Joerg Rieger on Luke 18:9-14
2010-10-21 by David Howell
We've had such a positive response to this article that we thought we would put it on the blog this week:
At first sight, the theological meaning of this story seems clear: do not boast about your accomplishments, admit that nobody is perfect and everything will be fine. This may be the shortest theological reflection ever written.
On second sight, however, a few questions emerge. What does it mean to confess one’s sin? What does it mean to be justified? Although the confessions of sin that are used in many worship services are fairly generic, there is a common awareness that sin implies a breach both with God and with our neighbors. By not moving close to the holy place and by not looking up to heaven, the tax collector acknowledges his broken relation with God. What about his neighbors though?
Justification is usually interpreted as an act in which our broken relation with God is addressed. The only discussion left, then, is about whether justification is a formal pronouncement or whether it implies a real change. In other words, is the sinner merely regarded as just before God in justification (although nothing has changed), or is the sinner actually becoming more just?
Such reflections commonly overlook the fact that the theological notion of justification has to do with justice, (too often, the Greek term for justice that is used in this context is translated as "righteousness," understood as a narrow religious category). In the context of the Old Testament, however, justice had to do with the covenant which includes both relations to God and to other people. In the context of the Roman Empire, in which Luke wrote, the Christian notion of justice also had to do with the questions of everyday life as it proclaimed an alternative justice, different from the justice of the empire.1
If justification is thus seen in the context of justice, the term takes on a broader meaning. What happens as this tax collector is justified might very well be the same thing that happens to the tax collector named Zacchaeus in the passage below: here, justification is not only a formal transaction according to which someone is merely considered just before God, but a process according to which justice is embodied and lived out in relation to both God and neighbor.
Furthermore, if justification is seen in the context of justice, the confession of sin needs to be rethought as well. Is sin merely a general reminder that nobody is perfect? A more specific understanding of sin might help us move this discussion to the next level. What is the sin of a tax collector in the context of the Roman Empire, the region for which he collects taxes? What if sin had nothing to do with moral failure but with pursuing false notions of justice: the false justice of the Empire that works in favor of the powerful and the mighty? Again, the story of Zacchaeus gives us some clues that point in this direction as well. In this context, justification might mean that God’s own justice begins to take the place of the Empire’s misguided justice.
When seen in this light, both the attitude of the tax collector and the problem with the attitude of the Pharisee make more sense. Judging from a moral perspective, the Pharisee may well be living a better life than the tax collector, but the Pharisee’s lack of a self-critical attitude blunts the radical difference that God’s justice seeks to make. In the context of the Roman Empire, all need to rethink their take on the matter of justice. As I have argued elsewhere, empires go deep, as they are not just interested in political and economic control: they seek to shape the way we think, feel, and even our innermost beliefs.2
In this context, the Pharisee would need to learn not only that nobody is perfect, but how even his own well-intended performance of the moral codes of his people might be co-opted by the powers that be. The tax collector is closer to this insight because he appears to have an inkling of the sinfulness of his state that may not be obvious to those who are used to following the precepts of the Roman Empire. Consequently, neither Pharisee nor tax collector is let off the hook easily. In the end, both Pharisee and tax collector need to develop a more robust understanding of their sinfulness in order join God’s alternative justice.
The good news is that justification and a new take on justice appear to be possible even for tax collectors, those who are even more closely connected to the Roman Empire’s distorted notion of justice than the Pharisees. If even the tax collector gets it, why should there not also be hope that the pious Pharisee will eventually follow this example?
Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology
Perkins School of Theology
Southern Methodist University
1. See also Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
2. See Rieger, Christ and Empire.
2010-10-18 by David von Schlichten
Scroll down to read our guest blogger's sermon about Luke 18:1-8 and how the rescue of the Chilean miners was a prolepsis of the Kingdom.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
It's Just a Shout Away...
2010-10-16 by Christine Smaller
I want to say what an honour it has been to post in the hot tub this week. Thank you.
Especially for a new minister it is incredible to be part of such an amazing community of preachers. So thank you again.
I attended the Homiletics Festival for the first time in May and I was completely blown away by the preachers, attendees and music. There was so much to take in that I thought my head and heart would explode on the plane ride home.
While preparing my sermon this week, however, two images kept hovering over my computer: Bishop Vashti Mckenzie's exhortation that we must always "Preach the truth to power... even when our voice is trembling" and James Howell incredibly honest and powerful discussion about "when things just aren't working any more" (please forgive my paraphrasing).
And I think that is what faithful living is - persisting in hope when it is so clear that world is - a lot of the time - full of pain and injustice for so many. Preaching the truth to power... especially when things just aren't working any more... and taking strength from our Gracious God who is always with us - in our joys and in our sorrows and everything in between.
So - here is my offering for the week. I'll have to cut significantly, but here is how it stands right now.
