God-talk

Last week in the Canadian Football League (CFL), Ottawa RedBlacks receiver Diontae Spencer set a CFL record in a game against the Hamilton Ticats for most overall yardage gained — just under 500 — in one game. His incredible feat was truly remarkable in a game where his team didn’t score any points in the first quarter.

When asked afterwards about his record-setting accomplishment, Spencer mentioned God several times. He emphasized that the praise was ultimately for God. He couldn’t have succeeded along with his team in that game without God. God was the reason and source of his victory.

Such a witness gets a lot of mileage, especially on national TV covering a professional sports league in Canada. It is true: the public, general impression of Christians is their often-exuberant witness to an all-powerful, almighty God who authors and reflects anything and everything that is glorious, successful, impressive and spectacular. This is the dominant belief and main flavour of the kind of God-talk in the public arena when it comes to Christian witness.

Years ago, a parishioner in a former parish declined my invitation to her to give a testimony of faith during a mid-week Lenten program. I knew she was struggling with some personal challenges at the time. When I asked her why she said no, especially as I recognized in her the strong gift of faith, she said she wanted to wait until things were going better in her life before sharing her faith.

While I understood her reasoning, and was mindful of the delicate situation in her life, I wondered to myself if her attitude didn’t reflect a more general disposition among Christians today. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could talk about how good your life was. As if you could only give public testimony of faith when you could point to external circumstances that were favourable, impressive, even enviable.

After all, how could you get up in front of people and talk about God when all was not well in your life? How could you talk about God if you had nothing impressive to show for it? More to the point, would you be giving faithful testimony to God if everything in your life was broken, damaged, failed?

Is God only mentioned when humans achieve something great? Is God only a God who wins contests on the football field and battlefield of life? Can God be talked about only among folks who have succeeded and are healthy and rich? Only when things are going super well?

Or, could God also be present and real to us when we fail, when we are down, when we lose our earthly battles? It seems to me Christians call themselves Christian because we follow the way of Christ. And so, don’t we believe in the God of the Cross? God, by all human standards, failed — being branded public enemy number one and condemned to death. Jesus’ broken body is the iconic symbol for Christians. It is precisely in the suffering of life where God finds us.

On this All Saints Sunday, we understandably focus on what human beings have accomplished: the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. Blessed are those who demonstrate the qualities we read in the Beatitudes[1] — the Gospel text for this festival in the church calendar.

“Blessed” is not the word we might associate with being poor, persecuted peacemakers especially if we use the often-translated English word, “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[2] also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in providing the first beatitude, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor in spirit.”[3] I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state.

Should we take these beatitudes as moral rules for living, as with the Law, we can never fulfill it perfectly. And therefore, we can easily despair and give up. Being on the way, however, gives the long view and big picture. It implies the need for trusting that we are headed in the right direction even if the present circumstances in our lives suggest otherwise.

What is more, as much as we want to make the Beatitudes into the Ten (or rather, Nine) Commandments of the New Testament, this speech from Jesus — given at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel — is not primarily about ‘rules for moral behaviour’ as it is facts about God. These Beatitudes really and fundamentally describe God.

Matthew’s narrative builds towards this awareness, if you can appreciate the classic reversal that Matthew sets up in the first five chapters of his Gospel:

In the first chapter, Matthew’ genealogy firmly plants Jesus “the Messiah” in the lineage of the great Israelite King David. In the second chapter, exotic magi from the East come to pay homage to the newborn king. In the third chapter, King Herod takes seriously this threat to his power and tries to eliminate a contestant to his throne by killing innocent, Hebrew two-year-old boys in Bethlehem. Then, John the Baptist comes on the scene, announcing that he was making way for one who was greater than he. Finally, Matthew has Jesus ascend a mountain where he, like his predecessor Moses, would dispense the Word of God and give his inaugural address.[4]

You can see the build-up, I hope, of an expectation that Jesus would come to bring justice to the wicked and set things right. He, the Messiah, would turn back Roman oppression and occupation of Palestine. But, these words from Jesus’ mouth announcing who is “blessed” pull the rug from under our expectations of who God is. “The one who was supposed to lead revolutionary armies or bring down heavenly fire shows up in Galilee building hospitals and telling people not to hit back.”[5]

Can you imagine the surprise and shock among his disciples! Even the imprisoned John the Baptist does a double-take on his faith and later questions Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we keep looking?”[6] It is no wonder, then, that Peter later rebukes Jesus when he talks of his impending death: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”[7]

These beatitudes must have seriously disappointed his listeners and most ardent followers who had such ‘high’ expectations of their would-be Messiah King. How could they now continue following this man?

