Judges, Crones, and Charlie Brown

Luke 18:1-8  |  Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Charlie Brown kept trying to kick the football, even though he knew Lucy would pull the ball away every time. He kept trying to fly his kite, even though both Charlie Brown and we knew that the tree was going to eat it.

That kind of persistence is admirable, but on some level watching it makes us a little uncomfortable. We like Charlie Brown, or most of us like him anyway, and we would like to see him succeed at least once—kick the ball or get his kite past that malevolent tree—because it would mean that we might manage to do whatever the thing is that we would most love to do one day. At least once.

The story about the persistent widow, a cranky old crone who keeps coming to a disinterested and unjust judge, wearing him down until he gives her justice, also makes us uncomfortable.

We’re used to the image of God as judge. It is so pervasive that we have difficulty getting around it. Plenty of people are turned off anything having to do with religion or faith precisely because of the way this image of God is pushed on them.

Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511
Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, c.1511

Luke isn’t much help. The judge in the story doesn’t even care about people. He only acts on behalf of the widow because she is bothering him with her incessant requests. We draw a parallel between the unjust judge and God and between the widow and ourselves—of course we do. It’s disturbing. While it appears that Luke sees the judge as a contrast to God rather than a comparison, we still worry. After all, many of us have laid requests in front of God over and over and over, only to be met with silence.

A word of caution. Many people seem to think that the teachings of Jesus were meant to reassure us, to make us feel good about ourselves and each other and God and life in general, but those people are not paying attention. Jesus did offer words of comfort and reassurance, but he also worked in plenty of unsettling things. Jesus was not satisfied with the status quo, neither that of society nor that of our mindsets.

This is one of the few parables to come with an explanation. Now he was speaking a parable to them about the necessity always to pray and not to lose heart…

We get that it is an argument from the lesser case to the greater—this unjust human will eventually do the right thing if you bug him long enough, therefore how much more will God?

Still. We may be forgiven for remaining uneasy.

A word of definition. Theodicy. Merriam Webster defines it this way: “defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil”

If we haven’t seen an answer to our prayer, does Jesus mean that we have not persevered long enough in asking? How long is long enough? Worse, how about the folks who seem to get nothing but bad despite their good? How about the whole story of Job, to name an example?

When we watch children drown in the Mediterranean, innocent people bombed in Aleppo, poor girls kidnapped in Africa, simple and decent people having their homes destroyed by hurricanes or floods, it begs the question of why. And of who hasn’t prayed long enough. And of whether God is paying attention.

Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863
Parable of the Unjust Judge by John Everett Millais, c. 1863

Plenty of people answer the problem by saying there is no God. It is an effective answer, neatly addressing the apparent lack of supernatural intervention.

The rest of us, and maybe some of the atheists as well, keep struggling with the question.

One answer—and not one that I condone—is that the people meeting such disaster had it coming: the God is judge and those people are guilty approach. It is simple-minded rather than simple, and it makes God into a monster who condemns children and innocent people for the supposed sins of others. The prophets threw out this approach centuries before Jesus told the story of the judge and the widow (try out Jeremiah 31 or Ezekiel 18), and yet it finds advocates today. It seems to be a view most often held by people who have not yet ventured into one of the ‘those people’ groups. Eventually, life and time change their circumstance along with their views. Nothing changes us like experience, and none of us should ever pray for what we deserve.

Another answer, one that works part of the way, is that God is present among us. When we suffer, God suffers. I like this approach much better, and it is more comforting. It also presents God in a much better light. At the same time, we are left with questions of sovereignty. We are usually more interested in God fixing things than in God suffering with us.

There are as many answers as there are theologians, I suppose, and some of the answers are more satisfying than others. None of them feels complete.

charliebrownAnd so we return to Charlie Brown, who not only keeps trying to kick the ball, but who keeps trusting Lucy to hold it for him. There is so much grace in his trust in a proven adversary, and there is so much faith in his persistence. While our eyes are on the ball, Charlie Brown seems to realize something larger is at work, and that the moment at hand, this kick, is both an eternal thing and just a passing moment.

When the tree eats his kite—again—it is only a momentary affliction. It will pass, and Charlie Brown will make another kite, and another, knowing that his doing of these things is more important than the outcome. On some level, if Charlie Brown managed to kick the ball and fly the kite, on that day he would cease to exist. He would become someone else, still Charlie Brown but now the one who kicked the ball and who flew that kite.

Maybe that is Charlie Brown heaven. I don’t know. I do know that the grace of this parable is not in the judge’s answer. The grace of it is in the widow’s persistence.

A Man Called Lazarus

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122

Luke 16:19-31 | Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Only one character has a name out of all of the parables that Jesus told, and his name is Lazarus. That is almost as remarkable as the fact that the miracle of raising the other Lazarus from the dead is only told in the Gospel of John; the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—never mention it. That other Lazarus is raised from the dead, being four days in the grave, and it gets no mention. Yet here in Luke, the only place the parable of the rich man is told, the poor beggar gets the same name.

