Poor, Crippled, Lame, and Blind

Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee by Pierre Subleyras, c. 1737

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 14:1,7-14

“Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” he said.

Watching the people around him while they watched him, Jesus noticed the not so modern trend of people befriending those from whom they expected to get something—social speculative investment, if you will.

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Artus Wolffort, 17th century
Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee by Artus Wolffort, 17th century

In response, Jesus urged them to invite a new class of dinner guests—those from whom nothing was expected. No return invitation. No ride on the social escalator. No benefit to the host. Invite those who cannot repay you, he said. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

We want to understand it theologically. Spiritually. Theoretically. Metaphorically. Anything but literally.

Most of the time we improve our understanding by thinking of scripture in terms of metaphor. This may be an exception.

Here a metaphorical understanding, a spiritual interpretation, would free us from having to do anything. We could tell ourselves that our friends were already poor, lame, crippled, and blind, at least spiritually, and most of us would not be wrong. Of course, our own friends could do the same, and they would not be wrong, so we have little room for self aggrandizing. And nothing would change.

Try hearing the admonition as a literal instruction. Invite the poor to dinner. Share your meal, your food, your living, with the lame and the crippled. Put your best china out for the blind. Two things change—our circle of acquaintances, and the circumstances of the people who need change the most. Poor people get fed, clothed. The crippled, physical and mental, get help, maybe some medical attention. The blind see a better life.

As for a spiritual interpretation, most of us may find that in the eyes of God, we ourselves are the “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” Try reading the third chapter of Revelation and the letter to the undistinguished folk in Laodicea, in what is modern day Turkey.

It is a humbling thing to see oneself with the eyes of those who are not as blind as we.

Still, take heart. There is a word of grace here for all of us, no matter how humbling it may be. Once we know ourselves for what we are, we might warrant an invitation to the feast.

Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee by Pierre Subleyras, c. 1737
Christ at the House of Simon the Pharisee by Pierre Subleyras, c. 1737

On Ordinary Days

UNICEF' s website - Children of Syria

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 13:10-17

[Note: There is a link below to the UNICEF website, or you may reach it here. ]

An odd thing happens when you bend to help a child, or reach out to the disadvantaged, the weak , the disenfranchised, the poor, the victims and objects of prejudice and oppression. In the eyes of the oppressors and the prejudiced, you become one of the people you are trying to help. You are labeled, circumscribed, tossed into a category. Objectified.

Bigots always give themselves away, revealing their prejudices by the labels they place on others. They cannot fathom the idea that a person might support, admire, and befriend people who are unlike herself. Insidious, quiet, even otherwise unrecognized bigotry, in oneself or in someone else, can always be identified by the brush used to apply hatred and fear and by the labels applied to other people.

It works like this. Suppose you speak up about helping refugees from Syria or Africa. People who dislike the refugees will paint you either as someone with ties to people from those regions or as someone with a liberal political agenda. Those things might be true or they might not, but it is just as likely that you saw people who needed help, children who lacked proper places to sleep and food to eat, places to be safe, and you decided to help. It doesn’t make you a refugee, though it does make you a decent human being.

Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter
Healing of a Bleeding Woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter

Suppose you speak up about discrimination against the LGBTQ community. People who discriminate against or dislike or disapprove of LGBTQ people will decide that you must be part of that community, though you may simply respect them as people, with the same rights and privileges and dignity as yourself, gay or not. While it is an honor to be accepted by the LGBTQ community, supporting gay rights does not make you gay, any more than helping the poor makes you poor, any more than feeding a starving child makes you a starving child, any more than listening to Mozart or reading Einstein makes you brilliant (although it doesn’t hurt.)

A very important point goes along with these ideas, and it is that there is nothing wrong with being a member of any of these groups — except for being one of the group who hate. That is the essential insanity of the response of oppression and bigotry. If you are a refugee, or poor, or a gay person experiencing discrimination, or a child needing food and shelter, you are still, of course and without question, a person with inalienable worth, value, and dignity. Neither my help nor the lack of it can change someone else’s inherent worth and value as a human being.

