Tag Archives: self-righteous

A familiar story? (Kingdom 1c)

Zacchaeus may only appear as a story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10), but it is a familiar story to many – and perhaps familiarity does not help us see its value.  Jesus is going through town when he calls to a figure up a tree to come down and offer him a meal.  The crowd don’t like it – this is a Tax collector (collaborator with the Roman occupying power, cheat, outsider . .).

Apparently Jesus has seen more in this man.  Zacchaeus not only gets down and offers a meal, but he offers to make up to anyone he has cheated, and gives away half his money!  This is a real turn-around (repentance, in Christian language).  Jesus emphasises his ministry “to seek out and to save the lost”, something we may be glad of, but which the crowd are suspicious of.  The disciples (then and now) have to learn both what Jesus is doing, and who is part of this new “Kingdom” family.  Who is “safe”?

The picture we may miss is of the disciples, Jesus, with Zacchaeus and perhaps the blind beggar (healed on the way into town) eating with a group of doubtful characters, some of whom may be about to follow Zacchaeus into a new life.  Outside – by their own choice, but perhaps unaware how serious that choice is – are those who prefer to criticise and stick with “their own kind”.

Safety is – learning with the disciples.

Money (Pentecost 19c, Proper 21c)

What is money for?  It’s strange how, in a materialistic culture, we don’t ask the question.  An Economist would probably give an answer about the convenience of avoiding barter for all transactions – true, but not entirely helpful.

Looking at Luke 16:19-31, or indeed remembering Jesus’ disciple Matthew the Tax collector, we do at least see some ways of getting it wrong.  The rich man of the parable found that his wealth meant he didn’t have to think about other people, and got into the habit of seeing the poor as available to run errands for his convenience.  Matthew left a career in the financial sector (well, I suppose that is how we would describe it now -?) for the uncertainties of travelling with and learning from Jesus.

If we try to ask what Jesus taught about money, it is not quite straightforward.  While one rich young man was told to get rid of his wealth and follow (Mark 10:17-23), that was not true of all his followers.  Some came from the families of tradespeople (the fishermen, for example, left their father in the boat with the hired men – Mark 1:20), some like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the women who funded Jesus ministry, clearly had wealth.

At the same time, there is no encouragement to see wealth linked to status.  There are warnings in this story against letting wealth get in the way of relationships (compare James 2:1-10).  I think it would be fair to say that having money – even at the average of British life – gives added responsibility (in using it as God’s managers), and added temptations (to misuse it).  Given that we in the west are wealthy, why is it that we so seldom ask what money is for, and how we might judge our use of it, and what are the good and bad models?

Win – Lose? (Proper 16, Pentecost 14)

Who would complain at someone doing right? Those threatened by it.

Jesus heals a woman bent for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17).  Wonderful, everybody is pleased – aren’t they?  Well, no.  The synagogue official complains that it isn’t right, the Sabbath law is being broken.

Jesus response is first to say that if Sabbath law allows an animal to be freed to be taken to water, it certainly allows a woman to be freed from a worse constraint.  His second point is more severe.  This healing is not “work” so much as setting free from the power of evil.  No one argues with him, at least not immediately, but opposition is growing and this is the last time Luke tells us of Jesus in a synagogue.

So, given this was so long ago, does it matter?  We might look at Christian attitudes to rest, and think how the Devil would bend them:

  • one way to avoid a useful time of refreshment, worship and gaining perspective would be to over-emphasise the rule.  Let it be absolute, but also purposeless, negative, empty, hollow.  That should keep people away from God, and God’s intention in a day of rest.
  • another (more common in my experience) would be to rubbish Sunday observance.  They could tell stories of not being allowed to play on Sundays as children, and forget how others needed rest.  Let people do as they want,  Let people overwork, make sure families have no time together, and make the Church family unable to meet all together at one time.  Make it hardest for the poor, who will not be able to refuse unsocial work hours.

Jesus will do neither.  His first concern is for God, his second for people.  He keeps the Law, but not always as others have been in the habit of doing.  We could learn from that.  Living by rules is never enough (it is what can give religion a bad name!), but refusing all discipline is no answer either. We have to learn Jesus priorities: love and serve God, love and serve other people, don’t reject rules, but never let them be an excuse for avoiding the first two priorities.

” And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” ” (Luke 13:16)  Certainly, yes, she should be released, and we should be finding our own freedom and bringing release to others by the power and grace of God.

Being nice and the gospel (Pentecost 8c, Proper 10c)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, well known, often quoted, easily misunderstood.  Luke 10:25-37 is another trick question, well answered by Jesus.  The questioner, who knows his scripture, seems to want a limit.  It is almost as if he asks, “Who can I tell to get lost, because they don’t qualify for my help?”

It is, of course, the wrong question.  But, like annoying children, we are good at asking the wrong questions – the ones with answers too complicated to understand, the ones which don’t fit our situation, or our need, or are more concerned with making us look good, or others look bad.  “Why is this happening to me?” may be a question like that, but there are plenty of others.

