Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Letter of Reference From The Poor

- Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI (Oblates of Mary Immaculate
Fr. Ron goes on to say, “The great Jewish prophets, the forerunners of Jesus, coined a mantra which ran something like this: The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land and the quality of justice in the land will be judged by how "widows, orphans and strangers" (biblical code for the poor and most vulnerable groups in society) fared while you were alive.”

Amos (ca.750 BCE) issues a similar warning in Amos 8:4-7: ‘“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat." The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely, I will never forget any of their deeds.”’

That is, the rich who control commerce in the land are tipping the scales, cheating farmers and other workers, and using the profits to buy Jimmy Choos and Air Jordans, while even packaging the sweepings off the threshing house floor as the next gourmet treat – that is they are cheating the workers, the farmers and the consumers so they might have a Museum of Shoes such as Imelda Marcos had. No letter of reference for them, says Amos. As Jesus promises elsewhere, the Marcos Shoe Collection is today molding and rotting away in storage. Says Amos, the titans of industry and commerce are not getting a letter of reference! Their so-called “deeds” will never be forgotten. We might think of farmers who have lost the Asian markets for their soy beans due to the recent trade wars, auto workers who are seeing one plant after another closed, and coal miners who see one mine after another closed.

It is difficult, due to poor translation, to see that Jesus is making the same points as Amos Fr. Rolheiser in what first appears to be a parable commending dishonesty in business dealings in Luke 16: 1-9. Nothing could be further from the truth of this story.

To be clear, Luke in the gospel, and in his companion volume The Acts of the Apostles, has a major theme: how money, wealth and possessions are and are not to be used in what some call Kingdom Economics. Wealth is toxic if accumulated and hoarded for oneself as in the story of the man who built barns to house all his wealth and possessions only to find his life taken from him just as he celebrates his achievement – by himself (Luke 12:13-21). He has no friends but himself because he has devoted his life to accumulating wealth. The counter-narrative is to redistribute money, wealth and possessions to assist and support those in need – that is money and wealth need to be kept in circulation for the common good of all people, rich and poor alike. The Common Good is a virtue that has long been in decline in our society. Luke-Acts asserts repeatedly that Jesus stands in the tradition of Amos and others who take caring for the poor widows, orphans and strangers as the measure of a just society.

Succinctly put, the Bible asserts that The Empire (Egypt, Babylon, Rome) accumulates power, access and wealth for a few at the expense of the many; while Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), The Prophets, The Wisdom Literature and the New Testament Documents all offer the counter-narrative of shared wealth kept in circulation so that it benefits the whole community, not just the few. Luke-Acts advances this Biblical counter-narrative in an atmosphere that has seen the Empire destroy the Jerusalem Temple and all of Israelite culture, accompanied by the severe persecution of the emerging community of Jesus, what would become The Christian Church. The Bible’s strategy concerning wealth is born of faithfulness to the traditions of Scripture, and a strategy for survival against the oppressive, totalitarian machinations of the Empire in any and every era.

Luke 16:1-9 is often referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager/Steward. The first thing one notices in the Greek text is that there is no mention of dishonesty whatsoever. Dishonesty has been added to modern English translations to try to make sense of a strange and offensive sounding parable. The misdirection begins in the opening sentence that says, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” Notice how different it sounds when the corrected text reads, “There was a rich man who had a manager who had been slandered for spreading his property around.” Suddenly, those who are represented as calling the manager’s character into question (bringing “charges” against him) are now revealed to be slanderers – that is they are the ones making dishonest claims. The word regarding “spreading his property around” might indicate squandering, but it most often means sowing seed in a field. That could be wasteful scattering, but it could also be making the rich man’s properties more productive. On the basis of the slander, for which there is no evidence provided, we are told the rich man fires the manager, and demands an accounting.

The manager then goes to tenant farmers who work the rich man’s property. These farmers typically, due to bad growing seasons, often ended up further and further in debt to land owners like the rich man in the story. The manager’s primary job is to collect the rent, tithes and other monies and produce owed to the rich man. This system often extracted unjust sums of money and commodities, ensuring that the farmers become further indebted. Unable to imagine himself becoming a beggar or day laborer, the manager goes to the tenant farmers and reduces the unjust amounts to a more manageable amount – reducing one client’s bill by 20% and another by 50%.

