Monday, 24 October 2016
A REFLECTION ON YESTERDAY'S READING FROM THE NEW TESTAMENT
(Apologies for the delay this week)
2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18: (NRSV)
6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
16 At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The author realised that his time was over and that the remainder of his life must be poured out as a sacrifice to God. It does not appear that the author did not think of himself as going to be executed, but that he also saw himself as offering up his life to God in the process; his life was not been taken from him; he was laying it down. Barclay assumes that the author was the Apostle Paul and reminds us that ever since Paul’s conversion, Paul had offered everything to God: money, scholarship, strength, time, devotion and passion. Now ‘... only life itself was left to offer, and gladly Paul was going to lay life down ...’
And now the time of his departure had come and the word Paul uses – ‘analusis’ is rich in meaning as Barclay explains, it is the word used to describe the unyoking of an animal. Paul therefore implies that his death was going to be an unyoking, was going to be rest from his labours and he was glad of it. Death was going to be a ‘liberation’ and a ‘release’. The word was also used to describe the unloosing of fetters and so the implication here too is the sense of release. The word was also used to describe the loosening of ropes from a tent. Here the implication could be that it was time to move on, and strike up camp elsewhere. It was also used to describe the loosening of the mooring ropes of a ship. Paul had sailed many times and so was about to embark on a final voyage.
For Christians death is therefore a laying down of the burdens in order to rest, a loosening of the shackles in order to be free, a striking up of camp to take up a new residence, a casting off of the ropes which bind us to this world and embarking on a new journey which ends in the presence of God.
There is no need to fear death ...
Paul loves using sporting metaphors (if it was indeed Paul who wrote this epistle), and this is one area where being humbled came naturally to me because I was always so rubbish at games! But the author makes a wonderful point and that and that is what really matters is the inner feeling of fulfilment we experience, as Barclay writes: “There is no satisfaction in all the world like knowing that we have done our best.”
There is also the notion of finishing. It is very easy to start things, but it is another thing to finish them. It is so easy to fall in the last lap of a race.
Paul had finished the race and had the satisfaction of reaching his goal.
The author continues: “I have kept the faith ...” This is an accomplishment of grace; with God’s help he had completed the course and had (to keep in mind the sporting image) kept the rules of ‘... honour and honesty in the race of life ...’
Barclay suggests that one can also use a business image paraphrasing this passage as ‘... I have kept the conditions of the contract; I have been true to my engagement.’ He had engaged himself to serve Christ and he had stood by that engagement and had not let his Master down.
He had kept the faith, he had never lost confidence and hope. Through the many difficult times, in all the dangers of land and sea and now even in the face of the final journey – death - he had never lost the confidence that comes to those united with Jesus Christ.
If we can say the same, one day, we too will die well.
The author speaks of there being a ‘crown of righteousness’ reserved for him. Thinking of his continued use of sporting imagery, he could have being referring to the laurel wreath awarded to winners at the Greek Games. This ‘crown’ would wither within a few days, but the crown of righteousness would never fade or wither.
Here the author is turning from seeing things in human terms, to seeing things in the eyes of God. He was going to face two verdicts: the earthly Roman court whose verdict was pretty obvious as Nero’s reputation went before him; but he also knew what God’s verdict was going to be. Barclay writes: “The person whose life is dedicated to Jesus Christ is indifferent to the verdict of men. They care not if they condemn him so long as they hear their master’s ‘Well done!’”
As the author continues to write it is as if he is saying to Timothy: “My end is near, and I know that I am going to my reward. If you follow in my steps you will feel the same confidence and the same joy when you when the end comes to you.”
The experience of this author is open to all who fight the same fight and who finish the race and who keep the faith.
And so to the final verses ...
The author tells of three things that brought him courage during this difficult time.
Firstly, when all people forsook him, he felt in a very real sense that God was with him in a special way. This is the promise of Jesus who said that he would never leave his own or forsake them and that he would be with them to the end of the world. The author is saying that this has been his experience.
Secondly, the author never forgot his privilege and duty of proclaiming Christ. He did so even in the Roman court, and when he began thinking of his task of preaching he began to forget the danger and this conquered his fear.
Finally, he was assured of his final rescue in eternity. Barclay concludes: “It is always better to be in danger for a moment and safe for eternity, than to be in safety for a moment and to jeopardise eternity.”
I know there is debate over whether Paul was indeed the author of this letter, and the style of the Greek is the point at hand; but in translation, it certainly sounds like Paul and it is definitely his theology.
Saturday, 15 October 2016
William Barclay suggests that the ‘judge’ could not have been Jewish and Jesus hints at this because he describes him as one who ‘... neither feared God nor had respect for people ...’ All ordinary Jewish people took their disputes to the elders and not to the public courts. If a legal judgement was needed, there would be three judges, one chosen by the plaintiff, the second chosen by the defendant and the third would be independently appointed.
