Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sunday 30 October 2016 - All Saints Day (transf.) or Ordinary 31

All Saints Day is 1 November and the NZL makes provision for today being observed as either Ordinary 31 or All Saints Day. Below I give the readings for Ordinary 31 (without Theme, Sentence, Collect or Commentary) and the Theme etc in the usual way but for All Saints Day.

Readings (related) for Ordinary 31

Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Material for All Saints Day 2016

Theme: All Saints (For All the Saints) // Who are the Saints?

Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)


Eternal God,
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31


Introduction - different to most Sundays, all the readings relate to the feast day theme, All Saints

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Relating to 'All Saints' the keywords are 'the holy ones of the Most High' (v.18).

The verses read here set the scene of a terrifying vision Daniel receives in the context of Babylonian exile which look ahead to four great kingdoms dominating and opposing God's holy ones, Israel. 

Readers familiar with 'end times' speculations regarding the meanings of such visions will be familiar with proposals for interpreting the four beasts. One example: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. 

It is widely thought by Daniel scholars that the vision occurred in the period when Greece was the imperial power dictating terms to Israel and acting in profane ways in the Jerusalem Temple. Its setting in the story of Daniel as a court official in Babylon enables the readers of Daniel to believe that God will prevail for the Babylonian kingdom fell and the Babylonian Exile of the Jews came to an end. 

Thus verse 18 is a ringing affirmation of the biblical truth that God always wins in the battle between good and evil and the holy ones or saints of God never suffer or die in vain.

Psalm 149

This psalm starts off in cracking form re the saints of God singing God's praises. As the holy ones of God are his special people may it indeed be so, 'Let Israel be glad in its Maker.' What a great encouragement for all the saints that 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people.'

But the psalm takes a darker hue when in the second half of v. 6, which has begun 

'Let the high praises of God be in their throats,' 

we read 

'and two-edged swords in their hands.' 

The rest of the psalm is about the vengeance of Israel on the nations. Thus it is a tricky psalm to say without some explanation, but we should presume that the psalm has a reasonable explanation for its second part.

One thing to note is that this is the second to last psalm and if we go to the second from the beginning psalm (Psalm 2) we find a strong theme of sovereignty for Israel, expressed through talk of the royal Davidic ruler of Israel. 

At the least we might understand Psalm 149 as a psalm written after Israel has suffered an infringement of its sovereignty. The oppressors against Israel have had judgment decreed against them (149:9) and now Israel executes the judgment and restores its sovereign status. Read in this way, the psalm is in keeping with much talk in the Old Testament of Israel's many battles with invading forces from near neighbours or far off empires.

As Christians we might read 'two-edged sword' as the written Word of God, the Bible, and think of ourselves as a people who praise God and proclaim the Word of God. 

Vengeance on the nations, on this understanding, would be the Word of God undermining the prevailing 'word of humanity' or ideology which drove the nations forward in their malevolent ways.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Ephesians is, arguably, the purest 'gospel theology' of all Paul's letters. It has a clear and coherent argument from start to finish (we might contrast the enigmatic 'bump' in the argument of Romans when we read chapters 9-11). 

One great theme is the comprehensiveness of the gospel: it is a message to the whole world setting out God's plan for all of the universe; a message to which calls all people to participate in Christ who is the totality of the whole life of God. Our passage today is a substantive portion of Ephesians chapter one in which this great theme is introduced and developed.

On this Sunday, 'All Saints', our eye is caught by v. 15, 

'I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints ...'. 

Here is a sharp reminder that saints are 'just God's people', you and me, the ordinary people of God for whom God has extraordinary plans (as Ephesians articulates, especially through chapters 1-3). Paul rejoices here in the members of the church to which he writes: they have faith in Jesus and they love one another without exception.

Among many wonderful theological pearls we might pause to admire in this passage, two more deserve mention in connection with 'All Saints'.

1. Paul prays that his readers may know 

'... what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe ...' (vv. 18-19). 

God's future is never for us as individuals only. Our glorious inheritance is not a personal, individual pass to paradise. Rather it is an inheritance of fullness of divine life in the corporate family of all God's people. We live Christianly in the church on earth (with all its difficulties and tensions) as preparation for the greater day when we live eternally as the bride of Christ in the heavenly realms. 'All Saints' is a reminder, on this matter, that we are called to be in fellowship with all God's people.

2. '... for the church ...' (v. 22) Despite the many frailties of the church, which were an experience of church life then as well as now (see various concerns through Ephesians about failure in the church), God's amazing plan for the universe involves the church (i.e. all the saints as the body of Christ). Christ is head over all things for the church. The church is the body of this supreme Christ, filled with the very life of God itself.

How good is that!

Luke 6:20-31

Who are the saints of God now that Jesus has come proclaiming his gospel? They are the ones who are disciples of Jesus, learning the way of God's kingdom while also enduring life in the kingdom. These ones are blessed. 

Yet the blessing of 'the poor' and the contrasting woe of 'the rich' points to a characteristic of disciples, reworked as a theme throughout Luke's gospel, that they have left material possessions behind and entered into the kingdom trusting in God for provision of material needs. On such understanding, saints are those for whom their most treasured possession is the kingdom itself, that is, life lived under God's rule.

Holiness, then, for the holy ones of God is the distinctive way of life which receives the blessing of God and the opprobrium of the world (vv. 22-23). In this distinctive way of life, the response of the saints to opposition is not like for like retaliation but love for enemies, good for those who hate, blessing on those who curse and prayer for abuser (vv. 27-28). Generosity of spirit and purse (vv. 29-30), thus, is the way of Christ's holy ones.

