worshiping a god who cannot save.  What we call, and experience as, wrath, is the misery that will happen if God does not save us.  Punishment happens when God is not active.

Instead, Moses reminds God of his promises.  God has acted to make those promises, and God has promised to act.

***

We begin three weeks reading First Timothy.  Paul begins by talking about God’s mercy toward him, which has rescued him, not from Egyptian slavery or the desert of Sinai, from from blasphemy and arrogance.  “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” to get us out of this mess. 

It seems ironic that Paul ends this touching discussion of God’s mercy and our sin with a benediction that sounds cold: “To the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God, honor and glory forever.” The link is action.  God is not weak, he does not fail, he does not flop.  He is the strong God—the God of salvation.

***

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Jesus warms to his theme with two short parables.  He takes from Matthew the story of the man looking for his sheep—acting!  He adds to Matthew’s version the action of laying the sheep on his shoulders, and then calling together his friends and neighbors to celebrate. 

Then the story, unique to Luke, of the woman looking for her coin, who lights a lamp, sweeps, searches carefully—then calls together a celebration. 

He is turning inside-out the perception of the Pharisees.  They think he allows sinners to come because he is passive.  He describes himself as the most active.

***

And consider the father’s action and the sons’ passivity in the Prodigal Son. 

The Prodigal demands—what the Father has earned.  And the Prodigal wastes.  Action?  Of the lowest kind.

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A famine comes.  From the Prodigal’s perspective, the famine is the non-providence of God, God the Father not taking care of him.  But we can see that God was caring for him.  Contrast the Prodigal’s behavior, which is busy but accomplishes nothing, with God’s behavior, which is slow and steady, and accomplishes much.  Which one is really active?

We can see more about the Prodigal by looking at his Elder Brother.  They are opposites in way, to be sure—but also similar. 

The Elder stands outside, refuses to enter the house.  When the Father comes to him, the Elder says, “not once did I disobey”—a very inactive way to respect his Father.  And he says, “You never gave me” (an accusation of inaction) even a young goat to feast on with my friends.” 

The Father says, we feasted together.  The Elder’s accusation is not that he didn’t eat well.  His accusation is that the Father didn’t help him wander off.  The Father wanted him close. 

So too the Prodigal, who cares for his Father only so far as he can take stuff and leave.  When he returns, he is willing to confess, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” but only so that he can get bread, like those who are not sons.  How richly ironic is statement, “I no longer deserve to be called your son.”  He doesn’t care about being a son; doesn’t care about the richness of that relationship; doesn’t care about the intense action, in this parable and in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, of celebrating together.  He confesses his sin only because he doesn’t mind sacrificing his relationship so that he can sit outside and eat.

***

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But how active is the Father.  He gives.  And then he watches.  “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.  He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.”  Where the sons are limp and stand outside, the Father rushes to embrace.

He calls for a robe, and a ring, and sandals—not necessary things, just celebratory actions.  He calls a feast.  And then, while the Elder pouts outside, “His father came out and pleaded with him. . . .  Now we must celebrate and rejoice.”

They might accuse Jesus of being passive, for letting sinners come to him.  No, he says, I am active, like the Father.  You, who only want to stand outside and criticize, and demand your rewards, you are the passive ones.

Where is Jesus calling you to the greater action of his love?

Twenty-Third Sunday: Loving the Slaves

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to hate our family.  It’s a shocking passage.  And an interesting aspect of Luke: Matthew only tells us not to love our family more than Jesus, Mark skips the passage altogether—and Luke tells us to hate our family.

***

The Lectionary perfectly pairs this Gospel with our one reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, the shortest book of the New Testament, which is also about the transformation of relationships. 

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Philemon is the master of the slave Onesimus, who has been working with Paul.  Paul’s discussion of this slave is thick with irony.  Paul appeals for Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother, not a slave.  But he says he sends him back to Philemon because “I did not want to do anything without your consent”: Paul affirms Philemon’s freedom to make his own decisions—maybe Philemon can do the same for Onesimus.  “So that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary”—by freely freeing Onesimus to do what is voluntary, not what is forced.

Onesimus serves Paul, but with diakonia, chosen service, not as a doulos, a slave.  And Paul, himself in chains, in prison, commands Onesimus not as a slave master, but as a father.  He does not use Onesimus, but calls him “my own heart” (the Greek is splagchna, “my guts,” where I really feel things).

Paul appeals to Philemon to be “a partner,” a koinonos, who participates in the koinonia, communion, with which he has opened the letter. 

***

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Philemon adds to our reading from Luke the idea of transformed relationships.  Luke’s stark language, “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,” makes us think of ending relationships.  Paul shows us that our relationships must be transformed—radically, so that the one we viewed as a slave, the person we trampled on, becomes our “beloved brother,” and the flesh relationships, our earthly beloved brothers, melt away into the real love of the Christian communion. 

