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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

The golden rule

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 and Psalm 149  •  Ephesians 1:11-23  •  Luke 6:20-31; Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 119:137-144  •  Isaiah 1:10-18 and Psalm 32:1-7  •  2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12  •  Luke 19:1-10

 

    This Sunday the church has two options: celebrate All Saint's Day, which is officially observed on November 1, or use the readings for the 31st Sunday of this year. Both sets of readings are listed above. The Luke 6 passage ends with the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And the Luke 19 passage shows how Jesus applies the rule in the life of a most unlikely other, for the passage is about his kindness to Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.

 

    A chief tax collector was the worst of the worst, a very public figure actively engaged in defrauding others, playing politics and coming out ahead. To put this in perspective, think of the political person whom you and your community despise the most. This is the Zacchaeus character: probably among the richest and the loneliest men in town. Jesus sees him in a tree, where he has scrambled up to get a view. And Jesus selects Zacchaeus, of all the people in the crowd gathered that day, as today's recipient of the golden rule.

 

   The golden rule may be the most misunderstood directive of all time. And it is a directive, given in the imperative voice, meant for action. And yet we so often don't seem to get it. Take the charitable act of visiting a sick person who has lost a lot of weight. The visitor may be alarmed about the patient's weight loss. It may make the visitor anxious to see such frailty, especially if this person is a close friend or family member. But is it useful to spend twenty minutes talking with him about his diet, telling him what he might eat? To what extent does this 'well-meaning' advice calm the visitor down, rather than the sick person? Going back to the golden rule, is this what the visitor would want, if the visitor were the patient? For the brilliance of the directive itself is that it begins with taking a minute to consider what you would want, if you were the person upon whom you are about to unleash your doing unto others.

 

    Doing unto others "as you would have others do unto you" is complicated. What would you have others do unto you? Most of us, I guess, might want something different depending on the time of day! In our worst moments, we want nothing more than to let others be responsible for us. But doing unto others is utterly different from doing for others: the opposite of infantilizing.

 

   Jesus seemed to have a capacity to appeal to the mature side of folks. When Jesus applied the golden rule, he defined himself by his respect for the inherent dignity of each person he met. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, he saw a human being. He began there, connecting with him and inviting a shared meal together. By the end of the day, Zacchaeus was a new man, determined to go a different way with his life.

 

    Perhaps when Jesus first saw Zacchaeus, he saw what he was up against. Perhaps he could guess the lifetime of torment that he might have endured: shorter than everyone, bullied from childhood, the kid the family worried about, with absolutely no respect shown from any quarter. The observance of All Saint's Day is a reminder that all of us are saints. What each person is up against is grist for the mill of the redemptive process of life itself.   

 

For reflection

Morning:  What do I want others to 'do unto me'? How can I lead my community in doing unto others?

Evening: When did I find ways to practice the golden rule? Who was generous to me today?

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Punchline

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65  •  Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7  •  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18  •  Luke 18:9-14

 

    In this week's Luke reading, Jesus is telling a story beginning something like this: one time a Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple… It is almost joke-like in its parody of the two positions. The Pharisee, the penultimate self-righteous person, is comparing himself to – and besting – all others. The tax-collector, a despised person in Jesus' time, is comparing himself to no one, hanging his head and calling himself the sinner. To get the joke, so to speak, for the Pharisee, substitute an upright person from your community, a leader who is always present, serving on many committees, and whose giving to charities exceed all others. Next substitute a businessperson, whose wealth comes from a potent combination of cruelty and stinginess, for the tax collector. And yet Jesus is concluding with the punchline that the tax collector – not the Pharisee – went home justified.

 

    What then, does it mean to be justified? If the tax collector is the model of a person who goes home having been judged as all right and the Pharisee as all wrong, what can we learn? To begin, it seems that much of what the church teaches can be tossed. No more worrying about the rules; no more trying to tithe or fast or do any other devotional work for their own sake. The spiritual world, as we see it, is turned upside down. No more following religious practices without our hearts being in it. This is quite a punchline.

 

    Jesus has seen through the Pharisee and all of us in one sweep: pointing to our use of rules to manage our fears. the Pharisee wanted the attention of the room and wanted everyone there to appreciate all he had done. The Pharisee, it seems, gained energy from the praise of others as he fulfilled the requirements of the law. The tax collector, on the other hand, was uninterested in what others were thinking of him.

 

    Part of being human is caring about the expectations of others. But trying to please everyone else – and being afraid of disappointing others – are traps. As a person continually works to impress others, he or she loses her own sense of what matters. Along with the need to impress comes an additional need to compare: did I do it better than others? Not everyone is as blatant as the Pharisee. Some can hide their need for approval. Some can disguise their desperate desire to be better than others – their siblings, perhaps, or their peers, or their colleagues. But the internal damage is done. The constant attention to the approval of others keeps many from realizing the persons they are capable of becoming.

 

    What about the rules then? What about the devotional practices that one, while not completely sure of, or very good at, may think are a good idea? Does a person toss them entirely? Turning to the tax collector, it seems that he does indeed drop them all, for a while. Then, it seems that somewhere on the way toward finding himself, he begins to pray in earnest. Perhaps this is how doubt works, bringing us in the end closer to truth than where we began. In any case, for the tax collector, it is his honesty with himself, his inner focus, as juxtaposed with the Pharisee's emphasis on outward appearances, that make his efforts genuine.  

 

    At the end of the day, the person who went home with a clean slate was the tax collector. Was it because he really beat himself up for what he had done? Is it necessary to feel bad about oneself to be justified? My guess is no. My guess is that humbling oneself involves facing reality about the world, one's small place in it, and where one has fallen short: becoming more and more aware of one's debt to others and the grace of life itself.

 

Reflections

Morning: When am I likely to look for appreciation and praise from others today? Where are my doubts leading me?   

Evening: When did I play the Pharisee today? How can I end this day humbly?

 

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Persistence

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104  •  Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121  •  2 Timothy 3:14-4:5  •  Luke 18:1-8

 

    Today's story from Luke takes a little unpacking. What's happening is an unjust judge, one who could care less about justice. The way justice worked in Hebrew culture at the time was that people had to bring their own case against their opponents: there was no local district attorney's office keeping the law. To be justified in this world meant that the judge saw things according to one side: here, according to the widow's view.

 

    Widows in the time of Jesus were a vulnerable group. Whether this particular widow was bringing up a legitimate matter, however, Jesus does not say. She might have had a serious worry; on the other hand, she might have been the kind of person who saw everything as a problem, quickly raising an alarm whenever there was the slightest suggestion of a threat to her. Whatever the case, the judge was vexed by her persistence and apparently a little afraid of what might happen next.

 

    The Genesis reading, part of a longer story, provides a story of a person who definitely has something to worry about. At this point in the narrative, Jacob is sleepless, knowing that in the morning he will face his twin brother, Esau, from whom he had earlier stolen a huge inheritance. His brother is across the river with 400 men bearing arms. Jacob has his wives, children, slaves, oxen, donkeys, camels and sheep with him. Up all night, wrestling with a mysterious figure and also presumably with what he had done in his life, by dawn Jacob finds himself blessed and ready to reconcile with his brother.

 

    Although these are very different stories, they have a couple of things in common. The first is a common thread of the complexity of justice. Jacob had used deceit to take from a brother who, for his part, could not be bothered to care about the family's fortune – who had been more interested in grabbing lunch than in attending to the future (Genesis 25:29). Jesus does not even bother to set up the Luke story in a way that lets us know whether the widow's request was in the right, suggesting that the point of the story had nothing to do with assigning blame. Both stories reflect the complexity of life, the necessity of getting beyond finding a scapegoat to understand the patterns happening around us.

 

    Secondly, both stories are about being persistent. The widow and Jacob had identified what mattered to them. Jacob would not let the mysterious figure go. The widow would not let the judge off the hook. Both were willing to put themselves on the line for what they thought was important. 

 

Reflections

Morning:   What am I worried about today? Where would I like to be less fretful and more persistent? When does blame get in the way?

Evening: How did I manage my worries today? How can I put them aside at the end of the day?

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The Thankless 90%

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 and Psalm 66:1-12  •  2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c and Psalm 111  •  2 Timothy 2:8-15  •  Luke 17:11-19

 

    Today's reading from Luke begins with Jesus and his crew, travelling to Jerusalem. It's a simple story. On the way, ten lepers approach and beg to be healed. Jesus tells them to show themselves to the priest, a local community requirement related to infectious disease control. While heading to the priest, they are healed. Of the ten, one stops and goes back to Jesus to give thanks. Jesus, first noting that this person is a foreigner – from a much looked-down-upon part of the world – tells him to go on his way, crediting his faith for making him well.

 

    I wonder what happened to the other nine – the thankless 90%. After they had been to the priest, then did they think to give thanks? Did they tell the story of how it happened, to include Jesus as the healer; or did they come to see it differently, as a coincidence? Did the difficulties of the years of living with their illness stay with them? Did their healing fade from their memory, as they went back into the challenges of daily living? And did they stay well?

 

    In a way, the thankless 90% returned home basically unchanged, except for a surface healing of an underlying condition. The story in second Kings chapter five also starts with a person in need of healing from a skin condition. Naaman, at the beginning of the story, is clearly in danger of becoming part of the 90%. He sees healing as a transaction, bringing plenty of currency to purchase his cure. Elisha, though, sees healing as a gift: a gift available to a person humble enough to go wash seven times in a muddy river.  

 

    Life can be a humbling experience.  Naaman had one lesson in humility when he heard through his wife's servant about a prophet in Israel, one who could heal. But he failed the test on this lesson, when he showed up in Israel ready to pay for the healing. His next lesson came from his servants, with him on the trip, who convince him to bathe in the Jordan river. The servants, not the master, were able to take the long view, while he was stuck in a singularly unhelpful, isolated perspective regarding his own dilemma. By the end of the story, he is seeing a much bigger picture of the world and his own small place in it.

 

    Most of the time – nine times out of ten, maybe – a person cannot see the bigger picture of his or her life. An early warning sign of the problem is the lack of gratitude towards others. A more reality-based perspective, like that of the leper who returned to thank Jesus, comes with staying connected to others. In the end, regardless of one's own gifts and talents or lack thereof, humility and its cousin, gratitude, simply make sense.

 

For reflection:

Morning: Who am I grateful for today? How can I express my gratitude?

Evening: What do I have to be grateful for today? Where can I see a bigger picture of those who have contributed to my life?

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