Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Good Life (5/22/11)

The Good Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 22, 2011

Luke 16:19-31

There was this rich man, who wore clothing fit for a king and who dined lavishly every day. This poor man, named Lazarus, languished at his gate, all covered with sores. He longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. It so happened that the poor man died and was carried by the heavenly messengers to be with Abraham. The rich man died too, and was buried.

From Hades, where he was being tortured, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off and Lazarus with him. He called out, “Father, Abraham, have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am torment in these flames.”

But Abraham said, “My child, remember that you had good fortune in your lifetime, while Lazarus had it bad. Now he is being comforted here, and you are in torment. And besides all this, a great chasm has been set between us and you, so that even those who want to cross over from here to you cannot, and no one can cross over from that side to ours.”

But he said, “Father, I beg you then, send him to my father’s house—after all, I have five brothers—so he can warn them not to wind up in this place of torture.”

But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; why don’t they listen to them?”

But they won’t do that, father Abraham,” he said. “However, if someone appears to them from the dead, they’ll have a change of heart.”

Abraham said to him, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone were to rise from the dead.”

I have never liked this parable too much.

For one thing I know that I am more like the rich man than Lazarus. While I can certainly think of people with more wealth than I in this world, there are far more people with less. It could be that I will be in the position of Lazarus someday, but now I am more like the rich man. I eat well every day. There are people like Lazarus who would long for a fraction of the food I consume.

Rev. Martin Luther King preached on this parable. He said,
Dives’ sin was not that he was cruel to Lazarus, but that he refused to bridge the gap of misfortune that existed between them. Dives’ sin was not his wealth; his wealth was his opportunity. His sin was his refusal to use his wealth to bridge the gulf between the extremes of superfluous, inordinate wealth and abject, deadening poverty.
“Dives” is Latin for “rich man” and it was mistakenly regarded as a proper name for the rich man throughout the medieval period. But the tradition of calling the rich man "Dives" has endured, perhaps an unconscious desire to give this rich guy a name. Martin Luther King said the rich man’s sin was that he “refused to bridge the gap” that existed between them.

I may want to think that I am not the rich man; I may want to think that I don’t have what King called “superfluous, inordinate wealth” but I know which of these characters is more like me. I can’t say that I have done enough to bridge the gap either.

Another reason I dislike this parable is that I grew up in a religion in which the fear of hell was ever present. The idea of being tormented or tortured in hell for eternity wasn’t just a fantasy or story, but a reality, a real place in real time, with the fires hot and ready for bad little boys and girls.

Now I don’t believe in hell any more. I think it is a harmful doctrine that has been used to bully people with guilt and fear. It is a fantasy, a fiction, a metaphor.

I am happy that I followed my wife to the Presbyterian Church. I learned there about radical grace.

Nothing we can do can make God love us less.
Nothing we can do can make God love us more.

We don't have to worry about Hell or "being saved" because we are already embraced by God's love. We only need to live our lives and respond to grace with freedom.

I was happy that the Jesus Seminar ranked the second part of this parable, the part where the rich man is tormented in hell and tries to bargain with Abraham as black, or not from Jesus. The first part, the reversal of fortunes, the seminar ranked gray, as in probably not Jesus. The first part, they thought, was a re-write of an older reversal of fortunes story.

The Jesus Seminar is a group of scholars that in evaluating gospel traditions voted red, pink, gray and black on sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus. If a saying or deed of Jesus was voted
  • Red by the seminar, that was likely spoken or done by the historical Jesus in their judgment.
  • Pink, probably so.
  • Gray probably not.
  • Black definitely not.
If you are interested, check out The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. Both are in the church library.

One of the fun, unintended consequences of the Jesus Seminar is that it gave many of us permission to go ahead and vote on the Bible. Don’t like parts of it? Vote it black. You got the power. Of course, the Jesus Seminar wasn’t voting on whether it liked passages or not, but voting on whether a saying or deed was more likely to go back to the historical Jesus.

Nevertheless, I like to vote on whether I like it or not, too.

The "True Bible believers" get their hackles up over that. 
How can you pick and choose from God’s Word?!
Well, I just did.

Not all of the Bible in my view, is very good. Some of it is quite bad. Bad theology. Bad ethics. I see no virtue in putting a halo around a bad text. As a minister I have seen people bullied by the Bible. I think the response to that is to demystify it. It is a book written by human beings. It is filled with errors of all kinds. It is filled with ancient superstition and outdated cosmology. It contains fabrications and forgeries, Neither it nor those who beat you with it have power over you unless you give it to them.

Start with the source. Say,

“The Bible from which you get your ideas about me is simply wrong.”
All those passages about hell? Black.
All those weird social injunctions? Black.
Anything that doesn’t feed your Spirit? Black.

Once you do that,
once you give yourself permission to think for yourself
and to make your own opinions about a sacred text,
once you demystify it,
then you can hear it.

