October 2, 2016 - Love of the Profitless Servants

Who among you would say to your servant
who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field,
‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’?
Would he not rather say to him,
‘Prepare something for me to eat.
Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink.
You may eat and drink when I am finished’?
Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded?
So should it be with you.
When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.’

Luke 17:5-10

The theme of this blog is that God’s relationship to us is an existential one.  We are not required to perform any task to earn God’s love.  In fact, God’s love is unearnable.  Nothing we can do can give us a legitimate claim on it.

This Sunday’s Gospel affirms that theme.  No matter how attentive, industrious and obedient the servants are, they nonetheless decline to claim reward [1].

[1] See, e.g.: Raymond Brown, et al. The New St. Jerome Biblical Commentary Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice Hall, 1990) 709

Photo: Vermont Country Road, Kristina Applegate

October 1, 2016 - Childish Faith

At that very moment Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said,
“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.
Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.

Luke 10:17-24

Faith is not to be found in the ontological argument, the teleological argument, or the cosmological argument.  In my opinion, each of these ‘proofs’ fails.  Abraham Heschel wrote that no one is converted from non-belief to faith by philosophical arguments, but we use philosophical arguments to justify our intuition of the divine to others and even to ourselves.   When we stop trying to demonstrate God’s existence and simply examine the powerful hold His Presence has on us, faith becomes unassailable.

This is not anti-intellectualism but radical equality.  We do not need intellectual powerhouses like Aquinas, Descartes, Anselm and their modern equivalents to open the gates of faith to the rest of us.  Attending to the God’s Presence is available to each of us now.

Photo: Cape Cod National Seashore

September 30, 2016 - Job

The Lord addressed Job out of the storm and said:

Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
and shown the dawn its place
For taking hold of the ends of the earth,
till the wicked are shaken from its surface?
The earth is changed as is clay by the seal,
and dyed as though it were a garment;
But from the wicked the light is withheld,
and the arm of pride is shattered.

Have you entered into the sources of the sea,
or walked about in the depths of the abyss?
Have the gates of death been shown to you,
or have you seen the gates of darkness?
Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all:
Which is the way to the dwelling place of light,
and where is the abode of darkness,
That you may take them to their boundaries and set them on their homeward paths?

Job 38:1, 12-21

The Book of Job is a study of the Problem of Evil.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Job was the quintessential good guy but nonetheless suffered immensely.  This passage is the God’s reply.  It invites faith that all is as it must be.

 Photo: The Pillars of Creation Nebula

September 26, 2016 - 'He'

"Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome, mysterious 'He'?"

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New York: Three Leaves Press, 1965) 21

Image: Mount Sinai

September 25, 2016 - Lazarus and the Rich Man

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'
Abraham replied,
‘My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

Luke 16:19-31

This is not a warning to rich people.  And this is not confirmation that there is a hell.

If the rich man did anything wrong, it is hard to tell what it is.  We are not told he was even aware of Lazarus’s plight.

Jesus is making the same point he made with the Beatitudes and the blind man at Siloam.  In contradiction of the theology of his day, Jesus tells us God does not punish bad behavior with poverty and sickness, and He does not reward good behavior with wealth and health.  God has special concern for the poor and the sick – He hasn’t cursed them but, rather, they are blessed with His attention.  And, “woe to you rich, for you have already received your reward (Luke 6:24)”, or, as it is written here, “you received what was good during your lifetime.”  Jesus is using their flawed theology against them and mocking it.  If God is in the business of reward, as they assume, then they will have already received theirs. 

September 23, 2016 - A Time for Everything Under the Heavens

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for everything under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

Today’s reading continues the theme from yesterday: life is not about accomplishing, producing, or completing anything.  So often faith is characterized as something that requires some action, or a certain kind of behavior, and that we’ll be rewarded for it or at least have the pleasure of knowing we earned being well regarded by God.  That just isn’t borne out by Scripture which far more often acknowledges that we can’t accomplish anything permanent but that we have value - divine value - anyway.      

September 22, 2016 - Vanity of Vanities

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
The sun rises and the sun goes down;
then it presses on to the place where it rises.
Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north,
the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds.
All rivers go to the sea,
yet never does the sea become full.
To the place where they go,
the rivers keep on going.
All speech is labored;
there is nothing one can say.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing
nor is the ear satisfied with hearing.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

One of the best-selling books of all time (!) was Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life.  Our secular lives are defined by achievement, goals, measurable success.  Vast swaths of our language of faith revolves around doing the will of God, following Jesus, imitating Jesus – in short: serving a purpose.  It is seductive because it allows us to do what comes naturally: measure ourselves against one another.  But Scripture most often tells us that we don’t have to serve a purpose to be loved.  In fact, just reflecting on our lives for a moment reveals that anything we accomplish will, in time, be forgotten, and all the monuments we may build eventually crumble.  In the opening words of Ecclesiastes, the prophet makes precisely this point: everything we do in our lives is ultimately, in vain.

