Death in pigtails

Gospel: Luke 17:1-10

29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

17Jesus [he] said to his disciples [μαθητὰς], ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come [Ἀνένδεκτόν ἐστιν τοῦ τὰ σκάνδαλα μὴ ἐλθεῖν], but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble [σκανδαλίσῃ τῶν μικρῶν τούτων ἕνα]. 3Be on your guard! If another disciple [ὁ ἀδελφός σου] sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

5 The apostles [ἀπόστολοι – Fitzmyer "For Luke this means the twelve, pp1143] said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a [Εἰ ἔχετε πίστιν ὡς - as κόκκον – a grain σινάπεως – of mustard] mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.

7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless [ἀχρεῖοί  unprofitable, useless, unworthy] slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!” ’

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers [λεπροὶ ἄνδρες] approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’

Death in Pigtails

At first glance, the lectionary text seems disconnected from what comes before, and that which follows it. Joseph Fitzmyer says

Luke now continues his travel account with further sayings of Jesus, which are completely unrelated to the foregoing chapter or parable. Four sets of isolated sayings of Jesus... unrelated to each other.  (The Gospel According to Luke (Anchor Bible), pp 1136)

But Luke doesn't feel or read like a 'cut and paste author,' so it is sensible to look for a theme or connection across the verses between the end of Chapter 16 and the story of the lepers which starts at Chapter 17:11. 

Indeed, Fitzmyer himself notes that Jesus says our "sense of duty" as the slave

is thus given to the avoidance of scandal (vv 1-3a), to forgiveness (vv3b-40, and to faith (vv 5-6) (pp1147)

In other words, he allows that the (originally) isolated sayings are being put together by Luke with some purpose.  I'm going further.  I think there is a connection between Chapter 16 and the opening ten verses of Chapter 17.

Leading up to this week is extended teaching of God's love which forgives us and searches us out, there is repentance on the part of the younger son, but also the refusal of God's love (by the elder brother and those invited to the feast) in Luke 15. In Luke 16, the teaching on the dangers of mammon culminates with a man everybody thought was blessed by God not being able to lie in the bosom of Abraham,  but being sent to Hades. There are some scandalous reversals of expectations in these stories.  

"Occasions for stumbling (scandalon in the Greek) are bound to come," said Jesus, "and I've just given you one in the story of Lazarus and the rich man." That's the segue from Chapter 16 into Chapter 17. It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to be scandalised. Be on your guard!

I'm using the word scandalise because stumble suggests something too shallow. It is too easily trivialised, or moralised: my bad example led you into getting drunk, for example. Scandalon, which is a stumbling,  is also something deeper. When we are scandalised we are referring not to our shock or offense at something. Being scandalised is a measure of our response to offense.  How will we react when someone or some thing offends us, or shocks us, or frightens us?

I want to expound this idea in the context of the climate emergency, because this emergency and our response to it, has the potential to split churches; it is already scandalising us, just as the notion that Jesus did not think wealth implied God's blessing, scandalised people in the past, and still does. The difficulty of preaching Jesus' teaching on wealth in a rich world, and thereby scandalising people, parallels the difficulty of praying about climate change and attending the protests, and so on. Indeed, the two are connected: it is our addiction to wealth that is destroying the climate in which we have flourished.

Tim Robertson  says

I told some friends at dinner on Friday night that I found the [climate] strike life-affirming in a way that I'd never experienced at any other demonstration.

I found myself alternating between joy and tears as I marched. Robertson says,

For as long as I can remember I've struggled to think, talk and act in a constructive way when it comes to climate change. For those of us inclined to pessimism and cynical about the limits of individual action, the climate strike provided a much-needed antidote. 

Yet this joy many of us feel has been matched by absolute anger from other folks. Not just anonymous people on the street, or some predictably poisonous pens in the press, but in the congregations I serve. The feelings about this are deep and bitter. I can feel us already 'treading eggshells' around each other.

I have been scandalised because a mate has 'amped up' his peddling of climate change denialism in response to the strike. I have been scandalised because my response has been a flare of anger and outrage which could barely resist ripping into him.

How shall we live when scandal falls into our path, threatening to trip us up or snare us? And what is happening to us; why are we suddenly scandalised by certain issues?

