In the introduction to his book “Sex God,” Rob Bell assures us that “this” really is about “that”—meaning that the book really is about sex, even if it the particular chapter or section didn’t seem to be. It was a particularly good point to make at the beginning of the book because sometimes I found myself reading and asking was “this” really about “that”? And I find myself asking the same thing here: was the Sadducees’ question really about “this”? And was Jesus’ answer really about “that”?
I’m not talking about sex here (although I’m sure there is a commentary out there that does, given that the institution of marriage and sexual intercourse were so tightly bound during this time and in this culture.) But I do want to know what the Sadducees are getting at. Are they asking about marriage? If so, is this an intellectually curious question that has no real answer since we have no idea about the laws of marriage in the next life. Are they asking about resurrection? If so, are they honestly asking or seeking to undermine the teachings of Jesus since they do not believe in resurrection (verse 27)?
Is this some sort of mega-Schrödinger situation in which the woman is both dead and alive and also married to one brother and all of the brothers?
And then there is Jesus’ answer. What is he getting at? Does he adequately answer the question or is this one of those situations where Jesus seems to know more than we do and acts counter to what we would think he would do?
Is this question really about that? Is the answer really addressing that?
Let’s crack these hypotheticals by looking at the person of Luke. This story is included in both Matthew (22:23-33) and Mark (12:18-27), but Luke leaves out something that is included by both Matthew and Mark. In the other two gospels, Jesus begins his response by calling into question the Sadducees’ knowledge of both Scripture and the power of God. Luke probably doesn’t include this little detail because he is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, while the others are writing to primarily Jewish audiences. Instead, Luke begins Jesus response by saying “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage but those who are considered worthy of a place in that and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” (v. 34-35)
Jesus’ answer is about this and that.
But the ‘this’ and ‘that’ isn’t marriage.
The ‘this’ and ‘that’ is life and death.
“Let’s step away from the hypothetical and into what matters,” says Jesus. Stop asking about a situation that probably never happened and start looking at one that happens everyday. Start asking about the difference between death and life. That is what the Sadducees were missing, and maybe that is what Jesus was referring in those interlinear passages found in Matthew and Mark. Resurrection is throughout the Scriptures; somehow the Sadducees have missed it.
And with no resurrection there is no way to escape death.
And with no escape from death, what can we hope for in this life?
And yet, God offers life as an escape from death through Jesus Christ.
And yet Jesus is the resurrection.
The Sadducees needed to stop asking about the letter of the law and start seeing the resurrection right before their eyes. They needed to open their dead eyes and see the life that is offered by Christ. Because things are different between this age and that age. And the difference is that we worship not “the God of the dead but of the living” (v. 38)
And those who worship this God experience life.
And those who are living that life experience death.
There is a difference between this and that. It’s resurrection. It’s Jesus.
The Rev. William Culpepper is an ordained Deacon in the South Georgia conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor and Youth Minister at a church in downtown Macon, Georgia. With a 2 year old daughter and newborn daughter, he and his wife Lindsey have their hands full but wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’ve all been there. You get in the car and decide to listen to the radio for a change. The music that comes on takes you back.
:opening guitar riff, with an overlaid Spanish-inspired horn:
Instantly, you’re transported back to the late 1990s as OMC’s “How Bizarre” blasts over the radio. You might be recalling a lot of things in that moment, but as for me, I was a pre-teen in the midst of news I didn’t quite understand about the President and impeachment. I loved the series Animorphs, which planted the seeds of how to accept those who aren’t like me and to fight controlling and dominating powers, no matter how powerless I felt. Oh, and the series was about human teenagers turning into animals. How bizarre.
But then, it was a bizarre time.
I hadn’t yet thought about racial dynamics and policing, and to tell you the truth, I never really listened to the words of “How Bizarre” until 20-something years later, just last week, when the podcast Switched on Pop did a series on 1990s pop.
“Brother Pele’s in the back / Sweet Zina’s in the front / Cruisin’ down the freeway in the hot, hot sun / Suddenly red-blue lights flash us from behind / Loud voice booming / Please step out onto the line / Pele preaches words of comfort / Zina just hides her eyes / Policeman taps his shades / Is that a Chevy ’69? / How bizarre.”
With this catchy hit, we all sang along, knowingly or not, to a commentary on race penned by BIPOC: “Every time I look around / It’s in my face.”
You see, it turns out that OMC, the name of the band, stands for Otara Millionaire’s Club. Otara, you might not know, is a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, where the band is from. The community has Māori origins and has historically been inhabited by Māori and other indigenous peoples. Like many communities of color around the world, it has suffered from European colonization and a subsequent lack of resources. Until the mid-2000s, it had one of the highest crime rates in the country, such that OMC had a hard time booking in New Zealand. Thus, along with the commentary on race and policing, even the band’s name, Otara Millionaire’s Club, is a tongue in cheek commentary. OMC flips our expectations upside down and teaches us some serious, life-or-death lessons, all through a catchy, happy little guitar riff overlaid with a horn.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us another catchy, feel good story so familiar that we may miss the words. Or, rather, we get so caught up in the words that we miss their meaning. We see “Pharisee” and immediately think of the people we can’t stand. Maybe we see the religious fundamentalists, or the evangelical right. Maybe we see self-righteous white liberals. Whomever you put in the position of Pharisee, however, if it’s not you, the impact you’re getting from the story is the exact opposite of its intent. This story isn’t about pointing fingers; it’s about realizing how righteous you aren’t. Let’s tell it another way.
