Archive for July, 2012

Riches and death

Posted: July 25, 2012 by J in Bible, Discipleship

I’ve been working on Luke 12 Jesus’ teaching about wealth and life and death. Jesus has warned us not to fear bodily death so much but to fear ‘the one who has power to cast you into Gehenna’ (12:5). Then as an example of what to truly fear, he says ‘Beware, keep guard against greed‘ (12:15).

It seems greed is one of the things that has that power to destroy. Jesus specifically warns about ‘abundance of possessions’ (12:15).

Then we get the parable of the rich landowner destroyed by money.

I’ve got some questions about that landowner. Hoping to get some help from the brains trust.

First, why is he so very bad? God calls him ‘Fool’. Not many people get called ‘fool’ by God in the Scriptures. And it seems at the end that he loses his life in a pretty final way.  A ‘casting into Gehenna’ way I would guess. But why this guy? He didn’t hurt anyone did he? Doesn’t seem to have done anything spectacularly wicked or cruel. We don’t read that he mistreated his workers or anything.

Why is accumulating wealth so wrong? So deadly? I’ve known lots of people who did it, they seemed like nice people.

This parable makes it sound like you can follow God or you can accumulate wealth, but not both. Is that true?

Can you be rich, AND be a Christian?

Subsiduary question: does superannuation count as ‘storing up possessions’ for the future in the style of the rich fool? Or is it something different? I only ask, because we’re all doing it, right?

Can you guys help me out?

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Hope’s sharp edge

Posted: July 24, 2012 by J in Theology

I like this quote which my colleague Christian read to me the other day:

That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope. This hope keeps man unreconciled, until the great day of the fulfillment of all the promises of God. It keeps him in statu viatoris, in that unresolved openness to world questions which has its origin in the promise of God in the resurrection of Christ and can therefore be resolved only when the same God fulfils his promise.

This hope makes the Christian Church a constant disturbance in human society…

J Moltmann, A Theology of Hope

 

I’ve fixed them now.

Where do we go now? – film review

Posted: July 18, 2012 by J in Movie review

Nadine Labaki, she’s the goods. Caramel was a film to make us richer on the inside. Now this new film is another gift to the world.

Set in a small village in Lebanon, where Christian and Muslim try to live side by side in peace, the film is about religious tension and harmony. It traces the intricate dance performed by the village women of both faiths to keep their men from bloodshed.

Their tactics are by turns comical, ridiculous, heart-breakingly brave, and breathtakingly bold. This really is a film to make you laugh and cry. There’s plenty of inventiveness in the plot to keep you interested and delighted.

Apart from the story, the film gets a lot of mileage out of its women characters, whose earthy humour and colourful crudeness make for many funny scenes. The priest and imam get some great lines too. For those who don’t know her, Labaki stars in as well as directs her films. This time she’s not as dominant as in Caramel: it’s very much an ensemble film.

While the film deals with real-life issues, the story-telling is not altogether realistic in style. The neat division into peace-loving, courageous women and war-loving, reactionary men is a bit stylised, as are the enlightened priest and imam characters. But we are persuaded to accept these oversimplifications for the sake of a good story:  they give space for the convolutions of the story to unfold without becoming chaotic and unresolvable.

There are fun musical-style scenes along the way, with a touch of Bollywood influence. But just a few. The music is pretty good, actually.

The film is beautifully shaped, gradually gaining tension, which is relieved by plenty of lighter moments and the songs. It works up to the final punchline which really does pack a punch. Even if the first half does not always engage us emotionally, in hindsight you can see how it laid the foundation for an eye-opening climax. Nadine Labaki gets us to a place where we care by the end, we love these people. As a movie experience it’s ultimately quite satisfying. You go away a bit stunned, actually, with plenty to think about and chew over. Like about what it means to love your neighbour. And what price you’re willing to pay to maintain that love.

A movie that has plenty to interest and move and challenge thoughtful evangelicals.

Just saw it at the cinema, feeling grateful to Labaki for this new gift. I’ll be waiting for her next story.

See it at the Palace Norton St Leichardt.

A survey of commentaries reveals that few have anything much to say about Anna. It’s hard to find a picture of her! She seems like a less interesting female version of Simeon. Though she is ‘a prophet’ she gets no dialogue, sings no song. Coming after Simeon, she seems to duplicate his role without adding much value.

The commentators are generally not good at asking the question ‘why?’ – and with Luke this is so often the key question. Anna’s scene is a  bit mystery. What is she doing here? Why is this woman introduced so briefly into the story, only to fade back into obscurity, never to be mentioned again? Why are we given so many details about her background, and so few about her foreground, her actions in this scene?  How does she contribute to the story? The principle to keep in mind is that Luke very rarely if ever gives details without a reason.

