This week the discussion launched into the theme of Luke's sense of justice and how Jesus plays the role of protagonist in the encounters he has with people as he makes his way to Jerusalem. Both in how he teaches and in how he models interaction and relationship, Jesus is forging in and around him a way of being in community that challenges the status quo, both of his age and of ours. The first parable we touched on was the story of the unjust judge and the widow, the tenacious widow!
In this parable (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus tells of a judge who is unjust, one who has no respect for people and who lives his life as one who does not fear God as well. Into his world comes a persistent widow. This is a person who has no access to justice anyway, and stands an even slimmer chance in obtaining any sort of hearing before a judge who would never choose to accept her petitions. She persists, and in the turn of one sentence of scripture, the judge capitulates, "because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming." (verse 5) Jesus compares the justice given by this judge to the justice offered by his Father in heaven. Will God not give so much and more, because God is invested and interested in us and our pursuit of justice. God is sympathetic and will intervene without delay. But, says Jesus, when it comes to granting a request for justice, will the Son of Man find anyone willing to petition same with faith when he arrives? It is one thing to expect justice. It is another to labor for and seek its advent.
The second section of our discussion revovled around the issue of differences between individuals in society, namely the parable of the pharisee and the tax collector (18: 9-14) and the encounter Jesus has with the rich young ruler (18-25). In these two stories we confront our own inmost fears, and perhaps desires, to stand justified before God and to have access to Jesus and salvation-but hesitate when the cost of discipleship is made explicit to us. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a challenging one. Two men go forward to offer their sacrifices at the temple's altar. One, the Pharisee, gives thanks to God for making him as he is. He is able to express righteousness. He is upright and upstanding in the eyes of his peers, his society and-he assumes-before God. Still, we hear and can judge him, for his pride and vainglory. Simple choice on who to like, right? That would be the tax-collector. He comes forward appropriately full of shame and regret. He prays to God for forgiveness for his sins. Who goes home justified, asks Jesus? The assembly, and we ourselves, answer that it is the tax collector. "...for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." Still when we review the encounter with the rich young ruler, we stumble on a sticking point on the road to the salvation that would seem to follow from the telling of the previous parable. The young man has all the gifts and advantages that the Pharisee has enjoyed in the story. He is able, and is gifted, with the wealth and time to be righteous and to live completely within the laws of Moses. He has demonstrated that he has the discipline and desire to keep Torah. He is overt in his faith and in his witness. Jesus at first appears to dismiss him, but upon hearing this testimony, he sees the man before him. In that moment, he loves him and tells him that he lacks one thing. "Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor; then come, follow me." (verse 22b) Just when we get to a place of comfortable routine in our labors for the kingdom of God, the Son of Man comes and ups the ante! We forget too often that God does not just want a little piece of us, of our lives. God claims it all, and is entitled to take the note on our lives. After all, everything we have, both around us and in us, is from the Creator of all things. How can we assume ownership? If being a citizen of the Kingdom means opening ourselves to this sort of humble selflessness, are we ready? Look for that camel passing through the eye of a needle, right?
Our next encounter with Jesus challenging and transforming lives arrives when we meet a man of wee stature. Little old Zaccheus...a wee little man was he....do you remember that old Sunday School tune? This chief tax collector wants to catch a glimpse of the rabbi as he passes through his neighborhood. Like so many children, he can't see through the crowd as the parade is passing by, so he-without a sense of his pride or station as an agent of the Roman Empire-climbs a sycamore tree. Jesus sees him, stops the parade and tells him to come down, for He intends to eat at Zaccheus' home that day. This tale is not just about the little ones being suffered to come to Jesus. Whatever passes between the two of them, Zaccheus experiences transformation and conversion. His return to the justice of the kingdom is exhibited by his promise to give half of his possessions to the poor...and to restore four times any money or goods that he has defrauded people out of in the course of his life. In Covenantal terms, this is the most extravagant form of penance. FOUR TIMES anything he has taken! God's kingdom of justice is breaking in!
We then moved on to the famous and oft-quoted teaching on money and taxes. Agents of the scribes and chief priests are attempting to trip up the rabbi. By posing an impossible question to him, they hope to either be able to condemn him as a traitor of the Empire-or as a hypocrite before the people. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?" A simple question, and yet complex. Keep the coin with the emporer's image on it, and that would endorse idolarty. Give it up and you betray Israel. We talked for a while on this point...in the end, we came to the conclusion that all we are and all we have is borrowed from God. What is God's return to God...and what human culture creates is its own. Jesus is right. Give to the emperor that which is his. Give God what is God's. (20: 20-26)
We ended with the offering of the widow's mite. How often do you look past, or through, the people that our Baptismal Covenant enjoins us to "seek and serve Christ" in stead? Too often. One widow, who occupies the lowest point on the economic and social food chain in Israel, is being held up as the greatest giver of offerings that day. A lesson for us all...that led me to a story of a parish I served a long time ago. There was a man in the parish who was smart, good, and just. He was a great leader and was wealthy. He gave a lot of money to the Church, and if he had one flaw it was that from time to time he let the pastor know it...usually when he wanted something to happen in a certain way and at a certain time. Thing is, the person who gave more than he did was someone "at the bottom" of the church's social hierarchy. That she didn't place demands on the leadership is beside the point. When the rich people made no secret of the magnitude of their gifts to the temple's treasury, Jesus is simply pointing out that everyone has access to grace. Regardless of its magnitude in the world, in society. God is the one who weighs the gifts tendered and judges them acceptable. For the widow to give to slim coins means that she is giving all she can. Respect the person, not the magnitude of the gift in the kingdom, says our Lord. It is all about perspective.
This week, we enter into the narrative of the Passion. From there, I hope to frame our experience of the death of Jesus in perspective-in how his death and resurrection are really just the prelude to the new birth, the new creation, of the Church and the inbreaking kingdom of God Jesus promises over and over again in his earthly ministry in Luke.