Lectionary 25C (September 22, 2019)

Jesus confronts the cruelty of the world with grace. There’s always more grace than the world can counter with cruelty, although this can be hard to believe. You take a text like our First Reading, Amos. For Amos, God’s concern is economics. Israel is rotting with inequality. Amos names a group of people “those who trample upon the needy and bring ruin to the poor of the land.” That’s a fairly descriptive name, but Amos has more to say about them. These folks put on big religious festivals yet are eager for the festivals to end so they can resume destroying people in daily economic life. You get the idea of someone who talks a good religious game but can’t stand the thought of losing billable hours to some God. Meanwhile, the people are driven into poverty, and from there are driven to sell themselves as slaves. Amos provides one disturbing example, “buying the needy for a pair of sandals.” I don’t think we can know precisely to what this refers. I get the image either of someone offering sandals on condition of enslavement, or seeing a pretty pair of sandals and paying for them with a slave—a human. We’re talking inequality so profound it makes you shake and cry. And, inequality that seems to be official. Amos speaks these words at Bethel, the Temple of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Priest tells him, “Leave us alone. We’re trying to oppress people, here.”

Official, religiously justified cruelty seems to be one of humankind’s hallmarks. Our Bible is full of texts used to justify cruelty. We read one today in our Second Reading from 1 Timothy. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our savior.” We are now over a year removed from the US Attorney General quoting Romans 13, telling us the Bible says to obey the government. That text and others, such as today’s, remain prooftexts for anyone arguing that God ordains a nation’s policies. That’s problematic, because there are some things I think God did not ask us to do. President Obama expanded drone strikes, probably killing more civilians than we’ll ever know. I don’t think God commanded that. President Bush invaded Iraq. I don’t think God asked him to do that. President Clinton presided over mass incarcerations of black Americans. I don’t think that was God’s suggestion. But then there’s a text like 1 Timothy…. This kind of thinking is brilliantly spoofed in an episode of The Simpsons in which Reverend Lovejoy assures the town, “Once something has been approved by the government, it’s no longer immoral.”

            This is an irresponsible reading of the text. And we need to read it. It’s Scripture. Reading it is preferable to saying Paul didn’t write 1 Timothy, so, it doesn’t matter. Paul did not write 1 Timothy, but it’s still Scripture. It’s also preferable to the current fad of rejecting anything with Paul’s name on it and reading only words attributed to Jesus, which, of course, may not have been spoken by Jesus. When we concede scriptures, we effectively say, “You’re right, so I am going to change the subject.” Well, 1 Timothy does not say once something has been approved by the government, it’s no longer immoral.

            First Timothy states that its objective is to encourage the continuation of Paul’s doctrinal teachings, in the hope that faith and love will increase. Therefore, the author says, pray for rulers because God wants them to believe, too. Then, the author quotes a hymn: “One God, one mediator between God and humans, a human Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for many, the testimony at its specific time.” Jesus giving himself as a ransom and a testimony refers to crucifixion. Jesus’ cross is his testimony. To understand what that means, look at today’s gospel reading.

            At first blush the parable Jesus tells seems to say that a man is accused of throwing around his master’s property until it is all gone, and he responds to the charge by throwing around his master’s property some more, and the master says, “Good job!” Maybe that is what Jesus means. In Luke, Jesus tells this parable as part of his response to last week’s complaint that he keeps welcoming sinners and eating with them. He is wasting God’s holiness. That’s immediate context. We’ve read Luke a few times and know what’s coming. Later on, when Jesus is arrested, the mob will blindfold him, hit him, and ask him to identify who hit him, kind of like how the manager faces semi-anonymous accusations. Then, the Sanhedrin questions him: If you’re the Christ, tell us. Jesus replies, “If I tell you, you won’t believe; if I question you, you won’t answer.” Basically, the situation the manager is in. He can’t say anything.

Then, the accusation made to Pilate: “We found Jesus a) perverting our nation, b) forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and c) saying that he himself is the Christ, a king.” These are false. Jesus is Christ, but has not claimed it, and has not claimed to be a king. He has explicitly not forbidden paying taxes. And “perverting” or “turning astray our nation…” from its religion… Even if you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, you have to admit the NT presents him as an expert of biblical interpretation. He’s not teaching anything new. These accusers don’t like what their faith tradition tells them. Because what lies at the heart of their faith tradition is Exodus, liberation. Sabbath days, rest from work. Sabbath years, rest for the land. The Jubilee, restoring all to equality not only before God but before each other. Jesus does not make that up; he learned it at synagogue.

Jesus has lived this. Every place he has encountered cruelty he has confronted it with grace. People broken by the world? Jesus restores them. People marginalized because of illness or body type? Jesus reintegrates them. People starving? Jesus feeds them. People told God does not love them? Jesus loves them. People feeling worthless? Jesus gives them worth. People without hope? Jesus gives them hope. As Jesus’ life nears its end, and his disciples think he is teaching them to take up weapons, he invites them to pray. When the mob comes for Jesus and one disciple strikes a member of the mob and cuts off his ear, Jesus heals the ear. When Peter denies Jesus, Jesus looks across the fire at him…but does not rat him out. When Pilate condemns Jesus to crucifixion, Jesus forgives those crucifying him. There’s always more grace with Jesus. He just scatters grace.

It’s what he does in the parable. If Jesus is indeed the Unrighteous Manager, accused of wasting God, he promptly wastes more. What’s your bill? A hundred jugs of olive oil? Half of that is just the outrageous profit margin. Make it fifty. Yours? A hundred wheat bins? Nah. Eighty. More grace! Condemned for offering too much grace, Jesus offers even more grace. A cross. God’s very life for the world. And his master commended him. What our Bible translates in the parable as Master (a good translation), it usually translates as Lord, long the English honorific for God. God the Father commended God the Son, because when God the Son was accused of giving too much grace, God the Son gave more grace, all of it, God’s inexhaustible supply of grace for the world.

And that is the “testimony” mentioned in 1 Timothy, our Second Reading. When Jesus Christ stood before King Herod and Pontius Pilate, and was condemned, he offered more grace. He met cruelty with grace. Grace. Not flimsiness, not shrinking away. Jesus did not say, “I’m sorry for being so gracious. Please let me go, and I’ll be a jerk like you want.” Pilate says, “You’re the king of the Jews?” He means it as a question, but Jesus takes it as a statement: “You say so.” In other words, “I’ve got grace for you, too, if you want it.” And when it becomes clear Jesus’ grace is going to get him nailed to a cross, he just says, “There’s more grace where that came from.” First Timothy says prayers and supplications and thanksgivings should be offered for kings and rulers because of Christ Jesus and his meeting Pilate with grace. Show them more grace.

When you’re asked, “How can you keep welcoming these people?” welcome more of them. More grace. When you’re told “You’re wasting this prime real estate downtown with your La Leche league meetings and English as a Second Language courses,” give away more space. More grace. When self-righteous society says, “You know what kind of person that is!” you say, “My kind. Get in here.” More grace. When the world says, “Stop loving the poor and the broken, stop fighting for the basic dignity of human beings” you find the nearest broken person and stand up for them. More grace. When the world says there isn’t enough to go around, you throw a potluck. More grace. Grace is dangerous stuff, because there is always more of it than there is cruelty. There is always more God than there is anything terrible a person can do to another.