St. John the Evangelist

St. John the Evangelist

Friday, 27 September 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 29                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

Theme:  There are so many possibilities this week, none of them pleasant.  After the GFC we might try the EGFC – "The Eternal Great Financial Crisis".  Or "No More Wriggle Room", perhaps.  I'm going for "Living in a Gated Community".

Introduction.  For some time now we have been witnessing tougher and tougher teaching against materialism and today it reaches its inescapable conclusion.  Amos blasts the society of his time – or at least the wealthy elite of his time – for their gross self-indulgence and their consequent lack of concern for the real state of their nation.  St Paul is at his most explicit on the same subject: a love of material wealth is the root of all evil.  And the gospel passage could hardly be clearer: the path to hell is paved, not so much with good intentions, as with self-absorption.  However many chances we may be given along the way, the number is finite.  One day there are no more chances.  Those who are forever demanding that "someone (else) must be held accountable" may be assured that everyone will be.

Background.  Last week I advanced the argument that the story of the Unjust Steward (a.k.a. the Dishonest Manager) forms the second of a trilogy of stories we find only in Luke's gospel, the first being the parable of the Prodigal (Lost) Son and the third being today's story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  On further digging I think we can see that in fact Luke started this theme even earlier in the gospel than that.  Look again at the Parable of the Great Dinner (Luke 14:15-24), and particularly at the excuses offered for non-attendance by the invited guests.  In each case their own interests precluded their acceptance of the invitation they had received.  And even the teaching that immediately preceded that parable (14:12-14) could suggest Luke is beginning the big build-up of Jesus' teaching on the dangers of material wealth.

But again this week we start with that great prophetic satirist, Amos.  Just enjoy for a moment his skill at painting the picture he gives us of the life of the elite of his time.  In four sharp verses he attacks their idleness, their luxurious comfort, their food consumption, their musical choices, their wine consumption, and their cosmetic use!  And then Amos gets to his real point: all this self-absorption comes at the cost of a complete lack of concern for the state of the nation as a whole.  But, he warns in a wonderful phrase that sticks in my mind, "the revelry of the loungers shall pass away".  Isn't that wonderful?  Aren't we ready to shout "Amen, amen!"?

Yes, until we remember that we have to live in a real world where such prophetic flights of fancy come up against economic realities.  Doesn't Amos understand that the Bed-manufacturing business pours millions of dollars into our economy – doesn't he realise how many jobs it creates?  Okay, using ivory to make furniture these days is not acceptable, but gold would be fine – especially if it came from Macrae's.  And we could go through his whole list on a similar basis.  Why shouldn't we buy ever bigger beds and lie on them to watch ever more expensive boats on our ever flatter and wider T.V. screens?  It's the economy, stupid, as some American or other is supposed to have said, though probably not in a debate with Amos.  What sort of an economy would we have without rampant self-indulgence?  What contribution to GDP did an itinerant preacher and loud-mouth like Amos ever make?

I could, of course, rant on like this for ever, but I'll round off with another example from my favourite feature in Time Magazine.  The magazine unusually has about 4 very brief items headed by a number in very large, bold type, and underneath in much smaller print it simply states what the number relates to.  The example that caught my eye recently was this:  "$815 million – estimated amount Americans will spend on Valentine's Day gifts for their pets this year."  And on the day that I am writing these notes I received an email from the Sojourners Community in Washington D.C. about a Bill that is presently before the House of Representatives, supported by one Stephen Fincher, a Representative from Tennessee.  The Bill proposes two things of particular interest to Mr Fincher.  It proposes to gut the food assistance programme that presently provides SNAP benefits (previously called food stamps) for nearly 4 million poor families, worth up to $133 per month for a family of four.  Mister Fincher supports the removal of this assistance.  The Bill also proposes to increase farm subsidies.  Do you want to guess what Mr Fincher does for a living when he's not in Washington?  Those subsidies are worth $70,000 to Mr Fincher per year.  Since 1999 he has received $3,500,000 in subsidies from the American public purse.  And why does Sojourners Community point the finger at Mr Fincher in particular?  Because he is a self-proclaimed born-again Christian and cited the Bible in support of reducing aid to the poor.

Now staying with Time Magazine, a few months ago its feature article was on the so-called "Blade Runner", the South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius, who is charged with murdering his girl-friend.  His defence, of course, is that he woke up in the night, heard a noise coming from the bathroom, and, thinking that there was an intruder holed up in the bathroom, fired his gun through the door.  Well, the jury can sort all that out when the trial takes place; but the bit that came to mind as I reflected on this week's gospel story was the fact that the house in which all this took place was part of a gated community.  He is a rich man and lives in an expensive house.  Crime is rife so the whole community lives behind security gates and armed guards are employed as a further security measure.  Think about that for a moment.  Doesn't that exactly capture the folly of trusting in material wealth to bring us personal security?  Can we really shut our neighbour out and live in peace with that neighbour?  And the question is not only one for each of us as individuals – it is one for every society and nation in the world.  What is Australia's policy towards so called "boat-people" but an attempt to turn the whole country into a gated community?

And how on earth did Luke lead us from a few guys turning down dinner invitations to Australia's policy on boat people?  Is there really a connecting thread here?


