Texts of Terror and Wealth

JEREMIAH IS OUR uncomfortable and discomfiting companion this month. He is a vehemently emotional man of God. Far from struggling to bring his emotion under control, he instead prays for more raw grief and anger. He knows that even his current rage and tears in no way match the scale of devastation wreaked by unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:21 - 9:1). To be a prophet is to risk letting our hearts resonate with the feelings of God. Jeremiah might help us discern whether our own witness for justice has turned into something too rational, measured, even routine. How do we re-engage our hearts and derive our passion from God’s divine passion?

Luke’s deep concern to show Jesus’ prophesying against the toxicity of Mammon, the power games of the wealthy, is ablaze in the gospel readings. Perhaps those who read them to us in church should preface them with a warning along the lines of Bette Davis’ famous quip in All About Eve: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Martin L. Smith was an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader when this article appeared.

[ September 1 ]
Entertaining Angels
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

THE WRITER TO the Hebrews knows that confronting our fear unlocks the secret of the Christian ethos. In doing so we learn to draw on the grace of a present Lord in order to experiment with generous behaviors that are inherently risky. “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (13:6). We can share with those in need, because we have leaned into our fear of running out of resources. We can risk being identified with the wrong element by visiting those in prison. We can risk being patronized as timid, by actually remaining faithful to our spouses. We can risk letting people unlike ourselves into our lives, by practicing the kind of hospitality that breaks the social rules restricting us to our own class. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). The teacher reminds us of mysterious stories in scripture when the course of history was in the balance on the issue of our fear of strangers. If Abraham and Sarah had turned away the three mysterious strangers in case they were robbers, what then? A simple meal, this gesture of welcome, admitted the divine presence itself, freighted with unimaginable consequences.

The gospel amplifies the theme of hospitality as it shows Jesus encouraging the Pharisee who had extended table hospitality to him, a disreputable Galilean exorcist with the bad reputation of a religious dissident and a political hothead, to keep on taking risks. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed ...” (Luke 14:13-14).

[ September 8 ]
In the Potter’s Workshop
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33

THE HEBREW PROPHETS fascinate us. Their intense attunement to God’s passion causes any common experience to suddenly ignite as a burning bush of revelation and encounter. Ordinary sights, such as a cooking pot on the boil or an almond tree, through simple punning association, triggered Jeremiah’s torrential oracles of judgment. In this week’s reading, the prophet feels the urge to hang out in the local pottery workshop. Just by dint of watching the artisan at the wheel, he goes into a state of spiritual shock. The potter can feel in her fingertips that the pot forming is off center, or the walls are becoming too thin to stand the firing. In a single move that seems so brutal she squashes the clay down, cuts it from the wheel, and throws it back on to start shaping it all over again. So God changes God’s mind, and rescinds the calling of a people, in order to start over with a community that will be responsive to divine justice and mercy. Needless to say, political reactionaries in our day who want to give a religious coloration to the myths of American exceptionalism and the perpetual right to supremacy on the world stage are not reading this kind of scripture.

[ September 15 ]
Dismantling Merit Systems
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 51:1-10; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

THE BEST WAY to take the sting out of the parables is to make them into melodramas about the dealings of God with the individual “lost souls.” The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin can be made into musty commonplaces about how God rescues the lost one. But the searching action of God that is the motivating energy behind the onset of the kingdom is politically and socially revolutionary. Human social structures are seldom favorable to acts of total amnesty and debt cancellation. Granting pardon, making past failings and deficiencies count for nothing, rendering those who have failed equal to those who have achieved, giving the undeserving equal shares with those who have merited their solid places in society—all this usually provokes outrage. To claim that God is a God of jubilee, amnesty, pardon—all this is outrageous enough to get one crucified. The piety of stained-glass windows offers no such threat.

Humanity sees sense in the theory we know best by its Sanskrit name karma, the idea that “you reap what you sow.” Each of us must suffer one way or another from the consequences of our defects and wrong actions, Eastern religions teach, even if it takes thousands of purgative reincarnations to work through them. But the God revealed on the cross and in the resurrection of the crucified stops karma in its tracks. In Christ there is a new creation, the old has passed away, and thus the gospel is good news—not just for individual souls on the way to heaven, but for the world that needs radical pardon and newness in order to be regenerated.

[ September 22 ]
Friends in Low Places
Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

LUKE TACKS ONTO the enigmatic parable of the dishonest manager some miscellaneous sayings of Jesus on the subject of wealth. The odd incoherence of this cut-and-paste job may suggest that, even for those who put the gospels together, the stark declaration “You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13) was deeply disconcerting. The parable itself reminds us of Jesus’ insistence that his followers must be “wise as serpents.” The children of light must be economically and politically savvy, ready to “work the system” as agents of a God who is on the side of the powerless and poor.

Jesus’ peasant audience would have appreciated the scandalous ruse of the manager facing ruin. To get around the prohibition on exacting interest, he reduces to their original level debts that he had previously inflated. He forces his boss to go honest, while ensuring the gratitude of the debtors. Are we prepared to work the system for God just as decisively? We must put our surplus to use in making friends. Let us call them “friends in low places”! They are, of course, the poor. They need us, but in the eyes of God, we need them even more. They have the keys to God’s heart, our eternal home. As our friends to whom we give freely, they can unlock the passage to our destined places in the resurrection. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (16:9).

[ September 29 ]
The Mindset of Privilege
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

HOW CARTOONISTS AND their fans love scenarios of heaven and hell! Who doesn’t chuckle at the mordant satire underlying remarks made by white-robed figures floating on clouds, or their counterparts being prodded in the flames by demons? Jesus’ satirical story of Lazarus and the rich man is really such a cartoon. Even in Hades the rich man clings to his sense of entitlement. Surely Abraham could send Lazarus on an errand from heaven to relieve his thirst? And don’t his five brothers deserve a special intervention from heaven to warn them that selfish wealth paves a path to destruction? But Abraham knows full well that the mindset of the superrich is so entrenched that it wouldn’t be budged “even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). Luke’s readers know that someone actually did rise from the dead, and what difference has the resurrection of the crucified one made to those who believe that they are thoroughly entitled to hold the political power their money can buy?

The claim made in Paul’s first letter to Timothy gives a similar assessment: The mindset of the rich is intractable. Their attitudes of entitlement and indifference to the needs of the masses issue from a vast root system of unearned privilege, and roots systems are by their nature invisible. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (6:10).

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at sojo.net/ptw. October 2013 lectionary reflections are available here.

Image: Magazine letters with the word 'wealth,' Thinglass / Shutterstock.com

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