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Archive for August, 2012

As for us in a modern Western consumerist society, two thousand years later, can we identify with the system of injustice described in the story of the unjust owner of assets and his unjust investment manager? I think we can. The transactions today may well be more complicated, and global in scope, but the essential aspects of a system in which money begets money, the middle men take their cut and the global poor remain on the hook of insupportable debt remain present. The shrewd manager’s reactions of first fear then cunning when he finds his position within the system of injustice in jeopardy are completely understandable. Can we understand Jesus’ challenge to divest ourselves of any of the proceeds of crucifixion economics, and to do so in a way which restores us to the hospitality of the poor? I think we can understand the words in red in our Bibles, but we find it a hard command to obey. I know I certainly do.

This is just one teaching, on one parable. It is not a whole theology of business or of investment or of money, although some of the directions in which that should be mapped out are clear from the exegesis of this puzzling little story. Nor is this a fully scoped out critique of the modern heresy of “prosperity theology”, although again the clues are there. Finally this is not saying that Christians should not be shrewd or sensible in their use of money, within an overall kingdom mind-set, far from it. They should be far more canny about where their money comes from, not just what they do with it.

Some readers might, inspired by the critique of the way debt functions in a society read in the parable a call to political moves to end usury, such as a prohibition on the predatory practice of pay-day loans. Others, seeing that this might drive the poor into the hands of even less regulated lenders might call for a quite different stance of setting up microfinance initiatives. Some readers might in the passage see a prophetic critique of vulture funds and international development loans and in response act in a campaign to bring an end to such instruments. Still others may read the passage as a call to Christian disengagement in finance. It is important not to build a whole theological or political position on one tricky passage, but similarly we should be careful not to run from any difficult interpretations on the basis that they are going to be personally uncomfortable.

Do we worry that we, like the rich young man of Luke 18:18, will “become very sad, because he was a man of great wealth”? (Luke 18:23) Certainly those present thought it was a tough challenge, saying “who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Jesus’ answer gives hope to us; “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). As we reflect on this passage, we, as much as any generation before us, desperately need the transforming power of God’s Spirit, we need to die to this world’s system of injustice, and we need to be born again to God’s Kingdom of Heaven which is characterised by justice and peace for all. And that is good news. Good news for us, good news for the world and a gospel worth sharing with the people of this beautiful world.

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As we conclude this series we are faced with the question of whether Jesus was demanding the impossible of his audience…

The post-resurrection church, as seen most clearly in Luke’s second volume and also the letters of the Apostles, understood that system of the world had such a strong hold on people that only the Spirit of God could liberate them from it. A more nuanced theology of the powers is needed to understand just how this grip is exerted. Just as the Levitical Jubilee (Lev. 25) of the old covenant, with its regular redistributions of capital and remission of debts, failed because of the grip of sinful greed in people’s hearts, so the promise of a new law written within the heart by the Spirit gave hope that people really could live a life of peace, justice and harmony in the world, as God intended.

Such an outpouring and continuous infilling of the Spirit would have dramatic consequences on individuals and communities. Paul, perhaps reflecting on Jesus final command to baptize and make disciples, used the motif of death and resurrection to make it clear that the life in the Spirit was radically new and empowered the followers of the way of Jesus to live an alternative lifestyle and to create a counter-cultural community. He says in Romans “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:6) and later “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus”(Romans 6:11). To the Colossians he makes it clear that this death is connected with the system of the present world “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules” (Colossians 2:20) and links the new resurrection life to some sort of communion with God “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). To the Ephesians he links the new life in the Spirit to becoming just and holy like God “and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness (dikaiousune) and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). In 2 Corinthians 5:17 he links the life in the Spirit to the broadest cosmic eschatological purposes of God “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, it is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The overwhelmingly radical nature of the change wrought by the Spirit is interpreted by the writer of the Gospel of John in John 3:5 “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit […] you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” This life in the Spirit offers the hope of freedom from the quite natural, Darwinian desires to look after oneself and one’s own “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:14), “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27) “for of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person, such a man is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 5:5). “you, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9) “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). This is most clearly summarised in Ephesians “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in indebtedness—it is by grace you have been rescued. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 1:1-7).

