September 12, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke 16:1-13 is the oddest of all Jesus’ parables. You can read the whole thing once, twice, three times and the precise meaning of it remains mysteriously elusive. The shank of the problem is that the “hero” of this parable–the figure Jesus holds up as somehow or another having something to teach “the children of light”–is finally an anti-hero. He’s a crook, a swindler, a cheat.
What in the world could Jesus have been thinking?? The parable in Luke 16 follows hard on the heels of a parable we like a whole lot better: the Prodigal Son. But though the prodigal’s actions in that famed story are initially despicable, he ends up looking downright saintly in comparison to this corrupt manager. That has bothered not a few folks over the course of church history. Some have been so scandalized by Jesus’ use of a sinful wheeler-and-dealer that they have staged a number of desperate attempts to rescue Jesus from his own parable. But the attempts to turn this shrewd manager into some kind of decent fellow after all have generally speaking failed.
The straightforward reading of this tale is probably the correct one as it turns out. The manager of a wealthy man’s estate is about to get fired. For some reason–laziness, disorganization, or maybe even corruption–this manager has done a lousy job and this has at long last come to the attention of the boss. So he summons the manager, tells him to prepare one final report to be handed in at his exit interview, and that would then be that. Too lazy and weak for manual labor, too proud to beg, this man has to think fast. Since his boss wants one last presentation of the ledgers before the manager gets canned, the manager decides that now is as good a time as any to cook the books in such a way as to feather his own future nest.
So he calls in a number of the boss’s wealthier clients and cuts their debt-loads in half. When in startled amazement they ask why, the manager winks at them and says, “Don’t ask, but just remember I did you a favor once, all right?” In this way the man curries some goodwill with people who could lend him money, give him a new job, and maybe even house him when soon he finds himself out on his ear.
Startlingly, when the boss gets wind of these shenanigans, he is not angry! He approves. He claps the manager on the shoulder and says in essence, “You’ve done well for yourself!” Indeed, the last word from the boss in this parable is so positive, the reader is left to wonder whether maybe the manager ended up retaining his job after all. This rich man could recognize a fellow wheeler-and-dealer when he saw one, and he liked what he saw! Anyone this shrewd, anyone this clever at working the angles, was just maybe someone worth hanging onto after all.
In the often cut-throat world of business this kind of unsavory story is not uncommon. What is uncommon about this story is what Jesus says about it. You expect Jesus to say something like, “Verily I tell you, cheats such as this will one day find themselves in a place of much weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
But he does not say this at all.
Instead Jesus finishes this little vignette of corruption, takes a breath, and then says to the disciples, “You see! There’s something to that approach. Folks like this are far shrewder at dealing with this world than you children of light are!”
Huh? What’s the point here?
Let’s rule out the obvious: Clearly the point here is not that any form of theft, cheating, swindling, or dishonesty is a good thing. You cannot turn this passage into some legitimation of “business as usual”-type practices.
Nevertheless, something about this shrewd, vaguely corrupt man is being recommended so what is it? The answer begins to come into focus when you go all the way back to Luke 15:1-2 where you discover the setting for not just this parable but the three better-known parables that make up Luke’s fifteenth chapter.
The larger issue has to do with table fellowship. Jesus, as was his pattern, was hanging out and eating with all the wrong people in all the wrong places. The Pharisees muttered into their beards about how scandalous it was to hold a dinner party whose guest list was a “Who’s Who” of local lowlifes. Jesus responds to this complaint with three parables on lost and found. The point in all three is the same: the amount of rejoicing that comes when valuable lost objects are found makes it worthwhile to pay any price both to search for that lost thing or person and to then put on the fatted calf once the search is successful.