We might make one very important final observation: whatever the merits of calling particular people of God, 'St. Someone', there is an important demerit to this churchy custom. It implies that the calling to saintly or holy living is for the special few and not for all who follow Jesus. All today's passages are addressed to all God's people. We are 'all saints'.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sunday 23rd October 2016 - Ordinary 30

Theme(s): God justifies sinners / Fight the good fight

Sentence: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. Psalm 84:1


Jesus our Lord,
you have taught us that judgment begins at the house of God;
save us from our self-satisfaction, rigidity and corruption,
so that we may stand ready to do your will through the power of the Spirit.


Readings, related:

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-7
2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14


Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

In these verses we have a corporate version of the tax collector in the gospel reading: Jeremiah speaks words of confession of Israel/Judah's many sins. 

In the first part of the reading God is mindful to 'remember their iniquity and punish their sins' (v. 10) but in the second part of the reading, Jeremiah cries more deeply the confession of sin and pleads that God might 'not spurn us' (v. 21).

Psalm 84:1-7

This psalm connects to our reading in the gospel by exalting the virtues of the temple (in which the two men in the gospel parable are praying).

In these seven verses we have a wonderful eulogy to the temple as the earthly house of God in which the Lord dwells. Who would not desire to be there to be with the Lord? Who would not be happy, ever singing God's praise in such a place?

The reading misses the lovely verse 10: 'For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.'

2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18

Paul is writing at the end of what? His life? (vss. 6-8) or his ministry to this point? (vss. 16-18). 

A 'libation' is drink poured out sacrificially on an altar. Paul has given his life for Christ and now, through death, he seeks (changing metaphors) a 'crown of righteousness.'

We might usefully cross-check with the gospel reading and ask whether Paul is in danger of declaring himself to be righteous like his Pharisaical colleague (Paul, remember, was a Pharisee). But Paul voids this danger through the words he uses which unmistakably point to the role of God in enabling him to have fought the good fight of faith and to have finished the race (see v. 17: 'the Lord stood by me and gave me strength').

V. 16 has more than a hint of identification with Christ on the cross (whose disciples deserted him). Enigmatically, the reference to being rescued from 'the lion's mouth' implies Paul had his own brush with another form of Roman execution. We do not know whether the rescue was in the form of his release from imprisonment before going to the Colosseum, or from the mortal attack of a lion in the arena itself.

For ourselves the question might be whether we too are fighting the good fight faithfully?

Luke 18:9-14

There is nothing quite like this parable to make sinners feel self-righteous (about not being 'up themselves' like the Pharisee) ... which is perhaps not the intention of Jesus!

The opening to the telling of the parable (v. 9) parallels the opening to the telling of the parable at the beginning of the chapter (v. 1). Presumably Luke has to hand two parables he wants to share with us, whether or not he sees a connecting theme between them. (There is a slight connecting theme of 'prayer' but only slight because prayer is the theme of the first parable and an incidental detail in the second).

The points of the parable are twofold and, well, pointed. It is told against those who either 'trusted in themselves that they were righteous' and/or 'regard others with contempt'. Few of us have never suffered from either fault. We do well to listen carefully.

The structure of the parable is simple. Two deliberately contrasting figures, a Pharisee (i.e. respected religious adherent of the Jewish faith) and a tax collector (i.e. a despised, likely greedy lackey of the imperialist Romans, at odds with fellow Jews) perform the same action, going up to the temple to pray. 

The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving, which is directed at himself and his many virtues. We might note that his virtues are not that virtuous: I guess most readers here could also say that we are not a thief, rogue, adulterer or cheat-on-our-fellow-citizens. Many of us would tithe and some of us might fast regularly. We could note, with careful observation of detail, that the Pharisee does not pray, 'Thank you God for enabling me to not be like ...' Rather the prayer has the effect of drawing God's attention to how successful the Pharisee has been in being virtuous. In sum, the Pharisee exalts himself before God (and, in terms of the narrative, before those hearing his prayer).

The tax collector prays a prayer of confession which is directed to God and God's many mercies. 'God be merciful to me, a sinner!' His demeanour matches his words as we are told that he stood far off (in an obscure corner of the temple?), refused to look to heaven and beat his breast. His prayer is both a prayer of confession, as he declares he is a sinner, and a prayer of intercession, as he pleads for God to be merciful to him.

Jesus tells us that that man went home 'justified rather than the other.' To that key judgment of the situation is added a familiar saying from elsewhere in the gospels, that the humble will be exalted and the exalted humbled (e.g. 13:30; 14:11; Matt 18:4; 23:12).

It is worth pausing on the word 'justified.' Sometimes the writings of Paul with his key theme that God justifies sinners (and sinners do not justify themselves through good works) are pitted against Jesus and his teaching. But here Jesus and Paul are one: our apparent righteous status does not justify us, nor do our good works and hard earned virtues. Only throwing ourselves on the mercy of God leads to justification.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sunday 16 October 2016 - Ordinary 29

Theme(s): Persistence in praying and in teaching truth // Faithfulness in doctrine and in the praying life //Never give up on God

Sentence: 'Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it' 2 Timothy 3:14


Mighty God,
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son

in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings, related:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8


Genesis 32:22-31

This mysterious story of (a) Jacob wrestling with 'a man' through the night, (b) Jacob demonstrating immense prowess and, (c) upon being blessed, recognising the man was in fact God, offers much food for thought for the student of the Bible. Only a small portion of the food is served up here!

