Lake Davis, near Woomera, 2016

One Man's Web

From the text:  Faced by climate change protests, and the simple but incisive speeches of a Greta Thunberg, we find something burrowing deep into the territory of our original sin, digging into the myth of redemptive violence, the idea that we can save ourselves from violence and death by being violent and by killing. All the behaviour which comes because of our desire to win and be on top, so that we can be safe and avoid death is brought to the surface.  Who knew that death could disguise itself as a school girl with pigtails and shake our foundations? ... Read on >>>>

Luke 163/4:32-40

32Then there was a discussion at Abraham's table. Some folk thought the man who had been rich was not thrown down close enough to the fires. They wanted him moved, more punishment was deserved. They listed off the evils he had done to gain his fortune. In that strange dimension in which he existed, even though he was far off across the chasm, the rich man could hear every word.

He was appalled. Not because of the hatred. Not because of the threat of more fire, but because he saw, at last, who he had been, and what he had done. It was all true. He should be closer to the fire; it was obvious, now.

Then Lazarus, who was next to Abraham, spoke. "We should leave him alone. Revenge will only damage us. Anyway, for all his faults, he had mercy on me. When his manager suggested they drag me off and toss me in the creek, he let me stay lying at his gate."

The man who had been rich felt a moment where it seemed all the fire was replaced with clean, cool air, but in that same moment... was  moved with the deepest shame. He'd let Lazarus stay there, because dumping him in the creek to die wouldn't have been a good look. He'd said as much in front of Lazarus as he stood there with the manager looking down on him.

And yet here was Lazarus, forgiving him, and speaking up for him. For the first time in many years he said, "Thank you," and meant it... Read on >>>>

Have you noticed our progression beyond the shepherd and the woman who never give up until the lost are found? We are led to the father who waits constantly hoping the son will return— again the lost is found, (15:24) and then taken to the elder favoured children of God. These include the elder brother; we don't know if he listened to his father's plea to enter his house. Also favoured are the amoral rich man and his steward, who appear too busy even to think about God but those who were rich were often considered to be God’s favoured and chosen people. The fact that the Pharisees who loved money ridiculed Jesus for that story, and for his insistence that wealth is idolatry, makes it plain they assumed that God was on their side along with the other rich folk.

And now we have arrived at the story of another rich man. Or have we come back to same rich man of 16:1-18? In the Greek, almost the exact same words are used in the story of the rich man and his steward and the rich man and Lazarus:  there was a rich man. Is this the same man?

In this latest story, however, the lost are not found. There is no repentance. There is, instead, "a great chasm ... fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us." There seems to be no hope of a reversal of the situation.

This is despite the fact that there is a series of reversals in these stories so far: the lost is found; the one who rejected his father repents, and then the apparently faithful brother rejects his father. Even in this current story, the rejected, ignored, and powerless one, is in the bosom of Abraham, and the blessedly rich man who had "good things" in life, is in agony. But now there is a gap which cannot be crossed.  The gap between the rich man and Lazarus—although close by at his gate— was already enormous at the beginning of the story. Is it because the rich man refused to cross that gap, when he could, that he now cannot cross the gap when he wants to? ... Read on >>>>

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 >>>>

You can listen here

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 >>>>

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