Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Simple Gift of Thanksgiving

Luke 17:11-19, the gospel lesson appointed for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, is also the appointed text in the U.S. for Thanksgiving Day.  It centers on the thankfulness of the 10th leper in contrast to the other nine who fail to return and give thanks.  Noteworthy is that the healing happens to them all without condition or prerequisite.  What follows the thanksgiving of the 10th leper is a further blessing: he now knows - and so do we - that faith saves us.

(The following questions are an attempt to come to terms with some of the key issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  Law and Gospel preaching is a genre of preaching that balances the demands of God with the promises of God. For more information on this genre, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Jesus, the Word, functions first to heal.  This is an act of grace, without condition, without demand upon the healed ones.  This is a gospel act.  Second, Jesus announces to the thankful leper that his faith has saved him.  Jesus announces his salvation.  This too is a gospel act.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no real word of law here.  Jesus does wonder that the other nine have not returned to give thanks, but they are not present for his admonishment.  Furthermore, he condemns no one.  This is not a text shaming us for not returning and giving thanks.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are those addressed by the Word. We are the healed ones and the one who returns to give thanks. We are the ones who hear from Jesus' lips, "Your faith has saved you."  We are the recipients of the good news and of healing.  We are also those who need to be reminded to return and give thanks to God.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in the text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us how to act in response to God's grace in our lives.  Clearly the message here is:  Be thankful.  This is a call to obedience.  When we see clearly the gifts of Jesus in our lives, we can't help but live thankfully.  It is what faith does.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several obvious ones come from the language in the text itself:  diseased/made clean; isolated/restored to community; dying/saved.

6.  Exegetical work:  The various translations of verse 19 are interesting:  KJV: thy faith hath made thee whole; TEV: your faith has made you well; JB: Your faith has saved you; NEB: your faith has cured you.  The Greek term used in this verse is most often translated in Luke's gospel as "saved" in agreement with the Jerusalem Bible translation.  It is clearly a different word than the one used in the rest of the story where the lepers are "cleansed" or "cured."  Some writers make much of this final verse and the implications of this, while others point out that Luke also uses this word regularly for being healed.  Fred Craddock, in his commentary, says that this text can be understood as two stories; one about the healing of ten lepers and their obedience and the other about the salvation of one lost soul. (Luke, Interpretation Series, p. 202-203) This analysis, of course, hinges on the translation of this final verse.

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text? Steve Kuhl, in his working with this text, also makes much out of the distinctions between the words of healing and wholeness in the story.  In his diagnosis of the story he points out how the lepers are all pariahs - outcasts - and the invitation to go and show themselves to the priests is exactly what they are longing for - to be admitted back into the community.  They are, as Kuhl says, "cured, but not made well."  Kuhl sees that in order for us to be made well, we come to Jesus.  We return.  We repent.  And in that we are made truly well. You can see the entire analysis archived under Year C Gospel 2013 at study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Joy of Tiny Faith

In Luke 17:5-10, the gospel lesson appointed for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, we encounter a well-known saying of Jesus that "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you."  Noteworthy is the fact that this construction is a condition of certainty.  That means that Jesus is saying, "If you had faith - AND YOU DO! - you could do this."  In other words, Jesus is saying that the faith you already have is sufficient.  This is good news!  Jesus has never been about having great amounts of anything - save love.  This means we can celebrate the gift of faith given us, and spend our time living out the Gospel, not worrying about growing our faith.  How freeing!

