Monday, September 30, 2019

To become Saints, part 2

Love the Lord your God with all your heart (your ability to choose for yourself) and all your mind (your ability to train thoughts and feelings) and all your strength (your ability to act on your choices) and all your soul (your deepest, truest being).

And love your neighbour just as you love yourself; all the families of the earth, as your own family.

Everything else is commentary on these two greatest insights.

But know that, whether you do so willingly or not, eventually, nature and God will conspire to strip you of your heart and mind and strength, till only your soul—your one, unspeakably precious soul—remains.

For in this process—which looks to the world like a successive, accumulative, series of failings, fallings-short, sins against your humanity—your soul is, in fact, being made whole.

Your capacity to love, both God and neighbour, is being brought to fulfilment, as all else is consumed by Love.

You, already a saint, will have stumbled into the process of becoming a Saint.

To become Saints, part 1

Many of our Anglican churches are named for a particular saint, and, in so doing, we are saying, we want to be a community who follows Christ after the example of this person; we want to share in their charism, or gift of faith.

I am thinking about my aging congregation at St Nicholas’ Church. They are named for Nicholas, sometime bishop of Myra. But they are not named Bishop Nicholas; they are named Saint Nicholas.

The life of Christian discipleship is one of first learning to get your life together; then, learning to give your life away; and, finally, learning to give your death away as a blessing to others.

In Nicholas’ case, we can trace these stages. He was born into a wealthy Christian home, and in his youth may have gone on pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, a journey of self-discovery.

On his return, being made bishop and inheriting his parents’ estate, he gave away his riches to lift people out of poverty. He was so consistent in this that many stories found their way into circulation, often fantastical in their detail, attesting to an historical core.

But it is in his dying that the reach of Nicholas, as one who inspires faith in peril and countless acts of gift-giving, spreads out. In giving his death away—in the move from active to passive faith; from being the actor at the centre of Myra to entrusting Myra, and his own fate, to Gods hands—Nicholas undergoes the metamorphosis from mature bishop to radical saint.

To return to the congregation, of whom I have been entrusted oversight. They are a largely professional demographic, men and women of previously significant wealth of resource, which they have used to bless the wider community, both as a gathered congregation and as members of the body of Christ scattered throughout their places of work. They have got their lives together; and have sought to give their lives away, as mature Christians.

But now they are wrestling with that shift from mature faith to radical faith; struggling to let go of active ministry and embrace their own passion, or passive ministry. (The Gospels spend roughly their first half on three years of Jesus’ active ministry, and roughly their second half on one week of his passive ministry.)

They are wrestling with letting go of Bishop Nicholas in order to become Saint Nicholas.

That is the uncharted voyage they must embark upon...


A week today, our daughter begins at Oxford University. And people keep asking me how I feel about this.

Well, I feel proud of her, of how far she has already come. And I feel God’s pleasure, as a parent; for God gave her wings, and we have not fashioned a gold chain to keep her from flying. But I don’t think that is what the question is getting at. I think people are asking, how does her leaving home affect me?

And I do not know, yet.

My primal distrust of the sea, and dyspraxic issues with balance, mean that surfing will only ever serve me as a metaphor, and not recreation. But I find myself far out in the bay, bobbing on my board, waiting, waiting, for the wave. I have no idea how far it will carry me, before unceremoniously dumping me into its disorienting underbelly. But, for now, I wait, far removed from the well-meaning questioners on the shore.

Slowing my breathing, sharpening my senses.

In liminal space.

And on the horizon, the curl of a wave rises towards me.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Living parallel lives

Yesterday, we watched Spiderman: into the Spider-verse (Sony, 2018). This storyline is set in an alternate reality, in which Brooklyn teen Miles Morales takes on the mantle of Spiderman, after having been bitten by a radioactive spider and witnessing the death of Peter Parker (the original Spiderman).

It is a fascinating exploration of human motivation and the multi-layered complexity of our actions.

Miles is Black-Latino, the son of an African-American father and Puerto-Rican mother, and this adds new dimensions to the depiction of superhero role models in New York, the city of immigrants. For them, danger is not ‘out there’ beyond. Both parents seek to make the world a better place for their family, and indeed for all: Jefferson Davis is a police officer; Rio Morales is a nurse at the hospital. They are assets to their neighbourhood (and, perhaps, feel that they need to be). They are aspirational for their son, moving him to a weekly boarding school, and, in the case of his father, putting him under pressure to make the most of the opportunities they have provided for him.

Miles’ uncle, Aaron Davis, also looks out for his nephew, and is motivated by the desire to build a better world for his family—taking a villainous route that he hides from the family he loves. The contrast between Jefferson and Aaron is, on the surface, binary; but in fact, it is far from black-and-white. There is love, aspiration, a driven hardness, miss-steps, in each; and a cost paid by both men. In the end, Aaron chooses family over crime and he and Miles each see the other at a deeper level than before. We are also given hope that Jefferson and Miles will be reconciled—as Jefferson overcomes some of his pride, and Miles, his resentment—though they are not yet at the point of seeing one another face-to-face.

Jefferson and Rio’s relationship is also a beautiful blend. Both love, and are proud of, their son; but Rio is more understanding of him, and tempers some of Jefferson’s blunders, where, of the best of motives, he risks pushing Miles away.

The super-villains are no less complex. The central ‘bad guy’ is gangster Kingpin, who is funding the construction of a super-collider that risks destroying Brooklyn in attempting to open up parallel realities. He is motivated by the dream of being (re)united with (a version of) his wife and son, who died in a car crash, having left him when his wife discovered that he was a criminal. His criminal past, his hiding that from his family, and his present monstrous activity, are all motivated by love for his family, to such an extent that he is willing to sacrifice countless others.

Kingpin’s chief scientist is Olivia Octavius/Doctor Octopus, a scientific genius who appears to be motivated by the desire to push the boundaries of the possible, and to gain recognition for having done so (and again, a ‘classic’ character has been reimagined so as to explore fresh perspectives, in this case as a woman). Again, these are hardly motivations that are strange to us.

Meanwhile, an array of Spider-men, -women, and -pig, wrestle with the burden of expectations, self-imposed as well as projected upon them by others; and the inevitability of failure, and especially the failure to save someone they loved (an uncle, a father, a friend, a role model). Not allowing failure to define us, but allowing how we respond to failure to shape us for greater things, within a supportive community, is central to their journeys of discovery in alternative but coinciding realities. And not allowing death to be the end, but rather, a formational moment in redefining our kin relationships.

Why is it that we are capable of great goodness, making great sacrifices to make the world a better place? Why is it that we are also capable of perpetrating what is, initially at least, unimaginable evil—often from the most noble of motivations or universal aspirations? Why is it that we set out to do right by one another, and get it so wrong? Or that we are driven to be reconciled with those we love who have hurt us deeply? Why is it never too late, while we still have life within us?

These are deep questions of life, addressed by the world’s great faiths, including the Christian tradition...and also by the comic books.

In the words of Miles Morales, “anyone can wear the mask.” Not just the superheroes among us. But putting on the mask is just the beginning of the adventure.

As I look at the deep polarity of British society; our response, so well-rehearsed now it has become an impulse, to vindicate ourselves and castigate the ‘other’; I can't help but think we could do worse that sit down and watch Spiderman together.

Thursday, September 26, 2019


I love the way in which the book of the prophet Haggai opens:

“In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest: Thus says the Lord of hosts:”

(Haggai 1:1, 2a, verses set for Holy Communion today.)

This introduction takes in the Big Picture, geographically and historically, of international politics. Darius is king over the Persian empire. Jerusalem had fallen to Babylon, her princes taken into exile for a generation. But then Babylon, in turn, had fallen to Persia, to an even greater empire; one that allowed all those taken captive by the Babylonians to return home, should they so choose.

Some of the Jews returned, in three separate waves; others, having found that their God was not restricted to the boundaries of their ancestral homeland, chose to spread out and bless all the families of the earth from wherever they happened to find themselves now. But the people to whom God spoke through Haggai had returned to Jerusalem, with Darius’ blessing.

So, we start Big Picture, but, immediately, swoop right in: this word from God is assigned a year, a month of the year, a day of the month of the year. A precise day, that has never been seen before, nor will it be seen again.

And on this day, this word comes to Haggai for two people. Precisely two people. And these two people are located, precisely, not by a post code/zip code, but by the cross-hairs of who they belonged to, in the community, and what role they performed, within the community. Being, and doing. Relationship, and responsibility.

Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel, and the governor of Judah. Joshua is the son of Jehozadak, and the high priest.

This is not a general word (though it is one we get to listen in on, two-and-a-half-millennia later; one that still reverberates, and so, has something to say to us). It is a specific word, to specific addressees, at a specific moment.

And I believe that God still speaks like this today. That, notwithstanding the general words and the borrowed words, God has a word for you, on this 26th day of the ninth month of the year 2019. Against the backdrop of the city/town/village where you live; and the nation you live in; and the present, sprawling moment in global politics, with the resurgence of nationalism and the environmental crisis and whatever else is going on. But, to you.

Because, in all the Big Picture, God does not lose sight of you; even when we lose sight of ourselves. God cares, about from whom you come and what you do with the one, precious life given you. And, so caring, God will both affirm and challenge us; will encourage us—literally, give us courage—for the task at hand, whatever that may be.

I don’t claim to be your Haggai, don’t claim to know the specific word God has for you today. But I know it has been spoken. May you receive the grace to hear it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A good beating

The British government is playing a dangerous game, colluding with the demonisation of parliament and the judiciary by the right-wing tabloid media.

Our democracy is guarded by the sharing of power between executive (government), legislature (parliament), and judiciary (the courts). At present, all three are flexing their muscles. But these are not enemies, far less enemies of the people.

We are where we are, not because Members of Parliament or of the Supreme Court are frustrating democracy; but because democracy is, at times, frustrating.

We are where we are, not because they are traitors, but because they are guardians of democracy.

But rule by executive alone is oligarchy; and rule by an executive acting unlawfully is dictatorship. And if we, the people, are persuaded that parliament and the judiciary are our enemies, the very democracy we claim to fight for has fallen.

In truth, we would do better not to fight for our partisan visions of freedom, but to renew our commitment to live as if we did, in fact, live under the rule of a just law in a kingdom that was the envy of the world.

Beating the swords with which we strike at one another, into the plowshares with which we create sustainable community.

Beating the spears with which we impale one another, into the pruning hooks with which we shape healthy growth.

I see you

I am watching the normalisation of hate-speech against girls and against people on the Autism Spectrum.

As the father of a young woman with Aspergers, I say, I see you. I see what you are doing. And you will have to come through me. Not because she needs me to fight her battles for her, but because we stand side by side.

You will fall. And she will rise.

For, o my daughter, I also see you. I see what you are doing. I see your passion, your brilliance, your courage, to get up, even when you do not want to have to get up again, and shape the world for better. I see you taking up the tools of Philosophy, Politics and Economics, forged by your faith, at one of the top research universities in the world. I see your heart to invest in your generation and the generation coming up behind you. I see the way in which God is forming you to rebuild what is presently being laid to waste. And you are not alone. You are not alone.

And, daughter, you will see the day when we beat our swords into plowshares, and renew the earth. But, for now, take up your sword. Right now, there’s a battle to be won.

Monday, September 23, 2019


Last night, we watched Thor: Ragnarok with Elijah, who is working his way (and ours) through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is easily the most humorous of the films in the MCU so far. In any case, the Norse myths are hugely entertaining, and lend themselves well to retelling—we loved New Zealand’s contemporary tv adaptation, The Almighty Johnsons.

At one point, Thor, god of thunder, is thrown into a cosmic rubbish dump, and must escape from a nightmarish dystopia where enslaved champions are forced to fight one another, in order to return home to Asgard and defeat his sister, Hela, goddess of death.

When Thor finally confronts Hela, she gouges out one of his eyes. Near death, he sees his father, the one-eyed Odin, in a vision. Odin remarks that Thor never really saw very well when he had two eyes. (This would make more sense if Marvel had stuck with the traditional back-story of Odin sacrificing an eye in exchange for wisdom, and from then on seeing more clearly with one eye than he had done with two; rather than account for it as a battle-wound.)

In the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today, Mark 9:38-50, Jesus says that it is better to cut off your hand or foot or tear out your eye and to enter life in the kingdom of God maimed, than, with both hands, feet, and eyes, to be thrown onto the hellish rubbish dump.

The context is one of infighting between the disciples (Mark 9:33-37) and John’s attempt to win approval by informing Jesus that they had come across an outsider casting out demons in Jesus’ name and had told him to stop, because he wasn’t one of them.

Jesus’ response is uncompromising. You’re better off thrown into the sea with a millstone tied to your neck than you are preventing other people from ushering-in life in greater fullness.

The self-mutilation is hyperbole. And the hell is not some post-mortem punishment, but rooted in this life. Gehenna was Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, where refuse was burned, and where, when Jerusalem had fallen to armies in the past, the corpses of her fallen citizens were burned (this would happen again, at the hands of the Roman army, in AD70).

Essentially, Jesus’ teaching here is that we must live in peace with one another, and ruthlessly cut off at source any temptation to believe ourselves to be superior to others, or else we will find ourselves presiding over a wasteland. Better to compromise your vision than to have it intact, but be kings of the trash-heap.

This speaks to our political situation here in the UK, where we see competing ideologies fight to the death to rule over a nation reduced to rubble by their fighting. Better to compromise in order to work together.

And it speaks to our global environmental crisis, where westerners are unprepared to sacrifice their unprecedented collective privilege, prefering to be kings and queens of a wasted planet than work together for our shared home.

Thank God for those who seek to build common platforms, and imagine a new world. May God strengthen the resolve of the UN, in the face of many distractions.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head

We regularly have rough sleepers camping out in the grounds of the Minster. Some are delightful, some a real nuisance. Some, we have been able to support in rebuilding their lives; others do not welcome any invitation or challenge to turn their lives around.

As we were reminded at a local symposium on homelessness this week, homelessness is more than houselessness. And there are complex dynamics at play, primarily the ways in which poverty of resources (lack of income), poverty of relationships (breakdown of family relationships, especially between youth and parents), and poverty of identity (at the root of addiction issues) create perfect storms.

On one occasion, Jesus responded to a man who expressed the desire to become his disciple, saying, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Matthew 8:19-20).

These words are often taken to imply that Jesus was homeless, for at least part of his life. But a careful reading of the Gospels strongly indicates that he had a home in Capernaum. Having moved there after being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, it is possible that he stayed with some local fishermen, the extended family of Simon and Andrew, while making longer-term provision. Bear in mind that Jesus was, for most of his adult life, a house builder. In Mark’s Gospel, in particular, it seems likely that the house where a group of men dismantled the roof and lowered a paralysed man down on a bed roll, was Jesus’ own home, where he lived with his mother (her husband Joseph apparently deceased), sisters and brothers.

So, if Jesus wasn’t homeless, or at least not houseless, how might we understand his words concerning having nowhere to lay his head?’

‘Son of man’ is a phrase Jesus appropriates from some of the more apocalyptic prophets, such as Ezekiel and Daniel. It is a term that relates, at its most fundamental, to being a human being (indeed, the NRSVA—the translation of ‘official’ choice of the Church of England—translates ‘son of man’ as ‘human being’). Beyond that, and more specifically, it relates to a community who remain faithful to God in the exile that falls upon the people as consequence of their unfaithfulness, and who experience vindication and restoration.
In other words, when Jesus speaks of the Son of Man, he is not referring to himself as a unique individual, but to the community he is gathering around him, of which he is focal representative. This community, which the man is considering joining has nowhere to lay its head.

In Daniel chapter 7, Daniel has a disturbing ‘dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed,’ of, first, a series of wild animals and birds, and then of one like a son of man being brought to trial before God...and vindicated by God. The various beasts and birds represent a series of nations that surround and dominate Israel; and the court scene, the justification of a faithful remnant. This vision points to God first using the nations to judge his own people, and then using his restored people to judge the surrounding nations.

So, when Jesus says that foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he is pointing to a moment of crisis. The time of visions—of laying your head on a bed and dreaming dreams—is now over. The restored community is about to be vindicated, but not before trial. The kingdoms of the earth are presently comfortable, but that is about to change. If you want to follow me, it will be through this moment of crisis; through terror and judgement to vindication and great upheaval.

Jesus’ words are pertinent to rough sleeping not because we can say that Jesus knew what it is like to be homeless; but because the massive increase in rough sleeping in England since 2010 is apocalyptic, points to the injustice of the nation and, potentially, impending judgement; and the role in this of a faithful remnant who will be vindicated by God.

In other words, they are a call to be a prophetic community, in the midst of a time of undeniable upheaval we are experiencing as a nation.

Friday, September 20, 2019

On crowds, or, Mary pondered

In his book Sacred Fire, Ronald Rolheiser contrasts the gospel opposites of pondering, as exemplified by Mary the mother of Jesus, and amazement, as exemplified by the crowds.

Each relates to a different, an opposite, response to the emotional energy that surrounds and flows to us.

To ponder is the deliberate act of taking that energy into ourselves, holding it, transforming it, and releasing it back in another form. Or, where emotional energy is mixed, filtering out anger, hatred, fear, so that something of that stops with us, and only love flows onward through us.

In contrast, to be amazed is to have whatever energy flows to us, flow right through us, untransformed.

So, we see Mary, after three decades of pondering the sword that will pierce her heart, standing at the foot of the cross, absorbing the hatred thrown at her son and refusing to give back in kind. Siding with her son, who, even as he is being executed, prays ