Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Shrewd Sermon Shatters Stereotypes?

This Sunday is a 'fun' Sunday for preachers. The gospel is Luke 16:1-13. The parable at the core of the reading, 16:1-8a (or 8b or ...) is (IMHO) extremely challenging. With a view to assisting preachers (including myself) I have penned a few thoughts, actually quite a few thoughts at my Resourcing Preaching and Worship Down Under site, here.

But here we might reflect on the challenges the reading brings to how we understand the gospels, their composition and their relationship to the actual Jesus of everyday experience of his followers, let alone to the elusive 'historical Jesus.'

The parable, let's remind ourselves, is difficult at least because it presents a central character, the steward, who acts in a worldly if not cynical way, in order to secure a future for himself in the face of a personal crisis. From that response to a personal economic crisis some kind of analogy is drawn to the hearers of Jesus and their (now, our) personal spiritual crisis in the face of the proclaimed kingdom. When much of theology has weighed in the balance approaches to that crisis in terms of 'faith' versus 'works', the steward stands out as someone who appears to exemplify neither faith nor works in sorting out his personal dilemma!

All of which lends a certain authenticity to this parable as a story told by 'the actual Jesus', a story Luke receives and, unlike other canonical gospel writers, determines to include rather than avoid in his gospel. Why include such a difficult story unless convicted that this was genuine Jesus' material and thus room in the gospel inn ought to be found for it?

That the story is difficult, even for Luke (if not for Jesus) is underlined by the ending(s) given to the parable in verses 8b-9:

"for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes."

Each comment connects with the parable, 'shrewd' in the first comment, 'dishonest wealth' and 'homes' in the second comment.

But neither comment connects easily with the norms concerning entry into the kingdom of God. The first comment raises the question whether 'children of light' refers to those in the kingdom, or to Israel outside of the kingdom, as well as the question why shrewdness in dealing with 'their own generation' is a commendable value concerning the kingdom rather than (say) shrewdness in dealing with God. The second comment raises the question why friends made through dishonest wealth could be a key to securing welcome into eternal homes: surely making friends with God would be more useful!

Again, the possibility is that Luke receives these comments as authentic Jesus' material (and thus refrains from editing it) but that raises in turn the question whether Jesus himself (or the developing tradition as the parable was handed on) struggled to make sense of the parable and thus offered two commentaries on its application to kingdom life. Presumably Luke does not edit the comments to (say) emphasise faith, or the winning of God's favour, because he is satisfied that their paradoxical character is evident to his readers. Of course shrewd use of dishonest wealth to gain entry to the eternal kingdom is not being commended. As if! What is commended here is bold decision-making in the face of the crisis of God's judgment.

But to write like this as a reader of Luke 16 is nevertheless to engage in a certain amount of 'rescuing' of Luke through attempting to clarify what is otherwise obscure and puzzling.

That Luke is straining to work through his material in some kind of coherent manner is illustrated through the remaining verses of the passage, vss. 10-13. These verses are linked to the parable by virtue of common interest in wealth. But the link is strained. The parable is not in its main message about faithfulness in the use of wealth, nor about the use of what belongs to another, nor about serving two masters. Thus Luke draws to this parable material placed in other contexts by Matthew. As an aside, we thus see at work Luke's compositional strategy which is often marked by linked ideas, even though the resulting combination has a clumsy feel to its overall composition.

I must close. Back to the parable and its initial commentary, verses 1-9. Here Jesus preaches a shrewd sermon which appears to shatter stereotypes about who is welcomed into the kingdom and how that welcome is brought about.


Chris Nimmo said...

All I can say is that I am desperately glad that instead of having to try to help our children's church to work out what Jesus is saying here, I get to go to diocesan synod with the comparatively easy questions about homosexuality!


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
I am not going to publish the comment you have just made. Instead of offering the moderated version of it I am going to cite the offending phrase within it:

"This is one good reason why to judge other people for what we see as their sins against God, may just not be the best way of 'securing our own salvation."

It is this kind of language which troubles me because, even if you do not intend it, it 'has a go' at other Christians, especially in the light of previous comments you have made here.

What I ask of you if you wish to have comments published here is that you self-delete those bits of the comment which make aspersions about fellow Christians.

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter. I must say - in the kiwi way - I'm absolutely gob-smacked with your retributive censoring of what I see as a perfectly innocuous remark.

I'm now seriously wondering whether in fact your determination to please Shawn and other right-wingers, you are not barring the opportunity for robust discussion on open hermeneutical observation.