Identifying that a person’s circumstance needs to be changed—whether it is due to poverty, displacement, discrimination, natural disaster, or even plain bad choices—is a process of recognizing that each person suffering those needs is at least as valued and of at least as much worth in the eyes of God as those people who are able to help change these circumstances.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, Paolo Veronese, c1548. National Gallery
The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, Paolo Veronese, c1548. National Gallery

A woman came to the synagogue on the sabbath. She had been bent over, unable to stand up straight (something basic to humanity) for many years. Jesus called her over, touched her, and healed her. The leader of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had worked a miracle on the day of rest.

Religion is what happens when we try to control the wildfire of faith.

We might wonder about Jesus interrupting his teaching to talk to a woman, even touch a woman and a sick woman at that, in the middle of a first century male-dominated religious gathering. By the simple fact of being a woman, her standing was questionable. By her being sick, a likewise sick religion would see her as judged by God. Both she and the community around her need healing. Jesus not only does not mind whether anyone takes offense, whether what he does follows the rules and etiquette of the synagogue, he goes out of his way to describe the woman’s ailment as a thing of evil rather than a judgment from God.

The gospels repeatedly tell stories of Jesus reaching out to the less fortunate, of associating with people who were victims of prejudice and discrimination. He befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, simple workers, poor people, housewives, as well and as easily as he associated with Nicodemus, a wealthy member of Jewish society. The prejudices and opinions of any of these people, rich or poor or respected or despised, had no bearing on the worth and dignity Jesus saw in each of them. He did not care what brush they might use to paint him or what labels his critics might use to slander him. The labels and the prejudices they represented remained the problem of the people who used them. Jesus only ever labeled one group—the hypocrites.

Come back on ordinary days, the leader of that synagogue tried to tell everyone. Come back and be healed on a day that is not the sabbath. Jesus thought differently. So long as we see people in need, every day is the sabbath. There is no such thing as an ordinary person, and there is no such thing as an ordinary day.

Link to UNICEF' s website - Children of Syria
Link to UNICEF’ s website – Children of Syria

Touching Fire

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:49-56

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s. — Joseph Campbell

The Greeks told the story of the Titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to men. He knew that the gift of fire would raise humanity to a new plane, and he knew that he would be condemned to eternal torment for his gift. To put it another way, Prometheus sacrificed himself for the good of humanity. It is a hero tale that in many ways foreshadows the story of Jesus.

Fire is such a strange thing. It seems to have all of the qualities of a living being—it grows, consumes, even reproduces itself. Fire seems to move of its own will, dancing, even speaking to us with the crackling voice of heat. Fire is sometimes a result, sometimes a cause. Either way, it changes things.

Fire may define what it means to be human. We once said that our use of tools separated us from other animals, but then we began watching apes more closely. And otters. And crows. We talked about our problem-solving abilities, but there were still the apes, the otters, and the crows, not to mention octopi escaping from aquariums and opening jars with their sucker lined arms. We went on and on about our opposable thumbs, as though we had produced them ourselves from sheer will and determination, but then we noticed raccoons calmly opening our trash cans, and we gave up talking about thumbs so much. A few souls pointed out that we farm and keep livestock and train animals to work for us, but even ants tend aphids, milking them for whatever one milks from an aphid. Then we noticed the cats, watching us with amusement as we performed the duties they had trained us to do.

Not even cats have learned to use fire.

One of my grandmothers had a fiery disposition. If she loved you, all was warm and well in your world. If she disapproved, or worse, if she thought a thing truly wrong—taking advantage of the weak was one of the worst sins—then she would flare up, hot with anger. She was a remarkable woman, and she changed things. She refined the people around her.

Folio 14v of the Rabula Gospels (Florence, Biblioteca Mediceo Laurenziana, cod. Plut. I, 560), Pentecost
Pentecost, from the Rabula Gospels, 6th century

Scripture often describes God in terms of fire, but never as ice, not that I have ever found. It cannot be simply that ancient Judeo-Christian writers were men and women who lived in warm climates. Ice has more to do with death than with life; no one ever tried to gather ice in order to stay alive, unless one counts the igloos of the far north, but even there it is the warmth inside that keeps people alive.