Is the reason why we may have trouble conforming our lives to the way described in the beatitudes is that we really don’t believe in these words as giving an accurate and trustworthy understanding of God? This is, after all, Jesus, who we know was persecuted and reviled as the prophets were before him.[8]

Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed in human flesh, born a vulnerable baby to a teenage couple? Do we believe in a God who chooses to be revealed dying a grotesque and brutal death on a cross showing the world a bruised, beaten, broken and bloody body?

If we did, perhaps we would hear more from the losers in our society. Perhaps TSN would hear the faithful witness of locker room players talking of a God who knows how it is to lose a big game and still keep faith. Perhaps we would hear more from street people, addicts and the impoverished, vulnerable people talk of their simple yet honest faith in a God who walks with them. Perhaps we would hear more from children declare their love of a playful God who carries our burdens for us, freeing us to be who and how we are without judgement and punishment.

Perhaps we would listen more to the murmurs of our own hearts whisper the love of God for us especially when we suffer the turmoil of life. Then, I gather, the world will open its eyes to the God of grace and love.

Because they will see people who live in hope. They will see people who know they have found the right road where they find God most present in helping people who suffer loss and pain, a road on which Jesus has walked himself, a road upon which God will always first find us.

 

[1] Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV

[2] Psalm 1:1, NRSV

[3] Earl F. Palmer in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A, Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.238

[4] Allen Hilton in ibid., p.239

[5] ibid., p.239

[6] Matthew 11:3

[7] Matthew 16:22

[8] Matthew 5:11-12

Grace precedes

Everyone was excited, but not sure what it was all about. In the centre of the room was a big box of balloons that had not been blown up yet.

The team leader asked each person to pick a balloon, blow it up and write their name on it. About 30 team members were able to get their name on a balloon without it popping. Those 30 were asked to leave their balloons and exit the room. They were told they had qualified for the second round.

Five minutes later the leader brought the team back into the room and announced that their next challenge was to find the balloon they had left behind with their name on it, among the hundreds of other balloons scattered in the large cafeteria. She warned them however to be very careful and not to pop any of the balloons. If they did, they would be disqualified.

While being very careful, but also trying to go as quickly as they could, each team member looked for the balloon with their name. After 15 minutes not one single person was able to find their balloon. 

They were not able to do it, because they were stuck looking only after their own interests as individuals. They couldn’t think collectively. They presumed they needed to do it all on their own, according to their interpretation of the rules of ‘the game’.

To me, the first two rounds of this game can be seen as a snap shot of the values of our culture and society. After all, there are ‘rules’ in our society. There are accepted ways of behaviour. There are the social norms and laws that bring at least a sense of order to our lives. One such norm, is the belief that we have to make it all on our own in this world.

We tell ourselves that competition and individualism are healthy and good, especially in the youth of our lives.

I grew up competing with my twin brother, David. Throughout our lives whether we were playing games, musical instruments and sports, doing our homework, achieving success at school, writing exams, making life choices — underlying our relationship was this competition. Always comparing and contrasting. While motivating and stimulating, ultimately it has become not always helpful, even a burden — as a foundation for our relationship.

When considering the doctrine of grace, based in the biblical witness of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we often skim over and even neglect the original social context of Paul’s writing. We get excited debating the doctrine of Justification by Grace posited here — especially as Lutherans. Yet to do so without first examining what was going on in the early Christian community, we can miss its original meaning:

At the time of writing Galatians (2:15-21), Paul and Peter were in a bit of a conflict. They represented two, competing views of how the mission of Jesus should be carried out.

For Peter, the disciple chosen by Jesus to be “the rock” upon which the church would be built (Matthew 16:18), he was influenced by some Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem who insisted that true converts to Christianity should first follow all the rules of the Jewish tradition — since the first disciples and Jesus himself were Jews.

When Paul and Peter met in a town called Antioch in those early decades of the first century, they confronted each other on this point. Because, for Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was on the line. He argued that Gentiles, who weren’t Jews, didn’t have first to be Jewish before becoming a follower of Jesus. If Christianity followed Peter’s bent, Gentiles could barely attain the status of second class citizens.

