Thursday, September 25, 2014

Are you envious because I am generous?

When we read something, it makes a big difference what we are reading it for.  Take, for instance, a historical novel.  One might read it for entertainment, and focus on the characterizations and the plot.  Another might read it for information about the historical period in which it is set.  A third person might be interested in both.  And something similar goes for the parables of Jesus.  Most often we read them for an encoded moral and spiritual lesson.  We take them as metaphors for principles about God and faith, salvation and forgiveness.  What we are less likely to do is read these stories for a message about the daily realities of the world we live in.

But Jesus made his parables out of the stuff of daily experience because he wanted his audience to do more than open them, like fortune cookies, for message inside.  He wanted people to see themselves in the real-world situations that the parables describe, so that his teaching would alter, not just the way they felt and thought about God, but also the way they saw the world.  So he used such homely examples as a farmer sowing seeds and a woman kneading bread and fishermen casting a net, things that everyone would have done, or at least seen, countless times. 

Jesus also made parables out of social situations that would have been familiar.   And it is interesting how many of them deal with painful situations, touching the raw nerves of social experience, oppression and injustice and powerlessness in the face of them.  We might be forgiven for not noticing this about the parables, because the church’s tradition of interpreting them has essentially overlooked it until very recently.  But in the last fifty years or so, two things have happened to change this.  The first is that poor and oppressed people in African-American and Latin-American and African and Asian communities, and communities of women throughout the world, have found it necessary to put aside the Bible as it has been read and interpreted for them by elites.  They have gone back and read it again with fresh eyes, for wisdom that speaks to them about life as they live it.

The second thing that has happened is that a wave of scholars, in universities and seminaries around the world, have also been rereading the Bible, in the light of social science, of cultural anthropology and archeology and political science, to better understand the social forces that were at work in the time of Jesus, and how his teaching and his movement addressed them.   And what has emerged from both of these developments is a new reading of the social context of Jesus’ ministry.  We understand better now that it was a time of great economic and cultural upheaval, of rising inequality and social and cultural dislocation.  Along with this upheaval came increasing, and increasingly violent, social and political conflict.

Fishing on the Sea of Galilee was becoming an industrial operation, mass-producing a salty fish-sauce for an export market.  The grandiose building projects of Herod and his sons, especially the massive expansion of the Jerusalem temple, were taxing the traditional village landowners deeper and deeper into debt, while local markets for their produce were being flooded with cheap imported grain.  Forced to sell out, the proud, independent farmers of Galilee were reduced to sharecropping, or hiring themselves out as day laborers on sprawling estates made up of land that used to be theirs, or, in the worst case, selling themselves and their children into slavery.  Landless men, turned bandit revolutionaries, lurked in the hills, levying their own taxes and carrying out terrorist attacks on government officials and collaborators.  This, in turn, provoked ruthless retaliation from the Roman Army that did not discriminate between combatants and civilians.

So when Jesus talks about robbers waylaying a traveler on the Jericho road, or a corrupt estate manager fudging the record of the sharecroppers’ debts, or a rich man who tears down his barns to build bigger ones for hoarding his wealth, he isn’t just coming up with colorful illustrations of religious principles.  He’s showing his audience their own lives.  And he’s asking them to imagine how God might act in such times.  Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard,” and his audience pictures a scene they know well, one that, depending on their social class, might make them feel a twinge of guilt or a swell of shame and anger. 

But as the story unfolds they hear that this landowner is like none they’ve ever heard of.  What he cares about is that every idle laborer should find work, and that all of them get paid enough to keep going for another day.   Maybe it would have reminded them of other stories, like the one about their ancestors’ journey through the desert to freedom and how God fed them on bread from heaven, just enough for everyone, just enough for one day.  Maybe they would have noted the contrast with their own experience of landlords, and no doubt there would have been some people who heard a concealed  revolutionary critique.  But what Jesus is really asking them to do is to examine themselves.  