If there is any wisdom in the Bible it doesn’t come from it being forced down our throats. It comes, if it comes, from listening with a free mind. I really love this from biblical scholar and author, Walter Wink. He writes about his own experience with the Bible:
"I listen intently to the Book. But I do not acquiesce in it. I rail at it. I make accusations. I censure it for endorsing patriarchalism, violence, anti-Judaism, homophobia, and slavery. It rails back at me, accusing me of greed, presumption, narcissism, and cowardice. We wrestle. We roll on the ground, neither of us capitulating, until it wounds my thigh with “new-ancient” words. And the Holy Spirit is right there the whole time, strengthening us both."
I rail at this passage of Lazarus and the rich man. I rail at the superstition of hell and the fear and guilt it places in the minds of children and adults. I accuse the notion of cosmic punishment for quashing human spirits and for turning God into a punitive authoritarian. I rail at this passage for its simplistic notion that there are only two types of people in the world, the rich and the poor, and that there is an afterlife in which fortunes are reversed. Once I dismiss this passage as having any literal value, then I wrestle with it.

I wrestle with it because there is something here that wants to speak to my free mind about the good life. There is something here that wants to challenge me about what I think it means to be blessed and to be a blessing. There is something here that wants to speak to me about what I value. There is something here that wants me to hear something about wealth and about poverty and about the gates and chasms that are placed between people.

Then there is one of my favorite biblical scholars of late, William Herzog, who in his book, Parables As Subversive Speech, writes that this parable, the whole of it, does go back to Jesus. So there you go.

Herzog sees these characters, the rich man and Lazarus as codes for the urban elite and the expendable poor, respectively. The rich man is dressed like a king and eats lavishly. At his own gate is Lazarus, covered in sores, tormented by dogs, who can’t even get bread that is used as a napkin by the rich man and thrown out as waste.

Nothing is said about the morality of either character. Lazarus is not necessarily pious. He is just poor. The rich man isn’t necessarily bad, just wealthy. It is likely that the rich man is law abiding. He could very well keep the Torah scrupulously, making sure to observe the purity codes of clean and unclean. Lazarus would obviously be unclean.

Both die. Lazarus is taken by angels to be with Abraham, who by the way, was a rich man. The rich man, who may have even modeled his life after Abraham, blessed with abundance as Abraham was is taken not to be with Abraham but to Hades.
  • Whereas Lazarus was tormented by dogs, the rich man is tormented in the fires.
  • Whereas Lazarus could not get a piece of bread from the rich man’s table, the rich man cannot get a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger.
  • Whereas a gate kept Lazarus from the rich man’s earthly paradise, now a chasm keeps the rich man from the heavenly paradise. It is a reversal of fortunes.
When the rich man realizes that he is not going to get relief for himself, he pleads on behalf of his brothers, also apparently, the urban elite.
“Send Lazarus back to them to warn them,”
says the rich man. He is still giving orders. But Abraham says no. He says something very strange.
"They have Moses and the Prophets, they should listen to them."
The rich man realizes that is useless.

Weren’t they good Jews? The rich man and his brothers? There is no reason to think they didn’t listen to Moses and the Prophets. They had been reading Moses and the Prophets all their lives. I have to think they were like the rich man who came to Jesus and wanted to know what it took to get eternal life. Jesus told him to follow the commandments. He said he did, his whole life. Then Jesus told him to sell everything, give the money to the poor and to follow him. The man walked away, grieving because he had many possessions.

It is likely that the rich man in today’s parable as well as his brothers were just as scrupulous in observing the Torah. They ritually washed and observed all the purity codes. They obeyed the commandments. There is no reason to think they didn’t.

The point, of the story, I think, could be that the rich man and his brothers were confused about Moses and the Prophets. Perhaps they were confused when they colored some parts of the scriptures black and other parts red. Maybe they were wrong about which parts should get what colors.

Maybe the purity codes weren’t as important as the parts about compassion and justice.
I wonder if that isn’t the point Jesus was making. If you don’t know which parts of the scriptures are more important than others, than ghosts coming back from the dead won’t even help. If scriptures don’t lead to compassion and wisdom, then why bother reading them?

The rich man read them. He read them as legitimizing his own status. By way of parable, Jesus reversed that reading. He turned it on its head. In so doing he turned the notion of what a good life is on its head. A good life may not be living large. The blessed life may not be one of abundance but something else. What is that else? I think it has something to do with opening the gates that keep people apart.

Since we are honoring our graduates this morning, I am going to close with a portion of a graduation speech. I heard this speech live at Bev’s sister’s graduation from Syracuse University eleven years ago. The speech was delivered by Ted Koppel. I was moved when I heard it. He delivered this speech in the year 2000. Even though the world is somewhat different now than then, his point is still worth considering.

Koppel knew his audience. He was speaking to graduates of Syracuse, men and women who were not likely destined to be Lazarus at the gate. He said:
My concern for you as you leave this place has nothing to do with the quality of your education or the anticipated comfort level of your lives. By most of the standards that can be applied uniformly to most people around the world, you will do well. You have the freedom and the means to travel as no previous generation has done. You have access to more information. Your lifespan should be longer, your health should be better. You have more choices available to you in your leisure time, and because you are educated men and women you are better equipped to compete in the flourishing marketplace that awaits you.
I am not sure if the marketplace is as flourishing now as it was in 2000, nonetheless, it would be more flourishing for them than most others. Then Ted Koppel went on to talk about what makes a Good Life. He said:
But in our eagerness to achieve material success and personal gratification, we seem to have overlooked a disturbing reality. Are Americans really happier today than they were 20 or 50 years ago? And if not, why not? Could it be that we spend so much time focusing our energies on acquiring and achieving that we are losing a little of our humanity?