The judge in this parable would have been a reference to one appointed either by the Romans or by King Herod. These judges were notoriously corrupt: unless one had money to bribe one’s way to the desired verdict, it would not happen. People even punned on their title: officially they were referred to as ‘judges of prohibitions or punishments’ (Dayyaneh Gezeroth) but they were called robber judges (Dayyaneh Gezeloth)!
The widow symbolised all who were poor and defenceless and was without material resources of any kind and so had no hope of getting justice. But she did have one thing – persistence.
It is a mistake to think that the judge represents God; rather Jesus contrasts the judge with God. Barclay paraphrases the message as follows: “If, in the end, an unjust and rapacious judge can be wearied into giving a widow woman justice, how much more will God, who is a loving Father, give his children what they need?”
But this does not mean that the Christian need think that God will provide everything they pray for. Often a Father has to refuse a request of a child because he knows what is asked for is not in the long-term best interest of the child. Only God sees in the longer term and knows what is best for us.
One of the great weaknesses of some secular (and even religious) teleological systems, focusing on consequences, as that we cannot predict what these will be – especially in the longer term. But God can!
Jesus says that we must not be discouraged in prayer and Barclay concludes: “... and our faith will never falter if, after we have offered to God our prayers and requests, we add the perfect prayer, ‘Thy will be done’.”
Barclay is brilliant at providing insights into the original contexts of Scripture, but I am no longer sure that I can accept his conclusion uncritically. It seems easy to say ‘Thy will be done’ from the confines of our academic studies, but what does this say to those who cry out in prayer, persistently, because of the horror of torture, injustice and imprisonment and so on, and it seems to them just not to work?
G B Caird reminds us that, of all the Evangelists, Luke would appear to be the one that was the most interested in prayer and so it is fitting that he combines the themes of prayer with that of another, justice.
The perversion of justice is often mentioned in the Old Testament and so it was a part of the experience of many people. It was the function of a judge to be an impartial arbiter but also to be the champion of those who were vulnerable to injustice e.g. the widow, the orphan, the poor and the foreigner. Caird comments: ‘... whatever other cases he heard, he must be sure that these at least received their rights. This is explicit in the Law, most notably in Exodus 22:22, Deuteronomy 10:18 as well as in Psalm 68:5 and the prophets Isaiah 1:17 and Jeremiah 22:3.’
But the judge in the parable was not influenced by religious conviction nor public opinion with the result that the poor widow – who was too poor to be able to resort to bribery and without influential friends had to resort to all that she had left – and that was her persistence!
In contrast to the judge we have God who is the champion of the needy and oppressed and who listens patiently to those who call upon him. God can be relied on to intervene with ‘... swift and sudden vindication.’ So Caird concludes: ‘If persistence prevails with one who cares only for his own peace and comfort, how much more will it prevail with One who has compassion for his elect?’
But once again, we cannot take this too literally, because we know that oftentimes, people cry out to God in their need, because of trials and tribulations in this life, and they are not spared; they have to endure even sometimes to death. But I will come back to this later.
Caird has an interesting take on the idea of ‘election’. He reminds us that references to Israel being the elect only come at a time of their national humiliation. The implication is therefore, that the elect are those who are specially called to serve God through suffering for their faith at the hands of the ungodly world. It is their loyalty to God that forces them to their needs to pray day and night and to persist in this way. If election means favouritism, it is because God is on the side of those who are on the receiving end of injustice – the innocent victims of persecution.
To be fair, when Jesus calls us, he tells us that the going is going to be tough. As Bonhoeffer reminded us in the midst of his stand against Nazi Germany, the cost of being a disciple can require us to sacrifice everything. But the difference is that for those who are united with Christ, there is meaning and purpose and a deep sense of fulfilment. The secret is faith. Being united with Christ, who comes to us in the deepest and most significant way as a suffering Messiah, present with us means no delay, he is right there with us, indeed he is within us.
Earle Ellis explains the background to this parable which I find quite useful. Apparently, it was written at a time when Christians were under deep persecution and they were denying their faith as a result. For them, the delay of the perousia was more than a chronological problem; it was a ‘life’ problem. Luke then reminds his readers of Jesus’ teaching of the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ to give them encouragement.
Jesus always made it clear that suffering will precede his return and that the means of survival was through prayer. And in the end, God is not like the unjust judge who provides justice to the persistent widow; he does even more in vindicating his elect. So, the implication must be that not only must the disciples persist in prayer; they must have the right attitude to accompany their prayers – perseverance. LaVerdier adds: “They may be persecuted, but this is no grounds for self-righteous comparisons with others (verse 9) ...” which becomes the subject of the second parable that follows.