That sounds pleasant—but it is very hard.  One can imagine the division it would bring to a household if, for example, you started freeing slaves, or giving up property, or befriending those your family thinks are beneath you.  Our Gospel reminds us that this kind of transformed relationship is a way of carrying our cross, of dying to the old man and beginning a radically new life.

***

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Our Gospel opens with “great crowds traveling with Jesus”: a communion of friendship with the Master, which is a good thing.  But Jesus “turned”—or, “twisted around”—“and addressed them.”  He walks with them as friends, but he also turns to address them as Master.  To walk with Jesus we need to accept his authority to challenge our life.  Many among those “great crowds” are happy to be his friend, but less happy to be his disciples.

The shocking line, about hating father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters—and even our own life—is only one sentence, though an important one.

The next sentence proclaims that we have to carry our cross.  We are still on the road to Jerusalem.  Just before he set out on that road (9:51) he had announced that he was going to be killed (9:22) and so, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (9:23).  He predicts only his own death—for his disciples, he predicts the cross, which means carrying on our own two shoulders the implement of our death. 

Love is lovely.  But the love of Christ passes through the way of the Cross.  To say that it requires hating our earthly loves is to say that they must die with Christ before they can rise again.

***

He says the same thing another way with two parables.  If you’re going to build a tower, you need to calculate the cost—the cost of discipleship—and lay the foundations.  Christian love isn’t just happily doing what comes naturally.  It means embracing the cross.

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The second parable takes another angle.  Heading into this battle, we discover that we are outnumbered.  We cannot win—this is a battle where we will die.  Realizing that, we need to “ask for peace terms.”  When you’re outnumbered, those peace terms mean asking the other party what you have to do to avoid annihilation.  In the Christian life, on the one hand, we realize that we need the Strong Man’s help: the things that make for peace are the gifts of Christ. 

But on the other hand, to accept those gifts is to accept the transformation he demands.  And in the final sentence of our reading, the demand is not to hate our family, but to “renounce all his possessions”: all the relationships we metaphorically cling to, and all the material things we literally cling to.  Somehow, like Philemon, we have to free our slaves, find those we treat as less than human and embrace them as our brothers.  The love of Christ comes only through renunciation.

***

Our first reading, from Wisdom, then, reminds us of something essential.  Weighted down by our bodily concerns, we can scarcely make wise decisions about earthly things—so to know higher things, the things of God, we need to shut up and listen.  We who walk on the road with Christ need to let him turn and speak to us as Master, and demand of us what we would never embrace on our own. 

What slaves is Jesus calling you to befriend?

Twenty-Second Sunday: The Wedding

Our Gospel this Sunday tells us to choose the lower seat so that, instead of being humiliated, we can be called up higher.

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The story is more complicated than it first appears.  First thing: it has two parts.  The first part is about being called up higher.  It seems to be practical advice, a shrewd way to behave. 

But the second part is different in an important way.  Jesus is at table at a Pharisee’s house.  The first part he addresses to the others at table.  The second part he addresses to the host.  To the host he says, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.  Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor . . . . For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The difference is that the first piece of advice seems to be worldly.  It suggests a way to get repayment in this world.  But the second says we should not seek repayment in this world.  Is Jesus giving us practical advice for how to improve our reputation?  Or he is pointing to something deeper?

***

A second complication: His advice to the other guests, in that “first part,” is not as straightforward as it seems.  Our translation says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor.” The translation is interpreting the Greek so as to make it match the situation where Jesus is sitting: invited to a table.

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One parallel is real: He is speaking to those who “were choosing the places of honor” and challenges them not to take “the place of honor.”  But he’s speaking about a distinctly different situation.  The Greek says he is at the home of the Pharisee not “to dine” but to “eat bread”: very tangible.  But he speaks about “a wedding.”  Now, the word wedding, in Greek as in English, implies something about a banquet—but Jesus says nothing about tables or eating.  He just talks about the wedding.  He’s not describing the situation they are in, he’s talking about something else.

Oddly, Luke says, “He told a parable to those who had been invited.”  Luke doesn’t seem to think this is practical advice about the current situation.  It is a parable.

And with the words “invited,” “guest,” and “host,” our translation obscures something evangelical: it is all about those who are “called,” and “the one who calls.” 

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Suddenly, this all sounds more like . . . the parable of the wedding feast, in Matthew 22.  Which wedding is Jesus talking about?  And who calls us to that wedding?  Is he giving practical advice about how to score social points in this world?  Or is he teaching us about seeking our reward in the next life?  Whose voice do I want to hear saying, “Friend, rise up higher”?

Luke is putting that parable from Matthew into the context of ordinary life.

***

Our reading in Hebrews is one of the most beautiful in Scripture.  “You have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” etc.  It describes the great wedding feast.  We are already there.

It contrasts that wedding feast to Moses on the mountain of the Ten Commandments, “a blazing fire and gloomy darkness . . . and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.”  The Old Law was given with a threat of punishment, while God still seemed far away.

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But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.