Some have suggested that he is merely reducing the bills by the amount of the commission he legitimately could tack on to the bill – yet, we all would like such a job! Commissions of 20% and 50% are virtually unheard of accept among loan sharks, the mob and drug dealers. Grocery stores often work on margins less than 5%, as do real estate agents. He is reducing what was an unjust amount of rent and other monies due hoping that when he is unemployed the people he has helped to retain more of the fruits of their labor will take care of him when he is in need. He will get a good letter of reference from the poor among the rich man’s tenants. The clue that the amount is reduced is not his commission is revealed in yet another questionable translation when he shows his accounting to the rich man. Reducing the rich man’s excessive accumulation of wealth, itself evidence of injustice, the manager redresses the injustice by that redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.”

In English the conclusion reads, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” It sounds as if the rich man is commending dishonesty. As already noted, the word “dishonest” does not appear in the Greek text. Instead it ought to read, “And his master commended the manager of unjust wealth because he had acted shrewdly…And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unjust wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal dwelling places.”

As Sharon Ringe, in her commentary Luke (Westminster Bible Companion) concludes, “As a good manager, then, he has used the very fruits of injustice in the forging of that new community of accountability based on justice that already participates in God’s project or reign.” (p 214) That is, the manager is getting a letter of reference from the poor, and from the rich man! It does not take much time to ponder why the translators and interpreters try to tame this parable.

Luke’s Jesus telling of this odd tale is not urging dishonesty at all. In fact, the story means to call attention to the dishonesty of those who have a monopoly on power, access and wealth. Instead, he is urging the sort of redistribution of wealth and keeping money in circulation for the benefit of the common good of the whole community. In Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, he details how the early Christian community pooled their resources and kept wealth and money in circulation to address human need. It was the practice of this counter-narrative over against life in The Empire that propelled the number of believers to grow as we read in chapter 2: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” [Acts 2:43-47]

This story of the “manager of injustice” urges us, like Jesus, to work to end unjust economic practices and begin a modern era of kingdom economics for the common good and survival of the whole community, that is all people. The health and survival of the community, and indeed all of humankind, all creatures great and small, and this ‘fragile Earth our island home,” depends on our hearing  and doing what Jesus and the Prophets urge us to do: to strive for justice and peace for all people, especially the poor widows, orphans and strangers in the land. In addition, every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Wrath of God

Proper 19 C 2019

“The wrath of God is his relentless compassion, pursuing us even when we are at our worst. 
Lord, give us mercy to bear your mercy.” - Maggie Ross [The Fire of Your Life, p 137]

Perhaps it helps us to remember that the fourteenth chapter of Luke concludes, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” [14:35] Then we hear, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.” Tax collectors were reviled because in the depressed economy of first century Israel under Roman occupation, some of the people in Israel had taken the only jobs they could find: collecting taxes for the Emperor. For this they were reviled and seen as traitors. As to sinners, well Jeremiah chapter 4 and Psalm 14 pretty well sum things up with phrases such as, “They are skilled in doing evil and do not know how to do good,” “my people are foolish and do not know me,” “The Lord looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God. Everyone has proved faithless; all alike have turned bad.”

The only comfort in such pronouncements is that we are all in this together! What is interesting in these little parabolic stories in Luke 15 is that some new folks are drawing near “to listen”: the Pharisees and scribes, that is those who most often challenge Jesus to test and sniff out his orthodoxy. They have yet to grasp that we are all in this together and sneer, “This man welcomes ssssssssinnnners and eats with them.” Perhaps Jesus tells these stories as he notices that his simple practice of hospitality toward all persons has attracted a new group of listeners!

A sheep and a coin are lost. Their owners go to great lengths to find them, presumably a shepherd, which were most often men, and a housewife, a woman. Shepherds had particularly nasty reputations and were considered so outside the boundaries of civil life that they were not allowed to testify in legal proceedings. And yet, in Luke’s story of Jesus they are the first to announce, to testify, to the birth of the Christ child!

