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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

Stuck in the middle

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9  •  Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113  •  1 Timothy 2:1-7  •  Luke 16:1-13

 

    Today's story from Luke is at once a little complicated and very common. It's about a rich man, his upper management, and the people they were 'serving' or using, depending on how you look at it. What they had set up, apparently, was a way to get around the Jewish law which forbade loaning money at interest. So, instead, they loaned material goods: oil and wheat. The rich man got angry with his manager for some reason and threatened to fire him. The manager, concerned about how he would live without his job, made deals with all those who had borrowed, reducing the amounts of wheat or oil owed on the paperwork. For the story's purpose, this is the clever part: by keeping up the façade of the material goods borrowed, the manager had used a technicality to avoid any challenges based on Jewish law. In the end, the rich man was happy about what he had done, praising the approach, which kept the ruse of 'legal' loaning in place. And the borrowers were happy too, because now they owed less.

 

    Although this could have been another parable about the excesses of Jewish legal requirements and how it had become an end in itself, Jesus takes the whole story much further. Pointing out that the manager had at least made friends with everyone, he recommends that all of us begin to pay more attention to our relationships. The manager, in essence, faced a problem we all recognize: stuck in the middle, trying to please two others who were pressuring him from very different perspectives. Whatever the details, he solved the problem, becoming more responsive to them all while at the same time, holding onto a principle of staying within the law, albeit a corrupted version of it. In the end, both the rich man and the borrowers were pleased, and he had found a way out of his plight.

 

    Although the story has unfamiliar details in it, the problem is universal. All of us as human beings have trouble remembering the perspectives of others. It is easy to join too much with one side or another. It is easy to forget about relationships when under pressure to perform or simply when tired. The hard work of keeping a separate position for oneself while attending to all sides of each situation is ongoing. The good news here is that Jesus is aware of what we are up against!

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where might I have trouble seeing different perspectives today?

Evening: How was it useful to look for other points of view?

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Lost and Found

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14  •  Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-10  •  1 Timothy 1:12-17  •  Luke 15:1-10

 

    Today's reading from Luke begins with criticism of Jesus for socializing with sinners, of all things. He responds by telling two stories about looking for the lost – lost sheep, lost coins. In both stories, it is finding the lost that is worth celebrating.

 

    Last week I lost my favorite sweater, a soft green cardigan, on my commute home. It was a warm afternoon and I had taken it off, slinging it somewhat carelessly over my bag. I realized it was missing the moment I sat down on the bus, but it was too late and I was too tired to go back then to find it. Later that evening, it occurred to me that it might still be out there – sometimes, when one drops something on the sidewalk, another person will come along and set it aside, on a branch or rock or wall somewhere off the path. In the morning, I managed to get up early to allow time to look for it, before work. Retracing my steps, I looked carefully as I went. I even started checking, between traffic, on the street side, to see if it had fallen there. I began noticing how much green there was in the woods this time of year and tried harder to make sure I wouldn't overlook it. Finally, rounding a corner, I saw something in the distance that looked a familiar color and yes! My lost sweater was found.

 

    It took time and focus to find my sweater, plus the kindness of a stranger who had indeed set it off the sidewalk. More simply, and first, it took realizing that it was lost. Sometimes I go for days without realizing that I have misplaced something! And then the finding of it is that much more difficult.

 

    The difficulty in life is to find oneself. In the middle of one's life, it is easy to get lost: lost from one's own values, principles, and deepest desires. Unaware that we are lost, many of us spend our days living out of borrowed ideas and attempting to please others every step of the way. The odd thing is that these efforts, no matter how sincere, lead a person further and further astray. Like a lost hiker, a kind of mental-spiritual-emotional dehydration occurs, leading to further confusion while plunging more deeply into the woods. At this point, a person needs recalibrating.

 

    Recalibrating or re-thinking life is not a quick fix. Instead of greeting each day with the idea that we are among the 99 righteous, it requires a different view. The scribes and pharisees grumbled that Jesus chose to be with those who, recognizing their mistakes, owned the need to go a different way. Could it be that the grumblers felt left out? Perhaps they had noticed the joy of those who were with Jesus. Perhaps they had an uneasy sense that something was missing in their own lives. In the words of an old song, "There's a party going on around here, a celebration…" Admission to this party? It's free and open, but only to those who recognize how easy it is to get lost.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where am I likely to lose myself today? What do I want to focus on?

Evening: How did I manage myself today? Where did I get confused?

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A little less love?

Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18  •  Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1  •  Philemon 1:1-21  •  Luke 14:25-33

   

    In Luke this week, Jesus throws down a real challenge. If you don't hate your family, you can't be a disciple. Wow. Who would have thought this would be in the scriptures?

