Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Test Case

A Test Case
John 9:1-41
            This is the longest, most involved of the healing stories in the gospels.  It is also, I believe, a test case—not a test case for Jesus, but a test case for the religious leaders who opposed him.
            If a movie or TV drama were made of this story there would be several scene changes, unlike most of Jesus’ healing miracles, which happen in one setting.  Let’s look at them.
            Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, makes a poultice of mud and spittle, anoints the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.
            The director has a choice here.  He/she can let the camera stay on Jesus while the man leaves, watching Jesus healing someone else, or teaching.  The camera can follow the man through the streets to the pool.  The camera can make a quick cut to the man washing his eyes in the pool.  The director may also choose to combine two or more of these settings.
            The man, whose sight has now been restored, returns to his home, where his neighbors are confused.  Is this the man who was blind all his life, or is it someone who looks like him?  I believe John included this scene for its suspense value.  Meanwhile, Jesus has disappeared from the story.
            Friends and neighbors escort the man to the religious leaders who engage in their own disagreement.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath.  One party argues that the healing constitutes work and is therefore a violation of the Sabbath laws, making Jesus a sinner.  Others say that’s impossible!  Anyone who performs miracles like this cannot be a sinner.  Both parties finally turn to the man and ask what he thinks.  His response is simple: “He is a prophet.”  This answer pleases one party and displeases the other, so corroborating evidence is sought.  The man’s parents are called and questioned.
            “Yes, this is our son.  Yes, he was born blind.  No, we don’t know anything about the healing or the man who performed it.  Ask our son.  He’s an adult.  He can speak for himself.”
            The religious leaders had declared that anyone who confessed Jesus as Messiah would be thrown out of the synagogue—excommunicated, in Christian terms.  The parents were afraid of losing access to their place of worship, and chose to avoid an answer rather than support their son.  Interesting what fear can make one do.
            The healed man is called in for more questioning, and here’s where the story becomes really interesting.  The man says he doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner, then utters these famous words: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
            In response to further questioning the man says, “I’ve already told you what happened.  Why do you want to hear it again?  Do you want to become his disciples?”  This answer does not please those who want to punish Jesus.  They respond by reviling the man, and excluding him from the synagogue.
            Jesus hears what has happened, and finds the man.  We might imagine that Jesus utters words of comfort and care, helping to heal the man’s soul after healing his eyes.  The religious leaders have come no closer to the kingdom of God because they persist in their ignorance.  They have failed the test just as surely as they have failed to make their case.
            Too often, I believe, we are guilty of the same mistake these religious leaders made.  We try to make Jesus what we want him to be rather than take him as the gospels present him.  It’s easy to do, but we must not fail this test.  We must make ourselves live as Jesus lived rather than try to make him live as we want to live. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Who Is on Welfare?

Who Is on Welfare?
Luke 1:46-55
            All too often we hear someone say, “People are poor because they’re lazy.  If they’d get off their seats and get a job they wouldn’t be poor.  They’re happy to sit at home and collect welfare.  Our tax money keeps them going, so why should they work?
            Putting aside all we know about systemic poverty, poverty that exists and even deepens from generation to generation; putting aside the actions of some governmental and business leaders in this country which keep the poor in that condition; putting aside the fact that welfare is not a path to riches; how true is the statement that people are happy to take welfare so they won’t have to work?
            Partly true.  We lived in Eastern Kentucky when the Clinton administration enacted significant welfare reforms.  Many families there had received welfare for generations.  They couldn’t believe their monthly payments would ever stop.  This is the way things had always been, and the way things would always be.  In fact, contrary to common belief, that area had one of the highest rates of welfare dependency in the country.
            On the other hand, I believe Norman Mailer’s words are instructive.
            “To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every member of society by how productive he or she is.  Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.”
            Corporate welfare.  We’ve heard the phrase before.  Tax breaks and accommodations given to wealthy corporations on the theory that such accommodations will produce jobs—jobs that the poor will be able to fill so they can work their way out of poverty.  If it were that simple, the ranks of the poor would have been diminished long ago.
            Tax breaks for the wealthy.  Deductions that ordinary workers can’t take advantage of because the threshold of financial eligibility is so high that only about one percent of the entire population of the country can qualify.  After a recent cut in federal taxes, a high-ranking federal official said to a room full of his wealthy friends and acquaintances, “I’ve just made you much richer.”  Corporate welfare and tax deductions for the very rich, instead of adding money to the economy remove it from circulation as the rich hoard their wealth. 
            Who will speak for the poor?  Who will speak for those whose voices cannot be heard by those in power because the wealthy make too much noise?
            Throughout the Bible God speaks for the poor, the disenfranchised, those whose needs society would rather ignore.  Exodus is the story of God hearing the voice of slavery in Egypt and acting to bring God’s people to a land flowing with milk and honey. 
Hannah, being granted a son by God, sings (1 Samuel 2:7-8), “The Lord makes poor and makes rich, he brings low and he exalts.  He raises up the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
Jesus, speaking words God sent him to proclaim, frequently expressed God’s preference for the poor and forgotten.
But who will speak for the poor today?  Will no one defend their rights?
Haile Selassie, former emperor of Ethiopia, said: “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
With God’s preference that poverty be ended, we’d best make sure we speak for them when we have the chance.  We don’t want to be on the wrong side of the welfare issue.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Neighbor Question

The Neighbor Question
Luke 10:25-37
            The parable of the Good Samaritan is one of those stories that is so familiar we can easily miss important details.  A recent reading, prompted by a quote I had just read, helped me see something I had previously overlooked.
            We know the story, but I’ll hit the highlights to refresh our memories.
            Jesus is teaching, and a lawyer tries to get the best of him.  The lawyer asks, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  
Scholars of the law frequently asked other scholars questions like this.  These questions would begin debates leading to a richer, fuller understanding of the law. 
This was not the lawyer’s intent.  Luke says, the lawyer “stood up to put [Jesus] to the test.”  From early in Jesus ministry, the religious leaders tried to trip him up, show him up, and shut him up.  They believed they were clever enough to come up with a question that would stump him, make him look bad, and turn the people away from him.
            Jesus asked a question in return: “What is written in the law?  How do you read it?”
            This is an open invitation to rabbinical debate.  Jesus is asking the lawyer not only what the law says, but how it should be interpreted.
            The lawyer quotes from the sh’ma: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
            Jesus congratulates him on giving a good answer—actually, the best possible answer, and tells the lawyer, “Do this and you will live.”
            The lawyer isn’t going to give up easily, so he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?
            Jesus responds with a parable.  A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is set upon by bandits, beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  We’re not told, but we know the man was a Jew.  First a priest, then a Levite, two religious leaders and the wounded man’s countrymen, pass by, avoiding him.  Then a Samaritan—one of the Jews’ arch-enemies—passes by.  Instead of ignoring the wounded man, the Samaritan stops and cares for him, offering first aid, then conveying him to a place where he can receive more complete care—at the Samaritan’s expense.
            Jesus concluded the parable by asking, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  The lawyer answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus answer?  “You go and do likewise.”
            Here’s what I’ve always missed.  I saw it in words from Commissioner Lalkiamlova.  “The question is not who’s my neighbor, but whose neighbor am I.”
            The lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus presents the parable then asks, “Who proved to be the neighbor?”  Jesus turned the question around.  Through the story Jesus taught that everyone is our neighbor.  But the question he asked was, “Whose neighbor are you?” 
In our lives we will be surrounded by neighbors—everyone we meet.  The question is which ones will we choose to serve?  If we are to lead a life of Christian service, the answer is, “All of them!” 
We cannot refuse to help anyone in need.  There are no exceptions.  Everyone is to be an object of our loving service.  God has loved us and healed our wounds, and we must spend our lives loving and serving others in God’s name.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Seeking the Best in Relationships

Seeking the Best in Relationships
Luke 10:38-42
            “There are three forms of relationship.  We move away from people, against people, or towards people.” (Eva Burrows) Among the three characters in this short story from Luke’s gospel we find all three movements. 
            Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, two sisters and a brother, lived in Bethany, a village near the Mount of Olives, and near Jerusalem.  We don’t know how they became followers of Jesus, but the few mentions the evangelists make of them tell us they were very close to him.  He apparently counted them not only among his disciples, but also among his close friends.  Lazarus isn’t part of this story, but Mary and Martha are front and center.
            Jesus was visiting in the home of his friends.  We don’t know who was present beside Mary, Martha, and Jesus, but we can assume the three were not alone.  There were most likely others gathered around, listening to Jesus’ teaching.
            Among the listeners was Mary.  This was a bit unusual, since women in that culture were seldom allowed to associate with men to whom they were not related either by blood or by marriage.  Jesus’ attitude was different.  Luke makes it clear that he welcomed women as followers.  Mary would have felt perfectly at ease sitting at Jesus’ feet in a gathering of men.
            Martha, on the other hand, was busily serving those who had gathered to hear Jesus.  We’re not told specifically what she was doing, but it’s a good possibility that she was preparing food. 
            Luke tells us that Martha was “distracted with much serving,” and we can see her in our mind’s eye, moving quickly from one part of the room to another, checking on this dish, preparing a bowl for that dish, trying to make sure everything was perfect so the meal could be enjoyed.  We might even picture her looking busier than was absolutely necessary, calling attention to herself.
            Finally, she’s had enough.  “Lord,” she says, “do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her then to help me.” 
            A reasonable request.  It’s difficult for one person to prepare a meal and get it on the table alone.  Help is always appreciated, and often desperately needed.  We could expect Jesus to say, “Okay, Mary, your sister is overworked.  Time to get up and help her.”
            But that’s not what Jesus did.  Instead he told Martha that the preparation of the meal should not be her primary concern.  Listening to his teaching and learning from him was the “good portion,” the portion Mary had chosen.
            At the beginning of the story we see Mary moving towards Jesus, and Martha moving away from both of them.  She has chosen a path that, if followed to the end, will take her far from both her sister and her Lord.  When Martha reaches the height of her frustration, she moves against Mary, and, more subtly, against Jesus.  Jesus, however, moves toward her, trying to bring her into closer relationship with him, and attempting to be the mediator to bring her closer to her sister.
            We don’t know if Martha ever moves towards Mary and Jesus.  The storyteller has made his point, and moves on.  Perhaps this is on purpose.  We’re left with two opposing positions.  Which one will we choose?  Will we choose busyness—perhaps even busyness within the church—that will take us far from Jesus, or will we choose the better part, and allow ourselves to learn from him.  The choice is ours.  In which direction will we move?