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: two people went up to church to pray. One of them, a Lutheran pastor, loved justice, and was very proud of her stances against racism, sexism, and homophobia. The other was a white, straight Republican. He used to be religious, but now, he wasn’t sure, but here he was anyway. The Lutheran pastor, bowing her head in a corner pew, said this: “God, I thank you that I’m not like the NRA members I know, or the racists, or even this guy. I volunteer twice a week. I protest. I’m part of the resistance. I stand for your justice.” But the other guy, standing far off, wept over the state of the world, not sure what to do about it, but sure he had a part in it. He thought over the times in his past where he’d even said openly racist things, when he’d talked over women, when he’d ignored the violence and injustice in the world. “Oh God,” he cried, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!”
“Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 18:14).’”
Let’s be clear: this story isn’t supposed to make you feel like a hero. It’s supposed to make you angry.
The tax collectors in the Roman world were the worst. They were seen as traitors, to God and to their people. They stole from their own people to benefit the empire. However much you can’t stand your political enemies today is at least how angry and betrayed the average person felt about tax collectors in first century Palestine.
This story isn’t supposed to make you happy. It’s supposed to make you mad. It’s supposed to turn your expectations upside down and make you take a hard look not only at yourself, but at your perceived enemy. The person who’s supposed to be good comes off looking like an asshole, and the person who’s supposed to be an asshole comes off looking contrite, thoughtful, self-aware, realistic, and ultimately, justified.
I believe that the future of the world depends on how we treat those that we believe have got it all wrong.
This doesn’t mean that we should all ignore the wrongs done by others. I will not engage in spiritual bypassing, saying that if we’re just nice to those we think have it all wrong, that the world will be a better place. The story doesn’t say the tax collector lived happily ever after, either, or that there was never a reckoning for the injustice he caused.
What I am saying is that Jesus has a tendency to take our expectations — of ourselves and other people and the state of the world — and turn them upside down. It’s Christ who pulls the saint out sinners like us. It’s Christ who transforms death into new life.
So all I’m asking is this: let this story surprise you again. Let “How Bizarre” by OMC surprise you. The ending of that song isn’t a happy one, it’s a bizarre one. “Is that a Chevy ’69?” doesn’t solve racism. It just flips our expectations and surprises us and calls us to think more deeply as to why a traffic stop might be terrifying for BIPOC, and why this ending is bizarre and not as commonplace as a far more tragic ending.
The same is true of the publican and the Pharisee; the guy who has it all right actually has it all wrong. Sometimes the familiar songs and stories lay the hardest truths on us.
So let yourself be surprised, preacher. Stand for justice. See the humanity in others, even when they’ve got it all wrong. Pay attention. Notice when your expectations get flipped.
Let yourself say, at least once a day this whole week: how bizarre.
:guitar riff continues:
The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary places this parable in the “Jesus’ Gospel to the Rich and Poor” section of Luke. This section moves from stories of the “son of man” in chapter 17 to a focus on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom and the contrast between rich and poor in 18 and 19. This parable connects the rich and poor with prayer in a way that is not done in the other gospels.
The parable tells us from the beginning that its purpose is to show the disciples that they “should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1 NIV).” That is, they should pray persistently. We are given the tale of a widow, a woman with no power and likely no money, who goes before a judge who does not fear (has no reverence) God, and who has no respect for other people. We do not know what the widow is going before the judge about—perhaps it is about getting what she is owed from her late husband’s estate or for care in the community—either way the judge is not interested in hearing her case.
In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, the community was expected to take care of widows and orphans and it was the calling of a judge to give members of the community a fair hearing (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). The widow is persistent in her search for justice and repeatedly goes to the judge demanding he grant her justice. He comes to the decision to give her justice, not because he has any respect for her or because he fears God, but because he is tired of hearing from her. Jesus says this judge will give justice because he doesn’t want to have to hear from the widow anymore, and if the judge will do this most basic level of justice then how much more will God do. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them (vs 7-8).”
Upon reading this parable, one cannot help but to picture a small child asking their parent for a toy over and over again until the parent gives in and buys the toy so the child will leave them alone. I remember a time when my brother and I tag team annoyed our parents until we finally wore them down and were given a castle playhouse. Is that the lesson of this parable? Go to God over and over again in prayer until God is worn down by your request and grants it so that God might be able to go back to God’s newspaper? Not likely. I imagine three possible ways to preach this parable that seem to be reflective of the text.
1. Jesus could essentially be saying, “Go ahead and bug God constantly with your prayers. They will be heard, and God will see that justice is done.” We can each imagine a parishioner sitting in a pew shaking their head yes, that it is in constant prayer before God that we get what we have asked for. We can also imagine the parishioner who has just buried their child shaking their head no, because how is the death of a child the just answer to constant prayer? Balancing the way in which we talk about justice as God’s answer to prayer is important, and a skill I have not found a way to attend to wholly.
2. The parable could also be a question of faith. Do you have the faith to search for justice continually, like the widow who demands night and day, day and night for justice to be done? Because God is listening, God is going to act swiftly, and when the Son of Man comes, will he find us searching for justice and holding onto the faith that justice will be done?