So in answer to the Pharisees and tax collectors question, yes, following Jesus will cost you much that you presently hold dear, but in following him you will die to that old life, which was actually a life of slavery to the world’s system of greed and injustice, and in dying you will be born again, into the resurrection life of Christ, which was made possible in the cross, and made new into the eschatological people of God, with a new heart, new desires, new ways of seeing the world and eventually an entirely new way of thinking.

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How, then, should we understand the parable?

In conclusion we should ask two questions, once ancient and one modern.

On the one hand, it is argued that this parable is to be understood as a critique of the ways of the unjust economic system prevalent in the advanced agrarian society of first century Galilee. On the other hand, it is posited that, Jesus’ interpretation of the parable consisted primarily of a challenge to the tax collectors and Pharisees present to give up the wealth which they had acquired through that system and thereby be reconciled to the hospitable peasant communities from which their sin (greed) had estranged them. Given these two conclusions we should ask ourselves; was Jesus demanding the impossible of them?

Secondly, as modern readers, does this parable have any relevance to us?

An impossible challenge to the rich of Jesus’ day?

We should not underestimate the steep cost present in Jesus’ challenges to the rich throughout the Gospel of Luke. The story of the unjust steward itself shows that for him to exit the domination system would likely mean a hungry and slow death. The parable told inside of Zacchaeus’ house in Luke 19:26-27 is a good illustration to one who had just renounced the system that such refusal could well lead to his own death. Even when Jesus does not warn of physical death for those who refuse to participate in economic injustice, there is still a common thread of the loss of worldly status, privileges and comforts, which Jesus does not appear to compromise on. How can anyone really risk so much? The human answer is that, yes, it is impossible to expect people to overcome their Darwinian drive to advance, acquire and attain, and to do so at any cost to others. This way of non-participation in the system of sin led, in at least some part, to the execution of Jesus by the strong arm of the Empire that stood behind the system of injustice. But it is in this death of Jesus, and his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God, that we find the answer to this impossible dilemma.

We continue this conclusion in part 11…

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In the last section we looked at how the early church understood Jesus’ teachings on wealth…

How did the church change its mind on what Jesus was saying?

Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) took this a stage further, redefining the sin of avarice as not simply the desire for wealth, but as a desire for a level of wealth inappropriate to one’s station in life. This was essentially an Aristotelian concept. Thus if God had ordained it that you are born a Duke or a Prince then it was acceptable to maintain, or if necessary acquire, sufficient riches for your condition of life, but if you were born, by God’s will, a peasant, then to desire the same level of wealth would be a mortal sin. In this utterly unbiblical theology any desire to rise above one’s allotted position in life was similarly sinful.

John Calvin (1509 – 1564) strongly criticised the Thomistic view which had held sway in Europe for hundreds of years. In a 1545 letter to Claude de Sachin he criticised the hermeneutics of those who used largely OT texts to prohibit usury among the Christians of his day, arguing that they had been rendered irrelevant by the changed conditions. He also dismissed the Aristotelian argument that it is wrong to charge interest because money itself is barren. He analogised that the walls and roof of a house were also barren, but it was legitimate to earn money by charging someone to stay there. In the same way, he reasoned, money can be fruitful. In other writings he forbade laziness and wastefully using hard earned money, and identified the purchase of unnecessary luxuries as a sin. Furthermore, in reaction to the excesses of donations to the Catholic Church, such as for the purchase of indulgences, he recommended limits on the amount the Christian should give to the local congregation. Finally, he often seems to adopt a moral hazard argument in relation to the donation of money to the poor and needy, as it was seen as furthering beggary and dependence.

According to later sociologists these five factors (acceptable usury, valorisation of hard work, negative view of prodigality, limits on donations to church and scepticism regarding almsgiving), along with the renaissance attack on traditional the authority structures of feudalism and monarchism, created a worldview in which the religious thing to do was to pursue a secular vocation with as much zeal as possible. This was later characterised as the “protestant work ethic” which some described as being “not very ethical, and it didn’t work for anyone outside of it”. Whatever its critics say this worldview created the conditions for the explosive growth of Capitalism, as the investment of earnings to make more capital became one of the only options remaining. Consumerism, as a later subset of capitalism was able quickly to thrive in such an environment. It has been astonishingly successful. Its success though has been at the expense of the Gospel of the Kingdom, as the Enlightenment fostered a private version of faith, with an emphasis on personal sin expressed in mostly sexual morality and a focus on the post –mortem sate (Heaven or Hell) rather than the life lived. Finally in its later versions this denuded Gospel the call of Jesus to a life of costly discipleship became recast as a cheap offer of a once and for all “decision for Christ” which bore little consequences for the rest of life. To people, even Christians, growing up in the shadow of such an oppressive worldview, it is no wonder that this teaching of Jesus is found to be puzzling.

So what about us, how should we understand this parable of Jesus?

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In the last part we looked at how Jesus interpreted his own parable, now we look at the interpretation of the early church…

Did the early church understand Jesus teaching in the same way ?

Was this commandment just for the early church in the life of Jesus and the Apostolic period? Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215) certainly did not think so, as he wrote against the private ownership of property and the accumulation of wealth. In the earliest centuries of the church there was no question that a Christian could simply not become a solder, tax collector, magistrate, politician or moneylender. It is also clear that anyone in those walks of life who did turn around and turn to the way of Jesus, would fully understand that this meant turning away from the way they had previously sustained themselves, and arguably would have understood the call to give up the proceeds of their former unjust work. By the time of Constantine however the position had changed. Lucius Lactantius (240 – 320), professor of rhetoric at Nicomedia and tutor to the Emperor Constantine’s own son, who is perhaps better known for his mocking of the idea of a “round” Earth, was unequivocal in his defence of the right of Christians to accumulate great wealth for themselves, or for the wealthy who had started to become members of the church after the “conversion” of the Emperor to retain their wealth. Perhaps we should not be too unkind to old Lactantius, as his boss did not have the most forgiving policies for those who irked him.

Time does not permit a greater expounding of the Constantinian shift in the theology and practice of the fourth century church, but suffice to say it was practically a reversal of position on such matters as violence, power, money, sex and the nature of unity and diversity in the doctrines of the church, through the wholescale adoption of pagan philosophies as the “lens” through which scripture was to be read.

In the next part we trace the shift in understanding of the medieval and modern church…

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In parts 5 and 6 we looked at the elements of the parable of the Shrewd Manager, as they would have been understood by the original audience…

So how does Jesus interpret the parable?

Jesus’ conclusion has two parts and neither of them are particularly unambiguous. In verse 8b “the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” he seems to be indicating that the rich and powerful will always be more calculating, more devious and more crafty in protecting their privileged positions than those who are seeking to live in a simpler and more honest way of life. The language of “sons of this age” and sons of light” is somewhat unusual in the NT, but is quite clearly analogous to many other instances of Kingdom theology which is expressed in terms of light / darkness, this-age / the-age-to-come and rebirth into a new sonship (c.f. many references in the synoptics, the fourth gospel and the Pauline and pseudepigraphical apostolic epistles). He is perhaps alluding to the fact that the poor need to be a bit sharper in their understanding of how the world works against their interests. Their present woes are not the result of bad luck, or divine judgement, or ancestral sin – their predicament is the direct result of the decisions of some pretty smart men, who are not going to change that situation in a hurry as its working quite well for them. This prophetic critique of the systems of money and power in society is taken up in Paul’s discussion of the principalities and powers, in which the church’s call to engage with the powers cannot take place until they have been named for what they are and unmasked of their pretensions. Christians, inspired by the Spirit of God, should be those who really know what is going on in the world, and understand hidden, sometimes subtle, workings of power, influence, exploitation and domination. We are called to be innocent of our involvement in the domination system, but not naïve of our understanding of it.

