Faith of an Outsider
SLIDE 3: HEALINGS
One of the marks of the ministry of Jesus were the healings that happened as he interacted with people in his ministry. He taught. He fed people. He laid hands on the sick and prayed. Lame people got up and walked. Blind people found they were able to see. People with severe skin diseases were healed by his touch. But whatever power lay within Jesus to heal others he always pointed to the faith of the person who was healed. “Go in peace, your faith has made you well.”
SLIDE 4: SOME SPARK OF FAITH
Jesus could not heal people against their will. Healing only seems to have been possible, when some spark of faith was present either in the individual sick person or the community of people surrounding that person. Go your way, your faith has made you whole.
SLIDE 5: ROMAN CENTURION – GOD FEARER
A Roman Centurion, possibly a “God Fearer,” a gentile who was affiliated with the synagogue, contributed a large sum of money to the construction of the synagogue in Capernaum. So when his servant became deathly ill, leaders of the synagogue came to Jesus to ask him to heal the servant: “He deserves this. He loves our people. He even helped to build our synagogue,” they said. Jesus was generally not fond of gentiles, but he considered healing the servant as an act of mercy. The Centurion was sensitive to the position Jesus would be in if he entered the home of a gentile and a Roman army officer. So he sent word to Jesus, “Do not come into my home, for then you would become ritually unclean. I am an officer who gives orders, and I obey orders. If you just give the order, I am sure my servant will be made well.” Some people scoff at the idea of “healing at a distance,” but then what do we think we are doing, when we engage in intercessory prayer? Maybe the healing ministry of Jesus continues in the prayers of the community of faith.
SLIDE 6: GO ONLY TO THE LOST SHEEP OF ISRAEL
According to the narrative, when Jesus heard of the Centurion’s remark, he answered, “Surely I have not seen this kind of faith in Israel.” And when the messengers returned to the home of the Centurion they found the servant well. Generally speaking, Jesus conducted his entire ministry among the Jews. For instance, in Matthew Chapter 10 he sent his disciples out to conduct ministry on their own with these instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; so freely give.”
SLIDE 7: JESUS RETREATED TO TYRE AND SIDON
Now lest we think these instructions were just for Jesus’ disciples, when they were making a first time venture into evangelism, let’s examine the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman. The story begins with Jesus receiving a warning from some fellow Pharisees that Herod’s secret police were looking for him. Jesus taking the hint took his disciples and traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon, well outside of Herod’s jurisdiction in predominantly Gentile territory. But even among the non-Jews Jesus’ reputation as a healer had preceded him.
SLIDE 8: HAVE MERCY, SON OF DAVID, MY DAUGHTER IS SICK
A woman with a sick little girl was desperate for help, so she sought out this Jewish healer. But as usual there was a crowd around him, so the woman tried to attract his attention by using a Jewish messianic title and shouting out, “Have mercy, Son of David, my daughter is sick.” But according to the narrative, Jesus did not answer her a word.
SLIDE 9: I WAS SENT ONLY TO THE LOST SHEEP OF ISRAEL
The woman was such a pest, the disciples even asked Jesus to send her away. But Jesus only replied: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Sound familiar? Remember the instructions he gave to the 12 disciples? “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” So maybe Jesus did only conceive of his mission to the Jews. And that would certainly be consistent with the early church’s belief that first one had to be a good Jew, before they could be a follower of Jesus.
SLIDE 10: GENTILE DOG GO AWAY
But this amazingly persistent woman wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She managed to penetrate the crowd around Jesus and fell on her knees at Jesus’ feet and begged, “Lord, help me!”
Now Jesus could no longer ignore the woman, so he said flat out, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Now this remark seems uncharacteristicly harsh for the all loving meek and mild Jesus. But there it is. “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” Gentiles can go to hell. Sometimes I am amused when pious Christians claim they wish they could have met the historical Jesus. If only they could sit at his feet and hear the Master in person, as if we could have understood him speaking Aramaic with a Galilean accent. When the truth is, because we are gentiles, Jesus wouldn’t have had anything to do with us. He would have taken one look at us and said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
SLIDE 11: EVEN THE DOGS EAT THE CRUMBS
And that is why this plucky Syrophoenician woman is so important to us. For rather than melting into tears and going away sorrowfully, because Jesus had been so mean to her, she looked up and eye balled Jesus and said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Jesus was taken aback. This gentile woman who he had disrespected, had bested him in true Jewish rabbinical fashion. She had made up a midrash on his comment and stuck it to him.
SLIDE 12: FAITH IS FREE FOR THE ASKING
And then a light bulb went off inside Jesus’ head, not unlike the moment of recognition he had experienced with the Centurion in Capernaum. “Not even in Israel, have I run across this kind of faith!” Jesus discovered that faith was not for Jews only. Faith is free for the asking for anyone with the courage and tenacity to claim it.
And remember, faith is not for Christians only, or church members only, faith is free for the asking for anyone with the courage and tenacity to claim it! Faith is for all people willing to live their lives to the fullest. Faith is the difference between becoming alive to God or shuffling along with the walking dead.
SLIDE 13: FAITH IS FOR THOSE WHO HAVE COURAGE
So often I hear people talk about faith like it was something for sissies or silly people. Faith isn’t concrete. It’s not tangible or demonstrable. I’m from Missouri, show me! Real people don’t depend on faith they rely upon themselves. But my friends faith is for those who have courage, who dare to go beyond the limits, who embrace the challenge of living. Faith was the Centurion who believed that the healing power of God could transcend the barriers of time and space. Faith was a desperate mother who eye balled Jesus and told him that even an outsider might share in the healing power of God’s blessing.
SLIDE 14: WHERE DO YOU NEED FAITH?
So where in your life are you in need of faith? Are you struggling with a health issue? Maybe you have a relationship that has gone to hell? Do you feel your age creeping up on you? Are you facing a challenge at work or in your family life? Are you trying to put together a blended family? Perhaps you are trying to live with someone with mental health issues. Maybe you are the parent of teenagers! My guess is whoever you are you need a little faith.
SLIDE 15: GRATITUDE & PRAYER
And where does that faith come from? Two places, gratitude and prayer. Be grateful for the gift of life, and take time each day to pray and listen in the silence for God’s holy, healing presence. It isn’t hard. Surprising the number of people who don’t start the day by waking up and saying, “Thank you God!” Even more surprising the number of people who don’t pause for even 10 minutes in their day to listen for the silent presence of God.
So allow me to recommend to you: tomorrow morning wake up, make a list of ten gifts you have received from God and say, “Thank you.” Then during the day, take 20 minutes to sit in the silent presence of God’s love, and you will find the faith you need for the challenges in your life.
SLIDE 3: SIX DIFFERENT CREATION STORIES
The Hebrew scriptures contain no less than 5 or 6 different versions of the creation story. The first chapter of Genesis contains a creation liturgy that was probably used in the Jerusalem Temple as part of a New Year worship celebration: “And God, said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” The second chapter of Genesis contains a completely different creation story that was probably an ancient folk story told around the camp fire. “. . . then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” Psalm 8 is a creation song attributed to David. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 104 is another song of creation. “You set the earth on its foundations, that that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.” The Book of Job chapters 38 – 41 adapted a different creation poem for use in its story. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding? Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the measuring line upon it? On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
SLIDE 4: HEBREWS WERE A LATE DEVELOPING CULTURE
Now you may be asking, why so many different creation stories, and which one is the right one? First, let me say, the Hebrew Bible is a compilation of a multitude of different stories and pieces of literature from multiple and varied sources. The Hebrews were a relatively late culture to become established in the Ancient Near East. They did not begin writing stuff down until after 900 BCE at the earliest. The Egyptians and the Sumerians at that point had been composing and writing down stories for over 2,000 years before that. And the Hebrews were not timid about borrowing literature from other groups and nationalities. So when we find a couple of different versions of a story in the Hebrew Bible, it just means they borrowed from several sources.
SLIDE 5: THE POWER OF MYTHOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
Now if we ask, “Which one is the right story?” We are asking the wrong question. All of these creation stories were a product of a mythic imagination according to Eric Elnes in his Gifts of the Dark Wood.
“The power of mythological imagination lies not in its ability to describe historical events that took place in the distant past but to identify contours of human behavior and experience that are encountered repeatedly throughout history on down to our own day. Myths and stories create a map of the “world within the world. . . The ancients did not envision a time when the mythological imagination would be such a distant memory that people would take the metaphor literally!”
SLIDE 6: BEST COLLECTED WISDOM OF THEIR CULTURE
The writers and editors who collected the different creation stories in our Hebrew Bible never intended for anyone to read them literally, or mistake them for science. They were passing on to us their best sense of the collected wisdom of their culture.
SLIDE 7: WISDOM
And that brings me to our sixth creation story this morning from our scripture lesson from the Book of Proverbs. “The Lord brought forth wisdom as the first of the divine works, before anything else was created. Wisdom was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, before the world came to be.” Note that wisdom is presented as the very first creation of God. Before there was light or earth or water, there was wisdom. And this creation myth was the source for the first verses of the Gospel of John. “Wisdom was God’s first creation, Wisdom was present to God, God present to Wisdom. Wisdom was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through Wisdom; nothing—not one thing! came into being without the Divine Wisdom.”
SLIDE 8: IMAGINE GOD AS UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS
We should note that in Hebrew wisdom is a feminine noun. The divine is both masculine God and feminine Wisdom. But how do we make any sense of all of this metaphorical language? Try for the moment to imagine God as universal consciousness. Everything in the universe is comprised of energy and consciousness is energy, so everything is God including us. We are conscious beings, and the reason why the scriptures describe us as created in the image of God is because we are capable of self-consciousness.
SLIDE 9: IS GOD AWARE OF US?
In his Gifts of the Dark Wood, Eric Elnes invites us to contemplate the incredible expanse and depth of God consciousness:
If we mere mortals are aware of the existence of all these things (in the universe) which are so incomprehensibly far away, imagine what God’s consciousness must be like.
Seen from another angle, technology has increased our awareness of the size of the universe so greatly that for the first time in human history, many people openly wonder how God could possibly be aware of us, if God exists at all. Yet seen from another angle, the same scientific advancements have made us more aware than ever before just how far even our limited human consciousness extends. Could science be inviting us to conceive anew of the possibility of God’s conscious awareness of us?
SLIDE 10: INTENTIONALITY OF THE UNIVERSE
Now imagine wisdom is the active principle or direction or intentionality of the universal consciousness. Of course many people are uncomfortable with the idea that the universe has direction or intentionality. They believe the universe is completely random, evolution has no direction. I would suggest, however, the universe is evolving in the direction of greater complexity and higher levels of consciousness. The great epic of creation begins with pure energy light, and slowly particles emerge, and then atoms and molecules and stars and galaxies, then planets and life. Out of the warm sea life emerges and then one celled plants and animals, and for billions of years that was it. But over time multi-cellular life emerged and then fish and then fish who climbed out on the land, and then amphibians, reptiles and finally mammals. The epic of creation evolves into greater complexity and higher levels of consciousness.
SLIDE 11: CONSCIOUSNESS SEEKS CONSCIOUSNESS
Where ultimately consciousness seeks consciousness, and one of our purposes as human beings is to learn how to connect with the higher consciousness that is God: “Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand. . . To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all humankind.”
SLIDE 12: WISDOM WANTS TO BE KNOWN
Wisdom wants to be known. Wisdom seeks connection between human and the divine. If we will open ourselves to the intuitive call of wisdom, our lives can be invigorated and empowered by universal energy, our understanding can be enhanced by God consciousness and divine discernment. Eric Elnes describes our connection to the divine consciousness as the movement from fear to flow.
SLIDE 13: FROM FEAR TO FLOW
The Holy Spirit frequently throws us intuitions that come from a source completely beyond ourselves. Often these intuitions or gut instincts seem confusing. They are connected to a part of our story that we can’t directly reach. Sometimes the connection even seems to transcend time and space. . . . The empty space within us charges with fullness and our soul like a rubber ball submerged beneath the water, strains against whatever is set in its way until released into freedom. We move from fear to flow, discovering a power at work within and beyond us that is far greater than we are, yet is intimately connected to us as well. We discover what it means to be fully human.
SLIDE 14: CONNECT WITH GOD BECOME FULLY ALIVE
When we find ourselves in tune with our environment, our bodies and communities we experience flow that enables us to seek and use our highest potentials. And isn’t that what we are all here for? To actualize our highest potentials? To serve God and others and become fully alive? So many people are just punching a time card, just marking time. Many people behave like death row inmates marking off the days until the lay down to die. How much more exciting life can be, when we connect with a purpose large than ourselves and draw on a reservoir of energy from beyond our own meager resources.
Hear the call of Wisdom, connect with God, realize your potential as part of the universal energy system, and become fully alive.
Study Guide for Short Stories by Jesus:
Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
By Amy Jill Levine
Amy Jill Levine provides an important and refreshing look at the Parables of Jesus. Part of her interest is to strip away the additions the early church made to the Parables in the 50 or so years after the death of Jesus. One of her motivations is to strip out the anti-Semitic tone that became part of the early church after the synagogue and the church parted company after about 60 C.E. Of course for those of us who are interested in trying to reclaim the historical Jesus as much as possible, rather than the early church’s version of Jesus, Amy Jill’s work is very helpful.
Page 3: Mark’s disciples are not the best candidates for accurately preserving explanations of parables. Whether they were as clueless as Mark portrays them, or whether the evangelist has deliberately portrayed them as in need of remedial instruction, the literary effect of their descriptions is the same. Mark is telling readers, “Go beyond the disciples, be open to the mystery and the challenge, interpret for yourselves.” And we readers should be reassured that if Peter, James and John, even after failing, can find rehabilitation and stay with the program, there’s hope for the rest of us.
Amy Jill is asserting that the early church may not have understood Jesus. Do you think that is true? If so, what factors do you think contributed to their misunderstanding or misinterpreting of Jesus? Again and again Levine will encourage us to discover and appreciate the context of the First Century, but ultimately she is saying: “Go beyond the disciples, be open to the mystery and the challenge, interpret for yourselves.” How do you feel about allowing yourself the freedom to interpret?
Page 3: What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge. Our reaction to them should be one of resistance rather than acceptance. For our own comfort, we many want to foreclose the meaning rather than allow the parable to open into multiple interpretations. We are probably more comfortable proclaiming a creed than prompting a conversation or pursuing a call.
Religion has been defined as designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, “I really like that,” or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.
Can you think of any of the Parables of Jesus you have found challenging? Are there any stories of Jesus you find very comforting?
Pages 9 – 11: In order to hear the parables in their original contexts and so to determine what is normal and what is absurd, what is conventional and what is unexpected, we need to do the history. We need to determine how Samaritans and Jews related to each other; what the cultural expectations of fathers and sons were; how say laborers and vineyard owners established their contractual obligations; what social roles were open to women; and who went to the Temple to pray and why. If we get the context wrong, we’ll get Jesus wrong as well. . .
The best modern example I have for explaining the importance of context for understanding stories is the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. . .
In listening to parables and appreciating them within their initial context, we also do well to listen for echoes of Israel’s scriptures, since the parables evoke earlier stories and then comment on them. “There was a man who had two sons . . . (Luke 15:11) is the beginning of what is traditionally called the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus’ Jewish audience would be reminded of other men and their two sons: Cain and Able, the sons of Adam; Ishmael and Isaac, he sons of Abraham; Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac: and so on. Reading the parable in light of the antecedent narratives creates surprise and challenge; in turn, reading the antecedent narrative in light of the parable opens a host of new insights.
Another maxim that frequently holds for biblical studies is that the world of the people who wrote and first heard the texts is different from our world. . .
On the other hand, these distinctions can be taken to extremes. Sometimes what seems odd to us really is odd. . . The trick is to determine what is surprising in the parable, and what is not. And there is much in Jesus’ parables that surprises.
What history do you think is important in trying to understand Jesus? Thinking about your favorite parables, can you think of stories in the Hebrew Scriptures that are echoed in your favorite parables? What differences between our world and the world of Jesus do you think are most profound? In what ways do you think people are still the same in the 21st century as the 1st century? Thinking about your own favorite parables, what in those stories do you find surprising?
The Parables of Jesus
Page 11 – 15: When we turn to Jesus’s parables, we do well to hear them as the people who firs heard them, Jews in the Galilee and Judea, did and thus to recover as best as we can the original provocation. To do so requires several leaps of faith. . .