3. Finally, the parable could very well be a call to be doers of justice. There is a judge who has power, and is choosing to not use it to help the widow, the disenfranchised of society. There is a widow persistently pursing justice, but unable to find it because of her position in society. Through her constant questioning and nagging the judge gives in and offers justice. He uses his power to serve another’s interests, to bring about justice for someone who otherwise would not find it. Recently, NPR reported about Congress convening after a 5-week recess in which there were (at least) four mass shootings. The report mentioned the March for Our Lives groups, comprised of and led primarily by high school students, who have been marching and leading rallies all over the US demanding action on gun control and an end to gun violence. These young people will not be quiet, they keep demanding justice, and in some places whether because of a change of heart and desire for justice, or to bring about an end to the rallies, changes are being made, because of their persistence. Seemingly powerless teenagers are impacting the way the powerful think and vote, and justice is being done (albeit slowly).
Whether you focus on our need to pray constantly, seek justice, or find ways to be a people of faith, this parable will cause your congregation to pause and think.
 Culpepper, R. The New Interpreter’s Bible : Vol. 9 : The Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John. Nashville Tenn.: Abingdon, 1995. p 335-339.
The Rev. AnnaKate Rawles has a BA in Literature and Religion from Converse College, Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, and a certificate for theology in ministry from Cambridge University. She is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and is currently serving as Associate Pastor at St James Atlanta United Methodist Church. She is passionate about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the Church, conservation efforts especially around endangered and at-risk animals, and sustainability and creation care at home and in the local church. She enjoys traveling, volunteering at Zoo Atlanta, and spending time with her husband Brian Trepanier and their pets Merlin and Arthur.
At first glance, this passage is about gratitude: remembering to thank God for the longed-for blessings in our lives. While there’s definitely a rich sermon there, it’s not really the focus of the text. Thanking Jesus is actually a function of recognizing Jesus: all ten lepers call Jesus “master” when they first see him, but only the Samaritan comes back to acknowledge that Jesus’ healing act was a function of his godliness. The lepers who were Jesus’ fellow Israelites know this wandering rabbi has been healing those in need and show him due respect, but the Samaritan—who worships God differently enough to be treated as a “foreigner” (v. 18), literally a non-Jewish outsider—knows that his power is of God and that “to thank Jesus is to glorify God.”
This shouldn’t be a surprising perspective in Luke’s gospel. After all, Luke is particularly concerned with demonstrating that the Son of God has come not just to the Hebrews, but to everyone: “Whereas Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy to Abraham, father of the Jewish people,” notes Mark Abbott, “Luke goes back to Adam, parent of us all.” And Luke is the evangelist most concerned with showing Jesus’ affinity for women, the poor, gentiles, and other outsiders. It’s the outsider here who sees Jesus for who he really is, turning back to throw himself at Jesus’ feet while praising God. In doing so, he signifies not just that Jesus has come for all but that those on the margins are the most likely to perceive God working through him, while the insiders (even, paradoxically, the leprous ones) miss the memo, preferring to work within the confines of the established institution.
Where are we guilty of the same myopia—of assuming that Jesus’ healing will be restricted to the four walls of our congregations, or of discounting the voices of those outside our communities because they point to a Jesus who doesn’t fit within our vision?
My friend Matthew has been homeless for the last twenty years. A devout Catholic, Matthew spent several years living on the streets of Boston before he visited a local seminary to share his conviction that churches should always be open, particularly as places of sanctuary for the homeless. He connected with professors and students, including my spouse, and people started asking him to share his message and his artwork at other seminaries, churches, and colleges. He is still without a permanent home, moving between the homes of his pastor friends and preaching the gospel of a homeless Jesus and of unlocked church doors.
I have to admit, his message challenges me. On a gut level, I’m on board: he’s right that we worship a savior who was himself homeless throughout his earthly ministry (Luke 9:58), a savior we are told we are welcoming whenever we provide shelter to “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). And as a former staffer at a day shelter, I’ve never had a problem connecting my faith to my fundamental belief that housing is a human right. Churches should be open to those without a place to stay.
But our church houses a daycare which requires us to maintain stringent practices about who has access to the building. Maintenance and energy costs go up when your building is being used by more people more of the time. And getting your congregation on board with using your building as a shelter for those in need, let alone staffing and resourcing such a ministry, is no easy feat. I’ve daydreamed about bringing Matthew’s message of open doors to our church council, and for a host of very responsible reasons, I can’t see how we would find our way to making it a reality.
Yet every time I pull our sanctuary door shut to make sure it’s locked on my way out of our building, I think of Matthew.
Who is the Matthew in your setting? Who is challenging you to acknowledge divine authority beyond your institution? Who is the tenth leper, the foreigner who recognizes exactly who Jesus is and who proclaims the healing, restorative work he’s doing outside the church while the rest of us go about business as usual? Whose prostration and profuse gratitude to God, though it might embarrass or provoke you, might also be pointing you to the One laboring in your midst?
A few months ago while he was staying with us, Matthew came to Wednesday night Bible study. Our text that night was also from Luke, about the rich ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life: “You lack only one thing,” Jesus says. “Go, sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come follow me.” (Luke 18:22) Matthew was silent for most of the evening, listening to us debate semantics about whether Jesus really meant the ruler should give up his material possessions, whether we’re really called to such a radical discipleship. At the very end of Bible study, he asked us a question that put us in the place not of the ruler, where we’d been all night, but of one of the many servants or tenants who must have made the ruler’s life possible. He offered us the outsider’s perspective. And we looked around at each other and realized we’d been guilty of the same myopia as the nine lepers: mistaking the established, the accepted, the traditionally authoritative for the holy.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus says to the Samaritan; “your faith has made you well.” (v. 19) Typically Jesus says these words before a bodily healing has taken place, implying that what has been cured is not simply a physical ailment, but a spiritual fragmentation no doubt linked to the trauma of living on the margins of a society not able or willing to adapt to those living with disease or disability. In this instance, Jesus’ words to the tenth leper alone beg the question of whether the nine others missed out on a complete healing, and if so, what their spiritual fragmentation consisted of. They also beg the question of us: what is broken within us when we can’t see Jesus at work apart from where we expect him to be? And how might we go about fixing that brokenness – or, more accurately, inviting Jesus to fix it?