It is worth noting that the name Anna is the same as Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel. There are many parallels between the story of Jesus’ infancy and that of Samuel (e.g. Mary’s song based on Hannah’s song), and this name once again recalls that story to mind. Hannah is the woman who was barren but longed for a child, and fasted and prayed earnestly before the Lord. Anna’s story is similar: she serves before the Lord with prayer and fasting day and night. Clearly Anna, like her namesake Hannah, is seeking something – but what? It is not until the end of the scene that we will learn what it is Anna has longed for and sought all these years.

Most notable here is the lengthy (and ambiguous) explanation about Anna’s age and marriage status, including two numbers. When Luke gives a number it is generally of symbolic importance (see above): here he gives two together. This should be enough to focus our attention. What do these numbers mean, and how do they contribute to the story?

The two numbers given, seven and eighty four, are related by a factor of twelve, giving us the equation 84 = 7 x 12. These are two of Luke’s favourite numbers. Seven is the number of completion or fulfilment in Hebrew Scripture (cf. Genesis 2:2; Exodus 21:2; 2 Kings 5:10; Daniel 4:16). Twelve is of course the number of Israel (the twelve tribes). These numbers suggest some sort of completion or fulfilment for Israel.

Tomorrow: Anna and Lamentations

Luke’s use of numbers

Posted: July 16, 2012 by J in Bible, Luke Commentary

You’re not going to like this. But before we talk about Anna, we’d better get it out in the open. Most commentators don’t like this either. They know Luke does funny things with numbers, but they’d rather not get drawn into discussing it. Numerology is traditionally the precinct of cranks and crazies, and also JWs, Bahais and other wacky guys. So the commentators brush over it with the barest mention if any – they don’t want to sound like The Quibbler –  and move on to more respectable aspects of Luke’s writing!

But the thing is, Luke uses numbers to mean things. Symbolic things. There, I’ve said it. Check out the stories in Luke 8:40 – 9:17: they all involve the number 12. Every one of them. Luke is not very interested in counting stuff normally. When there are thirteen, or twenty six, or four of something, he normally doesn’t bother to tell us about it. He’s not really a details man in that sense. But when there are three or twelve, he lets us know. In Luke’s narrative language, numbers provide him an opportunity to say something. Jewish people liked this stuff (and Luke thinks like a Jew).

Before you get worried, Luke doesn’t get too tricky with this. No complex calculations used to predict the arrival of the antichrist, or the downfall of the United Nations. He mostly sticks to a few tried and true numbers that we can all recognise: three (death and resurrection), seven (fulfilment/completion), and twelve (Israel). Occasionally he hides one of these numbers inside other numbers (see the next scene, below), or splits it up into two, but this is rare.

So don’t panic. There are going to be quite a few instances of significant numbers in Luke’s story, you’ll get used to it. Try it out in this next scene, see how it feels. And keep an eye out for recurring numbers in the narrative as you read through Luke-Acts…

The blessings of God… flow from Christ into us: from us they must flow into others who are in need of them, and in such a way that I must place before God even my faith and righteousness for my neighbour, to cover over his sins, to take them upon myself and act precisely as though they were my own, just as Christ has done for us all. 

Martin Luther, ‘On the Liberty of the Christian’.

Hmm… We would never talk like this.

There’s a strange twist in this strong Pauline doctrine of sharing Christ’s sufferings: Christ came to  carry and share in the world’s sufferings, and now we are called to come and share in his. He bore mankind’s pains, and now we are to bear his. But doesn’t that mean that the suffering that we enter into in Jesus is our own suffering which he took for us? Aren’t we then sharing with him in his sharing with us?

What can this mean?

It’s not totally symmetrical, as only Christians share in this, while it seems Jesus shared in the pains of all people. Can it mean that we Christians bear the sins of mankind with Jesus? That we too suffer with and because of others, for their healing? Not as a supplement to Jesus’ sacrifice, but as participants in it?

The idea wouldn’t be totally foreign to Peter. He writes a letter all about our calling to suffer:

For it means grace if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, this brings grace with God.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22     “He committed no sin,
        and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.                1 Peter 2:19-25

This is a remarkable passage. First. Peter echoes Paul, insisting that we have been called to suffering unjust treatment: ‘For to this you have been called’ (v.21).

Then he explains that righteous suffering brings grace. Blessing to you, but also to those who see it: the foolish are called out of their ignorance (2:15). Those who bad-mouth you now will see your goodness and be changed by it, so that on the day of God they will be praising him (2:12). Wives  if they suffer at the hands of an unbelieving husband, should do good to them, that ‘they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct’ (3:1). In the same way ‘Christ suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God‘ (3:18).

