Called by Jesus
Have you ever heard the expression you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? When we look at the motley crew Jesus chose for disciples, it seems like he was determined to make silk purses out of sow’s ears. He chose illiterate fishermen, a skeptical carpenter, an itinerant laborer, and a least one tax collector — not exactly promising material for making disciples. His followers argued with one another about who was smarter, better, more important. They vied with one another for position and privilege in the inner circle. At the Last Supper, when Jesus was trying to tell them he was going to be betrayed, arrested and executed, the disciples were arguing about who was going to be the Prime Minister, and who was going to be Secretary of the Treasury, when Jesus became King. They boasted about how devoted they were to Jesus, “oh, Jesus, I will follow you even to death,” and then when the chips were down, they all ran away into hiding. One of them sold him out for pocket change. What a bunch, and all of them were chosen by Jesus, called to follow him to proclaim the Commonwealth of God.
Our scripture this morning focuses on the calling of Matthew, or Levi as one of Jesus’ inner circle. Matthew was a tax collector, and in First Century Israel publicans were outcastes. Good Jews considered tax collectors to be low lifes, lumped together with pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. A good Jew tried to avoid contact with them, and if they did happen to be touched by a tax collector they would perform ritual washings in order to cleanse themselves of the contamination caused by physical contact with a sinner. Of course casual contact with a tax collector was sometimes unavoidable and would have been bad enough, but sitting down to eat with one was out of the question. And if you think that is strange or something that only happened long ago and far away just consider, Rose Rushin can remember a time when she would not have been allowed to sit down in many restaurants in Huntsville.
As a matter of fact Rose tells a story about when she was a young woman coming back from a tour of Europe, and she was taking the train home from New York to Birmingham. She had to change trains in Atlanta. It was late in the evening and after the freedom of Europe, she just couldn’t abide the prospect of having to wait in the colored waiting room. So she went and sat down in the fairly deserted white waiting room. A little man came up to her and told her that she wasn’t allowed to sit there. So in protest, Rose stood in the white waiting room until she could board her train. So, maybe the behavior of First Century Jews isn’t so long ago and far away.
Good Jews had four objections to having contact with tax collectors. They were seen as puppets, stooges of the Romans. They were collaborators with the occupying enemy. The system of tax farming almost inevitably led to extortion and theft. Tax collectors bid for their jobs. They paid a fee to be allowed to collect the taxes, and then they were allowed to keep whatever they could manage to extort from the public over and above the fee they had paid for their job — sort of like running for Congress. Such a system guaranteed dishonesty. Maybe the way some of us view politicians today – like the system sort of guarantees dishonesty. Tax collectors in the performance of their duties had contact with all kinds of different people including gentiles – contacts that rendered them ritually unclean. Because they were looked down upon and avoided by “good people,” tax collectors tended to hang out with other low lifes, rendering them permanently “unclean.”
I remember many years ago attending an arraignment hearing for a number of men who were accused of various crimes. There were five of them. The first man’s name was called and he was being arraigned for simple burglary. The second man who looked really tough was being brought up for assault and battery. He had beat up his girlfriend and put her in the hospital. The third man was accused of armed robbery. The fourth man was up for attempted murder with a knife. Even in front of the judge the four tough guys seemed to swagger. They were pretty hardened criminals. The fifth guy didn’t seem to fit the mold. He looked almost mousy. And when the prosecutor read the accusation that he had sexually molested eight children, there was an audible gasp from the tough guys and they shuffled over to their right to put as much distance between themselves and the pedophile. I heard the attempted murderer say to one of the Sheriff’s Deputies, “I ain’t sharin’ no cell with him.” Even among hardened criminals there are outcastes.
So when Jesus called a tax collector to become part of his inner circle, and he even went to Matthew’ s house to sit down and have dinner with a bunch of tax collectors and other low lifes, the good people, the pious people, the folks with the best seats in the synagogue, were having a fit. If you can picture this, a substantial house in Capernaum would have had a front door or gate opening into a courtyard. The feast was probably set up in the court yard around a low table with the guests reclining on pillows reaching into the table with their hands to eat from shared eating bowls. You see why clean and unclean was so important for table fellowship. Some of Jesus’ disciples were probably near the gate, with the pious types not willing to enter the house standing outside looking in at the feast from the street.
I can see and hear a couple of them calling to some of Jesus’ disciples closest to the door, “hey, if your teacher is so great, why is he eating with pimps, prostitutes, druggies and tax collectors?” They of course said this in a loud enough voice for Jesus to hear them.
And if we stop and think about the context we will realize Jesus’ answer was masterful. “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners.” I didn’t come to call the righteous but sinners. That answer has a kick like a mule. Of course our mission is to those who need help. The church is not supposed to be a museum of saints but rather a school for sinners. If you already have it all together, if you have already aspired to sainthood, if you are perfect, you don’t need Jesus. Jesus helps sinners.
And the truth that we all should know is we are all sinners. We all need help but some of us are so impressed by our goodness we think we can afford to look down upon others, as if their sins or their behavior is somehow so much worse than ours. Like the four hardened criminals who edged away from the pedophile. Sometimes we might even be tempted to try to deny other sinners a place in our community of faith because we believe their shortcomings are so much worse than our own, or their theology or their behavior is so inferior to ours. Oh dear me. We are like the attempted murderer who said to the Sheriff’s Deputy, “I ain’t a gonna share a cell with him.” “I ain’t a gonna share a church with the likes of them.”
The truth is the folks who have the hardest time being saved are those of us good folks who can’t acknowledge our need of the physician. None of us is righteous. We are all struggling with our demons, our addictions, our bad attitudes, our bad behavior our inflated egos, our self-righteousness. And it doesn’t make any difference if our sins are big black and smelly or a peck of petty peccadillos, we all need God’s forgiveness and love. We all need the gospel. Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners, and if we can just get down on our knees long enough to pray, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” if we can just welcome our neighbors no matter their backgrounds, no matter their sins, whether they agree with us or not, maybe Jesus can make us into disciples too. Most of us aren’t very promising material. We’re self-centered, self-indulgent, self-righteous and addicted to our stuff. Oh how we like our stuff. Jesus challenges us to pray and step out in faith, and we play it safe and check our bank accounts.
Jesus has called each and every one of us. We wouldn’t be here, if Jesus hadn’t called us. Follow me. We may have received the invitation through a friend, a spouse, a partner, a book, but we are here because at one time or another we heard Jesus’ invitation, “Come, follow me.” We are no better and no worse than that motley crew Jesus gathered around him. And if we can kneel and receive God’s forgiveness, our hearts can be transformed, so we can embrace others with the love of Jesus. For no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
Sentences for John March 4 – May 27
March 4: Luke 17:11-19. Lepers lived outside of the community. They sort of formed a society all their own. They were all ritually unclean whether Israelite of Samaritan. Leprosy in the First Century was any chronic skin disease, not necessarily true leprosy or Hansen’s Disease, with lesions and the loss of fingers and toes and eventual death. Someone with really severe psoriasis would have been labeled a leper and forced to live outside the village depending upon the charity of relatives for food. The social isolation and ostracism was often as bad or worse than the disease.
These lepers had probably heard stories of a miracle worker, and so when Jesus approached their village, they sought him out hoping for a miracle. Hope is powerful. Hope is related to faith and love. The ten lepers are bold enough to ask for help: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
Jesus didn’t even touch them, but instead he told them to fulfill the law, as if they were already healed: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” All of the ten started on their way to see the priest, without questioning, apparently having faith that something would happen. And while they were “on their way” they were cleansed, all of them without exception.
One of them, a Samaritan, realizing he has been healed, stops in his tracks turns around and offers thanks to Jesus for his healing. Now we might ask why a Samaritan would have tried to show himself to the priest anyway? Would the priest of seen the Samaritan? Now that they were all healed, perhaps the society of the suffering in which even a Samaritan could be accepted would come to an end.
We should note this story is unique to Luke, just as the Parable of the Good Samaritan is unique to Luke and does not occur in any of the other canonical gospels. We might then conclude these two stories were meant to support the early church’s mission to the Samaritan people and indeed ultimately to gentiles. Gratitude is the natural out-flowing of faith, and even gentiles know gratitude. Indeed, the early church was confounded that Israel took Jesus for granted, even rejected the church’s claim he was the Messiah, while the Samaritans and the gentiles embraced him as Messiah.
March 11: Luke 22:7-23. The story begins with cloak and dagger. In order to conceal his location from the Temple authorities and his suspected betrayer, Jesus sends disciples into the City, where they are to follow a man carrying a jar of water. Since carrying water was women’s work, a man carrying water would have been an obvious sign for the disciples. Also their instructions were not to greet the man carrying water on the street but rather to follow him into the house where he entered. In this way anyone trying to follow Jesus’ disciples might be thrown off the trail. Jesus would decide not to run away from his arrest, but he did not want to be arrested prematurely before he had the opportunity for the Last Supper with his disciples.
The story then suggests that Jesus intended for something very important to happen at the Last Supper, and indeed, the symbolic actions he initiated at that meal become the central act of worship of the community of faith he left behind. From the beginning his Disciples remembered the words and actions of Jesus by sharing the breaking of the bread. The breaking of the bread was also reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 the symbolic meal that foreshadowed the Commonwealth of God. If you share with one another, if you love one another, if self-sacrificing love becomes the hallmark of your lives, then the Commonwealth of God will be in the midst of you – “Do this in remembrance of me.” When we share the bread and the wine, we remember the way of Jesus, and his love is to become embodied in us.
March 18: Matthew 26:36-50. “Betrayal in the Garden.” Almost all humans who live in community will at one time or another experience betrayal. Betrayal hurts so much, because it comes to us at the hands of someone we have loved and trusted. Why do humans betray one another? Many motives: envy, greed, hurt, ego, misunderstanding, lust, fear, disappointment, disillusionment. Judas had been a trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle. He was the treasurer. And the early church’s identification of greed as the motive, was probably simplistic and inaccurate. The driving force behind Judas’ betrayal was probably much deeper and more complicated. If he committed suicide afterward, Judas’ betrayal must have haunted him, and ultimately appeared to him as a betrayal of himself as well as a friend. Why do we do it? What can we do, when we find ourselves betrayed? There is so much we can learn in the Garden with Jesus.
March 25: Matthew 26:69-75; Luke 22:54-62 “A Failure of Courage.” I have always identified with Peter, because when push comes to shove I am a coward. Put me on the spot and my knees quake and my courage fails. Peter at least had the courage to follow Jesus after his arrest, when all the rest of the disciples scattered. But what about his profession of love and loyalty he had voiced only a few hours before?
Luke 22:33 “And he said to Jesus, ‘Lord I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!’”
Jesus understood that Peter would fail. Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and when you have turned again, strengthen your bretheren.”
Like Peter Jesus can see right through us. God knows our limits. God knows we will fail. God calls us to pick ourselves back up and go on.
We should note that no one among the disciples at least knew about Peter’s failure. The only reason this story has come down to us is because Peter shared it and retold it, because he realized that God had forgiven him and strengthened him for a purpose. There is a legend that when Peter was in Rome and Nero began rounding up the Christians for execution, Peter got word and tried to slip out of town. But as he was walking away from the City, he had a vision of Jesus walking into the City, and the Jesus he met on the road our of town asked him, “quo vadis?” Where are you going? And Peter turned around and went back into Rome to accept his martyrdom.
April 1: Mark 11:1-11. “Occupy Jerusalem.” The Romans and the Chief Priest were in charge in Jerusalem, and Jesus came to town to challenge them. Like the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, Jesus knew he needed large numbers of supporters in a public demonstration or he would be marginalized maybe even eliminated his first day in town. So he planned a demonstration. “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Were they crazy, an unarmed peasant king over against the well oiled machinery of the Temple and the military might of Rome? Who would have bet that Hosni Mubarak would be on trial in Egypt today, or that Muamar Qadaffi would be overthrown and dead? The priests and the Romans were very afraid. No wonder they killed him on Friday.
April 8: Matthew 28:1-10 “He Is Going Before You.” The cult of the empty tomb is a way of trying to limit Jesus. If we focus on the empty tomb, we can locate him in time and space, and then we can try to control him. But Jesus is not there, he has risen and he is going before us into the world. We cannot stop him, we cannot tame him, we cannot control him, we cannot place limits on the activities of the Holy Spirit. All we can do is run as fast as we can to catch up to where Jesus is going before us into the world.
The resurrection is a Parable for the church. For too long we have huddled behind the safety of the walls of the church. Maybe one reason for the decline of the church in America today is to motivate us to go looking for where Jesus has gone on before us into the world. Jesus doesn’t care very much whether our particular way of doing church survives. Jesus is too busy looking for the hurting, the least and the lost. He is going before us. Let’s run to catch up. Again let’s reference Albert Schweitzer’s summary of the call to discipleship: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
April 15: Luke 24:13-35. “Not Zombie Jesus.” When the followers of Jesus encountered the living Christ after the death of Jesus, whatever they were experiencing, it was not a resuscitated corpse. Christ on the Road to Emmaus was not a zombie Jesus. Cleopas and his traveling companion walked and talked with the stranger on the road for hours but they did not recognize him until the stranger took the bread, blessed it and broke it, and then their eyes were opened and they recognized him. What did it mean to open their eyes? Can our eyes be opened. Why was the breaking of the bread so important to their recognition and understanding? Table Fellowship was symbolic and important. Sharing bread was a symbol of community, of the openness and acceptance of the love of Jesus that crossed class, caste and cultural boundaries. The breaking of the bread was symbolic of Jesus setting aside the taboos of his culture. Perhaps when we stop chasing the Zombie Jesus, and embrace the Christ who shares, who crosses caste, class and cultural boundaries, who advocates for the poor and the oppressed, our eyes might be opened and we might recognize the risen Christ in our midst.
April 22: John 21:1-22 “What’s it to you?” Somehow the disciples never seem to grow up. In this resurrection appearance that occurs only in John, the Risen Christ three times asks Peter, if Peter loves him. This is to match the three times Peter denied Jesus. In the midst of this exchange with Jesus, Peter catches sight of the “beloved disciple,” and his envy, his resentment, his jealousy is aroused, and he essentially asks Jesus why he is more affectionate with John. Why is John your favorite? And Jesus responds rather starkly by asking Peter, “what’s it to you?” Do we ever wonder if God likes other people better because they seem to have better fortune? Jesus says, “get over it. You have work to do. It will be enough if you do what I have asked you to do.”
April 29: Matthew 28:9-10, 16-20 “Honest Doubt.” So the Disciples go back to Galilee. But that was kind of a no brainer, since they lived in Galilee. What’s the percentage in hanging around Jerusalem, especially with the Temple Police looking for them. They go to an unnamed designated mountain – could have been either Mt. Tabor or Mt. Hermon – probably the site of the transfiguration. The resurrected Christ appears to them, and they worship him, but some doubted.
Hey wait a minute, what’s this some doubted? Didn’t everyone see him? Couldn’t they see with their own eyes? Why the doubt? Maybe like many of us the Disciples lived somewhere between belief and doubt. They wanted to believe, oh how they wanted to believe, but there was that little niggle of doubt in the back of their minds. It’s O.K.! We don’t have to have perfect faith to be disciples of Jesus, we just have to have enough faith to go ahead and live the way of Jesus even when we are plagued by doubts. Remember the Father of the epileptic child, “I believe, but help my unbelief.” Faith the size of a mustard seed is just enough to see us through, if we are desperate enough and hopeful enough to bring our needs to Jesus.
May 6: Acts 3:1-10. “I Give You What I Have.” The lame man was brought to the “beautiful” gate every day to beg. Probably this was one of the gates on the south side of the Temple complex leading into a tunnel and a set of stair up to Solomon’s Porch. This position would have had a lot of traffic and have been highly advantageous for begging. But if this man was brought there every day, then Jesus must have passed by him several times, when he was coming and going to the Temple. This raises the question, why didn’t Jesus heal the man? First, we need to understand that Jesus didn’t just go around randomly healing every person with whom he came in contact. In all of the gospel stories about healing Jesus was approached by a sick person or someone close to the sick person asking for healing. There is something important about our asking for help that makes a difference. We have to cooperate in our own healing. We have to “want” to be healed before healing can occur. No one can heal us against our will.
The lame man asked for alms. Peter used this as an opportunity to engage the lame man’s faith for healing. In this case even the lame man’s hope for a handout was enough to be worked into a larger miracle. Sometimes it is not silver or gold that can heal us but our own determination to change our lives and become open to faith. As people of faith trying to help others, we can only offer what we have: love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and faith.
May 13: Acts 5:12-29. “We Must Obey God Rather than Men.” Living by faith can be scary especially when our actions threaten those who are in control and authority. Living in a democracy is a rare privilege, but all we have to do is look at places like China, Russia, Syria, Iran to see the kinds of oppression those members of the early church were facing. As the early church began to experience some success in their ministry the authorities tried to intimidate them with arrest, jail, beatings. When questioned why they continued to preach the gospel Peter empowered by a courage that had earlier failed him said: “We must obey God rather than men.”
Even though for the most part we do not face life threatening intimidation our livelihoods can often we threatened, when we commit truth. The corporations will stop at almost nothing to protect their power, and now that the Supreme Court has guaranteed the Corporations the unlimited use of their money to dominate the media, we have to work incredibly hard just to make sure the truth gets a hearing. Hopefully the church can be an arena, where truth can be spoken. We can use social media. We need to work very hard to spread the Progressive Christian gospel.
May 20: Acts 9:32-42. “The Miracle of Material Aid.” Jerusalem became so hot Peter had to get out of town. So he traveled from town to town visiting the little communities of followers of Jesus offering encouragement and even praying over their sick and effecting healings. When he healed Aeneas in the village of Lydda, (Lod the location of Israel’s airport) the followers of Jesus in Joppa came to beseech Peter to come with them, because the good widow Dorcus was gravely ill.