To be fair, in the oldest manuscript (P75) containing this story, the rich man is said to be known “by the name of Neues…” The Vulgate translation gave us ‘Dives’, but that simply means “rich man” and was not intended as a name. Elsewhere, the rich man is as nameless as the Pharaoh of Exodus.

By Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155243
Lazarus and the Rich Man, Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1030-1050

Maybe the poor man is called Lazarus because there is a mention of resurrection: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ If there is a link between the Lazarus of John’s Gospel and this parable, it is tenuous.

Ironically, the main action of the story takes place after this Lazarus is dead.

The imagery of this parable contributes to our notions of heaven and hell. Of course, it is not clear that Lazarus and the rich man are in different places—they might be in the same overall place, a Hades something like the notion of the afterlife we find in Greek mythology but separated into different areas, like the dead who come to speak to the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s story. It could also be that the parable is describing heaven and hell after all, with the surprising aspect of making each visible from the other but divided by a chasm that cannot be crossed.

It is a mistake to take any of these details literally. As in any mythological tale or great story, the point is truth, not facts. (Facts may be true, but they are not truth, not the kind of truth that can make life worth living.) Abraham, the gate keeper figure of this parable, might have been Saint Peter had the parable been told a few centuries later—the role is the same as in later notional tales where Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven.

One oddity of the story is the lack of detail regarding why the rich man is condemned, and there’s a second oddity in the peculiar detail that is present:

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.’

Anyone who believes that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and that poverty a sign of the lack of it, an idea that emerged early in Old Testament thought but one that the prophets thoroughly trashed and discarded (a theological trajectory of understanding moves through scripture), should hear a word of warning. We assume that the rich man’s offenses are self-absorption and a lack of compassion for Lazarus. What the Abraham character (and therefore Jesus) tells us is more straightforward but perplexing—the rich man received good things in his lifetime, but Lazarus only suffered. There is a sense of balance, but there is little that matches up with any expectations of a final judgment and of God’s justice. Still, there is one more aspect of the rich man’s life that is mentioned, and it may be the critical element of the entire parable. He did not believe.

The rich man’s response to God, or rather the lack of it, is the true basis for his present condition. In fact, it is because of this same indifference on the part of his brothers that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them. Surely, the rich man says, they will believe if someone rises from the dead.

Here is the early kerygma of the Church, the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the demand that faithful people respond to it. The demand is not simply to live a moral life, not to feed the hungry or help the poor: those are baseline behaviors expected of any decent person. The critical matter in the Christian proclamation is the response to the presence of God as witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, anyone responding to such love in God would also respond to a poor man starving on the steps.

Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1625
Feeding Lazarus would have made the rich man more of a decent human being. It would not have addressed the central question Jesus is posing—how do we respond to the presence of God? To put it another way, why are we going to feed Lazarus? Because it is the decent thing? Because there but for grace and accident of birth or opportunity go we? Or are we going to feed Lazarus because we recognize the presence of God in the person of the beggar at our gate?

Boundaries, chasms, and gates fill this story. The rich man reclines inside his walls, beyond his gates, unreachable by the beggar Lazarus who lies dying outside. Then the rich man is in torment inside the walls of death, outside the gateway of life, watched by Lazarus, who never speaks a word throughout the entire parable.

The other Lazarus of John’s Gospel lay dead inside a tomb, cut off by the dual obstacles of stone and of death. In that story, Jesus removed the stone, but he stood outside and called to Lazarus. What if that Lazarus had been like this rich man and all his brothers and refused to respond? What if Lazarus had closed his ears, refused to listen to the echo of Jesus’ voice reaching into the darkness of that tomb, calling him back to life?

We might wonder the same thing about ourselves. We might stop to listen, and go to see who is waiting outside the walls we have built.

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122
Lazarus at the Gate of the Rich Man, Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov, 1886

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

Foxholes and Bird Nests and Wandering Arameans

Arctic Fox glaring

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 9:51-62

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to an unnamed would-be disciple. It must have been discouragement enough. We hear no more of whoever it was.

Arctic FoxIt’s an interesting saying, recorded also in Matthew’s Gospel, though not in the other two. Luke records two more strange sayings, one about letting the dead bury the dead and another about putting one’s hand to the plow but looking back, like Lot’s wife. None of the three sayings are quite as simple as they sound.

The words about foxes and birds together with the stories of Jesus walking up and down the countryside—the quintessential peripatetic teacher—form the basis for the notion that Jesus was homeless. Somehow we modern folk tend to view homeless people as having less to offer, while we buy into the idea that Jesus being homeless enhanced the gospel message. There is a double standard at play that we should drag out into the daylight and reject.