   

    Hopefully Jesus was using exaggeration to make his point. Going with that hope, and in any event to make this a little more approachable, let's begin with a simpler challenge. Instead of hating your family, what would it be like to love your family a little less? Just a little less intensity: less caring about them, trying to please them, trying to fit in, trying to make room for their needs, trying to accommodate what everyone else wants, trying to be sensitive to each person's feelings, trying to keep everyone happy, trying to smooth things over?

 

    Children seem to get this idea. Last weekend, our grandson, who loves little rocks, spotted a big pile of them. His mother encouraged him to pick out one for his grandfather and one for me. Putting them in his pocket, he started to walk away, but then went back, announcing, "and one for me!" When he gave me my rock, he carefully checked to assure that his own was still there.

 

    In a calm atmosphere, with time to think, even a child can remember to stop and care for his own self. In a heightened atmosphere, though, it gets harder. Years ago, I was trying to talk with my mother about her getting a living will. She got upset, and my insistence that she really had to have one, didn't help. Finally, we dropped the whole thing. A few months later, we went to see a lawyer, an old family friend, on another matter. In the course of the conversation, he brought up the need for a living will, in a matter of fact way. To my surprise, she agreed right away. It had been my over-concern all along that had gotten in the way of her ability to handle the subject. Mom became more free to make good decisions for herself in the presence of someone who managed to stay calm, focusing more on managing himself than on managing others.

 

    Even managing possessions can become a distraction, fraught with emotional encumbrances. In the words of a great country song, "there ain't nothing in this house worth fighting over." And yet we are just human beings, and the sight of some particular object can bring back memories and associated deep, deep feelings. Jesus, it seems to me, is saying here that these emotions can get in our way. He is pointing us towards emotional reason; recognizing an object as separate from the memory may help a person when it's time to clean the attic. Any group with goals – and this can be anything from a group of disciples trying to usher in the kingdom of God to a family trying to figure out how to put a child through college – must be realistic about the challenges. Being realistic may involve emotional reason: in a sense, loving others less intensely and becoming less anxious about them. Then and only then does a group have a chance to think through a problem, or, as Jesus puts it, to count the costs.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where might I encounter intensity in myself and others today? How can I stay thoughtful when anxiety creeps in?

Evening: How can I find peace at the end of the day?

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Aw Shucks

Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Psalm 81:1, 10-16  •  Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7 and Psalm 112  •  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16  •  Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

    Once again in Luke, Jesus comes to us as an astute observer of human nature – this time, noticing how people at a party select their seats. He comments that a person should not choose a good seat, but rather the worst seat in the house, and count on the host to intervene. The reader, wondering perhaps about the sudden, inexplicable interest of Jesus in party etiquette, is not disappointed by his quick concluding leap to truth: all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (v. 6).  

 

    A humble person is hard to find. In our human minds, so bent towards comparing one thing to another, being humble is somehow equated with thinking of oneself as less than others. But how one person compares to another is completely beside the point when it comes to humility. True humility is refusing to compare oneself to others. As Jesus describes it, the person coming to the party is not in a position to see where his seat should be: only the host knows.

 

    Only the host knows. The good news here is that each of us can quit worrying about where we stand. Instead, each of us can try to see the multiple influences on our own life and the lives of others. Rejecting a judgmental attitude, each person can try to understand what everyone else is up against, and one's own contribution to the problems faced by others. Similarly, each of us can try to understand life's successes and the many streams of contributions to it.

 

    The bigger the view, the less one is interested in comparisons. This has some practical ramifications. Putting aside an "aw shucks" false modesty, a person can enjoy something wonderful, regardless of who did it.  Putting aside the need to be perfect, or at least better than others, a person can own her own limitations. For example, responding to a request with a gentle "I can't take that on right now" may involve a humble awareness of one's own capacity rather than an arrogant selfishness. It may require a person to see that others are capable, too, and that each of us may be less important than we think!  Humility is offered in a thousand daily choices, right down to where a person sits at the table.

 

    The Luke reading closes with an additional three verses on another aspect of party etiquette: the invitation list. Jesus recommends inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, adding that the person who does so will be blessed. Earlier in my life, there was a time when I volunteered once a month to serve dinner at a group home for the disabled, about 15-20 folks. It was challenging for me, and I made a lot of mistakes, with meals of varying quality, for sure. But I have never met a more forgiving group. I learned from them what it was like not to expect perfection, to be grateful for what was and to forget the rest. The gentle peace and patience that existed among them was hard-won, born of a lifetime of struggles. These folks were masters of humility. And I was blessed.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Where does my perspective need broadening? What might keep me from a humble posture today?

Evening: What choices did I have today to be humble? When did I confuse humility with false modesty? With arrogance?

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