Dorcus was one of those wonderful women who took soup to the sick, casseroles to grieving families, made dresses for orphan girls, washed and tore up old cloth to make leper bandages. When I was serving in Monee, we had a lady who diligently led the “material aid” committee. That was Dorcus. She was hands on and faithful – material aid. In Galesburg our material aid lady also suffered from schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, which just goes to prove that even in the midst of mental illness there can be a good heart.
When Peter arrived Dorcus was already dead, or at least in a deep enough coma they believed she was dead. But Peter prayed and Dorcus recovered. I don’t know what was the greater miracle, Dorcus’ recovery or Mary Alice’s good heart.
May 27: “An Intoxicating Spirit.” Something marvelous happened on that first Pentecost. A spirit filled the church that was “intoxicating.” At least it looked like it from the outside. People witnessing the disciples empowered by this spirit said, “They are filled with new wine.” Sometimes as followers of Jesus we are just too sober, too cautious, too calculating, too safe. We forget we are called to risk and joy. Love is risky especially when we reach out to others. God might call us to move out of our comfort zone. We might have to rub up against lowlifes, and poor people, give what we have away in order to find the joy of Jesus. God help us if we should get intoxicated like that. God help us.
Bible Study 1.30.12, 2.2.12, 2.5.12 For Worship 2.12.12
Luke 10:25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?”
27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
28 And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion,
34 and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
37 He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
The Parable of the Good Samaritan only appears in the Gospel of Luke. In the Acts of the Apostles Luke reports an early mission to the Samaritans. The Gospel of John even suggests that Jesus undertook a mission to Samaritans see John chapter 4. Both Luke and John were written later than Mark and Matthew, and so the sympathetic portrayal of Samaritans may have developed after the Church reached out to them.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not primarily about helping people. Jesus was far more subversive than advocating helping people by the side of the road. There were three classes of Israelites in the First Century. There were the Priests. Most of them were relatively wealthy living off of the taxes that supported the temple. Then there were the Levites. These were the temple support staff – temple musicians, accountants, scribes – the average Israelite looked on these people as having cushy jobs. The Priests and the Levites also participated in the “foreclosure racket,” of the money changers, pushing poor peasants off of their land, and then creating large landed estates that would turn around and hire back the now landless peasants at starvation wages. There was a lot of pent up anger directed toward the Priests and the Levites in Jesus’ audience. So as Jesus told his story, the average Joe in the audience was expecting the hero of Jesus’ Parable to be an Israelite. But no, Jesus made a Samaritan the hero. A Samaritan, one of those dirty stinkin Samaritans.
And here we need to stop and acknowledge just how acrimonious was the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans claimed to be the survivors of the Northern Kingdom who returned after the Assyrians had conquered and resettled them in what is today Northern Iraq. The Judeans wanted to claim the land of the former Northern Kingdom, so they vigorously denied the Samaritan claim to be remnants of the Israelites. When the Judeans were taken into in Babylon the Samaritans actively strove to prevent Judean resettlement in and around Jerusalem. There was bad blood. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks and set up for themselves an independent Kingdom, they oppressed the Samaritans. The Samaritans didn’t like the Romans much, but Roman occupation to them was better than Jewish Occupation. So if anything the Samaritans cooperated with the Romans and benefited from that relationship. When Jews from Galilee would attempt to journey to Jerusalem the Samaritans would harass them. So the favorite route for Jews was to go way out of the way to the East, down the Jordan River Valley and then up to Jerusalem in order to avoid the Samaritans.
When Jesus uses a Samaritan as the hero of his story he is really talking about transcending tribal animosities. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Good Samaritan Story was often retold using an African-American as the hero as a way of speaking to the problem of racial and ethnic conflict Jesus was addressing.
Beyond the principal theme of the Parable, let’s also consider some other points in the text. Once again Jesus answers a question with a question. A lawyer asks the question, so Jesus asks him to render an opinion. The lawyer summarizes the law using the two great commandments. Jesus applauds his answer. But then the lawyer asks the further question, the difficult question, “who is my neighbor?” In this context we can see why Jesus’ answer was so radical. If Samaritans are my neighbors, then I might have to love everyone – even people I don’t like.
Having answered a question with a question Jesus resorted to a story. The story is good and dramatic. The Jerusalem to Jericho Road was dangerous. Traveling that road by yourself was foolish. Some of the bandits on the road were lepers who had been ostracized with no family to take care of them, so they lived in the wilderness and made a living from preying upon unwary travelers. These lepers were so desperately poor they would even steal the clothes off of their victim’s backs. So the poor victim was left for dead, naked with no water in the hot Sun adding to his delirium. The Priest and the Levite pass by on the other side. Why? Perhaps they were in a hurry to get to Jerusalem, not unlike us. Perhaps they were afraid this was an ambush, so they hurried away. They may have been concerned about ritual cleanliness. If they touched a dead body, they would not be able to perform their religious duties in Jerusalem. As we have already mentioned, this was all a set up for the punch line of the Parable.
We should note Jesus states that the motivation of the Samaritan was compassion, the keynote of the ministry of Jesus. In our present day and age, as political leaders fail to show compassion for the poor and dispossessed, we need to lift up the virtue of compassion again and again. The Samaritan not only stops to help the man, probably saving his life, he transports the man to an Inn, where he pays for the care of the Israelite. And then rather than leaving the poor many to the compassion of the Inn Keeper, who was probably Israelite, the Samaritan offers to reimburse the Inn Keeper for any expense incurred, when he returns. The Samaritan truly goes the second mile.
We should also note that Jesus ends his story by again asking a question. “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The answer seems like a no brainer, but we can imagine the lawyer may have been hard put to offer up the answer. Note that he doesn’t say, “the Samaritan,” but instead answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.”
Let us also note Jesus’ close to the Parable which is his admonition to us: “Go and do likewise.” Show mercy. Be compassionate to others. Reach out to all people as your neighbor.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. What question was asked of Jesus?
2. How did Jesus respond?
3. Who asked the question?
4. When Jesus asked the person a question, what did Jesus say about his answer?
5. What is the motive given for the man’s follow up question?
6. In the Parable, where was the “victim” traveling?
7. Who was the first person to see the “victim” lying in the road?
8. Who was the second person who saw the “victim” lying in the road?
9. Who actually stops to help?
10. What further provision did the person helping make for the “victim?”
11. What motive was ascribed to the person helping the “victim?”
12. How did Jesus close the Parable?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. How important is eternal life on your list of concerns?