We are richer as a nation than we have ever been before, and yet there is no enthusiasm whatsoever for foreign aid. We are richer individually and corporately than at any time in recent memory, and yet our charitable contributions across the board are down. Our children have access to more information than ever, and yet most of them know less than our grandparents did when they were the same age.

Some of you surely remember George Santayana's famous observation that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Power ebbs and flows. Empires come and go. The Mongols, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the French, the Germans, the Soviets--they've all had their moments at the center of the world stage, and for some those moments lasted centuries. Eventually, though, power inevitably passes. The question is always, how did those in power use it while they had it?

That is true of nations, and it is true of individuals. You are privileged to live in a time when the United States is the most influential and certainly the most powerful country in the world. But with that influence and power comes responsibility. That too is true of individuals as well as nations. Because we have the means and the tools to help the least among us here at home, we should do it. Not because the government extracts money from us with more taxes, but because voluntarily tithing our wealth is as appropriate today as it was in biblical times.

There is enough food in the world to feed every man, woman, and child; no one should be starving to death. We have not yet found a cure for AIDS, but we surely know how to prevent its spread. Parts of Africa, South Asia, and Russia are in the grip of an AIDS pandemic; that is unacceptable.

If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant. Your challenge is to turn information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. You can know what is happening in every corner of the world, and with your particular skills and talents, with the wealth and technology and influence available to you at this time and in this place, you can be a force for good. What a challenge, what a joy. Now go do it.
I think Koppel nailed the problem of the rich man in our story.
If we worry only about ourselves, we will become irrelevant.
He is so irrelevant that he doesn't even have a name.

He missed his chance at being a force for good because he settled for what he thought was a good life for himself.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Tale of Two Toll Collectors (5/15/11)

A Tale of Two Toll Collectors
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 15, 2011

The Gospel of Jesus 13:5-10

Jesus also told this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a toll collector.

The Pharisee standing by himself, prayed as follows:

“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”

But the toll collector stood off by himself and didn’t even dare to look up, but struck his chest, and muttered, “God have mercy on me, a sinner that I am.”

Let me tell you, the second man went back home acquitted but the first one did not. For those who promote themselves will be demoted, but those who demote themselves will be promoted.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 63, Luke 18:9-14.

This parable as Luke has framed it and as the tradition has read it is about the contrast between humility and arrogance. The Gospel of Luke written many decades after Jesus died tells us how we are supposed to read it. Scholars, including the Jesus Seminar think that last line,

"For those who promote themselves will be demoted, but those who demote themselves will be promoted,"
is probably an editorial addition by Luke.

Luke begins the parable by telling us what he thinks was in Jesus’ mind:

Then for those who were confident of their own moral superiority and who held everyone else in contempt, he had this parable.
The issue with that reading is that it refers to types of individuals in the abstract. The Pharisee and the Toll Collector represent types with postures. One posture to emulate and the other to avoid. While that reading may capture some of what this parable might be saying, I think it misses a larger meaning. The parable may invite its hearers then as well as now to rethink some fundamental questions. These questions are:
  • Who belongs?
  • Who is inside and who is inside?
  • Who gets to interpret what the sacred texts say?
  • Who gets to speak for God and offer the redemptive mojo?
  • Who gets to decide of whom God approves and does not approve?
  • Where is the sacred?
  • Where is the holy?
  • Who gets shamed and who is honored?
  • How do our institutions participate in this honoring and shaming?
This parable is not about individual piety. It is a challenge to the legitimacy of the religious power structures. William Herzog in his book Parables as Subversive Speech suggests that it is little wonder Jesus was crucified. A parable about personal piety won’t bother anyone.
Be humble and not arrogant!
Well, of course, yawn.
But a parable that exposes the illegitimacy of a sacred institution, that will get you in trouble.

When we read this parable we immediately think what a jerk is this Pharisee. Listen to his prayer:
“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”
Even the most self-righteous busybody won’t say a prayer like that. You may think it, but to pray it out loud? If we say something, we say it in a more politically correct manner. We may say, “Bless her heart” and “There but for the grace of God go I.”

That is a matter of culture and tradition. The prayer of the Pharisee is not atypical. Similar prayers were found in the Talmud. Here is one:
I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou hast set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash and Thou hast not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners, for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labour and they labour, but I labour and receive a reward and they labour and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.
From the Talmud’s point of view, this prayer is not self-righteous or boasting. The rabbi is giving thanks for the privilege to study Torah. Here is another prayer. We may wince when we hear it, but that is only because our attitudes have changed fairly recently that we do so.
“One must utter three praises every day: Praised be the Lord that He did not make me a heathen, for all the heathen are as nothing before Him (Is 40:17); praised be He, that He did not make me a woman, for woman is not under the obligation to fulfill the law; praised be He that He did not make me . . . an uneducated man, for the uneducated man is not cautious to avoid sins.” Scott, p. 95
The prayer of the Pharisee is a prayer within the framework of the rabbi who is grateful that he has been blessed with the privilege of studying Torah.

Our problem is that the New Testament and 2000 years of Christian tradition is already predisposed against the Pharisees. They are the foils against which the figure of Jesus is portrayed. They are the "bad guys" in contrast to the "good guy', Jesus.