In verse 9 he goes on to say “make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings” (NASB) or “use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (NIV).I have heard this conclusion interpreted in a variety of fantastical ways, from building up social capital among the future residents of Heaven, to mandating spending money on evangelistic projects as a means of securing a better eternal reward. It has also been read as a simple teaching on the value of Christian generosity and hospitality, either as a value for its own sake or as a means of making evangelistic friendship.

I think a reading of this verse in the context of the story that proceeds it, and for that matter in the wider context of Luke’s Gospel, calls for a much more this-worldly and “now” interpretation of its conclusion. We should also bear in mind the mixed audience of Pharisees, tax collectors, “sinners” and Jesus’ own followers in the saying’s audience. Leaving aside for a minute the disciples, who have already given up “this life” for the sake of the Kingdom (Luke 18:28), what might Jesus’ challenge to the tax collectors, Pharisees and “sinners” have been? The restitution of Zacchaeus – “half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Luke 19:8, or perhaps the gospel challenge presented to the rich young man of Luke 18:22 “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me”. They would have certainly expected no less a challenging message than the kerygma of John the Baptist, who said to tax collectors “Don’t collect any more than you are required to” (Luke 3:12) and to soldiers “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” (Luke 3:13). If we stay with the writer Luke we might look at the post resurrection community of the early church, who in answer to the teaching of the apostles “had all things common and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44b-45).

Could the tax collectors and Pharisees have heard Jesus saying something like this? If you are going to enter the Kingdom of God – which is available to you right now – then you have known me well enough by now that it will mean giving up all of the proceeds of this system of injustice that you have acquired. So if you are going to dispose of all that wealth, then you may as well gain some friends in the process (or more accurately repair some broken relationships that your participation in the domination system has damaged). And if you do that then you will restore your own access to the practice of hospitality in the community.

Such a reading will necessarily raise a question about free grace, and the initiative of God in salvation. Jesus makes is clear that his “yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matt 11:30) and Paul insists that no “works” are required in order to be rescued (Ephesians 2:8-9 and others). Does the idea that salvation is completely free contradict the principle of restitution? I don’t think it does. Suppose a notorious bank robber has accumulated £3,000,000 of swag through his career of armed robbery. On his last job one of his hostages powerfully witnesses the story of Jesus to him in the power of the Spirit. He is moved at the core of his being and profoundly responds to the gospel. We can throw in a “sinner’s prayer” if you like. Is his salvation, in the words of the hymn, “immense and free”? Yes, most certainly. Will it cost him nearly all his ill-gotten savings and possibly his liberty too? Yes, I think most Christians would concur.

In our next instalment we look at how the early church understood Jesus teaching in this area…

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OK so what’s this to do with me? I live on a small Island about 4,000 miles from the nearest Chick-fil-A, in fact until recently I didn’t even know how to pronounce that brand name. Similarly the consensus of government, media and most of the people I know is that (a) LGBTQ represents an identifiable minority group and (b) as such they should be afforded at the very least some basic legal protections against discrimination in access to housing, employment and government services.

So I have watched this silly-season story run and run, and have seen some good points expressed as well as some rather immature ones, I have seen attempts to be a peacemaker and other attempts to pour hot chicken fat on the flames. As an outsider to the “culture wars” I have at times been baffled – especially it seems when only one side claims to be engaged in warfare and the other claims to be seeking to live in peaceful harmony – can you have a war when the other side doesn’t turn up to fight?

What do I have to say about the whole thing?

