Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Luke 20:27-40

Writing and pondering this story in the run-up to Valentines Day, I suppose it's not surprising that the biggest contrast I see between Jesus and his detractors (in this case, the Sadducees) is love.

Ironic, isn't it, that the Sadducees' question is built around marriage. But their approach (besides the fact that they are simply using this hypothetical situation to entrap Jesus, and so love is out the window from the get-go) is legalistic, rule-bound, wooden. There's no pathos in their storytelling. There's no concern for the specific people in the situation. There's no compassion. It's exactly like the "lifeboat" ethics problems that were popular a generation ago -- there are five people on a lifeboat, but the lifeboat can only hold two. Who will you throw overboard?

I've been reading Bob Goff's book, Everybody Always lately. Goff does a great job of pointing in his homespun way back to Jesus' command that we should love one another. Always. Almost without exception, our rules and principles get in the way of love rather than empowering it. Beyond the basic expectations of human decency that are reflected in the most elementary structures of justice, we fine-tune our systems to decide who is in and who is out, who measures up and who doesn't, who is worthy and who is to be discarded. There's also a serious irony here. Perhaps more than anything else, we focus these systems on ourselves and not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting. We fall short. We are broken. We have sinned and continue to sin. We don't look like the airbrushed models in the ads. We've gained a few pounds. We binge-watch Netflix. We find the most creative ways to shame ourselves, to draw circles that exclude us from being accepted, from being loved.

Without doubt, the most systematic of the New Testament writers is the Apostle Paul. He carefully reasons out the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Jesus' death and resurrection, and if anyone is willing to draw hard lines, it's Paul. Yet, when he's summing up the implications of what Jesus did, Paul over and over again says it comes down to drawing bigger circles that include us all. My favorite summary of this position comes at the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8. Paul writes, "There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added, though it's fair to say that the entire New Testament was written in ALL CAPS in the original Greek, which is kind of funny when you think of it through the filter of today's social media conventions). No condemnation is another way of saying there's no shame. There's no possibility of being excluded. As Paul says at the end of that same wonderful chapter, there's nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Nothing.

We can certainly turn away, rebel, exclude ourselves, and most of us do. But the upshot of this brilliant message is that when we allow God to turn us back to himself, we find open doors and open arms. The tragedy (as C.S. Lewis so strikingly portrays in his excellent book The Great Divorce) is that so many of us choose separation from God and condemn ourselves, in spite of God's superabundant love.

So the Sadducees lay a trap for Jesus, and Jesus responds with something like, "Don't you get it? It's about love, and you've completely missed the point." Human love -- even the greatest human love like that in an excellent marriage -- is an arrow pointing toward the real source of love, God himself and his love for us. Why would you keep the treasure map when you find the treasure? Though I suppose you might tack the treasure map up on the wall as a nostalgic reminder of the journey and what an adventure it was. In a similar way, maybe our imperfect human loves will be nostalgic reminders in heaven of God's love and how we began in imperfect, partial ways to know him and his measureless love for us.

The last point to make is this: Jesus' response to the Sadducees, though it seems harsh, was exactly what love looked like in that situation. He was confronting not their surface question, but the assumptions that kept them from knowing the living God in his fullness. The last line of the story -- that from that point on they no longer dared to ask him any question -- is hopeful not because questioning God is wrong, but because questioning God from a position of arrogant superiority is foolhardy. One can hope that their silence came from humility and a sense of having their eyes opened to the love standing in front of them.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Luke 20:19-26

This brief story points out exactly how the world treats Jesus, and exactly how Jesus treats the world.

Note, to start with, that the religious leaders understand (v. 18) that Jesus has publicly called them out by telling the previous parable. He has named them as unfaithful tenants in God's vineyard. Their response? They could have repented, but instead they sent spies hoping to catch Jesus in words they could later use to convict him. Note also that they have increased the stakes in the game: They're no longer just trying to smear Jesus in the court of public opinion, but their question is specifically about how to deal with the Romans. They want to get Jesus not just disgraced, but executed.

The heart of their question: Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? The people hated their Roman overlords, and popular sentiment would immediately answer, who cares if it's lawful -- we need to rebel! The Jewish leaders who sent these spies, however, were colluding with the Romans to maintain a relatively stable political climate so they could maintain their power base.

Jesus takes his answer, again, to a new level. It's not just a question of taxation, he says, but of identity. Show me the coin. Whose image is on the coin? (Jewish coinage, by the way, never included a human form like Roman coins did, because of the Old Testament prohibition against graven images.) Caesar's image is on the coin, they said. So Jesus, knowing that these spies as well as everyone else in earshot will get the allusion, says they should give to Caesar the things that bear his image (i.e., the coins -- pay your taxes) and to God the things that bear his image.

No listener would have missed this: In Genesis 1, God said he was going to make human beings in his own image and according to his likeness. So even in the face of this seemingly niggling question about taxation, Jesus points to the ultimate authority of God and challenges his hearers toward repentance: You are made in the image of God. Therefore, pay your coins to Caesar but give yourself to God. Stop worrying about self-preservation and render your heart to God, then see where he leads you.

It is not very hard to transpose Jesus' comments into our own era. We who tend to be so consumed with the matters of costs and benefits, of ownership and acquisition: Whose image do we bear? And are we giving ourselves, heart and soul, to God, living as his reflections, his image, in this world?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Luke 20:1-18

The two related pieces of this text force us to examine a Jesus with sharp edges. The New Testament is clear that Jesus comes as judge -- but our normal picture of what this means, of Jesus sitting on a throne saying "This one's a sheep ... this one's a goat ... sheep ... goat ... goat ... sheep" is incomplete at best, and probably messes us up in some significant ways. In these eighteen verses we see a clear example of how Jesus judges people and what that looks like. If we're paying attention, we might find out something about our own call to "judge" and what it looks like for Jesus-followers to act as judges over the world.