1. The reading is chosen as a 'related' reading to the gospel because it shares with the gospel passage an interest in 'persistence.'

2. Although the story ends with a quaint explanation about why Israelites do not eat the 'thigh muscle that is on the hip socket' (a prohibition not actually attested to anywhere else in the Old Testament), its central importance in the 'theological history' of Israel (the nation) as narrated through the Old Testament lies in the explanation it gives for the name 'Israel.' This name is bestowed on the patriarch Jacob whose twelve sons spawn the twelve tribes which define the extent of the nation Israel.

3. In the original Hebrew telling of the story there are important wordplays:
3.1 Jacob/Jabbok (see v. 22) is ya'aqob/yabboq and 'wrestled' is wayye'abeq (v. 23)
3.2 The location of the story is at Peniel/Penuel (vss. 30-31) which means 'face of God' because Jacob has seen 'God face to face' (v. 30).
4. Jacob's lack of recognition of 'the man' who turns out to be the presence of God mirrors his grandfather Abraham's experience of entertaining three 'men' unaware of their divine status (Genesis 18:1-15).

Psalm 121

Sometimes this psalm is misunderstood in respect of its starting point. It is not a call to lift up one's eyes to the hills in order to seek God's help. Rather, the hills (likely the hills of Jerusalem) are precisely where help does not come from. Rather, help comes from the Lord the creator of the whole world (plains and valleys as well as hills). It is this God, a God not confined to a specific geographic location, who can help us wherever we are. Further, this God, not confined to a body and thus not subject to the need for sleep, can help us at any time, day or night.

Nevertheless, since this psalm is one of 'Songs of Ascent' or psalms said by pilgrims on their way 'up' to Jerusalem, there is a certain irony in declaring that help does not come from the hills.

Connecting this psalm to the gospel reading, we can pray confidently to the God who presides over every aspect of our lives 'your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore'.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

A consistent concern through 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus is 'sound teaching.' No passage in these three letters better captures this theme than this Sunday's passage.

Paul urges Timothy to 'continue' (3:14) in what he has learned, maintaining his knowledge by recalling how he has learned (both from 'whom', his mother and grandmother and Paul himself, and from 'what', the 'sacred writings', 3:15).

As an aside Paul states his view of 'scripture' (3:16, which meant at the least what today we call the Old Testament, but could also have included Christian writings being received by Christian communities as 'sacred writings') and its purpose (3:17).

In chapter 4, Paul sets up a strong, specific, God-and-Jesus-Christ backed commission for Timothy (4:1-2) in respect of proclaiming 'the message' (i.e. sound teaching). Note the imperatives: 'proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.' Further imperatival underlining occurs in v. 5.

So, what is the problem to which this 'urging' of Paul is the solution? He foresees a coming time 'when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths' (v. 3-4).

Luke 18:1-8

If we are honest about this parable, it is quite tricky to make sense of all of it! 

v. 1: The intention is that we will read/hear a parable 'about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.'

v. 2-5: A parable is told which accords with the intention in the sense that a widow persists in asking a godless, heartless judge for justice and her persistence wears the judge's resistance down to the point where he grants her request.

But the parable 'works' in terms of being about persistent prayer only if we imagine that God is much, much kinder than the heartless judge.

There is then a problem for those of us who also know Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:7-8 where Jesus teaches against using lots of words in repetitive prayers. A possible resolution of the apparent contradiction is for disciples to distinguish between occasions when prayers are prayed with the intention of flattering God into responding by virtue of quantity of prayers and occasions when a simple, short prayer is persistently prayed (e.g. on a daily or weekly basis) in the belief that God (perhaps for reasons hidden from us) calls us to pray persistently for a matter.

v. 6: The Lord then offers an enigmatic comment on the parable: listen to the judge. 

Presumably this means: think about what the judge says in the parable and then make the appropriate calculation of what it is that God says to us about our persistent praying. Calculate that God is more eager to answer our prayer than the judge was to answer the woman's plea.

v. 7-8a: Things are starting to get trickier! An additional comment is made but it is not about prayer but about justice!

Of itself the comment could be called 'standard' in respect of God acting justly in response to cries from the unjustly treated, "And will not God grant justice ..." 

Nevertheless it is a change of theme from v. 1's "the need to pray always and not to lose heart" in two aspects. A change from 'prayer' to 'justice' and from 'not to lose heart' (implying patience) to God's quickness to act. There is also a strong sense that the passage has begun with Jesus speaking to the disciples about their prayer life and now tells them about another group, those unfairly treated, a change, we could say, from 'you' to 'them.'

There is a strong connection, nevertheless, between the themes of 'prayer' and 'justice' because God grants justice to those who 'cry to him day and night.'

v. 8b: 'And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?' 

Further tricky material to comprehend comes with this ending. The introduction of the Son of Man and his 'second coming' is unexpected, as is the introduction of the theme of 'faith'. 

A possible explanation lies in recalling the beginning of this passage in verse one. If Jesus is teaching patient persistence in prayer, the ultimate patience is demonstrated by those disciples who keep praying with faith believing for an answer even to the day when the Son of Man returns. 

But that explanation then highlights the implausibility of v. 7-8a speaking of God acting 'quickly' if by 'quickly' we mean 'very soon.' Thus some commentators think a better translation would be 'suddenly', that is, we pray persistently for justice, God does not act straightaway but when God does act he acts with urgency and immediacy (indeed, the ultimate act of justice is the judgment of the Son of Man whose coming may be delayed but when he does come it will be sudden and for most, unexpected).

