Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

One Man's Web

Have you ever been in that place where someone tells a story, and everyone laughs, but you can't see why?  That's a bit like where we are this week. Jesus has told a story, not meant funny in this case, and lots of his listeners are nodding and agreeing, but we have no idea what the story means; in fact, it sounds like the sort of thing Jesus wouldn't say!

He's telling the story to make a point about something else. It's not a complimentary story, and would have stung Luke's audience  a bit, because Jesus tells it as a criticism of them, and their discipleship.

What he's saying is this: Look at the top end of town. Those blokes are playing for sheep stations1. (See below, if you're not from Oz.) They are serious when it comes to doing business. No mucking around; they play it hard and fast to get the deal. I wish my people—you mob—I wish you mob would do the same. Because you know sheep stations are worth nothing at all in the bigger scheme of things. You know that you can't take it with you when you die. You've woken up; your eyes are open. So why aren't you focussed and committed and playing it smart when it comes to what really matters in life? Sometimes I wonder if you are really serious about being part of my kingdom, or whether you're more interested in just lining your pockets. I warn you: you cannot serve both God and wealth.

Here's the background: The rich bloke does schmoozing with the tax collectors and the local centurion while they pretend they're wine connoisseurs. He has a manager to bring in all the money. And the manager is in a funny kind of situation. He can 'cream off' a cut of all the deals; the boss expects that; it's not a problem.  But he has to make money. He has to make the boss feel like he's keeping up with the other rich fellas, or even getting in front, right?

But the manager can't go too hard. Because if he does, people will take their trade elsewhere or… they'll make trouble for him, and then he'll be in trouble with the boss. He has to be a shrewd operator. In this story it looks like something hasn't worked out. He hasn't been quite shrewd enough. Someone's got the boss's ear and been telling porkies about the manager. It doesn't matter if they are not true.  The rich man, the boss, can't afford to look weak, can't afford to lose face, so the manager is getting the sack... Read on >>>>

This story of the manager begins with the words "There was a rich man..." The next parable (Luke 16:19ff) also begins with: "There was a rich man..." Back in Chapter 15, the Parable of the Loving and Faithful Father ends very well for the younger son, but the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, ends very badly for the rich man.  In that parable, a "poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham," but the rich man ends up in Hades.  

Lois Malcom suggests that the middle parable of the manager

serves as a bridge between the stories of the [Loving and Faithful Father] (15:11-32) and the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31).

What happens in the middle? What is the bridge doing?

This is where things become difficult. We are dealing with a story set in a complex social and economic system which we barely understand.  It's like those tribal meetings where I would sit with a rudimentary knowledge of what was going on, but blind to subtleties which were blatantly obvious to local folk and which, I later realised, were 'the main game.' In other words, despite having some idea of the social realities, I was often misconstruing, and quite badly, what was going on! Since the commentators are "all over the map in their opinions" of what is going on, despite them being quite clear to people of Jesus' time, we could waste an enormous amount of time guessing at what they are. 

Nonetheless, the point of the story and the sayings that go with it are made clear; Jesus leaves nothing to chance! In the middle of the bridge we are being told:  Be shrewd (while you can.) "You cannot serve God and mammon." Ask yourself whose side are you on: kingdom or empire? There is no middle ground here. In Luke's thinking, we go off the bridge either as 'a younger son' or as 'a rich man.'  ... Read on >>>>

You can listen here

There's something about us people. We crave intimacy. We want to be close, close to other people and close to God. We do not want to be alone. At its best, intimacy would mean we would be able to stop trying; we could let go; keeping on being alive would not be such a burden that we have to carry in solitude. We could live together. We are designed to be together; people who are totally alone get sick

And yet... we don't want to get too close. Too close to God, or too close to other people, and we might lose control. We might be injured. Perhaps you've seen in others, or recognised in yourself, a kind of longing for intimacy and affirmation all mixed up with a need to control meetings or relationships.  It's the outworking of this tussle between craving intimacy... and yet fearing it.

So we often go through life in this uncomfortable space between intimacy and loneliness, burdened by life, and yet terrified of what might happen to us, if we put the burden down and trust someone else. We want someone to love us, but are terrified of what might happen if we let them love us.

It's what drives the misery of a six year old in the playground and the misery of the American president. And it's a dilemma which sits at the centre of religion. Religion seeks intimacy with God; it knows we need God in order even to exist. Religion knows that without God, we are lost, and we have no hope.  But religion also puts a curtain around God. It doesn't want to get too close. What might God ask of us?  Religion understands there is something terrifying about God; the old folk said that to look upon the face of God was to die. Don't get too close.