Well firstly on hatin’ – I really do believe that most of the people on the conservative evangelical side of the conversation really don’t feel a hatred for gay people. They may feel some level of disgust – the “ick” factor, and some degree of bafflement – they why-would-you- want-to factor, and also to some extent feel under a duty to oppose, whether in obedience to prominent leaders, or to their honest desire to be faithful to what they believe the Bible says. There are a few haters, but I don’t read that as the majority affect.

Point One – let’s stop calling those who oppose gay rights “haters”

What does it do when you call someone’s position hatred? It hardens their hearts, shows them you don’t understand them and also makes it very difficult for you yourself to carry on in conversation. Who wants to break bread with a hater? While we’re at it, let’s be careful not to replace the language of hatred with that of ignorance “they don’t understand”, progress “they still believe x” or demonization “a spirit of intolerance has gripped them”. My starting point has to be these are my brothers and sisters in Jesus, common disciples of the Prince of Peace and I should accord them that respect.

From there I need to maintain (and sometimes it is difficult) that they are opposing LGBTQ rights because they feel, for whatever reason, that it is a good, noble, right and moral thing to do. The moment I compare them to slave-holders or Nazis, then its conversation over.

Point Two – let’s all agree that all analogies are bad analogies

Saying that lifelong committed homosexual unions are like eating shellfish is a poor analogy, saying that opposing gay rights is like opposing slavery or votes for women is a poor analogy and comparing same-gender marriage to murder, theft or coveting is a bad analogy. Bad analogies do two things – (1) they give you a false sense of having made a good point and (2) they show the other person that you really don’t understand the way they see the world, or themselves.

Point Three – let’s try to separate the issues

There should be separate answers to questions like “What God wants for you?”, “What God or the congregation wants for your Church?” and “What we should agree together as a state or nation to prohibit with the force and sanction of law?”. In the first question my opinions, my thoughts, my interpretations of Scripture and my feelings and preferences can hold a great deal of sway. I don’t like fishing – I ain’t going to do it – no-one’s going to make me.

Coming to the second question it’s not all about me anymore. We are part of a voluntary body, we share our live with each other and we work out what are the characteristic of our shared life together. Some churches may say “we are a house of peace, there is no way we would welcome a soldier in here”, others might say “we can admit a former soldier if repentant, but not a serving one”, for others; “we are fine with soldiers in the congregation but not in leadership” whereas others might say “ we are open and affirming of military Christians and even those who have killed on behalf of a nation state can serve in leadership here.”

Question three – I share this country with people I didn’t chose to share it with, and they didn’t choose to have me in it either. So the basis for personal choice or communal norms cannot apply. As soon as you get to a national level and you are talking about what the government, with its swords and prisons, should be able to restrict life and liberty about, we need a new basis. Democracy is half the solution – but the rule of an organised mob can be worse than no rule at all. Civil or Human Rights are the other half of the solution. Civil Rights recognise that the deal each of us have in society is that there is a minimum level of dignity that we each accord one another. So I’m not going to legislate to make compulsory each of my own preferences, or to enshrine in law the way my faith-community have decided to regulate our common life together. When it comes to law-making we should ask ourselves seriously whether we really do need to control people’s lives with what is effectively a threat backed by force – and ask ourselves whether a law prevents a greater harm than having no law. In most cases I would suggest the answer is that no law is good law.

Point Four – if you can only be right or be nice, be nice

This for me is the essence of the issue. If Christians are those filled with the Spirit of God, and overflowing with the love of God then love should be our rule. Who is my neighbour – the one who needs your love. It’s always nice to be right AND to be nice, and as Christians committed to truth we do invest a lot of energy into finding out what is right, but if we learn anything from the way Jesus interacted with people, I think the lesson must be to be known for our love rather than our knowledge. It’s a trite saying but “people won’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care”.

Now who’s for a home cooked chicken sandwich with me? All are welcome at my table…

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