If, indeed, you are working towards that goal, let me know now - openly and directly - then I will not waste more of your time or mine, and will recognise ADU as a self-enclosed conservative think tank , a bit like ACI in the USA.

I would hope you could see your way clear to printing my opinion here. This will then satisfy liberals that this blog is now closed to their contributions - well certainly from a kiwianglo..

- Agape, Ron

Father Ron Smith said...

One - perhaps final - comment on your blog, Peter:

"What I ask of you if you wish to have comments published here is that you self-delete those bits of the comment which make aspersions about fellow Christians." - Peter Carrell -

Is this: Will you be offering this advice to Shawn, Carl. Martin, and other Christians who seem to delight in doing the very same?

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron
I ask all commenters here, whether identifying as liberals or conservatives or somewhere in the shades between, to comment on issues and not on people.

You are most welcome to comment here. I ask that you do not make comments like the lines cited above, which I beg to differ from you: they are not 'perfectly innocuous.'

Peter Carrell said...

Despite my many convictions, Ron, in the Court of Commenters Opinion, for the charge of failing to be fair in moderation, I am actually trying to be fair in moderation.

I think you will find I have, for instance, moderated a number of comments by Martin over recent months.

Peter Carrell said...

A comment from Ron - apologies Ron, but sometimes when using my iPad, my finger presses on Delete instead of Publish. Here is your comment, with response from me below it:

"Peter, if I may; you proffer the article by Scott McNight, on the use of the word 'propitiation' as your preference to 'expiation'.

The first contributes towards the 'evangelical' concept of the need to satisfy 'the wrath of God'; whereas the second: 'expiation', moves the emphasis to a willing self-offered 'sacrifice' - which is the more 'catholic' idea.

In the old Prayer Eucharist (BCP), I still read these words at the 'consecration':

"Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one OBLATION of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world". - there is no mention, here, in the prayer of consecration, of 'propitiation'!

Also, in the quotation given by Scott McNight - John 4:10 - the version of the Scriptures given to me at my priestly ordination in 1981 (RSV) the word used is, not 'propitiation' but 'expiation'. This is also the case in the 'Jerusalem Bible' - the fruit of a wide range of both catholic and protestant scholarship - the word used is 'expiation'; which follows upon the understanding of God's self-sacrifice 'for our sins', not in wrath but in mercy. Do you not believe that this could be a viable and acceptable exegesis from the available scriptures and the BCP? "

Hi Ron
I had thought in publishing the post by Scot that I was offering some reasoning towards expiation rather than propitiation.

For my part I keep an open mind. I like what Moule says and want to think about it more.

Whether the BCP supports propitiation is an interesting question. I suggest the use of the word 'satisfaction' is a pointer towards sympathy for propitiation.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a "right winger." My theological stance is classical Protestant, Lutheran/Reformed, neither Right nor Left. My political stance is Libertarian, again arguably neither Right nor Left.

There is nothing innocuous about claiming that some Christians engage in judgementalism to secure their salvation. Apart from the fact that I have never met any Christian who believes that, it is certainly not a valid description of anyone posting on this blog. It is disingenuous to claim that accusations of this type are innocuous. They are unfair and inaccurate, and more to the point, judgmental, which, if a person is arguing against judgementalism makes no sense.

I will repeat that I am fully supportive and open to a wide range of views being represented at ADU, conservative, liberal, whatever. I have no desire to see this blog restricted in any way to any one point of view.

In fact, in the spirit of candour I will reveal a few things about myself and my own theology and spirituality.

I no longer subscribe to post-war Evangelicalism. My theology is best described as High Church Protestant. My spirituality would best be described as Appalachian folk religion, which, to anyone who knows what that means, puts me far outside the acceptable bounds of modern conservative Evangelicalism, let alone anything "right wing."

Anonymous said...

Back to the actual issues.

Both expiation and propitiation are necessary to fully understand the work of the cross. Neither alone does adequate justice to either the witness of Scripture, or our liturgical traditions. The Catholic mass, the Lutheran rite and the Anglican rite all have clear references to satisfaction.

I stand by my claim that the attempt to remove propitiation and the understanding of God's wrath is motivated in part by a very modern/Western worldview that seeks a God "meek and mild" who's love is always gentle and affirming, never wrathful. I think this project is contrary to the witness of Scripture and the tradition of the Church and it's liturgical traditions, but worse, it robs us of an important aspect of God's love that is vital to our spiritual maturity and our understanding of justice. After all, would a God who is not wrathful against horrors like the holocaust or mass starvation be worthy of our worship?

