Get Ready to Cheer for the Bad Guy

 Then 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. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then 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.’ And 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. And 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. “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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:1-13

Watch tv, go see a movie, read a book and you will discover the characters we are drawn to are often those that are less than perfect. They are antiheros who are deeply flawed. Often the characters acting in their own self-interest are those who save the day for everyone else: Gunfighters, crooked cops, mobsters, or a conman with a heart of gold. We love stories where a character with feet of clay do something good.

There is an old Mel Gibson movie, which I don’t think I ever saw, and if I did, I forgot everything about it except the preview. The movie was called Payback and preview began with a voiceover, “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

Payback (1999)

When we turn to the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-13) it is as though Jesus does the same voice over: “Get ready to cheer for the bad guy.”

This was a servant in charge of a master’s estate. He is was charged by someone with being wasteful and squandering his boss’s riches. Evidently the charges were serious enough or easy enough to establish that his master fires him without investigation. But they weren’t so serious that he had security accompany him to immediately clear out his desk and escort him from the building. He is given time to put a report in order.

The manager knows that he doesn’t have the strength to dig ditches, back breaking labor usually reserved for foreign slaves captured in war (the way America used to use slaves for such work, and now use prison work crews). He is too proud to sit by the side of the highway with a carboard sign which reads:

MIDDLE MANAGER OUT OF WORK.

ANYTHING HELPS

So, he devises a plan. He calls in all the people he knows who are in debt to his master. One man owes 100 jugs of olive oil to him, likely about 850 gallons of olive oil. No small sum. “Quick take your bill and make it 50.” Another debtor owed his master 100 containers of wheat. This was the amount yield you would get from 100 acres. “Take your bill and make it 80. The percentages that the manager reduced their bills, 50% and 20% were different, but in both cases, it came to about 500 denarii, roughly about 2 years’ pay for a day laborer.

When the master gets word about what his wasteful manager did, you would think he would be upset. The manager was aleady in trouble for squandering the master’s estate and  here he just cut him out of an additional 1000 denarii. But we are told the master praises “the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. “

If this strikes us a strange reaction from the master, Jesus seems to add his own condemnation, “for the children of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 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.”

See the source image

This is called the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. While some critical Bible scholars argue about which of Jesus’ words in the gospel he really said, almost no one can imagine anyone else saying this. No moralizing bishop from the second century would praise such an unsavory character.

As I have studied the parable. I have discovered there is wide disagreement  from one commentator to the next on how we should interpret it. There are no fewer than 16 different interpretations of the parable.[1] Some scholars absolve the shrewd manager of any wrongdoing. They say, the master of the house was the one who was in the wrong and the debts that the manager forgave were really the interest rates that Deuteronomy 23:20 stated shouldn’t be charged a fellow Israelite. Others argue that the manager forgave the portion of the debt that was his own share. There is a paucity of details in Jesus’ parable and there is no internal evidence that the master was bad. The manager on the other hand is described first as wasteful, and then as dishonest.

One creative take, is that the shrewd manager is really Jesus, accused of being wasteful by the religious elites, he then acts to forgive our debt to the Master. I don’t think so, Tim. There is too much moral ambiguity about the manager’s actions for me to think that this is a really Christological parable. Though the forgiving of debts does connect to the larger theme of Jubilee in Luke’s gospel.[2]

Most of this wrangling is unnecessary. In the passage Jesus never praises the manager for his alleged wastefulness or his dishonesty. He praises him for being shrewd.  And in verses 10-13 he praises faithfulness over dishonesty:

If you are faithful in little, you will be faithful with much, and if you are dishonest with little you will be dishonest with much,”

and commends faithfulness with ‘dishonest wealth’ as requisite for being entrusted true riches:

If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches?” And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.”

And then Jesus says that you can’t serve both God and mammon (vs 13). None of this seems like a glowing endorsement of the manager’s wastefulness and dishonest dealings[3] The manager was a bad guy. Nevertheless, Jesus cheers on the bad guy, because this bad guy was so shrewd.

See the source image

Christine Pohl says:

Jesus does not commend the manager’s practices, but rather his insight into the connection between resources and relationships. When we consider our wealth and economic practices—even the means we employ to accomplish good ends—as peripheral to the kingdom, we are ignoring Jesus’ warning that it is impossible to serve God and mammon.[4]

So, the question for us is this: Each of us has money and resources at our disposal, how can we use the things we have to serve God? In what ways can we, like the shrewd manager, make friends who will care for us long after our money is gone? How can we use our resources to build relationships?

And if we are bold enough to ask: Are there ways I serve wealth more than God?

See the source image

I am not a big fan of giving to charities, unless I know something about their work. We know we ought to be generous and we give to issues we think matter. But sometimes, giving to charity is an inoculation against really caring for people. It is easy to be kind to those we don’t know a lot harder to be a friend to someone who is struggling.