Robertson's headline said Climate protest is existential. He is correct, I think. Our angst and outrage with each other is because this issue changes everything.  It is digging deep into the foundations of our existence. How can we live if it turns out the biosphere is becoming uninhabitable? What does life mean if we all die and no one goes on? We are faced with existential fear; our mammon, the things we trust for our survival, is being challenged.

Last week, I said:

Think about this: Mammon is an idol. It is always an effort to secure our lives, our safety, and our comfort, through wealth and the power which flows from wealth. [Mammon is...] "the treasure a person trusts in." ... "The treasure a person puts their faith in." There is nothing accidental about mammon. The treasure of mammon is always connected, somewhere, to our existential survival.  Mammon is what we do, or grasp, to make sense of our lives in the face of death. Either we trust God, or develop our own security; that latter trust is mammon and idol. (One Man's Web)

Yet mammon, our trust in our possessions and technology and in economic growth has brought us to the place we are.  Even a few minutes thought suggests much about how we live will have to change, and be given up.  Yet we barely know how to begin to think about other ways of living. What does this mean for our existence?

What is our default human response to fear?  We exclude. We destroy what terrifies us. We choose a scapegoat; that is, we offer a sacrifice together for the sake of the temporary unity and peace this brings us in our time of fear. We keep our fear of death under some kind of control, we keep it somewhat at bay, by deflecting death towards someone else instead of us. The deeper our fears, the nastier our responses. 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?

So at this time, "occasions for scandal are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come." To talk about the danger of wealth, or about climate change, presents an occasion for scandal.

Can we remain silent, then? No. As I have already noted, the climate emergency is the consequence of sumptuous wealth, (Luke 16:19) which means it will soon become impossible not to talk about both wealth and climate change, even if we utterly ignore much of what Jesus says in the Gospels;  the climate emergency will force our attention.   Our calling as Christians is to find a way to live and talk and be, which minimises the potential for scandal, and models living without scandal. Jesus speaks of blessings and woes in the New Testament. Blessings are about being in or near the kingdom; woes are the opposite. When we cause scandal we damage ourselves, we bring woe upon ourselves as we cut ourselves off from kingdom.

I once visited a congregational couple. I was shocked by the sumptuous furnishings of their house. An earlier version of myself would immediately have condemned them in my heart— that would be the first woe on my list, and I would likely have criticised them savagely— to their face, or behind their back. (It always gets back.) That would be woe number two.  But this couple were extraordinarily gracious to me: generous, caring, supporting, and healing. Being scandalised would have cut me off from all that grace: woe number three.

And of course, such behaviour would be an invitation— a modelling— for them not only to be hurt or shocked, but also to be scandalised, and to lash back in turn. Woe number four, as I modelled for them, not the way of Jesus, but the violence of Empire and mammon.

What would I model instead?

Well, Paul Nuechterlein says,

When a passage begins with the inevitability of scandal, what needs to follow? Precisely talk of forgiveness and faith — especially if faith stems from a forgiveness with its source in Jesus, the Lamb of God, rather than in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. Scandal requires a release valve, which has always meant a sacrificial outlet — until, that is, faith in Christ as the end of sacrifice...

You must rebuke the offender. We get this, says Luke's community.  We can't have an 'anything goes' church. And if there is repentance, you must forgive. They understand that, too. But then Jesus says:   If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’

And the church says, Are you crazy!? You'll really have to increase our faith for us to be able to do that!

Fitzmyer says Jesus'

words rather put the apostles immediately on the spot: The amount of faith is not important, but the kind of faith is, i.e, genuine faith. If it were not bigger than a grain of mustard, yet genuine, it would have wondrous power. (op. cit. 1142)

Fitzmyer implies Jesus is saying: If you had even a grain of faith... but you don't. Jesus is saying: You have things back to front. You come with the idea that if someone repents you must forgive them, but that if they don't, you can continue to reject; that is, exclude them.  You start the process of community, and of seeking to be sacramental of the coming kingdom, from the assumption that you are right. And you come from a mindset of exclusion, from a foundation in original sin, rather than from God's place of love and forgiveness. Nuechterlein says

a unique feature of Jesus’ preaching was that he reversed the usual order of repentance and forgiveness. Instead of requiring repentance before forgiveness, Jesus seemed to forgive first as an act of pure grace that could then spark true repentance... “In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places.” (Raymund Schwager)