The parable of the prodigal son ends with a party. So as you transition into what we now call chapter 16, you can still hear the happy buzz of party chatter, the clink of silverware on china, and joyous music echoing in the air. Luke 15 ended with a vision of God’s kingdom. It is a picture of such fervent joy that we should want to capture something of that joy already now. If, like the Pharisees, we look at the so-called “sinners” around us and see them only as they now appear, then it becomes easier (and maybe even inevitable) to backhand them away as the kinds of folks with whom we don’t care to associate.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees them as potential sources for heavenly delight, and he wants us to see them through that lens, too. He sees them as valuable lost objects, the re-finding of which could bring joy. So Jesus suggests we enjoy their company now in the hopes that we might enjoy one another’s company forever and ever as well. The potential for eschatological joy among such people in the future of God’s coming kingdom is great enough for us even now to do whatever we can to welcome them into the church.
That line of thought from Luke 15 is hanging in the air as chapter 16 opens. So what is it about the shrewd manager’s attitude that Jesus finds useful for also the children of light? It is this: he gave thought to the future and it shaped his actions in the present. Further, he knew that for now monetary resources are one way to secure the kind of future vision you have drawn for yourself. So even though in his case it meant being devious, his desperate desire to see his future materialize helped him to conclude that it would be worth it to take the risks he did in currying favor with his boss’s clients.
This may be the point (at least in part): The church likewise has a strong vision of the future called the kingdom of God. What’s more, that future vision should include the potential joy that will rock the cosmos in celebration when more, and not fewer, people end up attending God’s big party. That vision of the future should influence us mightily in also the present moment.
Needless to say, Jesus’ challenge is a large and difficult one. The church often lacks such a consistently clear focus on God’s kingdom. If that bright vision of our future really did inform and animate our present moment in the church, maybe lots of things would change.
Maybe. But even if this is part of the point Jesus was making, couldn’t he have made it with a less scandalous, less confusing parable? Did he need to hold up a sneaky crook to help issue this kingdom challenge? Surely another version of the parable about the widow’s mite or some such more homey tale could have delivered this parabolic freight just as effectively.
Possibly. But maybe Jesus has something more subtle in mind by holding up an anti-hero as his parable’s protagonist. Maybe this is an act of irony that pulls the rug out from underneath our feet even as it makes Jesus’ larger point all over again. Because what are we doing when we pull up our noses at this shrewd manager? Then again, what have commentators in the past been doing in all their furious attempts to make this manager a good guy after all? Either way or both ways aren’t we essentially saying that there are some greasy people in this world whom sanctified believers have no business pondering? Aren’t we trying to re-establish some daylight between ourselves as nice Christians and those secular types “out there” in whose company we would rather not be at all? And if so, aren’t we stepping back from Jesus to nestle up to the Pharisees as we saw them in Luke 15:1-2 when this string of parables began?
A few verses beyond this strange little parable is the better-known story about the rich man and Lazarus. Near the end of that parable the rich man asks father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to shake his remaining brothers out of their wealth-induced stupor. Abraham replies that the rich man’s brothers already have Bibles–they’ve already got written down for them everything they need to know to live the right way. They already know what they need to know.
Thanks to gospel writers like Luke, we do, too. Are we listening?
Although most English translations have the word “money” in back-to-back verses (14 and 15), in the Greek the first instance is “Mammon” (MAMON in Greek) and the second is the semi-rare word (used just 3 times in the entire NT) of PHILARGUROS, which is literally a combination of the word “love”/PHILOS and the word for “silver”/ARGUROS. It may be curious to note that the Pharisees were fond of silver and as far as that goes, they no doubt did not think a lot of it. Yet Jesus uses the word “mammon” which carried with it the connotation of being a personified force. So taken together, verses 14 and 15 may be saying that while the Pharisees regarded money as a worldly good that they could use for their own advantage, God sees this as a potential idol, as something more akin to the Golden Calf than an innocuous matter of dollars and cents and balance sheets and bank ledgers.
The second installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy of movies tells two stories simultaneously. While viewers watch the moral and familial demise of the mafia don Michael Corleone in the mid-1950s, they see intertwined with this flashbacks from the early twentieth century when Michael’s father, the original Godfather Vito Corleone, steadily rose from a penniless Italian immigrant to a powerful, respected, and feared figure. The key moment when young Vito’s life turned the corner from poverty to (ill-gotten) riches is curious.