We know the rest of the story. Jesus, rather than be seen as a Jew, a critic of his own religion, became a religion. The followers of this new Jesus religion called their book the “New Testament” over against the so-called “Old Testament”. This has led to a long history of discrimination and violence against Jews.

I think that if we are going to read this parable with meaning today, we need to read it not as a critique of Pharisees, the Temple, and Judaism. We need to read it as I think Jesus--within Judaism--told it, as a critique of his own tradition. In that spirit, we need to read it as a critique against our own tradition.

What is the critique?

If the Pharisee represents the institution’s favored son, the toll collector represents the outsider. The toll collector was a low-level employee of a Roman taxation system. It was a subsistence-level job of collecting tolls on behalf of toll contractors. These guys did the actual work and were thus the target for contempt.

A modern analogy today might be telephone solicitors! Everyone hates them. But they are simply the public voice of the corporations that pay them (and don’t pay them much) to hassle you at inconvenient times. We pour our contempt on the phone solicitors, but the hidden ones, the ones making the profits off of these sales, we never see or hear.

Toll collectors were the visible representation of Rome’s oppression. They were as much oppressed as anyone else. Herzog writes of them:
“The toll collector was a convenient target for the Pharisee’s assault, for he was poor, socially vulnerable, virtually powerless, and without honor. A pariah figure considered an “extortioner,” a “swindler,” and an adulterer of God’s law.” P. 188.
A lot of bad names right there.

The Pharisee is an upstanding citizen. He would be the guy everyone would want in their church. We mistake his prayer for arrogance. Bernard Scott says that
“He has only done what the temple map requires of those on the inside.” P. 96
This is the map. This is the way the institution is set up to evaluate insiders and outsiders, good and bad. This may be a first century Jewish map, but we could make our own map. John Dominic Crossan who was a Catholic monk before he left the order, said this parable could be modernized by saying,
“the pope and a pimp went to the church to pray.” P. 94
You can make this contemporary. Who is in and who is out within the Church, for example, today?

The scandal is at the end of the parable when Jesus says that the toll collector is acquitted and the other not. The outsider is in. According to Scott:
“The map has been abandoned. It can no longer predict who will be an insider or an outsider.” P. 97
Scott goes on to conclude:
“This parable subverts the metaphorical structure that sees the kingdom of God as temple. Given this metaphorical system, things associated with the temple are holy and in the kingdom, and things no associated with the temple are unholy and outside the kingdom. In the parable the holy is outside the kingdom and the unholy is inside the kingdom.” P. 97
For Scott, this parable takes to task the institution that legitimizes insider/outsider roles. This is true for the 21st century Christian situation as it was for the 1st century Jewish situation.
In our parable the toll collector stood far off because he was ostracized for his impurity. The Pharisee stood apart probably because he didn’t want to brush against anyone unclean.

He is too clean for the group. The toll collector too unclean, so both stand apart for very different reasons. One stands apart because he is considered a deviant shunned another because he is prominent. This has nothing to do with their individual characters, but with their roles in the institution.

In a sense they are both toll collectors. The toll collector in our parable is a functionary in the Roman system, but the Pharisee is a functionary to enforce the collection of tithes for the temple. That is his big brag. He tithes for the Temple. He collects and promotes this institutionalized system that divides insiders from outsiders.

One of the roles of those within legitimizing institutions is to make and enforce social rules. Who decided all of this clean and unclean anyway? Norms and rules are created to decide who is in, who is out. It is done in a way to further one’s own interests. The enforcement comes in the public enactment, the spectacle of ritual.

This parable is the spectacle of ritual in which the legitimizing figure of the temple, the Pharisee, enacts a ritual of honor and shame to reinforce the temple’s order. We are right with God. We are the blessed ones. The best way to reinforce that is to single out a scapegoat.

The Pharisee publicly shames the toll collector.

Herzog invites us to imagine the scene:

“If the toll collector has stood far off to remain inconspicuous, the Pharisee stands apart to be conspicuous. At the precise moment that the officiating priest is entering the Holy Place to burn the incense, and at the very moment when the people believe the prayer to be most efficacious, the Pharisee steps forward and prays aloud.” P. 186
And what does he pray so the crowd can hear?
“I thank you, God, that I’m not like everybody else, thieving, unjust, adulterous, and especially not like that toll collector over there. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of everything that I acquire.”
Herzog writes:
“The Pharisee has proclaimed his honor while shaming the toll collector.” P. 186.
But it isn’t just about the Pharisee.

It is a spectacle of ritual. It is designed to enhance and reinforce the legitimacy of the Temple and its rules for who is righteous and who is not and what it takes to stay on the righteous train.

What is the toll collector supposed to do now? In order to fulfill his role as the unclean, he needs to slink away in shame. He needs to recognize his place in the scheme of things and leave. Thus the institution will remain “pure.”

Here is the scandal.

The toll collector does not go away.

Neither does he accept the labeling of the Pharisee. Nor does he appeal to the institution and its priests for redress. Instead he speaks directly to God.

