Beyond Reasons
2010-10-14 by Stephen Schuette

There are a couple of challenging aspects to this story. Within Luke's setting there's the invitation to compare the one to whom we pray with an unjust judge.  I'd like to talk to Luke about that one and ask him what he was thinking.

Apart from the Lukan context the challenge of the story is that the right thing happens (justice) for all the wrong reasons.  What does that mean?

It may mean that the Kingdom comes in its own way and on its own terms and not in the neat, clean way that we imagine if we were in control of the universe.

It may mean that an over emphasis on understanding from our perspective can preoccupy us and blind us to the bend in the universe that opens a new way.  I think of St. Francis' prayer: "...grant that I may not so much seek to be...understood as to understand."

It may mean that it's better to set aside a preoccupation with reasons that might lead us to a "half-empty" despair and instead focus on the reason to celebrate any and all signs of justice that come along.  In that sense this is similar to the woman who found the lost coin or the shepherd a lost sheep, which, in the end, wasn't everything.

We want the judge to change, to become compassionate and open and sympathetic to the human need and conditions of those who seek justice from him.  Apparently that ain't gonna happen.  But it doesn't stop justice.  Hallelujah, Amen!

Chilean Miners and the Persistent Widow
2010-10-13 by David von Schlichten

Our guest blogger has provided three substantial posts that will excite your thinking about the gospel for this Sunday. Stephen Schuette has also made one of his characteristically valuable contributions.

I've been thinking about the Chilean miners and their rescue, which demonstrated the power of faith, persistence, and teamwork. Our lessons for Sunday emphasize the importance of persistence and faith, and the Bible in general underscores the strength that comes from unity.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

Yours in Christ,

Oppositional Transformation
2010-10-13 by Christine Smaller

       James Howell ponders in his journal about the impact of the short and simple… like in an operatic aria.  He says that we have too many words in our sermons and I feel like replying tartly that I don’t think I have nearly enough words in mine (although I suspect my congregants would beg to differ!).  I am new to this triple header service marathon each Sunday.  I am not complaining – I’m actually enjoying it immensely.  I prayed for the opportunity to preach and God answered as God often does… with abundant generosity and a quiet chuckle.  But it means I can only really preach for eight or nine minutes… ten if I tighten up the prayers and 12 if there are no children for children’s time (but God be praised there are usually children!  And teenagers too – who actually seem listen to the sermon!).  Mark Twain prefaced a lengthy letter with the words “I apologize for this long letter, but I simply do not have the time to write a short one this week”!  Which captures, for me, the problem of short and simple.   Because of course Howell is right, and I am just railing against the added difficulty of being concise to an already challenging weekly project of writing a meaningful sermon.           

       Despite the brevity of the parable of the widow and the judge, the themes spring forth abundantly… and as Holly Hearon suggests in this week’s Journal, “the parable is constructed around oppositions”.  I am finding it tough to narrow the focus of the message for Sunday, here is some of what I’ve been looking at: 

Kingdom:  (the here and the not here, the now and the not yet)  Jesus’ parables seem to speak of kingdom on at least two levels – how it is forming in the present reality of human life and also how comes as an in breaking of God’s reign, a taste of the promised future.  Yarbrough talks about “Longing for days of the Son of Man”… captures that sense of yearning... deep sighing we have for what should be.   The same sense in the Jeremiah reading this week: “the days are surely coming when the Lord will make a new covenant… the day when all will know the Lord and the law will be written in all of our hearts…”  This woman getting up every morning to make the journey to the gate house to petition for change – what would she be thinking along the way?  I can’t help but think of the Chilean miners waiting waiting, keeping each other company while somehow keeping hope for rescue alive.  Or for that matter, people who come to church every Sunday in dwindling congregations – making and remaking spiritual community while longing for the return of the church’s “golden” years.   How do we open ourselves to transformation?:  new way of life… living in the kingdom in the here and now… working as co-creators for the coming kingdom and faithfully awaiting kingdom…  transforming individually, congregationally, and the world… 

Justice:  (Just/Unjust)  The stark – almost deconstructed contrast of just and unjust in this parable is difficult to unpack… to reconstruct (faithfully) into an accessible message.  How do we hold this good guy/bad guy pantomime in tension with the gospel message that we are all loved, all forgiven, all invited into transformation through  God’s merciful grace? 

Faith & Prayer:  (you got to have faith to pray… but you have to pray to have faith… but do you want either?)  I love how Craddock in his sermon on this parable says… "‘Let thy kingdom come.’ Let the realm of God, the realm of justice come. Do I really want to pray that? Believing, hoping, trusting it will be true when I know for a fact that if that prayer is answered I will suffer severe dislocation: geographically, and socially, and economically, and professionally because I must fit into thy kingdom come. Do I really want that?” 