Vito and two friends had begun to do well for themselves in thievery and stealing things like designer dresses–so well, in fact, as to attract the attention of the local mafia boss, Don Fanucci, who was known as “the Black Hand.” Don Fanucci approaches Vito and says, “I hear you and your two friends were recently involved in some shenanigans which netted you $600 each.” The don then demands some protection money, telling Vito that he needs to wet his beak a bit to the tune of $200 from each of the three men. The subtext of this “request” was clear: “Pay up or else!”
Upon hearing of this development, Vito’s friends immediately and fearfully decide to pay up. But Vito has a different idea. He tells his two friends to pay him $50 each. Vito, in turn, will give the don this money plus his own $50 and Vito will do it in such a way that Fanucci will accept the $150 instead of the $600 he had initially demanded. When his friends ask Vito how he’s going to pull this off, Vito tells them “Never mind that, but just remember I did you a favor once.” Vito then tells his friends that they are to go to Fanucci the next day, tell him that they respect him and that through Vito they will pay the don whatever he wants. The next day both men go and tell the don just that. Later Vito meets privately with Don Fanucci but pays him only the $100 he had collected from his two friends. When the don demands to know where the other $500 is, Vito smirks and says he needs some time seeing as he was rather short of money at the moment.
Don Fanucci then comes to believe that Vito has shaken down his own two friends. Based on what the two other men had told Fanucci earlier, the old don assumes Vito had already received $200 from each friend but is now pocketing most of it even as he courageously winks at the don, who becomes an insider to Vito’s little fake scheme. Surprisingly, the Black Hand turns velvet. He smiles approvingly, openly admiring Vito’s courage. “You’ve done well for yourself,” he says. He then accepts the $100 as sufficient, offers to let Vito work for him, and even adds that if he can do anything for Vito, to let him know! Fanucci respected Vito as a fellow wheeler-and-dealer, a fellow sneak and cheat who knew how to work other people to his own advantage.
Sounds kinda familiar, at least if you’ve read Luke 16 recently . . .
Author: Doug Bratt
Some Christians have traditionally thought of God as largely having virtually no emotion beyond anger at human sin. Yet such a notion is more Greek than biblical. The living God of the Bible is quite capable of feeling a wide variety of emotions, including great grief.
There is great sadness in the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Yet one of its interpreters’ first and greatest challenges is identifying just who feels it. Jeremiah 9:3 injects a “declares the Lord” into this text. Yet the respected biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls that insertion “textually insecure.” In fact, “declares the Lord” is not even in some ancient manuscripts.
As if to perhaps help its readers, the New International Version of the Bible inserts quotation marks beginning with the second part of verse 19. Yet it’s hard to imagine those quotation marks are divinely inspired. The original Hebrew certainly doesn’t include them.
Yet perhaps it doesn’t really matter whose grief is expressed in Jeremiah 8 and 9. After all, both God and the prophet grieve God’s rebellious Israelite people’s rebellion. After all, true prophets, both ancient and modern, share God’s heart for God’s people and entire creation.
Jeremiah and God grieve because Israel is spiritually sick. Historically, even when she wasn’t faithful to God, she had always expected God to be there when she needed the Lord. Now, however, Israel feels as if God has absented himself. “Is the Lord not in Zion?” she asks in verse 19. “Is her King no longer there?”
Sure, Israel has imprisoned and endangered the Lord’s prophet (Jeremiah 36-39). Sure, she has traded in worship of the living God for worship of other gods (Jeremiah 5:7). Sure, she has forgotten the poor and outcasts who live in her midst (Jeremiah 7:5-7; 8:10; 22:16-17). Sure, Israel has harmed God’s good creation. Sure, she has essentially broken her covenant with the Lord. Yet she still expects God to “have her back.” Israel expects God to continue to be her God who manifests God’s presence in “Zion.”