Amos.  This is written at a rare time of peace and prosperity for the people of Israel; and we know from our own history what tends to happen in such times.  We tend to think in terms of financial bubbles – on the stock market or in the housing sector.  What we refuse to acknowledge is that whatever form it takes in the economic and financial world it is a manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise.  A friend once said that his real criticism of Rogernomics  in all its various forms was that it gave us permission to be selfish.  Amos would agree whole-heartedly.  The so-called "good life" or "high life", pushed so hard by the advertising industry, is actually the selfish-life: self-indulgence is not a good basis for spiritual well-being.  We might quibble over some of the details in this indictment; why shouldn't we indulge a taste for lamb or veal, have a bit of a sing-song, and strum a chord or two?  But the thrust is clear: pleasing ourselves is not pleasing to God.

Taking It Personally.

  • Do you consider yourself rich?  Compared to whom?
  • Sojourners Community argues that a nation's budget is an ethical document as well as a financial one.  Do you agree or disagree?  Why?
  • Is your personal budget an ethical one or not?
  • In what way does your faith influence your purchases?
  • In what way will your faith influence the way in which you will vote in the local body elections?  What about in next year's General Election?
  • Are you, or have you ever been, ambitious?  For what?
  • Over the past few days what has concerned you most: the outcome of the America's Cup in San Francisco ; the terrorist attack in the Kenyan mall; the floods in Colorado; the earthquake in Pakistan; or none of the above?


Timothy.  I can't resist pointing out that there has been some careful editing being carried out here by the authors of The Lectionary.  This chapter starts off with Paul's exhortations to Christian slaves to treat their masters particularly well, even more so if their masters are also Christians.  For some reason, despite their clear relevance to economics, we are directed to start at verse 6.  Here we are assured that "there is great gain in godliness and contentment", which is a good deal safer as a topic than slavery.  But Paul still does not spare our blushes.  We should be content if we have enough to eat and wear. Most of us might want to add a roof over our heads, but beyond that I doubt if we could persuade Paul to go.  Notice how in verses 9 and 10 those who are rich – or wish to be – are described in terms of victimhood – they are "trapped", he says, and they pierce themselves with many pains.  Wealth can bite the hand that grasps it.  The best thing to do with it is give it away to those in need.


Taking It Personally.


  • A good opportunity for self-examination and, if necessary, confession.
  • Do you have, or have you ever had, a desire to be wealthy?  Why?
  • Have you ever bought a Lotto ticket?  Are you more likely to when the jackpot is bigger?  What would you do with a big win?
  • What do you really feel about the teaching in verse 17?  Is this a "Yeah, right!" verse for you?
  • What is the most you have ever spent on a "luxury" item for yourself?  How does this compare with the largest donation you have ever made to a charity?


Luke.  Once again, it is interesting to notice what we are not told in this story.  We assume that Lazarus lay at the rich man's gate day after day; that he was clearly visible to the rich man; and that the rich man simply ignored him.  But none of that is actually written.  Now ask yourself, would the story be the same if Lazarus lay in a park across the road, or outside a neighbouring house?  And what would you think if Lazarus was just one of many beggars targeting this particular rich man?  So perhaps the story is not intended to be quite so particular as we are inclined to read it.  The point is that this nameless rich man (in the real world he would be a Big Name, and the beggar would be nameless) has chosen to separate himself from those in need – from his neighbour in the Christian sense of the term.  And, of course, this separation is replicated in the somewhat staged scene from the after-life, which is surely not intended to be taken too literally.  The key point lies in the rich man's choice to live in a gated community – to separate himself from the needy Other.  (The gate has become a chasm that cannot be CROSS-ED.)  Recall the Lord's teaching in Matthew 25:41-46.  At last, when all else has failed, the rich man thinks of his brothers, but it is too late.  They have the same warnings as everyone else (from Moses and the prophets, including Amos).  If people like those brothers will not heed the prophets, they are hardly likely to take any notice of a person who returns from the dead.


Taking It Personally.


  • How do you really feel about this story?
  • Do you have sympathy for the rich man?
  • How would you feel about a beggar lying at your gate?
  • Would it make any difference to you if the beggar lay somewhere else?
  • Do you feel any obligation to "warn" other people, friends and family, before it is too late for them?
  • Do you believe in a final accounting before God?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 22                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts:  Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

[Note.  Because of the overwhelming nature of our gospel reading today, and the relative insignificance of the two lessons, I am abandoning my usual format.  What follows is almost exclusively focused on the parable.  Normal service will (probably) be presumed next week.]

Theme: For lovers of John Milton, what about "Confusion Worse Confounded"?  Or, for those of more contemporary literary tastes, perhaps "Fifty (At Least) Shades of Grey"?  For Beatles' fans (and for those concerned for Shane Warne and Liz Hurley) we could go with "We Can Work It Out".  [I tell you, spending hours with this week's parable can really mess with your mind.)   More biblical might be "Children of Light in a Dark World".  In some desperation I'm going for "Luke's Unique Trilogy".

Introduction.  The scene is set for us today by a challenging little cameo from Amos, one of the so-called minor prophets who pack a major punch.  He has an almost cartoonist's gift for caricature as he describes his targets' obsession with making money.  He reminds us that our happy idea that "Sunday is our day, when we can do whatever we like" is a reversal of the biblical understanding.  Sabbath means a rest from pursuing our own interests and focusing on the rights and interests of others.  Our second lesson is also pretty clear, though quite what we are to make of it is open to argument.  And there is the parable, generally agreed to be the most perplexing of the lot.  Or should that be, the most realistic of the lot?