Going to the heart of these stories, the shepherd and the woman play the part of God. Despite the ongoing angst of some at having to admit it, the Bible frequently depicts God as a woman: as a mother nursing her child, as a mother hen gathering her chicks, and as this woman searching for a lost “sinner.” God is depicted as a woman! And here Jesus tells us what the parables are about: lost sinners are found and God and the angels in heaven rejoice. We might note in both stories the result is the same. Both the shepherd and the woman invite all their neighbors, as in all, everyone without qualification, to “Rejoice with me, for I have found…that which was lost.” There is joy over one sinner who is found than any 99 who have no need for repentance.

There’s the rub. We try to understand the joke implied in Jesus’s conclusion by making confession every Sunday either in the Eucharist or Morning Prayer. But often we are like the scribes and Pharisees who think everyone else but them needs to repent, to turn, turn till they come down right as the Shaker hymn has it.

We can assume Jesus knows who is surrounding him to listen. The scribes and Pharisees are newly interested. They are sneering at the crowd with no understanding whatsoever that they are now a part of the very crowd at which they sneer! Sneering ranks low on the scale of Biblical virtues and high on the scale of sin itself.

There are lessons for all who have ears and listen – really truly listen to what’s going on here. For what we have is a story of God’s unstoppable goodness – God’s unstoppable love and compassion for all people, all creatures and all creation itself. We are to note the great risk the shepherd takes in leaving the 99 in the wilderness while he pursues his search for the one who is lost – because anyone who knows anything at all about sheep, when he gets back they will be as good as gone! Yet, he still throws a party for everyone which no doubt will cost him more than the value of the one sheep he has spent all his energy to find! Perhaps neither the tax collectors or the sinners are lost except in the narrow eyes and stereotyping of the scribes and Pharisees.

Similarly, the woman will have had to set aside all her daily household chores. She disrupts the world of her home, and as extended families tended to live in several attached buildings or tents, the daily life and world of those in her whole family, just to find the one coin that may not in itself cover the cost for the block and neighborhood party she throws to Rejoice!

What these stories are meant to do, by Jesus’s own interpretation, is to contrast the value system of Jesus’s challengers with that of  “heaven” and God and the angels whom Jesus represents. And although the challengers object to the presence of tax collectors and sinners, surely even they would rejoice at one of those who turns, repents and is found.

Given that Jesus says, let those with ears to hear listen, is it too much to presume that the very presence of tax collectors and sinners who come to listen have made a first step in turning, in repenting? We would be remiss not to note that the parables are in part Jesus’s way of responding to the objections of his challengers in such a way that they might listen and hear that there is still room for repentance in their value system to let go of stereotyping others who are not at all like them.

In a world in which such stereotyping and demeaning of others has become the commonplace every day rhetoric of people on all sides of all conflicts, can we place ourselves in this crowd of tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees and scribes and listen to what is being said?

Until we accept that we are all lost how can we ever be found? Because the witness of the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation is that our God is indeed relentlessly compassionate, pursuing us even when we are at our worst.

To recall and slightly amend the words of Maggie Ross, “Lord, give us mercy to bear and accept your mercy.” For the acceptance of God’s mercy, love and compassion requires us all to turn, to change, to repent of all thoughts and behaviors that stereotype and demean others. For in such turning will be our salvation. And our salvation is a gift from that power that is much greater than we are. And these stories are talking of the salvation of our whole community, the whole world, united in rejoicing that we have all finally turned and abandoned all rhetoric of exclusion!

Thank God for God’s wrath, for one day we will be found.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

By Gracious Powers

I remember it was a bitter, cold day standing amongst the ruins of the Dachau Concentration Camp, the first of many such camps established by the German Nazi regime in 1933 to house political prisoners and those believed to be unfit for life in the glorious White Aryan Third Reich some twenty or so miles outside of Munich. Munichen means “by the monks,” recalling the Benedictine monastery that once stood on the site of this now bustling modern city of innovation, culture and commerce. I was standing outside of a modern Carmelite monastery attached to the outer wall of the Camp, and built under the direction of a survivor of the camp, Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler, one of thousands of clergymen who were sent to Dachau as “enemies of the state” for preaching against the regime – all culture including religion was required to conform to Nazi  White Supremacy ideology.

