An Alternate, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 28, 2016 in Uncategorized

Pentecost 17C, 2016 Luke 15:1-10

An Alternate, Expansive Vision


John Shea the American priest, theologian and storyteller in his book ‘The Challenge of Jesus, says;

“Jesus does not call people into their sins but out of them… The judgement of Jesus is not a police-like searching out and punishing of evil acts” (John Shea. The Challenge of Jesus).

His comment at one level is obvious and of no great new insight yet at another it is profound and life changing. Off course Jesus is calling people to leave their sinful ways for an alternative life style and of course Jesus is not an overlord type policing the rules of life yet one has to know the sin to be able to leave it. One has to understand that the sin is not helpful in order to be able to avoid it. And the judgement of Jesus is not without encouragement of some sort because a life without sin is not possible without planning strategies for its expulsion. One does not leave being a addict without a planned alternative.

In regard to our stories today that comment goes right to their heart. This Jesus is not a push over, he does not soften the blow of his challenge. We heard the last two weeks how one is to leave family and possessions if one want to see the value of an alternative Way of living. This discipleship lark is not easy. This Jesus is no easy touch waiting to be exploited by the clever, but then he is also not a dictatorial, fear mongering communicator. He uses very cleaver literary skills, by means of counter cultural conversation and example. He takes the most radical alternatives and places them into the ordinary everyday environment so turning the status quo upside down and inside out. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage or a wisdom teacher.

What they are attempting to say is that this Jesus was of great depth and understanding as well as skillful in communicating. He was interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. This means that as a sage, he was not simply just a teacher. And certainly no ‘blackboard-and-chalk’ type teacher. “He spent at least as much time in figuring things out himself… theology on the run so to speak, applicable theology was his mode not head trip intellect without praxis. He was always seeking wisdom which is primarily about applying thought to living practice. He saw his task as communicating the understanding he came to…  And as Hal Taussig claims, the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life”

Right about now we can have a mental picture of this Jesus at work. Our mental picture of Jesus at work is with him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, overhearing the conversations of the peasant farmers and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. And his listeners would laugh, some getting the story others thinking they did and others pretending they did. Maybe some would scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own. In the midst of ordinary life…  this wisdom sage worked.

And this concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: 1. did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom; 2. did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and 3. did not promote an other-worldly emphasis.

Hal Taussig concludes: by saying that “The real energy of Jesus’ teachings is found in their expansiveness of vision and in their critique, not in the defence, of religion…  And his favourite place to teach was probably at dinner”

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. And a number of those stories were about being lost and found. And in many of them, that which was lost had nothing whatever to do with their finding.

Today we have two such stories, called parables. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. And the story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. And Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Neither the sheep nor the coin were punished or lectured for being lost. There weren’t any inquests conducted in any of these stories. Nothing at all changed after the finding.

The whole focus of both Luke’s stories is not on the repentance of the sheep or the coin, but rather the seeking and finding by their respective owners. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party. Perhaps even spending more than the value of the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Here we have the link with our opening comment that the call of Luke’s Jesus is not to repent’ but ‘to rejoice’. But having said that and made that connection with the part Jesus plays there is usually more in these things called parables.

A parable is a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well, let’s ask some more questions. Why a sheep?  Why a woman? We maybe because in the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. One has to assume this is the case because we still struggle with such realities today. Shepherds and women. History has women as chattels and that could be said to be synonym for slave as well. And that is reinforced by their place as vehicles for the mans child. Wombs to rent for the male of the species. They were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, they were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. They were certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’. And shepherds, well who would want their job. They were not much better off than women because all they were good for is spending their lives in the dessert seeking the next blade of grass for their charges. All the responsibility for the prized possessions of the Lord but with no authority and at the beck and call of not only their masters but also the weather and predators of all sorts.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Those seeking the company of Jesus. Those the Pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected.

So we have to say that some degree of social and cultural tension is highlighted in these stories. Along with some overriding negative feelings, often overlooked or ruled out by other commentators. And unravelling the stories further… The world of the parable, is in the midst of ordinary everyday life. Sheep go missing. As a matter of real life. Women lose coins. Sons get angry. Stewards cheat. A judge cares little about justice. A harvest is only average.

The stories themselves are about things of little intrinsic value in the ordinariness of life. It’s only One sheep. One coin. And this is the twist, So too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded.

So we have a couple of stories which say: Look out for the obvious. Look beneath and beyond because it’s in the ordinary, the obvious and the usual that we find the alternative. Be alert! Be aware not fearful because that clouds ones judgement but be ready, alert because we are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. This is pretty ordinary. It is our everyday experience. We don’t actually know for certain what is about to happen next. Thats life. It’s in the everyday moment. Its always present and waiting so look for it. I invite you to think about what the search is and how it empowers as opposed to the finding. How it invites exploration of the possible, the search often better than the finding. When one sheep or one coin is lost it is not about the finding of that one coin or sheep but it is more about the looking for it and what that brings and the celebration will express just what the value of the searching was. The extravagance of the celebration expresses the value of the searching.

John Donahue says that Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterize these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Tausigg notes that, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” He also notes that. “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.  When he spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships” (Taussig 1999: 22, 23).

Like Jesus, the people who effectively invite us to change our world view of events or people or relationships, are not the televangelists or the fundamentalists who often scream about other people’s ‘sin’, or the politicians who preach fear and insecurity in the hope of re-election. But those whose lives proclaim an alternative. A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. The truth of this is that for us in our particular historical moment are experiencing the transformation of Christianity, The growth and the decline of Christianity in our world today tell us this. We are experiencing changes in the place of religion in our lives and this is more unknown and speculative.

I spoke last week of the need to see Jesus differently and to at least question Anselm’s theology of substitutionary atonement, and one way of doing this is to ask how it was that a parable telling wisdom sage was turned into a divine hero of an apocalypse who shows up as Lord of the last judgement. How did we silence wisdom and choose doctrine? David Galston suggests that we did this first by turning parables into allegories and then by converting these new allegories into doctrines of the church. As allegories about Christian identity, beliefs about Jesus, attitudes towards Jews and confessions about Jesus being the end time judge, we silenced wisdom and took Jesus out of the everyday and the ordinary and trapped him in the absurdity of literalism. What happened was that Jesus became a second Jesus who could not be human.

The challenge we face is a way through that does not depend on belief or a blind faith. Ours is the task of not being swallowed up in despair or not wallowing in the sinfulness of the world or of ourselves, if that is even a responsible way of speaking today. Ours is the task of seeing beyond the other side. As Richard Kearney says about anatheism, seeing God after God or as Galston says seeing God not as existence or non-existence but rather as almost. It will be unexpected, alternative and surprising that enlightens, and our call is to seek it with determination and with anticipation. Amen.

Notes: Donahue, J. R.1988.  The Gospel in Parable. Metaphor, Narrative, and Theology in the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia. Fortress Press. Taussig, H. 1999. Jesus Before God. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Shea, J. 1984.  The Challenge of Jesus. Thomas More Association.



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