The same fire that burns chaff will bake bread. Fire gives warmth, gives light, consumes. It creates and destroys.

When Jesus says he has come to bring fire, he likely means something of both—creation and destruction. Perhaps it is impossible to do the one without the other. Some things need tearing down, refining. The heat of a forge destroys the old nature of metals even as it creates new qualities.

Sometimes we just need to bring a little light into a dark corner. Sometimes we need to bake our bread or forge a new life. Sometimes we need to burn the whole house down.

The Jesus story is about freeing and forging, burning down barriers and lies and the walls of our own self-deception. It is the story of burning coals and the catharsis of fire, but it is also the story of a smaller fire within us, the lamp lighting our path. Reaching out to God is like touching fire. The fire of the Spirit may refine us or consume us or light our path, all depending on our response.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618, Philadelphia Museum
Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1611-1618

Least Expectations

Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:32-40

Some of us may find that we are not as intelligent as we once were. I am not, I am afraid. I cannot remember so well or so quickly as once I did. I cannot make new associations, realize connections, or work through problems so well as in years past. In learning some new skill, I find that while I once may have sought mastery, I now settle for sufficiency.

One grows old.

Still, there are compensations. Perhaps I am not so quick witted, but I may be wiser. It may take me longer to work out a problem, but I have a better idea of which problems are worth working out. There are the things that matter, and there are the things that merely distract. There are many more distractions.

The things we own begin to own us, if we are not careful. Sometimes it happens even if we are. Jesus makes radical suggestions in Luke’s Gospel account—sell your stuff, give it away. Treasure eternal things. (If you are not sure which things are eternal, there is a simple test. If you can touch it, taste it, see it, hear it, or smell it, it isn’t.)

Then, he says, get ready.

Ready for what? He tells a story to illustrate, full of servants and an absent master, people dressed and waiting in the middle of the night, a master who puts on a servant’s garb and upends all expectations, a master serving his servants.

Be ready, Jesus is saying, for the presence of God.

Though the Spirit of God is not named in this passage, and though most people understand these verses as referring to the return of Christ himself, we might understand these sayings better if we consider that Jesus is talking about the Spirit of God, another aspect of himself, another person of God.

In John’s later Gospel, Nicodemus is bewildered to hear Jesus say that the wind blows where it chooses, though we do not hear the sound of it, and we do not know from where it comes or where it goes. Or when, John might have added.

Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899
Saudade (Longing) by José Ferraz de Almeida Júnior, 1899

“The Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour,” says Jesus. We always cast our minds forward when we hear it, wondering when the most unexpected hour could be. In the middle of the night? At our death? Long after we are gone?

How about already?

I suggest that is the most unexpected hour of all—already. We almost never expect the thing we anticipate to have already happened.

I don’t mean like when we expect the meeting to start at 2:00 in the afternoon, only to find that it is already 3:00, or that it was scheduled yesterday when we thought it was today, though these things sometimes happen with age.

Live long enough, and anything is likely to have happened, or nothing at all. Wonderful things, important things, happen, and we do not notice. A child’s smile, or a friend’s grief, eternal things happen, things that we should have noticed if we had been paying attention, if we had not been distracted, if we had not thought that all of the things gathered around us were so important. We miss the eternal things, the things we cannot touch but that would have left a mark on us had we bothered to notice.

Maybe Jesus did come at the unexpected hour. Maybe the Spirit of God has been present all along, the entire time, waiting to upend our world, to turn over our expectations, to join us at the moments of our real, eternal, need. We just haven’t been paying attention.

We want trumpets and angels. The more harsh minded among us want plagues and famine, judgements and end times. Maybe some people get those things. I do not know; I do not want them.

I know that Jesus is telling us that God is like a thief, always anticipated but never expected. Just as a thief might already be standing quietly in the back room of a house, undetected, so God may be already waiting in the back rooms of our minds, waiting and watching from the corners of our souls.