. . . Jesus is concerned about economics; about giving to those who beg, about the blessings that will come to the poor, about mutual dependence rather than top down brokerage, about what can be summarized as “Kingdom economics,” in which the prayer “Forgive us our debts,” meant more than sins and included monetary loans. His focus is on laying up treasure in heaven, not on accumulating bank accounts on earth. The parables, with their attention to wealth management, debts, daily wages, land ownership, and lost coins speaks to the same concerns. Luke retains several parables that begin “There was a rich man who. . .”; none is likely to be loved by owners of Fortune 500 companies. . . .
Jesus is also concerned about relationships: between parents and children, siblings, neighbors, and leaders and followers; he emphasizes caring for the other, mutual reciprocity, servant leadership, and humility. . .
Next Jesus is concerned about prioritizing. Expecting the kingdom of heaven to break in, indeed, seeing it already as present in his actions, he demands a reaction: choose life, choose to live the way God wants us to live. . .
Another reason to see Jesus as speaking not only in parables, but in these parables that have come down to us from the Gospels is their frequent motif of celebration. What is infectiously appealing about Jesus is that he likes to celebrate. He is consistently meeting people not at the altar but at the table, whether as host, guest, or the body and blood to be consumed. He is indiscriminate in his dining companions, who include Pharisees, tax collectors, sinners, and even an upscale family consisting of two sisters and a formerly dead brother. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the one miracle story recounted in all four Gospels. To be in his presence is not only to be challenged and comforted; it is to celebrate at table. There is feasting at the end of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and a fatted calf awaits the Lost Son.
In what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you hear a concern about economics? How would you characterize his concern? In what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you hear a concern for relationships? What stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you see a concern about prioritizing? And what stories about Jesus or told by Jesus do you see the theme of celebration?
The Parables Today
Pages 19 – 20: For people who claim to follow Jesus today, whether they regard him as the divine Son or a rabbi with superb things to say, the parables cannot remain historical artifacts. We should ask, as we should with any literature: How do the messages an original audience would have heard translate over the centuries to the person in the pew, the Bible study, or the classroom? . . . Each generation looks for new meanings, reads with new sensitivity, and projects onto the text new issues. Good literature continues to yield those new meanings, and the parables are no exceptions. Thus this volume asks two main questions: How do we hear the parables through an imagined set of first-century Jewish ears, and then how do we translate them so that they can be heard still speaking?
Amy Jill suggests that the first task is to try to understand the Parables from a First Century perspective. I would even go one further to understand what maybe Jesus was trying to communicate stripping out some of the interpretation the early church tried to place on Jesus. The second task is to try to figure out what Jesus has to say to us today. Do you think it is possible to try to figure out what Jesus has to day to us? How do you think this second task relates to the U.C.C. slogan that God is still speaking? Do we listen to God by ourselves, or in community?
Auditory Atrophy and Aids to Hearing
Pages 20 – 25: When it comes to parables and to ancient texts in general, our listening skills are not as developed as they should be. Not only do we frequently miss the original provocation, and not only do we frequently default to simplistic interpretations; we also often import ahistorical and anachronistic readings that deform the good news of the gospel into something Jesus would neither recognize nor condone.
The reasons for this auditory atrophy are easy to locate. Here are six, among the many:
First in a number of churches, the parables function as children’s stories. This is because children can understand those simple usages. . . show and tell of the parable of the Leaven means playing with dough and eating fresh baked bread; the parable of the Mustard Seed means looking at mustard seeds and perhaps tasting them. . .
A second reason we settle for easy interpretations is that many clergy do not take the time to develop the challenge of the parable. Many priests and pastors are reluctant to challenge congregations about matters of social policy, family dysfunction, or how to love the enemy. Sunday morning has become in far too many settings the occasion for a pep talk rather than provocation. . .
A third reason for auditory atrophy is the expectation of congregations who have come to believe that the sermon is a monologue, not motivation, that it is designed for entertainment. The sermon becomes less an opportunity for reconciliation, restoration and renewal and more a Sunday morning version Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and now Jimmy Fallon. . . . When church becomes a club, parables become pedestrian. At times then, the problem rests with the person in the pulpit, just as often, the problem rests with the person in the pew.
There is yet a fourth reason why the easy answers work, in addition to their familiarity and comfort value, clergy fear, and congregational resistance. This reason is more pernicious. . . The clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes. If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of “Jesus came to fix Judaism – whatever it was – must have been bad,” then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way. . . .
Here is our fifth reason we misread the parables. The study of homiletics, the art of giving sermons, is moving increasingly away from historical-critical focus on the biblical text and more toward communication theory, toward what is known as “practical theology,” or toward readings from one’s own subject position or social location, such as a focus on African American hermeneutics or disability studies. . . . My concern is that attention only to these areas, without attention to Jesus’s own cultural context, opens the door not just to anachronism, but to stereotype. The more time we take in finding our own context and so our own voice, the less attention gets paid to Jesus’s own context and voice.
Finally, the sixth problem: for some on the liberal side of the theological scale, students of the Bible are also pulled away from history by the allure of newer approaches – including pretty much anything beginning with “post,” as in “postmodern,” “postcolonial,” “postcritical,” and so on. These various approaches arose in part as a response to earlier forms of historical work, in which the histories claimed to be doing objective work, when instead he (it usually was a “he”) was projecting his own cultural values and theological views on the ancient materials. However, some of today’s generation have tossed out all of historical work; they prefer to find meaning from their own perspective. What the text might have meant to Jesus or to his first followers becomes either an impossible or irrelevant question. The more the parables become detached from their own setting, the more the demons of anti-Jewish readings easily enter.
Amy Jill Levine offers six reasons we may not be able to hear the parables clearly. Would you agree that people often think of the Parables as “children’s stories?” What might be lost, when we treat the Parables as children’s stories? Is there a way of being able to use the stories of Jesus with children as simple object lessons, but then treating them with greater gravity as stories for people of mature faith?
The second reason the author suggests that the Parables have not received appropriate treatment is that clergy are unwilling to seek the challenge of the Parable but settle for something comforting. Have you ever heard a sermon that used a Parable of Jesus in a way that was uncomfortable or challenging?
Amy Jill does not let lay people off the hook. “When church becomes a club, parables become pedestrian. At times then, the problem rests with the person in the pulpit, just as often, the problem rests with the person in the pew.” Have you observed churches that seem to behave like clubs? Have you seen congregations who want to be entertained? What would be a good corrective for the “church entertainment syndrome.”
Levine suggests that many clergy, rather than doing their “homework” are content with repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes. Have you observed this fourth reason to be true?
The fifth and sixth problems enumerated by the author are tied to certain academic concerns about how one does Biblical Studies. Do you think studying the history of the scriptures is helpful? Would you be willing to spend more time studying the history of the Bible or Bible land geography, or visit the Holy Land to literally get a feel for the lay of the land? The author also suggests that the study of the scriptures has become infected with ideological issues like feminist theology, or a postcolonial, or a postmodern reading of the text. What do you think are the dangers of bringing our own modern culture values and concerns to a reading of Jesus?
Chapter 1 – Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son
Page 29: According to Luke, the narratives traditionally called the parable of the Lost Sheep, the parable of the Lost Coin, and the parable of the Prodigal Son are about sinners repenting and God graciously offering forgiveness and reconciliation. Luke misleads by turning the parables into allegories. It is unlikely a first century Jewish listener would hear the first two parables and conclude that they have something to do with sheep repenting or coins confessing. . . . Neither the sheep nor coins have the capability to repent, and I doubt the younger brother does either.
If any blame is to be assigned in the first two parables, then the shepherd and the woman are at fault, for they “lost,” respectively the sheep and the coin. Were the parables called “The Shepherd Who Lost His Sheep” and “The Woman Who Lost Her Coin,” we might be closer to an earlier meaning. Regarding the issue of fault in the third parable, were the prodigal son a sinner for demanding his inheritance — which is unlikely to be the case, as we’ll see – he had help; his father, instead of disciplining him, abetted his request by complying with it. This this parable too might be renamed: “The Father Who Lost His Son(s).”
Amy Jill asks us to consider the possibility that Luke did not understand the parables he wrote down in his Gospel. Do you think it is possible that the Gospel writers have passed on to us material they misunderstood, or did not understand? How does the tone of these stories change, if the responsibility for the lost sheep, and the lost coin, even the lost sons rest with the owners or the father rather than the objects or the sons?