First section: Verses 1-8:
The Jewish leaders (who are nervous about protecting their own authority) come to Jesus to challenge him. They want to know how come he sees his own teachings and actions, which are often critical of the current leadership, as legitimate. Where does his authority come from? Jesus recognizes that it's not an honest question, so he poses a question in return, asking about the legitimacy of John's prophetic movement and his practice of baptizing people who came to repent and align themselves with what God was doing. The leaders had stood at a safe distance evaluating John's movement, of course, so they couldn't answer either way, and they realize it. Recognizing their unwillingness to be judged, Jesus refuses to answer their question. And in their actions, in their unwillingness to side with Jesus even if he is legitimate, they judge themselves. (For a longer, but extremely provocative take on this, read C.S. Lewis' excellent book The Great Divorce and get multiple examples of what it looks like when people judge themselves.) They reveal the state of their unrepentant hearts. Jesus doesn't need to say, "See? You're a bunch of unholy jerks." Their self-protection, their motives, their unwillingness to interact honestly with the truth, are all visible for anyone with eyes to see.

Second section: Verses 9-18:
So Jesus tells a story not to scold them, but to put their actions in context. He chooses the familiar imagery of a vineyard (see Isaiah 5, for example), a common way of speaking figuratively about God's chosen people. The question is, have you who are in authority been faithful tenants? Have you recognized the rights and supremacy of the owner rather than just serving yourselves? Through Jesus' story, the lesson finally starts to sink in. When Jesus tells what will happen to the tenants of the vineyard, the leaders hear him speaking their future, and they respond "Surely not!" If all Jesus is doing is telling a story, why does it matter? But Jesus is telling their story, making their actions clear for all to understand.

The question we have to ask, then, is this: What authority has God given you? What is the vineyard God has entrusted to you, and are you honoring him in the way you manage it?

Lest we read this selfishly and make it all about ourselves -- "Someday Jesus will come back ... maybe any day now ... and then this will be fulfilled!" -- know that Jesus' words very literally came true about forty years later. The vineyard that was Israel was gutted and the current systems of leadership were completely destroyed. What wasn't completed in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD was mopped up in the Bar Kochba revolt another sixty-five years later. From that day on, Jewish leadership in the world was radically changed. It is also arguable that the primary vehicle God uses to communicate his presence and character to the world shifted from Second Temple Judaism to the fledgling Jesus movement that spread like wildfire through the Roman Empire and beyond.

History is important, because we might be able to see in these events some indicators of our own situation. We live in one of the great shifts of the Christian movement, what some have described as a shift past the "Christendom" where Christianity enjoyed status and privilege and power, into something we don't know how to define yet but for the moment we're just calling "post-Christendom." Is it possible that for decades and even centuries Christian churches got complacent serving themselves rather than recognizing and participating in the mission God had for them? And is it possible that in our day, God is giving that "vineyard" to Jesus-focused movements that are more true to his mission?

It's worth pondering.

In the next few verses we'll be seeing Jesus' own perspective on living in tension with culture -- especially religious culture -- and how to interact with a wider society that is opposed to God's rule. Hang on for the ride!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Watching the snow fall

My attention lately has been focused elsewhere, and I've been delinquent about updating this blog. I've been focusing on the launch of some mid-sized groups -- "pastorates" in the language I've used in the past, and "Life Groups" according to what we're currently calling them. They're mid-sized groups (25-50 people) that meet in homes (yes, it's wonderfully crowded, and yes, your home is big enough) and are led by a team of people who cover the various roles of teaching, administration, mission, hospitality, etc. This has been exciting for me. It's really fun to see these home-based groups launching in a way that brings so much of what the New Testament describes as "church" to life in the 21st century! We've got three Life Groups up and running now, and anticipate launching at least a couple more later this spring.

I've also been launching another Alpha course, and that will take up the lion's share of my day today. Alpha complements Life Groups so well, and provides such a great way for people to build community, explore life's deeper questions, and come to know Jesus in a more personal way.

At the moment I'm watching the snow falling outside my window. This isn't supposed to amount to much, but it's coming down pretty enthusiastically at the moment. And tomorrow (first real Alpha session so the timing isn't great) we're supposed to get 5-8 inches of snow. I always get my hopes up for these storms and then too often they fizzle. However, once again I'm an optimist. I invested in a pair of aluminum snowshoes and trekking poles yesterday -- something I've been debating for at least a decade. I've got a traditional pair of snowshoes, and they're great, but for more serious winter activity the modern ones work a little more efficiently. I'm excited to get out on them later today, hopefully, if I can get my Alpha preparations done. We've had about four inches of a good base of snow here, and if we get another half a foot or more it will be about ideal for snowshoeing. I'll keep you posted.

That's my intention now -- to mix up posts that complete the task of working through Luke (I haven't forgotten) mixed with more personal updates about life on the lake here at Decision Hills. I've been embroiled in vehicle maintenance, furnace repair, and other joys of winter in Minnesota these last few weeks. But my intention, as I said, is to reengage in the discipline of writing here a bit. Apologies to those of you who might be checking this blog from time to time! Don't give up on me just yet.

In the meantime, since I'm continuing to pursue the discipline (ever so slowly) of learning Spanish, I'll say:

Qué día tan bonita! La nieve es muy hermosa!