This invites Jeremiah 8’s preachers and teachers to explore how similar attitudes naturally persist among God’s adopted sons and daughters. It’s easy for us to assume that no matter how poorly our churches, communities or countries care for God’s creatures and creation, God will stay with us. It’s tempting to assume God will never let us suffer the consequences of our sins against God, each other and God’s creation.
In some ways, God’s judgment of Israel’s unfaithfulness stands at the center of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their worthless foreign idols?” God angrily sobs in the second part of verse 19. Israel has tried making Zion a kind of “good luck charm.” She has tried idols. It’s as if Israel has turned everywhere but to the living God. Verse 20 even hints that she’s seen harvest time and summer as kinds of good luck charms.
Most of us assume that it’s Jeremiah who speaks the words of chapter 8:21 and following. Yet with a little imagination, we can easily picture God as saying them as well. Jeremiah has and will continue to rail against Israel and her sins. In fact, he has just finished one of his most strident indictments of her in Jeremiah 8:4-17.
Yet because Jeremiah’s scolded and punished fellow Israelites are “crushed,” the prophet is devastated too. He describes his heart as “faint,” literally, “sick” (18). His pain in some ways mirrors Israel’s. “Oh, that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears,” the prophet (or perhaps the Lord) says in Jeremiah 9:1 and following. “I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”
It’s a bit puzzling that the Lectionary ends the reading for this Sunday at this point, almost in mid-thought. It’s as if in order to preserve the theme of Jeremiah’s grief, it deliberately omits Jeremiah’s almost angry wish to distance himself from his Israelite family members, friends and neighbors. Yet grief and anger can share space in the human heart. So Jeremiah 8 and 9’s preachers and teachers may want to read and explore further into chapter 9. Certainly anger and grief can share space in the 21st century.
News of terror attacks continues to flood the media. The plight of this terror’s victims who have tried to flee it breaks our hearts. Violence continues to claim squatter’s rights in North America’s homes, neighborhoods and communities. Rich people continue to get richer and poor people poorer. It ought not just grieve God’s adopted sons and daughters. It also ought to anger us.
Yet in some sense the question at the heart of this text remains: Is there “a balm in Gilead,” as the beloved hymn asserts? Is there a doctor in Israel’s house who can heal Israel and humanity’s “sin-sick soul”? As Robert Gench points out, it may seem like an odd question. He calls Gilead “outside the normal channels of religious and political authority.”
Yet this reference, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes, injects a note of hope and grace into an otherwise sad text. God, after all, essentially answers, “there is a balm in Gilead.” There is a physician in God’s creation’s house. There is healing for God’s people’s wounds. God doesn’t let God or God’s prophets’ deep grief get the final word.
God breaks the apparently relentless cycle of violence and recrimination, apostasy and revival with which humanity seems so deeply and hopelessly in love. God patiently sends prophets, priests and kings to call God’s children back to himself. They continue to proclaim God’s truths, often at great risk to themselves.
Yet, finally, no human prophets, priests or kings can fix the mess we’ve made for ourselves. No physician or medicine, no matter how hard they try, can cure what really ails us. In fact, no creature or part of God’s creation can finally assuage God and God’s faithful people’s grief.
Healing must, in one sense, come from outside, even as, in an incarnational sense, it comes from within that creation. As Hoezee reminds us, God himself replaces the springs and fountains of tears (9:1) with a fountain of blood that flows from the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. The balm of God’s amazing grace comes not just to Gilead, not just to Israel, but also to the whole creation. God sends the Great Physician to heal God’s people, creatures and land, waters and skies.
It, of course, comes at an awful cost. There is no doctor or pharmacy bill that matches the price God paid for Gilead’s balm. The cost of God’s people and creation’s healing is, after all, the very life of God’s one and only natural Son, Jesus Christ. God, in one sense, only heightens God’s grief over God’s people’s rebellion by letting Satan and his goons do their very worst to God’s Son, Jesus.
Yet God lets neither Israel’s spiritual sickness nor Jesus’ unjust crucifixion get the last word. In raising Jesus from the dead, God gives life not just to God’s Son, not just to God’s adopted sons and daughters, but, in fact, to God’s whole creation.