2. If someone asked you the question, “what should I do to inherit eternal life?” How would you respond?
3. Who do you think is your neighbor?
4. Do you have any neighbors you don’t like?
5. How do you think Jesus would retell the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Alabama in 2012 to impart the same kind of meaning his story had in the First Century?
6. Can you think of any good excuses for the Priest and the Levite?
7. Who do you think the Priest and the Levite would represent in our modern context?
8. Who would the Samaritan represent in our modern context?
9. We live in a world with cell phones, where we can call 911. Can you think of a situation in which you might have to render aid to someone?
10. How do you feel, when you come to the end of the Parable, and Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
11. Can you think of any other Parables where Jesus stands our normal sense of values on their head?
The opening chapter of Mark is powerful in its sparseness. Mark doesn’t warm up with a birth narrative. He begins with eight verses devoted to John the Baptist and then in three short verses Mark disposes of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus goes out into the wilderness and back in only two verses, and Mark covers the arrest of John the Baptist in verses 14 and 15. Then Jesus goes looking for disciples. Simon, Andrew, James and John drop their nets and follow Jesus. Probably it didn’t happen exactly like that, but Mark’s style is dramatic. And the principle drama is in the invitation, “Come follow Me.”
Why did those first disciples follow Jesus? Mark tries to provide some answer to that question later in Chapter 1, when Jesus healed a demoniac in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Mark 1: 21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”
Jesus taught with authority and performed exorcisms and healings. He was hard to ignore. In the First Century illnesses of all sorts were attributed to evil spirits, and so someone who could command the spirit world possessed spiritual authority. The healing ministry of Jesus helped to serve as his credentials for claiming authority in wisdom.
Another reason the fishermen of the Galilee were so ready to follow Jesus is that Herod Antipas was commercializing the fishing industry, taxing the production, processing and exporting of the fish and slowly squeezing the fishermen into poverty. They were more than ready for the message of social justice, and Commonwealth of God.
Our “modern” minds have difficulty relating to Jesus’ ministry of exorcism. We understand illness differently. We are also living far removed from the oppression of the Roman Empire and the desperation of the Galilean peasants, although the “Occupy Wall Street Movement,” may help us to more nearly appreciate Jesus’ call for social justice in the Common Wealth of God. But Jesus still presents us with his invitation to “come follow me.”
What might following Jesus look like for us? Allow me to try to bridge the gap from the First Century to the Twenty-first Century by lifting up one of the best modern examples of someone who chose to follow the way of Jesus.
Albert Schweitzer spent his childhood in the village of Gunsbach, in Alsace where his father was the local Lutheran pastor. Many members of his extended family were accomplished scholars and musicians. He became both a scholar and a musician earning doctoral degrees in Music, Philosophy, Theology and Medicine. He was an acclaimed concert organist, and years later earned money to support his hospital in Africa by making concert tours in Europe and making recordings.
It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering. Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I caught a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my classmates and compared them with the ideal conditions in which we children of the parsonage at Gunsbach had lived. At the university, enjoying the good fortune of studying and even getting some results in scholarship and the arts, I could not help but think continually of others who were denied that good fortune by their material circumstances or their health.
One brilliant summer morning at Gunsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays — it was in 1896 — as I awoke, the thought came to me that I must not accept this good fortune as a matter of course, but I must give something in return.
While outside the birds sang I reflected on this thought, and before I had gotten up I came to the conclusion that until I was thirty I could consider myself justified in devoting myself to scholarship and the arts, but after that I would devote myself directly to serving humanity. I had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus: “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” Now I had found the answer. I could now add outward to my inward happiness.
In 1911 Schweitzer earned a medical degree and soon embarked for Lambarene Station in Gabon French West Africa. The work was hard the climate torturous. In addition to caring for the medical needs of thousands of patients, he wrote books, advocated for world peace, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.
Despite his prodigious scholarly achievements, and becoming a world famous celebrity, Schweitzer remained a truly humble person throughout his life. I believe his humility was rooted in his commitment to providing direct service to the needs of others. People who do good are constantly in danger of falling into an ego trip, especially if the world recognizes and celebrates their good deeds.
There are a couple of stories I think bear witness to Schweitzer’s basic goodness and humility. Once when he was touring Europe giving recitals to raise money for his hospital, his train was met by the press seeking an interview. The reporters were all crowded around the first class compartments waiting for Dr. Schweitzer who was finally seen getting out of a 4th class car. The news people rushed down to that end of the platform to try to get an interview and one of the reporters asked how come the good Doctor was riding in a fourth class coach. Schweitzer replied, “because there is not fifth class.”
On another occasion the press were waiting for Dr. Schweitzer’s train, and when he got off, he couldn’t stop to speak to the reporters, because he was carrying a young mother’s luggage, who had two small children with her whom he had befriended on the train.
When a reporter came to Lambarene to do a story on the Doctor’s hospital, he asked where he could find Dr. Schweitzer. The reporter was told he could find the doctor at the construction site of the new building for the hospital. When he arrived, he found Dr. Schweitzer pushing a wheel barrow. The reporter asked in surprise, “Dr. Schweitzer, how is it that you are pushing a wheel barrow?”
Schweitzer looked at him and said, “Well it’s really quite simple. You take a shovel and fill up the barrow with dirt and then you pick up on these two handles and push.”
Schweitzer formulated “Reverence for Life,” as his ethical philosophy. He wrote: “A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.” And he lived his philosophy. He wouldn’t even swat a mosquito. When the American Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson came to visit Lambarene, Stevenson, swatted a large mosquito that was alighting on Dr. Schweitzer’s arm. The good doctor said sharply, “I’ll thank you that was my mosquito.”
Albert Schweitzer answered the call of Jesus to “come follow me.” He truly used all of his prodigious gifts in service to others. He was completely unfazed by his own celebrity, living faithfully and humbly giving his life to relieve the suffering of others.
