gospel of luke
Reversals of power play through many stories and poems of Scripture. The sacred texts foundational to Jewish and Christian identity are insistent in their efforts to reconfigure our understanding of what counts as valuable and holy. Daring leaders in every age have responded with their own bold visions regarding what makes for faithful community — something we can see in the unusually humble ministry of the new Bishop of Rome. Pope Francis clearly knows his Scripture!
Featured prominently in Old Testament stories are flawed ancestors, unexpected heroes, surprising protagonists whose vital roles in the purposes of God reframe the community’s perspective on faith lived out in the paradoxes of history. The trickster who overcomes stronger antagonists (Jacob), the leader whose capacity for greatness develops from a compromised start (Moses), marginalized women whose very vulnerability becomes the source of their power (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth), the prophet whose witness is initially scorned but whose authority endures for generations (the Suffering Servant in Isaiah): such figures delight the reader seeking to understand how community should be deconstructed and rebuilt according to the purposes of God. In the New Testament, and particularly in Luke, we see sustained attention to those on the margins of social power: women, the poor, those with catastrophic illness. Christ himself surrenders his status and power (John 13:1-15; Philippians 2:5-11) in order to serve others in love. His abjection invites them, and us, into a new understanding of community.
We worry now, but we’ve been concerned about the economy for a long time. The economic recovery from the recession in America has been slower than we hoped, and people continue to suffer from the collapse of so many industries and jobs and safety nets. Much of the pain seems new for large swaths of the American population. But in reality, we’ve been worrying about money forever.
The August employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a slight decline in the unemployment rate (down to 7.3 percent from 7.4 percent in July), according to Businessweek. But the drop is largely attributed to a reduction in the workforce of about 300,000. What’s more, the participation rate (number of people working or looking for work compared to the total working age population) fell from 63.4 percent to 63.2 percent, the lowest since 1978. The National Employment Law Project noted that much of the job growth in August was in retail and food service, industries that generally offer lower paying and part-time jobs.
Even though a growing number of economists see modest and encouraging signs in the recession recovery, the slow growth continues to cause trouble for many Americans. Businessweek writer, Matthew Philips, even questioned whether the economy might be “stuck in second gear” without hope of a more robust “third gear” to propel the recovery forward.
The economic health of the nation has long been a concern to people of faith, because we care for the poor, and poverty has been a persistent problem in rural area and urban centers alike. What’s more, we know there are people of all income levels who struggle with money and possessions, and we are concerned about this, too. We worry that people have enough to eat and that wealth not corrupt our best desires and intentions.
The upcoming March on Washington has been on my mind as I reflect upon this week’s Gospel reading from Luke about a banquet. I personally love banquets. You get to adorn yourself with the finest trappings, dance the night away, and if the food is good, that is an added plus! But what I find most frustrating? Knowing a banquet is occurring, and I have not been invited. “Did I do something wrong? Do I not meet a certain standard? Who did get invited?” My wondering is filled with emotion.
What if America was a banquet, and at this banquet the servings were fair wages, just trials, civil rights and liberties, but offered by invitation only? According to those who “March(ed) on Washington,” this was exactly the case. Blacks deserved the same fair treatment as whites, and they were protesting to bring about the necessary changes. Perhaps if everyone took heed of Jesus’ instructions on banquet etiquette, things would be different and better.
When I want to remind myself of the power of prayer, I go to the Astor Place Kmart on the lower east side of Manhattan. Sure, I could read Kierkegaard or Augustine, but I prefer the Kmart. Specifically I favor an area in the far back corner of the basement. It is devoid of windows or natural light with a back wall of clear glass that faces the dungeon-like dark tunnel of the Number 6 subway train. There, you will find the most unexpected of things — like a plant nursery.
Sprouting out of this dreary prison are tender green leaves of ficus trees and the vibrant gold blossoms of marigolds. A tiny plastic tab peeks out of each pot with an image of what that particular plant could grow into if it received proper light and care; a cruel irony, as there is little hope in this place that such care or light will be offered. Even amid the bleak circumstances, these tiny members of creation still struggle, every moment of every day, to tap into the energy around them so that they might grow into that potential.
In short, they pray.
In only four words — “But we had hoped” (Luke 24:21) — we find one of the most profound expressions of human emotion in the entire New Testament.
In the midst of all that was taking place around Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago, Cleopas “stood still, looking sad,” for his life had taken a surprising turn for the worse. He had hoped that Jesus “was the one to redeem Israel,”yet it appeared that such dreams were shattered. Because of it all, Cleopas was left to move forward into a reality that he had not previously imagined. But we had hoped.
One can presume that Cleopas and his travel companion on the road to Emmaus not only felt shocked, lost, angry, and afraid, but also that their collection of emotions were representative of most who have come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. While many had expected Jesus to be with them “mighty in word and deed” for many years to come, he was suddenly removed from their presence. In light of all that took place, the dreams of those who believed in Jesus were abruptly dashed, and the community of disciples was left — both literally and metaphorically — wandering down the road into a future that seemed removed of joy and filled with despair. But we had hoped.
“Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
So, we dance and we sing.
But just before this moment in the story there's this surprising passage. The Gospel of Luke reads, "As they were listening to this, he went to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they assumed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately."
"Immediately." Well, at least they knew their own minds. This is the trouble about knowing our own minds. It's not the same thing as having a thesis with a well constructed argument. And it's not the same thing as being right.
Some might say that this is the worst possible time to have a Mobilization to End Poverty. An elder of a church I served once told me, "You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their checkbook register