We might start, as Matthew suggested, with getting to know the outsider, of familiarizing ourselves with their journeys beyond our familiar confines. Because it is only through the eyes of the outsider – through the eyes of the one leper who saw Jesus clearly enough to thank him – that the whole picture of Jesus emerges.
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron serves as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves some good thrift shopping, a run, and a dance party with her two young kids and her pastor husband, Chris.
My grandmother was an extraordinarily good cook! She canned green beans in the summer, she made homemade fried apple pies with apples from the orchard, and she opened up a veritable restaurant at major holidays, making sure that no guest of hers would ever have wonder if there would be enough food.
My childhood summers were spent at my grandmother’s house—along with just about every day after school—and it was during these special times that she transmitted to me the sacred art of cooking. While we may think it unusual now, my grandmother was not unlike most women of her generation, in that she never followed a recipe and refused to measure anything—ever! But after each savory dish and every freshly-baked confection had been prepared, came the moment—the moment when my grandmother took out two forks and she and I conducted the holy and solemn taste test!
Warm, flaky crusts; tender, juicy cuts of meat; perfect casseroles. And yet, no matter how delicious or how perfect a dish was, my grandmother always saw room for improvement. “If it just had a little of this…” or “If only I had used a pinch more of that…”
Although we may not do it when cooking, I think that all of us are guilty of the “if only’s” from time to time. “If only I made a bit more money, then things would be okay…” or “If only I could get to the gym more often and lose that extra 20 pounds, then things would turn around…” or “If only I had a better job, then maybe I could catch a break.” Although these thoughts may give us some degree of comfort, and while they may even contain some degree of truth, we often allow them to seep into our lives of faith, as well.
Here in Luke’s Gospel, even the disciples aren’t immune! “If only I had a pinch more faith, then I could live up to God’s commandments.” Or “If only I had a smidgen more trust, then I could get rid of my anxiety.” And we can’t really blame the disciples; after all, for weeks we’ve heard Luke’s Gospel tell us of all that being a follower of Jesus entails. We can’t help but ask ourselves: if Jesus’ hand-picked followers can’t get it right, where do we stack up?
After all, who among us hasn’t felt the way the disciples feel: overwhelmed by the demands that are placed on us in order to be “good Christians,” not sure we’re up to the task, and frankly a little worried about what exactly we signed up for in the first place? And after hearing Luke’s Gospel over the past several months and reading today’s passage, I suspect that more than a few of us are thinking, “Well…maybe this whole disciple thing isn’t for me after all.”
Need time to bid farewell to family and friends? You’re unfit for the Kingdom! Love your parents and spouses and children and siblings and life itself? You can’t be Jesus’ disciple! Not sure about giving up all of your possessions? Sorry, the Kingdom isn’t for you.
Can’t uproot trees and cast them into the sea using nothing but your faith? Sorry, you don’t have enough faith.
When we place our lives of faith on a scale or a rubric, looking for a particular quantity or degree, we will always come up short. For many churches, this text comes in the midst of a stewardship campaign. Nowhere are we more susceptible to placing our lives of faith on a scale or rubric than during pledge season! When we reduce stewardship to an amount or a percentage of our total budget, we come up short! Think about it: If I asked you precisely how many minutes I need to spend in prayer per day; or precisely how often I need to come to church; or precisely how many hours I need to spend serving others in order to be a faithful Christian, you’d probably think I was crazy! These are not quantitative questions! So it is with our faith and our generosity.
Of course, every institution has a financial reality that must be accounted for, but the primary goal of the Church is to make Christians more faithful and more generous—and these are not questions of rubrics or percentages or degrees; they are questions about a way of being! And even the simplest things, done in faith, or the smallest acts of generosity can have an enormous impact!
Imagine the congregation that will hear your sermon. Consider all of the good done every week by the people in your pews. Invite the congregation to imagine with you. Then imagine what last week would have been like if all of that never happened. What would our lives be without all of the wonderful deeds of faith and generosity done by our communities of faith?
What Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples—both then and now—is that having faith and being generous aren’t about quantities or rubrics or degrees; they’re about allowing ourselves to be completely transformed by God. We are, as Jesus says, “worthless slaves,” not because we don’t have value and worth before God, but because God owes us nothing! And that means that we are called to the banquet of the Kingdom of God, not because of our labors or our status or our merits, but because of who we are! And more importantly, because of the One to whom we belong! Imagine what might happen if, instead of acting as though faith and generosity were measurable in quantities or the number of miracles or percentages, we were transformed into the reality that even the most ordinary acts can be blessed by God and made extraordinary!
Far too often, Christians are made to believe that a deed of faith means a mission trip or building a new school or sending armies of volunteers and supplies to rebuild in the wake of disasters. Don’t get me wrong—those things are extraordinary deeds of faith, and they are incredibly important. But important deeds of faith and generosity are also right here in front of us—showing simple kindness in the grocery store, remembering to be patient when things don’t go our way, and being mindful of the fact that everyone is entitled to a bad day every now and then.