It’s Just a Shout Away…
Luke 18:1-18 - October 17, 2010 Rev. Christine Smaller
It said that Ernest Hemingway wrote the shortest story ever:
“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” A complete story – beginning with joyful anticipation and ending in unbearable disappointment - in only six words.
Today’s parable is a little like that story. Only a few lines long… no extra words to give us clues about the lives of the characters.
“In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’”
Christ often taught using parables. Just as his original listeners were invited to wrestle with the meaning of what he said, we too are invited to engage with this parable and to think about it deeply; to pray with it. To challenge ourselves to discover how the story of the widow and the judge relates to our lives. Our lives as individuals journeying in our relationship with Jesus Christ; and our lives as part of a faith community. Perhaps through the parable we might revisit and renew our understanding of what the gospel is all about….
For example we may initially see the widow as a bent over ancient lady, shuffling along the dusty road… a hopeless case. Every morning she approaches the judge looking for justice. We’re not told what the particulars are, but we can imagine that this widow is bereft of family and has somehow been cheated out of her small inheritance… denied access to what is rightfully hers and the only thing that can keep her from abject poverty. But perhaps if we scratch the surface of the text a little – we might find something different. We might find a tenacious and dignified woman… whose trusting but active faith is empowered by God’s grace… Her faithfulness makes transformation possible - not only in her own life – but in the judge’s life too. And as a result the world the world is changed… a least a little bit.
August 5th, 2010 seemed like an ordinary work day to 33 men who worked for Compania Minera San Esteban Primera… in a mine near Santiago, Chile… they kissed their wives and children good bye, got in their cars or stepped up onto the bus… traveled to the mine site and, without realizing it… began the longest shift in mining history. The miners while going about their normal work day suddenly began to feel some trembling under their feet, then they heard a rumbling that became louder and louder – and then – boom! Rocks tumbling… walls collapsing… a catastrophic cave in. destroying their only access to the outside world… leaving them trapped and seemingly helpless. The barrier between the men and their loved ones was an unbelievable 2300 feet of stone, rock and earth. 2300 feet.
And the dark packed soil and rock was not the only barrier between the miners and their rightful freedom. The mining company had a shameful history of maintaining safety standards and rescuing trapped miners. The country itself has an appalling track record of the government monitoring and intervening when it comes to miners’ safety. And at first, engineers declared that it was technologically impossible to reach the miners safely.
And other possible barriers were there… how about the fact that the world seems to ignores the treacherous working conditions men women and children around the globe face every day. And then of course there was potential of mental and physical breakdown amongst the miners themselves… the real threat of chaos and violence borne out of fear and anxiety.
It might have seemed like a hopeless cause… except that it wasn’t.
Because the miners refused to accept that their story was going to end in that cramped dark mine. These men organized themselves into three groups and designated shifts for work, rest and play.
Hour after hour… day after day… these men carried on, even though for the first seventeen days they had no way of contacting their family or friends… no way of knowing for sure if there was even a rescue attempt going on… But they were persistent and decided that they would not wait helplessly.
Meanwhile up on the surface a makeshift camp begun to grow. The families and friends of the miners had been drawn to the site from all over Chile. At first there was no way of knowing if any of the miners had survived. Day after day these men women and children huddled together awaiting news of what was happening almost three-quarters of a kilometre underground. Day after day the rescue crew would send down probes and day after day there was no signs of life found… then on the seventeenth day the probe came up with a note attached to it – just like a “waving flag” – and the note proclaimed that all 33 men were alive and safe.
And Hope was renewed.
And somehow our widow found hope day after day. The kind of hope that has the power to bore holes into any kind of barrier. And she was faithfully persistent in her petitions for justice. And one day it was granted. One day was different than all the days preceding it… one day the silent and indifferent and shameless judge directed did something different. He shifted his gaze toward the woman and actually saw her. He saw her and he listened to her and he changed his mind about her plea. His explanation for the transformation is a gruff one – “Though I have no fear of God and respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” The word translated as “wear me out” is the Greek word hypopiaze, which actually means “hit under the eye” – to give someone a black eye.
Our traditional interpretation of this parable is that we take the judge’s words at face value – he only grants justice because he is sick and tired of being nagged. Luke tells us that if even such a person as the judge can be just, then we are right to have hope and faith in God’s justice. And this is true. But I think this parable is also about what happens when we come into true relationship with one another – when we really listen to one another. When we are open to be surprised by what we hear.
Surprises abounded as the events unfolded over the 69 days the miners were trapped. The world was mesmerized by the crisis… glued to radios and televisions and computers… all hoping that something could be done the men. The Chilean government responded quickly and decisively… the president himself promising whatever resources were required… the mining company and the mining industry worked with scientists to come up with not one – not two – but three rescue plans and three state-of-the art machines to dig deep into the earth’s crust to reach the trapped men.