Tuesday, 27 September 2016
The Gospel reading is such an important passage because the warnings are so clear. Verses 1 and 2 condemn the person who teaches others to sin. The word translated as ‘stumble’ (skandalon) can actually be more literally translated as scandal and according to Barclay has two meanings: (i) originally it meant to entrap and (ii) it then evolved to mean any stumbling block in a person’s way to trip them up. Barclay writes: ‘Jesus said that it is impossible to construct a world with no temptations; but woe to that person who teaches another to sin or to take away another’s innocence.’ People eventually receive their first nudge along the way to sin and ‘... God will not hold a person guiltless who, along life’s road, causes a weaker one to go the wrong way.’
This is why drug pushers are so dreadful and whenever a stronger character misleads a weaker one it is so inexcusable. This is also why the older person who seduces a younger person is wrong. Our society sends out the message that sexual activity is normal and multiple sexual partners are just part of life. As soon as one allows sexual activity outside of a mature adult, life-long, committed relationship – preferably within a marriage - one opens the door to ‘... leading people to stumble ...’ There is such a fine line between equal, voluntary and informed consent and one feeling pressured to do something they are not really comfortable with. Our young people are confused and I sometimes need to help them pick up the pieces. They are bombarded with sexual license and promiscuity that they feel pressured by the media and the film industry. There is a very real sense that especially movie and TV film makers will be held accountable for ‘... leading little ones astray ...’ but also educational programmes and some in the health service.
Nurturing young ones to maturity is the great honour that I have devoted my life to being part of. But there is a profound difference between this and giving the impression that they can choose for themselves, unless they are properly prepared to make informed choices. Society in its post-modernism states that all opinions are of equal value, that there is little that is definitely wrong, and that everything is okay if the people taking part have agreed; yet when one reads the agony aunt columns of teenage magazines (which I did when I started teaching them), one finds that young girls feel that they have been led astray and this leads me to feel a real sadness for them, who feel robbed of something so precious – their innocence. I know it is an unpopular notion, but I believe we should be making it clear that there is a different way, a better way, the way of cherishing innocence, protecting it and making sure that young people are really properly informed so that they can appropriately make life-changing decisions. I remain committed to marriage as the only appropriate place for sexual activity.
But what other examples are there? We cause others to stumble when we behave in such a way that it makes our faith seem unattractive and bigoted by the things we say or more importantly by the things we do. I was away in Oxford for a few days at a Chaplain’s conference. We were met by a worker Priest from the east end of London, who has colleagues working in Canary Warf, both as Chaplains and as bankers. It has been a powerful Christian witness that the reason why one particular bank has not been part of the crisis is because there are Christians working in it, Christians who take their huge salaries and give 90% of what they earn away. This does the opposite, it attracts people to Christ, it does not send them away.
The eyes of the world will always be upon us. We will be judged more by what people see, even more than what people hear. This is why what people like Mother Teresa believed becomes irrelevant, because of the power of her actions, so Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, atheist and stand in awe when they reflect on how she changed the world for good. J C Ryle writes: ‘Let us endeavour to make our religion beautiful in the eyes of people, and to adorn the doctrine of Christ in all things. Let us strive to lay aside every weight of sin which most easily besets us, and so to live that men can find no fault in us ...’
We are going to cause some offence because the way we live is going to be different to the ways of the world. As I alluded to earlier, our sexual ethic is going to be different, our business ethics are going to be different, our speech and actions are in themselves going to cause offence to some who are going to accuse us of all sorts of things. Christians caused offence to the white majority in South Africa by opposing apartheid; Wilberforce caused great offence to the majority in his call for the abolition of slavery. Jesus caused so much offence that he was crucified on a criminal’s cross. This is not what he is referring to here; here he is referring to those who are caused to stumble off the right path – what their consciences, deep down tell them is right – because we have said or done things which bring discredit to the Gospel of Christ. Ryle concludes this section by writing: ‘The Cross of Christ will always give offence. Let us not increase that offence by carelessness in our daily life.’
But he does not leave it there. We have all got things wrong and will continue to get things wrong. And when this happens we need to forgive others.
Verse 3 and 4 refer to the settling of disputes. The injured person must be on their guard against the dangers of resentment and bearing grudges and must rather go to the person who has caused offence and between them sort things out with repentance and forgiveness being the vital ingredients. No matter how often the offence occurs, the same recipe needs to be followed ‘... with tireless goodwill ...’ and without limit.