Pages 35-36: Sinners are not “outcasts”; they are not cast out of synagogues or out of the Jewish Temple. To the contrary, they are welcome in such places, since such places encourage repentance. The Gospels generally present sinners as wealthy people who have not attended to the poor. That is a dandy definition of the term. Thus, in a first-century context sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community.
The author provides us with an interesting definition of “sinner.” Using this definition, “individuals who have removed themselves from the common welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the community,” how does this change our ordinary reading of these parables? Would you agree with this definition of “sinner?” What social or political implications might this definition have for our modern context?
Pages 37 – 38: . . . Most peasants do not own a hundred sheep. The parable’s opening presupposes a person of some means. So does the story of the woman who has lost her silver coin and the father who has a sufficiently large estate to have fatted calves, lots of clothing, and good accessories. . . the image conveyed by all three parables is that of substance. Perhaps it is those who “have” who are more likely to fail to notice what is missing. . . .
. . . And if he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what or who is not there.
Most of us in our modern context would not recognize the people in these parables as “people of means.” How does this affect your appreciation of these stories? At the point that the author says: “he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, tyour life that might need restoration?
Pages 40 – 41: With this verse, (Luke 15:7) it is Luke who provides the first interpretation by turning the parable into an allegory. The idea that someone, let alone 99 such someones, do not need repentance” tends to be overlooked in the church, where the prevailing view is that everyone needs to repent. If there are 99 folks in the neighborhood who have nothing to repent for, we really are in the land of fantasy rather than reality. Also overlooked is how the allegory fails to match the parable. There was no repenting in the story; there was no sin; the sheep did not “come to itself” and find its way home. It was the owner who lost the sheep, and if this losing was sinful, he’s not seen repenting.
Amy Jill again suggests that Luke is presenting material he did not understand. This may not be so far from the truth, since Luke did not know the historical Jesus. Do you think turning the parable into an allegory misses the point of the original story? But now we must ask, how do we re-discover the original meaning of the parable? What did Jesus want his audience to do with the story?
Page 45: . . . If this fellow can experience such joy in finding one of a hundred sheep, what joy do we experience when he find what we have lost? More, if he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, so we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock, or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it — or him or her — again?
What are some of the important things people lose besides possessions? Are there relationships we have lost? What about losses we may have suffered in our health? Or what if we have a lost dream? What about other spiritual intangibles may we have lost — faith, hope, joy, love?
The Lost Coin
Page 47: But there is a subtle shift from the first parable to the second. The guardian of the flock speaks only of “my sheep, the lost one” (Luke 15:6). He does not claim responsibility for losing it. The woman mentions “the one I had lost” (Luke 15:9); she claims responsibility. We are provoked again. We can celebrate when what we have lost is found, but can we also admit our responsibility for the losing?
Thinking about the list of “lost” items in our lives, are there any of those items that have been “mislaid” or allowed to go missing through no fault of our own? Which of our lost items may we need to admit some responsibility for losing? Are there any relationships that may require us to own responsibility before the relationship can be restored?
Sheep, Coin Prodigal
Pages 49 – 50: In the first parable, the shepherd does not take responsibility for losing his sheep; in the second, the woman admits her fault; in the third, the father does not initially even realize that his elder son is lost; his desperate search then is not for the younger who himself went astray, but for the older, whom he had lost. The first two parables have happy endings; the third leaves us with the father and the oldest son (unresolved) in the field. The challenge continues.
How do you understand the “progression” in the three stories about things that were lost? Have you thought about the older son as the son the father has lost? Can you imagine a happy ending for the father and the two sons, where “all of the remaining property” supposedly belongs to the older brother, but the father still wants to restore the younger son to a place in the family?
Maybe we can find more answers, but probably more questions after examining Amy Jill’s insights into the story of the father who had two sons.
Pages 55: What exactly caused Junior’s fall is a matter of cultural understanding. Readers in the United States. . . tend to attribute his desperate state to a combination of bad parenting, lack of community values, separating himself from his network, and personal irresponsibility. One individual in a church based adult education program suggested, when I asked what went wrong with the prodigal so that he found himself in such a dire condition, that had Junior experienced prayer in the public school system, none of this mess would have happened.
Readers in Russia tend to note neither parental failure nor fiduciary ineptitude, but the famine — there was no food to distribute. In a Vanderbilt University seminar on Luke’s Gospel, a graduate student from Kenya proposed that the real problem was lack of generosity, for no one gave him anything. . .
The author here reminds us that all of our reading of the parables, indeed all of scripture are conditioned by our cultural context. How do you think our North American protestant culture has conditioned how we read the story of the man with two sons?
Pages 57 – 58: A proverb from the rabbinic commentary Leviticus Rabbah (13.4) notes, “When the Israelites are reduced to eating carob pods, they repent.” . . .
And yet first century listeners may have heard not contrition, but conniving. Junior recalls that Daddy still has money, and he might be able to get more. Unlike the sheep and the coin, he has not been “found.” Rather he recovers his true nature — he is described as “coming to himself” — and that self is one who knows that Daddy will do anything he asks. . . Although Junior speaks of being treated as a hired hand, his repeated paternal language suggests that he still thinks of himself as his father’s “son”. . . .
Further suggesting Junior’s lack of remorse is his line, “I have sinned against heaven and before you.” Biblically literate listeners hear an echo of the empty words of Pharaoh in order to stop the plagues. . . The prodigal is no more repentant, has had no more change of heart, that Egypt’s ruler. Homiletician David Buttrick concisely summarizes the prodigal’s strategy: “I’ll go to Daddy and sound religious.”
If we assume the prodigal is not truly repentant, how does this change our reading of the story? Is the meaning of the parable about something other than sin and repentance?
Pages 66 – 76: Before rushing off to allegory, we do well to look at this father as a happy dad whose favorite son has returned. And so we do well to notice who is not mentioned as invited to the party. “Some man had two sons.” Most of us, including the dad in the parable, had lost count. . .
The father did not know until this moment that the elder was the son who was truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does what the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the one whom he loves, he seeks to make his family whole. . .
Years of resentment have finally boiled over and found expression. The son’s fidelity has been over looked. Once again, the problem child receives more attention, or more love, than the prudent and faithful one. . .
The son’s alienation is reflected in his words. In contrast to the narrator’s language of “his father” in connection with him. . . there is no relational language in the older son’s remarks. Instead he distances himself from both father and brother by speaking of “your son, his one.”. . .
What do we do if we identify with the father and find our own children are lost? Is repeated pleading sufficient? What would be? What does a parent do to show a love that the child never felt? The parable shows us that indulgence does not buy love, but withholding can stifle it. And so we search desperately, because our family is not whole. Sheep and coins are easy, children less so. . . .
If we hold in abeyance, at least for the moment, the rush to read repenting and forgiving into the parable, then it does something more profound than repeat well-know messages. It provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.
Instead go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you still will have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection — it is unlikely to happen twice. . . .
. . . We need to take count not only of our blessings, but also of those in our families, and in our communities. And once we count, we need to act. Finding the lost, whether they are sheep, coins or people, takes work. It also requires our efforts, and from those efforts there is potential for wholeness and joy.
This is a long section that may require an entire session to discuss. Feel free to bring up any of the material this guide has glossed over. Are there any places in our lives, where we have “lost count?” Have you ever been surprised at discovering you had lost a relationship without know it? What challenges do you face in trying to make your family whole? What challenges do you face in trying to help your community to become whole? Can you identify with the problem of trying to help a child feel loved? How do you feel about these three admonitions offered by the author: Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past? What do you think of Amy Jill Levine’s definition of “resurrection” with the stories of things that are lost?
Chapter 2: The Good Samaritan
Pages 78 – 79: The parable of the Good Samaritan is so well known for its message of aiding the stranger that it has become a staple of political discourse. Former U.S. President George W. Bush invoked the parable in his first inaugural address: “I can pledge our nation to a goal: when we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.” Bush’s presumption was that the U.S. population — who in the minds of some of our politicians, are all Christians — would immediately pick up the reference: “wounded traveler” and “road to Jericho” are images from the parable.
I checked with Jewish friend of mine — a naturalized U.S. citizen who pays more attention to national and local politics than most people I know. She thought the reference might have been to an accident in New York, since she knew there was a Jericho on Long Island. . . .