Later, Paul won the argument. Paul was a multi-culturalist far ahead of his time. Paul saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the long arc of God’s love and God’s inclusion, an arc bent toward making Gentiles full members of the family without preconditions. (1) Inclusion. Unconditional love. These words are signposts for the theology of grace, in Paul’s view, reflecting the way Jesus related to others.

If we begin with faith and grace, we can inhabit our traditions and rules more lightly. But it starts with God’s grace, for all people.

When I was in Clinical Pastoral Training at the Ottawa Hospital as part of my preparation for ordained ministry back in my seminary days, I was reminded of the truth of Christ’s presence and grace, which precedes mine.

I was advised, before entering the room of a patient, to stop for a moment. And bring to mind and heart this truth: Jesus is already in the room before I enter it. Jesus is already there, waiting for me. I do not bring Jesus with my charisma, eloquent words, magnetic personality, comforting presence. All these things may help, and may be true to some extent! 

But I don’t create Jesus. Jesus creates me. The patient I visit, along with me, are already in the presence of Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in his letter (2:20). Grace precedes everything I am and do.

When Jesus accepts the woman’s extravagant and outrageous offering of foot-washing with the gifts she has been given (her hair, her love, her touch, her tears), he is being inclusive and loving unconditionally. 

Jesus is not making the woman first follow a bunch of religious rules or follow accepted social norms before letting her come near and even touch him. (Luke 7:36 -8:3) Jesus is not requiring her to provide a government-issued I.D., proof of baptism certificate or a list of all the good deeds she accomplished and the churches she has attended.

The only requirement Jesus seems to accept is that she is honest, vulnerable and open about her sinfulness. Because only honest sinners can appreciate the gift of grace, it seems. The one who is forgiven the greater debt, shows the greater love (Luke 7:47).

What will we do when we see a homeless person, notice the addict, rub shoulders against a divorced person, or sense the struggling and pain in another? Will we ignore the other, suggesting “it’s none of my business”? (that statment reflects a major social norm in today’s society, you know!). 

Or, will we approach the person, confident that Jesus is already there? Will we approach the person, take a risk, and ask a question motivated by love and trust in God? Will we approach the person, aware and honest of our own sinfulness? Aware of the forgiveness we have been given?

We are not alone. We all stand on the same, level playing field in God’s kingdom. That is why we have the church. That is why we gather each week to feed at the Lord’s Table of grace and Divine Presence. We are not alone. We have each other, in the Body of Christ.

After the team who couldn’t find their balloons in the cafeteria was told that the second round of the game was over, they moved on to the third and final round:

In this last round the leader told the team members to find any balloon in the room with a name on it and give it to the person whose name was on it. Within a couple of minutes every member of the team had their balloon with their own name on it.

The team leader made the following point: “We are much more effective when we are willing to share with each other. And we are better problem solvers when we work together, helping each other.” We are able to do what we are called to do in Christ, when we work together for the sake of each other, in God’s mission on earth.

Because Jesus’ love, grace and presence await us in the room, at the table, in the world, beckoning us to come.
Amen.

(1) – Gregory H. Ledbetter, in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3”, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2010, p.137

Prayer: “Help”

When I heard this prayer I thought it related well and in a humorous way to how well we follow the ‘rules’ of our faith:

“Dear Lord, I am happy to report, so far this day has gone well: I haven’t coveted anyone their belongings; I haven’t harboured ill-will to my neighbours; I haven’t spoken hateful words or done anything out of spite to harm anyone; I want to help out in the church food-bank this week; I’m even praying to you now! I am thankful that this day has been going so well, Lord. But I think I’m going to need some help, once I get out of bed. Amen.”

Indeed, how well do we follow the commandments of God? The very act of getting out of bed almost guarantees we will make mistakes no matter our good intentions. It is our common humanity.

One of the functions of the Law, from a Lutheran point of view, is to make us realize that we totally depend on the grace of God. Let’s be honest. We need help, and we can’t do it on our own. No matter how hard we try, we will always miss the mark and mess up in some way. If there is anything good that comes out of our work, it is a gift and a grace.

This morning’s Gospel (John 13:31-35) was also read at the Maundy Thursday liturgy last month. Maundy means the commandment to love. It is fair to say that these words of Jesus capture the essence of who we are called to be and what we are called to do: In all we are called to be and do, is to personify love.

