Saturday, September 1, 2007

Luke 18

Luke 18:1-8: Jesus told stories that were sometimes put into different contexts by the gospel writers. This is a story only Luke tells, and in telling it puts a particular spin on it – this is a story about persistence in prayer, about not losing heart. Maybe the latter words fit the story even better. Widows in the time of Jesus were very vulnerable, unable to inherit their husband’s property, with no social welfare program and little opportunity for employment. They often depended upon the justice rendered them by judges. But the judge in this story is not a just judge. Nevertheless, for reasons that are not in themselves just, he renders justice. How much more will a loving and just God act quickly on behalf of God’s people? If that is the case, don’t lose heart, keep at it. Faith is found among those who do. It is interesting that faith in the story is linked both with prayer and with crying out for justice. In some ways, the whole of the Christian life is hinted at here – the inner work of prayer, the outer work of doing justice in the world. In both we are not to lose heart. Both represent the kind of faith the son of Man hopes to find on earth when he comes.

Luke 18:9-14: Here we have another story unique to Luke, and again, the writer provides one interpretive angle. The story is intended to be directed toward those who are too self-secure and self-absorbed in their spiritual life, regarding others with contempt. Surely that is one of its lessons – humility – which is best thought of as an openness to reality, including a genuine openness to one’s own strengths and foibles. Humility is not to be equated with beating one’s breast and keeping one’s eyes perpetually lowered. That is certainly not the behavior of the woman in the story we just finished. The story would have shocked Jesus’ initial audience. The Pharisee would normally have been the hero for all his goodness. Perhaps his lack of humility has less to do with his self-assessment than with his unwillingness to truly see the tax collector as one who could also receive God’s grace. Who might we be shutting out as person we think outside the grace of God?

Luke 18:15-17: The lesson on humility is continued as children are held up as models for being open to the kingdom of God.

Luke 18:18-30: One might count on one’s own sense of goodness, looking down on others. One might also be overly dependent on one’s financial security in life, as is the wealthy ruler in this story. When that is the case, the prescription might be to sell what one has, give to the poor, and follow Jesus. These are not really three separate things – they all are a part of what it means to follow Jesus. Following Jesus entails a new relationship with possessions. It entails caring for the poor. Not everyone has such a dramatic and radical demand placed upon them, but each of us is called to look at how our own patterns of accumulation and consumption may hinder our relationship with God in Jesus, and each of us is asked to reach out in compassion to the poor. Changing our habits can be very difficult, especially when we have many things, but with God, even dramatic change is possible. When we orient our lives toward God and God’s dream for the world, we find in the end that we really lack nothing.

Luke 18:31-34: Throughout this chapter, Luke has emphasized Jesus’ teaching that in God’s dream for the world it is not the rich or self-sufficient, but the humble and those whose lives combine prayer and justice, who are most a part of fulfilling that dream. Not even Jesus will escape being an example of this message. He will continue on to Jerusalem where he will be mocked, insulted and killed. But that will not be the end of the story (and of course, Luke already knows the end of the story – there is rich theological debate about how much Jesus knew about his fate ahead of time). Luke has not been particularly hard on the disciples compared to his predecessors, but here he notes that they just don’t get it.

Luke 18:35-43: While the disciples may not quite get the whole story, a blind beggar in Jericho seems to understand a crucial part of it. He shouts out to Jesus as “Son of David,” a term Luke uses as a way to imply that this person knows that Jesus has come from God in a special way. The man asks for the return of his sight, and Jesus tells him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” There is a wonderful literary irony. The man really did have sight in a very important sense. He had “in-sight” into who Jesus was. The return of his physical sight is simply a confirmation of the “saving faith” he already has.

Luke 19

Luke 19:1-10: Here is another story of faith. This time the person with faith is not a blind beggar, but a chief tax collector. Such men were despised by the local population. They were Jews, but collaborators with Rome. They were to collect the taxes required by Rome, but also collect extra for their own livelihood. The fact that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector meant he was especially despised, and the fact that he was rich meant he had done a good job of collecting from others. He is a wonderfully full character in Luke’s gospel, and one who does not fit easily into the categories even Luke himself uses to describe people. He is rich, and hasn’t Jesus just said how difficult it will be for the rich. But he is also a tax collector, just the kind of “sinner” Jesus has been know to hang around with. “Luke makes it clear that simple and clear categories of whom God accepts and rejects are inadequate” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Whatever else Zacchaeus may be, in this story he is also a model of faith. He uses his ingenuity to see Jesus in the first place – he is “short in stature” (making him a good candidate for a hero in my book!). Jesus welcomes him into the community of God’s people by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus’ response is gladness, while the response of many others is grumbling. Zacchaeus pledges to give to the poor, and to rectify any situation of misconduct. The parallel to the rich ruler in chapter 18 is striking. That person did not seem to be willing to follow Jesus, to establish a different relationship with his thing and with the poor. Zacchaeus has followed Jesus, even climbing a tree to do so, and in following Jesus redefines his relationship with what he has and with the poor, who will now be recipients of his generosity. In light of all this, Jesus proclaims that salvation has come to this house. Salvation has to do with healing, wholeness, a life well and fully lived, being a part of the community of God’s people, a life that works with God’s Spirit in making a positive difference in the world. Jesus is not saying that Zacchaeus is now bound for heaven (though that may be a part of “salvation”) he is saying that Zacchaeus’ life had meaning, it was well and whole, it was making a difference for God.