. . . . The standard reading is the one in which “we” are the Samaritans; “we Samaritans” help “them,” the sick, the poor, foreign nationals, and so on.
Do you think the Good Samaritan is one of the most recognized passages of scripture? What do you think is the meaning that most people ascribe to the story? Is it important that the hero of the parable was a Samaritan?
Pages 80 – 81: . . . . Nor would they have thought of Samaritans as “strangers.” To the contrary, they were all too familiar neighbors and all too hated enemies.
The parable for them would not have been about looking after a fellow human being, and the parable is not, finally, an answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It is more provocative than that. . . .
. . . . To label the Samaritan, any Samaritan, a “good Samaritan” should be, in today’s climate, seen as offensive. It is tantamount to saying, “He’s a good Muslim” (as opposed to all those others who, in this configuration, would be terrorists) or “She’s a good immigrant” (as opposed to all those others who, in this same configuration, are here to take our jobs or scam our welfare system) . . . .
What modern equivalent could you use to replace “Samaritan” to capture the meaning of this story for a modern American audience? Once you have considered what symbolic figure you would use to replace the Samaritan, what symbolic figures would you use to replace the Priest and the Levite?
The Malevolent Lawyer
Pages 86 – 90: . . . . Like that of our lawyer in our parable, the ruler’s focus on eternal life leads nowhere; a focus on caring for others might offer a better path.
How far off base is our lawyer? He thinks in terms of a single action rather than a life of righteousness. He thinks of eternal life as a commodity to be inherited or acquired rather than a gift freely given. He focuses on eternal life — his own salvation — when he should be, as Judaism teaches, focused on loving God and neighbor, honoring parents, eschewing stealing, and so on. Finally, he is asking obnoxious questions to which he already knows the answers.
Jesus does not directly answer the question. Instead, he uses what is sometimes called the “Socratic method” but which, I think, Jews invented or at least perfected. In typical Jewish fashion, he answers a question with a question.
By turning the question back on the lawyer, Jesus evades the trick. He may also be appealing to the lawyer’s ego: “Surely sir, you know the answer; after all, you are the trained professional.” Jesus provides the lawyer an opportunity to display his knowledge to the
public. . . .
. . . . Actually, the Torah is not much interested in eternal life or life after death. It is much more interested in how to live in the present. . . .
Jesus does not merely ask, “What is written in the Torah?” He glosses that question with the more specific: “How do you read?” The double focus on literacy — what is written and how is it read — is usually ignored, but to do so ignores the historical point. The lawyer is literate, a quality not shared by the majority of the population in antiquity. . . .
The lawyer’s response is a combination of two verses of the Torah known to all practicing Jews then and now. The first is Deuteronomy 6:5, which is part of Judaism’s daily liturgy. . . . love of God is the ground of one’s being and the guide for one’s life.
The second verse the lawyer cites is inextricably connected to the first: love of God has to be manifested: to love means to act: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is Leviticus 19:18. . . .
The lawyer knew the commandments, and he would have known the context. Whether he fully understood them is another question.
The lawyer got the right answer; good for him. However, he did not get the right question, so Jesus changes it for him. Whereas the lawyer asked about “eternal life,” Jesus reframes what is at stake by exhorting, “Do this, and you will live.” . . . The point is to “live now” and not be focused on “eternal life. . . “
What is the problem with the assumptions behind the lawyers questions? Do you see any parallels between the assumptions made by the lawyer and focus of much of much of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity? For you how important is it to “get saved?” How important is “salvation theology” in your faith?
Pages 90 – 92: His question, “Who is my neighbor?” is on the technical level not a bad one. . . .
Thus the alien is necessarily a neighbor, a fellow.
On the home front, I wonder if those folks who want to impose “biblical values” in America today have considered Leviticus 19 in debates over immigration reform. . .
The lawyers question has legal merit. One needs to know who are neighbors, and so under the same legal system, and who are not. But in the context of love, his question is not relevant. According to Leviticus, love has to extend beyond the people in one’s group. Leviticus 19 insists on loving the stranger as well.
Amy Jill suggests that the question, “Who is my neighbor?” might have some relevance in a discussion about immigration reform. How do you think a “biblical values” person like Ted Cruz would respond to the implications of Levine’s arguments? How do you think Donald Trump would respond to her statement that, “Leviticus 19 insists on loving the strange as well?” How do you think “law” and “love” are related?
Pages 93 – 94: For our parable the lawyer’s question is again misguided. To ask “Who is my neighbor” is a polite way of asking, “Who is not my neighbor?” or “Who does not deserve my love?” or “Whose lack of food or shelter can I ignore?” or “Whom I can hate?” The answer Jesus gives is, “No one.” Everyone deserves that love — local or alien, Jew or gentile, terrorist or rapist, everyone. . . .
. . . . Only Jesus insists on loving the enemy: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He may be the only person in antiquity to have given this instruction.
Given this concern for loving the enemy, the focus on literacy in the lead-in to our parable provokes another possible reading. In Hebrew the words “neighbor” and “evil” share the same consonants (reshayin); they differ only in the vowels — but ancient Hebrew texts do not have vowels (if this sounds odd, think of text messaging). Both words are written identically.
When Jesus asks the lawyer, “How do you read?” he is therefore asking, “Dear Sir, are you able to see, in the very words of the Torah, the equation of enemy with neighbor and thus the command to love both? The lawyer has read the words in the Hebrew, but he cannot see their full meaning.
Not only does our lawyer fail to interpret the Law in its fullest meaning; he is about to become the recipient of a parable. We know from the parables told by Jotham and Nathan, that if a parable is directed to a particular individual, the individual is likely to come to an unwelcome realization. The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus is about to bring him to the test.
Can you see how Jesus is setting up the lawyer? Were you aware of the lack of vowel markings in ancient Hebrew? This lack of vowels sometimes opens up a wide range of readings of a text. Can you see how this lack of vowels opens up to numerous different translations?
Pages 94 – 96: The opening of the parable efficiently sets the scene. The person lacks identification. . . Jesus’s listeners would have had no trouble identifying with the victim; they may have been victims of attack themselves. . .
So the robbers are the bad guys, as we note also from their violence. . . He is robbed not only of his possessions, but also of his dignity, his health, and almost his life. . . The lawyer had asked about eternal life – he should rather be worried about those left half dead. . .
And yet half dead is still alive; the man is, despite being naked. . . and prostrate, alive. Listeners, identifying with him, can only hope that rescue will come. And because they identify with him their question — and so our question — is: “Who will help me?”
Have you even found yourself identifying with the victim in the parable? Have you ever been in need of help? In what form did help come? How did you feel about that?
Page 102 – 103: Arguments that read the parable in terms of “uncleanness” or “purity are made by modern Christians, not by Jesus or Luke. Neither gives the priest or Levite an excuse. Nor would any excuse be acceptable. Their responsibility was to save life; they failed. Saving a live is so important that Jewish Law mandates that it override every other concern, including keeping the Sabbath. . . Their responsibility, should the man have died, was to bury the corpse. They failed here as well.
The best explanation I’ve heard for the refusal of the priest and the Levite to come to the aid of the man in the ditch comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who preached: “I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible there men were afraid. . . . And so the first question that the priest and the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ . . . But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help that man, what will happen to him?’” King went on, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” King then went to Memphis, and it was there he was assassinated. There are bandits on the road.
Whatever the motives of the priest and the Levite, King is correct. They, like the lawyer, thought only about themselves, not about the man in the ditch.
So if the issue is not priestly purity, why did Jesus speak explicitly of a priest and a Levite? The duo anticipate, in good folkloric fashion, the appearance of the third figure. . . .
For Jesus’s audience, and for any synagogue congregation today, the third of the group is obvious. Mention a priest and a Levite, and anyone who knows anything about Judaism will know that the third person is an Israelite. . . .
However, Jesus is telling a parable, and parables never go the way one expects. Instead of the anticipated Israelite, the person who stops to help is a Samaritan. In modern terms, this would be like going from Larry and Moe to Osama bin Laden.
How do you think a modern American audience would respond to an Isis fighter or a member of Hamas portrayed as the hero of the parable? For a modern American audience, what would be appropriate parallels for the priest and the Levite? What do you think of Martin Luther King’s observation that maybe the priest and the Levite did not stop, because they were afraid? Have you ever been in a situation, where you were afraid to help?
