Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Season of Harvest: Contrasts and Reversals

The gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 16: 19-31, is full of contrasts and reversals. As we continue our Fall series, "A Season of Harvest," we know that there are also sharp contrasts between autumn and its counterpart, spring. Although these seasons are somewhat "opposite" of each other, they also complement each other: there can be no spring without autumn, and vice versa (same goes for summer and winter).

Spring happens between the seasons of winter and summer (it begins on March 20 for us in the Northern Hemisphere). The temperature lies in between the winter cold and gradually heats up towards the beginning of summer. In the spring trees, flowers and plants can be seen in full bloom. This is also the time of year that many baby animals appear, and spring is known as the season of new beginnings.

Autumn happens between the seasons of summer and winter (it beings on September 22 for us in the Northern Hemisphere). The temperature in the beginning starts out rather warm and gradually cools off to get ready for winter. In the autumn, plants begin to die, leaves change colors and fall off of trees, plants begin to wilt and many animals prepare for winter hibernation. Autumn is known as the cooling-off season.

Temperature, time of year, length of day, the physical appearance of plants, and the name(s) of these seasons are in contrast---in reverse of each other, so to speak.

In this passage, the names of these individuals are also in contrast: the poor man and the rich man. The reversal is such a surprise here: the poor name is named: he is Lazarus (not to be confused with another Lazarus, the one who was raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11). The rich man is not named. This is very significant: saying someone's name is an acknowledgement of who they are; it's as if this parable is putting the spotlight on Lazarus, rather than the rich man.

As these seasons are "dressed" differently, with their varying outfits of blooming or turning plants, so too are the rich man, dressed in purple, and Lazarus, "dressed" in sores.

The rich man feasts sumptuously, while Lazarus, looking up, longs to be satisfied with what falls from the table.

What happens next after these seasons is different: after spring there is summer, and winter follows autumns. So is the case with the rich and Lazarus: the rich man has a proper burial, while Lazarus is carried away by the angels.

By the end of the story, Lazarus is looking down from heaven, and the rich man is the one looking up, begging. This a reversal from their earthly life.

Human beings have a knack for comparing experiences. If you are feeling "good" one day, it's because you have felt "bad" before. Whatever "season" of life you are going through, you naturally relate that to another time in your life. I have felt hope before, because I have felt despair. I have felt joy because at a different time I have felt pain. They are seasons, similar to the ones we find in nature.

Right now, in our time and place in the world, it is the season of Fall, of autumn. It is a time for harvest. It is a time to gather our "crops," that is, to take notice of all that God has given us, in order to keep on our spiritual journey with God. Consider this parable as a crop to be gathered in. Take it, learn from it, and let it be sown in your life. The lesson that I am hearing from this parable is that the Kingdom of God looks a little "backwards." It is not those with extravagant clothing or other riches that inherit this Kingdom (this doesn't mean that they are exempt from the Kingdom, but that this is not what "seals the deal"). What Jesus is looking for is for people who would love their neighbor, no matter how they are "dressed."


O Lord,
  open my eyes that I may see the needs of others;
  open my ears that I may hear their cries;
  open my heart so that I may help others;
let me not be afraid to defend and serve the weak or the poor.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
  and use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears
  that I may be able to some work of peace for You. Amen

*United Methodist Hymnal, 456, adapted.

In Christ,


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Time of Harvest:Learning through Dissatisfaction

Luke 16: 1-13 tells a story of a dishonest manager. At the end of this parable, the scoundrel wins. I am left dissatisfied with how things turn out, even if there are lessons to glean from it. His clever plan succeeds, and his former boss, the one whose estate he has previously mismanaged, now praises him for being ingenious. If your like me, you sigh in disbelief that the manager does not get his due.

This parable screams "LIFE ISN'T FAIR." I'm not OK with that being the lesson of this parable; there has to be more to it! The lesson Jesus is trying to teach is explained in the last 4 verses of this selection:

10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,[d] who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

But how in the world does Jesus go from "scoundrel winning" to "no slave can serve 2 masters"?? I don't have an answer to that except that it's a good question. There are more lessons to glean from this parable, though, even if Jesus does not state them explicitly here. 

True Dishonesty

This parable is called " The Parable of the Dishonest Manager" (in the NRSV, at least) because of the phrase "And his master commended the dishonest manager" in verse 8. However, when Jesus talks about dishonesty here, he may be doing so tongue in cheek. In Jesus' context (time and place), there was hardly any middle class; the vast majority were either very wealthy or very poor. The very poor were oftentimes at the mercy of their wealthy landlords who required the best of their crops and the powerful (Roman) government who demanded unreasonably high taxes from them every chance they got. The landlord in this parable accuses his manager of wrongdoing on mere hearsay. So, knowing he is going to be fired, the manager acts "dishonestly," or "shrewdly" (or "cleverly") by reducing the debts owed to the landlord. By describing this situation, Jesus may be pointing out the harsh reality that there is no way to be honest in a system that is inherently dishonest and unjust. Telling this parable may in fact be Jesus' clever way to unveil this crude system of people who robs and cheats the poor on a daily basis. The manager acted shrewdly by showing judgment of a system that would have left him out in the cold had he not been so clever. His master praises him not for being dishonest, but clever. The manager in the story received no monetary gain from his dishonesty, so Jesus' comment in verse 9 is directed to the wealthy in the crowd listening to him. This approach and lesson of the parable begs the question: how do our economic systems make life difficult for some people (both for the poor, and for those who want to act ethically)?

The Master's Tools

In this parable, the manager forgives the amount of the debts by diminishing them, an action that would be unthinkable to the landlord. In some way, the manager is not only watching out for himself and his family, but he is also at the same time tearing to shreds the system the landlord operates in for gaining wealth. By reducing the debts, he is exposing the fact that the existing payment structure is unjust. He uses ehtically questionable methods to help break down a system built to receive debts by diminishing them and making friends and allies for himself. "He separates himself from a system of repression by cleverly undoing the system in a Robin Hood-like fashion" (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 95). 

Many of Jesus' parables are written in order to portray what the Kingdom of God is like. In this realm, "tools" of oppressive systems are proven to be ineffective and flipped upside down. In this realm, debts are forgiven and slaves are set free. 

Resources and Relationships

In this parable, we are given an inside peek to the manger's motivation. He is attempting to make allies and friends, so that if and when he is fired or otherwise becomes unemployed, someone else will take him in. One theologian, Christine Prohl, puts it this way: "Jesus does not commend the manager's practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices---even the means we employ to accomplish good ends--- as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus' warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon (money)." 

Loving and serving God, following Jesus ways, means that loving people is always the bottom line, So, Jesus' final words in this passage are fitting: you cannot serve God and money at the same time, for love of wealth has the potential to put loving others aside. 


O God, just as the disciples heard Christ's words of promise and began to eat the bread and drink the wine in the suffering of a long remembrance and in the joy of a hope, grant that we may hear your words, spoken in each thing of everyday affairs:

Coffee, on our table in the morning;
the simple gesture of opening a door to go out, free;
the shouts of children in parks;
a friendly tree that has not yet been cut down.

May simple things speak to us of your mercy, and tell us that life can be good. And may we remember those who do not receive as much as we do:
who have their lives cut every day, in the bread absent from the table;

in the door of the hospital, the prison, the welfare home that does not open;
in sad children, feet without shoes, eyes without hope;
in deserts where once there was life.
Christ was also sacrificed; and may we learn that we participate in the saving sacrifice of Christ when we participate in the suffering of his little ones, the children of God, our neighbors. Amen.

from The United Methodist Hymnal, 639, slightly adapted. 

In Christ,