bargaining with God?

Proper 12C
Genesis 18:20-33
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15
Luke 11:1-13

I can’t help but smile when reading this passage from Genesis. Abraham certainly takes his life in his hands when he argues with God about how many righteous would be needed to save Sodom from destruction. It’s a dangerous thing to confront God — even more dangerous to question God’s actions. “Oh, do not let my lord be angry if I speak just this once more. What if ten are found there?” The story ends with God going on God’s way, and Abraham returning to his place. He had certainly gotten out of it! It’s wonderful irony.

But there is more at stake here than just Abraham chutzpah. God has just promised to Abaraham and Sarah a son, through whom Abraham will become the father of a great nation, so that all the nations will bless themselves in Abraham. God has singled Abraham out, “that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right” (v 19). Through Abraham, the nations are to learn the way of the LORD. When Abraham argues that God should not sweep away the righteous with the unrighteous, he says to God, “Far be it from you to do such a thing. Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Abraham instructs God on God’s way.

The story would have particular poignance before and after the fall of Jerusalem. Surely Sodom must have been a wicked place, if God could not find ten righteous there. Sodom was used as a warning for Jerusalem — just as Sodom failed to guard the orphan and widow, so Jerusalem (see Isaiah 1). Jerusalem must have been wicked, if God could not save it for the sake of the righteous in it.

Abraham has been chosen by God to instruct the nations in the ways of God. Two things then are incumbent on Abraham: to instruct his posterity, and to get involved in situations of unrighteousness. God’s chosen has to argue with God about what is just and what is not. So also for us.

Then, Luke’s teaching on prayer. The Lord’s Prayer in Luke is stripped to its essentials. No Kingdom, power and glory. No “who art in heaven.” No “thy will be done.” Just, “Father, let your name be revered, let your kingdom come. Give us daily the just sufficient bread. Forgive us our sins just as we are forgiving those indebted to us. Don’t let us be put to the test.”

The wonderful little story following is truly complex. There are three actors. The man whose friend comes to him off the road. The friend who comes off the road, and the sleeper. All three are shamed. What on earth is someone doing out one the road in the middle of the night? Things can’t be good for him. He has to resort to his friend in the middle of the night. This is shame. The friend does not have what he needs to welcome his friend. This is shame. He goes to his friend and bangs on the door. The friend, even if he won’t be raised up to give what is needed because his friend (note the ambiguity about who is whose friend), yet, because of his shamelessness he will get up and give whatever is needed. Whose shamelessness? The knocker’s or the sleeper’s? The Greek translates both ways. “Because he would be ashamed not to,” or “Because he was not ashamed to ask.”

A situation has arisen in a little village in which failure to respond brings shame on all three actors. A simple response, the loan of three loafs – bread just sufficient enough for the day, will instead bring honor for all, even though it is inconvenient. Just like Abraham, the sleeper has to get involved in situations of injustice. If we are going to pray, we have to be ready to get involved as well.

The next sayings are all that some people will hear on Sunday morning. “Ask, and it will be given to you.” So patently untrue. It does, however, beg the question, “Ask for what?” If the knocker in the story had asked for a sumptuous meal, it would have brought shame all around, because no one could provide it. If we ask for a million bucks (how many people pray to win the lottery?), it brings shame, because if we don’t get it, God has failed, and if we do, we have friends emerging from the woodwork. We become inhospitable, like Sodom. And ask whom? The story shows prayer working within a little community of three. We pray in community, not in isolation.

So, refer back up to the prayer Jesus has just taught. We ask for three things. Just enough bread for the day, forgiveness so we can release from debt those who owe us, and not to be tempted (to ask for more?). If you knew that a single wish would be granted, without fail, what would you ask for? Anything beyond today’s bread gets you in trouble. These are the ways of God we are called to teach.

Sweating the details

Proper 11C
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:21-29
Luke 10:38-42

This Gospel story and the story of the workers in the vineyard who all get paid the same despite how long they worked generate more heat than any others. Why would Jesus chide Martha, who is working to put a meal before him?

I have heard sermons about the active versus the contemplative life preached on the story of Mary and Martha (favoring, of course, the contemplative life). Every woman who has ever served on the altar guild, or put on a parish brunch for the day the bishop visited, who washed dishes while everyone else enjoyed conversation, feels immediately put down by this story. Somebody has got to do that stuff. So, why is Jesus upset?

There are several things worth noting about the story. First, and so obvious that we miss it altogether, is that Mary is a woman. It would have been at least as shocking to Luke’s first readers that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet as would have been Jesus’ rebuke of Martha. Women did not sit at the feet of a teacher. Perhaps the point of the story is that women can be disciples in Jesus’ circle.

Secondly, I wonder to what extent this story reflects the struggle between the itinerant missionaries of early Christianity and the settled householders. Clearly, in the Didache, there are rules for how long a missionary can stay (and they must never ask for money!), and what a householder’s obligations are. If this story reflects that controversy, then surprisingly enough, we have women in both roles — Mary as Jesus’ traveling companion and Martha as a householder.

Finally, the NRSV translates verse 41 as “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.” The Greek word translated “distracted” is thorubaze. A quick trip to Liddel and Scott reveals that everywhere except the New Testament (and the word is used to mean “distracted” only at this verse — pretty thin evidence for this meaning), it means to raise a public outcry, to cause a tumult or uproar. Perhaps this verse ought to be translated, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and raise a fuss about many things.” I wonder if the story might suggest that whatever part we have chosen, we should not worry about what others have chosen. If you can’t stand a dirty kitchen and choose to clean it, don’t fuss that others don’t.

The story of Abraham and Sarah is also surprising. It is narrated in so few verses, but clearly took a great deal of time. Abraham says to Sarah, quickly take three measures of flour (the best), knead it and make cakes. How long does that take — you’ve got to heat the oven and all the rest of it. Abraham tells a servant to kill a calf and prepare it. How long does that take? And how many people will it serve? Clearly this is not a meal just for the three men, but Abraham’s whole household (herders, servants, etc) will eat. If Abraham is sitting in his tent at the heat of the day (1:00 pm?), when will this meal be ready? 5:00 is pushing it. By the time the men go on to Sodom, it must be late in the evening. And according to the narrator, Abraham doesn’t even know who these guys are. It would have been great shame to him not to entertain them. It is great honor to entertain them this lavishly. I wonder what would happen if we treated visitors to church like that?

who is my neighbor?

Proper 10C
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:3-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

This will be a short post, as I am just back from vacation.

The Gospel reading this week is the story of the Good Samaritan. As so often happens, this story has been misnamed. The main character (the only one who shows up in each episode) is the man among the robbers. We are supposed to identify with the main character, not the the minor character. Who is my neighbor? The person I can’t stand who helps me out when I’ve been beaten. Go and do likewise. What does that mean in this context? Accept help from those I can’t stand? Offer aid to those who can’t stand me? I suppose both.

Both, however, presuppose a situation in which I rub elbows with people I can’t stand. What was that Samaritan doing on his way to or from Jerusalem, anyway? Luke doesn’t answer THAT question. Gated communities are meant to keep out those we can’t stand, but the phrase becomes an oxymoron. It’s no longer a community if the Samaritans aren’t there. The moral of the story is that community is only possible when I’m put in a position of swallowing my pride to accept help; otherwise I go on believing I’m fine without you, thank you very much.

So, loving neighbor as self requires being willing to accept help. That’s the hard part.