Page 104: But to understand the parable as did its original audience, we need to think of Samaritans less as oppressed but benevolent figures and more as the enemy, as those who do the oppressing. From the perspective of the man in the ditch, Jewish listeners might balk at the idea of receiving Samaritan aid. They might have thought, “I’d rather die than acknowledge that one of that group saved me”; I do not want to acknowledge that a rapist has a human face”; or “I do not want to recognize that a murder will be the one to rescue me.”
Have you known people who were “picky” about the sources of help they would accept? What do you think motivated their reluctance to accept help? Have you ever offered aid that was refused?
Pages 112 – 113: . . . a benevolent reading of the Samaritan’s final actions understands him as providing not one time aid, but long term care. Thus, the sense of loving neighbor means continual action, not something to check off the to do list. The Samaritan’s offering the inn keeper what amounts to a blank check fits within Jesus’ over all concern for generosity. Moreover, his trusting the Inn Keeper to care for the wounded man echoes the trust the wounded man had to have had in him. By trusting the Inn Keeper, he provides confirmatory evidence that we make our neighbors; that trust is essential for life.
. . . . In the long run, at least as far as the victim is concerned, they (motives) may not matter. Of ultimate import is not our motive, but our action.
The parable proper ends here. But Jesus is not done with the lawyer and neither are we.
Do you think it is true that we “make” our neighbors? How important is trust in the process of being neighbors? How important are motives?
Pages 114 – 115: For the lawyer and for Luke’s readers, the Samaritan does what God does. The divine is manifested only through our actions. Therefore, Jesus responds to the lawyer’s observation not with a question and not with a parable , but with an imperative: “Go,” he says, “and do likewise.” . . . .
For a final sense of the profundity of the parable, we need only look from ancient texts to present contexts. . . .
. . . . To hear the parable today, we only need to update the identity of the figures. I am an Israeli Jew . . . . left half dead in a ditch. Two people who should have stopped to help pass me by. . . . But the person who takes compassion on me and shows me mercy is a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies lie with Hamas. . .
. . . . If people in the Middle East could picture this, we might have a better vision for choosing life.
Can we finally agree that it is better to acknowledge the humanity and the potential to do good in the enemy, rather than to choose death? Will we be able to care for our enemies , who are also our neighbors? Will we be able to find up their wounds rather than blow up their cities? And can we imagine they might do the same for us?
Can you see the parallels between the parable and the situation in the Holy Land today? Can you think of any other parallels in our world today? Refugees? Immigrants? Illegal Aliens?
SLIDE 3: DISCIPLES HAD GONE IN TO HIDING
The followers of Jesus were devastated. The person they had called Rabbi, Master, had been nailed to a cross by the Romans, and all of the disciples had gone into hiding. Still huddling in fear on Sunday morning, they were surprised, shocked, when some of the women returned from the tomb and reported it was empty. Someone had removed the stone, and there was no body inside.
SLIDE 4: JOY, DISBELIEF, CONFUSION
Then slowly different members of the group began to report “seeing” him, some even talking with him, first the women, then even some of the men, but always in mysterious circumstances, never quite able to know if what they thought they were experiencing was real or not. There was joy, disbelief and confusion. What was happening? And then the appearances stopped. Had Jesus gone away forever?
SLIDE 5: OFFERING OF FIRST FRUITS
And then word went out from the Upper Room that all followers should come to Jerusalem for the Holy Festival of Pentecost. They would hold the traditional all night prayer vigil and then participate in the procession to the Temple and the presentation of the first fruits. Their eyes heavy with sleep, as they waited for the break of day. The pre-dawn night air was warm heavy and still. And then a welcome breeze stirred through the room. It was cool and invigorating, and then the breeze turned into a wind, and each person in the room was praying in a spiritual tongue. Where before they had been confused and afraid, suddenly the followers were filled with courage and enthusiasm to share the story of Jesus with others. They danced, they laughed, they sang, and then they burst out of the room into the street. Surprised by-standers began to snicker believing the disciples to be drunk.
SLIDE 6: FILLED WITH COURAGE AND ENTHUSIASM
Peter began preaching to the crowd, “The day of the Lord is upon us. Repent and you can be saved.” The other disciples encouraged by Peter’s example fanned out through the crowd offering the people a message of hope and faith. According to the story of that first Pentecost three-thousand people that day chose to be baptized, maybe an exaggeration, but it seemed like a lot of people, and became part of the fledgling followers of the Way. The confusion among the disciples was replaced with a new sense of direction and purpose as they reached out to others to share the story of Jesus. And then as a kind of footnote to the story of Pentecost: “They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”
SLIDE 7: THE COMMON MEAL
From the beginning the followers of the way were defined by “the common meal.” And common meal did not mean a thimble full of tired grape juice and a flour paste wafer. Common meal meant a sit down dinner, where bread was shared, and people ate their fill. This was a table of shared fellowship and hospitality, where everyone was welcome. All of the taboos about who could eat together, sinners and non-sinners, class distinctions, rich and poor, disappeared in the fellowship of those who followed the way of Jesus.
SLIDE 8: TRUNCATED WORSHIP LITURGY
For over two-hundred years the Sharing Table was the central symbol and focus of worship for the Followers of the Way. The common meal was the principle way God showed up among them. Then as the church became more popular, as the number of church members grew, the full meal of the Sharing Table began to disappear, and the Lord’s Supper became a truncated worship liturgy with everyone getting a teeny tiny sip of wine and a small piece of bread.
SLIDE 9: CLERGY FOCUSED HIERARCHY
When Constantine declared Christianity to be the established religion of the Empire, the rush to join churches became overwhelming, because of the economic benefits associated with church membership. For instance, if you wanted a civil service job with the Empire, you had to become a church member. If you wanted to have a contract to sell supplies to the army, you had to be a church member. In order to cash in on jobs and contracts people were trying to join the church so fast there were waiting lines at the baptismal fonts. And so the church lost its focus. Rather than Table Fellowship and the social leveling of the sharing of food, and the commitment to reaching out to others in mission to bring them to the Table, the church became a clergy focused hierarchy organized around a formal liturgy, and creedal statements.
SLIDE 10: FOOD FOR OUR NEED AND OUR DELIGHT
As we move ahead into what some have called a Post-Christian era, I believe the way forward for followers of the Way of Jesus is to find our way back to becoming the people of the Sharing Table. Food has the power to bring us all together – we all need to eat — most of us even like to eat. Now some of us would do well to eat less than we do. I for one could live off of the fat of the land for a while. But food is not just a necessity. When I bless food, I like to pray, we thank you oh God for this food you have provided, not only for our need, but also for our delight! Food prepared well and eaten in moderation, and in the company of good spiritual friends is a pleasure.
SLIDE 11: FOOD COMPLICATIONS
But allow me a few moments to note that even with something as basic as food there can be complications. Food allergies, sensitivity to gluten, and ethical food preferences, like vegan, vegetarian, kosher and halal, all mean we must be careful about the food we serve. Hospitality is not hospitality if the guest cannot eat what is offered. When we shift to the summer lectionary we will spend a Sunday speaking to the issue of honoring the sensibilities of others, when we gather at the Table. At the Sharing Table we try to be careful about food allergies, as well as always offering some food accessible to both vegetarian and vegan guests. Making the effort to be sure everyone who is invited to the Table can eat is a concrete expression of love. Thus, even at the Communion Table we have both bread and gluten free.
SLIDE 12: THE SPIRITUAL GIFT OF HOSPITALITY
The Sharing Table embodies the spiritual gift of hospitality that lies at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. Henri Nouwen a great pastoral theologian of the last century wrote about the central importance of an extravagant welcome in our faith:
In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.
SLIDE 13: CONVERT THE ENEMY INTO A GUEST
Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. (Think of the millions of people this year who have reported voting out of a sense of fear and anger.) But still – that is our vocation: to convert the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.
SLIDE 14: GUESTS CARRY PRECIOUS GIFTS WITH THEM
…if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential it is the concept of hospitality. It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings. Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host… When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity.
SLIDE 15: JESUS INVITES US ALL TO THE SHARING TABLE
Jesus points the way to the spiritual gift of hospitality by inviting us all to the Sharing Table. Table fellowship invites us to put down our phones and our tablets and engage with the people with whom we are eating. We have gifts to share with one another if only we can reach across the table in friendship.