A few additional comments:
a. there is a parallel here between the shifting sands of themes through eight verses (albeit roughly conjoined around 'prayer') and the beginning of chapter 16 and its shifting themes (albeit roughly conjoined around 'money').
b. dealing with the trickiness of the passage may be 'our problem' as Western exegetes/preachers used to a certain kind of rational coherency, more than Jesus' (or Luke's) 'problem' as preacher in a different time, place and culture.
c. the shifting nature of the themes does permit a preacher to make a decision about what to focus on: prayer or persistence and patience in prayer, justice or seeking justice, the character of God, faith.
d. a final reflection from me: are prayer and justice one and the same theme? To pray about a problem is to ask that something which is wrong be put to rights, that is, to ask for justice to take place. Even illness and prayer for healing is a cry for just dealing as our bodies are unjustly attacked by virus or cancer. To pray for a friend to become a Christian is to pray that they might experience the justification of God in their life ...

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sunday 9 October 2016 - Ordinary 28

Theme(s): Gospel for everyone // God reaches to the outsider "Remember Jesus Christ

Sentence: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David - that is my gospel" 2 Timothy 2:8


God of compassion,
deepen and increase our love for you
so that we may leave behind the sins
from which you have redeemed us,
and serve you in perfect freedom,

in the power of the Spirit,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Readings, related:

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Tim 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19


2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

This story of God healing a non-Israelite fits well with the healing in Luke 17. In both cases leprosy is the problem. A common element between the two stories is that Naaman, like the Samaritan leper, understands that God has done this work and wishes to acknowledge it appropriately.

Psalm 111

This is an interesting psalm as it combines praise for God's law (v. 7) and affirmation of God's wisdom (v. 10). By setting out praise for God and God's works (vss. 2-9) the psalmist provides reason for praise and affirmation of God's word expressed in law and in wisdom: word and deed together have integrity. The God who acts faithfully and justly provides precepts and wisdom for our benefit.

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Two matters stand out for me from this reading which has many dimensions and points of interest.

1. Paul's summary of the gospel he preaches may surprise us.

No mention of (say) forgiveness of sins, God's grace towards us, God's transforming power in our lives. Instead he gives three points, anchored into the historical circumstances of Jesus' life and death: "Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David" (v. 8).

Clearly this is a summary, and the verb 'remember' invites Paul's readers to recall the larger story and extended version of his gospel of which 'raised from the dead, a descendant of David' are key notes. Thus one might go to Romans 1:1-6 where Paul sets out a (longer) summary of the gospel and its connection to his calling as an apostle, a summary which includes 'who was descended from David according to the flesh' and 'was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.'

Further 'remembering Jesus Christ' must also include the immediately-to-hand things Paul has said about the gospel, e.g. 2 Timothy 1:8-10 which speaks of God's power to save us and to call us to holy living, according to God's gracious purpose, which includes abolition of death and bringing of immortal life.

Why then does Paul say at this point 'Remember Jesus Christ'? The context is an urging of Timothy and through Timothy, his congregation, to engage fully in the Christian life, which includes suffering for the gospel and earnest endeavour to 'obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus' (v. 10). To remember Jesus Christ is to recall that Jesus led the way (1) in suffering so that God's purpose might be fulfilled and (2) in endeavouring to be faithful to God in all circumstances.

(2) Paul himself endures many things as an apostle and herald of the gospel.

Why? 'For the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory' (v. 10). Sometimes Christians get caught up in a debate over whether God's choice of us overrides any real sense that we choose to put our faith in God. Here Paul appears to transcend such debate! Christians are 'the elect' (those chosen by God to have faith in him) yet Paul worries that they (we) might not 'make it' to the full inheritance of salvation (i.e. election does not override out choice to keep placing our faith in God). Such thinking is at one with Paul's thought in Philippians 2:12-13.

Luke 17:11-19

This is a popular and memorable story. Popular because it touches all who hear it about gratefulness. We all have memories of people who never show their gratitude for something we have done for them. We might even remember occasions when we have not thanked someone for a kindness. Memorable because (as with other gospel stories) the numbers mentioned by Luke are striking and simply to recall: 10 / 9 / 1.

A detail in the story might be overlooked but it is important. The returning thanker was a Samaritan and Jesus praises him for being the exceptional 'foreigner' who gives thanks when the others do not.

Thus the story is arguably less about the one out of ten who gives thanks (with lesson: and so must we) and more about the outsider who understands Jesus and responds to him (with lesson: and so the gospel is for all, for Samaritans as well as Jews, for Gentiles and for Jews, for outsider and for insiders).

If so, then this story is representative of the gospel Luke preaches through his Luke-Acts narrative: the gospel is God's inclusive love for all.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sunday 2 October 2016 - Ordinary 27

Theme(s): Faith // Obedience // Obedience has its own rewards

Sentence: Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)


Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal,
keep us under the protection of your good providence,
and help us continually by the power of the Spirit
to revere and love your holy name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Readings, related:

Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Tim 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10


Habbakuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

These passages set out the great issue in Habbakuk: when will justice prevail? At first sight the expected 'relationship' between this reading and the gospel reading today may be hard to spot. But the connection lies in 2:4, '... the righteous shall live by their faith.' 

In other circumstances, especially in relationship to debates over the meaning of Pauline theology of justification in Romans and Galatians, we might discuss this phrase at great depth and length. Here we simply note, looking ahead to Luke 17:5-6, that Jesus expects his disciples to have faith, to be a people who trust in God through Jesus that mighty transformative work will take place in the world.

Psalm 37:1-9

In part the psalmist could be in dialogue with Habbakuk: don't fret about the injustice you see about you, instead trust in God, do good, and you will find the unjust get their comeuppance.

These verses emphasise the importance of faith ('trust in the Lord', v. 3; 'take delight in the Lord', v. 4; 'commit your way to the Lord; trust in him', v. 5; 'be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret', v. 7; 'wait for the Lord', v.9). 

Faith is exemplified in the face of evil when we 
(a) do good (and do not join the evildoers in their wrongdoing), 
(b) wait patiently for God to act against evil, 
(c) do not fret or be anxious about the terrible situations around us, 
(d) refrain from anger and forsake wrath (v. 8). 

Easy to say, difficult to do! But the psalmist is very clear and insistent about the way of faith. Its importance is tucked away in a phrase in v. 8, 'it leads only to evil:' in other words, the price of not having faith, for instance, of letting our anger and wrath dictate the course of our response to evil, is for evil to be multiplied rather than ended. Sadly we see this unfolding daily before our eyes in war-torn countries around the world.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Only a very few thoughts - well, half a dozen - here as time does not permit a full commentary on a passage with multiple themes, topics, and teachings. Each point below could be the front and centre of a sermon on its own!

(1) The importance of family upbringing for passing on the faith (v. 5).

(2) The ancientness of ordination (laying on of hands) (v. 6) - to say nothing of the role of the Holy Spirit in bestowing ministry gifts through ordination ... that could be quite a point of discussion after a sermon mentioning it!

(3) The character of the Spirit of God within us: exemplified by power, love, and self-discipline (or sound mindedness), not by cowardice (v. 7).

(4) The purpose of God for our lives (v. 8-9).

(5) The faithfulness of Christ (v. 12)

(6) Our call to hold to the 'standard of sound teaching ... with the help of the Holy Spirit living within us' (v. 13-14).

Luke 17:5-10

After a certain consistency in a connecting theme through Luke 16 (money), chapter 17 has more of a 'miscellaneous' or 'pot pouri' feel as Luke gathers up sayings of Jesus, determined, it seems, that none be lost to his readers.

If today's reading had continued to v. 19 then it would begin and end with a similar theme, faith.

To the reading itself:

Luke has begun the chapter with Jesus addressing 'his disciples' (v.1) but our reading begins with a selected group within the disciples, 'the apostles' who ask the Lord to increase their faith. It is possible that Luke reports the apostles asking this question as an encouragement to all disciples: See, implies Luke, even the apostles struggled to exercise great faith!

Jesus reply is typically enigmatic. He does not tell them how to increase their faith but says that if they had the tiniest amount of faith amazing things would result. (An alternative translation is 'Grant us faith' rather than 'Increase our faith). 

Note that the amazing possibility here is twofold: that a tree with deep roots is uprooted, and that it is planted in the least suitable of environments to plant anything, the sea.

What do we infer from this mysterious reply? 

First, reading Acts alongside Luke's Gospel, we see that the apostles would later preside over a miraculous work of God, the 'uprooting' (so to speak) of the 'mulberry tree' of allegiance to God by Israel and the 'planting in the sea' of the spreading church of God throughout the Roman Empire: faith on the apostles' part indeed triumphed with mighty deeds. 

Secondly, that faith may by a qualitative rather than quantitative attribute of disciples. We simply need faith not a certain amount of it. Here is one illustration: a learner swimmer, clinging to the side of the swimming pool does not need a large amount of faith (that they will not sink) in order to let go of the sidewall or bar; they just need faith. 

There are aspects of this story which are frightening for 21st century people brought up to value themselves, project self-confidence and such. How dare Jesus tell us to say, 'We are worthless slaves'! But whatever we make of the details in the story which seem uncongenial to our ears, a simple and salutary point is made. For the kingdom to work, the citizens of the kingdom (disciples) need to obey directions from the king (Jesus). This is an ordinary feat of discipleship and should occasion no great congratulations or celebrations. 'We have only done what we ought to have done.'

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sunday 25 September 2016 - Ordinary 26

NOTE TO NZ READERS: Daylight Saving Begins Sunday, 25 September 2016!

Theme(s): Dangerous riches // Warning against wealth // A cry for justice

Sentence: 'For we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.' 1 Timothy 6:7-8


Almighty God, you alone are our true judge,
for you know what we are,
you know what we should be,
and with you there is mercy.
Give us feeling for what is right;
set us on fire to see that right is done,
through Jesus Christ our Lord 
in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Readings (related):

Amos 6:1a, 4-7;
Psalm 146;
1 Timothy 6:6-19;
Luke 16:19-31


Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Amos is the prophet par excellence on social and economic justice matters. Here he takes aim at the complacent wealthy who enjoy their luxuries without a care in the world let alone a care for the world. A perfect entree passage to the gospel reading about the rich man who complacently let poor Lazarus suffer at his door.

Psalm 146

The God who commands us to act justly, who favours the poor and suffering over the rich and indolent, and who calls us to use wealth generously is the God who is front, centre and star of this psalm.

Praise the Lord! (indeed) ...
Do not put your trust in princes (of course not) ...
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob (because he is the God 'who executes justice to the oppressed ... upholds the orphan and the widow).

1 Timothy 6:6-19

(I have no idea why the lectionary skips so much material in this important epistle between last week's reading from chapter 2 and this passage).