Background.  Over the last few weeks we have had quite a few reminders of the importance of observing Sabbath, and of the importance of reputation, which seems to play some part in this week's parable.  I'm wondering if there might be some connection between these two issues.  One thought arising from the Amos reading is that the people he is going after would rather embrace the world of 24/7 business, but are constrained by the fear that being seen to breach Sabbath would damage their reputation, lessen their social acceptability, and therefore reduce business opportunities.  Is that too far-fetched?  In a roundabout way this reminds me of a man who suddenly started attending the local Anglican church.  When asked why he explained that he had recently attended a seminar that "really opened my eyes".  It turned out that the seminar was a business forum on the importance of building up good social links.  The local church, he had learned, was particularly useful because membership tended to affirm "your personal integrity", and that was a priceless asset.  A few shades of grey there, surely!

Which gets me to another issue of contemporary interest – that of "tainted money".  Some years ago I was asked by my then Archdeacon to lead our clergy in a discussion of various ethical issues.  On most of them there was fairly wide agreement; but we almost came to blows when I raised the issue of whether or not the Church should accept money from whatever source, or whether we had some responsibility to ensure that only "clean" money entered the Church coffers.  The idea for this particular topic had been prompted, rather late in my preparation, when I happened to be in the church office when a rather disreputable-looking guy came in and announced that he had "a few dollars for the Lord".   The receptionist obviously knew him, greeted him warmly, and reached for the receipt book.  Our benefactor then produced a bundle of notes from inside his old coat and handed them over.  Five hundred dollars entered the church coffers at that moment!

It seems that Jimmy (why are such people always called Jimmy?) was a regular donor of such sums.  When he first appeared on the scene the Vicar was a little concerned.  He happened to have a good friend in the local police at the time, so he asked his friend to assist him with his inquiries.  The friend knew exactly who Jimmy was and where he was getting the money from.  He was a "back-room bookie" who operated from one of the local pubs near the church!  He was always scrupulously fair in his dealings with his customers and in the absence of any complaints the Police had more important matters to deal with.

I had intended to use Jimmy's story as my second example, but we never got past the first.  As we had vigorously and publicly opposed any increase in gambling outlets should we decline to accept grants from the Lotteries Commission or other sources where funds came from gambling?   It was amazing how many planks of Western civilization – including, most importantly, our own bell-tower – would be put at risk if we were to adopt such a ludicrous "holier-than-thou" attitude.  (The idea that some priests were vigorously arguing against the church being holier than some unnamed thou still strikes me as somewhat bizarre all these years later.)  Shades of grey there were not: black and white was the order of that particular debate.

Right, enough of these delaying tactics: what approach can we take to this week's parable?  I want to suggest two that I have found most useful as I have pondered it this week.  First, it is striking that this is the middle of three major parables grouped closely together in Luke, none of which appear in any of the other gospels.  Chapter 15 ends with the ever-popular story of the Lost Son (incidentally, who decided we should no longer refer to this one as the Prodigal Son, and why?)  Because of the chapter structure imposed on Luke's narrative, and the fact that the preceding stories are about the lost sheep and the lost coin, we naturally assume a change of subject when we get to this week's parable at the start of chapter 16.  But is that right?  Notice, first, the third story in this unique trilogy, "The Rich Man and Lazarus".  Are there not connecting links?  Do they not form a mini-series examining our attitudes to material wealth in varying circumstances?

Here's the first clue that started me down this track.  In 15:13 we are told that the son "squandered his property" in living the high life.  In 16:1 we find the same term used: a whistleblower tipped off the rich man that his manager was "squandering his property", though without any details of the nature of the squandering.  But there is a major difference between the two cases, of course.  In the first case, the son is squandering his own property, whatever we might think of the manner in which he had acquired it.  In the second case the manager is squandering his employer's property, not his own.  It's as if Luke is saying, okay, let's now tweak the facts a bit here; what if the character, instead of squandering his own property, is squandering someone else's – say, his employer's property?  What difference would that make?

Here's a second clue.  All three stories feature a moment of crisis for the individual concerned, and of increasing severity.  The son faces starvation, but has a place to return to, albeit (he expects) with a much lower status.  The manager loses his livelihood, and has to manufacture an escape plan from scratch.  The rich man, (let's call him Dives because other people do) is beyond hope and there is no escape plan for him.  Related to this series might be the attitude of God or his alter ego in each story.  In the first story the Father's welcome of his returning son is unambiguous – overwhelming mercy and love personified.  Now brace yourself: my take is that the employer in the second story is intended by Luke to be the God-figure, for he is also shockingly merciful and understanding.  The Jewish law and custom at the time would have expected the employer to throw the guy into the debtors' prison for ever and a day, unless he somehow managed to pay reparation in full.  To simply dismiss him was an act of great mercy – less so than the Father showed his son, of course, but still remarkable.  In the third story it is too late for mercy: God's judgment is final.

And a third clue is this.  Even when the son comes to his senses he has no concern for anyone else.  His thoughts are centred entirely on his own predicament.  At most, his plan to humble himself at his father's feet perhaps recognises something of his father's hurt feelings.  In the second story, we can perhaps see some slight development of this theme.  Again, the manager's plan is primarily self-serving, but it gives a hint that he needs to have some thought towards others, albeit for selfish reasons.  In the third story, while Dives' first thought is to seek some relief for himself from the flames of hell, when he realises that's not a goer he at least turns to the interests of his brothers and asks for them to be forewarned.