In this love, we see the glory of God. Glory. A statement attributed to Saint Ireneus of the early church comes to mind: “The glory of God is a human fully realized”. 

I take that to mean that God’s glory is not something other-worldly so much as something discovered in the ordinary, real, weak, broken life of a person who is able to receive with open heart the gifts of another, the gifts of grace and love. That is the glory of God. So intertwined with Jesus’ suffering as a human on the night of his betrayal (v.31-32), when Jesus needed to depend on his Father.

Faith is not just about believing and thinking doctrines and dogma, it’s more than that; it’s not just about believing, it’s about behaving. We have to pay attention to the behaving part. We must remember something I have heard our bishops say for many years now: Those who claim the greatest truth must demonstrate the greatest love.

Peter Steinke, who has given much thought, books and workshops about healthy churches and leadership today, told the true story of mega-church pastor whose congregation in the southern U.S. was doing really well. By all counts, Pastor Chase was enjoying unprecedented success in his vocation. 

And yet, he had confessed to Steinke, he was suffering from a malaise of the spirit. You could call it, a crisis of faith. Chase was losing a sense of personal direction in his work. 

Hearing about his struggle, a brother-in-law who was a member of a Franciscan order invited Chase to visit him in Italy. And so, Chase took his leave and spent that time resting, reading and visiting his extended family. 

Nearing the end of his time away, the brother-in-law invited him to come for a day to the AIDS hospice which the Franciscans managed and served the several men who were terminally ill. After working in the kitchen a couple of hours, a care-giver invited Chase upstairs to help with one of the residents. The man he looked upon was emaciated. His skin looked like it would fall off the bone. He couldn’t have been more than 90 pounds.

The care-giver greeted the man with a kiss on the forehead, and then looked at Chase: “Could you please lift him into the bath for me?” Chase carried the man and laid him into the bath water. The care-giver then asked, “Would you please wash him?” At first hesitant, Chase understood that this man needed a thorough wash. And so he did.

When they were finished and walking down the stairs the care-giver thanked Chase for his help. She indicated they were short-staffed that day and Chase had provided a real service to the hospice. “I can tell you have a Christian background,” she said. Chase responded: “It is I who need to thank you, Sister, because today I became a Christian.” (1)

“They will know we are Christians by our love,” goes the song. We have a choice to make. We need to be intentional as Christians. We cannot afford not to be, in this day and age. We can choose whether or not to love. 

We can’t save ourselves, or do anything to garner points for heaven, for we will always fall short no matter how heroic, self-giving or impressive our good deeds of faith appear. This is not about doing these things in order to make ourselves right with God. It is not about not doing anything at all. It is, however, about choosing actions that demonstrate care, compassion and love for the sake of others, and so, for God. 

It won’t ever be perfect. But that’s not the point. It is about behaviour that flows genuinely from a heart of love. And understands that all is a gift: The gift of faith, the gift of each other, the gift of community, the gift of Jesus Christ who is alive and lives in the Body of Christ, the church, and in the world he so loves.

(1) – adpated from a video entitled, “To Make a Difference”, presented in an upcoming workshop called “Apple Tree” by the Eastern Synod-ELCIC. Apple Tree is a workshop to help stimulate conversations about purpose and mission

Rules of the Gate

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, ought to channel my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

Admittedly, there is a very strict etiquette to gates; a rule book that you must follow because not to do so may cost dearly, or lead to death, or destroy a family’s livelihood. What are the ‘rules of the gate’?

Well, the first that comes to my mind is, ‘shut the gate after you.’ It’s okay to open the gate to let yourself through but you must make sure it’s closed and fastened just the way you found it, once you’re the other side.

Other rules perhaps aren’t so obvious – if the gate’s held open, under no circumstances must you shut it, especially if you live on an farm with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, etc.. After all, the herd’s access to water is through that open gateway; if you close it disaster may follow: Animals may force themselves through hedges or fences onto a railway line or highway in their search for water with consequences too horrible to dwell on.

Rules also apply to climbing over the gate rather than opening it. Always climb near the hinges so that your weight doesn’t put a levered strain on those very hinges and potentially bend or even break them. The same applies to where you aim yourself if you’re going to vault the gate.