What do we do if we life is not purpose driven?  That is the end of the guarded beach, isn’t it?  Faith invites us transcend striving for purpose.  Faith is not a moral code to be followed.  It is a transcendent message that we are not defined by what we can do for God.  Our lives may serve no purpose but they are suffused with meaning.  That is grace.  

Photo: Newcomb Hollow Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts

September 21, 2016 - The Preferential Option for the Poor

While he was at table in [Matthew’s] house,

many tax collectors and sinners came
and sat with Jesus and his disciples.
The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples,
“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
He heard this and said,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
I desire mercy, not sacrifice.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Matthew 9:9-13

Theologians often cite Jesus’s “preferential option for the poor” – a theme of preference being given to the poor and downtrodden over the rich and powerful.  It is more accurate, however, to include the sinner as receiving preference over the righteous as well.  Time and again, it is the one who acted immorally who gets at least equal, if not more, attention:  the vineyard workers, the Prodigal Son, the lost sheep.

Faith is not about understanding the moral code God expects us to follow.  It is about the moral code God follows – and how different it is from our own.

Photo: Stained Glass, St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, Norwalk, Connecticut 

September 18, 2016 - The Dishonest Steward

Jesus said to his disciples,
“A rich man had a steward
who was reported to him for squandering his property.
He summoned him and said,
‘What is this I hear about you?
Prepare a full account of your stewardship,
because you can no longer be my steward.’
The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do,
now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me?
I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg.
I know what I shall do so that,
when I am removed from the stewardship,
they may welcome me into their homes.’
He called in his master’s debtors one by one.
To the first he said,
‘How much do you owe my master?’
He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note.
Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’
Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’
The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note;
write one for eighty.’
And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.
“For the children of this world
are more prudent in dealing with their own generation
than are the children of light.
I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

[The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.]

If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth,
who will trust you with true wealth?
If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another,
who will give you what is yours?

[No servant can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and mammon.”]

Luke 16:1-13

This is a strange parable.   A servant is told he’s going to be fired.  To prepare for his impending poverty he ingratiates himself with the people who will be in a position to help him by cancelling some of the debt they owe to his boss.  For this the boss praises him!  The moral of the story is expressed as, “make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth so that when it fails you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings”.   If the rich man is God and we are His stewards, what is this “dishonest wealth” entrusted to us?  One possibility is that the “dishonest wealth” is the wealth and possessions that come to us during life.  Maybe the parable is saying we should be generous with them in this life to receive reward in the next, after we have left wealth and possessions behind.

The author of the Gospel of Luke clearly thought this parable was about money because he appended a few proverbs about money to the end of it.[1]  But that just seems a little homespun.  The only idea more improbable than God making a list to find out who's naughty and nice, is the idea that God checks tax returns.

Another alternative is that this is a warning to the Pharisees and other religious authorities of the time who wielded their authority harshly – assuming the poor, the sick and the outcast were cursed or forgotten by God. Jesus acknowledged that their authority was legitimate (Matt 23:3) but was very critical of how they used it. Their power was temporal and their stewardship would end - it would not be recognized in ‘eternal dwellings’. Jesus is warning them to ingratiate themselves with those they think are forgotten by God so that the tables aren’t unexpectedly turned.  

Image: Duck Harbor Beach, Wellfleet, Massachusetts.  Photo by the author.

[1] There is some dispute where the parable ends and the added proverbs begin. (See, Raymond Brown. An Introduction to the New Testament, pp 249-250) I think there are two and I’ve set them off with box brackets. 

September 11, 2016 - Righteous Anger

Or what woman having ten coins and losing one
would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’

Luke 15:1-32

Today’s Gospel is a series of three stories, each of which is intended to contrast human economy with divine economy.  Most of us would write off the lost coin or the lost sheep. Most of us would favor and reward the obedient son over the prodigal one.   We criticize ancient religion for believing that God bestowed blessings on good people and curses on bad people, but we have adopted that idea ourselves.  Sometimes we call it karma.  But God’s loving gaze lingers on those who are lost – not the imaginary romanticized noble poor - but the people we really, really hate, who deserve our hate and fill us with white-hot righteous indignation.  His is not a recognizable economy of grace. Is it good news or should it be rejected as impractical, socially irresponsible nonsense?  

