Sunday, September 22, 2013

In God We Trust?

This morning we are given Jesus’ teaching on the parable of the unjust manager, with its stern conclusion:  “You cannot serve God and wealth.” It is worth noting that the word “wealth,” literally “mammon,” is the Greek transliteration of a Semitic word that can be rendered as “that in which one fully trusts.”  Jesus seems to be saying that you can’t serve God if wealth is the real object of your trust.   “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[1]  If we set our hearts on wealth, than we miss the true riches that flow from trust in God.

The words “In God we trust” began appearing on U.S. coins in 1864, and the phrase became the official motto of the United States through a Congressional joint resolution signed by President Eisenhower in 1956.  It is a little ironic that a society so focused on the accumulation of wealth should feel the need to adopt a religious veneer on its coinage.  Imagine the uproar if it were suggested that we adopt “You cannot serve God and wealth” as the national motto. Jesus wouldn’t fare much better in national politics today than he did in first century Palestine.

Whatever we may say with our lips, what we really trust is revealed in our lives.  Actions speak louder than words, and it is here that we discover the idolatry of wealth, the way in which it can come to replace God as the object of our trust and loyalty.  Jesus illustrates this point with his telling of the parable of the unjust manager. 

To grasp the meaning of the parable, we must understand how wealth operated in Roman society.   In the ancient world, wealth was almost entirely constituted by land turned by labor into food.  Wealth was controlled by a tiny class of rich landowners, who alone had the means to move crops to market across long distances and store them in granaries to sell for maximum profit during periods of food scarcity.[2]

This tiny class, along with its agents and managers, constituted what economic historians refer to as the “fortunate decile”:  the 10% of the population that included a small middle class up to the phenomenally rich, whose wealth was on a scale that would not be seen again until the 19th Century.  The remaining 90% of the population consisted largely of the labor force that brought in the annual harvest.  They led miserable lives at a bare subsistence level of existence.  After paying taxes and rent they might be able to keep a little less than one-third of the harvest they reaped.  That was just enough to survive in a good year.[3]

Of course, not every year was a good year.  Harvest shocks, unforeseen shortfalls in crop yields, were the norm.  Yields could vary by more than 50% from year to year.  Thus, “the primary cause of social stratification was the crushing imbalance in exposure to the risk of harvest shocks between the rich (who were cushioned against such shocks) and poor farmers, whose sole resources lay dangerously exposed to the weather.  It was these harvest shocks that all too often tipped the balance toward misery, debt, and dependence in a rural population that had to produce enough to raise the money needed to pay their rents and taxes.”[4]

If this were not bad enough, the landowners were generally absentee landlords.   There was a veritable hierarchy of imperial agents and middle managers who collected taxes and rent.  They were not averse to using extortion and violence to pad their pockets over and above what was actually owed.  These managers cooked the books to their advantage, leaving little recourse for the illiterate poor.

Harvest shocks that meant death, or at least debt slavery, for the poor, became an opportunity for rich landowners to make a killing from the sale of surplus crops.  Granaries, therefore, were the economic villains of the ancient world.  Populist radicals then didn’t occupy banks.  They occupied granaries.  The Imperial Granary in Constantinople was referred to by the local populace as “Jaws”[5] – not only, one suspects, for the huge crop surplus it “consumed” in its massive warehouse, but also for the lives of the poor sacrificed to fill it.

In this context of economic exploitation and corruption, we can understand John the Baptist’s advice to repentant tax collectors and soldiers:  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you” and “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”[6]  Later, when Jesus encounters Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho, whom the text tells us was rich, Zacchaeus demonstrates the sincerity of his conversion by promising, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”[7]  Zacchaeus was not being charitable.  This constituted reparations for past injustice.  He was simply being faithful with his dishonest wealth.

So, Jesus tells a story about a dishonest manager.   You can almost hear the people yawning, “Tell me something I don’t know.”  But a dishonest manager, who gets in trouble for stealing from the landowner as well as his tenants, that is a little more interesting.  At least, he is going to get what is coming to him.  But this manager is a savvy fellow. 

Notice what he does.  Knowing he will soon be fired, he goes to his master’s sharecroppers and lowers their debt to the amount prescribed, knocking off the mark-up to pad his own pocket.  This is a risky move.  It leaves him even more destitute and vulnerable, when he could have quickly tried to collect before skipping town.  Instead, he wagers that this act of restitution will regain the respect and trust of his fellows.  He is entrusting himself to their gratitude and friendship in the face of his own impending poverty. 