(The following questions come from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon. They are meant to get at some of the key questions for preachers of this genre.  For more insight into this type of preaching, check out my guide.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Because of the construction of the saying by Jesus in verse 6, the Word functions here as gospel.  Jesus is saying, in effect, "The faith you have been given is sufficient; celebrate that!  The faith you have, though small, is more than enough to do all that you dream of and more."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Again, because of the construction of the saying, the Word is not functioning here as Law.  It is not saying, "If only you had a wee bit of faith, you faithless ones, then you could do great things."  No, because faith is a gift, and because God's grace is sufficient, even the tiniest piece of faith, like the tiniest sip of wine or taste of bread at the Lords' table, is sufficient for our needs.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are undoubtedly the apostles who say to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"  We wish to have greater faith because we mistakenly believe that more faith will mean greater power or greater wisdom, or perhaps even a greater station in the household of our Lord. The parable which follows Jesus' saying shows clearly that even when we have done all things well, we are simply the servants of Christ, no better or worse than any other servants in the household. So with faith - greater faith will not elevate us to a different place in the Lord's household.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience, is there in this text?  The parable within this text is simply that - a call to obedience. We are to do all that our Lord commands us, and when we have done that we have only done what is rightfully our responsibility.  We are servants; that is our identity.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several obvious couplets come to mind in this text:  discontent with faith/trusting God; discontent with our station/trusting our Lord.

6.  Exegetical work:  There is an extensive article about faith in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  I would recommend it to you.  Here are a few pieces I found especially helpful:  "As the Old Testament understands it, faith always is man's reaction to God's primary action.  Related here is the fact that older Old Testament religion was collective in structure, and it was difficult to give expression to the inner life of the community." (TDNT, VI, 182)  "'Faith' in the Old Testament denotes a relation to God which embraces the whole man in the totality of his external conduct and inner life." (TDNT, VI,  188)  General Christian usage of the word faith is 1) To believe God's word; 2) To obey; 3) To trust (i.e. God will fulfill promises); 4) To hope; 5) To be faithful. (TDNT, VI, 205)  Martin Luther had this to say about faith in his Sacrament of Penance, 1519:  "Now if God allows faith to remain weak, one should not despair on that account, but rather recognize it as a trial and temptation by means of which God tests, prods, and drives a person to cry out all the more... with the apostles, "O Lord, increase our faith."  Thus does a person come to learn that everything depends on the grace of God; the sacrament, the forgiveness, and the faith.  Giving up all other hope, despairing of himself, he comes to hope exclusively in the grace of God and cling to it without ceasing." (Luther's Works, 35:19).

7.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always urged preachers to include celebration in their sermon design.  Since this text lifts up the sufficiency of even a wee bit of faith given to us by God, what better time to celebrate than that?

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Great Chasm

Luke 16:19-31, the gospel lesson appointed for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, is noteworthy in that chasms of every kind play key roles in the parable.  There is the spiritual chasm between the rich man and Lazarus which prevents the rich man from seeing the poor man lying at his gate.  Then there is the chasm in Hades between the rich man in torment and Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham.  And finally there is a chasm of faith that prevents the five brothers from mending their ways even though someone should rise from the dead.  How will these chasms be crossed?  That is the question.

(The following questions are taken from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but they get at some of the issues for law/gospel preachers.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is little question that in this text the Word functions as law.  The Law always points us to Jesus saying, in effect, "You need Jesus."  The last line, particularly, shows us our broken state:  "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  There is no gospel word here.  Yes, Jesus will rise from the dead; yes, the poor man has been comforted; but still there is no word here that says, "Here is Jesus come to bring you life."  We will need to explicitly bring the Gospel to bear on this text by using other texts.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those being addressed by the Word. Who are they?  In this text they are most likely the Pharisees, as revealed in verse 14.  They are revealed there as "lovers of money."  Is it comfortable identifying with these folk?  No, it is not.  In the parable the Pharisees are portrayed as the rich man and his five brothers.  Again, are we comfortable identifying with the rich man and his brothers?  No, we are not.  Yet that is the Word we are given.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?   The call to obedience, the Word functioning to show us how to follow Jesus, is not primary here, although it might be argued that the call to feed the poor is an obvious call to obedience.  While it is certainly true that the call to care for the poor is part of following Jesus, the function of the Word here is not primarily to address that.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Given that this is not a gospel text we must imagine a new scenario in order to complete a couplet.  Some suggestions are:  in agony/comforted; chasm between God and us/chasm crossed; deaf to Moses and the prophets/hearing in faith.