So there's my first approach.  If we take these three stories together this middle one might not seem so outrageous.  It might be seen as the middle one of three case studies on the related themes of material wealth, the danger of becoming obsessed with our own fortune – building it up and retaining it – and losing our concern for the interests of others, particularly the poor.

The second approach is to remember that the whole nature of a parable is to make the reader/listener do the work – to join the dots, as it were, and apply the truth of the story to his/her own circumstances.  This works well enough for us if the parable "translates" easily into our modern practices and mores; but sometimes that is not the case.  Sometimes our social norms are so different from those of Jesus' time that we need to do a lot more "translation work" before we can understand a parable, and I think this one is a classic example.  About the most helpful scholar I have come across for this purpose is a man called Kenneth E Bailey, whose two books on the parables in Luke's gospel are called Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (subsequently published in a combined edition.)  Although a Westerner by birth he has spent much of his life in the Middle East and comes at these parables from the point of view of a Middle Eastern hearer.

He devotes a whole chapter (chapter 5, running to over 30 pages) to this parable.  I haven't the space or time to go into his argument in any depth; but one thought I want to share with you is this.  How easily we leap to conclusions, and how easily our conclusions can be unjustified, whenever we tackle a parable.  We hear the manager referred to as "dishonest", and assume that he is rotten from the start.  But read the text again, and we find that term is not used until verse 8.  The dishonesty lies in discounting his mater's debts, not in his squandering of his master's property.  He is not accused of embezzlement.  The charge seems to be one of poor management – perhaps lazy neglect of duty – but not theft.  Now ask yourself, what is your opinion of the character of the employer?  Are we not immediately prejudiced against him by the use of the term "rich man"?  And when he "commends" his dishonest manager for his shrewdness, don't we feel justified in our stance of suspicion – don't we mutter, it takes one to recognise one?

Bailey rejects most of this.  He says that those who heard this story would have had a very favourable view of the rich man in the story.  Palestinian village life would have meant that everybody knew everybody.  This landowner was not an absentee landlord screwing his tenants for whatever the market would pay.  Had he been, no one would have tipped him off that his manager was not up to it.  The landowner must have been a local and well-liked.  Bailey says the other details in the story ring true.  The debtors must have been tenants on some sort of share-cropping arrangement.  Apparently there were three types of arrangement in those days.  One was simply to rent the land, paying a rental in cash.  A second was to rent the land in return for an agreed percentage of the crop.  A third, evidently the one used in this story, was to rent the land for a specified amount of produce: the landowner gets the first cut up to the agreed amount, and the tenant gets everything above that amount.  If particular circumstances changed – storm, drought, etc, - some adjustments could sometimes be made.

The critical point here is that these tenants were themselves pretty big-time.  They were not subsistence croppers living on the breadline.  And they would not have had a bar of the manager's plan B if they suspected for one moment what was really going on.  They had far too much to lose by getting on the wrong side of the landowner.  Notice that the manager is instantly dismissed.  The landowner requires him to hand over the books: time is now of the essence.  As soon as words gets out that the manager has been fired the tenants will have nothing to do with him.  So the manager acts in great haste.  The tenants must assume that he is acting with his master's authority.  They will therefore be delighted and spread the good news.  Before the master knows any of this he is being lauded in the village for his wonderful generosity.   What can he do but go along with it – his reputation requires it!  He is snookered and knows it.  Being a good sport, he congratulates his ex-manager on a game well-played.  But the manager remains the ex-manager.

But how will all this help the manager?  Well, maybe – just maybe – he leaves the tenants with the idea that the generous discounts came about on his recommendation.  Wink wink, nudge nudge – know what I mean?

Well, that's a brief summary of Bailey's view and it makes sense to me.  I hope it helps for you, too.

And the remaining issue is what Jesus draws from this story.  Does he also commend sharp (meaning dishonest) commercial practices?  Verse 8 is not too troubling – it seems to be just a matter of fact.  Similarly, we can just about cope with verses 10-14; but what on earth are we to make of verse 9?  One possibility MAY be that money is not in itself good or bad, honest or dishonest.  It is a resource to be used for good or evil.  (The answer to Jimmy's case, perhaps.)  If that's right, then whatever we have (and however we have obtained it?) we must expend for the good of others.  Possibly, but doesn't it smack of buying friends who will then testify on our behalf at the final judgment?

Perhaps my approach is too black and white.  Do I need to recognise that in the real world there will always be various shades of grey?

Taking It Personally.

  • What do you think of the whistleblower?  If you thought your neighbour was evading taxes (by moonlighting, for example) would you tip off Inland Revenue?  If you suspected your neighbour of domestic violence would you speak up?  What about child abuse?  Would your approach be different if the "suspect" were a friend or a family member?
  • Do you find the "three case studies" hypothesis helpful or not?
  • How do you feel about the rich man (the landowner) being cast as the "God-figure"?  Do you agree that he seems remarkably merciful and understanding in the circumstances?
  • Now put yourself in his place.  Suppose someone has ripped you off?  How would you respond?
  • Are these stories really about accountability?  About recognising that in the end we must all give account of ourselves?  How do you feel about that?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 15                                    NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Theme:  Well, it's not immediately obvious to me!  Something about repentance, perhaps, particularly if we want to take the lead from the psalm set for today (51:1-11); but there is no indication that Aaron and his fellow idolaters did any of that.  That reading may be more about the mercy of God – or the power of intercessory prayer?  But I'm going with "Backwards or Forwards?"  Here's why.