At the same time, there is another aspect to the image of a homeless Jesus: it does not jive with the rest of what we hear about him in the gospels. The earliest gospel written, Mark, plainly speaks of Jesus being at home in Capernaum—try reading the chapter two, and try to keep an open mind. Mark tells us that Jesus was at home when men famously came bringing an invalid on a stretcher and, by way of bypassing an insurmountable crowd, tore open the roof of the house and lowered the man on ropes to where Jesus sat. Nobody in the story complains about the roof or the mess, most likely because the house belonged to Jesus himself.Arctic Fox Walking Away

Why does it matter? It highlights whether we are reading scripture and paying attention to it or merely looking for confirmation of what we already think it says. God can knock loudly when God chooses, but the Spirit still requires an open heart and mind to be heard.

Elsewhere when Jesus makes extreme statements and hyperbolic exaggerations to make a point—pluck out your eye, cut off your hand—we get it. We understand that those sayings were meant to illustrate his meaning. Point out, as I have just done, that it is far more likely that a first century adult male Jew with education and training, family and standing, did have a home, as the plainest reading of Mark indicates, and you may find yourself facing hostile believers quoting Luke and Matthew.

We do not like anyone messing with our ideas. It makes us anxious, uncertain, and ornery.

While we’re messing with ideas, let’s look at another one that has to do with wandering, from Deuteronomy 26:5—My father was a wandering Aramean…

These words, built into Jewish religious observance and ritual, are a reminder of the humble origins of their people. Jacob, and his grandfather Abraham, came from generations of semi-nomadic people of the ancient Fertile Crescent region. In a real sense, these people, the ancestors of the Jews, had no place to lay their head but under their tents and the stars above them. These people, the spiritual ancestors of all of the peoples of the book, were not above sleeping on the ground, a stone for a pillow.

Arctic Fox SideMany of us buy mattress toppers and shop for starter mansions, or at least we spend our free moments watching the people on television buying houses most of us cannot afford, splurging on makeovers of homes most of the world would think already palaces. What will our descendants say about us? My ancestors were idle consumers…

There is something nearly Buddhist about the three admonitions Jesus speaks. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head… Let the dead bury their own dead… No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

He is talking about attachment. He is talking about being present. If Jesus were using the language of Zen, these would be koans. What use is a house in the palace of God?

We hold onto our belongings and our habits as though we will live forever, and in holding on, we loose our grip on everything that is eternal. Whether our pillow is as soft as goose down or as hard as a park bench, it is good to reflect on another Jesus saying that is found only in the Gospel of Luke: The kingdom of God is within you.

Arctic Fox glaring

Faith Takes Practice

Clouds - I, John cover

Ascension  |  Luke 24:44-53

Clouds Process 012In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the title character says, “Faith takes practice.” At that moment, Owen is talking about a man of his extremely small stature making a slam dunk on the basketball court. He is also talking about a view of life.

On Sunday the Christian world celebrates the Ascension of the Lord. Well, those Christians who pay attention to the liturgical calendar will. Most Baptists, for example, will not even know why they are hearing the passages from Luke and Acts describing Jesus being taken up into heaven on a cloud.

It may be just as well. The story is good and meaningful, but have you ever stopped to listen to church folk talking about it?

To a first century audience it was wonderful imagery, powerful and full of hope. We get the symbolism of it today, but there are some problems if we are going to offer the gospel to a modern world.

Here’s one: do we really think that heaven is in the sky? Do we really mean to say that heaven is “up there” just beyond the clouds, somewhere that jet airplanes and satellites and NASA scientists seem not to find? Do we really mean to say that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky?

Maybe not, but go take a seat in almost any church this Sunday where people are talking about this passage, and listen for a while. Odds are good you’ll walk out thinking Christians believe heaven is ‘up’ and that Jesus rode a cloud into the sky.

Consider another example. Most of the people in that first century audience had vague ideas about the shape of the earth. Some of them knew that the world was a sphere, but others still held onto the comforting notion that it was flat. All of them could hear the creation stories of Genesis and understand them. They understood that these are God-stories. Science deals with things that are true, God-stories deal with truth about God.

There is a difference.

I could count the paper money in my wallet and tell you how much I have. (It would not take long.) What I told you would be true, but it would not be truth, the kind that lasts and that has meaning for our lives. The dollar amount I count would be a fact; that these paper dollars have any actual trade value in the marketplace is more of a matter of faith.

Did Jesus ride up into the sky in a cloud? Maybe. I don’t know. That is what the story says, but it could be simply trying to convey the truth that Jesus went away, in a way that made it a God-thing. Mysterious. Hard to grasp. Passing all around us. Like a cloud.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how Jesus left. It doesn’t even matter where he went. The gospel message is that, in some God-way, God is always present in the world. Up or down, in or out, seen or unseen.

Maybe heaven is a time instead of a place—heaven is when we get there. And it won’t matter where ‘there’ is. What will matter is what we have become.

Faith is participating in that journey to somewhere. Practice is how we get there. If faith is a bicycle made by God, the pedals are called practice.