I came across a quote this week from the Peruvian, Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, ““You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”[5]

The lesson Jesus gleans from the shrewd manager is “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.”

What of instead of giving money to a homeless mission we befriended that homeless person in our neighborhood? Instead of serving a meal at a shelter to someone we’ve never met, we bought dinner for the person with the cardboard sign and we sat down and ate with them and listened to their story? What if we stop using our money to keep those people away but instead used our money and resources to care for them in tangible ways? And yes, we should direct some of our resources to organizations doing good work in the world, but our giving should never be an inoculation for caring for the poor, the widowed and the vulnerable that God places in our midst.

Jesus teaches us that what we do with the money and resources we are entrusted with today, is related to our experience of the riches God has in store for us. Therefore, use money to make friends!   The one who is faithful with little will be faithful with much. We can’t serve both God and mammon.

We live in a consumer culture and everything tells us to invest in our own enjoyment and security. Drive a nice car, have a comfortable home, buy more toys, have a nice nest egg for your future. And to some extent, we buy in.  But when even a bad guy uses his resources for the good of others and to make friends, we cheer him on. We cheer for the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy who does good, is us.


See the source image



[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 406-409.

[2] See Luke 4:16-22.

[3] I am aware that many scholars see verse 10-13 as only tangentially related to the parable (i.e. Jesus sayings that were placed by Luke here, but not necessarily commenting on the story).

[4] Christine Pohl, “Profit and Loss,” Christian Century, August 29–September 5, 2001, 13.[4]

[5] Cagle, Ryan. Twitter Post. Sept 19, 10:18 PM. https://twitter.com/_ryancagle/status/1174915706527174657

see also Greenfield , Craig, “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?” CraigGreenfield.com, January 8, 2016, www.craiggreenfield.com/blog/2016/philanthropy

T is for Tears (an alphabet for penitents)

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. -Luke 19:40-44

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Jesus came to the city triumphant, celebrated as King and riding on a Donkey foal. Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. They hailed him as King in the pageantry of Palm Sunday [incidently, there are interesting resonances between Jesus’ and Jacob Maccabee’s triumphal entry a century and a half earlier]. Days later these same folks would chant, “Crucify Him! Bring us Barrabas!” But today was a day of fanfare. No one present foresaw the tragedy of the coming week. No one, except Jesus.

When he drew near the city, he wept. There stood the Son of God, snotty faced and red eyed, his voice shaking,“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes . . .” Jesus wept for the spiritual blindness of the people—the way that their patterns of behavior, leadership, and systems had put them on a  path of destruction. Jesus wept because, in a few short decades, the city would be under siege. The walls of the city and the temple would be destroyed in 70AD. Those in the city walls would be crushed. Jesus wept because the people didn’t recognize the day of their visitation—Jesus, the Word made Flesh—he Incarnate God was riding into the city. The people did not see. 

Tears are cathartic. A good cry is an emotional response which releases an endorphin that helps reduce pain and improve our mood. Far from being a sign of weakness, emotional tears give us the strength to face difficult tasks. Sometimes naming past wounds can cause tears to well up in our eyes and provide the emotional release that allows you to move forward. If you have had a good cry in the face of grief, loss, betrayal, rejection, you know what I am talking about. This is sometimes embarrassing because when you cry your emotional self is exposed. But it is always good.

Tears are an essential component of the spiritual life and a sign that we are open to the rhythms of God’s grace. We have had too much of spiritual dry eye—the stony-faced rationalism of late Enlightenment Christianity. But like grace, tears can’t (or shouldn’t) be manufactured. Crocodile tears and manipulating the emotions are signs of a spirituality gone amiss. Yet, the soul sensitized to God’s heart will feel what God feels.

You may find yourself weeping at systemic injustice, racism, poverty, violence, war.  You might cry about the path we are on—the mutually assured destruction inherent in our divisiveness, violence, and mistrust. Your heart may break for your city and the spiritual blindness you find there, the ways people miss God’s presence and purposes. The soul that perceives the peril of our mutual life but never cries is dangerous.  It is the cryers that have the emotional honesty to name the pain. They don’t medicate their pain with distractions but take an honest look at the predicament we are in. We need more red-eyed prophets to show us a better way to navigate the world.

God soften our hearts so that it will break for what breaks Your heart. Let us feel what You feels. Give us the strength to look at our predicament and face the days ahead. 

 

A Prayer For All Saints Day

For all the saints who from their labors rest. . .

We thank You and give You praise.

It was You that shaped them,

sustained them,

made them hunger and thirst for righteousness,

So that through their life and witness we would be

inspired by their heartbeat for justice and their tenacious hope

in dark, difficult times.