But now the Bridegroom has come among us, and we wait eagerly until he comes again.  It is that joy of the Bridegroom, that anticipation of the great nuptials of the Lamb, that should color how we behave when we do things as ordinary as “eating bread.”  Jesus isn’t telling us to play the social scene to our greatest advantage.  He is telling us to live in the joy of his presence, which makes all social striving seem silly.

***

Sirach gives us wisdom.  Seek humility rather than to be “a giver of gifts.”  How ironic, that we often hoard money in the name of being generous to others.  Forget the hoarding, seek the lowest place.  Find favor with God.

Listen to the proverbs.  Don’t think you have penetrated the higher things.  Be taught.  Listen to the Gospel.

And give alms, which quench sin like water on fire.  Don’t hoard, but pour yourself out.  Hoarding is the root of all sin.

***

Our Psalm response says, “God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor.”

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First, let us see ourselves as the poor.  God is good.  Trust him.  Don’t hoard, don’t calculate, don’t angle—trust that God is good. 

And second, let us see God’s love for the poor.  Because if we trust that God is good, we will give.  We will trust that he will provide, even if we don’t hoard.  And we will see that life is not about calculating how we can rise higher, but abandoning everything for the pearl of great price, the joy of the heavenly Jerusalem, the great wedding of the Lamb.

What parts of your life are worldly?

Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Strive

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus once again turns our thinking inside out.

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(Notice that he is still on his way to Jerusalem, the organizing principle of Luke’s Gospel.  What does Jesus’s pilgrimage to die in Jerusalem mean?)

On the way, someone asks, “Will only a few people be saved?”  We tend to think of religion, and lots of other things, as an alternative between two answers to that question.  “Liberals” say, hey, everyone’s fine, no need to judge; their answer to the question is, “many will be saved, everyone!”  “Conservatives” say people are not fine, people do deserve to be judged, only a few will be saved—but tend to define the standard of judgment as “like me” or “not like me.”  (Our current trends toward nationalism and tribalism—on both the Left and the Right—show how far we can go in judging people based on their conformity to us.)

Jesus is not a liberal or a conservative.  He doesn’t answer the question how many will be saved.  Instead, he changes the perspective.

He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” and our reading concludes, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  On the one hand, he seems to say that many will not be saved: “for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough. . . . He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me, all you evildoers.’” Jesus is opposed to liberal presumption.  We can lose our salvation.

***

But he is also opposed to conservative presumption, to the presumption that other people will be condemned, but people like me are going to be fine.  “Some are first who will be last” means, you might think you’re in the in-crowd—but if you think that way, you will end up on the outside.

It’s striking how his metaphor proceeds.  Right after talking about the gate, he switches to the metaphor of knocking on the door after it has been locked.  Those on the outside will say, “Lord, open the door for us,” and the Lord will respond, “I do not know where you are from” (or maybe, “I don’t know you—where did you come from?”) 

But then they give their wonderfully presumptuous answer: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  They say, “Hey, Jesus, let me in, you know me, we hung out together!”  They think they are insiders.

But the Gospel is full of humor, and this is a funny way to describe being insiders: We ate and drank, and you taught.  They are passive.  But Jesus says, “Strive.”  (Maybe the more important part of the metaphor is not the “narrow door” so much as the “striving”: you have to work hard to be a real Christian.)  Their self-description, “We ate and drank in your company,” makes Christianity sound like eating popcorn at the movies.

And their passivity is a description of going to Mass.  “You taught in our streets” (literally, our big open areas, our plazas) is the Liturgy of the Word.  “We ate and drank in your company” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  And Jesus says, showing up at Mass and sitting there passively while I preach, and then mindlessly eating my Body and Blood, will not get you into heaven.  “Being Catholic” won’t get you into heaven.

As he says elsewhere, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Or as he says here, “struggle to enter in,” “strive to enter through the narrow door.”

***

The context of our Gospel is a series of stories where more people get into heaven than you’d think: Luke 13 begins with the Galileans crushed with their sacrifices, who are not as unrighteous as you’d like to think; then the barren fig tree, that gets a second chance; then a woman cured of her disability, when the Pharisees would tell Jesus to stop his works; then the mustard seed and the leaven, which become a huge tree, home for the birds, and the kingdom leavens three whole measures of flour.  Many will be saved.  But not you, if you take it for granted and rest on your “identity.”

Something similar happens in our reading from Isaiah, almost the very last verses of that hopeful but strange book.  In third- and second-to-last verses, Isaiah speaks of new heavens and a new earth, when “all flesh shall come to worship.”  Many will be saved!

And yet the last verse of the book is, “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”  Those who trust in the Lord will be saved, he can do it, he will reach out to every nation.  But those who think they are in the nation of the saved and are eager to treat others as outsiders, those who think they don’t need a savior and don’t need to repent, those who rebel against his command, they will not be saved.

Thus in our reading from Hebrews he says, “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”  If we let the Lord be our Lord, how great a salvation!  But you have to strive for it!

Do you catch yourself thinking you’re already righteous, already an insider?