The parable illustrates what Zacchaeus will demonstrate in real life:  that making friends with dishonest wealth means using that wealth to liberate the poor from the weight of crushing debt.  The dishonest manager realized that true riches are found in a community of mutual care, respect, and compassion.  He no longer places his trust in wealth, in getting his piece of the pie by any means necessary, but in the mercy of God manifest in justice for the poor. 

We will never know the mercy of God unless we practice that mercy ourselves.   Recall Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”[8]  The word “mercy” comes from the old Etruscan merc, from which we also derive “commerce” and “merchant.”  The mercy of God is all about exchange, giving and receiving.[9]  The very life of God as Trinity is a dynamic exchange of love between the divine persons.   Mercy is participation in this exchange of giving and receiving in love.  This is the divine economy, the true riches.  If we are not faithful with dishonest wealth, how can we be entrusted with the true riches?

The dishonest manager lets go of his grasping attachment to wealth, which isolates him from his own humanity and that of his neighbors, so that he can enter into the divine flow of mercy.   Making friends with the poor is the right use of dishonest wealth.  It reconnects him with the exchange of giving and receiving that serves life rather than death, justice rather than injustice, forgiveness rather than indebtedness. 

In our anxious attempts to succeed in the economy of buying and selling, we are tempted to forget the deeper economy of giving and receiving.  In our failure to make friends with dishonest wealth by relieving the burdens of the poor, we cut ourselves off from the flow of divine mercy, the true riches that thieves cannot steal and rust cannot corrode.[10]  Perhaps we need “In God we trust” printed on our money to remind us that in the end it is love, not money, that will save us.  With that trust, we can begin to be merciful as God as merciful.

[1] Luke 12:34
[2] Peter Brown, Through The Eye Of A Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD (Princeton and Oxford:  Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 3 – 14.
[3] Brown, p. 8.
[4] Brown, p. 13.
[5] Brown, p. 14.
[6] Luke 3:12-14.
[7] Luke 19:1-10.
[8] Matthew 5:7.
[9] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston & London:  Shambhala, 2008), p. 45.
[10] Matthew 6:19.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Finding God

One of my favorite cartoons has several variations on the same theme.  My very favorite is an old New Yorker cartoon.  The setting is a living room, with the outline of a person, who can only be Jesus, hiding behind the drapes.  A woman has just opened the front door, where two men in white shirt and tie are standing on the porch.  They ask her, “Have you found Jesus?”

The setting is a street corner, and a man is passing out pamphlets to passers-by and shouting, “Have you found Jesus?  Have you found Jesus?”  A guy stops, scans the pamphlet and replies, “I didn’t realize he was lost.”  In another version, people keep ignoring the man on the street corner, as he cries out in an increasingly frantic tone, “Have you found Jesus?” Until a kind woman finally stops, places her hands on his shoulders and says consolingly, “Don’t worry, we’ll find him.”

Clearly, these cartoonists have read Luke’s Gospel.  They get the absurdity of “finding Jesus.”  We do not have to anxiously search for God.  It is God who seeks us out.  The question is not, “Will you find God,” but rather, “How will you respond to God when She finds you?”

Putting the question in this way undermines all our attempts to make God into an object over which we have some purchase.  God can’t be made into a project, another item on our to do list, or some kind of cosmic game of hide and seek.  The initiative is all on God’s side. 

God is like grits with breakfast in a Southern restaurant.  You don’t have to order it.  It just comes.  This is what Jesus tries to make clear to folks.  God’s kingdom is always already at hand, within you and around you.  You’ve been found!  That is what the mercy of God is like.  God just shows up for no good reason; at least, none for which you can claim credit.  Now what are you going to do about it? 

This finding God – this God who finds us – completely destabilizes the comforting categories we construct to distinguish between those who have found God (righteous people) and those who have not (sinners).  Luke’s Gospel makes a big deal out this destabilization. Jesus, who is God-coming-to-find-us, confuses these categories all the time: usually over dinner.   He seems a bit dense about the difference between “Pharisees and scribes” (righteous people) and “tax collectors and sinners” (notorious, public sinners, just to be clear).

Jesus addresses tax collectors like Levi[1] and Zaccheus[2] and even eats with them at their homes.  Once, while dining at the home of a Pharisee, a sinful woman crashed the party and started massaging Jesus’ feet.  He didn’t even blink and eye.[3]  Jesus tells a parable about two men who go up to the Temple to pray.  One, a Pharisee says, “Thank God I’m not like these other people here!”  The other, a tax collector, beats his breast and begs, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[4]

One thinks he has found God.  The other thinks he is lost.  Jesus knows that God has found them both, and demonstrates this by sharing table fellowship indiscriminately.  God’s mercy just comes.