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” says the owner of the vineyard, “Or are you envious because I am generous?”  It’s a reminder of who the real owner of the land is, that everything that comes from it is God’s gift, and that it is God’s will that all should have work, and all should be fed.  But it’s also a reminder of how social upheaval and economic insecurity pit people against each other, and turn everyone against the least fortunate and most vulnerable, begrudging them even the barest minimum needed to survive.  When Jesus closes the parable with one of his favorite aphorisms, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last" he is not so much threatening the rich, or calling for revolution—he is warning us that the kingdom of Heaven is built on the generosity and forgiveness of God, whose sense of justice is not the same as our self-righteous work ethic, and doesn’t take its cues from our cut-throat social pecking-order.

Last night there was a fundraising event over at the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel to kick off a campaign to create a Day Labor Center.  Because you don’t have to build a time machine and travel to ancient Palestine to find landless men standing around, waiting for someone to hire them for the day.  You can just walk about three blocks northwest of here to the corner of Washington and Howard.  So when we read Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard we don’t have to treat it as only a literary metaphor for some theological principles.  It shines a light on our own real-world experience and some real people in our town. 

Some say it would be wrong to do anything for those men because it wouldn’t be fair to other workers.  But immigrant day laborers don’t cost other workers jobs, they create them.  They support all kinds of enterprises at the base of the economic pyramid, independent tradespeople like painters, carpenters, and landscapers, and small farmers, manufacturers, and food-processors, that depend on irregular extra labor.  I was one of those, when I had my little one-man gardening business in San Francisco from 1997 to 2003.  I usually worked on my own, but once in a while I needed another hand to do the bigger jobs where I made the better money.  Until the San Francisco Day Labor Center opened, at the north end of the Mission District, this was a matter of pulling over next to six lanes of fast moving traffic on Cesar Chavez Street and hiring whomever jumped into the truck first.

I could go on for a while about the net benefits to the economy of immigrant workers, but if we’re followers of Jesus, the economic questions aren’t the ones that really matter.  The important questions for us today are the ones the Bible asks, questions like, “who really owns the land, anyway?” and “Whom did our ancestors depend on when they were migrants?” and “When times get hard, what will save us—beating out our neighbor for a bigger slice of the shrinking pie?  Or taking a stand together, on the generosity and the justice of God?”       

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The risky first step

In chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives some practical advice for what to do when a brother or sister in the church violates another.  The first and best course of action, he says, is for the victim to go, alone and in private, to one who did wrong and point out the harm that he did.   The whole aim of this confrontation is to get that one to listen.  Jesus offers no guidelines for adjudicating who is in the right.  He does not prescribe a scale of punishments to fit different crimes.  What he does lay out is a process that opens the door to reconciliation, to transforming hurt and estrangement and restoring trust and the fullness of community, by speaking and listening to what each other has to say.  

I think Jesus is right that it is almost always the one who has suffered injury who has to take that first step, and this takes great maturity.  It is not easy to confront a person who has hurt you with the simple truth.  It’s hard to avoid the temptation to try to inflict pain in return, or to manipulate the other into making the restitution you think you are owed.  If reconciliation is really what you’re after, you first have to gain mastery of your own emotions of anger, hurt, and betrayal.  Those feelings may still be present, but you probably can’t just vent them, not if you really want to be heard.   But neither can just coolly lay out your charges like a prosecuting attorney.   Because, as Paul says in today’s reading from Romans, the Constitution of the church is not a set of laws, it is love.  When you go and speak to a brother or sister who has sinned against you, you don’t do it with aim of finding that person guilty, but of repairing a relationship of mutual love.