Forgiveness needs to be a central feature of Christian living. These verses speak of forgiving seven times. The ancient rabbis spoke of forgiving three times and if one did, one was a perfect man. Christians need to take the rabbinic standard, double it and add one. Barclay writes: ‘... but it is not a matter of mathematical calculation. It simply means that the Christian standard of forgiveness must immeasurably exceed the best the world can achieve.’
To some people today, this forgiving attitude of the dead pilot’s wife is offensive thinking rather than she should have sued both the organisation and the mechanic concerned. But it was an honest mistake and the most costly one anyone could ever make. The man truly repented and was truly forgiven.
This sort of living requires faith; something that we cannot do for ourselves. We know that faith is a gift that God gives us, and all that is left for us to do is to accept it. Confronted with examples of forgiveness like this – which amplify what Jesus was in effect trying to get across to his disciples – I too need to ask Jesus as his disciples did in verse 5 – ‘Increase my faith ...’
Verses 5 and 6 tell of the centrality of faith. Implied in these verses is typical ancient hyperbole suggesting that what might look impossible becomes possible. This is true even in the realm of science and medicine. Today there are many operations that are commonplace which would have been deemed impossible 50 years ago. Barclay adds: ‘If we approach a thing saying “It can’t be done,” it will not; if we approach a thing saying, “It must be done,” the chances are that it will. We must always remember that we approach no task alone, but that with us there is God and all his power.’ Caird adds: ‘... faith in God is a power that takes impossibilities in its stride.’
Verses 7 to 10 tell us that we can never do things that make God indebted to us and we can never have any claim on him. When we have done our best, we have only done our duty, and when we have done our duty we have done no more than we could have been compelled to do. Barclay concludes: ‘It may be possible to satisfy the claims of law; but every lover knows nothing can ever satisfy the claims of love.’
The parable of the slave and the master ‘... is a warning against the bookkeeping mentality, which thinks it can run up a credit balance with God.’ The slave’s labour belongs to the master, and a full day’s work is not more than the slave doing what is expected of him. Nothing the slave can do give him any claim on his master’s gratitude or can put his master in his debt. The same is true of Christians: we cannot earn God’s approval nor can we put God in our debt. Even the best service we can offer ‘... is no more than God is entitled to expect, since it gives him nothing that does not belong to him by right. The whole idea of merit is to be abandoned in our approach to God.’
But this is never something we do because we are afraid of punishment. Our obedience is that which flows from having received loved and so we desire to love in return. We care for others when we teach them the ways of Christ and the Gospel, both my word, but more especially by the example of our lives. Amen.
Sunday, 18 September 2016
1 Timothy 6.6-19 (NRSV)
6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that* we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
The Good Fight of Faith
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made* the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
When one is in a right relationship with God, things fall into place. I well remember when I came to Christ, my intellect was set free and I rejoiced in the new found liberty to think and question and challenge and grow. But this alone does not always lead to contentment. Barclay suggests that the original word used can best be translated as self-sufficiency. The Stoics, when they used this word, referred to a frame of mind which was completely independent of all outward and external things. Barclay writes: “Content never comes from the possession of external things ... Contentment comes from an inward attitude to life.”
Epicurus, that much misunderstood Greek philosopher stated: “To whom little is not enough, nothing is enough. ... Add not to a man’s possessions but take away from his desires.”
This is echoed in the ancient Rabbinical schools where there was the saying: “Who is rich? He that is content with his lot.”
This is something that our society has forgotten and so, while we might be in a bit of an economic pickle at the moment, we are still (materially speaking) much better off than we have ever been. Yet people have seldom ever been quite as miserable! This is because they fail to realise that “... it is never in the power of things to bring happiness ...”
Happiness comes from personal relationships. Without friendship and love, no matter how much money we might have, we will never be happy. Happiness lies in people and never in things.
Seneca made the obvious statement: “You cannot take anything more out of this world than you brought into it.” But we can take our ‘self’ and so we would do well to build up a self and a character – a heart and soul – that we are proud to take with us into the presence of God. If the secret to happiness lies in relationships, then the most important of all the relationships is the one we have with God. Barclay concludes:
“Content comes when we escape the servitude to things, when we find our wealth in the love and the friendship and the fellowship of others, and when we realise that our most precious possession is our friendship with God, made possible through Jesus Christ.”
What lovely thoughts from Barclay as he reflects on verses 9-10of this wonderful epistle.
Barclay suggests that there are the following dangers associated with money:
Firstly, the desire for money can become an insatiable thirst. There is a Roman proverb that states that wealth is like sea-water: the more one drinks – the more one needs to drink because the thirst is never quenched. For many people, there never comes a time when they can say that they have enough;
Secondly, the desire for wealth is founded on an illusion: the illusion that wealth will provide security and the illusion that wealth will provide comfort and luxury. But wealth cannot buy security and it cannot buy true comfort and luxury because the most important things cannot be bought: love, health and safety from sorrow and death.
