Christ the King Redux: Prodigals and Parousias

Luke 15:11-32

By the end of the Year of Luke, most of the Gospel of Luke has been covered by the Revised Common Lectionary, with some exceptions.  For reasons that must seem obvious to the Elves,  Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son is considered on the 4th Sunday in Lent, not at the triumphal and anticipatory Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday.  If the final Sunday in the Christian liturgical year is dedicated to the final triumph of God’s rule, and the establishment or restoration of God’s covenant of non-violent distributive justice-compassion, surely the celebration of the Prodigal son’s return would be most appropriate.  But, of course, the restoration of the Covenant with God’s rule is not what Christianity has historically been about, even though Jesus died trying to illustrate the point.…

The Dinner Party

Luke 14:15-24

The parable of the wedding celebration appears in three versions: Matthew 22:1-14, Luke 14:16-24, and Thomas 64:1-12 (see The Five Gospels).  Matthew’s version is the most elaborate, and the most compromised with contemporary First Century Christian concerns.  Jerusalem has been destroyed, along with Jewish temple-centered religious practice; the Romanization of society has brought systems of patronage and collaboration.  Anyone who isn’t properly dressed, who doesn’t fulfill the proper qualifications, is subject to exclusionary judgment.  Only the elect can be trusted to be part of the community.

The version in Thomas, found in The Five Gospels, is much simpler.  Here, a person is receiving guests, and has prepared a dinner party, not a wedding party.  Thomas has no reference to invading armies that destroy the city.  But the party-giver is frustrated when four invited guests turn him down.  He has his slave go out and “bring back whomever you find to have dinner.”  Then the transcriber of the sayings collected in Thomas opines, “Buyers and merchants [will] not enter the places of my Father,” (The Five Gospels, p. 509), which puts a very different spin on the story.

The third version in Luke is not included in any of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for the three-year cycle.  Apparently the Elves decided that Matthew’s version is the definitive one for Christian theology and practice.  However, the Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the version in Luke is likely the closest to what the historical Jesus would have told, although it too is permeated with early Christian piety.  Imagine the scene, based on the stripped down version in Thomas, with a nod to Zacchaeus, who only appears in Matthew:

When Jesus was in Jericho, he encountered a head toll collector – a rich man named Zacchaeus.  Later that evening, Jesus arrives for the banquet at Zach’s house.  After the meal, as the wine jug is passed among the reclining guests, Zach asks Jesus what is the Kingdom of God?  What is it like?  How do we find it?

Jesus says, “There was a man who held an important position in Herod Antipas’ administration.  He wanted to give a dinner party for some local businessmen so that he could recruit them to act as liaison with the Roman proconsul.  But they declined the invitation for perfectly good reasons – don’t forget, it’s the law that if the Romans draft you for some project, you can finish your own work first.  So later, this guy sends his servant around again telling his cronies that the feast is ready, but they all refuse to come.  In a rage, now, the host tells the servant to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. . . .”  Jesus looks around at the group, but they don’t seem to get it.  He goes on: “When he sees that there is still room in his banquet hall, he sends his servant out into the countryside to round up people at sword-point.”

This parable is a huge joke, which does not translate well in a 21st Century world where the Roman patronage system no longer is in force.

In First Century Rome, everyone participated in the patronage system, from God to the Emperor, to the noble classes, to the merchants, the traders, the military, servants, slaves, and the totally disenfranchised.  Everyone was either a patron or a client, and everyone had both patrons and clients, people to whom and from whom favors or commercial debt was owed.  The way to repay the debt among the upper classes was to hold a banquet, usually a sacrificial banquet, in which an animal (or several) were slaughtered in the temple, the blood poured out for the gods, and the meat shared among the guests – all of whom were clients of the one giving the feast.  For a guest to refuse to attend would be social, political, and commercial suicide, regardless of where one was in the social strata.  For a host to then fill the banquet hall with people with whom one did not and would never do business would be ludicrous.  There would be no possibility of ever receiving an invitation or favor in return.

But of such is the Kingdom of God.  This story is about grace, not apocalyptic judgment, despite Luke’s pious set-up in 14:7-14.

The U.S. Thanksgiving Feast is just days away, although it is nearly eclipsed by the Christmas shopping season.  In recent years, admission to the national dinner party has been earned by doing some kind of community service.  Typically, and appropriately for the day, such service means volunteering at the local soup kitchen to help serve the Thanksgiving Day Feast to the homeless. Luke’s call for taking the lowest place at the table, and for inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” who cannot reciprocate seems as relevant today as it did for Luke’s Roman community.