Jesus doesn’t sulk or get angry.  He may know that this question is meant to get him into trouble, but his answer will have grace, combining continued usefulness with a real attempt to let this questioner, and his listeners, understand.  We can imagine that the ordinary people in the crowd enjoyed the criticism of the priest and the Levite.  Of course, important people today are never too preoccupied, frightened, or lazy to offer appropriate help – are they?  A warning there, for those of us who think we might have important things to do.

What is the story really about?  No, it is not being nice to strangers.  No, it is not about race relations.  No, it is not about generosity, or the importance of first aid (not that I am against any of these things!)  What Jesus says is, “Life with God, the good life, the holy life, is never just about keeping within the behaviour not forbidden.  If you want to live for God, the question is not ‘What have I got to do to make the pass mark?’, but ‘What opportunities does God give me to reflect the love, grace, generosity and mercy that show God in action?’

The Samaritan doesn’t “do well enough to go to heaven” – none of us do – but he shows more of God than the religious professionals manage in this story.  Jesus invites us to live a new life, in the forgiveness and love of God, and in that life to look for opportunities to be like Him.

Proper 10, year c

The Lord is – my Tour Guide? (Easter 4c)

I was in Cyprus for the SAT7 Network Conference (very good, but another story), and we spent three days being tourists afterwards.  That also was enjoyable, but made me think about a contemporary re-write of Psalm 23.

“The Lord is my Tour Guide, provided as part of the package.
I shall pay only as much attention as I want at any time, and interpret instructions about departure times and activities as I see fit.
I shall expect attention, my problems sorted and my questions answered;
but I shall not feel any need to be polite, or form a relationship.
If I get into trouble, I shall scream for help,
but if not, I don’t expect my priorities and enjoyment to be interfered with.
If there is good performance and I feel generous, they might be a tip,
but it is someone else’s job to pay.”

Perhaps that’s overdoing it, but I do wonder if the Good Shepherd has not sometimes been replaced.  This Sunday, we remember John 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.”  We may use Psalm 23 (“I have everything I need” – not want!).  A Shepherd directs the flock for a purpose they may not understand.  He protects the sheep from dangers they may not notice, and makes plans they may not be aware of.  To be part of the flock, the sheep have to be – part of the flock.  With the shepherd, under direction.

So there is a question: Is the Lord your Shepherd (with this understanding), or do you see him as your “tour guide”?

Mothering Sunday – a Christian festival?

I have a mixed relationship with “Mothering Sunday”. Yes, celebrating mothering, or perhaps positive parenting and families, is good; the encouragement to affirm and say thank you is helpful. So what’s wrong? The danger of ignoring those for whom families have not worked, and indeed caused pain or damage: the broken and divided families, memories of control, abuse, violence, argument; those who longed to be parents, but could not, or whose experience of parenthood was hard.

So let’s have some reality. Yes, for most of us families have been good, not always giving us what we thought we wanted, but often providing what we needed. I think Jesus would recognise that. He had two good parents in Mary and Joseph, and we read (Mark 6:3) of four brothers and more than one sister. As the eldest (Mary’s “firstborn” Luke 2:7) we guess that he stayed at home long enough to leave Mary with his brothers running the business to support them all (Joseph does not appear again after the incidents of Luke 2:42-52 when Jesus was about 12). But during his ministry, Jesus breaks free from family control (Mark 3:32-34, as Lk 8:20ff and Mt 12:46ff) – and there are words which must have been hard for Mary! Later she is cared for at the cross (John 19:26-7), and becomes part of the early Christian community (Acts 1:14).
There is a choice of gospel readings today. We can take Jesus’ words from the cross, instructing John to care for Mary (John 19:26-7), or Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph when they brought the baby Jesus to the Temple – words that amazed them, and left Mary with much to think about (Luke 2:33-35).

Perhaps my favourite, though, would be the parable of the Prodigal Son – or should we call it the Loving Father (Luke 15:11-32). It is a story in three acts. First the younger son takes his money (no doubt causing much pain) and goes. Not a great deal is made of his route to the decision to return – no doubt there are many factors – but he makes the decision and the journey we might call repentance.

The second act belongs to the Father. Love is on the lookout, and offers not only a warm welcome, but also a shield through the village from hostile comment and action. As a picture of a generous God, it can be a little difficult to hold in focus. (Can God really be like that? Even if Jesus says so?)

The third act is more familiar. The resentment and self-righteousness of the elder brother sounds familiar. He is ready to think the worst, and offers no forgiveness – a challenge, not only to the proud of Jesus’ day, but to all of us. If we have avoided scandalous wrongdoing, and offered a measure of service, isn’t there strong temptation to want to claim our reward, and to denounce the cheats who enjoy the Father’s love? The question we don’t want asked is, “Who is cheating the gospel?”