As I wandered alone from our group which had come from America as a protest to visit the Perlacher Forst in Munich while our President, Ronald Reagan was in Bitburg honoring dead SS Troops buried there. Perlacher is where Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and other young people who were part of The White Rose, a resistance movement to the Nazi regime, are buried having been executed for their efforts to warn German citizens what was happening. We had met with some White Rose survivors the night before taking the train to Dachau. It was a sobering privilege to be amongst them as we were enacting our feeble little protest of the Bitburg visit by our President. What did they think of a U.S President honoring the very troops who had executed their comrades? As we waited for the train to Dachau I was talking with Ernie Michel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz where he had been interned at age 16. Growing up in Mannheim, his family would visit Munich and he said he could still recall the sickly-sweet stench of burning flesh in the Munich air all the way from Dachau some twenty miles away. Ironically, Munich which had once been the home to Benedictine monks had been declared “The Capital of the Movement.”

As I walked across the vast expanse of now empty space, snow flurries floating in the air, I see a man in a beret on a bicycle making his way toward me over the gravel that now covers much of Dachau. He hails me, stops and begins talking in mixed German and English with wild gesticulations. He had been interned in Dachau as a young man for leading a youth group in his church. Thousands of clergy and church lay people had been held in Dachau, worked to the bone, and many thousands were gassed or shot in groups. He presses a small pamphlet into my hand and rides off into the snow. I imagine he comes here every day to remember. Though liberated in 1945, he still cannot leave. Elie Wiesel, a mentor of mine, writes about our need to pay attention to the mad men and women who really are prophets trying to gain our attention to what is really happening in this world of ours. The Madman of Dachau is one of these.

As I read Luke 14:25-33 over and over this week in which Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost…”, all I can think of is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, four years after Dachau  was established, the book was a warning against “cheap grace,” a phrase he had learned while attending church at Adam Clayton Powell Sr’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem while at Union Seminary: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.” He goes on to write about “costly grace”: “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’" The Cost of Discipleship also includes Bonhoeffer’s critique of the Imperial or Triumphant Church’s use of the cross once the Emperor Constantine declared, “In hoc signo vinces” – In This Sign Conquer. Crusaders had the cross emblazoned on their shields as they slaughtered not only Muslims and Jews, but Christians of whom they did not approve across Europe, Jerusalem and the Middle East, making it no longer a sign of sacrifice, service and redemption for the whole world.

Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Pastor and Theologian, and others in his family, was an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime and its ideology and actions against Jews, invalids, homosexuals, gypsies, immigrants and anyone who dared to challenge White-Aryan Supremacy. While on his second visit to the U.S. he was encouraged by many at the seminary to remain here until things resolved, but he was compelled by his own theology to return to carry the cross and follow Jesus. Like Jesus in Luke whose face was “set toward Jerusalem” to confront the powers of religion and the Roman Empire, Bonhoeffer returned and continued to work in the resistance like the members of the White Rose I had met in Munich. He was eventually arrested, and was executed April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp just days before the camp’s liberation, having paid the cost of discipleship.

As the new year began in 1945, Bonhoeffer sent a letter home to his mother. In it was a poem. The poem speaks directly to the circumstances of both his incarceration and the madness of evil that had taken over what was once perhaps the most cultured and Christian of European nations that had given the world Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, Martin Luther and so many others. His words, like those of Jesus in Luke chapter 14, are both hard in their unflinching realism, and yet at the same time powerfully inspiring for many who have faced tragic circumstances in their own lives and treacherous times in their own countries. Translated by the British Methodist minister and hymnodist F. Pratt Green, and put to music by many, Bonhoeffer’s words of strength and hope in the midst of crisis remain amongst the most powerful words and hymns of the Twentieth Century. Whenever I read or sing them, I recall that day at Dachau, the Madman of Dachau, and the thousands of fellow priests and clergy and church lay leaders whose lives were ended in that place for having carried the cross and followed Jesus.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.