And therein lies the joke for 21st Century would-be followers of the Way.  The joke is not that the dinner party guests come at sword point; the joke is that before attending the Feast, the ones who are invited serve the poor at the shelter.  Just like the First Century, anyone who isn’t properly dressed, who doesn’t fulfill the proper qualifications, is subject to exclusionary judgment.  Only the elect can be trusted to be part of the community.  The homeless poor are not only not invited.  The world they live in has nothing to do with the world where the Feast is taken for granted.…

Going Viral

Over the next three weeks, as the Christian liturgical year winds down to Christ the King Sunday, these commentaries will be considering three of Luke’s settings of sayings or parables that are never read if the Revised Commonn Lectionary is followed.  The reason the RCL skips these verses is probably because two of them are covered in Year A (Matthew).

The first reading in this series is Luke13:20-21.  In a rare burst of authenticity, Luke quotes a saying that in all likelihood goes back to the historical Jesus.  “What does God’s imperial rule remind me of?  It is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.”  Proper 12, Year A, affords a thorough discussion of this passage as it appears in Matthew’s sequence, and as part of the RCL’s cluster of scripture readings.

Luke couples the saying about the leaven with a variation on the parable of the mustard seed in 13:18-19 (also skipped by the RCL).  Luke’s Jesus muses outloud, “What is God’s imperial rule like?  What does it remind me of?” . . . hmmmm. . .  “It is like a mustard seed which a man took and tossed into his garden.  It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the sky roosted in its branches.”  So much for the extended metaphor on the sower and the seeds provided by Mark’s Gospel (Mark 4). Luke just dumps these two sayings into his narrative with no explanation.  Speculation about why will get us nowhere, of course, but we might make an extrapolation or two.  After all, interpreters of the Gospels have been doing it for centuries.

The JS Scholars remind us that “Leaven was customarily regarded as a symbol for corruption and evil . . .To compare God’s imperial rule to leaven is to compare it to something corrupt and unholy, just the opposite of what God’s rule is supposed to be.”  The Five Gospels, p. 347. Interestingly, back in 12:1, Luke’s Jesus warns his disciples to “Guard against the leaven of the Pharisees, which is to say, their hypocrisy . . . And so [instead] whatever you’ve said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you’ve whispered behind closed doors will be announced from the rooftops.”

The other Gospel writers also refer to the “leaven of the Pharisees,” but only Luke gives the metaphor a negative or subversive meaning.  The others place the saying in the context of the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000, when the disciples have forgotten to bring any bread with them as they move to the other side of the lake.  Could it be that Luke’s secret anti-imperial bias has reappeared, like a brief signal in a dark night?  Certainly in 13:20, the leaven the woman puts in the flour is an act of subversion.  All it takes is a little bit hidden in 50 pounds of flour to make all of it ready for mixing into bread.  The idea of the kingdom of God as a subversive, corruptive influence on the Roman occupiers and their collaborators in the local community, would have felt like a great joke – one that Jesus would have told.

In today’s world, few people make their own bread.  Yeast, or Leaven, is not a metaphor that speaks to us.  What does speak to us, and has the same corruptive or subversive influence, is a computer virus.  Based on the concept of viral disease, a computer virus is insidious, uncurable, and unexpected.  The metaphor has expanded to include ideas – usually negative – “gone viral” through YouTube, Facebook, the 24/7 “blogosphere,” and bazillions of forwarded emails.

Applying the concept of virus to Christian evangelism is at once exciting and horrifying.  Our minds immediately jump to the real question: Which side will win?  Interestingly, Luke follows these musings on what the realm of God is like with the same conundrum (included in t he RCL).  “And someone asked him, ‘Sir, is it true that only a few are going to be saved?’” Luke maintains that “there will be weeping and grinding teeth out there when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in God’s domain and yourselves thrown out . . .”

But that’s not what Jesus said at all.  Jesus said, “[God’s rule] is like leaven which a woman took and concealed in fifty pounds of flour until it was all leavened.”  There’s no separating out parts of the flour that were not transformed by the leavening power of God’s rule.  Here’s where the viral metaphor is perhaps not strong enough.  Viruses can be quarantined; messages can be countered and overwhelmed with conflicting information, as was graphically demonstrated in the recent U.S. election cycle.  What is needed is not a virus, but a Disc Operating System.

But isn’t “virus” the descripion of the struggle?  We can choose to live in Covenant, or we can choose to live in Empire.  Both pathways are equally capable of subverting one another.  That is the genius of Jesus’ original saying.  Luke makes a fair attempt at clarifying which side the followers of Jesus must be on.  In 13:29-30, Luke says, “And people will come from east and west, from north and south, and dine in God’s domain.  And remember, those who will be first are last, and those will be last are first” (emphasis mine).