SLIDE 16: FOOD, FELLOWSHIP, PRAYER, COMMUNION
If there is any legacy I hope to leave with this congregation, I hope the Sharing Table will continue as a place where food, fellowship, prayer and communion are all shared. Hospitality is transformative and allows a spiritual space, where we can support one another in following the Way of Jesus.
SLIDE 3: YOU WILL KNOW THE TRUTH
In the eighth Chapter of the Gospel of John Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The truth will set us free from all manner of forms of false consciousness, and spiritual bondage, that is the promise of Jesus. In our story from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul confronts several forms of bondage in the City of Philippi, that have a remarkably contemporary ring to them.
SLIDE 4: HUMAN TRAFFICKING
The first form of bondage Paul faced in this story was good old fashioned slavery — human trafficking. Like most people of the First Century Paul sort of took slavery for granted, it was ubiquitous, although in his Letter to Philemon, he made clear that Christians should not hold one another in slavery. And this is not an issue that has gone away. I want to thank Jackie Milhorn for trying to raise our congregation’s awareness about human trafficking in our modern context. It is estimated that 24 million people worldwide have been coerced into slavery mostly for sexual purposes. In this country because of its busy airport Atlanta is recognized as one of the primary centers of human trafficking in the United States. Homeless youth are most frequently targeted by human traffickers in the United States. The United Church of Christ has joined with other religious groups around the globe to help fight modern slavery. There is an interfaith tool kit about human trafficking you can down load at http://www.uccfiles.com/Interfaith-Toolkit-on-Human-Trafficking-2016.pdf, and there are a few copies available outside the sanctuary this morning.
SLIDE 5: MENTAL ILLNESS
The second form of bondage Paul faced in this story was mental illness. The slave girl in the market was subject to some kind of fits of hysteria. The ancient world believed that people who were mentally ill had been touched by the gods, and so they were often valued as fortune tellers and soothsayers. The girl attracted to Paul’s message of freedom and salvation, perhaps even witnessing a healing, began following Paul and Silas around the market place commenting on their work. According to the text, Paul became so irritated, he turned to the slave girl and yelled: “Out! In the name of Jesus Christ, get out of her!” And the girl was healed. Just goes to show that goodness can sometimes result from mixed motives.
SLIDE 6: ADDICTION & SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Mental illness especially if we include addiction and substance abuse as forms of mental illness, is the most common disease in America. And given all of the prejudices in our culture about mental illness it is one of the most difficult ailments to treat. Many people suffering from mental illness are unwilling to recognize their disease. And again as Jesus said, “When you know the truth, only then can the truth set you free.” The first and most important step in the treatment of most mental illness, maybe any form of sickness is acknowledging the disease.
SLIDE 7: RECOVERY
Rabbi Rami in his book entitled Recovery writes:
Addiction is a disease. . . (But) the real disease from which almost all of us suffer is the disease of playing God, of thinking we are or, should be in control. . . As long as we maintain the illusion of control, we are fine, but eventually and inevitably life slips out of our control, and we are faced with a difficult choice: Quit playing God, and abandon the delusion of life’s controllability, or find some way to escape reality and maintain the illusion that we are in control.
SLIDE 8: WE MUST ACKNOWLEDGE WE NEED HELP
We are fortunate today that we now have a broad array of medications for helping to treat mental illness. But physicians and medications are ineffective unless we seek treatment, unless we are willing to acknowledge our need for help. The truth cannot set us free unless we are willing to embrace the truth about ourselves and our need for help.
SLIDE 9: GREED
When the girl’s owners discovered they could no longer exploit the girl as a soothsayer, they had Paul and Silas dragged before the magistrates accusing them of disturbing the peace as Jewish agitators. The owners of the slave girl were enraged because Paul and Silas had ruined their profit center — the bondage of greed.
SLIDE 10: HIDING MONEY
Greed still holds our society in bondage whether it is corporations manipulating markets for their own benefit, global companies seeking to suppress wages and benefits by outsourcing jobs and products to the developing world, drug traffickers laundering their profits, or wealthy individuals escaping taxation by depositing huge sums of money in off shore bank accounts. Apparently according to the Panama Papers greed is international not just an American phenomenon. The list of people hiding money in off shore accounts includes six current and former heads of state, nine Prime Ministers, numerous cabinet members from around the globe, several Russian Oligarchs friends of Vladamir Putin, no less than nine officials of the World Soccer Federation, numerous entertainers including Jackie Chan, Simon Cowell, and Stanley Kubrick, and a list of hundreds of world business leaders. The world economy is rigged.
SLIDE 11: SPIRITUAL RESOURCES TO COMBAT GREED
Greed seems to be as old as human nature, and how we can address our love of money and stuff and learn to seek the general welfare instead of our own narrowly defined self-interest is a challenge. Most of the world’s great spiritual traditions have sought to break the bonds of greed. “What will it profit you to gain whole world but forfeit your soul?” — Jesus. “The most ignorant one is he who does not learn from the world’s changes. The richest one is he who is not trapped by greed.” — Mohammed. “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” — Mahatma Gandhi. “Greed makes man blind and foolish, and makes him an easy prey for death.” — Rumi.
SLIDE 12: SIN IN THE PARABLES
In her book Short Stories by Jesus, Amy Jill Levine, asserts that the purpose of the Parables of Jesus was to prompt his listeners into rethinking their lives in order to break the bondage of greed. “Sinners are not ‘outcasts,'” she writes. “They are not cast out of synagogues or out of the Jerusalem Temple. To the contrary, they are welcome in such places, since such places encourage repentance. The Gospels generally present sinners as wealthy people who have not attended to the poor. That is a dandy definition of the term. Thus, in a first century context, sinners, like tax collectors, are individuals who have removed themselves from the general welfare, who look to themselves rather than to the general welfare.” I believe this definition of “sinner” is still quite applicable today and speaks to the bondage of greed that seeks to enslave our entire global economy.
SLIDE 13: ABUSE OF POWER
The last bondage addressed in our scripture is the abuse of power exercised by the magistrates of Philippi. The greedy owners of the slave girl whipped up an angry mob, who attacked Paul and Silas as foreigners Jews (maybe even Muslims, although there were no Muslims then), and dragged them off to the magistrates, who without even allowing Paul and Silas to speak, had them beaten and thrown into prison. The subversion of justice by those with an economic stake in the outcome is an old theme that still surfaces even today.
SLIDE 14: ABUSE OF POWER IN MADISON
The “Black Lives Matters” movement attempts to point out the problem of racism in the administration of our justice system. Here in Madison, an elderly Indian man was man handled by a policeman, who was then acquitted, and now the police chief has been placed on leave accused of having tampered with the witnesses. Abuse of power sometimes seems as ubiquitous as greed.
SLIDE 15: ABUSE OF POWER ATTORNEYS
We can witness our court systems being used as an instrument of greed in the public solicitation for clients around medical and pharmaceutical suits. The other day I got a robo-call at home telling me that a blood thinner that had been prescribed for me after my hip replacement had been implicated in deaths and injuries due to bleeding. Well of course blood thinners can cause bleeding, that is why we have to be careful. I found myself getting nose bleeds, when I was on the drug and had to back off from some other medicines in order to stop the inappropriate bleeding. And maybe there are too many uninformed patients, who do not understand the potential dangers of the medication they are taking. But how did they get my name? And robo-calling people, who have been given a medication seems to me like carrying ambulance chasing to new heights. Abuse of power is not new, and probably is not going away, but we can resist the bondage of injustice by insisting that our courts and police are not used to abuse the rights of others.
SLIDE 16: PAUL & SILAS FREED
The story of Paul and Silas ends on a positive and gratifying up-note. They were placed in chains in a maximum security cell, but like the Civil Rights protesters in the 60’s Paul and Silas began leading the other prisoners in singing hymns. Then in the middle of the night God showed up. An earthquake shook the jail. The chains fell out of the walls and the doors of the cells were knocked off their hinges. The jailer came running into the prison ready to commit suicide for fear that he would be held responsible for all the prisoners escaping. But Paul and Silas had convinced everyone to stay. As a result the jailer and his family were baptized and joined the fledgling church in Philippi.