Luke 19:11-27: From a story filled with warmth and humor, to one that is strange and terrible. Jesus tells a story. It is Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25), but it is in a different context and adds some unique elements. For Luke, the context is Jesus nearing Jerusalem and some wondering if, when he gets there, the kingdom of God will arrive. The basic message of the story is that no matter when the kingdom of God arrives in its fullness, we ought to be doing what we can with what we have. If we are not using our gifts, skills, resources to make God’s dream for the world flourish, they will atrophy. But then we have the terrible verse 27, filled with blood and vengeance. Perhaps what Jesus wanted to communicate with such harsh imagery is that one not only loses ones way by wasting one’s resources, but also by clutching present values systems that contradict the values of God’s dream for the world – and the fate of such person is even worse than that of those who misuse their resources, it is destruction and ruin. This need not come from outside but from within.

Luke 19:28-40: The journey to Jerusalem, which began in chapter 9 has come to a close with Jesus arrival there. Entry processions were important occasions during the time of Jesus. Rome was good at pomp and circumstance, and their imperial processions reflected their power and prestige. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book The Last Week propose that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, one an imperial procession in which Pontius Pilate rode into the city to reinforce Roman rule during Passover week and one, the procession with Jesus riding on a donkey. Jesus riding the donkey is a distinct contrast to an imperial procession – which may have been taking place in another part of town. Here there is spontaneous joy at the arrival of Jesus. There is a sense of anticipation that something wonderful will happen. Luke adds that the praise was for “all the deeds of power that they had seen.” His view of Jesus is as one filled to the brim with God’s Spirit and thus able to act out God’s dream for the world and to teach about it. One might contrast this with a sense of fear and foreboding that may have accompanied the imperial procession. Here are a few lines from Crossan and Borg’s book: Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central… to the story of Jesus and early Christianity (p. 4-5). Jesus is taking his work and message about God’s dream for the world into the heart of a city that embodied Roman domination and a Jewish collaboration with that system. There has been some conflict between Jesus and both religious and political authorities to this point. You have to wonder how the authorities might deal with this wandering teacher and healer who arrives in Jerusalem with shouts of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” This last line is unique to Luke and parallels Jesus’ birth story. The language of these accolades would have been seen as subversive of Roman imperial rule. Rome provided any “king” and was the guarantor of peace. Like Jesus, we are invited to bring good news about God’s love into difficult places, sharing a message that will sometimes challenge the way things are. Where are some of those places in your life or in our world today? The Pharisees make their last appearance in Luke’s gospel here in verses 39-40. They ask Jesus to quiet his disciples. They may have good reason for doing so given the subversive nature of their shouts. But God has been up to something in Jesus, and is not finished yet. The kingdom remains close at hand in Jesus and this is worthy of shouts of praise, if not from the human community, then from the natural community (and it should come from both).

Luke 19:41-44: Jesus utters words reminiscent of the language of the Hebrew prophets. These are moving, poignant words. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, expressing a deep desire that they would really see that God is up to something in Jesus, and that what makes for peace is living a life in tune with God’s dream for the world, not buying into the Roman dream for the world and adapting Hebrew faith to it. Luke records these words after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Where do we need to pay more attention to the things that make for peace in our world, and perhaps reject some of the taken-for-granted “truths” about peace that really need to be challenged from the perspective of our faith? When we challenge the world in which we live, we do so with heavy and tearful hearts, not with self-righteousness.

Luke 19:45-48: Luke’s report of the incident in the Temple is brief and terse. It lacks some of the detail of the accounts in Matthew and Mark. Like the entry into Jerusalem, this action is highly symbolic. The procession which accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem had proclaimed him a king, in contrast to Roman claims. Now Jesus confronts the religious system of his day by engaging in an interruptive act on the temple grounds. It is unlikely that Jesus could have completely disrupted the temple business, given its volume. He could have raised some eyebrows, however, by overturning some tables. Jesus words and actions in verses 45-46 indicate a prophetic criticism not so much of those who sold sacrificial animals or exchanged money, but of a view of the Temple which saw it as a guarantor of God’s favor, no matter how unjust worshippers were in the rest of their lives. Jesus is also criticizing the way the religious elite were collaborating with the Roman authorities. Sometimes certain of our own “religious practices” can get in the way of living out our faith more deeply. What may need to be overturned in our own lives? What may need to be done differently in our churches so that God’s dream for the world might become more real? After the incident in the Temple in the two other gospels already read, Jesus leaves town for the night. In Luke, the Temple incident is followed by verses that say Jesus kept teaching in the Temple. At the same time some of the Jewish leaders were conspiring against him. Their conspiracy was hampered by Jesus’ popularity. The people were spellbound.

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