Thank you for unsung saints–

never beaitified but beautiful in your eye–

whose deep prayer spoke life to dead bones

whose quiet service and tender care

kept us connected to Christ when faith was fragile

and resolution weak.

For their lives we are thankful. Thank-you

for the ways they embody Your Life

and bind our lives to Yours

where we are all bound together

in the unity of the Spirit

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

A Commentary on Judges and Ruth: a book review

While Evangelicals declare that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), we do not make much space for certain books of the Old Testament in worship. Take the book of Judges. Besides the Gideon and Samson stories in children’s Bibles and Sunday school lessons, Judges is left untouched by many churches. The Sunday Revised Common Lectionary has just one reading from Judges in its three year cycle (Judges 4:1-7) which highlights Deborah, the female Judge and prophetess. Of course, this is a mere fragment of the Deborah/Barak story, ignoring the main action of the chapter (the actual battle with Sisera and his destruction at the hands of Jael). The book of Ruth fairs a little better (it is not a violent book, so the RCL is less reticent to exclude it). There are two passages included in year B (not too bad for a four-chapter-book).

But the books that are most difficult for us, and feel archaic to our modern sensibilities, sometimes have the most to teach us. Robert Chisholm does a masterful job of mining the depths of Judges and Ruth and bringing homiletic insights to working preachers. I have not read Chisholm in any substansive way before, though I did reference his From Exegesis to Exposition several times in seminary. In A Commentary on Judges and RuthChisholm examines the passage through a synchronic lens, with an eye for its historical impact and literary craft. He then draws out the theological import and suggests a direction for pastors who will be preaching from the passage.

The book of Judges and Ruth occupy the same historical period in Biblical history (the time of the Judges, cf Ruth 1:1).  But their tone could not be more different. Judges describes Israel’s failure to possess the land, their repeated fall into idolatry where they ‘do evil in the eyes of the Lord,” and the way the surrounding cultures contribute the the moral decay of the nation. In the beginning of the book, when a ‘Judge’ is raised up by God in response to the people crying out and returning back to him, the Judge acts decisively to deliver the nation. Othniel (3:7-11) and Ehud (3:12-31) set the standard. However when Deborah commissions Barak to deliver the people, we see him hesitate (4:8). This hesitancy to act (or to follow) is evident in every cycle in the later part of the book (i.e. Gideon, Jepthah, Samson). When you get to Jepthah (10:6-12:15), a generally righteous judge you find that he is so affected by the surrounding culture that human sacrifice is an acceptable offering in exchange for victory (336).  Samson’s twenty year ‘rule’ is not accompanied by any sort of crying out to the LORD by the people, no one rallies around him, and he only fights the Philistines on his own whim.  The epilogue of Judges (17-21) records two episodes which evidence the moral degradation of the nation (including nationally sanctioned rape).

The tone of Ruth is much more hopeful. Naomi returns from Moab a widow who had lost her sons. Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law comes with her, though there is no prospect of an heir or a future for her there. When she goes to glean in the fields of Boaz, she is treated with kindness. When Naomi hears of it, she hatches a plot to get Ruth hitched. In the end Boaz marries Ruth and the two become the great grandparents of David (and she is included in the Messianic line of Jesus).

For each episode in these books, Chisholm presents a translation and narrative struture (noting the Hebrew syntax in his translation), discusses literary structure, exposits and discusses the message and application. The final section is where he draws out the exegetical and theological themes and points at homiletical trajectories. This is a tightly organized and well presented framework and it read well (which you can’t often say of higher level commentaries). Chisholm is a confessional scholar and so sits under the text. As an exegete, he has a sharp eye for the original context, and his exposition is helpful for drawing out a message for today which is faithful to the text. I also appreciated that he discusses at length in his comments, the degradation of the treatment of women throughout the book of Judges. He is cognizant of feminist critiques of Judges, even if his reading is much more conservative (i.e. he hints at Deborah’s appointment as Judge the result of the lack of male leadership. Though certainly the Hebrew scriptures attest elsewhere that God’s choice is not necessarily society’s choice). I appreciated his handling of the Ruth story as well (some of his translation notes are golden here!), but it his reading of Judges which garners my highest praise.

This is the second volume in the Kregel Exegetical Library I have reviewed (the first was Volume 1 of the Psalms by Allen Ross). On the strength of these two volumes, I think this is going to be an excellent commentary series. Both volumes have strong introductions, attentiveness to historical and literary forms and practical insights. I can’t recommend this commentary enough. So if you are preaching on Judges or just want to delve in for personal study, this is well worth the effort. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me with a copy of A Commentary on Judges and Ruth in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review, but sometimes, they are that good.

Prayer for Ordinary Time (second week after Pentecost)

We worship and we wonder. . .