In a post-modern, 21st Century world, corporations and the rule of markets have replaced governments and the rule of law.  Perhaps this means that individual persons have more personal responsibility for counter-cultural decisions about how we live our lives because  the traditional oppressive “empires” no longer really exist.  Still, whether we live in a 1st Century world occupied by Roman legions, or a 21st Century world controlled by corporate profits, the guiding principle is the same.  Once the leaven is in the flour, there is no stopping the transformation.  Once the virus is activated, it can infect the entire system.  The decision to live in Covenant is like the yeast hidden in the flour, or like the worm deposited in the computer registry.  Eventually, distributive justice-compassion can hold sway.  All it takes is a willingness to radically abandon our own self-interest.…

For All the Saints

Text:  Job 19:23-27a; Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Luke 20:27-38;1 Corinthians 15:17-22; 42-44; 54-59

The scriptures for today are suggested by The Revised Common Lectionary, used by most mainline Christian churches, including the Catholics.  I want to look at these scriptures in two contexts.  The first context is the Christian story.  The second context is the the scriptures themselves, because the Revised Common Lectionary cherry-picks certain verses to reinforce traditional Christian belief.

Let’s see if we can make sense of these readings for a 21st Century Christ-centered, liberal religious faith.

Let’s start with Job.  The Book of Job explores the problem of evil and capricious injustice.  It was probably a tale from the oral tradition, written down about the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century, BCE.  John Shelby Spong proposes that it is protest literature.  Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper SanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 64-49.  That means the story takes issue with the prevailing idea that whatever happens to someone is an indication of God’s favor or disfavor.  That each individual is solely to blame for good or bad fortune.  As many 21st century folks might say – generally on the right side of the political spectrum – you alone are responsible for what happens to you.  If bad things happen, it’s because you are bad.  There is no room for circumstance of birth, gender, genetics, or opportunity.

You have probably realized that these verses from Job were used by G.F. Handel in his beloved aria from his oratorio, The Messiah, “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.”  It is a hymn to faith in the resurrected savior.  I have sung it often for Easter services and funeral services.

But according to Biblical scholars, the “Redeemer” Job invokes may be a reference to the Canaanite god Baal, who dies and rises again with the agricultural seasons of the year.  Job may be hoping Baal will intercede for Job with the High God who has apparently abandoned him.  The “Redeemer” may also be the “avenger of blood,”from Numbers and Deuteronomy.  The Redeemer’s responsibility is to pursue a killer and kill him, even if the death to be avenged was accidental.  At this point in Job’s story, Job has abandoned any notion of justice.  Job is just like many of us who revert to fundamentalism when times get bad.  Job expects the “Redeemer,” the avenger of blood, to come after God himself.

In orthodox Christian theology, Job’s “faith” in his “redeemer” is the same faith Christians find in the death and resurrection of the savior Christ Jesus.  But this works only if the meaning of Job’s frustrated cry for retribution is deliberately mis-read.

Next is the reading from the prophet Hagai.  Haggai saw a great hope in the remnant of the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE.  They had begun rebuilding the temple, which had been destroyed by the conquering Babylonians 50 years earlier. But the building project had come to a halt.  The prophet is encouraging the leaders to finish.  He says, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity.”  Coupled with the verses snipped out of Job, that the Redeemer lives, and at the last day shall stand upon the earth, the Christian implication is that Jesus is the one who has come, and therefore Christian times will be greater than Jewish times.  As these commentaries have cautioned, anti-Semitism is often embedded in such Christian assumptions.

Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary never read the rest of the book of Haggai.  At the end, the prophet assures the King, Zerubbbabel, who is a descendent of King David, that because the Temple has been restored, God has chosen him to act on behalf of God ‘like a signet ring” – or in 21st century language, like a rubber stamp.  The King will have the power to defeat Israel’s enemies, and bring God’s justice-compassion and prosperity to the people and the land.

This begins to bring us to a very different kind of wholistic understanding of Jewish scriptures and the Christian story.

The Book of Job might be reinterpreted as an allegory for Christian spiritual life if we include the end of Job’s story (also – conveniently – left out of the Revised Common Lectionary).  After some time of false accusation by his friends, and ultimately blaming God for the evil that has befallen him, Job has an epiphany.  He comes to an experience of God that is transforming: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” Job says to God, “but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  Job 42:5-6.  Because of his transformation – his realization of a different experience of God that is outside the orthodox belief system and beyond the magical fundamentalism of his tribal faith – God tells Job that God will listen to Job’s prayer on behalf of the friends who had so misunderstood the nature of God, and had therefore seriously misled Job.

Before I go any farther with this, it is important to know that for Jews, God is just, and the world belongs to God.  But when we look around at the world, we notice that something is wrong with this picture.  There is little or no real justice anywhere.  Therefore, because God is just, and God’s kingdom is one of justice-compassion, if God is really God, then God must act to restore justice to the world.  The prophet Haggai – and others – were convinced that rebuilding the Temple on Mount Zion – that is Jerusalem – would begin the process of God’s action in restoring God’s justice-compassion.  God would restore the Davidic line, and bring the Messiah, an Anointed – designated – redeemer and savior from injustice.