SLIDE 17: CHAINS BROKEN BY THE LOVE OF CHRIST
The jailer also went to the magistrates and informed them that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, and they were in big trouble for having beaten and jailed Roman citizens without a trial. This was not the last time Paul would play the Roman citizen card. Afraid the magistrates let Paul and Silas out of jail on the condition that Paul would get out of town, while Silas remained behind for a time to shepherd the Philippian Church. And so the chains were broken — human trafficking, mental illness, greed and abuse of power. Those in bondage were set free. Let us pray that the love of Christ can free all of us.
SLIDE 3: NO GENTILES
The early Jesus movement faced multiple issues as they tried to discern their way into a new future challenging the Roman Empire. With the historical Jesus no longer among them, where could the followers of the Way find the spiritual guidance they needed to advance the “Jesus Movement?” In the book of the Acts of the Apostles Luke offers us a glimpse of some of the methods of discernment employed by the early leaders of the Christian Community.
One of the first challenges was over the status of gentiles in the “Jesus Movement.” All of the first members of the early church were Jews — no gentiles allowed. In order to become a Christian they believed it was first necessary to become a Jew including the ritual of circumcision for adult males — a requirement that limited the community’s growth. But as the movement grew they could not ignore the presence of people referred to as “God Fearers” in the synagogues of the Empire. “God Fearers,” were non-Jews who attached themselves to synagogues, because they admired the monotheistic teaching of Judaism, and the strong emphasis upon the relationship between ethics and spirituality in Jewish thought. In many synagogues God Fears were major contributors to the financial well being of the community. For instance in Capernaum the headquarters of the Jesus ministry during his life time a Centurion, a gentile, had contributed a major portion of the funds used in building the synagogue in the town.
SLIDE 4: PETER’S VISION
But how was the early church going to include God Fearers in the life of the Jesus Movement? Peter was wrestling with this problem one afternoon, when he laid down to take a rest in the seaside town of Jaffa before dinner. The air was warm, the sea breeze was cool and refreshing as he began to fall asleep — most of us know what it is like to be at the shore. And then in a dream Peter was confronted by a strange even disturbing vision. Coming down from heaven was a sheet of canvas, and on that sail were laid out all kinds of non-kosher foods — things, as a good Jew, Peter had never eaten — lobster, shrimp, baby back ribs, pastrami and cheese on rye, country fried steak with milk gravy, bacon! And in this dream God was saying, “You are hungry Peter, eat!”
But poor Peter could only reply, “Lord, God forbid, I’ve never eaten any of this stuff!” And with that the sail with all of the food disappeared.
SLIDE 5: COINCIDENCE OR SYNCHRONICITY
But as Peter continued his nap, the sail came down again, and God said, “Peter, if you are hungry, go ahead and eat!” And at that moment Peter woke up, because down below knocking at the front door, was a Roman soldier asking to see Peter! Now normally, this was not a good sign, a Roman soldier at your door, but bucking up his courage, Peter went down stairs. The soldier asked Peter to accompany him from Jaffa to Caesarea to meet his commander Centurion Cornelius, a God Fearer, who and a vision from God to seek out Peter. With some fear and trepidation Peter traveled to Caesarea and ended up baptizing Cornelius and all of his family and friends, the first gentile converts to the way of Jesus. Peter’s baptism of Cornelius and his household became the first expression of our core belief, no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.
SLIDE 6: GOD AT WORK UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE
Now we are reviewing this story about Peter and our scripture about Paul expanding the Jesus mission into Europe, because both of these saints of the church were trying to discern their way forward into new and uncharted territory. They were boldly going where Judaism and the early church had never gone before by seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. They were listening to dreams, visions, learning to trust hunches and recognizing that sometimes coincidence is synchronicity — God at work underneath the surface of events.
SLIDE 7: LIVING THE WAY OF JESUS
As followers of Jesus today we are entering into a new world, where the church, and other human expressions of spirituality, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, have never gone before. Some commentators have written about entering into a Post-Christian era in the United States. I would prefer to talk about a Post-Constantinan era in which Christian symbols are no longer the established cultural expression of spirituality in our world. In some ways the demise of “cultural Christianity” is a blessing for people who actually want to follow the Way of Jesus. Rather than focusing on beliefs about Jesus we are now challenged to live the way of Jesus as misfit communities of faith seeking to embrace the Commonwealth of God in our world today.
SLIDE 8: SUBSTANTIAL COMMON GROUND
In the words of Eric Elnes in his book the Gifts of the Dark Wood: We are discovering a substantial foundation of common ground between adherents of many faiths. Even though the framing beliefs of these diverse communities remain distinct from one another, their core values are looking increasingly similar. While members of these communities claim to feel more Christian, Muslim or Jewish than ever, they are also looking more like one another than ever before. They show strong evidence of responding to the same Spirit, who is fostering similar core values within the differing beliefs that frame these values.
SLIDE 9: TRUSTING THE PROMPTINGS OF THE SPIRIT
When we move forward into the uncharted territory of the Post-Constantinian age as a misfit community of faith, we will have to learn to trust the promptings of the Holy Spirit. But how do we seek to follow the leading of the Spirit as a community of Faith?
SLIDE 10: LISTEN
First, listen! The voice of the Spirit is usually a still small voice that can only be heard, when we are quiet. Group silent prayer is not an easy discipline. We tend to squirm and become uncomfortable in the silence, and then someone coughs, or wiggles in their seat, and we think we have to say something. Be still and know that God is God.
SLIDE 11: HOLY SPIRIT CAN SPEAK THROUGH LEAST LIKELY MEMBER
Listening also means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit most of the time does not speak through those who are the loudest or most frequent contributors to the conversation. God often does not speak through the acknowledged leadership of the community, but rather the divine voice will often come from the least likely member of the community in the form of a simple word or phrase that says more than the clouds of words that are produced by those of us who are more verbal.
SLIDE 12: TEAM APPROACH
Listening also means learning a team approach to discernment. Teams of individuals who come together to work on an issue because they feel “called” to seek a way forward are most often more effective than established committees and structures who see themselves as gate keepers. So often in the life of the church, if we want to kill an idea, give it to a committee, who then has to get permission from two other boards, who then have to take a plan to a governing council for approval. Mentoring, team building and group discernment are the skills we need to find our way forward into the uncharted territory of spirituality in our culture.
SLIDE 13: COURAGE
Besides listening we have to have courage. Again and again as we are confronted with new challenges of faith, we will be asking ourselves, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” We cannot just fall back on tradition or the way we have always done it before, because we are boldly going where religious institutions have never gone before.
SLIDE 14: PERMISSION GIVING — FAILURE FORGIVING
So, we need to become a permission giving community. We need to be willing to say, “Yes,” even if a plan might fail. If you have ever gone fishing you know the more lines you put in the water, the greater the likelihood of success. When we pursue multiple programs, we do so knowing that some of them will fail, but that is the price of find the one or two lines of endeavor that will succeed. As an organization we have to be permission giving and failure forgiving.
SLIDE 15: WE ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWERS
I don’t want to emphasize the negative, but allow me to mention three common attitudes that prevent communities of faith from listening and following the Holy Spirit. The first is we often think we already know the answers. When we believe we already have the answers, then there is no room to be surprised by the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit calls a community to move forward, it is usually in some risky, unexpected way. Whether it is embracing “Open and Affirming,” building a Labyrinth, making mission a priority, like Peter and Paul the Spirit calls us to take risks and do new things.
SLIDE 16: TRUST DREAMS AND VISIONS
Second like Peter and Paul we have to learn to trust dreams and visions. I can just imagine Peter going before the Council of Jerusalem and explaining to all the “stand patters,” why he trusted his vision of the sheet with the non-kosher food and the coincidence of the messenger showing up from Cornelius as justification for baptizing a whole household of gentiles. Again and again we will hear the no nonsense rule keepers complain that we cannot trust things like dreams and visions. And like Peter and Paul we will have to keep insisting that the Holy Spirit calls us forth in new and unexpected ways, and what would we do if we weren’t afraid!
SLIDE 17: WE DON’T HAVE THE RESOURCES
Finally, we will have to resist the last defense of the “we’ve never done it that way before” crowd — we don’t have the resources. One reason why churches are always broke is do we can claim we don’t have the resources. Oh God, we would like to do that new, exciting, innovative ministry you are calling us to do, but we just don’t have the resources! Friends, we have the resources, we just haven’t given them yet. Think about it. God has indeed called us to be disciples together following the way of Jesus. If we are faithful and truly seek to listen and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit some way, somehow we will find the resources.