And the men themselves… persisted together to keep themselves physically and mentally well. Despite the fungal infections, the open body sores, the hunger, the creeping depression, the inevitable conflicts… they persisted in actively waiting for freedom with hope and faith.
And on October 12th, 2010 all 33 miners were rescued and restored to freedom. One by one they were plucked from the earth and restored to their families… to their communities.
An incredible thing happened – people coming together all over the world, to save 33 men’s lives… strangers offering prayers and resources so that these men could be rescued from what seemed like a hopeless situation. Jesus – through his parables – invites us to pause for a moment here. To reflect on what this all means to us as people of faith. We have been participating in a world event where so many persisted together in refusing to accept that change was impossible. And while we were doing that as a global community we got a taste… a vision… of how the world could be… we saw kingdom come – even if it was just for a moment in time.
We are already starting to hear that things weren’t perfect underground during the two months the men were trapped. Of course they weren’t. But God doesn’t ask us to be perfect… God invites us to live a faithful life.
And the analysts are suggesting that the president of Chile and the other government officials didn’t necessarily do everything they did out of pure altruism. Well of course not. We have the witness of scripture to show us that God calls imperfect people with imperfect motives to be part of God’s gracious invitation to be transformed.
There are some commentators who have stated that the executives in the mining industry acted out of fear of being shamed in the international press… of getting a black eye for not doing the right thing. Could very well be. but that doesn't change the fact that the world has been transformed a little.
It might happen that everything seems to go back to normal after the initial euphoria of the rescue fades. But that won’t be the whole story will it? Something happened around the world when the powers that be decided to listen to the muffled cries of 33 men trapped 2300 hundred feet below ground. The barriers that keep the world unjust for many – that entrench a malignant poverty that strangles 2/3 of the world – have not been broken down. But through the in-breaking of God’s grace… and the persistent faith of those who insist on getting up every day and working toward the kingdom… the world has changed a little bit. There are international calls for massive change in the mining industry… there has been more light shone on the reality of workers around the world forced into dangerous occupations because of poverty. And many people have directed their gaze at our brothers and sisters crying for justice and have really seen them and have really heard them.
And I think that that is a big part of what the gospel is all about… and the good news is that we are all, everyone one of us… invited to listen.
Thanks Regarding Luke 18:1-8
2010-10-15 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to our guest blogger Christine Smaller and to Stephen Schuette for their intelligent posts regarding Luke 18:1-8. Please scroll down to wash yourself in their thoughts.
Here are some of mine. Both the Genesis 32 passage and Luke 18 show an individual engaged in struggle. In the former the individual is Jacob; in the latter it is a widow. These passages could be interpreted as promoting individualism. You, individual, keep plugging away, and you will get what you want.
Such a reading, though, misses key points. One is that Jacob represents all of Israel, as the name-change implies. Another is that the point of the story about the widow is not to celebrate individualism but to encourage us Christians to be persistent in prayer.
Granted, there may be times when we have to undertake a task alone, although we are never truly alone, thanks be to God. Moreover, our lives are not to be dominated by individualism but are to be communal. The Bible, overall, exhorts us to be one body, one nation, a priesthood, a vine, etc. Note that the first-person-PLURAL pronoun begins the Lord's Prayer and recurs throughout it.
Further, the great success of the Chilean miners reminds us of the power of working together. We pray persistently and work together, knowing that God is in, with, and under us, so our labor shall not be in vain.
My sermon will be something like that.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
The hopeful waiting...
2010-10-14 by Christine Smaller
I’m thinking of the Chilean miners too… along with the rest of the world, I suppose. As I read and re-read the parable I keep thinking about how important it is how we wait. To faithfully (but actively) wait while trusting fully in God is a narrow precipice to perch on. The widow carries on each day with dignity, never knowing if it will be the day things change. A non-passive but trusting life of quiet hope. If this parable illuminates the saga of the miners… it is easy to see how the miners’ dignified self-organized life underground mirrors the widow. But who is the judge? The mining industry as a whole? They have been silent and unresponsive in other similar situations. The government? Many administrations have stood at a distance while tragedies like this have played out. The limits of technology? At the outset of this crisis there were voices saying that there was no way to rescue at such a depth. The “victims” themselves? The miners own fears and potential break downs could have derailed a safe rescue. It’s as though the judge can represent the variety of barriers that keep us from living fully in hope… living in the light of Christ’s love for us and God’s invitation into continual transformation. The parable and this world event shows that barriers can be overcome. And then of course we need to ask ourselves – are we the victim or the barrier? The honest answer might be that we are both and… we are the ones kept down, we are the ones who are often oppressing others – and we are something else. The thing that the parable and the mine rescue points to – we are filled with the potential of God’s hope for us.
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