Although the epistle reading does not necessarily 'relate' to the gospel reading in the 'related' series, this epistle reading has quite a bit to say about being rich, the love of money, the danger of being rich re wandering from the faith.

Although the passage moves away from these themes through verses 11-16 (which is more or less a restatement of the great theological and christological concerns of this letter and the importance of faithfully 'confessing' true belief), there is a return to these themes in verses 17-19.

All readers can take seriously the call to be content with what we have (6:6-8). The rich have some special additional matters to consider, 6:9-10, 17-19. The practical directions and guidance here scarcely needs explanation.

If only the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 had read this passage and heeded it.

Luke 16:19-31

(Somewhat annoyingly the lectionary skips the challenging yet pivotal-for-this-chapter verses 14-18).

This parable admits of several readings.

First (because of the commentary Jesus himself gives to the parable), the parable challenges the Pharisees ('targets' of Jesus in preceding chapters, e.g. 15:1-2, also in Luke 16:14-15).

If the Pharisees cannot interpret their scriptures ('Moses and the prophets') to discern what God is doing in Jesus before their eyes, they will not discern in the resurrection itself the action of God in vindicating and validating Jesus as the Christ.

Secondly, the parable challenges comfortable assumptions (as the Pharisees seemed to have, noting they are described as 'lovers of money', 16:14) - assumptions such as wealth is good and deserved fortune for those who possess it and poverty is bad luck for those who experience it.

At the core of the judgment given to the rich man (torment) and to Lazarus (life with Abraham, without torment) is a judgment against the wealthy who ignore the poor. The parable incorporates a morality tale: the poor are loved by God and we should love them too; the rich are under close scrutiny by God and should take care to use their wealth wisely and generously.

In other words, it is all but impossible to read/hear this parable and not be moved by the heartlessness of the rich man and by the suffering of Lazarus to act generously, if not to work for justice. Cue current concerns in our society for the increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Thirdly, the parable can be read as a story about God's judgment, the character of Hades (Hell) and the possibility of being saved from Hades and transferred to heaven.

Read in this way the story raises many questions (e.g. does it accord with what we read elsewhere in Luke's Gospel, let alone the remainder of Scripture about salvation?).

Important to remember here is a basic lesson about parables: they are not stories in which each and every detail accords with an aspect of God's reality.

Earlier in chapter 16, in the opening parable of the shrewd manager, 1-8a, we read a story in which it is difficult if not impossible to connect each detail with God's reality. Here we read a story in which it is tempting to connect each detail but the connections do not stack up: nowhere else in Scripture, for example, is anything to found which supports let alone endorses 'Father Abraham' being in the position of hearing a plea for mercy from someone in Hades (16:23-29), nor is it conceivable from Scripture that an ordinary deceased person could come down from heaven to speak to people (16:24, 27).

We could run through other details, I will draw attention to just one more. The blessing of the poor man Lazarus when he dies is suggestive that his own moral state or his own response to Jesus is of no consequence. But, again, nowhere else in Scripture do the poor receive encouragement simply to rely on their poverty for salvation. (Nevertheless there is a tie between this story and the first Lukan beatitude in 6:20 to consider).

Putting all this together, the parable actually strikes two notes in terms of responsiveness to God.

First, the importance of repentance now. Death can come at any time (and riches are no buffer against this end, see also Luke 12:16-21). Do not be caught on the wrong side of repentance when death strikes. Act now to reverse the course of one's life away from God and God's expectations in respect of just dealings with fellow humans.

Secondly, the importance of belief in Jesus. This is the importance of Jesus' own commentary at the conclusion of the parable. Belief in Jesus is pivotal for inclusion in God's kingdom.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Sunday 18 September 2016 - Ordinary 25

Possible theme(s): Do anything to get into God's kingdom

Sentence: You cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:13).


Almighty God,
fount of all wisdom, crown of all knowledge;
give us eyes to see
and minds to understand your marvellous works,
that we may know you through your handiwork
and use your creations to your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Readings (related):

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Tim 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13


Amos 8:4-7

Amos is a prophecy claiming for justice and declaiming against injustice. In these verses we have an expression of the protest against injustice in the land of Israel. The manipulators of the economy, who overcharge for small measures are seen by God and God will not forget (v. 7). Israel will get its comeuppance.

Psalm 113

Typically this psalm begins with praise, offering words which lift the hearts and minds of God's people to bless and praise the name of the Lord. But in verses 5-6 the psalm takes a specific turn as it asks 'Who is like our God?' The God of Israel has a preference for the poor and downtrodden, which includes women unable to bear children (vss. 7-9). Thus the psalm fits neatly with the Old Testament reading. Together these readings form a background to the gospel reading, which is about money, potential injustice and shrewd business dealings, though, as we will see, the gospel reading does not specifically tackle the question of injustice.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Paul urges that all kinds of prayers and thanksgivings are made for everyone but mentions a special group, 'kings and all who are in high positions.' Why? Well, kings etc are not important in themselves but for what they influence, the course of human events. We pray for our leaders so that we may benefit! 'so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.'

Paul the practical giver of liturgical instruction cannot suppress his 'inner theologian' so verse three pivots from (my paraphrase) 'praying like this is good in God the Saviour's sight' to a brief but profound statement which covers (to get technical) soteriology (God's work in saving people) and christology (who Jesus Christ is).

Verse 4 makes the claim that God 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'. Potentially there is a lot to unpack here. God is (for example) universalist in desiring every human being to be saved. (That is not the same claim as God is universalist = God saves everyone). Consequentially, the mission of the church must be open to reaching all.