“Have mercy on me.”
This is how Herzog puts it:
“If the toll collector had followed the script, he would have left in silence, a shamed man put in his place. But he does not go quietly. Having heard the worst that the Pharisee could throw at him, he cries out, beats his breast, and prays for mercy, the very mercy being made available through the afternoon sacrifice. He refuses to consent to the Pharisee’s shaming but appeals to a higher source. He refuses to accept the labels attached to him, the stigma of toll collector, but speaks directly to God, seeking mercy. He breaks the deafening silence that followed the Pharisee’s effort to reinforce the status quo. He breaks through the intimidation and fear that the Pharisees words have created, and by his actions, he challenges the Pharisee’s reading God’s judgments.” p. 192
Herzog goes on to say:
“The parable provided a model of a figure who refused to be silenced but found his voice in the process of discovering God.” P. 192
This is not a parable extolling pious humility. It is a parable of a person who claims his humanity and his place before God when denied that place by the institution that is supposed to act on behalf of God.

I am going to say that again.

This is not a parable extolling pious humility. It is a parable of a person who claims his humanity and his place before God when denied that place by the institution that is supposed to act on behalf of God.

The institution said, “No.” But he stood his ground and waited for what God might say. The punchline of this parable is that the toll collector was right to do so.

Jesus said ”Yes” to him.

This past week the Presbyterian Church finally ended 33 years of official legitimization of discrimination against gays. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been treated as modern toll collectors by the church. Through the ritual of spectacle, preachers and those who represent the religious institution have vilified, ostracized, and labeled as sinners God’s children. They have abused sacred texts and traditions to do so.

The institution of the Presbyterian Church did not take this recent action because it is nice.

It did so kicking and screaming. It was forced to do so because of courageous people who stood their ground and prayed to God,
“Have compassion! See us for who we are.”
In 1973, when I was eleven, a man named David Sindt stood up at the Presbyterian General Assembly with a hand-lettered sign that read,

“Is anyone else out there gay?”
Thus the movement for justice began in this institution, the Presbyterian Church.

I celebrate today, 38 years later, not the church, but the courageous people like David Sindt and the cloud of witnesses who have followed his example of breaking the silence.


Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Friend At Midnight (5/8/11 Mother's Day)

A Friend at Midnight
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 8th, 2011
Mother’s Day

The Gospel of Jesus 18:1-5
Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.’ And suppose you reply, ‘Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to get you anything’—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet you will get up and give that person whatever is needed because you’d be ashamed not to.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 75, Luke 11:5-8.

The parable of The Friend at Midnight is a bit of a puzzler. What motivates you to get out of bed and give three loaves to your friend who calls out to you at all hours of the night? If we can answer that question we can get a glimpse into the empire of God. 

This parable is only found in Luke. That is an argument against its authenticity as a parable of Jesus. It may very well be a creation of the author of Luke. In Luke it serves as an illustration for the general admonition to be persistent in prayer. It follows Luke’s version of the Lords’ Prayer. 
You have the Lord’s Prayer then the parable of the Friend at Midnight. Then Luke has Jesus say:
So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if he child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
In this setting, The Friend at Midnight is about the importance of persistence in prayer. It is similar to Luke’s interpretation of the woman knocking on the judge’s door for justice. Eventually he gives in because she wears him out. For Luke these parables are about prayer. The parables move from the lesser to the greater.
  • If an unjust judge will finally answer the woman’s request, how much more so will God?
  • If a sleeping, crabby guy in the middle of the night will finally roust himself up to give you bread, how much more so will God?
  • If you will give your child an egg instead of a scorpion and a fish instead of a snake, how much more will God give you what you need?
Take it to the Lord in prayer. You can stick most any parable in Luke’s gospel and it will be framed in such a way to be about persisting in prayer. With The Friend at Midnight, we have an allegory in which you are requesting bread from your friend who is God. Because of your persistence God will grant your request. Keep on praying. The persistent turtle wins the race.    That is how the Church has interpreted this parable through its history. 

I have said that whenever a parable appears to have a judge, an absent landlord, or a king as the god-figure we should be suspicious. Now I will add to that. Whenever we have a crabby, sleepy guy as the god-figure we should be suspicious as well.

Parables are rarely allegories. Even as the church, beginning with the author of Luke, has read this parable as an allegory to make the moral point of the importance of the persistence of prayer, we might get more mileage out of it if we read it differently. 

The parables of Jesus tell us something about life. In particular, they tell us about economic life, the economy of God, if you will, as opposed to the economy of this world of injustice.

Everyone knew what the kingdom of Caesar was like. They lived in it. Everyone knew what life was like in the kingdom of Herod. Jesus, through parable, offers a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
The Jesus Seminar Fellows thought this parable--if we can wrest it away from Luke--may go back to Jesus. It isn’t about persistence in prayer. As important as that may be, this parable isn’t that. It does have something to do with how we deal with food, the neighbor, and the stranger

Here are some background items. People baked bread a few times a week perhaps. Everyone in the village would know who made bread most recently. If you had a guest you wouldn’t give the guest stale bread, but fresh bread.
Bread is not the meal itself. Bread was used as a utensil. Everyone had a loaf of bread, like a pita. Everyone dipped into a common bowl, some vegetable or bean dish. Then you eat what you have broken off and dipped. That way the common bowl stays clean. 

The request is for bread, but possibly for more as the last line of the parable states: You will give that person whatever is needed. 