Of course, this lack of distinction, this destabilization of boundaries between righteous and sinner, could make a person angry:  Especially if that person has worked awfully hard to find God, only to discover that God just comes and finds us.  So we are told that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling, because Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Jesus, in his defense, tells three parables to illustrate that he is only doing what God does.  God finds us: like a stray sheep, a lost coin, or a wayward son.[5]  God’s property is always to have mercy.

Please notice something about these parables.  They do not focus on the distinction between righteous and sinners.   They turn our attention away from preoccupation with what we have done or not done, whether we are worthy or unworthy, and toward the God who delights in finding us and bringing us home.  All three parables end with a meal – a party – a celebration of the reunion of the lost that restores wholeness, makes complete, and fosters sheer joy. 

These are crazy stories.  Nobody in his right mind leave 99 sheep in the wilderness to find one lost lamb.  Really, risk all the rest just to recover one?  The cost/benefit just doesn’t make any sense!  Why turn the whole house upside down to find one coin, just to spend it on throwing a party to celebrate finding it?  Is it really fair to treat your deadbeat son the same as your dutiful son?  How does that promote good character?

Well, God is a little crazy.  Crazy enough to realize that the other sheep, the set of coins, the entire family is incomplete, missing something vital, until She finds the lost and brings them home.  She does it for the sheer joy of finding them.  Rejoicing with one sinner who repents is way more fun that hanging out with the righteous people who don’t even realize how incomplete they are without the “sinner” – both the sinner who is one of “those people,” and the sinner within who is despised and denied.

God is a little crazy about this finding business.   We have all, already, been found.  God just comes.  The distinction isn’t between righteous people and sinners.  They distinction is between those who know they’ve been found, and those who think they are the finders: between the sinner who repents and the righteous who need no repentance.  The distinction is not between two types of people, but rather between two different responses to being found. 

As Andrew Prior notes,

Luke is pointing us toward a fundamental mind shift in our understanding of God.  Although we say God is a God of love, we tend to make that love conditional.  It is conditional on our repentance; it depends on our keeping the rules, rules which are too often somewhat arbitrary habits that support our local prejudices.  We use the rules to bolster our status and position.

This sense of conditional love leads us towards, or allows us to live in, a mindset of disapproval.  Fundamentally, we think, God disapproves of us and loves us only when we fit in with what we imagine to be God’s expectations; expectations that have an alarming correlation with our own social expectations of what is acceptable.  Our imagining of God determines the way we treat others.[6] 

Jesus gives us these parables to disrupt our usual way of thinking about God.  It really isn’t about whether we are worthy or unworthy.  It really isn’t about whether we deserve mercy.  God just comes.  You already have been found.  God has found you, and you, and you – all of you!  She already is rejoicing.  She has set a table, prepared a banquet, invited everybody: including those who think they are “somebody” and those who think they are “nobody.” 

You haven’t just been invited to the party.  You are the reason for the party.  It can’t really get started without you.  Once you understand that, everything changes.  The scales fall from your eyes and you discover mercy flowing everywhere.  The God you’ve been looking for was there all along.  She found you before you even knew you were lost.  And She will never let you go.

[1] Luke 5:27-39
[2] Luke 19:1-10
[3] Luke 7:36-50
[4] Luke 18:10-13
[5] Luke 15

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Surrender to Love: A Meditation on Luke 14:25-33

This passage includes a number of what biblical scholars refer to as the “hard sayings” of Jesus:  “hard” in the sense of being both harsh in tone and difficult to understand.  Hate your family.  Give up your possessions.  Prepare to die and follow me if you want to be my disciple.   This is not the kind of thing one hears at workshops on church growth strategies!

One way around these hard sayings is to treat them as if Jesus didn’t really mean what he said: as if they could benefit from a better public relations consultant to make the message a little more palatable.  Another approach is to retain the hard edge to the teaching, but maintain that it is an impossible ideal.  It is a set-up for failure, showing us just how far we are from the kingdom of God.  It is meant to demonstrate how much we need to acknowledge our faults and repent.  But it is not meant to teach us about how to live our life.  So, we can admit how far we fall short of this ideal, and then go about our lives. 

I’d like to suggest that while this teaching isn’t easy, neither is it impossible.  It is hard because it cuts right to the heart of the fears that bind us and invites us to a new freedom.  We are presented with a choice, and this choice is not without risk and sacrifice.  What we choose will determine the shape of our life, so we do well to count the cost.