Verse 5 makes the claim that there is only one God and only one mediator between God and humankind, 'Christ Jesus, himself human.' There is only one mediator because only Jesus has given 'himself a ransom for all' (v. 6). On the one hand this verse underscores the significance of Jesus Christ: the only mediator, the only one to give effect to God the Saviour's plan for salvation open to all, the only one to have paid the ransom price that humankind might be set free to live true godly lives. On the other hand this verses challenges all proposals that there are other mediatorial figures in the purposes of God. Whether such proposals stem from consideration of the claims of other faiths (i.e. religions) or from internal Christian claims (e.g. re human or angelic figures), they are rebutted succinctly here: 'there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human'.

Verse 7 is about missiology (statement about mission) made in autobiographical terms. The stupendous, wonderful and unique claim about Jesus the saving mediator needs announcing to the world: Paul is a 'herald and apostle ... a teacher of the Gentiles' (verse 7).

Luke 16:1-13

This passage includes a strong candidate for 'most difficult to understand' parable (verses 1-8a). The commentary on the parable (vss. 8b-9) is only a little bit less difficult! Nevertheless some themes are fairly straightforward to grasp if we stand back from the passage and look for those themes above and beyond the details.

Theme 1: the urgency and importance of being in the kingdom of God rather than outside it. This is the simplest way to understand the parable and its interpretation (vss. 1-9) and it accords with other messages in Luke's gospel about the crisis of deciding for or against God's kingdom.

Theme 2: the connection between daily life and its realities and kingdom life and its responsibilities. Vss. 10-12 teach the importance of handling the things of everyday life well because they provide a clue about how we will handle much more important things in the kingdom of God.

Theme 3: nevertheless the possibility that handling money on a daily basis is preparation for handling responsibilities in the kingdom of God is not permission to worship money/wealth/mammon: one can only serve one master (vs. 13).

If we stop at this point and begin our sermon writing, life is (to be honest) a little easier. But if we press back into the parable and its interpretation, then life is trickier!

1. Simply as a story of human life, the parable makes good sense. The steward is in a spot of bother (in a context without a 'welfare state'). He thinks fast and acts faster in order to save his skin. We get that!

2. Our trouble as readers of the parable is that we long to make sense of the parable as a 'kingdom' parable. How does the steward's shrewd (and immoral) dealings translate into our securing entry to the kingdom of God?

3. The interpretations offered in vss. 8b-9 suggest that from the earliest times this was a difficult parable (but, paradoxically, not deleting the parable from the gospel record implies its genuineness).

4.1 In 8b, it is possible that we are being offered an interpretation in which the point of the parable is that 'children of light' are ordinary Jews who miss the present opportunity to enter the kingdom of God, not realising that entry to it is secured differently to normal expectations (e.g. keeping the law).
4.2 Alternatively, 'the children of this age' points to the people the 'children of the light' (i.e. Christians) do not expect to be in the kingdom. But, in fact, and as other stories in Luke make clear, the unexpected are precisely those who do enter the kingdom.

5. Verse 9 reads like an attempt to explain the parable in its own terms ('dishonest wealth' ... 'welcome you into ... homes') with respect to the kingdom ('eternal homes'). In this case the explanation involves the absurd: 'dishonest wealth' actually has nothing to do with entry to the kingdom which cannot be bought - 'you cannot serve God and wealth'. But it involves the absurd in order to make a hidden point: Jesus urges his hearers to make friends with God by any means that one can make friends with God in order to enter the kingdom. In the absurdity lies a challenge to think differently about what the kingdom is about, how we enter it, and what is different about the kingdom and the normal way of Jewish life.

Here is a much longer attempt to engage with the passage, prepared by me earlier this year for a course on preaching on Luke in 2013:

The parable of the Unjust Steward (16:1-8, 9-13) 22 September 2013
An exercise in listening to the text, or, if you prefer, closely reading the text.
In this passage we have a parable (16:1-8a, or 1-8) and a remainder which is a follow up to the parable. The least controversial observation we can make about this passage and the whole of Luke 16 is that it is mostly about the use of money.
Many have observed that Luke appears to like linkages or connections between stories, sayings, and similitudes (i.e. parables). That is, we find in Luke a number of sequences of material connected by either subject matter or catchword. But we need to be cautious: Luke does not always follow through consistently on this sequencing approach!
This observation helps to make sense of the larger framework in which Luke 16:1-8 is present.
 In Luke 15 three parables, linked by the common subject matter of ‘lost then found’, also include references to money in two of the three parables. This leads into further talk about money (which previously has been talked about in the sequence of story, similitude and sayings in Luke 12:13-34) so that Luke 16 ends with the long story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. For the rich man, his wealth has been a burden which has led to Hades or hell rather than to heaven. It’s no surprise then that Luke 17 begins with a saying about things which cause people to sin, which act like millstones around people’s necks.
(In passing, note that 16:16-18 sticks out like a sore thumb. It is very difficult to find a connection between these verses and the theme of money which is followed before and after their occurrence. Is the connection that broken marriages nearly always affect the wealth of each partner to the marriage?).
Once we start to think about connections and catchwords, aspects of the placement of Luke’s material open up to us. Luke 16:1-8, for example, is about a shrewd steward who uses money to escape from a difficult situation.
Negatively we can see that this story would not sit well back in Luke 12:13-34 where the themes include the dangers of accumulation and the blessedness of trusting God for supply.
Positively we can recognise that shrewdness connects the Prodigal Son with the Unjust Steward: in a difficult situation the Prodigal Son shrewdly estimates that even his father’s servants are better off than he is.
Another preliminary observation could be made. It goes like this. When we find parables in Luke not in Mark or Matthew, and we presume that Luke’s gospel is later than Mark (at least) and possibly later than Matthew (as well), we may be tempted to wonder if Luke himself has composed these unique-to-Luke parables. Well, we cannot rule that out (so some scholars will keep offering speculative proposals that this was the case), but we could ponder this: is Luke 16:1-8, despite its difficulty, included precisely because Luke received it as a genuine parable of Jesus? If so, was Luke on other occasions a careful preserver of genuine parables rather than a brilliant inventor of parables?[i]
The parable itself
Luke 16:1-13
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. (1)
Note that Luke does not use the word ‘parable’.
Is Jesus’ telling a familiar story from the surrounding culture but using it for kingdom purposes, or does he create this story?
“And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ (2)