There is a word with which we have to come to terms. 
The word is anaideia. It means shamelessness. It is the name of a Greek goddess. Anaideia was the goddess of ruthlessness, shamelessness, and unforgiveness. Her companion was Hybris or the god of violence. Anaideia and Hybris run the world don’t they? 

The NRSV (the translation in your pew) has translated anaideia as persistence. That sounds like a positive quality. Because of the persistence of the one who calls out in the middle of the night, the crabby, sleepy guy will respond. 
The problem is that anaideia, no matter how you twist it doesn’t yield persistence. 

 is a bad thing. It means shamelessness. What is shamelessness? It is the lack of shame. For instance, Transocean is shameless when it reports that this past year was its safest on record. Yes, that is the same year of the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed eleven people and poured five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Their safest year. Have they no shame? No, they have no shame. The goddess Anaideia is the CEO.

There is a problem. In our parable we have this weird word, shamelessness, sitting there. It is a key word. The parable hinges on it. It is because of shamelessness that you are going to grumble and fuss and stumble over the kids and to try to find your glasses so you can see well enough to locate three loaves of bread in the middle-of- the-night-why-don’t-these-people- travel-in-the-daylight-are-they-a-bunch-of-owls-and –why-doesn’t-my-friend-bake-his-own-darn-bread. 

The second problem is that we don’t know who is shameless, the friend who asks for the three loaves or you. Shamelessness is the motivator, but we don’t know whose shamelessness it is that will get you out of your bed. The grammatical structure of the sentence could yield either reading. 

We have a couple of questions. We need answers. We are going to leave Anaideia sitting here. We are going to leave shamelessness for a bit, go this way and then swing back and pick her up.

We need to look at the values of a peasant society and Torah obligations. 

In a peasant society the highest value is security. Peasants will accept a great deal of exploitation for safety. There is a relationship with the elites, that is the landowners. The issue is not how much the elites take but how much they leave. They need to leave enough for subsistence. If it gets to the point where peasants have to pay from their subsistence, their survival, then they call injustice on the elites. 

There was a delicate balance between elites and peasants. The elites could take nearly everything but not everything. Especially in times of struggle, the elites’ fundamental job from the peasants’ point of view is the basic subsistence safety net. They would put up with a great deal of exploitation in exchange for security.

The second value within a peasant village is that the community is more important than the individual. William Herzog writes in his book Parables as Subversive Speech about the Limited Good Society. Everything in a peasant society--land, wealth, love, honor and so forth--is limited in quantity and in short supply. If one gains, another loses. An individual could only improve oneself at the expense of others. Herzog writes:

Therefore, any individual’s gain was perceived as a threat to the entire village unless that gain was used for the poor or the common welfare of the village, and even then, the benefactor would be viewed with suspicion….The peasant’s goal was to remain within the profile of village expectations, not to stand out from them. P. 204
Security and community. You never get rich or even get a break, but no one goes hungry. 

The third value is reciprocity. The neighbor asks from you, bread, for instance, because the neighbor has a claim on it. You give to the neighbor, because the neighbor will now be obligated in the future. This also worked with the village as a whole. Every family was guaranteed a minimal subsistence from the village. 
In turn, they were obligated to the village.

Back to our parable. We have a traveler coming at night expecting hospitality. One of the primary Torah values is hospitality to the stranger. The model is Abraham entertaining guests who turn out to be angels. The opposite, the model to avoid, is the behavior of Sodom and Gomorrah. Rather than show hospitality they actually seek to harm the guests. 

The requirement for hospitality is not on individuals or families, but the entire village. Here is a speech from Jesus to his disciples, who are all itinerants. He gives them this speech before they go out on the road. They are the ones moving from village to village. They are the ones in the parable who are visiting at night. 

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Luke 10:8-11
We can see that the requirement of hospitality is upon the entire town. So, one interpretation of this parable is an obvious one. If you didn’t get up in the middle of the night and get the bread, the word would get around the village and you would be shamed. That is the way the Jesus Seminar seemed to interpret it given the translation in the bulletin. You would be ashamed not to answer your neighbor’s call because you have a duty to the village. That is one possible interpretation.

It seems a little too obvious, and it doesn’t quite fit the structure of the sentence.
I think the issue is about villages not individuals. It is also about competing values.

Hospitality isn’t a given in every village. It appears from the speech that Jesus gave to his disciples that not every village does show hospitality to the stranger. Jesus can imagine, probably from experience, that not every town will fulfill its Torah obligation to welcome the stranger. Not everyone gets up in the night and calls to the neighbor and not every neighbor wakes up and gets the bread and whatever else is needed for the meal. 

I think that is what this parable wants to address. Why? Why wouldn’t they?

Why wouldn’t a village always show hospitality to the stranger? 

One reason might be scarcity. In times of scarcity, there is pressure on the peasant village to secure for itself. This put pressure on the requirement for hospitality. This made a conflict of values between peasants and elites.
Elites or patrons would not necessarily share peasant values or Torah values or at least this Torah value. The Torah values of the elites had to do with purity. Keeping ritually clean as opposed to unclean. Peasants were not able to do that. 

Throughout the gospels we find Jesus criticizing the elites, the scribes, and religious leaders, for twisting the Torah to their advantage. That is for making much of the purity codes, and ignoring the weightier aspects of justice and compassion. 