Jesus doesn’t mince words because what is at stake is too important and he wants to make himself clear.   The very fact of his growing popularity at this point in his ministry makes Jesus suspicious that he is probably being misunderstood.   And so just when he is drawing the biggest crowds of his career, Jesus drops these hard sayings on the people like a bomb.   He wants to draw a sharp distinction between following the crowd and following him; between the usual consolations people seek from religion and the self-surrender true religion demands.   Let me repeat:  this is not the sort of thing one hears at church growth workshops.

The usual consolations of religion are something along these lines: if you do X (sacrifice the right calf, attend mass, make confession, obey your husband, pay your tithe, obey the law) you will avoid Y (sickness, poverty, loneliness, grief, punishment, eternal damnation).  This is the consolation of religion in its negative formulation – avoiding curse.

It also takes the form:  if you do X then you will gain Y (health, prosperity, respect, children, happiness, eternal salvation).  This is the consolation of religion in its positive formulation – securing blessing.  It is all about reward and punishment.  Religion becomes a way of avoiding, or at least coping, with suffering, and a way of self-fulfillment, happiness, realizing your potential.  It is an offer of carrots and sticks to relieve our anxiety and boost our self-importance.  The problem is that it doesn’t work; at least, it doesn’t work for very long. 

The reason is that religion practiced in this way remains all about me.  It binds us more deeply to our fears in our futile attempt to try to manage, control and manipulate God and others to feel secure.  The usual consolations of religion serve to reinforce our willfulness.  We continue to be driven by fear in a thousand ways. 

Jesus offers us something other than the usual carrots and sticks.  He invites us to relinquish self-will in self-surrender to God.   Following Jesus means abandoning ourselves to God’s love in the way that Jesus abandoned himself to God’s love.  This is a hard teaching, because falling absolutely in love and embracing the demands of love makes us feel vulnerable and overwhelmed.   It means accepting that we are but a part of a larger whole that is finally mysterious.  This mystery comprehends us; we do not comprehend it.  Surrendering to the mystery of God means leaning back into the flow of a love that we do not and cannot control.  We just don’t know where it might take us.

The only way to move past our fear and follow Jesus is to entrust ourselves to mystery and surrender to love.  Jesus has a very sophisticated understanding of the main forms that fear takes in our lives:  fear of being ostracized, fear of economic insecurity, and fear of punishment by authority. 

“Hate your family” means letting go of the need to please, manipulate, and control our intimate relationships to manage our fear of abandonment and loneliness.  It means being free to go against the grain of the crowd when the demand of love may require us to sacrifice the approval and support of people we care about. 

Jesus goes onto to expand this to even “hating our life” or our “soul” – being willing to let go of the sense of self we’ve carefully constructed, the persona that protects us.   Self-surrender to God means refusing to cling to that identity if it inhibits our capacity to respond to love. 

“Selling your possessions” means being willing to drop out of the rat race, indifferent to the ladder of success however it is defined.  All the great saints of every tradition chose downward mobility.  Why? So the fear of loss of material goods would have no power over them; so that they would be free to love.

“Taking up our cross” means being unafraid to risk the sanctions of social, political and religious authorities when our commitment to love threatens them.  In all these instances, the point is not that family and friends should be shunned, or that possessions are bad, or that authority should always and every be resisted.  The point is that if we allow them to define our identity, if we are bound to them by our fear of losing their support, then we are no longer free to follow Jesus.  We are no longer able to surrender to God in love. 

When Mom has to face the fact that her approval no longer determines your life because you’ve surrendered to a greater mystery, it may feel to her like hatred. When you are fired because you were unwilling to stay quiet about your company’s unethical and even illegal practices, it may feel like you’ve lost everything. Defying the authority of government to spy on its citizens and punish whistle blowers may force you into exile or prison.  How free do you want to be?  You do well to count the cost.

Jesus doesn’t care about carrots and sticks.  This is way beyond that.  This is about the kind of person you wish to be and the kind of world you wish to live in.  “Hate your family, sell your possessions, and prepare to die if you want to follow Jesus” is an invitation to freedom, to surrendering our small, fearful identities to realize our participation in something much bigger.  When we embrace our identity as God's beloved, there is no longer anything to fear, nothing to defend, no one to appease or impress.  Punishment and reward are transcended.  There is, finally, just being in love for love's sake. 

“If with God's help and without a presumptuous reliance on his own efforts someone comes to win this condition, he will pass over to the status of an adopted son.  He will leave behind servility with its fear.  He will leave aside the mercenary hope of reward, a hope which seeks a reward and not the goodness of the giver. There will be no more fear, no more desiring.  Instead, there will be forever the love which never fails.” (John Cassian, Conference X.9)