Thirdly, the desire for money tends to make people selfish because this desire makes a person focus on himself and not the needs of others, indeed ‘others’ can becomes mere means to his ends.
Fourthly, the desire for wealth tends to lead to worry and anxiety. The more a man has to keep, the more a man has to loose!
Fifthly, the love of money can lead people into wrong ways of getting money and this leads to pain and regret and remorse. It can even be literally true in that it can affect a person’s health and realise too late the damage he has done to others.
“To seek to be independent, to be able to pay one’s debts and to provide a house and a home and an opportunity for one’s family, prudently to provide for the future, is a Christian duty; but to evaluate everything in terms of money, to make the love of money the driving force of life, cannot ever be anything else than the most perilous of sins.”
In verses 11-16, Barclay sees great significance in the title the author uses for Timothy – ‘... man of God ...’ This is one of the great titles of the Old Testament and was used for Moses, Samuel and the prophets. It is wonderful to note that giving Timothy this title the author is not being reminded of his sin and inadequacy or helplessness, rather he is being reminded of his great honour of being’s God’s man. Timothy is being challenged to be what he can be. Barclay comments:
‘The Christian way is not to fling man’s humiliating past in his face, but to set before him the majestic splendour of his potential future. The very fact that Timothy was addressed as “Man of God” would make him square his shoulders and throw his head back as one who has received his commission from the King.’
The virtues that he needs to aspire to are set plainly before him as we read in verses 11b-12:
‘...pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made* the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.’
Timothy is also to ‘remember’: He is to remember the fact that when he came to faith, he made the same confession that Jesus made before Pontius Pilate that he was King. When a Christian confesses their faith, they do what Jesus did, when a Christian suffers for their faith, they suffer what their Lord has already suffered. Barclay suggests that we can say the following:
‘Brothers and sisters, we are travelling where the saints have trod ... I stand with Christ ... and surely such a memory must life up our hearts and inspire our lives ...’
We know that Christ will come again and so it is our duty to make sure that what he finds what we have done and are doing is fit for him to see. We are not working to please people, we are working to satisfy Christ. Barclay continues:
‘We must take every task they do and offer it, not to men, but to Christ. The question which the Christian must always ask himself is not: “Is it good enough to pass the judgement of people?” but: “Is it good enough to win the approval of Jesus Christ?”’
We must remember God! We remember that the one who is king above every other king, and Lord above every Lord, the one who possess the gift of eternal life to give to people this God loves us and only wants what is best for us. ‘...to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.’
Good challenging thoughts from our friend William Barclay yet again ...
Luke 16.1-13 (i) (NRSV)
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
1Then Jesus* said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth* so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.*
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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.’*
This is one of the difficult parables of our Lord. Barclay writes: “It is a story about as choice a set of rascals as one could meet anywhere.”
The Manager was a rascal: he was a slave, but one who had been placed in charge of running the master’s estate. This was common, as In Palestine there were many absentee Landlords. This Manager had made a career out of embezzling his master out of much wealth.
The debtors were also rascals. They probably owed rent. Rent was often paid in kind and not in money. It would be agreed that a portion of what the tenant produced would be given to the estate. The Manager knew that he was about to lose his job and so came up with an idea that he probably thought was brilliant. He falsified the entry in the books so that the debtors appeared to owe far less than they actually did owe in reality. This would result in two effects: (i) the debtors would be grateful to him and (ii) because they were part to this dishonesty, the Steward would be able to blackmail them to keep quite or else face further difficulty.
The Master also seems to have been a rascal, for, instead of being shocked and disgusted by what had happened, he praised the shrewd workings of the Manager.
Barclay suggests that there are FOUR possible lessons attached to this parable.
Firstly, Verse 8 seems to suggest that ‘... the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.’ This implies that if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as the people of this world are eager to attain money and comfort, we would be better people. If only we were to give as much attention to the things of our souls as we do the things which concern our business or careers, we would become much better people. Barclay writes:
“Over and over again a man will expend 20 times the amount of time and money and effort on his pleasure, his hobby, his garden, his sport as he does on his church. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.”
Secondly, verse 9 suggests another lesson: ‘9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.’ Barclay suggests that this is saying that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships ‘... wherein the real and permanent value of life lies ...’ The Rabbis had a saying: “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come ...”
But this verse could also refer to a different lesson. A person can use their wealth selfishly or to make life easier for others. There are many scholars who are grateful to rich people who have enabled them to study through the generosity of benefactors who made funds available to support them through their studies. We also all know of those who helped us through times of need in the most practical of ways. Barclay concludes: “Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and the man who uses them to help his friends has gone far to discharge that responsibility.”