Introduction. The people have committed the dreadful sin of idolatry; an offence against God.  God's initial reaction is to strike back; his justice demands nothing less.  But Moses pleads with God to think again.  Instead of looking back at what the people have done, should you not look forward to what comes next?  St Paul draws on his own experience to pursue a similar line.  Instead of punishing Paul for his vendetta against Christ's followers, God called him into a new future.  And in our two gospel stories, the emphasis is not on the past loss, but the future restoration.

Background.  As I started reflecting on our first lesson today I was struck by the extraordinary way it speaks to the Syrian chemical weapons attack that the world leaders are presently grappling with.  There does not seem to be any real doubt that a grievous sin has been committed; and most likely the principal offender is President Assad.  There is something in our human nature that calls for retribution, for punishment, for such a monstrous crime again humanity.  We understand why President Obama contemplated a military, punitive response.  We understand it in principle, and we understand the pragmatic underpinning he has offered in support of his proposed strike.  If the world "does nothing" in response to this gross offence does that not give the green light for repeat offences?  Must we not punish this offence in order to deter further offending?

But the case against President Obama's argument is no less strong, in principle and on the ground of pragmatism.  What will it achieve in practice?  Will it not increase the number of people killed or injured in this beleaguered country, rather than reduce it?  If these weapons are so "heinous" as to put them in a different class from "conventional weapons" (as Secretary of State John Kerry has argued) why does the USA (and many other countries, including Russia and France) have huge stockpiles of their own?  Why shouldn't they put those weapons under international control with a view to their destruction?

All these are tough and valid questions; but as so often happens in these things the debate is moving from these cores issues to ones of reputation and the related need to save face.  Can President Obama change his mind (that is, "back down") without a drastic loss of mana and influence?  As the leader of the world's superpower will he not render the USA super-impotent?  Already the press is assuring us that President Putin believes that President Obama is "a weak waffler".  Against this sort of background can President Obama accept the Russian proposal for a way out of the present impasse, even though the idea of President Putin being a pure-minded apostle for peace with no ulterior agenda may be a little hard to swallow?

Cut to our first lesson.  There is no doubt what Aaron and his cohorts have been up to.  They must be punished.  While it seems that God did not feel the need to argue his case as fully and coherently as President Obama, the thrust is the same.  I cannot let the people get away with this.  Where will it end?  They must be held accountable!  Now get out of my way – I'm ready to launch my punitive strike.

But Moses wouldn't get out of God's way.  He argues for a different approach.  He does not attempt to defend the people in the sense of denying their guilt – he doesn't argue the core issues – he turns the spotlight on God's reputation.  What will the neighbours say?  Look at it from their point of view.  You went to enormous lengths to bring the people out of Egypt.  Will it not look to the outside world that you brought them out here to slaughter them?  What about all those wonderful promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?  Did you not promise to them and their descendants for ever, if not the whole earth, then certainly a specified portion of it?  Do those promises count for nothing?

President Obama made many wonderful promises to his people, promises of peace and security, promises to end wars and bring the troops home, promises of a new, more humble approach in foreign affairs.  Are those promises no longer binding on the man who made them in good faith (there's an interesting, expression!)?  God, we are told, somewhat astonishingly, "changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people".  Can President Obama do the same?

The question comes down to this: should his focus be on what has happened, or on what should happen in the future?  Can we create a better future by repeating past wrongs?  If we object to the use of chemical weapons is it not better to seek ways of ridding the world (and not just Syria) of those weapons?  Would the world have been a better place if God had gone through with his original plan, wiped his people out, and started again with Moses?  Yes, there would have been a lot less sinners on the earth, but also a lot less people to turn back to God and offer their worship to him instead of a golden calf.  Would the world be a better place if God had wiped the villainous Saul of Tarsus off the face of the earth instead of transforming him into the fearless and peerless propagator of the Christian faith?  Should the exasperated shepherd have slaughtered the roaming sheep to teach the others a lesson – or slaughtered the whole flock and imported a new ram to start over again?  Should the housekeeper have burnt her house down so that she would never again know the irritation of losing a coin down the back of the sofa?

What lessons might there be in all this for us?  Before I heard of the Russian proposal I had thought of the position President Obama found himself in as a large version of the one anyone in pastoral ministry knows only too well.  In the presence of suffering we have a strong desire to "do something" – to relieve the pain – to right the wrong – to make things better.  Sometimes there is something we can do; but usually there is not.  We have to accept that we are, in the practical sense, useless, and that can be frustrating and humbling.  All we can do, perhaps, is be there – remembering that compassion means to suffer with, not to magically cure the suffering.  I "saw" President Obama by the bedside of the people of Syria, feeling their pain, and feeling his own powerlessness.  There seemed to be nothing he could do that would make things better: in fact, whatever he did might make things worse.