From the perspective of the religious leaders, the elites, the ones who have interpreted the rules, the idea that peasants would give their food away to begging strangers is shameless. William Herzog writes:

For the internal elites of Palestine, the primary value of living by the purities was that it permitted them to pursue their acquisitive greed while remaining Torah-clean. In pursuing the acquisition of wealth at the expense of the peasants and rural poor, they mimicked the behavior of their Roman overlords. …From the point of view of these urban elites, the hospitality of the villagers was shameless. It was expended on a virtual stranger and gained them nothing in return. The villagers would have done better to save their food for hard times rather than expect their social superiors to take care of them when their subsistence failed. They were fools for expending their necessities to feed a stranger off the streets. pp. 213-4
What Jesus has done in this parable is to turn the tables on what is shameless. Jesus uses irony. He is saying that the kingdom of God is shameless. Shamelessness has to do with breaking boundaries.

Jesus is constantly accused of having no shame, of being shameless. He is a glutton and drunkard. He eats with sinners. He lets the woman touch his feet with her hair. He heals on the Sabbath. He doesn’t have a job. He wanders around and tells stories and one-liners for food. He and his disciples do not ritually wash before they eat. They pick heads of grain on the Sabbath. He bypasses the authority of the Temple and its priesthood and forgives sins. "You can too," he says. 

How do you build an empire on this kind of behavior? Shameless.

Shamelessness does not apply to the person calling out for the three loaves nor to the person who gets up and provides the loaves, but to the whole village who lives by these counter-intuitive values of hospitality. In a time of scarcity, hospitality is shameless.
Shamelessness is a negative. It means without a sense of shame. Without honor.

But Jesus turns it around and he says this is what the kingdom of God is about.

Welcome to the glorious shamelessness of the kingdom of God!

Listen to this parable again, with my use of the word, shamelessness.

Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend who comes to you in the middle of the night and says to you, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on a trip has just shown up and I have nothing to offer him.’ And suppose you reply, ‘Stop bothering me. The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to get you anything’—I tell you, even though you won’t get up and give the friend anything out of friendship, yet because of shamelessness you will get up and give that person whatever is needed.”
This parable may be a praise parable of villagers who get it. They exhibit shamelessness.

The shamelessness of the kingdom of God.

You know why you will get up and be hospitable to the stranger even though you don’t have two sticks to rub together? It is because of shamelessness. It is because you have no shame.   You have inherited the values of the kingdom. You’ll help anybody, even when you don’t have the means to help yourself. 

The elites won’t help you. They didn't do it in the first century. They won’t do it in the 21st century. They will invent all kinds of self-righteous and religious sounding excuses for why they get to retain all the stuff and let you starve. They will invent all kinds of theories such as "trickle-down economics". They’ll call you communists. They will claim that you are lazy and shameless for trying to take 
their money. 

Let them.

But you,
says Jesus with a smile, 

are shameless. You’ll help anyone, no matter what. That is the kingdom of God.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Father's Imperial Rule? (5/1/11 Pluralism Sunday)

The Father’s Imperial Rule?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
May 1, 2011
Pluralism Sunday

Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.
Billy Collins, Nine Horses (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 69-70.

Gospel of Jesus 15:1-11

One time, some members of the Purity Party started to argue with him. To test him, they demanded a sign from heaven. He groaned under his breath and says, “Why does this generation insist on a sign? I swear to God, this generation won’t get any sign!”

And turning his back on them, he got back in the boat and crossed over to the other side.

His disciples said to him, “When will the Father’s imperial rule come?

[He said], “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘Look, over there!’ Rather, the Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

On another occasion Jesus said, “You won’t be able to observe the coming of God’s imperial rule. People are not going to be able to say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘Over there!’ On the contrary, God’s imperial rule is right there in your presence.”

Jesus prayed, “Father, impose your imperial rule.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 83, 84. Mark 8:11-13; Matthew 6:10; 16:1-4; 12:38-40; Luke 11:2, 29-30; 17:20-21; John 2:18; 6:30; Thomas 113:1-4

Today is Pluralism Sunday.

It is not a big day on the church calendar but maybe it should be.

Pluralism Sunday is the dream of Jim Burklo of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Our congregation pays a modest fee once per year to be connected with this movement that is primarily a website. You can find the website at It is money well invested as folks have found our church because they saw us listed there. We also make use of the eight points of progressive Christianity as a helpful signpost of what we value.

Point Two of the Eight points is this:
2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;
That makes sense to me. It doesn’t seem that radical, really. Yet in some circles even the suggestion that another’s spiritual path is as good as mine is heresy. So, yes, I guess it is a radical notion. Our congregation makes a mission of being radical. According to our mission statement:
[we] Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.
The point here is that not only do we recognize the faithfulness of other traditions we explore their knowledge and wisdom because these other traditions may enrich us.

For instance, today, we are having a Beltane celebration. This is a coincidence that it happens to fall on Pluralism Sunday. Elaine organized it without knowing that I was going to emphasize pluralism. In fact, I forgot about the pluralism thing until the last minute. It goes to show that every Sunday is Pluralism Sunday whether we recognize it or not!

The Beltane service will be enriching. It is a Celtic festival that celebrates new growth and fertility. We will celebrate tonight with dancing and dining. It starts at 6 p.m. Bring a dish. Foods for Beltane are dairy or the season’s first produce. If the weather stays nice we will have it outside. Bring ribbons or flowers to decorate the festival site.