In his striking book, Now and Then, Frederick Buechner writes about the helpless longing and heartsickness of a parent over a wayward child: “To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you, but through what happens to the one you love also and greatly more hurting.
When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do. You can put up a brave front, for one, and behind that front, if you are lucky, if you persist, you can become a little brave inside yourself. You can become strong in the broken places, as Hemingway said. You can become philosophical, recognizing how much your troubles you have brought down on your own head and resolving to do better by yourself in the future …
But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain, as the child is a part of yours.
There is no way to make him strong enough with such strengths as you may have found through your own hurt, or wise enough through such wisdom, and even if there were, it would be the wrong way because it would be your way and not his. The child’s pain becomes your pain, and as the innocent bystander, maybe it is even a worse pain for you, and in the long run even the bravest front is not much use.”
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 113 is a thing of beauty, both in its form and in its content. It is a beautiful example of the forms of Hebrew poetry, consisting of three perfectly rounded stanzas: the call to praise Yahweh in verses 1-3, the praise of Yahweh’s majesty in verses 4-6, and the praise of Yahweh’s mercy in verses 7-9. Using the Hebrew number of perfection, the Psalmist describes the seven actions of Yahweh that call forth our praise: “is exalted,” “sits… on high,” “stoops down,” “raises,” “lifts,” “seats,” settles.” There is a four-fold repetition of that call to praise in the first stanza and a conventional three-fold repetition of “the name of the Lord.”
No wonder it was one of Jesus’ favorite Psalms. Well, that may be overstating the case a bit, but there is good historical evidence that Jesus sang it often, given its close attachment to the celebration of the Passover feast. You see, Psalm 113 is the first Psalm in the Hallel Psalms (Psalms 112-118), which were sung in connection with Israel’s great religious festivals (Week, Tabernacles, Dedication, New Moon, and Passover). We know that Psalm 113 and 114 were sung before the Passover meal and Psalms 115-118 after that meal. So when Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 report that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the conclusion of the Passover celebration, the reference is almost certainly to the tradition of singing the Egyptian Hallel Psalms.
As he prepared to shed his blood as “the Lamb of God who takes away the world’s sin,” Jesus sang the praises of the God who had saved his people through the blood of a lamb once before. Sometimes it is difficult to preach a distinctively Christian sermon on a Psalm, but that is not the case with Psalm 113. Even though it is distinctively Jewish, it has at least two other obvious connections to Jesus Christ, which we will see through a careful reading of the Psalm.
Note the prominence of God’s proper name in the call to praise. This is not an invitation to praise some generic God, “the Lord” of popular American culture. This Psalm is all about Yahweh, the name God revealed to his covenant people as he saved them. “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them.” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Why the fuss about God’s name? Because, of course, names in the ancient world revealed something central about the person who bore the name. So Jacob (the deceiver) was given a new name, Israel (he wrestled with God), to signify a change in his character. In the movie Dances with Wolves, Army officer John Dunbar is given the name Dances with Wolves as a sign of his new identity as an adopted Native Americans. And God tell us his real name so that we will not mistake him for all the gods invented by a sinful humanity. He is the God who depends for his existence on no one’s mind or hand. He simply is and always has been and always will be.
Thus, Psalm 113 calls not only ancient Israel to praise Yahweh, but also every creature in the universe throughout history. “Let the name of Yahweh be praised both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets the name of Yahweh is to be praised.” In beautiful poetic language, the Psalmist takes in all of time and all of space in his call to praise. Yahweh is the only God there is in all of history and in the entire universe, so praise his name.
The second stanza of Psalm 113 heightens this call to praise by focusing on the incomparable majesty and the incomprehensible mercy of Yahweh. Yahweh is not some little tribal deity whose power is limited to the boundaries of a tiny piece of Middle Eastern real estate. He is “exalted over the nations (and their gods, of course), his glory is (even) above the heavens.”