Religion does something else. That curtain that shields us from God, is also used to keep the world out... Read on >>>>

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The wider context
Luke 15, as a chapter, continues themes based around meals and banquets, around who is acceptable to synagogue (13:10ff) and society, and around who will refuse to come to feasts. In Chapter 14 it is made clear (vv15-24) that none of those who were invited came to a feast; there was jockeying (vv7-11) over the places of honour at another meal, where Jesus was watched closely in the Pharisee's house; it is not unlikely he was invited mostly to see how he would react towards a sick man on the Sabbath. (14:1)

Chapter 15 also begins with meals, but meals of which proper society disapproved. Jesus seems quite at home at these meals. And it ends with a celebratory banquet where an invited one, of whom the host says, "all that is mine is yours," refuses to attend, at least initially. Like many of his village, perhaps, he found the celebration quite improper. The story leaves us to imagine what he chose to do. 

The Lectionary selection from Luke 15 for this week is problematic. The last part of the chapter is read in Lent, although it is obviously written to be heard (and contrasted) with the beginning of the chapter. This separation does violence to Luke's message which is woven from three stories within the chapter (although, of course, he was not thinking of chapters.)

We can see the connections begin in the Greek of verse 3 which begins as a response to the Pharisee's criticism of Jesus' feasting with sinners. The verse begins with: "then he said." In this section he tells two similar and brief stories. He then tells a longer story beginning in verse 11, and in the Greek we can see that this longer story has the same beginning words as verse 3:  Εἶπεν δέ; that is, "then he said." We are meant to see that stories one and two are linked to story three, and they are both an answer to the grumbling of the scribes and Pharisess. This linkage is made undeniable by a repetition of words and phrases across the three sections of the text, which NRSV does very well to reflect. I list them below.

Have: (had) in verses 4, 8, 11, regarding sheep, coin and son. The key players are a shepherd, a woman, and a father.

Lost:  Repeated twice in verse 4 for emphasis regarding the sheep; then in verse 8 and 9, repeated for emphasis regarding the coin; then in verse 23, and repeated in verse 32, for emphasis concerning the son... Read on >>>>

You can listen here

A dark sense of humour might have us thinking that we'll have discipleship nailed, because we can't stand our families— and for good reason, too. But what kind of faith would demand that we hate our families!? Is this the same Jesus who said "Love one another as I have loved you!?" and "Love your neighbour as you love yourself!?"

Jesus was speaking in a time when family was everything. People had no existence apart from their family. You had to do what the family did, and what the family needed you to do. Otherwise the whole family suffered.  If a son left home when he was needed on the farm, the family could starve.

This need went far beyond staying on the farm. It was not just about looking after elderly parents— that's a good thing.  If the family decided they hated the other family down the road, then you had to hate them too. This has shifted into our time. If the family and the village decided they hated Catholics, then you had to hate Catholics. God forbid that you'd marry one, or even do business with one. If the family hates Muslims and thinks refugees should be held in concentration camps, then that's what you are supposed to do, too. And if you don't?

Well, Tom was an only son. And he wanted to be a doctor. Which would mean leaving the farm. "What are we going to do? Who'll run the farm?" his father asked. "Do you hate us, or something?"

Scholars wonder if when the new Christians felt Jesus calling them to act differently to the family— to make friends with the refugees, perhaps, perhaps then their families said, "Do you hate us or something?"  And Jesus said, "Well, if you won't wear that, if you cave in to the prejudices and demands of your family, you can't be my disciple." ... Read on >>>>

There never was a lone cowboy rode into town. There was always an invisible legion riding with him; brothers and uncles, even the father he never knew, and his mother, well armed. When I first took a laptop on a long solitary ride across the country, my dear father printed out every blog post for himself, and then reprinted the photos with varying degrees of success and mailed them to my sister already reading the blog in England. Why? Because he was riding with me. The journeying that is me, was him; he gave it to me; he taught me; he formed me. As a four year old I heard Jesus on the road as I was hiking alone; already my father had me travelling, and Jesus began to intrude into my family relationships at the same moment as he affirmed my travelling and searching.