We don’t have to leave our homes and journey to Africa in order to follow Christ. There are multitudes of opportunities to serve the needs of others right here in Huntsville. We can also join the fight against injustice and greed. Let me suggest you check out Pippa Abston’s blog post this week: http://pippaabston.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/we-have-a-situation-alabamas-children-menaced-by-out-of-state-vultures/
The State wants to give the Medicaid program to out of state for profit health management firms, who will take far more than the 3% the Alabama Medicaid program is currently spending on administration. I won’t say any more, read Pippa’s blog.
We are all called in our own way to come follow Jesus. Say yes to Jesus. Let me conclude with Albert Schweizer’s eloquent restatement of our Scripture this morning.
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”
Say yes to Jesus.
Bible Study 1.23.12, 1.26.12, 1.29.12 For Worship 2.5.12
Matthew 25:14 “For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;
15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more.
17 So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more.
18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.
19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’
21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’
22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’
23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’
24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow;
25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed?
27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
28 So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents.
29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
Luke 19:11 As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.
12 He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return.
13 Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Trade with these till I come.’
14 But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’
15 When he returned, having received the kingdom, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading.
16 The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more.’
17 And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’
18 And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your pound has made five pounds.’
19 And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’
20 Then another came, saying, ‘Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin;
21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.’
22 He said to him, ‘I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow?
23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?’
24 And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.’
25 (And they said to him, ‘Lord, he has ten pounds!’)
26 ‘I tell you, that to everyone who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.
27 But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me.'”
The Parable of the Talents gives us another remarkable opportunity to study the early oral transmission of materials that were incorporated into the Gospels. This Parable only appears in Matthew and Luke and is presumed by scholars to have been part of a document they call Q. Scholars still debate whether Q was an oral resource or a written document, and scriptures today tell us why that debate has substance. Matthew and Luke seem to be using the same basic plot line but their narratives are very different.
In Matthew the master is simply a “rich man.” In Luke the master is a “nobleman.” In Matthew the master’s resources were entrusted to three servants, and each of them was given a different amount. In Luke the master’s resources were entrusted to 10 servants and they are all given the same, and in the end only three servants come forward to give an accounting. In Matthew the successful stewards are given more resources to invest and work with. In Luke the successful stewards are placed in charge of cities controlled by the nobleman. In both cases the slothful servant is afraid to use the resources entrusted to him and incurs the wrath of the master. And both stories use the punch line: “to everyone who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
We should note that the Gospel of Thomas, an early sayings Gospel does not include the Parable of the Talents, but does include the punch line: “(41) Jesus said, ‘The person who possesses will be given more. And the person who does not have will be deprived of even the little that that person has.’”
Many scholars point to the extensive differences between the two stories in Matthew and Luke to argue for Q as an oral tradition rather than a written source. Other scholars argue that just because Matthew and Luke may have felt free to change stories found in Q doesn’t mean that it wasn’t written down, witness the many changes that scribes made in the texts just when they were copying. Luke’s version of the story seems to draw upon the historical precedent of Herod going to Rome in order to be confirmed by the Roman Senate as the “King of the Jews.” The “nobleman” in Luke’s version may also refer to the political jockeying among the Herod’s descendants, the Tetrarchs vying with one another for Rome’s favor and an expansion of their territories at one another’s expense.
So what then is the meaning of the Parable? First let’s consider the punch line, because it might be an afterthought that changed the original intention of the Parable. If Jesus is the “rich man,’ or the “nobleman” and the church are the stewards, and faith and the spiritual gifts are the talents or pounds, then the punch line makes some sense. Think of the spiritual gifts like Reiki, the transfer of energy from one person to another through spiritual connection. Reiki only works if the practitioner and the recipient believe in what they are doing. Some people would claim then that Reiki is only a placebo. So what. Placebos have been shown to work as effectively or more effectively than many medications, and without the side effects. But what if there are energy fields that can effect healing changes in people’s bodies? It still won’t work without faith.
The Parable then suggests that all followers of Jesus are entrusted with faith and some portion of the spiritual gifts. If they believe in their gifts and use their gifts their faith will increase. If the followers of Jesus don’t believe in the gifts Jesus has bestowed upon them, if they do not put their spiritual gifts to work, then they will be taken away. Perhaps this is why the church sometimes seems to be so spiritually bankrupt.
Both Matthew and Luke are saying: God calls us to service, because God has given us gifts to share. And God does not bestow gifts equally. God isn’t fair. But God is fair in that to those of us who have been given more, more is expected. Great or small God asks us to become all that we are. Don’t bury your gift, and let us learn to use our gifts to serve.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. In both stories the owner of the property entrusts his resources to servants. Why?
2. How is the “master” described differently by Matthew and Luke?
3. How many servants are entrusted with resources in both versions of the Parable?
4. What is the complaint of the population against the “nobleman” in Luke’s version of the story?
5. What is the performance of the “industrious servants” in both stories?
6. What do the “slothful servants” do with the resources entrusted to them?
7. What excuses do the “slothful servants” make for their performance?
8. How does the “master” respond to the slothful servants in each version of the Parable?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF US
1. Who do you think is the Master?
2. Who do you think are the servants?
3. What do you think the talents and the pounds symbolize?
4. Why do you think Jesus told the Parable?
5. Have you ever felt like the one talent servant?
6. What are the principle fears that drive you?
7. What do you believe are your most important gifts?
8. Have you ever thought of any of your gifts as spiritual gifts?
9. What do you think the punch line of the Parable means? “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”
10. How would you apply this Parable to United Church?
Bible Study 1.16.12, 1.19.12, 1.22.12 For Worship 1.29.12
Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:27-32
|Matthew 9:9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
10 And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.
11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
|Mark 2:13 He went out again beside the sea; and all the crowd gathered about him, and he taught them.
14 And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
15 And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.
16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
|Luke 5:27 After this he went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.”
28 And he left everything, and rose and followed him.
29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them.