But then someone – lots of someones, probably – prayed, and suddenly the darkness lifted a bit – the black despair became penetrated by a slim ray of hope – not from a source any of us might have expected.  But why shouldn't the God who used Cyrus of Persia to liberate the exiles in Babylonia use Vladimir of Russia to show the path forward in Syria?  When people pray circumstances change, said the great man of prayer, Father Gilbert Shaw in his famous "deathbed homily".  We don't know how it happens, we just know it does.  So the lesson for us today is quite simple – keep praying, and watch what happens.

Exodus.  Taken at the surface level, this is a very odd passage, particularly when we remember that the expression "changed his mind" is a euphemistic translation of the word "repented"!  At Moses' urging God repented!  But if we take it at a deeper, inner level, perhaps it goes something like this.  Moses discovers Aaron's treachery.  He is absolutely furious.  He turns to God in prayer, but what should he ask God to do about it.  His first instinct is to ask God to strike them all dead – but slowly he calms down enough to start considering the implications of that.  He has been telling others of the power and wonder of the God of Israel who rescued the people from the armed might of Egypt's Pharaoh.  How's that story going to look if this same God then wipes his people out?  And where does that leave Moses himself – back at square one.  Has all his own part in the struggle with Pharaoh been in vain?  And what about the sacred promises to the Patriarchs?  And so Moses did not ask God for vengeance, but for another chance for his people.

Taking It Personally.

·        Is my version a legitimate interpretation of Moses' religious experience, or does it depart too much from the clear meaning of Scripture?

·        What image of God do you get from this passage?  Is it more human than divine?  Does God's "change of mind" speak of his mercy, or does he seem more like a "weak waffler"?

·        Is the purpose of intercessory prayer to get God to change his mind about something?  Is that what you are trying to do when you intercede for someone in need?  If not, what are you trying to do?

·        Continue to hold the Syrian people in your heart, mind and prayers.  May God's will be done for them.


Timothy.  Notice the wonderful way in which Paul's theology emerges from his personal experience.  When he says "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners", he is not helping to draft a creed or liturgy: he is speaking from the inside of his experience.  "For that very reason", says St Paul, instead of being punished for his persecution of the Church, God was merciful to him so that he might be an example to others.  This experience was the driving force of all Paul's astounding missionary work: he did it for me, folks, so he can surely do it for you.  When people doubt the reality of Paul's experience on the Road to Damascus, I always ask them: what do you say, then, caused Paul to have such a complete personality transplant?  I haven't received a convincing answer yet.


Taking It Personally.


·        Can you recall an experience of God's mercy – an occasion when you felt guilty but then experienced an assurance of God's forgiveness?

·        Have you ever felt God was punishing you?

·        A good day for self-examination and confession.  And for thanksgiving for God's mercy and forbearance.


Luke.  We have all had experiences of this kind, more as we get older.  Glasses, keys, biros, telephone numbers we wrote down somewhere – and boy, does it bug us until we find the missing article.  But then there is the party bit – isn't that going just a tad overboard?  Yes, if we take it literally – no if we understand that we are talking at the emotional level.  The joy, the relief, the sheer ecstatic triumph of finding the blanket-blank thing feels like an occasion for celebration.  That's surely the point.  And by the way; notice that in our first reading there was a party as well – revelry, no less.  Aaron and his partners in idolatry held a party to celebrate – what?  In these two stories that which was lost is now found – that is worth celebrating.  Notice that no economic considerations enter these stories.  The loss of one sheep out of 100 may not have justified going to great lengths to find it; and it may not have been fiscally advantageous to spend hours of her time – not to mention burning oil in her lamp – to recover one coin.  But some things are always beyond price, aren't they?


Taking It Personally.


·        Do you hate losing things, and keep looking until you find them?  Why?

·        Is there something or someone you have "lost" at the moment?  Have you given up the search?  Is it time to resume?

·        Are you more inclined to conduct an inquest into what went wrong, than set out to put things right?  (Nothing is said about how the sheep or the coin was lost.)

Friday, 6 September 2013

Notes for Reflection

September 8                          NOTES FOR REFLECTION

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33

Theme:  Something about stark choices.  For those brought up on Saturday morning flicks, "Your Money or Your Life" might have a certain nostalgic appeal.  But try reversing it – "Your Life or Your Money" is perhaps a little closer to the biblical approach.  In similar vein, "All or Nothing" may appeal to the "get-to-the-point", time-poor brigade.  For the gym-enthusiasts and their fellow masochists a good choice might be "No Gain Without Pain" or "Extreme Religion".  And for those looking for instant attention (if not detention) something more provocative might be "Jesus, Fundamentalist, Fanatic and Redeemer".  Being by nature a trendy tree-hugging effete, I'm going for "The Lifestyle Choice".

Introduction.  All three of our readings today are about just that – a choice of lifestyle, although "lifestyle" may not have quite the right connation in modern parlance.  The essence is about the way of life we choose to live in the broad holistic sense.  This is spelt out for us in this famous passage towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy.  The Hebrews are on the brink of a whole new start: after the horrors of slavery in Egypt, and the trials and tribulations of decades wandering around in the wilderness, they are about to enter the Promised Land.  Ironically, they are now in the greatest spiritual danger they have ever faced.   How will they live in this new land of plenty – with God or without him?  Will their spirituality be swamped by their material prosperity?  Philemon faces a similar challenge when he receives this most brilliant letter from St Paul.  Can he, a leader in a local faith community, receive back his escaped slave and recognise that this man is now his brother in Christ, his equal in every sense?  Can he live out in his own life the gospel he is proclaiming to others – even if it means a loss of face and social ostracism?  No wonder Jesus urges caution on anyone who might be considering signing up to this strange new way of life.  It is costly – make sure you do due diligence before you commit yourself to this undertaking.