As I read that last line, I thought about the recent Dark Skies Project, the effort to eliminate light pollution in the National Parks, so that people can see the glory of the Milky Way Galaxy. I remember sleeping out in my backyard many years ago as a boy in Denver, Colorado, where a higher altitude and the absence of pollution showed me a sky so bright with stars that I could almost read a book by their light. Look up, says the Psalmist, and realize that the glory of Yahweh is above and beyond the wonders of the universe.
As you look up, ask yourself this question. “Who is like Yahweh our God, the One who sits enthroned on high…?” That, of course, is a rhetorical question, the answer to which is, obviously, “no one.” No one and nothing is like Yahweh. He is unlike anything in the universe, which leads many contemporary thinkers to conclude that God is, therefore, unknowable. If there is nothing to which you can compare God, then how can you possibly know God? But that is not where Psalm 113 goes. Rather than getting lost in agnostic mystery, Psalm 113 gets lost in ecstatic praise, because this incomparable God has actually gotten involved in human history at a place and time you could find on a map and circle on a calendar.
The God who is so exalted that he is not like anything in our universe has “stooped down to look on the heavens and the earth.” Contrary to the popular song of a few years back, God is not “watching us from a distance,” curious and interested, but uninvolved. Rather, he has stooped to help the poor and needy in his mercy. Indeed, the greatest display of God’s incomparable majesty is his incomprehensible mercy. This combination of transcendence and immanence is at the heart of biblical religion; indeed, it is the Good News at the heart of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
Psalm 113 doesn’t know about that ultimate act of divine condescension yet, but all Israel knew how God had stooped to save them in the Exodus (cf. Psalm 114:1 and 2). Yahweh didn’t just stoop to look; he reached down and raised the poor from the dust and lifted the needy from the ash heap (dung pile, according to other translations). “Our God” (verse 5) actually gets his hands dirty in the dust and dung of human existence.
And God is not content to get us out of the mess; he also “seats [us] with princes, with the princes of their people.” Interestingly, the verb translated “seats” is the same as the verb “sits enthroned” in verse 5. It means, literally, “dwell.” The God who dwells on high has stooped down to raise us up, so that we can dwell on high. God wants us to share his glory. Is this an adumbration of the notion of the divinization of man, suggested in passages like II Peter 1:4 (“so that through [God’s great promises] you may participate in the divine nature”)? The greatest measure of God majesty is the mercy that lifts poor wretched sinners into the majesty for which he originally designed us.
Of course, this is the second, and obvious, connection between Psalm 113 and Jesus Christ. “He who was rich became poor, so that out of his poverty we might become rich.” (II Corinthians 8:9) Through the inspiration of the Spirit, his mother, Mary, gathered up this theme of condescension and elevation in her Magnificat. By his mighty arm, Yahweh has “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
The opening words of the Magnificat provide the third connection between Psalm 113 and Jesus Christ. The Lord “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” Mary was the last and most glorious in a long line of woman who miraculously gave birth when everyone thought it was impossible. The last verb in Psalm 113 is that word “dwell” again. “He settles (dwells) the barren woman in her home, as a happy mother of children.” In ancient Israel a barren woman suffered the greatest disgrace and the deepest tragedy. In her old age, in that day before Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, a barren woman would be utterly destitute and desolate because there would be no one to take care of her.
Psalm 113 praises the incomparable Yahweh because in his incomprehensible mercy, he cares for barren women, beginning with Sarah and continuing through Rebecca and Rachel and Hannah and Elizabeth and, finally, a woman who was not barren, but a virgin. It is to a barren, lonely, desolate human race that Yahweh stoops and gives a Child, and a Family, and a Future, and a Place to Dwell.
So this distinctively Jewish Psalm gives us a rich opportunity to call Christians to praise God for a Jewish Messiah who came to save the world. In a world that calls the Christian faith narrow and bigoted because of its claim that there is “one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus,” it is important to show again that God does not sit far above the teeming human race watching with baleful eye. Rather, he stoops in mercy and dies in misery to raise us up to life more glorious than we can imagine.