The result of starting in the wrong place is that faith, and being faith-full, becomes inextricably bound up with being right, and with winning, when there is conflict. Being right and winning is the classic defence against being the one chosen to be excluded.  We fall into saving ourselves rather than trusting that God has saved us and will save us, and that we don't need to win. Nuechterlein says faith

turns around the ordinary human experience about what orders human life. It undermines all notions of righteous violence based on holy vengeance, sometimes called “justice,” and replaces it with forgiveness. Moreover, rather than focusing on murdering or expelling the victims, true faith focuses on the rehabilitation of those same victims, those ‘little ones’ who must not be scandalized. So it’s not about the disciples having more faith. It’s about understanding what faith is in the first place.

Could we say faith means to forgive? If we refuse to forgive, is there something lacking in our trust of God?

Nuechterlein asks "how does one find such faith?" and replies with this stunning answer:

By first being forgiven of being on the side of the perpetrators of righteous violence. Peter and Paul exemplify this forgiveness. Peter joins the side of Jesus’ persecutors by denying him three times, yet is given the keys to the kingdom. What are the keys to the kingdom? The responsibility to forgive and retain sins. Can one whose own sins have been so graciously forgiven ever really retain sins? Paul is confronted on the way to Damascus not with unbelief — which is the modern notion about what unfaith means — but with persecution by righteous violence — “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The realization of sin as making victims and Jesus’ gracious forgiveness of it are the beginning of faith. Faith is like the humbling experience of finding out just how infinitely we are indebted to our Lord at the same moment that we find out that we’re forgiven it all. It should then almost come natural to live that way of forgiveness with others, to live as a humble servant doing one’s duty.

It is because I have been given and forgiven, despite my sin, that I have been able to follow, which has been to begin my repentance.

How does this work out in a polarised and increasingly scandalised world and church?

We go to the protests. We speak of the sin of greed, and how it is a symptom of our idolatry. We show people what mammon does, how it builds a chasm between us and God— not that God ceases to love us, but that our trust of mammon prevents us from coming to God. All this is to preach the kingdom. That is our calling, in season and out of season, as it says.

But first of all, we love. We build up. We encourage, rather than condemn. We visit, rather than exclude. We never let it be true that we have been less of a minister to a person because of their climate stance. We model respect, love, and gentleness.

And what if we get lambasted by someone in the congregation?

... do we not seek to disciple ourselves upon Jesus, who suffered death rather than insisting on winning? ... If we take our Lord seriously, then having to win might be considered a failure of discipleship! (Andrew Prior, "What just happened?" not yet published.)

All human power which determines to persist devolves into violence. The difference about Jesus, and his power, is that he chooses to go into Jerusalem to die. Jesus understands that God's way must include everyone, or God is, in the end, just one more Herod. Jesus understands that God would rather die than be like that. (One Man's Web)

So I will visit my denialist mate. I will go out of my way to be kind, extra kind, to the angry folk in my congregation, for love and the forgiveness which comes from love is all we are given; love and forgiveness are the power of the Kingdom of God.

There are three last verses about the slaves who "have done only what we ought to have done!" There is no virtue in any of this, no kudos. Gaining some sense of virtue by our discipleship is to begin to slide back into self-justification, which is to slide back in to self-sufficiency, which is ensuring my survival and saving of myself. Which inevitably comes back to violence. And violence cannot afford to forgive.

I said last week,

The finality of love, the peak of love, is to die for the loved one, and that is where this progression through the gospel towards Jerusalem is taking us. So that we can see and learn how dying for the loved one works out: see that it means real death and yet see that even death does not destroy the one who loves. Jesus shows us that. And Jesus teaches us that we do not have to save ourselves from this, and that to trust mammon as a defence to delay death is unnecessary.

If we are the ones by whom scandal comes, if we revert to violence, then we will turn away from the peak of love. Woe to the one by whom scandal comes!

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Luke 17:1-10 - Don't Plough with a Millstone 'round Your Neck! (2013)
Luke 17:5-10 - We can do this (2010)



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