6.  Exegetical work:  There are any number of excellent commentaries on the parables of Jesus.  Here are a few insightful comments from some of those scholars:  Bernard Brandon Scott writes:  "The rich man's fault is that he does not pass through the gate to help Lazarus.  It is not simply that at the end there will be a reversal or that God will help the poor.  Even more, 'so long as there is time, the gate/door to the neighbor lies open to be entered and passed through, while one day the chasm between those distanced from each other will not be able to be bridged.'" (Hear Then the Parable, p. 158-159.)  Luise Schottroff has this to say:  "The Pharisees (or better: some Pharisees) are not really being addressed as representatives of this wealth, but rather as those whose interpretation of Torah legitimates this wealth and indirectly profits from it. The Lukan Jesus presents his social analysis in accordance with Torah.  It is his vision that Pharisees and wealthy Jews should remember the Torah - and that means its idea of social justice - so that the universal liberation of the people can become a reality." (The Parables of Jesus, p. 170)  Amy-Jill Levine, in her recent commentary, challenges many traditional readings of this parable which see neither a teaching about the afterlife nor a teaching about economic status in this parable.  She asks: "What if the parable does say something about the afterlife, which is what the church fathers thought and probably what the majority of the original auditors of the parable... thought as well?  What if we took seriously Jesus's own concern for how people related to each other, or how they might live if they already had one foot in the kingdom of heaven?  What if the parable does say something about economic status, a major concern of both the scriptures of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth?"  (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 250-251)  Good questions.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Serving Two Masters

The parable of the dishonest manager, a piece of the gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 16:1-13, is one of the most puzzling of Jesus' parables.  The puzzle revolves around verse 8 where Jesus reportedly says "[the] master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly."  This commendation is jarring.  How could a faithful master commend this man? Perhaps part of the problem is that we assume motivations are more important than actions.  Are they?  Or perhaps we are assuming that the master's values are ours?  Or maybe our very assumptions about the consistency of God's mercy are being questioned.  In any case, our assumptions are being challenged here, and when we are forced to grapple with our assumptions that always leads us to new insights.  We must, therefore, pay attention to this.

(The following questions I find helpful for examining a passage from a Law/Gospel perspective.  For more on this perspective, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Until the last two verses in the text, the audience for these words are the disciples of Jesus.  The summary teaching verse in the passage seems to be verse 13:  "No slave can serve two masters... You cannot serve God and wealth."  With these things in mind, the Word is functioning primarily as a call to obedience.  Jesus is teaching his disciples how to follow him; i.e. to be faithful in even little things and to serve only God, not wealth.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?   The functions of law or gospel are not present here.  It's true that Jesus calls attention to the unfaithfulness of the dishonest manager, but this is not done to drive his listeners toward God, but to teach them about faithfulness.  The Law always drives us toward God.  The gospel function of the Word gives us the gifts of grace.  These functions are absent here.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are Jesus' disciples, those listening to this parable and the subsequent teaching.  We are the ones who need to be reminded that faithfulness in little things is important.  We are the ones who are continually trying to find ways to serve two masters.

4.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Since neither the Law nor the Gospel are present in this text we are hard-pressed to see couplets in the text.  Nevertheless the main teaching offers a few ideas:  serving wealth/serving God; children of this age/children of light.

5.  Exegetical work:  There are several interesting commonalities between this parable and the parable of the Prodigal Son, just prior to this in Luke 15:  The dishonest manager was accused of "squandering" his master's property - this is the same word used for the actions of the younger son who traveled to the far country and there "squandered" his property in dissolute living.  Also the conversation the dishonest manager had with himself once he realized how much trouble he was in is reminiscent of the conversation the younger son had with himself once he realized he needed to return to his father.  Finally, the jarring commendation of the dishonest manager by the master reminds us of the extravagant welcome the younger son receives from the father.  In neither case is the wickedness of the offender denied, nor is it a stumbling block for the one with whom reconciliation is sought.