If seems from this that we should copy Jesus in suffering, in the hope our sufferings will lead others to God. And this is precisely what Peter spells out:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps

Jesus’ suffering becomes a pattern for us, of:

 – righteous enduring of unjust treatment:  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” 

 – which is transformative and healing: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 – this suffering has a reconciling power in it: For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. 

And that’s the pattern Jesus has left us, so that we would follow in his footsteps. Crikey!

Peter is not exactly talking ‘participation’, sharing Christ’s own sufferings, the way Paul does. He’s talking imitation, following Christ’s pattern of suffering. But the two approaches have a lot in common.

Can we really bear the sins of others, with Jesus? Take on this priestly ministry of mediation and reconciliation?

Because if we can, then believers’ sufferings belong in that special category with Jesus’ sufferings: God doesn’t will them to exist,  but since they do exist, he does will that we bear them for the healing of others.

I’m totally in over my head here. Got a bad feeling there’s more to discover in this territory, and I don’t like the thought of what that might be. Perhaps I’m on the wrong track? That would be comforting: someone please explain to me how it’s all wrong.

This ministry of suffering is entrusted not only to leaders but to the whole church:

For God has graciously granted you not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for him…    Philippians 1:29

So Paul sees his participation in Jesus’ suffering as a role model for all believers:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death...  Therefore, all who are mature should think this way.   Philippians 3:10,15

In fact he views the Christian calling as essentially one of suffering:

…so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions of yours. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this. For in fact when we were with you, we used to forewarn you that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened…    1Thessalonians 3:3-4

This fellowship of suffering is so basic to the Christian life that without it there can be no hope of glory:

…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.    Romans 8:17

For Paul, then, the gospel is a call to participate in Jesus’ suffering, and later on in his glory also. This is God’s will for us: that, by joining in with Jesus’ story, we follow him through death and into eternal life. Suffering is not an unfortunate by-product of faith: it is core Christian experience.

In Paul’s gospel we are called to  come and suffer with Jesus.

And (as we saw yesterday) this responsibility to suffer falls especially on church leaders.

Tomorrow: did you notice the strange twist in that?

Even a brief look at the apostle Paul’s view of Christian suffering cannot fail to unsettle us. It may surprise us that Paul hardly ever mentions Jesus’ sufferings as such: almost always it is in the context of believers’ suffering. Our suffering in union with Jesus is a theme Paul leans on so heavily, I find it disturbing. There is far too much material to present here. Here’s a taste:

Suffering can be seen as the essence of Paul’s ministry and apostleship:

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! For this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and the sons of Israel.  I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  Acts 9:15-16

Paul understands suffering as a fundamental part of his calling:

For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher,  and that is why I suffer as I do2 Timothy 1:11-12

This suffering was actually a participation in the suffering of Jesus:

For … the sufferings of Christ abound toward us… We are always carrying in the body the death of Jesus  2 Corinthians 1:5; 4:10

In Paul’s suffering, Christ’s sufferings are in some way still being completed:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.  I became its servant according to God’s commission…         Colossians 1:24-25

Paul sees this participation in Jesus’ sufferings as an essential part of ALL gospel ministry, not just his own. He exhorts Timothy:

Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. But join in this suffering for the gospel, by the power of God…       2Tim. 1:8

Suffering then was not a by-product but really a core part of gospel ministry. It IS gospel ministry:

As for you, be sober always, suffer, do the work of an evangelist: carry out your ministry fully.    2Tim. 4:5

And this ministry is entrusted not only to leaders but to the whole church:

For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…    Philippians 1:29

So Paul sees his participation in Jesus’ suffering as a role model for all believers:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death...  Therefore, all who are mature should think this way.   Philippians 3:10,15

In fact he views the Christian calling as essentially one of suffering:

so that no one would be shaken by these afflictions of yours. For you yourselves know that we are appointed for this. For in fact when we were with you, we were telling you in advance that we would suffer affliction, and so it has happened…    1Thessalonians 3:3-4

This fellowship of suffering is so basic to the Christian life that without it there can be no hope of glory:

…and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.    Romans 8:17

For Paul, then, the gospel is a call to participate in Jesus, first and foremost in his suffering and death – though later on in his glory also. God’s will for us is that, by joining in with Jesus’ story, we are able to follow him through death and into eternal life. Suffering is not an unfortunate by-product of faith: it is core Christian experience.

In the gospel we are called to  come and suffer with Jesus.

And this responsibility to suffer falls especially onto church leaders.

Tomorrow: did you notice the strange twist in that?