The problem with that is that all those people who died in the service of justice-compassion before God acted to restore God’s rule would miss out.  It would be unjust.  So about 150 or so years before Jesus was born, the Pharisees – and later the Apostle Paul – developed the idea that once God restored God’s rule, and justice prevailed on the Earth once more, the dead would be raised from Sheol – that is from the place of the dead – to be with God.  That is what the Pharisees and Paul meant when they talked about resurrection.

Plato was the one who proposed that God’s justice required that good souls be rewarded and evil souls be punished.  But Paul was a Jew, not a Greek.  Further, Paul was a well-educated Pharisee, and a master of theology and argument.  He was also a mystic, not a literalist.  For Paul and the Jews, when God acted to restore God’s justice-compassion, no one who had died in the cause of justice would be left out.

What has happened is that we in the Western world have been side-tracked by Greek ideas about the nature of souls, death, heaven, and hell.

The Saints we celebrate today are the ones who gave their lives for justice-compassion.  Of course we all want to be Saints – as the old Sunday School song goes:

I sing a song of the saints of God, faithful and brave and true
Who bravely labored and lived and died for the God they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen and another a shepherd in pastures green;
They were saints of God if you know what I mean.
God help me to be one too.”

But if I’m reading the gospel as Jesus meant it, we first have to decide whether or not to take Crucifixion 101.  Signng onto the Covenant with God’s justice-compassion is dangerous work.

Paul expected that God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion would be established on earth within his lifetime, not at some future time.  He also realized that the restoration of God’s realm was an ongoing, present reality, caused by – made possible by – Jesus’s death and resurrection.

For Paul, the resurrection did not mean a resuscitated corpse, walking around among us like a zombie.  The resurrection was a transformation.  Jesus, the Anointed, designated redeemer from injustice was raised from Sheol, where God is absent, to God’s eternal presence.  And therefore humanity was raised from the normal requirements of civil society, and the corruption of injustice, into God’s justice.  For Jewish, Pharisaic Paul, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, “divine justice was necessarily about transfirgured bodies upon a transfigured earth.”  Crossann and Reed, In Search of Paul (Harper SanFrancisco 2004) p. 345.  Crossan suggests that what Paul meant by “Death” was the normal human life-style of violence, economic and political corruption, and injustice.

Luke missed this point completely.

In Luke’s scene with the Sadducees, who did not believe any of this, they ask a “gotcha” kind of question: “So if this woman married 7 men in her lifetime, to whom will she be married in heaven?”

Luke’s Jesus seems to echo Paul, who did tell the church in Corinth that “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion (1st Cor. 7:9).  But Luke’s Jesus is arguing that “those who are considered worthy of participating in the coming age . . . do not marry.  They can no longer die, because they are [angels]. . . So this is not the God of the dead, only of the living, since to him they are all alive.”

Not only is this is a convoluted argument on Luke’s part.  Luke’s idea that some are “considered worthy” implies that some are not.  And this contradicts what we know about what Jesus himself taught:  No one is unworthy of coming into the realm of God.

Luke also blows a crucial and radical point when he has Jesus declare that “this is not the God of the dead, only of the living.”  Luke probably did not get it because he was a Greek, writing for a Greek audience.  Luke has Jesus explain that God considers the dead to be alive because they have become angels in God’s heaven.  But that is not what Paul is talking about.

The Scholars Version of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians puts it like this: “For just as all who share Adam’s humanity die, so also all who share the humanity of the Anointed will be brought to life.”

What this means, according to the Jesus Seminar scholars,  is that, “Unlike neo-Platonists Paul does not see the body’s animating force as immortal in itself.  . . . Paul regards both the first and second humans – the first Adam and the second Adam [meaning the first human and Jesus the Anointed one] – as prototypes: the first of their kind and the model for all who follow them.”  The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, Salem OR, 2010) fn p. 105.

As I would put it, in 21st century speech, we all die – that is the nature of the Universe.  But all those who share in the humanity of Jesus, who work to create a world where justice-compassion holds sway, find real life.  We leave death and corruption behind us.  This is what is meant by the archaic and very familiar words, again from Handel’s Messiah: “For as in Adam all die, even so, in Christ shall all be made alive.”  It has nothing to do with heaven and hell.  It has everything to do with life here and now, and creating a world that works for those who come after us.  Just as the Saints who went before us did their best to create a just world for us.

Perhaps if Paul were writing today, he might propose that if we achieve some kind of critical mass of justice-compassion on the Planet, then “We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal. …