There are a number of good commentaries on the parables of Jesus.  Two that seem particularly helpful with this parable are Bernard Brandon Scott's Hear Then the Parable, and Kenneth Bailey's Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes; A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables of Luke.  Scott summarizes the parable this way:  "The parable presents a counterworld to the hearer's normal, implicit world.  In that normal world of patron and clients, power and justice are coordinates.  The rich man possesses power, and his initial judgment, arbitrary and summary, can be carried out because he is powerful.  The steward also possesses the power of a victim: he draws the hearer to his side by sympathy, allowing one and all to enjoy his getting even....By a powerful questioning and juxtaposition of images, the parable breaks the bond between power and justice.  Instead it equates justice and vulnerability." (Scott, p. 266)  Bailey gives us a very extended analysis of the parable, leaving no stone unturned in examining this puzzling parable.  Finally he says, "...the parable of the Unjust Steward is a parabolic ballad followed by a three-stanza poem on Mammon. The parable in an unforgettable backhanded way illuminates, from a unique angle, the splendor of the grace of God in which alone the believer must trust." (Bailey, p. 118).

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The scandal of God's welcome

It is interesting that chapter 15 of the gospel of Luke starts with the grumbling of the Pharisees who say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them," but is filled with stories of the lost.  Indeed, the two lost ones in Luke 15:1-10, the gospel reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, are not sinners at all; they are a sheep and a coin.  Clearly the focus is not on their sinfulness, but on their lostness.  The question for us becomes, "When we see people outside of our religious communities, do we see sinners or lost ones?"  It's an important question.

(The following questions are a sample from my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  If you wish to understand more about this genre of preaching, my book is available through or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  This text is pure gospel; it shows us the extravagant love of the Father.  The Father's love compels God to scour the wilderness and the whole house to find the one who is lost.  Clearly the lost ones are the treasure of the Searcher.  Clearly the love for the lost is beyond human capacity.  Clearly no thought is given to the cost or the effort required to find the lost.  God's great love is announced with gusto in this text.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The law is quite absent here.  When the Word functions as law it says, in effect, "You need Jesus."  It is clear that when we are lost, as the sheep and coin are, we need Jesus, but these parables do not lift up our need, but rather the love of the One who seeks us.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  This is an interesting question, because the Word addresses the Pharisees - those who grumble at Jesus' welcome to all.  Knowing that it is always important to identify with those whom the Word addresses, we might well be advised to identify with the Pharisees.  Another possibility exists, however, and that is the sheep and the coin.  We are the lost ones.  We are the ones Jesus is searching for.  Of course, it is worth considering that the grumblers are also the ones who are lost.  That might be a strategy worth pursuing.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience is the Word functioning to say, "Follow Jesus."  Here there seems to be a call to obedience implied in the description of the Pharisees' grumblings.  The implied call is, "You follow Jesus when you invite sinners into your midst."  The parables don't dwell on this, however, so the text doesn't seem to be mainly about this invitation to sinners.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets are suggested by wording in the text:  grumbling/rejoicing; losing/finding.  Another one that comes to mind: indifference/extravagant love.

6.  Exegetical work?  I like Amy-Jill Levine's description of the searching shepherd in the first parable:  "The parable presents a main figure - the owner, not the sheep - who realizes he has lost something of value to him.  He notices the single missing sheep among the ninety-nine in the wilderness. For him, the missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete.  He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself, and then with his friends and neighbors." (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 41)  Kittel's extended article on amartolos (i.e. sinners) is also very instructive for this text. Here are a few excerpts:  "[Jesus] never contested nor avoided the distinction of the people into sinners and righteous."  "Jesus thus accepted as such those who were regarded as sinners by the community.  It was just because they were sinners that He drew them to himself."(Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. I, 329).  Also in his discussion of tax collectors - the other despised group - Kittel points out that Jesus never said that tax collectors and sinners weren't lost.  Indeed he was very clear that they were, and deserved to be.  It is precisely because of the extent of their sins that there is so much joy in heaven when they repent. (TDNT, vol. VIII, 104).

Blessing on your proclamation!