An Alternative, Expansive Vision

Posted: September 13, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 15:1-10

‘An Alternative, Expansive Vision’

John Shea, the American priest, theologian and storyteller wrote in his book, The Challenge of Jesus’ that; “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”.  His comment, which at first glance seems simple and obvious is actually a fundamental shift and challenge to what has been the orthodox view or practice for many years. It is doubly important because it speaks to the very heart of one’s spirituality. It aligns into sin with an acceptance that life is always being policed, always in trouble seeking a way out, always less than perfect and in need of help to get out. It does not deny the presence of not being sure, or not getting things right, or that life contains struggles but it claims that the Way of Jesus to hear the call he makes upon one’s life and to act upon it. In my title I have called this an alternative expansive vision that calls us out of sin. It is the certainty, the possibility of, the likelihood of ‘out of them’ that matters more than being able to describe the sins and count them. It is about human desire, human flourishing: the possible out of the impossible. Sin is only there to reveal the possible, reveal the alternative, reveal the expansion of the environment. There is nothing that cannon be achieved in the Christ so to speak.

And that mini sermon brings us to the texts of today. I think it was important because I think it touches at the heart of this morning’s stories. In the ‘nitty gritty’ of contemporary biblical theology today, all the major scholars agree that Jesus’ primary identity was that of a sage. Some put more emphasis on the mystic nature of his work and others the political and social. But all seem to agree that he was a sage or wisdom teacher, interested both in understanding life, and in communicating that understanding. But as a sage, Jesus 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… seeking wisdom… as in communicating the understanding he came to…  And the best place to gain wisdom, according to Jesus the sage, was right in the midst of ordinary life” (Taussig 1999: 14).

I would suggest that he took time out to test his thinking on this by going to the quiet places as well as expressing what he believed in the midst of ordinary life. We might think of him sitting on a couch in the corner of some tavern, wine mug in hand, and soldiers and business folk. Every now and again he’d join in with a comment, a phrase, a story. His listeners would laugh. Maybe scratch their heads. Or interrupt with a quip of their own.

In the midst of ordinary life…  This concentration on ordinary life, according to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, meant that Jesus as a sage: did not emphasis either holy scripture or established religious systems as privileged sources of wisdom.  He did not care about religious codes of behaviour or belief, and he did not promote an other-worldly emphasis.

Hal Taussig suggests that: “The real energy of his 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” (Taussig 1999: 17, 18).

Here again we see the concentration on sin and all things that weigh us down as defensive, negative introspection from which there is no escape other than to embrace an alternative expansive vision.

As a sage, we can accept that Jesus told many stories. 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. We have two such stories, called parables, today. The story of ‘A man with a hundred sheep’. The story of ‘A woman with ten drachmas’. Luke’s Jesus seems clear. Neither the lost sheep nor the lost coin contributed in any way to their finding. Sin has nothing to do with the outcome. Neither the sheep nor the coin was punished or lectured for being lost. Concentration on sin is not helpful. 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 the seeking and finding by their respective owners. The acceptance of the alternative hope-filled vision. And when that which was lost was found, the finder threw a party.
Perhaps even spending the coin or committing the sheep to the proceeds of the party!

Sin can have a use but only as resource for joy, an alternative expansive vision. Thus, the call of Luke’s Jesus is not ‘repent’ but rather ‘rejoice’. But there’s more!

These stories are parables and a parable are a story with a twist in the tail, which turns our world views upside down. So where is the twist? Well! If we play some more we might ask ‘Why a sheep?  Why a woman?’ In the society of Jesus’ day, both shepherds and women, along with many other classes of people, existed on the margins of society. There was what we might today find extreme cultural differences. The sheep and women of society, the nobodies were not included in the ‘A’ social guest list. They had no status, were landless and poor, and not to be trusted. Certainly not candidates for ‘the kingdom’.

And by naming them, Luke indicates they were indeed part of the general group
called ‘toll collectors and sinners’… Collaborators with the oppressive system and those who were sinners. For Luke they were the unlikely ones who were seeking the company of Jesus. They were those the pharisees and the scribes, if we accept Luke’s comments or bias, apparently complained about and rejected. So, for Luke some tension seems to be 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. 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. One sheep. One coin.

And then the twist in the tale, so, too is the kingdom or realm or empire of God. The realm of God is less grand, and less than anticipated. Less than sinless, less than a bed of roses. It includes those who are usually or always, excluded. So, we have a couple of stories which say: Beware! We are unable to predict the outcome when the resolution is always unexpected. Pretty ordinary, really! Life is more about ambiguity, and serendipity and uncertainty is it not? I invite you to ponder that some more.

John Donahue says that “Surprise, extravagance, and joy characterise these parables (Donahue 1988:150). Likewise, “Jesus’ teachings about God’s reign were fresh and surprising,” he says. Theologian Hal Taussig again also says, “His teachings were so striking that usually his hearers were inspired, shocked, or actively puzzled.

I dream of my sermons being like that one day, haha! When Jesus spoke, the clever social involvement of his teachings called people to self-examination and new relationships”; suggests Hal Taussig. 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. I don’t know if any of you saw the TV program on Monday evening last where a researcher was highlighting the fact that in New Zealand politics the percentage of promises actually delivered was extremely low if almost non-existent. Promises are about getting votes and not about freeing the people from the declared sin.

Jesus proclaimed an alternative.  A new vision of what could be. And that requires living without reservation into a completely open future. One example of this need for an alternative is what Rabbi Arthur Waskow said on an anniversary some years back now…. He said: “The Inquisition burned the Talmud.  Nazis, on 10 May 1933, burned thousands of books – among them the works of Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, André Gide, Maxim Gorki, George Grosz, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and Helen Keller. And now we have amongst us in America some who call themselves Christians, who have called for burning the Quran, and who have chosen September 11 as the day to do so. “The great German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in his 1820-1821 play Almansor: ‘Where they burn books, they will finally also burn people’.” (Rabbi Arthur Waskow. 1/9/2010. The Shalom Centre)) The focus on being called into sin, fear and failure of the new will lead to self-destruction rather than that which Jesus showed by his life. There is an alternative, expansive vision should you accept the call. Amen.

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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