 

We worship and we wonder

why the God of love would

deem to pour His mercy on us.

We recount our weeks and recoil

at how often our pettiness,

unlove, and immorality

have revealed themselves.

We know we do not deserve such love.

 

We worship and we wonder

how an hour a week makes

much difference in our lives.

We stand and strain to sing songs too high for us,

we listen as the sermons too long for us,

We keep the feast  with bread and wine (juice)

far too little for us.

 

We worship and we wonder

and wonders of wonders it is enough.

God’s mercy comes for us anew

and we are changed (if not instantly

incrementally).

We eat and, wonder of wonders,

we are filled.

 

 

 

 

The Ascent of God

This coming Thursday is Ascension Day–the day in the church year when we celebrate Jesus’ post-resurrection-trip-to-heaven. While this is a significant event in Christ’s life and the life of the church, it doesn’t get much play in today’s churches. Growing up in church I remember 2D disciples and flannelgraph feet, but I don’t remember much else said about Jesus’ Ascension. If your church recites the Creeds  then it  is affirmed: “he ascended into heaven.” However it is little emphasized in worship, in readings, or preaching. Only Luke records the event (though he does it twice) and we may wonder what the big deal is.

In another age the Ascension was celebrated as the crowning  glory of  the Incarnation. Listen to St. Augustine:

The Ascension is the festival which confirms the grace of all other festivals put together–without which the profitableness of every other festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, His nativity would have come to nothing . . . and His passion would have borne no fruit for us . . . and His most holy resurrection would have been useless. -St. Augustine, quoted in Tim Perry & Aaron Perry, He Ascended into Heaven ( Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010) 3.

The following observations are my musings on the significance of the Ascension. I affirm the event as a historic reality. Jesus stood with his disciples somewhere near Bethany where they witnessed him taken to heaven. While the events of Jesus’ Ascension are only described by Luke in Luke 24 and Acts 1, there are a number of passages  assume its reality.

So why does it matter? Here are three observations:

  1. The Ascension means Jesus is absent.  In another sense, us post-Pentecost believers know Christ’s presence with us through the ministry of the Spirit. We cling to Jesus’ promise to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). But let’s not gloss  over Jesus absence. One moment Jesus was with his disciples, the next moment he was taken up into heaven and they were told that in the same way he departed, he would one day return.  Because  of the Ascension we are people between times: Jesus is no longer with us bodily, Jesus will one day return. We pray and work toward the Kingdom of God but as post-Ascension people we live in the ‘already but not yet’ tension of the Kingdom of God. 
  2. The Ascension means that Christ’s Incarnate work is finished. We love Christmas with all its fanfare and we walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary through Lent and Holy Week. On Easter we proclaim Christ’s resurrection with shouts, songs and chocolate bunnies. As significant as Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection are, they lose their meaning unless they are sealed by his Ascension.  If Jesus the incarnate one does not return to the Father, than we are left with a fractured deity. If the words of dereliction on the cross resulted in Christ’s eternal separation from God, then there is no hope for humanity.  The Ascension is Christ’s vindication and proof that God’s favor rests on Him. Philippians 2:5-11 describe how the Ascension is the telos of Christ’s Incarnation:

    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

    Who, being in very nature God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

    rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

    And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

    even death on a cross!

    Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

    and gave him the name that is above every name,

    10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

  3. The Ascension means that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God.  Jesus is exalted and that means Jesus reigns! This is good news, especially in a world with marathon bombings, political and social unrest, bloodshed.  Things on earth are not all as they should be (or will be!), but we can be confident that the risen and ascended Christ, sits with God and intercedes on our behalf.

So Thursday night  celebrate the Ascendant one and give thanks that the Christ who is absent will one day return, that his salvific, incarnational work is completed, that he reigns in glory and holds you in his hands.

Prayer for Easter 4

The Lectionary Text for today includes the Shepherd’s Psalm (Psalm 23).  I am singing and playing on the worship team at my church tonight and we’ll  be singing the House of God Forever by Jon Foreman (video below). Here is a prayer based on this season and the Psalm (the prayer is my own and you shouldn’t blame Jon Foreman for it).

Death’s Dark Valley–

If we doubted  that’s where we were,

this week’s events have shown us.

We mourn for those in Boston,

for West Texas,

for Syria and other war-torn places,

for the suffering of those we know and love.

We mourn and ask, “How long?”

We wonder where you are.

 

Resurrected Shepherd

lead us to quiet waters,

Bring us to green pastures,

restore us and make us whole.

May we know your presence with us

here in Death’s Dark Valley.

Guide our steps and keep us from wandering.

Prepare Your Table for us

though we are surrounded by enemies

We long to taste your goodness and mercy.

May we dwell in your house forever.