‘And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. (3)

I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ (4)

So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ (5)

He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ (6)

Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat. He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’ (7)

The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (8)
Where does the story end? After the first sentence of this verse, or at the end of the verse?
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (9)
Here is the application of the story – the sting in the tail which troubles commentators: how can the use of ‘unrighteous wealth’ lead to salvation?
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. (10)
Matthew 25:21, 23. Here and below Luke appears to continue Jesus’ speech with familiar teaching on faithfulness and on wealth.
If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? (11)

And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (12)

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money’ (13)
Matthew 6:24

The story in itself, verses 1-8a or 8b, is unproblematic: it’s a story of how someone in trouble faced his troubles, albeit in a clever-but-dodgy way. The problem for us is determining its meaning in relation to life in the kingdom of God since the general stance of life ruled by God is that it is honest, truthful and fair!
The sentence in 8b, ‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light’, could mean that Gentiles are better at facing up to the claims of the kingdom than Jews presuming upon their own righteousness. But ‘sons of light’ could be referring to Jesus’ disciples, so the interpretation remains difficult!.
Verse 9 as the ‘official commentary’ on the story causes head-scratching!
‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’
What does this mean in respect of salvation? What is ‘unrighteous wealth’ in terms of salvation? What is making ‘friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth’ as a means of securing salvation?
Can we make sense of this?
It could be difficult. Looking up a commentary or two does not necessarily help. As always with Scriptural puzzles, back to the text: we find there, considering all of 16:1-13, words which speak to us about three things:
(1)    Facing a crisis (so the parable, like some others, can be called ‘a parable of crisis’)
(2)    Handling wealth
(3)    The idolatrous power of money (or ‘Mammon’)
In the parable the man faces a crisis: he is about to be dismissed into a bleak future. What to do? Shrewdly he does something which provides him with a satisfying future. As readers we are intrigued because that future, in v. 9, is described in terms of ‘eternal dwellings’. Sounds salvific!
But therein lies a problem for most Christian commentators: salvation is generally speaking a gift from God, but in this story not only has the manager secured it for himself, but he has used a morally ambiguous means to do so. (To make matters worse, so to speak, for the commentator or preacher, the master commends the manager’s shrewdness – so it looks like God/Jesus is commending shonky business dealings).
On the one hand, we should not lose sight of the parable as a parable of salvation, just as the proceeding parables in Luke 15 have been, and as the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man at the end of Luke 16 will be. On the other hand we should take care not to seek to convert the story into a method of salvation.
The key salvific message is this: humanity faces the dismissal of God into a bleak future unless receiving salvation. Urgent action is required. The action actually taken in the parable is of no importance if we are trying to match it to how we can be saved (i.e. by repentance and faith in Christ).
But what the man does is very interesting in respect of a related issue to ‘salvation’ namely ‘the kingdom of God’, and it is this which drives forward the mixture of advice re handling money which follows in 16:9-13. As 16:13 highlights, everyone is ruled by something or someone, characterized here in terms of being ruled by ‘God or Money’. Thus, what the manager does is to utilize money (albeit immorally) in the cause of something other than Money and thus he begins to remove himself from the rule of Money over him. This is something we all need to do (i.e. break the power of Money over our lives) if we are to have a kingdom of God future when the kingdom of Money fails (16:9).
When we are not managers with clients whose accounts we can rearrange on terms which make them our friends, what does it mean to ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth’?
We find in verses 10-12 the occasion is developed into some advice which is about living in the kingdom of God, rather than about salvation: verse 10 being a commonplace observation onto which verses 11 and 12 are built.
Mammon/Money may be ‘unrighteous wealth’ but it has its divine purposes, including providing opportunity to demonstrate care and responsibility in the discharge of duties, an opportunity which mirrors the care and responsibility in the discharge of kingdom duties which God requires.
A final question: in 16:1-8 does the master represent God? See below for an answer!
The point, recall, of this exercise is not merely to offer some insight into a difficult parable. It is that preachers might mimic the ‘close reading’ of the text which is exemplified here in the preparation of their sermons on the parables of Luke’s Gospel.
Incidentally, if preaching on Luke 16:1-13, note that the above approach yields a multitude of applications. Please select one or two for a punchy sermon rather than drown your hearers in a plethora of lessons!

[i] It goes without saying that many kinds of explanations of the source of the parables is possible, so additionally we could reckon with (e.g.) Luke as an improver of parables original to Jesus; Luke as preserver of some parables and inventor of others; Luke as preserver of parables from mixed backgrounds (e.g., as Jesus told them; or, invented by a master story teller after Jesus’ ascension; or, originals of Jesus which were improved in the process of oral handing down from one to another).