And if you’re tempted (and supple enough) to crawl under a gate – don’t – you’ll wear away the ground and encourage others to do the same until eventually animals will also do likewise. And, of course, always use the gate no matter how much extra effort it involves because to avoid it by scrambling over a wall, pushing through a hedge, or scaling a fence has potential for damage that animals will seek out and follow.

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should follow. These are things to think on when Jesus calls himself the gate.

Whatever else the metaphor means, it’s clear that it’s about Jesus as the single entrance to the community of the faithful. We can only be part of this flock by going through this one gateway – and in that is our security and our protection. There is no other way in. Jesus is the very gate itself. The strength and clarity of that image is, I think, obvious.

But that isn’t the only thing this images means.

Jesus, the master of parables, uses metaphor in a rich and involving way that encourages his hearers to think long and hard about the images he uses. He requires of us that thinking because it makes us part of his people. We are involved in using his thoughts; musing on his meanings; and engaging with the pictures he himself has given us.

His story-telling style is one that asks effort on our part so that we can live within the images and symbols that he thought important. He speaks in a way that deliberately draws us closer to him. He makes us active participants in his telling, his living, of salvation. We are never just the audience.

An English lad got himself a summer job working on one of the Canadian Great Lakes – it was a real adventure for him. Of course on the application form he had to answer certain questions about his suitability for the job. When it came to the vital one about whether he was able to swim, he wrote: ‘Yes, I learnt the motions of swimming at my secondary school.’

Inevitably the day came when he fell off his employer’s motor boat. There followed wild splashing and shouting. He was clearly in trouble and had to be rescued. When on the lakeshore he had recovered from his ordeal he was asked about his answer on the form. ‘Yes,’ he said, I learnt the motions of swimming at school but I found them hard to put into practice.’ (Thank you to Christopher Burkett for many of the words and illustrations here come from his sermon, “Finding the Gate” in the online resource: Preacher Rhetorica, 2014)

And indeed they are! You can only learn swimming by swimming. Knowing the motions helps, but that’s no substitute for getting wet! It’s the difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing.’ This is why the Jesus method of teaching requires of us practice. He doesn’t tell us about living faithfully; instead he asks us to know faithful living from the inside. It’s not ‘You might compare my place in our community to something like a gate,’ but ‘I am the gate.’ It is as easy, but also as engagingly complex, as that. ‘Work out your living with me as the gate,’ says Jesus. Take this image and make it part of your living.

Don’t only know about the motions – like the lad and his swimming. Don’t dwell on the theory, as essential as that might be sometimes. But rather let the image, the symbol, the story become the lens through which you see your living of the faithful life. You can’t get faith ready to wear, off the peg. It’s not a system you can be drilled, or forced, or argued into. No, faith is an adventure of heart and mind where you write the script that utilizes the ideas, the images, the symbols that Jesus provides. Jesus, the master story-teller, gives us enough material for a lifetime and more.

A way through the gate is what is needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. How do we do that?

When Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) met with the Christian Council of the (Ottawa) Capital Area last week, he addressed some good questions about what keeps us from actively pursuing and growing relationships with people of differing faiths from ours. Bishop Pryse said that what motivates him to engage people who are different from him is that doing so always “brings out the best Christian” in him.

Contrary to what we might first think — that hanging out with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists, United Church members or Anglicans could ‘water down’ our faith as Lutherans or Christians — engaging the diverse community of faith in truth enhances our loyalty to and conviction in our Lutheran-Christian identity. If anything we should seek out, not avoid, building relationships with those who are different from us, because it may very well encourage to “bring out the best Christian” in us.

The strategy, or rules of engagement, are threefold: First, be a friend. Second, make a friend. And then, bring a friend to Jesus. In that order! These gate rules are, essentially, about practising compassion, care and grace. That’s the best way to be a friend, then make a friend, then bring a friend to Jesus. NOT by trying to persuade the other they are wrong and we are right. That’s not how you be a friend — by trying to win one over against the stranger — to compete with them, to say, “My way is better than your way.” That’s not how you make a friend or keep a friend, is it?

You would expect me to say that the ways to go through the gate are the routes and rules of religion – faithfulness in prayer, in receiving communion, in working with the scriptures, in the giving of effort, time and cash to godly purposes. And that is certainly the case – these are tried and tested pathways. But the Jesus way of engaging us and the world in his saving life does more.

Remember, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to “love another” (John 13:34; 15:12). Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount: “There is no other commandment greater than greatest of these” — to love God and love neighbour (Mark 12:31). Paul writes to the Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14).