Little by little, what we believe to be tiny, mustard seed-sized deeds of faith, add up! And before we know it, mountains are moved; trees are uprooted and cast into the sea; and we discover that what we have long imagined to be impossible turns out to be possible with God! Although we may be tempted to think of mustard seed as those small round pellets that come in our spice racks, in Jesus’ time, mustard could actually be dangerous! The thing about mustard—particularly wild mustard—is that it is incredibly difficult to control! And once it takes root, it can take over an entire area—polluting and eroding even the most well-managed gardens and fields. It was the first-century version of Kudzu!
To paraphrase the New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, mustard seed isn’t just any weed. It’s an invasive and dangerous plant that takes over everything. It’s the kind of thing that you would want only in small and carefully-controlled doses—that is, if you could control it at all! That’s the kind of faith that Jesus invites us to live into—the kind of faith that can’t be controlled and managed and contained.
William Stafford was one of 20th century America’s great poets. In his poem, “The Way It Is,” Stafford likens faith to a thread. Listen to his words:
There’s a thread that you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing. You have to explain about the thread. But it’s hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die; and you suffer and get old.
The faith that we have been given is a gift. We make a mistake when we spend all of our time trying to measure it or shield it from harm or worry that others may have more of it than we do. Our call is to use it—wherever we are and however we can. Because even the smallest deeds of faith can grow beyond your wildest dreams!
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1993), 278-279.
 William Stafford, “The Way It Is,” in Leading From Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, ed. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007), 11.
The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the 26th rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He is a graduate of Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (MDiv & Certificate in Anglican Studies), where he is currently completing a doctorate in Biblical interpretation and proclamation. In his elusive moments of spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and cooking–though not at the same time! He is also the editor of ModernMetanoia.org.
I once took a class on church-planting. The students were asked what our ideal church might look like. Many of us confidently agreed that an Acts 2 church was the ideal. Acts 2:42-47 reads:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (NRSV).
The ideal church: where everyone practices daily, shares in communion and prayers, grows, and holds everything in common, with joy and sincerity. There is no class. There is no status. Everyone is on equal footing.
This abolition of status began with Jesus, and worked through Paul, who articulated in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).
The only status that seems to matter from here on out is our collective status in Jesus Christ. In Christ there is no competition, no economic need or gap. There is simply one playing field, one status, one class, in Christ Jesus.
The writer of Luke-Acts makes this a major point throughout his narrative. Jesus is the ultimate destroyer of status, and he levels the playing field. When John the Baptist baptizes in the wilderness, Luke declares that John does so as, “A voice crying in the wilderness—Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (NRSV).
What happens when you fill in a valley, and you lower a mountain? The ground becomes even. There is no longer a high place. There is no longer a low place. It is level.
As Jesus preaches this radical undoing of status throughout Luke, leveling mountains and filling in valleys, he tells a story of a rich man and a poor man.
The rich man wears the fanciest clothes, feasts every day, enjoying the finest foods, and lives in a nice, gated community. He has it all.
The poor man has nothing. He survives night and day at the rich man’s gate. His name—Lazarus—means “God helps,” but he receives no help. Every day, the rich man walks around Lazarus. Lazarus is sick, covered in sores, and continuously begs for any food, even the crumbs from the rich man’s table, but he receives nothing.
Both men die. Lazarus is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham, regarded in Judaism as the place of highest bliss. The rich man is buried, and falls to Hades, where during torment, he looks up and sees the poor man, reclining with Abraham.
The rich may cries out for assistance. Abraham declares that there can be no assistance given. During life the rich man received good and comfortable things, while Lazarus received the bad things. Now, Lazarus is in comfort, and the rich man is in torment.
The rich man begs Abraham twice to warn his brothers of this horrible fate. And twice Abraham declares that if they do not listen to the Torah now, they will not be convinced by anything else.
Now, in most societies, the following has historically been true—It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And typically, the WHO you know has been the wealthy, the powerful, the intelligent, the well-to-do. But Jesus turns this notion upside down, illustrating that if you are to know anyone, it should be the poor!
How does Jesus do this? He tells a story that demonstrates the unimportance of the current cultural status symbols dictating who is great and who is not, who is blessed and who is cursed. Riches no longer matter (in fact, they may actually hurt you in the long run).
Jesus also gives us a practical step concerning how to begin our status-less journey. He does so very simply in that only one of the two main characters—the rich man and the poor man—is actually named. We know the poor man’s name: Lazarus.
Why is that important?
The leveling of status begins with knowing the name. Think about it. When you know someone’s name, you begin a relationship. There is an attachment that happens. There is a responsibility that occurs (that’s why pet adoption agencies give you the name of the puppy you’re holding—once you know the name, there is a responsibility attached and you may be taking that dog home.)
At Yad Vashem—the Israeli Holocaust Museum and Memorial, there is a separate memorial to the children who were killed in the holocaust. The memorial is simple. The room is filled with darkness and lights that look like stars on a clear night. And every few seconds, a voice comes through hidden speakers for a few seconds and then disappears, and then reappears and disappears again. Over and over, every few seconds. All the voice says are the names of the children killed in the holocaust. One at a time. Again and again.
There is power in a name.
When you know the name, the 6 million+ killed in the holocaust becomes tangible.
When you know the name, you have a responsibility.
When you know the name, there is no status, just humanity.
And in Luke, Jesus tells a story, and beckons us, “Know the name.”
Know the name of the person next to you.
Know the name of the person you pass on the street.
Know the name of the person who asks you for food, or money.
Know the name of the person who waits on your table.
Know the names of those that serve you.
Know the names of these children that left here today, to go make a mess.
Know the names of their families.