I began to work on Psalm 113 in the midst of the Summer Olympics in August. You will preach on it several weeks later, but the memory of the Olympics may offer you a way to connect your listeners to this ancient Psalm. The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” urging athletes to elevate themselves by their own effort. The Olympic hope is that through sports a diverse and divided world will be drawn together into a closer human family. As thrilling as those efforts were and as glorious as that dream may be, the fact is that no amount of human effort and dreaming will lift the poor and needy and provide the lonely and desolate with the care they need. The city of Rio de Janeiro was the perfect example of that. Only the Incomparable Yahweh who stooped in his Incomprehensible Mercy can save the world. Jesus left his disciples with an Olympic-sized commission that echoes Psalm 113. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations….”
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the United States, this September Sunday falls about seven weeks before the next presidential election. And it’s been an ugly season in what has seemingly become the nation’s never-ending presidential campaign. But it’s no longer just politics as usual that unsettles. No, it’s the deep, deep partisan divides that have taken hold the last quarter century as well as the deep, deep hatred—not mere dislike or disagreement with but actual HATRED—of elected officials that defines this era’s main political characteristic. Donald Trump has inspired much hatred of himself even as he and a chorus of others excoriate President Obama. Others want Hillary Clinton locked up for alleged crimes and it goes without saying that if she becomes president, she will be hated even more than Obama. It will be no different if Trump wins. And for many it was no different when George W. Bush was president—people did not just disagree with him, they hated him.
Into this ugly mix comes Paul’s sobering words to Timothy, urging Timothy to in turn urge his congregation in Ephesus to pray for kings and all those who are in authority. We are to pray for their prosperity and for the stable governments they may run so that Christians can lead peaceable lives and in that context be able to proclaim to all who is the REAL King of kings and Lord of lords, even Jesus Christ our Savior.
It goes without saying, I suppose, that a given believer is not going to be very inclined to pray for the wellbeing of a public figure whom that same believer hates. When we spend our days wishing ruination and failure for a leader, we are unlikely later to pray for his or her success and for the increase of his or her government. Maybe, just maybe, we might be inclined to pray that God will show a leader we dislike the error of his or her ways but the greater the vitriol, the less likely even something that relatively benign would get included in someone’s prayers. Politics today has become a “take no prisoner” affair. (And I am pretty sure that praying for a leader’s death or impeachment or utter failure doesn’t count.)
What’s troubling is how clearly partisan the church today has become, too. In many places it would require no stretching of the imagination to ponder what would happen to a given pastor if he prayed for the health, success, and safety of Barack Obama and for the well-being of his wife and daughters. How can we pray for the success of the one we’ve been taught by other leaders in the wider Christian world to see as the embodiment of evil? His success/wellbeing = complete moral failure. Pray for THAT??!!
It’s probably shooting fish in a barrel to point out this next item but it needs pointing out: the leaders Paul calls Christians to support and pray for in passages like 1 Timothy 2 or Romans 13 really were evil people, some of whom were so immoral as to make even some of the more crooked politicians of today look tame by comparison. And not a few Roman leaders actively tried to stamp out the very Christian faith and Gospel that Paul wants people to proclaim. (A good many of Paul’s own letters were written by shackled hands as he was imprisoned by the Roman authorities.) Worse, the Caesar (and not a few other leaders in the Greco-Roman world) declared themselves to be divine, to be Deus et Dominus, God and Lord of the Empire. Theirs was not simply an administration or a government but an idolatrous cult completely at odds with all Jewish and Christian sensibilities.
And yet . . . even as Paul wrote the entire Letter to the Romans without once mentioning the word “Caesar,” so in 1 Timothy 2 Paul does not get very specific as to who the leaders were but surely he knew the threat to the Gospel they represented, the idolatry they embodied, and the immorality—if not outright amorality—attached to these people. Even so, pray for them, Paul urges.
But wait, not just pray for them but GIVE THANKSGIVING for them. Give thanks to God for them. Again, it would be hard to imagine a Christian pastor today getting very far in altogether too many Christian circles these days if he asked people to thank God for Barack Obama (or, should it happen, for Hillary Clinton or, in other places, for Donald Trump). That would be the last straw for some folks and the pastor might well be sent packing as a result.