Background.  I happened to have the radio on one afternoon this week when the rain had finally arrived and given me a long-awaited excuse to cease my tireless toil in the garden and retreat inside when I suddenly heard Jim Moira ask Mai Chen an astonishing question: "Is it immoral to send your child to a private school?"  What on earth could that be all about?  Even the usually hyper-articulate Wellington lawyer seemed stunned by the question.  Quite how the issue had arisen on the programme I'm not sure; but it seems that someone had suggested that to chose to send our child to a private school was inherently self-centred – that we should have the same concern to ensure the best possible education for every other child and that we should all therefore work together to get the best possible public schools throughout the country.

The same sort of argument may well be made about public health care versus private, presumably.  Regardless of the specifics, at its depth this is an argument about spirituality, or about what I am calling "The Lifestyle Choice".  Is a healthy Christian spirituality, in essence, individualistic or is it communal or social?  Is it about me or us? 

Here's a bit more of what I remember about the discussion on Jim Moira's programme.  One of the participants was (I think) the Principal of a Catholic School in Auckland – an interesting choice from whom to seek an opinion on such an issue.  Equally interesting was how she opened the "case for the defence".  She took a strictly economic approach, even quoting how much the private school sector contributed to the Government funds through G.S.T. payments; and assuring us that fiscally the Government was a net beneficiary –the money saved by the Government in having less children to educate in the public schools, and of course the G.S.T. payments by the private schools, exceeded the amount of money paid out by the Government to those schools.

But Jim was not to be so easily side-tracked.  From a Christian point of view, he persisted, is there anything in the argument that we should not be focused on what is best for our own child but on what is best for every child in our community?  Finally, the Principal was forced back to the obvious response: however wonderful that might be as an ideal, there is something strong and natural in our human nature that makes us give priority to the needs of our own children first.  (As Richard Dawkins would say, genes are innately selfish.)

I was much more convinced by her second argument than her first.  Without being too cynical I would be surprised if many parents who send their children to private schools do so primarily to save the Government the financial costs of educating those children in the public sector.  They choose what they believe to be in the best interests of their child.  Nor would it to be fair to assume that they have no concern for the quality of education available to other children in the state sector.  A love of our own children does not preclude concern for the welfare of others.

What nobody seemed to challenge in the whole discussion was the assumption that there must be, as a general principle (weasel words for a binding commandment) that Christians should not send their children to private schools – Yes or No?  As St Paul said, we are set free for freedom, not for a new form of slavery.  But we are set free together, not rescued on a case by case basis.  We seek and enter the Promised Land as one people, not one person.  Or in more specifically Christian terms, we pray to Our Father that his kingdom may come on earth, not to My Father that I may escape to heaven.  We are called to seek this kingdom first, before any personal desires or needs, because in that kingdom all desires and needs are met for all its citizens.  As individuals we are free to make choices; as Christians we are called to make every such choice on the basis of what we sincerely and prayerfully believe will best promote the coming of the kingdom in all its fullness.

And now here's a little true story brought to my mind by our second reading.  In a little Anglican rural parish in the Diocese of Wellington one of the lay leaders was a local farmer, widely respected for his faith, his community spirit, and the fair way in which he treated his employees.  Even at the busiest times of the farming year he would not allow his employees to work on Sundays – he would do himself whatever had to be done; and he would be at church every Sunday morning no matter what.  He was of the old school – a man of courtesy, reserve, and good manners.  When he became aware of any need in the local community, he would quietly meet that need without any fanfare.  Many people had reason to be grateful to him over the years, even though not all of them would have known it.  He was particularly well-known for his willingness to take on the odd troubled youth and give him a job for a while.

It came time to replace one of his full-time employees, and he appointed a suitable young person, called Bob.  Bob started on the Monday, and all went well until the Sunday.  Bob turned up in the local Anglican Church.  Not knowing anyone else, when he spotted his employer and his wife in the front pew he joined them.  As it happened there was a young, visiting priest taking the service that day.  After preaching a sermon on the brotherhood of all believers, he continued the theme when it came to The Peace (which, in those days in that church, was NEVER shared with one another).  The priest not only invited them to share the Peace but urged them to look into each other's eyes and greet them as "Brother ....... or Sister......"  Bob therefore turned to his employer and said "Peace be with you, Brother Gerry."  The farmer's name was Gerald, and only his wife called him Gerry.  No employee had ever before called him anything other than "Mr....." or "Sir".  On Monday Bob was told that in future it would be best if he did his worshipping in the Methodist Church.  When did this happen?  About 40 years ago, roughly nineteen hundred years after St Paul wrote to Philemon.

Deuteronomy.  On the verge of freedom, the people are reminded that they have a fundamental choice to make.  Will they live out their faith or without their faith?  On offer is a life of fullness (prosperity) or adversity.  Notice that the framework is one of consequences rather than specific acts of divine judgment.  If they continue to love God and walk in his ways the consequence of that lifestyle choice will be blessings; they will live long and their numbers will increase.  Alternatively, if they turn away from God, stop listening to him, and allow themselves to be led astray by false gods, the consequence will be an untimely end to the community.  So make your choice – and make it a good one!