You want to be an ideal church? You want to undo status, level the playing field, fill in the valleys and bring low the mountains?
Begin by knowing the name.
The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.
What a confusing parable. Really, it is definitely up there in the top five of weird parables Jesus tells. I am sure that much of what makes this parable seem so strange to me has to do with where I, a middle-class, English-speaking white woman, am reading it from, the 21st century United States. I honestly don’t think I could have more things working against my ability to relate to and comprehend this particular message from Jesus. I mean, those are serious stumbling blocks on the road to understanding. I could just throw up my hands and leave it there. Most would probably be okay with that. But then there’s that last paragraph—the paragraph where Jesus says something that sounds like a definitive instruction to his disciples. And it is actually kind of, I mean totally, clear. We are all *gulp* slaves. We cannot serve two masters. I think there is an impulse within us that immediately wants to argue with those two statements, even though they are the clearest in the whole passage. I can hear it now. “Slave is just a figure of speech.” And, “I’m not serving two masters, I’m multi-tasking.”
Do you feel silly yet?
Ultimately, Jesus’ summary of the parable is an indictment of his listeners, a harkening back to the Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is One.” We have one God. We serve the One God. There are no other gods but our One God. This is a truth that extends not just into our individual beliefs and personal life, but to the life we share in community. When we forget, ignore, or put something/someone else in place of our One God, the community is affected. When something or someone else takes the place of God, our life together shifts and changes in posture, practice, and accountability to one another.
Applying this truth to a life of faith in our world today is not simply a matter of “putting God back in our schools” or printing “In God we trust” on our money. Speaking of money, Jesus clearly refers not only to money, but to wealth, saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” This phrase is stated immediately after referencing a slave’s inability to be loyal to two masters. With these statements, we cannot deny that Jesus fully understands the power of wealth and our susceptibility to become slaves to it. What happens when a community shifts from serving the One God, our Creator, and instead serves wealth? What does the administration focus on? What policies and laws take shape?
When we say we believe in God, we harken back to the words of the Shema, that we are a people of the One True God. This powerful, counter-cultural commitment simply does not make sense to most people today. So maybe this strange-mess-of-a-parable has nothing to do with context and everything to do with the fact God’s wisdom is foolishness to us.* We have bought the message that wealth, belongings, prestige, and beauty deserve our worship. We have bought the message that it is our wealth, power, and rhetoric that make our community strong. Rather than putting our faith in a God of covenant and promise, we put our faith in wealth—the accounting of ever-changing green, black, and red flickering numbers. The more we buy into that message, the more God’s wisdom is convoluted and foolish to us.
This is why we need to be reminded again and again who we are and whose we are. When we serve God, we not only love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and strength, but we also live out a love for our neighbor and ourselves that transcends social status, abilities, differences, and all other categories we use to divide ourselves from one another. We live as individuals within a community that recognizes the divinity in one another. We live in celebration and support of each sacred life, rather than in competition with someone who might take what we think is due to us. We participate in dialogue for the purpose of understanding and compromise, rather than power and division. We call for laws that benefit the whole community rather than a select few. Above all, we serve no god but God, centering our lives through prayer and service to God’s will rather than our own, freed and empowered by the knowledge that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.
* See 1 Corinthians
Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. She loves her husband, dog, and being an aunt. You can find more of her writings and random reflections at caseykcross.wordpress.com.
The fifteenth chapter of Luke contains one of the most famous passages in all of the Gospels. Truly, the story of the Prodigal Son has continued to inspire millions ever since it was first told by Jesus himself.
Of course, that story starts on verse 11, and today we end on verse 10. Yes, much like Billy to his brother Alec Baldwin, we have the far less famous part of Luke 15 to reflect upon today. Yet, I think in order to understand the story of the Prodigal Son properly, we need to take the other two parables we hear today into better account, as it helps to show even further just what kind of a God we have.
When someone hears the Prodigal Son story, they (most likely) are left in awe at the great love of God that waits for us to return from our wanton lives of sin. Not a bad message. However, the parables that precede it make it clear that our reading of God’s love there doesn’t go far enough. The God we find in the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin isn’t just a great lover ready to forgive.
This God is nuts. Completely crazy. You might say unbalanced. A bit wacko. This God is weird, and strange, and must have completely lost it.
Am I blaspheming here? Let’s look a bit further.
Let’s start with the parable of the lost coin, since—unless you grew up farming sheep—I think that one is probably the easiest for us to relate to. The coin the woman loses is essentially a day’s wage in Jesus’ day, so it’s not nothing. But come on—would it really be worth throwing a party and inviting over with your friends for this? Say you lost $50. If you suddenly found it again, you’d be happy sure, but you probably aren’t calling up your buddies and inviting them over to celebrate it. You might wind up spending more money than you found just to feed them! I know that if I had suddenly found a bunch of money I thought I lost, spending it wouldn’t be the first thought on my mind…ok, it would be, but I’m weak. For most people (I would wager) this isn’t prudent.
The lost sheep story is similar. I’m sure some of us have seen that beautiful, western image of Jesus holding a lamb over his shoulders and carrying it. A nice picture, to be sure. But come on, let’s think about this. If you’re watching a flock of 100 sheep, you’re probably not counting on keeping all of them by the time you get them to market. That’s a fair number of sheep, and come on, there are lots of things outside your control that are probably going to take some of them: disease, wolves, thieves. Sheep are fragile. If another sheep wanders off, it makes sense to just let it go. You put the others in harm’s way, not to mention your own livelihood, and you’re going to lose a few sheep anyhow. Why lose sleep over the one?