The image of the gate asks of us effort, imagination and personal involvement. Jesus is the life. And we are to live in his way and dwell in his truth, that we may live his risen life. One of the things the resurrection of Christ means is that all the old criteria of judgement no longer apply – the ultimate criterion of death is no more.

We are to be a people who measure things not by the scarcity of death but by the abundant, resurrection life of Jesus. Let there be an end to cynicism and despair. We need each other to keep that measure bright and usable. Knowing each other; sustaining each other; bearing with each other; encouraging other; learning of each other; supporting each other – in joy as well as trouble.

Following these ‘rules of the gate’ will get us to pasture, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the life, the light, and the love of Christ, eternal.

“There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.

And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious,
a voice like songbirds and laughter,
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.”

“Pasture”, from Andrew King’s web blog, A Poetic Kind Of Place

God doesn’t play by the rules

Reading the Gospel text for today (Luke 16:1-13) may very well leave us feeling as flabbergasted as ripping up money. I felt appalled for the implication that we ought to be as dishonest as the shrewd manager who swindled profits from his master.  I admit at first I felt offended that the manager wasn’t playing by the rules. And he’s commended for this unruly behavior!

If anything is clear in this text – is that the Christian life and the nature of the God we follow in Jesus Christ are not bound and contained by the rules of our economy. Value, truth and righteousness are not dictated by the dollar, nor by any worldly measure for that matter.

What God is about here is not adherence to any theory – whether that theory is about how the economy works, or following any laws. What God is about, is something far more precious to living.

Let’s see the principle characters in this parable – the master, the manager and the debtors – in a different light. Let’s substitute them for God the Father, Jesus, and all of us. That is, the master is God the Father, the manager is Jesus, and the debtors are you and I.

And I want to focus on the main character here – the manager from whose perspective we read most of this story. Jesus, like the manager, has a higher purpose for doing what he’s doing. On the surface, his actions don’t make sense.

God doesn’t play by the rules. Just look at the Christmas story: Jesus was conceived in a girl who was not yet married. The good news of Jesus’ birth was first announced to the low-life shepherds occupying the bottom rung of first-century Palestine’s economic and social order.

If Jesus claims he is the Son of God, the Messiah, it doesn’t make sense that in order to fulfill his destiny, he must die a criminal of the state on the cross. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the expectations, the formulas, for success that any aspiring leader would meet. God doesn’t play by the rules.

There’s something here way more important for us to pay attention to, than ‘the rules’. The manager understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger purpose. Jesus, the Son of God, was given human life – a life he knew would serve a larger purpose by his sacrifice of love.

The manager forgave part of the debt owed to the master. We, as the debtors, owe God so much for our life on earth and eternal life. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. We cannot pay back to God what God did for us. We cannot earn our salvation by our good works. That is why Jesus, for our salvation, forgave us – and as a result opened to us the way of eternal life.

The master saw what his manager had done, and forgave him. Following his resurrection and ascension, Jesus returns home to sit at his Father’s right hand. Jesus is reconciled to his Father, as the manager is commended and presumably keeps his position working for the master.

What motivates the manager more than following the rules, is his relationships with the debtors. Anticipating the end of his career, he would do anything for the sake of establishing good rapport with the debtors. His motive is not snow-white, because it comes from self-interest, for sure. Yet, other options were open to him that did not involve his friendships as much. Instead, he valued his relationships, above all else.

Jesus values his relationship with you. More than making sure the rule-book is complied with. More than being a law-abiding citizen who is ‘nice’ and meets all the expectations. He is shrewd, in the sense that his passion for us will take him to the most extreme expression of absolute love and forgiveness of us.

Martin Luther regarded the Holy Communion as a most profound expression of God’s forgiveness of us in the real, true presence of Jesus. Again, Communion is not theory. It is experiencing God’s forgiveness in the love of Jesus. It is tasting, feeling, digesting. It is a most unremarkable yet remarkable meal, to which we come forward – as is the only thing we can do in response to God’s loving offer – we come forward.

That is why Martin Luther advised congregations to celebrate God’s action of forgiveness each time the assembly gathers. Who are we, to deny this wondrous act of love from anyone? – to withhold this gift anytime we meet to connect ourselves to a forgiving and gracious God? – A God who loves, forgives, believes in us and sees in each of us priceless worth?

Praise be to God!