Shame:  I am fascinated by the play on shame in this parable.  To begin with, the behaviour of both characters is shameful (or shameless) in a way – the judge who doesn’t take his duty seriously and the woman who flaunts convention by insisting on being heard.  If everything was truly about honour and shame in Jesus’ time and place, then this must have been significant.  Kenneth Bailey, in Through Peasant Eyes, says “that the word translated "respect" in the NRSV (entrepomenos) has to do with shame-pride and should be translated ‘has no shame’ here.  This judge ‘cannot be shamed.... There is no spark of honor left in his soul to which anyone can appeal”.  But is there really no spark?  If we carefully reconstruct the characters of the widow and the judge, applying layers of flesh and a blood transfusion or two… could that possibility of change of heart be there? When the judge does finally change his mind he says it is because the woman will wear him out…  the Greek hypopiaze is used – “she will give me a black eye”  But it is such a gruff, sarcastic explanation (covering up something more tender?)… an excuse for taking his duty seriously. 

Empowerment:  (passive victim/totally consumed crusader)    Where is the boundary between being a co-creator of God’s kingdom and becoming obsessed with a futile project?  The widow here embodies that fragile balance of relying on God and living an active, empowered, faith.   But there is a red flag here…  living out a faith that degrades one’s own agency.. one’s own possibilities.  Wally Fletcher – in the Journal  - captures this well:  “Healthy persistence is rooted the positive not the negative— in generosity, in love of truth or beauty, in longing for peace or justice, in hope for the future, in faith in the ultimate goodness of life. Healthy persistence is progressive in outlook and courageous in spirit. Pathological persistence is resistant to progress and defensive in spirit.”

Forward, Not Back
2010-10-12 by Stephen Schuette

Ever looked back and reviewed what you said (or didn’t say) and thought of what you’d like to go back and say instead?  It is perhaps one of life’s greatest hazards.  Not that we can’t learn something with a healthy review of the possibilities that could help us be prepared for the next time.  It’s the ruminating over it that tends to pull us down and can begin to preoccupy us so that in the next moment we don’t respond with what we might have because we were not present in the moment but back somewhere else.  Once the snowball takes over it can keep rolling.

Worse yet is the tendency to try to defend what we said.  With heels dug in it’s hard to make any progress.

Jesus always knows exactly what to say.  So why can’t I always know exactly what to say as a follower of Jesus?  (Even though the answer is obvious it doesn’t prevent us from asking, does it?)

Once I let go of an insistence on (or illusion of) my own perfection communication can begin to open up.  Letting go of prior moments allows the present moment to be full of new opportunity.  What didn’t work, didn’t work.  Giving up isn’t going to lead to better communication, that meeting of the souls for which we so deeply long.

I suppose the widow could have given up.  She had a lot stacked against her.  She had no rights by law.  But she did not let the prior evidence and all the experience of failure deter her from trying again.  She made it a contest of wills relying on the one resource she had in abundance.  She kept looking forward, not back.

In all the readings there’s an underlying affirmation of healthy ego strength, something we may not always teach in the Christian tradition.  There’s often a tendency to make no distinction between ego in excess and ego that is healthy, to everyone’s detriment.  The eldest members of every congregation I’ve served all have a bit of Jacob-like chutzpah.  Growing old, like being a widow in ancient Israel, is not for the weak or those without will.  Neither is faith.

Who, what, when...
2010-10-12 by Christine Smaller

     The text of this parable itself presents an immediate challenge in determining who said what and when.  The story of the widow and the judge is contained in verses 2-5, but the literary structure strongly suggests the necessity of adding verses 1 and 6-8 to make a contained passage, separate from the text before and after. The text can be separated into four components.  It opens with an introduction stating: “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart”, which appears to be the voice of Luke and could or could not be suggesting that Jesus himself prefaced or explicated the parable in such a way that made the purpose and meaning of its telling clear.  The core parable itself is attributed to Jesus, as remembered and re-told by Luke. The passage then continues with three lines which interpret the parable.  These lines open with the command:  “And the Lord said”, suggesting that the balance of those lines is also attributable to Christ.  Finally, there is the question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” which seems to be departure from all that precedes it in the passage.            