These stories always get depicted as signs of great love, but let’s be real. The “heroes” in these parables are crazy people. No one in their right mind is going to celebrate with all their friends when they find a coin worth a decent bit of money. No one who cares about their own wellbeing is going after a lost idiot sheep when you’ve still got 99 perfectly good sheep to focus on. These people are nuts. Completely crazy. You might say unbalanced. A bit wacko. They are weird, and strange, and must have completely lost it.
And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Jesus is constantly reminding us in Scripture and in our lives that our vision of God and what God wants for us is always too small. God doesn’t just love us. God is wacko, crazy, out-of-God’s-own-mind in love with each and every one of us, to the point where God will do something absolutely insane for us. And that’s what God is hoping we will dare to try as well.
What sparks these parables, and why we need to hear them, is found in verse 2:
“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
How often do we mirror their thoughts and actions in our own lives? Even in my best moments, I still find myself looking down on others way too easily, wishing I could just not have to deal with them. As ministers, we need to draw boundaries (and most likely we aren’t very good at that), but we also need to be careful to not ignore those who otherwise might be lost. Are we truly willing to celebrate when a lost person is found again, or do we bemoan their presence with us? “Ugh – I can’t believe she’s back again.” “I hope he doesn’t talk to me this time.” Do we really strive to welcome everyone with open arms, or do we put up barriers or requirements to keep some people out—hoops to jump through, so they can prove they really want to be here? Do we extend that welcome to the Kingdom to everyone we see, or really more to those we like, those who are easier to get along with, those who we want to belong with? Don’t sinners and tax collectors do the same?
I think that is both the challenge and the good news of this passage today for me. I need to look more honestly at myself and recognize the times when I too easily sound just like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, looking down at some in the community, and thinking too highly of myself. But I can also rejoice that when I am an idiot just like this, and get to thinking too much of myself and too little of others, it’s at that time that the Master is leaving the rest of the flock behind to come after my wandering self again. Just like last time, and just like the next time, yet God still never fails to find me.
After all, our God is nuts. Completely crazy. You might say unbalanced. A bit wacko. This God is weird, and strange, and must have completely lost it.
For that, I am grateful.
Chris Clow is currently spending his days away from a more “professional” ministry for the ministry of feeding, cleaning, chasing after, and worrying about the new master in his house, Xavier Joseph Clow (born September 23, 2018). He and his family have just moved to Omaha, and are learning more and more about their new hometown. In the scant free time he has, he enjoys cooking for his family, watching his St. Louis Cardinals and Blues (Stanley Cup Champions!!!), and finding moments to relax with his wife, Emily Kahm.
This past spring a friend asked if I’d help co-facilitate a Bible study with her at church. During the eight-week study we spent a few weeks in the first testament, a few weeks in the second testament, then jumped back to the first for the conclusion. Although some in the group had been part of Bible studies in the past, for most of them this was new, especially the amounts of reading required each week (apparently none of them have participated in the year-long Disciples study!)
They didn’t like reading all the rules and consequences found in the early books of the Bible. They didn’t like seeing God as a judge or enforcer. They were eager to jump into the more loving, Jesus-focused texts.
I’ve been reading the Bible most of my life. I went to seminary. I was a youth minister for fourteen years. I mean, I did the year-long Disciples study, for goodness sake! I get what they were saying—the first testament can be challenging and hard to understand on the surface. It requires work to uncover the deeper meanings and historical contexts. I can see why they wanted to jump ahead to the warm and fuzzy Jesus stuff.
Except, Jesus isn’t really all that warm and fuzzy, is he? For the first time I realized, sure, the rules of the first testament are challenging and hard to follow, but in actuality, Jesus’ commands are more challenging and even harder to follow.
I pointed that out to the group. I shared with them that in the first testament, the rules are specific and laid out. Folks back then knew what they should and shouldn’t do. There really wasn’t much gray area. It was pretty cut and dry. However, when we fast forward to the Gospels things get a little trickier.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does that mean exactly? Well, Jesus responds with a parable.
Or, take the text for this week: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Hyperbole much?
Clearly, Jesus was not calling his followers to hate their relatives. The familial bond was a strong foundation to the Hebrew people. However, Jesus was also aware that people could find any excuse in the book to get out of a commitment, including family.
Just before this passage in Luke, Jesus tells another story — one about a Great Banquet. When the table was ready, full of food and drink, those invited slowly started backing out.
“Oh, I completely forgot about that! I just bought a field and need to check it out. Next time?”
“You see, I just bought some new oxen and I need to go break them in. Rain check?”
“Oh, I totally would except that I just got married. You understand, don’t you?”
The host responds: “Fine, the invited guests don’t want to come? I bet there are others who will drop everything they’re doing to join me here. Invite them!”
After that parable Jesus goes right ahead and lets everyone know — there is a cost to this discipleship thing. It’s not easy. Sacrifices will be required of you.
So, no, I don’t think Jesus calls us to hate our families, but I do think he calls us to stop using them as an excuse to set our faith aside. I do think he calls us to consider whether we are willing to pay the costs required of us to be his follower.
Before you start building, figure out if you have the money and labor and willingness to see it through. Before you start a war, make sure you’ve got what it takes to win or consider if making peace might be a better option. Before you decide to follow me, make sure you know what’s being asked of you, make sure you’re clear on the expectations.
Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires something of us. Are we willing to take that risk? Taking the risk means putting God first. Taking the risk means following through with commitments even when a better offer comes through. Taking a risk means admonishing words of hate and actions of injustice. Taking a risk means standing up for the poor and vulnerable. Taking a risk means losing friends who disagree. Taking a risk means following the one who knowingly walked toward his death.
Are we willing? Are we willing to take such risks? Or will our newly acquired wealth and safety of home be more important than the invitation to join the host at the banquet table?
After fourteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs—an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab—in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility, and writing at www.annebrock.com or on Instagram.
Humility: What does it mean to be a truly humble individual? This is a question that I suppose in some ways I have struggled with my whole life. For many years, I believed that it meant that I had to check every emotion before allowing it through the cracks in my well-honed and polite southern exterior, and every time the strongest of those emotions did make it through I felt guilty and carried shame because I wasn’t being understanding enough toward others. The ‘humility’ of much of my adult life wasn’t true humility at all. It was a masquerade of my own ego—not that I could have named it as such in the time. So what is true humility?
St. Augustine of Hippo says that, “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.” That still doesn’t solve the problem of defining humility. Most definitions of humility involve some use of the word humble in them which isn’t very helpful. Many others define humility as the opposite of pride. For me, my best definition of humility is having in myself a profound understanding of my own reliance and need for God’s love and mercy in my life. This humility arises from the conviction that I need God’s love and mercy as much as anyone else. Humility is also about understanding our place in the cosmos. I am only one person among the estimated 7.4 billion people living on this tiny globe hurling through space in this little corner of the Milky Way.
My sense of humility today is profoundly different than it was only a few years ago. I have embraced a new way of engaging with the world. It is easy when we do not encounter those who are significantly different than us to assume that everyone must necessarily think the way we do. I think it is a natural thing for us to project our own way of thinking onto all humanity. In a culture where people of different religious faiths, spiritual practices, ideologies, social groups, ethnic identities, and origins come to live side by side, we cannot have the privilege of projecting onto the world our own ways of thinking. In post-modern thought, we need to bring a certain amount of humility to our interactions with the world. Post-modernists talk about this in terms of epistemological humility.
This idea of epistemological humility is actually fairly simple though the name makes it sound really complex. It means that we have to be honest about what we can and cannot know for certain. It means at the core of who we are that we must accept our own human experience as limited to the culture, religious faith, family of origin, ethnic identity, and nationality in which we’ve lived our lives. It is ultimately about honesty and integrity both spiritually and intellectually. St. Paul speaks of this humility when he says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)
When we understand that everything we know is but a fraction of the collected knowledge of humanity expressed in the faith of the Christian Tradition in our western culture, we can be more open to understanding the places from which others share their journeys in faith and doubt. It is this sense of our own place in the universe and in the world of God’s redeeming that allows us to approach others with understanding instead of judgement, with true humility instead of pride in assuming that we know what is right for them. Jesus tells us at the end of the first half of this reading that, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This isn’t about jockeying for a position at the table.
It is about the gospel that turns the world on its head. It’s about the young Israelite woman who at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel sings out, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:52-53) This call for the righting of all things has its roots in the hope for the messiah. Jesus connects this hope to the rewards of the resurrection. Reward will come on ‘the last day’ when God will give away seats at the banquet table to those who have humbled themselves first and then to those who have been proud and conceited. Notice that here in Luke’s gospel there’s no exclusion of the people who haven’t acted humbly. There is only a lesser place at the feast.
I can’t help but wonder what it means to have a lesser place at God’s banquet table. I imagine it to be quite contrary to the experience of being at the back of the line. Being at the back of the line brings with it a certain connotation that you will have to eat the crumbs and the leftovers after everyone has already had all the good stuff, but at the banquet in God’s kingdom there is no limit to the good stuff. The concept of limited resources doesn’t apply to the One who is boundless.
Jesus taps into the understanding of a radical hospitality when he says that when we invite guests to a feast we shouldn’t invite those folks who can repay us for our generosity, but instead we should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. I can follow why Jesus would point us toward these marginalized groups. I have to wonder in what way it changes our perspective on the world when we hang out with the outcast, the friendless, and the downtrodden. Maybe it is here among the lowly that we embrace our own lowliness, explore our own disabilities, and find that deep sense of humility. I would say that when our lives intertwine with these marginalized groups we cannot be left the same.
One of the things I learned while I was in seminary was that the honor and shame culture of the ancient near east is a foreign idea to many western readers. It’s just something we don’t get because we aren’t embedded in a culture where honor is prized. I would argue quite the contrary. I am deeply a product of the southern culture in which I was raised. It is a culture with a hefty dose of honor and shame for all. In the small rural town in north Alabama where I grew up, honor was handed out primarily to those families that had been a part of the community for generations. Shame was heaped on the doorstep of anyone who dared to challenge the status quo and people who weren’t ‘like us.’ My experience of being an outsider in this culture has greatly shaped the way I have lived and the types of ministries in which I have invested my life. I worked or volunteered in churches, hospitals, homeless shelters, prisons, and long term care facilities. I can tell you with absolute certainty that the people whose lives I have been privileged to enter had as much effect on my life as I believe I have had on theirs.
 Augustine of Hippo, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologicae, Question 161: Article 2.
The Rev. Jerrod McCormack was ordained a priest on June 22 in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Calgary. He is the Spiritual Health Practitioner (Chaplain) at the Alberta Children’s Hospital and an assistant priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Church, Calgary and a member of the Society of Catholic Priests. He enjoys time spent with friends, hiking, and photography. He is originally from Alabama and now resides in the land of prairie and mountains in Southern Alberta, Canada.