30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;
32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Today we will examine three “parallel” stories from the synoptic gospels. Scholars refer to these stories as “parallels” because they are essentially the same narrative. After examining them it will be up to us to decide whether or not we believe they are indeed the same story. All three passages involve the calling of a tax collector to become a disciple of Jesus. Matthew names the tax collector Matthew, Mark calls him Levi the son of Alphaeus, and Luke just Levi. In all three passages the tax collector is sitting in the tax office, possibly a toll booth to collect customs at the border between the Tetrarchy of Herod Antipas and Herod Phillip. In all three passages Jesus says, “follow me.” In Matthew and Mark the Tax Collector rose and followed, in Luke he, “left everything,” when he rose and followed.
In all three passages the tax collector prepared a meal attended by Jesus, and this leads to criticism of Jesus for eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners. In Matthew the Pharisees offer the criticism, in Mark the scribes of the Pharisees, and Luke it is the “Pharisees and their scribes.” In each passage the criticisms are directed to Jesus’ disciples. Presumably the criticisms reach the ears of Jesus, and he responds with a double saying: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew inserts a third saying: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”
The content of all three versions of the story are so similar almost all scholars agree it is the same story repeated in each of the gospels. Some scholars ask the question however, if Mark was the first Gospel written down, then why didn’t Matthew and Luke simply copy? Why aren’t all three versions exactly the same? Three principle explanations are offered for the differences between the gospels. The first reason for the varying versions might be differences in the audiences for whom Matthew, Mark and Luke were writing. Matthew was probably writing for a Jewish-Christian audience that was being expelled from the Synagogues of Galilee. That may account for the Pharisees, rather than their scribes being identified as the source of the criticism, and the insertion of the extra saying: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”
Another explanation for the differences in the three texts is that if Mark was written down first, Matthew and Luke may have heard Mark’s gospel read, but they did not have a written copy in front of them. Thus they were working from memory, and that might account for differences in word order and selection.
The third explanation for some of the differences between the gospel account might be traced to the possibility that while Matthew and Luke had written copies of Mark available to them, the copies were still different. Scribes who copied texts many times deviated from the text from which they were copying. This was a time before Xerox machines, and the culture was not concerned about exact copies. In many instances, scribes would intentionally use different words in their copying, if they felt the meaning more suited their theology. In fact we have dozens and dozens of early manuscripts of the books of the New Testament no two of which are exactly the same. Our English translations are based upon scholarly readings of many different manuscripts.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are so similar I think we can seek a generalized understanding of all three passages. Jesus was noted for eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Table fellowship was incredibly important in the ancient world especially in Judaism that was developing rigorous food taboos. People were separated by nationality and class in the act of eating. For instance, good Jews would not eat with gentiles, because contact with non-Jews made one ritually unclean. Tax collectors were considered ritually unclean both because their profession involved them in bribery and extortion, and also because many tax collectors were required to have contact with gentiles.
John preached to tax collectors, but Jesus actually included tax collectors in his inner circle. Those Jews who were moving in the direction of more strict observance of the law would have been scandalized by this practice. The early First Century in Israel was still a fluid time in the development of the Pharisees as a movement. Jesus may even have been accounted a Pharisee by early First Century standards. As the early church and the synagogue found themselves in competition, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. the Pharisees who remained loyal to the synagogue centered their faith around a rigorous observance of the Law. Thus Jewish identity became identified with “orthopraxy.”
The strict keepers of the food taboos probably would not have entered the home of the tax collector. The picture is Jesus inside the house with the Pharisees standing outside the door of the house looking in and offering their criticisms to disciples who were near the door.
At first glance the “sayings” of Jesus are not critical of orthopraxy. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” If the Pharisees were genuinely righteous, then Jesus was not criticizing them, he was just saying that his message was not for them. On the other hand, the followers of Jesus are warned against “self-righteousness” standing in judgment upon others. Jesus’ Commonwealth of God is open to all people who are willing to embrace the way of love and sharing. The “self-righteous” then were understood to be among the “sick” who need a physician. The problem with the self-righteous is they do not know they are sick and therefore cannot avail themselves of the cure.
LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT
1. Where did Jesus find the tax collector?
2. What is his invitation to the tax collector?
3. What was the response of the tax collector?
4. Who all did the tax collector invite to his house for dinner?
5. How do you account for the differences in the name of the tax collector disciple?
6. What was the essence of the criticism of the Pharisees about Jesus?
7. How did Jesus respond to the criticism?
LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US
1. Can you think of any modern parallels to inviting tax collectors and sinners to be disciples?
2. Do you think Jesus understood including tax collectors in his inner circle would create a controversy? If so, why do you think he did it anyway?
3. If Jesus came to our town, who do you think he would invite to “follow him
4. Have you ever been asked why your church doesn’t believe or practice the same things other churches believe or practice?
5. Can you think of any modern taboos in our culture?
6. What does it mean to intentionally violate a taboo?
7. How do you interpret Jesus’ sayings: “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners?”
8. How do you think the church might better follow Jesus?
Jesus Finds His Vocation
All of the gospels at least hint that for a period of time Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist. He traveled from Nazareth to the River Jordan to see and hear the prophet in the wilderness. The early church was somewhat embarrassed to
admit that Jesus had followed John for a time, and so the Gospel of John in particular tries to gloss over Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John. But in Luke the evangelist is unequivocal and unapologetic, when he says, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized. . .”
We do not know what events in the life of Jesus led up to his seeking baptism. From the age of twelve until about thirty, when he sought out John the Baptist at the River Jordan, the gospels are silent. Tradition tells us he was a carpenter from Nazareth. What experiences, relationships, thoughts, led him to seek baptism at the hands of John?
First Century Israel was a hot bed of political, economic and class conflict, acted out through theology and religion. Sort of sounds like the Twenty-first Century, doesn’t it? The Jews were an occupied people, straining under the oppression of the Roman Empire. The local rulers, the Herods and the Temple Leadership, were squeezing the people to raise the tribute money to pay to Rome, and to enrich themselves. Peasants were being pushed into debt, and the rich were foreclosing on their mortgages, increasing the number of landless peasants, who had to scramble for a living driving wages down. The poor were becoming desperately poor, and as a carpenter Jesus was accounted among the landless laborers. Jesus was a keen observer of all that was happening around him, and when he heard about the ministry of John the Baptist and his message, Jesus left his carpenter shop and traveled to the River Jordan.