Yet another reminder that our Lord wants us to struggle to find meaning and so Luke does not harmonise and interpret this difficult passage but invites us to work through it. Fundamentalism / literalism in passages like this would lead to disaster!
G B Caird agrees that this parable ‘... bristles with difficulties ...’ and suggests that there are (in his mind) two possible interpretations:
Firstly, If we say that the transactions described in the parable were dishonest, we can hardly believe that they were praised by the landlord, who would have – in effect – have been a victim of fraud. The Master must be a reference to Jesus who commends the manager, not for his dishonesty, but for his realism and determination in dealing with a sudden emergency. If this is true, then this parable is one of crisis, ‘... a warning from Jesus to his contemporaries to take resolute and immediate action in the face of impending disaster ...’ When the crisis of the crucifixion had passed and the story came to be used in the early church, it was taken as a lesson on the right and wrong use of money. Caird continues: “Stripped of its accretions, it is the story of an engaging rascal who, faced with dismissal for incompetence, and being too soft for manual labour and too proud to live on charity, made provisions for the future by a systematic falsification of his accounts, which put each of his masters’ debtors under lasting obligation to himself.” If this is the case, the debtors were probably NOT tenants who had agreed to pay their rent in kind, but merchants who had bought produce on the strength of a promissory note. The point being made is that people of the world cope with an emergency with a far-sighted realism and resourcefulness that religious people could do well to emulate in their spiritual lives.
Secondly, it is possible that the manager is called dishonest because of his mismanagement of the estate. This could imply that there was nothing wrong with what he did – as described in the parable - and so the master can praise him for his ingenuity which he used to get himself out of his predicament. This could be feasible if one places it into the context of the Jewish law of usury. The Law of Moses forbade taking interest from Jews on loans. The Pharisees were often very wealthy people and had found ways of evading the Law. They argued that the purpose of the Law was to protect the destitute from exploitation, not to prevent the lending of money for the mutual profit of both the lender and the borrower. The loan could be regarded as a business partnership and interest as a fair sharing of the profits.
The two debtors in the parable had received large loans from the manager. What the manager did was return the promissory notes to the debtors and require them to make new ones in which no interest was to be charged on the loan. This would mean that (probably) for the first time in his career, he was truly being obedient to the Law. There were no witnesses and so the master was in no position to repudiate the manager’s action and was able to acquire ‘... an entirely undeserved reputation for his pious observance of the Law against usury.’ Here the master is not a reference to Jesus and the master is just as guilty of amassing wealth in a questionable way. Caird concludes that the master was ‘... ready to make spiritual capital by a munificent gesture, especially as no other course was open to him ...’
This second interpretation is an attack on the nit picking methods of interpreting Scripture by which the Pharisees managed to keep their religious principles from interfering with their business dealings. This parable rather challenges them to cake a much more sincere and honest commitment to the service of God. Just as the manager and the master can see how important it is to keep in good standing with others in a time of crisis, religious people ought to be equally carefully to keep in good standing with God.
The collected sayings that follow are variations on the theme of the parable:
If dishonest men can use the money of others in order to make friends so that will receive him and look after him when he is out of a job, how much more should honest people use their money to bless others so that God will receive them into the heavenly mansions.
Our experiences in this world are tests of character: by one’s behaviour in small matters will show if one can be trusted with larger responsibilities.
Worldly wealth is given to us on trust – it does not belong to us. By our use of worldly wealth we can reveal whether or not we can be entrusted with real wealth, the wealth of the kingdom of God.
There is also the warning that where there is money, there is also menace but money can be redeemed from its sinister character but only if it is used in order to promote friendship. Caird continues to explain: “... to invest money in benefaction is to exchange it for the currency of heaven.”
Money is the great rival of God – because it is easier to worship money than God. Caird continues: “All men must choose between the road to self-assertion that leads to the temple of mammon and the road to self-sacrifice that leads to the temple of God.”
Bishop Tom also offers some interesting thoughts on this difficult passage. He makes the obvious point that we are dealing with a parable. Parables are not only moral teachings but always symbolise something more significant as well.
If we are faced with a first century Jewish story we had never seen before about a Master and a steward (manager) a Jew would automatically know that the Master referred to God and the manager referred to Israel. Israel was supposed to be God’s property manager, the light of God’s world to others and responsible to God. But Israel had failed at her task and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do. The Pharisees’ answer was to make the requirements of the law even stricter and try to make Israel even more holy in their eyes. This had the wrong effect, because it meant excluding the very people Jesus was trying to include. Jesus, in this parable, is pointing out that Israel is facing a real crisis and so what is required is to throw caution to the wind, forget legal observance and to make friends with as many as they can. This is what the children ‘of this world would do’ and so the ‘children of light’ – in the first instance the people of Israel – ought to do as well – as Wright continues: “... learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming upon their generation ...”