You go and speak in a way that seeks only to be heard.  And this affirms the basic, underlying connection between us that still persists, in spite of the violation; you say, “this is what happened, and this is what it did to me, and I’m telling you this because I love you.  I want us to be together as brothers and sisters in Christ, and I’m coming to you because I believe that deep down you want the same thing.  I’m telling you the truth, because I believe in your integrity, your compassion, your desire for reconciliation.  If you really hear me, you will remember that you love me.  And then we can start to figure out what needs to happen to make things right.” 

Now, as I said, that takes a lot of maturity, and it also takes courage, because it’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in.  It opens you up to further hurt, to an even more devastating rejection than the one you suffered in the first place.  But that is also what makes it so powerfully transforming.  It offers a third way, not sinking into silent resentment, or indulging in tit-for-tat aggression, but taking a strong and creative stand for the basic goodness of all of us.  On our refrigerator at home there is a little piece of green paper with a picture that my daughter Risa made a couple of years ago.  And I don’t know where she got this from, but one day she drew a heart and she filled it in with heavy dark crayon.  But she left a little space open in the center heart shaped a little like a cell dividing into two, or an infinity sign.  She colored this space in with white crayon, and just a little tinge of pink, and wrote underneath her picture, “Deep in a very cold heart there is unconditional love.” 

This is the perspective of Christ, grounded in his unity with God.  In Christ, God came to us in person, to point out what we had done to break our relationship with God.  Not to hurt us.  Not to make us feel guilty.  Not to take God’s revenge.  Because we were already in pain.  We were already tormented by guilt; our turning away from God was punishment enough.  So Jesus came in vulnerability.  He came to take that risky first step. 

And strangely, he did not confront the people we usually think of as sinning against God.  The tax collectors and prostitutes, the outcasts and lepers, the blind beggars and raving lunatics did not need to hear that they were in danger of losing the meaning of their lives; they did not need to hear about how far they were from God.  Jesus’ message to them was one of welcome, of acceptance and love, of their infinite worth—“ Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?”, he asked them.  “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unnoticed by your Father. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  These people heard what Jesus said and understood at once what it was about.  And they were only too happy to accept His offer of repentance and reconciliation. 

But the ones that he warned were on the wrong path, the ones he accused of breaking faith with God, were the proud, the privileged, the pious and powerful—“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.”  “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”  To these people the words of Christ were those of a blasphemer, a threat to public order.   They refused to listen, and made him their victim, to bear witness to their sin on a cross. 

But God’s offer of reconciliation did not end even there.  God gave Jesus back to them, and to us in his resurrection, and he promised to be with us always, even to the end of the ages.   So even today, this very morning in fact, you can go from one end of the world to the other and find people gathering to listen to the words of Jesus.  They hear the truth about how they have missed the mark, and fallen short of the glory meant for them, how they’ve been cruel and indifferent to each other, and oblivious to the love of God.  They hear this and maybe it makes them a little sad, or ashamed, or maybe just a little bit afraid, but mostly it makes them happy.  It’s good news, and deep down they already knew it, but today they also hear that they don’t have to live like that anymore.  They don’t have to harden their hearts any longer.  They don’t have to carry that burden even one more day because all God cares about is the love that in them, no matter how much they’ve denied.  It’s going to be okay, because all God wants is to heal the relationship.

Not only that, says Jesus Christ to all the hundreds of millions of people gathered in places like this all over the world, but I’m here to help you.  I am right here, to work with you to help you get what you really want most of all in the world, which is to know that you are loved, and that your life is a gift, good and worthy and precious, full of ultimate meaning, and you don’t have to live in fear any more but you can be at peace with everyone.  We can begin working together right here, right now, to resolve your conflicts with each other, to reconcile your differences, and heal your relationships, even the ones that seem broken beyond repair, because you’ve finally accepted that part of the problem lies with you, and that you have the power to take the first step.  Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do it, says Christ, because I do, and I am among.  And if you don’t believe it, just look around at all the people hear with you.  I mean it—look around and see them.  I invited them all here this morning to be reconciled with you.  And see—they came.                

About Me

My photo
Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.