How can Paul do this? Paul himself will die at the hands of such governing authorities one day soon. Most of the other Apostles did too. It will be nearly two more whole centuries before the governing authorities will stop cracking down on the Church. Give thanks for these leaders? Pray for them? Intercede that their governments will be stable? Give us a break, Paul!
How can Paul do this? Because of everything else he writes in 1 Timothy 2:1-7. His eye is on the real God, the true Leader, the real King, and the only true Mediator between God and humanity, Jesus Christ. This Jesus did it all. He gave himself for us. He gave himself for “all people,” which echoes verse 1 when Paul calls upon Timothy to urge his people to pray and make intercession and offer up thanksgiving “for all people,” including kings and authorities. Connect the dots in this short passage and you see Paul holds out the hope that Jesus can save even the ugly and idolatrous wannabe divine being known as the Caesar or two-bit, tin-plated lesser figures like kings named Herod or other lesser (but no less brutal) dignitaries in the Empire.
Lots of things in life get relativized and put into their proper place and perspective when you see the big picture. When you see, as Paul did constantly, Jesus high and lifted up and God the Father as ruling all things and all peoples . . . well, lots of lesser things in life recede to the background a bit. Everything gets bathed in a different light, a holy light. Of course, the same Jesus who Paul saw high and lifted up was the one who told his disciples that hatred has no place in the Christian heart: not toward enemies, not toward those who actively persecute you, not toward the person whose image was inscribed on Roman coins.
It’s fine to be engaged with the things of this world, including politics. It’s fine even to be passionate about such things. But it all takes place before the throne of God and under the Kingship and Lordship of Christ Jesus the Savior. He is the One we need to point people to above all and on a constant basis. But as Paul knew, that just could not and would not happen if we spend our days hurling invectives and calling for the failure of our governing leaders or anyone else for that matter. The disciple is not greater than the master, Jesus once pointed out to his disciples. And since our Master suffered and died on account of all the love he had for all people, we have more than a keen sense of what we as his disciples need to do, too.
Note: I used this illustration in connection to a different passage in July of 2016 but it fits this passage well too:
Preacher Thomas Long tells a story about Grace Thomas. Grace was born in the early twentieth century as the second of five children. Her father was a streetcar conductor in Birmingham, Alabama, and so Grace grew up in modest circumstances. Later in life after getting married and moving to Georgia, Grace took a clerking job in the state capitol in Atlanta, where she developed a fondness for politics and the law. So, although already a full-time mother and a full-time clerk, Grace enrolled in night school to study law.
In 1954 Grace shocked her family by announcing that she wanted to run for public office. What’s more, Grace didn’t want to run for drain commissioner or for the city council: Grace ran for governor of the state of Georgia. There was a total of nine candidates that year—nine candidates, one issue. It was 1954 and the issue was Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that mandated a desegregating of schools. Grace Thomas was alone among the nine candidates to say she thought this was a just decision. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls”! Hardly anyone did, though, and Grace ran dead last.
Her family was glad she got it out of her system, except she didn’t and so decided to run for governor again in 1962. By then the racial tensions in the South were far more taut than they had been eight years earlier. Grace’s progressive platform on race issues earned her a number of death threats. One day she held a rally in a small Georgia town and chose as her venue the old slave market in the town square. As she stood there, Grace motioned to the platform where once human beings had been bought and sold like a product and she said, “The old has passed away, the new has come. A new day has come when all Georgians, white and black, can join hands and work together.” At that point a red-faced man in the crowd interrupted Grace’s speech to blurt out, “Are you a communist!?” “Why, no,” Grace replied quietly. “Well then, where’d you get all them galdurned ideas!?” Grace pointed to the steeple of a nearby Baptist church. “I learned them over there, in Sunday school.”
How easy it is to chalk up even the deepest of Christian ideas to partisan politics, to platforms and bias and ideology. It’s happening today at an alarming rate.