September 11, 2016 - Eid al-Adha

Today, Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in Moriah.

Perhaps the hero of the story is not Abraham but God.  Perhaps this story commemorates not the moment Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice everything for God only to be prevented at the last minute, but rather the moment when God insisted that his relationship with humanity would not be characterized by sacrifice, reward and punishment.  Perhaps at this moment, Abraham recognized that this God was unlike any previous conception of the divine.  This God loves unconditionally, demands nothing, requires nothing.  

Christianity, Judaism and Islam are called the Abrahamic religions because they each point to Abraham as a common ancestor.  Biblical scholars believe the innovation of the Abrahamic religions is monotheism.  Perhaps it is something more.  Perhaps the real innovation is recognizing the existential nature of God.

September 8, 2016 - Emmanuel

The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,
because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had said through the prophet:

Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

Matthew 1:18-23

Much ink is spilled on the claim that Jesus is the product of a virgin birth.  Is it literally true?  Who cares.

Jesus is not a proof of God's existence. Jesus represents the fact that our God is not distant, doesn’t hide in magisterial, detached splendor, doesn’t expect us to endure pain and suffering alone. No, He is not an unmoved mover.  He is with us.

September 3, 2016 - Elul

On the third day, when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of an exceedingly loud trumpet; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.  Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the lower part of the mountain.  All of Mount Sinai smoked, because God descended on it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.  When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.  God came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. God called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

Exodus 19:16-20

Sunset today marks the beginning of the month-long Jewish observance of Elul.  In the Book of Exodus, God writes the Ten Commandments on stone tablets memorializing the covenant to which the Israelites had already twice verbally agreed - shouting their agreement with one voice.  When Moses arrives at the foot of Mount Sinai with the tablets, he sees they have already violated the commandment against keeping idols by making a golden calf. In a rage, Moses smashes Tablet 1.0. 

In all the dialogue that follows, the Israelites never apologize for their violation nor do they insist they’ll do better.  They don't shout their agreement to keep the commandments in one voice like they did before. Miraculously, God is willing to enter into the covenant again.  It is God’s willingness to re-covenant despite our inevitable and dismal failure, not our promise to keep the commandments we so quickly violated, that is the whole point of the narrative. Those who believe that keeping commandments is the heart of faith should re-read the story. 

Moses ascends Mount Sinai again and stays for a month as God prepares Tablet 2.0.  According to some traditions, this month of Elul commemorates that month-long preparation.  It is an opportunity to wake up, shake off our complacency and prepare for the Days of Awe.

I wish all my Jewish brothers and sisters, K'tiva VaHatima Tova.

Image: Chile's Mount Calpuco Erupting in 2015

September 6, 2016 - Renunciation

Great crowds were traveling with Jesus,
and he turned and addressed them,
“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple...
In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25-33

Casting off all possessions, all reputation, and all familial relationships doesn't seem like a recipe for spiritual progress.  In fact, it seems like a recipe for endless distraction from spiritual matters.  What Jesus is likely saying here is that the attraction of possessions, reputation, family, and even life itself pales in comparison to the attraction of discipleship. 

How can this be?  Seeking the divine doesn't offer practical benefits.  People of faith are not more healthy, wealthy or fortunate than secular people.  

But Paul promises, "the peace of God that transcends all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).   According to the author of Revelations, "Love of life will not deter them from death" (12:11).

September 2, 2016 - Old Wineskins

“No one tears a piece from a new cloak to patch an old one.
Otherwise, he will tear the new
and the piece from it will not match the old cloak.
Likewise, no one pours new wine into old wineskins.
Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins,
and it will be spilled, and the skins will be ruined.
Rather, new wine must be poured into fresh wineskins.
And no one who has been drinking old wine desires new,
for he says, ‘The old is good.’”

Luke 5:33-39

Jesus warns us over and over again that his message will be rejected.  He doesn’t say this to impress us with his magical ability to predict his own crucifixion.  He tells us this so that we’ll be on guard – his message is not an obvious one.  If we simply graft it onto our existing expectations of God instead of allowing it to completely re-form our expectations of God we will miss it and actually reject it. 

Our “old” expectation of God is that He demands that we act morally and lovingly.  But who among us opposes love?  We might be tempted to hold onto that expectation.  We might say, “the old is good”.  We might exert enormous effort trying to understanding God through that old lens, but if we pour it into the wineskin of our moral expectations, we will get nowhere.