Anonymous said...

On the issue of Bible translations, after years of using various modern revisions, NRSV, NIV, ESV, I am rediscovering the glory of the King James. Praying the psalms aloud from the KJV has a power and beauty that modern English just does not come close too having.

Undergroundpewster said...

The Gospel selection is well known as a challenging one. I suggest that this is advising the shrewd preacher to undo any harm he has done to his congregation by previous sermons. ;-)

Father Ron Smith said...

"There is nothing innocuous about claiming that some Christians engage in judgementalism to secure their salvation." - Shawn -

With all due respect, Shawn (and not wanting either of us to descend into personal grief over this); I can only counter your point here with the reading from today's reading fro 'New daylight- - used by Diana and me every morning while still in bed. The Scripture quoted is Luke 18: 9-13.

The Commentator, Ian Adams, uses the title: "Let go of the comparisons" with the following comment:

"This is one of Jesus' great parables. It asks us to consider our sense of self-awareness. The two men in the parable exhibit very different levels of understanding in this area. They are both at prayer in the Temple. One, the Pharisee, exhibits virtually no self-awareness at all, focussing on how he is not like others (never a good place to begin a process of reflection and self-examination) and on his own perceptions of his apparently blameless life. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people....." (judgement) (v.11).

" The other man, the tax collector, looks within his own heart and recognises the depth of his neediness. All he says is: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'

" Jesus goes on to say that he is the one who goes home 'justified' . The tax-collector senses that he is loved and forgiven, and we can imagine that he will therefore be happy and merciful towards those whom he will encounter.

"If we read this parable as exploring the way that we compare our selves with others, something emerges clearly. The truth is, the more we indulge in such behaviour, the less self-aware we are likely to become. On the other hand, the more self-aware we become, the less interested we will be in this
destructive process of comparison"

One final comment from me, I know that I am as guilty of comparing myself with others as the next person. Mea culpa!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Shawn and Ron
I am publishing the above comment freely and wholly in a spirit of candour ('mea culpa') and of genuine enquiry into the meaning and application of Jesus' teaching for all his disciples ...

Anonymous said...

Hi Ron.

Of course we should not compare ourselves to others in self-justifying ways. But that applies to all of us equally, and not just to those sometimes labeled as conservatives. I think your last paragraph recognizes that.

I would also say that recognizing a particular behaviour as a sin, such as stealing, or murder, does not automatically mean that we are engaging in either judgementalism or self-justifying comparisons to those who steal or murder. It is possible to say "that's a sin" without engaging in any self-justifying comparison.

For example, when a representative of the Police states on the news that a murder or theft has occurred he is simply stating a fact. He or she is not necessarily saying they are a better person than the murderer or thief.

In short, simply stating that something is a sin does not have to mean we are being judgemental.

I would argue that this applies also to stating that homosexual behavior is a sin, and that it does not necessarily follow that in so stating I am being judgmental or comparing myself to others. I also am a sinner in other ways.

Tim Chesterton said...

Ron, I fully appreciate your warning about the dangers of judgementalism. However, I would like to respectfully suggest to you that there is a difference,between judgementalism on the one hand, and accurate description of the way of Christian discipleship on the other. Christians whose consciences have been awakened by the Holy Spirit come to us and ask 'What shall we do?' You and I are charged as pastors to help them find answers to that question. This is clearly what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount, where he roundly condemns not only judgentalism but also anger, hating your enemy, lust, divorce, the desire to impress others, greed and 'storing up for yourself treasures on earth' and so on. I know you do not believe Jesus to be judgemental, but he is practical, and for him, faith almost always involves doing, or not doing, something.

Father Ron Smith said...

I'm glad to acknowledge the place of both Shawn and Tim's remarks on this tricky subject. It all goes to show how careful we must be in not judging the performance of others - on the common pilgrimage of the Christian life.

Whenever we set up ourselves as the moral compass, we need to be aware of the value of humble Samaritan fellowship - wherein our support of fellow sinners does not mean the advertisement of our own example.

After all, Jesus came to Save Sinners - and that's me, as well as the next sinner. Encouragement is what we all need, rather than even principled criticism. There's still the old adage: The Christian life is one sinner showing another sinner where to find bread. We are not that bread. Only Christ fulfils that need of each one of us.

"Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast - Not with the old leaven of malice or wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" Alleluia!

God is Love!