John the Baptist was preaching against the Herods, their collaboration with the Roman occupation, and with the corruption of the Temple Leadership participating in the movement to push the peasants off of their land. John was a member of a priestly family, and he fervently believed the High Priests should have been the guardians of the law, and they were refusing to enforce the provisions for the jubilee, the cancelation of debts, the freeing of slaves and the return of land to the original owners.
John believed Israel had become so hopelessly corrupt God must surely be about ready to send the Messiah – repent the Kingdom of God is at hand. He was calling upon the people to come into the wilderness, to free themselves of the pollution of the Roman Occupation, to rigorously keep the law, and make a decision to join the Commonwealth of God. His message was simple. Leave behind the worldly pursuit of wealth and power, and share. “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Join the Commonwealth of God share and take care of one another.
As a sign of initiation into the Commonwealth of God, John called upon all those who followed him to be baptized. Now baptism had been used before in Israel, as part of the ceremony for Gentiles who converted to Judaism. John was saying, it’s not enough to be born a Jew, you have to choose the way of life that leads into the Common Wealth of God. In response to the message of John, Jesus waded out into the Jordan, the River that represented the life blood of Israel, and when he came up out of the water and prayed, something dramatic happened, the Holy Spirit showed up.
The text is not clear, whether Jesus experienced a private vision, or whether the dove and the voice from heaven could be heard and seen by everyone else. Whether the vision was public or private, Jesus was moved so profoundly he retreated into the wilderness to consider his vocation. What does vocation mean? Let’s turn to the devotional writer Frederick Buechner.
“Vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a [person] is called to by God.
“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self-interest.
“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping other people much either. “Neither the hair-shirt or the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
In the wilderness, after facing the temptations from his shadow side, Jesus concluded that God was calling him to become Messiah. Jesus, however, like us, had more than one vocation. He was a carpenter, a member of the Synagogue in Nazareth, a neighbor a brother, a son, and finally Messiah. He sought to be faithful to God by embracing his vocations.
Our scripture today challenges us to discern and embrace our vocations. God hasn’t called any of us to become Messiah. That’s actually good news. We don’t have to be Jesus. We don’t have to be crucified. We don’t have to raise people from the dead. No, when we come before God to give an accounting of our lives, we won’t be asked why were you not Jesus? Rather we will be asked, why were you not John, why were you not Bob, why were you not Kristie, why were you not Jennifer? God has blessed each one of us with unique gifts and opportunities that help to define our vocations, and a vocation is not just how we earn a living. Mothering, Fathering, Grand-parenting are important tasks God calls us to perform in our families and in the world.
In addition to our jobs, that occupy much of our time, God may also call us to significant volunteer responsibilities: Little League coach, Brownie Leader, Scout Master, Youth Group Adviser, Sunday School teacher, Meals on Wheels, Habitat for Humanity. Our vocations may evolve over time, as we move from parenting into grand-parenting, and from paid employee to more volunteer commitments. But we should always be open to hear God’s calling to service.
So how do we know, to what potential jobs God might be calling us? Listen again to Frederick Buechner’s definition. Vocation is something we need to do, and is something the world needs to have done. I include in the definition of things we “need” to do, things we enjoy doing. Every job, every volunteer commitment involves tasks we do not like. The vocation of parenthood includes changing dirty diapers. Holding down a job means going into work, when we don’t feel like it. So O.K. there are tasks we don’t like, but if there isn’t something in our labor that gives us meaning and joy, we won’t be able to sustain a commitment to the work. If I am a doctor in a leper colony and I hate my work, I probably won’t be doing my patients much good. So in trying to discern the vocations to which God is calling us, we need to ask, do I really enjoy this work?
Another issue in discerning God’s call is whether or not we possess the gifts and talents to perform the tasks. We cannot put in what God left out. When God is calling us to a new vocation we need to be open to discovering gifts we do not know we possess. If God really wants us to do something, God will supply all that we need. I am reminded of the Kudzu Cartoon where the Rev. Will B. Dunn prays for patience. He looks down at his watch, and then looks back to heaven and says, “Well?”
Prayer is important in discerning our vocations. When Jesus came up out of the water, he prayed, and that is when the heavens opened and he had a life changing experience. We need to pray if we want to know what God wants us to do.
Jesus not only experienced the Holy Spirit in prayer, he retreated into the wilderness to fast and pray, and figure out what his vision meant, what kind of Messiah he was being called to become, and how he would answer that call. Often our noses are so pressed to the daily grind stone, we can’t see straight. Retreating to the spiritual mountain top can provide us with the time, the space, the time for reflection, in our struggle to discern our vocation from God’s perspective.
We also need to learn to think about different vocations in different stages of life. In the First Century, children entered adulthood around 12 or 13 years of age. Girls apprenticed to their mothers and then married off. Boys were apprenticed to their Fathers or another male relative until they became able to earn a living, and then as men and women, they worked at the trade they had learned until they died. Today most people will change jobs multiple times and may even change professions four or five times during their working lives. Young people entering the employment market today thirty years from now will be working at jobs that don’t even exist yet.
We also have more leisure time than most people in the First Century. We have opportunities for volunteer vocations no one dreamed of one-hundred years ago. Most of us also expect someday to retire, and have opportunities to pursue new vocational goals in retirement. Therefore we need to plan for changing stage of life vocations.
A minister, a priest and a rabbi were invited to serve on a panel presentation on the beginning of life. The minister said, “Life begins at birth.”
The Priest responded, “life begins at the moment of conception.”
Finally the Rabbi contributed, “Life? When does life begin? Life begins when the dog dies and the children leave home!” — stage of life vocations.
Let me mention one other approach to discerning our vocations. Beth gave me a very insightful book for Christmas entitled, Soul Types: Matching Your Personality and Spiritual Path. I am suggesting that the Thursday Soup with the Pastor take up this book. The authors not only offer insight into the spiritual practices that are most compatible with our basic personality types, but they also suggest alternative devotional styles that may be helpful to us as we mature into new life stages and vocations. Remember Jesus was thirty years old when he embraced the vocation of Messiah in a world where average life span was just over forty years of age. May there is hope for us yet?
So let us pray, grow, mature discerning God’s purposes for our lives.