We honor our Christian heritage and we explore and celebrate other traditions. Not either/or but both/and. I am not bragging, just stating a value. Pluralism Sunday is a special day to remind us to be intentional about that aspect of our congregation’s mission. Perhaps you know of ways that we could be even more intentional about that.

Revisiting the figure of Jesus is an important part of this work of being intentional. Jesus has served too commonly, unfortunately, as an icon of exclusivity. “Jesus is the only way” and so forth. We all know about that. That is why scholarly work on the origins of Christianity can be a helpful tool in re-shaping the figure of Jesus for the work of peace and justice. That is good work. But it is up to each individual to find her or his own way. We find our own personal Jesus.

My personal Jesus doesn’t have to be boss of the planet. He is happy to share the space.

Here is a song about Jesus for Pluralism Sunday. It is called “I Love You and Buddha Too." I am going to play it for you, but I want to make sure you have the lyrics. It goes like this here:

Oh Jesus, I love You
And I love Buddha too
Ramakrishna, Guru Dev
Tao Te Ching and Mohammed

Why do some people say
That there is just one way
To love You, God, and come to You?
We are all a part of You

You are un-nameable
You are unknowable
All we have is metaphor
That's what time and space are for

Is the universe Your thought?
You are and You are not
You are many, You are one
Ever ending, just begun

And it has a catchy tune to go with it. This is Mason Jennings:

The Jesus that I embrace loves Buddha, too, and Krishna and Mohammad, and the whole gang. My personal Jesus, would, if here today, join us in our Beltane celebration. He would be all about dancing and dining with us.

I think he would be dismayed at the enmity between religions and would inhabit that place that is both beyond and betwixt them. He would be found dancing in our midst and inviting all of us to let go of our exclusive claims and honor the other. He would lightly poke fun at us and make us play together.

And he’d probably get crucified for it again.

But not even that would stop him.

That is why he is more than historical as are other figures and symbols in our spiritual traditions.

Jesus liked to talk about something that is translated “kingdom of God.” It is also translated as “realm of God” or “empire of God” or “the Father’s imperial rule” or even as we said in our communion liturgy last Sunday, the “kin-dom of God”. The way it is translated provides its nuance for you.

Jesus used playful parables, aphorisms, and other examples to point to this image. When people heard the phrase “kingdom of God” they had an association with it as we may have an association with it.

  • For some it might have been the apocalyptic and triumphant return of the Israelite monarchy.
  • The glory days of David and Solomon.
  • Maybe it would be everyone sitting under his or her own fig tree.
  • Maybe economic justice with poor rich and the mighty thrown from their thrones.
  • For others, it would be the temple where the all the nations would come and worship.
  • For others, there would be no temple at all.
Imagine the perfect world. What would it be like for you? Take a moment and do that. If all the politicians and world leaders suddenly did what you wanted them to do, what would the world look like? If you were the king or queen of Earth, what would you do? What would the world be like if God’s kingdom were to come on Earth as it is in heaven?

Take a moment and imagine it. Got something?

We all want the world better in some way. We all want the kingdom of God as we imagine it.

Jesus tapped into that desire. He played with that image, the kingdom of God. He toyed with it and told parables and aphorisms about it, because it isn’t something you can really define outside of playing with metaphor.

Folks would ask him, “When is this kingdom of God” this “Father’s imperial rule” that you keep talking about coming? How will we know? Or in the words of George Carlin, “When Will Jesus Bring the Porkchops?”

Jesus would just smile.

I included this poem from Billy Collins because I thought it was a fun, playful poke at that aspect of us that holds tightly to our treasured images. When our metaphors become too airtight, along comes the poet to pop them. When we get a bit too intense with our dreams and images, the poet and the teller of parables asks us,

“Are you sure?”
The poet says:
“You may think of yourself as the bread and the knife, the crystal goblet and the wine. OK. But it is also possible that you are the pigeon on the general’s head. But we’ll let you think you are the crystal goblet.”
The poet prods us about our dreams and visions. The poet says to us:
“In your dream of a perfect world, what if it was so perfect that there was no room in it for you?”
So when his eager followers asked Jesus,

“When will the kingdom come?”
Jesus replied,

“The Father’s imperial rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”
And at other times he said,
“It’s right here in your presence.”
At and other times he prayed,

“Father, impose your imperial rule.”
Still at other times he said it is a woman kneading dough, or a mustard seed out of control, or an empty jar spilling its meal on the road. He compared it to the Good Samaritan, your enemy helping you when you are in trouble.

Perhaps he even said it is the crystal goblet and the wine. If he did, I am sure he followed it up with the thing about the pigeon.

I think, at least my takeaway, is something like this. I think Jesus poked at his friends and he poked at that exclusive aspect within all of us, that part of us that wants the world to be better and wants the world to embrace our religion, our politics, our wisdom.

Maybe my personal Jesus is telling me something like this:
“If you want to change the world, John, that is cool. I do too. But as you go about it, don’t forget to look within. There are others who want to do the same thing. Who knows? They may have something to offer. Oh, and by the way, try not to take yourself too seriously. After all, there is a pigeon on your head.”