It is not that we are for our families or against them, but something deeper. We are our families, or we are in reaction against them— which is to say: still formed by them in reaction!— and we are our hometown or suburb, and our nation. We can only be Jesus' person if we become somehow detached from these other entities; that is, if we hold to them lightly, and if we will not be subject to their commands and calls to arms as we become aware of them. We can only be Jesus' person if we filter the call and conditioning of family through his way of being human. Families will sometimes feel such detachment as hatred, and will hate us for it. For their existence and survival, and the survival of their members, depends on solidarity. It depends on faithfulness. It needs us for assurance, for support, and even for blood... Read on >>>>

(You can listen here)

In last week's gospel, we had the image of a woman who was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. The Greek text of that story contains an extended pun about being bound and set free. The message seems to be that Sabbath rest is meant to be a thing of freedom for us, not an imposition. The woman is set free on the Sabbath. Sabbath is for remembering and recollecting who we are, and remembering what life is about; keeping a Sabbath sets us free from the rat race.

In this week's gospel, the story is again set on the Sabbath day. It's a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus is invited, he trolls the Pharisees and authorities on the Law. He asks them if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not. And they stay silent, which means they know they can't win the argument.

He heals the man, who has dropsy and, it says, "sent him away." It sounds so much like the last story that the lectionary leaves it out and goes on to the argy bargee about who gets to recline where at the dinner table. Which I think... means it misses the point of the whole story.

If the woman is bent over and can't straighten up, we immediately think of burdens and sorrows weighing her down. We may see a metaphor about oppression, and see that Jesus sets her free, or looses her.

So what about dropsy? Today, dropsy is usually called oedema.  It's the swelling you get when your limbs, or other parts of the body, retain too much fluid.

What does dropsy suggest to us as a metaphor? If Luke tells us a story about dropsy, he wants us to find meaning— to find a symbol— in the illness. Any suggestions... ... ... ... ...?

What about swelling?  What does swelling suggest about behaviour and attitudes in our culture... ... ... ...?

Anyway... at the time, philosophers thought dropsy was a sign of greed and excess wealth. So what we have in the Pharisee's house is a man whom people assume, from the state of his health, is greedy, which is to say... sinful.  They would have 'fat-shamed' him, essentially.

Jesus heals him, and although the Greek word  ἀπέλυσεν  (apelusen) is translated, sent him away, the underlying word is to release, or set free.  You could say that Jesus healed the man and said, "You are now free to leave this place." Or even, "You are free to leave this place of sickness." ... Read on >>>>

You can listen here.

Following on from a lection about a woman who "was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight," we see men who are already upstanding, and who face a similar confrontation by Jesus; he heals on the Sabbath. Except the lectionary leaves that bit out!

The NRSV English translation obscured the fact, last week, that the woman was made to stand up straight. (ἀνωρθώθη1) She did not stand up on her own, but as a result of Jesus' laying hands upon her. It does not escape Jesus' notice that these men, already honoured by the invitation to a meal,  yet busy jockeying for further "places of honour," are seeking to stand tall on their own. There is a sermon right here....

At the table, one man is swollen with retained fluid, the other men are swollen with their own importance.

Dropsy is often accompanied by deep thirst. If this were John's gospel our mind would go to Chapter 4 and the woman who asked for the water which means "I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." John 4:15.

Stories are never innocent; things never "just happen" despite the NRSV use of that phrase for the Greek word behold. The Greek says pay attention to this man... and his disease. He is not merely sick; the actual disease is specified, which means it is significant; it is 'part of the behold.'  We begin to see the metaphorical import of illnesses which cripple, or of blindness, or being deaf, quite quickly. We understand a withered hand says something about a loss of agency and power, but dropsy?... Read on >>>>

You can listen here.

One day, I woke up at the traffic lights... I'd come to work the day before to find that one of our clients had an emergency, and I nursed their server through the day, got it stable, rebuilt it over night, and was coming back to the office around lunchtime the next day, when the lights changed. I stopped, and promptly fell asleep. I'm not actually sure how many sets of lights I slept through until I noticed that traffic was driving around me.

This might be an image for many of us who have to work today. Jobs just want us to go and go and go... and if we fall over, they'll get someone else. It's not just that this is physically dangerous; it is, I could have fallen asleep at the wrong moment and ploughed into a kindy and killed ten little kids.

But when we live like this as an individual, and as a society, we suffer another kind of exhaustion which is even more dangerous. We get so much on the treadmill, so much on autopilot, so focussed on keeping the customer happy, or on staying in government, that we forget who we are. We lose track of our values.

If we are lucky, we end up being miserable. We end up wondering what the point of it all is. "What does life mean? How can I keep going? Why would I want to keep going?"

And that is a lucky place to wake up, because other folk who are a bit tougher, or a bit less reflective— I don't know what it is— they end up with a different set of questions. "How did I end up here? What on earth did I think I was doing? How could I have been so stupid? How did it get to this?" ... Read on >>>>

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