This week's study begins a period of sustained, even growing, controversy around the earthly ministry of Jesus. After taking supper with tax-collectors and "sinners" we find him walking through some grainfields with the first, early batch of disciples who have taken up with him in chapters past. As they walk, on the Sabbath, they pluck grains of the ripe wheat, breaking the hulls in their palms and then cracking the berries between their teeth. This is work. Simple enough. And, it is prohibited on the Sabbath. What a scandal! Just imagine that, the temptation of walking through a field of ripe grain with the heads just bobbing within inches of your fingers-and you perhaps having missed a good lunch because you are trekking with Our Lord-and yet in that moment realize that you face the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. This is one of the "Big 10," the decalogue of our Episcopal liturgical tradition...and the groundwork of the faith in God via Torah that Israel enjoys and the Pharisee guards with zealous love and care.
A wheatberry fostering sin. It happens, and in that controversy, Jesus begins his journey and the proclamation of the good news of the incoming reign of God. He recalls to the Pharisees who challenge his and his disciples behavior with an example from the historical tradition. When David is fleeing from Saul (I Samuel 21), he comes upon the priest Ahimelech and asks for food for him and his men. The only bread available is the shew bread from the altar in the sanctuary. This is reserved as an oblation first to God, and then when it is replaced the next day it is given to the priests and their families. It is sacred stuff, and the priest worries that David and his men may not be clean. David assures him that when he and his men are "on an expidition" they have no reason or opportunity to pollute themselves. Travel with purpose for God, it seems Jesus says, travel with me...it isn't that the Torah does not apply; but rather that "as long as the bridegroom" is with us the usual practices fall before the joyful necessity of the mission of the Son of Man itself. And that gets us to the calling of the Twelve, their journey apart with Jesus for a time and then their return-in time for Jesus to sit the whole crowd down in a level place (NOT the Mount as happens in Matthew!) to speak to them of the inbreaking reign of God.
The Sermon on the Plain offers more than just a lovely opportunity to find beautiful words that might be embroidered on muslin and hung on a wall in a sampler frame. In fact, as Jesus speaks the sermon in Luke, there is actually very little about his message that can do anything but continue to unseat, unmask and challenge the manner we too often choose to live our lives in this mundane existence.
There are the usual "blessed" offerings. The poor, the hungry and the mourning are blessed and assured of consolation. Those maligned for the sake of the Gospel are told to rejoice in their persecution, for such was the lot of the prophets of old. But then, the twist! We hear of woes, for the rich, for those with full bellies, for the laughing, even for those of whom great good is spoken. They have had their piece of pie, and the rewards they can anticipate are loss, hunger and sadness. Why? Because they have enjoyed their reward in this life. Then comes a quick-fire succession of commands from our rabbi: Love, Forgive, Reach out to your foes and to those who oppose you. Give without expectation of credit, loan without expectation of repayment...and do it not just to those who you love-but to those whom you struggle to love!
This is the great lesson of Luke. That we are expected, and called, to be agents of change in the world. Our sacred responsibility is to reach out and strive for justice and peace for all people, and not just for those who might inhabit our own little corners of creation. "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own?" Luke 6:41 His advice for us? Do what I say, and do as you see me do...and embrace the transformation that is about to be wrought in the world around you...and it is uphill from here, believe me!
As the chapter turns, we get an example of what that sort of transformation in the world might look like: a Centurion who was known as being a just and righteous Gentile sent for Jesus as the teacher/healer who might be able to help a slave he loved who was sick and dying. As an agent of empire, he had the power and the influence in both the Roman and Jewish communities to compel Jesus to come to him and act as he wised; but he asked for help. In fact, when Jesus was coming to him he reconsidered and sent word to the rabbi that he was not right to ask this action of him. Even when he can order it he chooses instead to reverse course and extend real, honest courtesy (and faith) that he was not required to offer to anyone but his superiors. After this comes a series of acts of healing and restoration for people who are clearly outside the community of "accepted faithful" and Jesus demonstrates again and again that God has an expansive intention to embrace humanity as the true reign of the Divine begins.
Throughout all of this, our loving Jesus exhibits a hard edge, continually challenging the crowd to do some log-plucking from their assembled eyes. He isn't here to offer a sensational and entertaining demonstration of God's might. He is here to give us a new word of a way God expects us to live. This all culminates with a woman of questionable virtue and reputation who affronts the crowd by not only entering into the rabbi's presence, but also committing the faux pas of actually reaching out and touching him! She bathes his feet with her tears, dries them with her hair and uses a costly ointment as a balm to his road-weary calluses. All of that, and people could only see the scandal...and this one of Jesus' first great parabolic teachings. The story of the two debtors forgiven, one of a great debt and the other, not so much. Who loves the beneficent loan officer more? The one forgiven the greater debt....ok then, says our Jesus, see what love she has because of the debts she has been forgiven. Acceptance...one of the great downfalls of most leaders...as they admit people who might not quite fit into the current mix of the club's membership. Are we ready for that challenge of the kingdom!?!