Taking It Personally.

·        Before you pray the Lord's Prayer next, take some time to imagine what the Kingdom of God will be like on earth when it comes in greater fullness.  In other words what are you asking for when you pray "your kingdom come"?

·        Notice the reference in verse 16 to commandments, decrees and ordinances.  How do you react to words like that?  Now substitute words like "advice, guidance, and teaching".  How do you react to those words?

·        We are constantly urged to eat well, and get sufficient sleep and exercise regularly.  Do you perceive such exhortations as commandments or advice?

·          Is self-care part of "seeking the kingdom"?


Philemon.  Read this marvellous letter for sheer enjoyment of the master's art!  This is surely St Paul at his supreme best.  The nearest parallel I can think of is his appeal in 2 Corinthians 8, but this letter surely trumps even that.  Notice first of all the greeting in verse 1: Philemon is addressed as "our dear friend and co-worker".  You just know a favour of some sort is about to be requested!  And notice, too, that the letter is addressed to others as well as Philemon.  Although seemingly on a private matter between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul does not mark the envelope "For Your Eyes Only".  This matter is to be addressed in the context of the local faith community.  There are to be no secrets among members (a truly frightening thought!).  Paul plays the sympathy card – I'm an old man who is imprisoned for my faith; but he also more than hints at his status in the Church.  He could, if he were so inclined, simply order Philemon to comply with his wishes; but, of course, he wouldn't want to do that, instead appealing to him in love.  Then there is the self-sacrifice: Philemon has been of great use to Paul who has come to love him very much; yet he is sending him back.  And notice the low punch in verse 13 – "in your place".  (Subtext: at least Onesimus was here with me in my time of need, which is more than I can say for you.)  But, of course, it would not be right for Paul to put his own interests first.  It's Philemon's call – even if (verse15) the original estrangement was God's way of bringing about a new relationship between them.  (Subtext: just a thought!)  And don't you love verses 18 and 19? If you are out of pocket, Philemon, just send your account to me and I'll repay you – even though you owe me your very life (though "I say nothing about [that]"!)  And verse 21 is the perfect finale to this letter.  How could anyone say no, particularly with his fellow church leaders reading over his shoulder?


Taking It Personally.


·        Read the letter slowly as Paul advances his case.  How does it seem to you?  Is it the letter of a man of love and gentleness urging his friend to do the right thing, or a flagrant piece of Machiavellian sophistry?

·        Think of a relative, friend, employee/employer or colleague who is also a Christian.  In what way is your "formal" relationship affected by your shared faith?  Do you think of that person primarily as your relative, etc or as your brother/sister in Christ?

·        What is your reaction to the story of the farmer and his worker (Bob) above?  Do you have any sympathy for the farmer's feelings?


Luke.  Jesus is drawing large crowds: they are not just attending an event and then going home for dinner.  They are "travelling with him".  Why?  Well, Luke doesn't tell us, but we can hazard a guess or two.  There will be some who are along for the "entertainment value" – they are the "miracle junkies" - the sort of people we've seen on TV hanging around Dynamo the Magician Impossible.  Some will be curious – what's this guy on about?  But included in the crowd will be some genuine "seekers" – people who have already seen or heard enough to feel that Jesus has something to teach them, but are not yet ready to make a commitment.  It is to this last group that Jesus seems to be speaking in this short passage.  Notice how different his "sales pitch" is compared with that advocated by some church growth consultants.  Far from glib assurances and wondrous promises of personal gain – absolutely guaranteed – Jesus gives them the hard, cold facts.  Do you want to sign up with me?  Well, there's a price to pay, my friends, and that is everything you have – everything you value, everything and everyone in which you have put your trust.  So the question for you is this: how much do you want the life I am offering you?  A little bit – just enough to fill in the gaps in an otherwise busy and comfortable life and give some shape, purpose and meaning to that life?  Forget it.  Only if you want the life I'm offering you more than anything else in your life now, and more than anything else you can even conceive of, should you come even one step nearer to following me.  Think about it very carefully.  Do your sums.  Recognise what you have to lose.  Are you really prepared to give all that up?  Do you really want the life I'm offering that much?    And notice verse 33: so much for those who like to argue that the Rich Young Ruler was a special case!


Taking It Personally.


·        Before you became a Christian, did anyone tell you this stuff?

·        Place yourself in the crowd.  Why are you there?  Why are you travelling with Jesus?  Are you as close as possible to Jesus or are you hanging back, somewhere on the edge of the crowds?  Listen to his words in verse 26: how do you feel about them?  Take your time – these are shocking words.  Let those words sink in.  What sort of man would say such a thing?  Now listen to the next bit (verse 27): is he serious?  Do I have to be ready to be crucified with him?  Does his explanation help?  How about verse 33?  Are you still hanging in there, or have you turned for home?

·        What sort of non-material possessions might we need to give up to be a follower of Christ?  Power, status, reputation, self-interest, personal ambition, the "right" to judge others, to retaliate, to make ourselves ill by over-indulgence?

·        No focus on verse 32.  What application does this verse have in the context of discipleship?  Rather than meet the cost of discipleship we seek terms for peace with whom?  What sort of peace is that?  Are you, or have you ever been, tempted to settle for this kind of peace?