     The eight verses clearly are meant to be read together, but this can be seen in the grammatical connections between the components “then Jesus told them…”, “and the Lord said, ‘listen to what the unjust judge says…”, “and, yet…” more than in the content.   It is simply not obviously apparent how the substance of the passage hangs together and in The Parables of Jesus, Arland Hultgren notes that indeed “[t]he question of the unity of 18:1-8 is disputed”.  He states that there is substantial agreement, however, about the structure of the passage: “Clearly 18:1 is Luke’s introduction.  Clearly also the parable consists of at least 18:2-5.  The next two and a half verses (18:6-8a) are an application.  The final saying (18:8b) is an addition either from tradition or due to composition by the evangelist, to the foregoing material.”            

     The introduction fulfils the function of directing the listener’s interpretation of the story.  By prefacing the parable with explicit guidance to listen for Christ’s intention to tell about the “need to pray always”, Luke begins the interpretation process for the listener.  This directing of the listener’s focus can be argued to be in line with Luke’s special interest in prayer but the narrow focus would also have the effect of potentially eliminating all other interpretations of the parable.  As though there is a concern that the introduction is not directive enough, the parable is followed by a specific interpretation as told in verses 6-8a.  This text explains that the parable teaches that if an unjust judge will grant justice to a widow, then surely God will quickly grant justice to the chosen.              

     There is great debate about whose voice is actually heard in verses 6- 8a.  Among the possibilities presented the Jesus Seminar determined that while the core parable rated a “pink” stamp of “probably Jesus”, the remaining verses were seen as not at all consistent with Jesus’ teachings.  This suggests that the parable itself may have been told by Jesus in such a way that would invite very different interpretations.  At the other end of the spectrum we hear the argument that indeed the parable is incomplete without the interpretation and that “[t]he objections to the genuineness of verses 6b-8a are inconsequential. On the other hand, the parable, if it stood alone, would be indeterminate, and thus meaningless. It is a parable which requires an interpretation if it is to have specific meaning.”[1]   This approach would likely take verses 2-8a as the actual parable following the traditional Jewish form of mashal (the description of the interaction between the judge and the widow) and a nimshal (explaining what the story means).  One can see how adding the interpretive component assists in effectively teaching those to whom the parable is addressed.            

     Clearly, teaching is a component of parables and there is no doubt that both Jesus and Luke were consciously and intentionally teaching others although it appears that at least Luke was not consciously concerned about what the term “parable” meant or how it should be employed. But to suggest that a parable is simply a teaching tool, an illustration or an example story may not reveal the complexity of Jesus’ parables in form and function.  Jesus was very familiar with the genre of parables and used this traditional type of rhetorical device in a new way which invited listeners to somehow find a new world within the parabolic story.  Finding this new perspective involves risk, as the listener is encouraged to suspend his or her ideas of how things should work out in the story and also to make oneself vulnerable enough to put oneself in the midst of the drama.  In this way, the parable becomes a world in which the listener can be called to consider a new way of life.  When this happens, Robert Funk suggests that “[t]he ‘meaning’ of the parable is the way auditors take up roles in the story and play out the drama.  Response will very from person to person and from time to time.  The parable is perpetually unfinished.  The story continues to tell itself, to ‘tell’ its hearers.”             

     But what does the parable continue to tell?  Just by virtue of the fact that Jesus told parables and did not simply attempt to transfer information from his own brain into others, suggests that parables do much more than just tell about the content contained within each one.  Because Jesus told parables instead of unambiguous lessons, there is an unavoidable challenge to think and re-think about the story and its meaning for each individual. But it is very human to want to arrive at resolution in confusing matters, rather than living with the tension of uncertainty.  Perhaps, however, Jesus intended to encourage the listener to stay for a while in the world of each parable and this is why not all parables contain the traditional nimshal.  Without a voice of authority clarifying any uncertain elements the listener is given the freedom to engage with Jesus’ word in a variety of way.            

     The parable of the widow and the judge is particularly bereft of clues as to what meaning(s) should be taken.  If we operate on the assumption that Jesus told the parable found in verses 2-5 at some time, in some place to some people and that verses 1 and 6-8 were cannot be attributed to Jesus, then it could be argued that there was significant concern about leaving the parable open to interpretation, about keeping the parable alive so that it could be revisited again and again.  If one of the purposes, and results, of parables is to affect change in the listener there may have been some concern about the dangers in the broad possibilities of change that could be effected.  While there is a risk for the listener to enter into the parable, it appears that there may also be a risk to anyone who transmits a parable “as is”. The danger is that the listeners will then enter into the world of the parable themselves and take up the challenge to learn something new from it – something in direct contradiction to what the transmitter wishes to teach or uphold.  And yikes… this week I am one of the transmitters! 

[1] Hicks, J The Parable of the Persistent Widow RESQ  1991 p 212

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