So, instead of hoarding money and land, Jesus’ advice is to use it, as far as one can, to make friends. A crisis was on its way in which alternative homes, homes that should last for all eternity, would be needed.
This is what his first hearers needed to take hold of.
What is the possible message for today?
It has nothing to do with commending shady business practices or personal financial advice. Rather, it challenges us to ‘... sit light to the extra regulations which we impose on one another, not least in the church, which are over and above the gospel itself...’
The church is passing through difficult times and needs (once more) to reassess what really matters and what is of little or no significance. Wright challenges us as follows: “Perhaps we need to learn to live unconventionally, be prepared to make new friends across traditional barriers, to throw caution to the winds and discover again, in the true fellowship of the gospel, a home that will last.”
With reference to the last part of this reading – from verse 10 onwards ...
Wright rightly states that wealth is a killer. The media is full of stories about money and people in the west are obsessed with it. There are also an ever increasing number of scandals associated with it with a range of people – from politicians to others in the public being caught out when they are dishonest. Sadly, the eleventh commandment seems to be the one most feared, which is “Don’t get caught ...!” The lines between legitimate business and illegitimate business are blurred: When does a gift become a bribe? When it is right to use other people’s money to make money for yourself?
From a parable about money, Luke moves on to actual teaching about money. Here we find Jesus using the strongest language about the dangers of money.
Wright suggests that the key to understanding what Jesus is trying to get across is the need to be faithful. Money is not a ours to own and possess, it is given to us on trust. God gives us wealth – or the talents and gifts to earn wealth and he expects us to use it to his glory and the welfare of others, not for our own private enjoyment alone. If we do not rediscover this perspective, we will find ourselves torn between two masters – God or money.
This was a real issue in Jesus’ day. There were small numbers of very rich people and masses of the very poor. The rich included the chief priests, and many of the Pharisees who believed and taught that being wealthy was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus taught in chapter 14 this was simply not true, because the standards of God are the opposite to the standards of the world.
I was interested to see that this was the Gospel reading used by the Pope Benedict XVI at the Beatification of John Henry Newman when he was in Birmingham some years ago. I wonder what the average uninformed listener would have made of it?
Friday, 9 September 2016
Apologies for this late entry; it has been a busy beginning of the new academic year. I hope to post much earlier in the week in future.
Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV)
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
15Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
3 So he told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
8 ‘Or what woman having ten silver coins,* if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
Some commentators claim that there is no chapter in the New Testament so well-known and so dearly loved as the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. This might have been the case in 1975 when he wrote his helpful commentary, but I am not so sure any longer today – as we live in a world of mostly biblical ignorance!
Some have seen this passage as being the ‘... Gospel within the Gospel ...’
The parable arose out of ordinary everyday experiences that everyone could understand and identify with. It was offensive to the Pharisees that Jesus associated with men and women who were labelled (by them) as ‘sinners’. There were a host of Pharisaic rules saying who they could have no dealings with at all and all of them aimed to ‘... avoid every contact with the people who did not observe the petty details of the law.’ So, it is not surprising that they were shocked to the core at the way in which Jesus met with people who were sinners, in their minds. The Pharisees believed that “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God ... They looked sadistically forward not to the saving but the destruction of the sinner.’
Into this context, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy at finding it.
Shepherds in Judea had a hard and dangerous task: pasture was scarce as they were on a narrow plateau only a few miles wide to work with. There were no retaining walls and it was possible for a sheep to wander. The shepherd was personally responsible for the sheep so, if one was lost it was his task to, at least to bring home the fleece so that he could show how it died. They became experts at tracking and could follow a straying sheep’s tracks for miles across the hills. But in the process, it often meant risking his life for the sheep.
Many of the flocks were communal, belonging to whole villages with two or more shepherds in charge. Those whose flocks were safe would arrive home with news of any shepherd who was searching for a lost sheep. Often this would mean villagers looking out for the remaining shepherd to return. When he was sighted, they would shout for joy.
It is on this experience that Jesus based his parable. This, he said, is what God is like. God is glad when a lost sinner is found, just as a shepherd is filled with joy when a strayed sheep is brought home.
The coin referred to here, refers to a silver drachma worth only about £1. It would not be difficult to lose a coin in a Palestinian home, as peasant’s houses were very dark and, if they did have a window, it would have been no more than a circle of about 18 cm in diameter. The floor was beaten earth covered with dried reeds and rushes, so to look for anything lost would literally be like looking for a needle in a haystack. The woman swept the floor in the hope that she might see it glint or hear it tinkle as it moved.
Barclay suggests that there are two reasons why the woman might have been so eager to find it:
It could have been a matter of sheer necessity. £1 would have had much more buying power then than it does today as it amounted to more than a day’s wage for a working man in Palestine. These people lived on the edges of poverty. She would have needed to search, because otherwise the family would not eat.
There could have been a more romantic reason. The mark of a married woman was a head dress made of ten silver coins linked together by a silver chain. For years a young girl would save in order to have ten coins to make her wedding ‘crown’. Once she had this and was married, it could never be taken from her – even for the payment of a debt. It could have been that the women in the parable had lost one of these.
In either case, it is easy to think of the joy of the woman when she eventually found the coin and why she would celebrate. This is what the joy of God is like when one sinner comes home – like the joy of a found coin that stood between a family and hunger or of a married woman who had lost part of her most treasured possession.
No Pharisee had ever thought of a God like this. This was something absolutely new which Jesus taught them about God; that He actually sought out people to save. The Jews might have agreed that if a person came crawling home to God in self abasement and prayed for pity, they might find it; but they would never have conceived of a God who went out in search for sinners. Barclay concludes:
“We believe in the seeking love of God, because we see that love incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to seek and save that which is lost.”
Throughout this chapter, Jesus is speaking about repentance. I know this conjures up the idea that he is being negative, but for me, repenting is always something positive, because metanoia – having a change of mind and turning from inappropriate things - is always lovely, because we are given the chance to start again.
Here, Jesus is providing a different understanding of what it means to repent from the view of the Pharisees. For them, it meant adopting their standards of purity and ultra-strict law observance. For Jesus, to repent means to follow him and his ways. Jesus is implying that the Pharisees and other religious leaders also needed to repent and they would have views this as an outrage.
There is a party going on – all heaven is having a party – because people are turning away from their sin. We too should be part of this and be filled with joy. The two halves of God’s creation – heaven and earth – are meant to fit together and be in harmony with each other. If you discover what is going on in heaven, you will discover how things are meant to be on earth. This is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘... on earth as it is in heaven ...’
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed differently: they were of the view that the Temple was the closest thing to heaven. In order to enter the Temple one needed to go through elaborate cleaning rituals and follow the ways of the priests. Now Jesus is saying that Heaven is having a wonderful party every time one sinner sees the light and began to follow God’s ways.
Our lives should be characterised by joy because this is the product of repentance. Each day we need to make a decision to follow the ways of Jesus, and so when we pray we ‘... call to mind our sins ...’ and repent of them.
Tom Wright reminds us that the particular sheep and the particular coin are not of significance – the only thing of importance was that they were lost. This would have been of great significance to the sinners that were gathered there; the realisation that it was not they who had to do something, it was God who came in search of them – as Wright writes: “He loved coming looking for them, and celebrated finding them.” Jesus was doing what God was doing, searching them out and finding them – welcoming them and loving them.
Wright issues a challenge to us in the modern world:
What would we have to do, in the visible, public world, if we were to make people ask the questions to which stories like these are the answer?
We need to be living the sort of lives that are so different to those of the rest of the world, that would make people stop and ask: “Why are you living the way you do?” “Why are you different?”
It would also need to be attractive ... peaceful, loving, gentle, compassionate ... bearing the fruits of the Spirit.
It would seem that the world is lost, and we need to be God’s agents to go out in love and find them and rejoice in the process. At the same time we will probably raise eyebrows because it could involve welcoming those whom society has shunned in their own unique for of Pharisaism.
H.H. Staton in his book, "A Guide to the Parables of Jesus" tells the story of having been on an ocean liner headed to the Middle East.
Nine hundred miles out to sea a sail was sighted on the horizon. As the liner drew closer, the passengers saw that the boat - a small sloop flying a Turkish flag - had run up a distress signal and other flags asking for its position at sea. Through a faulty chronometer or immature navigation the small vessel had become lost. For nearly an hour the liner circled the little boat, giving its crew correct latitude and longitude. Naturally there was a great deal of interest in all the proceeding among the passengers of the liner. A boy of about 12 standing on the deck and watching all that was taking place remarked aloud to himself - "It's a big ocean to be lost in."
Life is also a big thing to be lost in, too. And we do get lost - we get mixed up and turned around. We despair, we make mistakes, we do evil to each other. We deserve the wrath of God and that is what the Pharisees who criticized Jesus maintained. But Jesus understood God more. He knew God as a Shepherd in search of the one lost sheep. He knew God as a woman searching in the dark, in the crevasses, for that valuable coin. In the end it was Jesus' view of God which prevailed and not his critics.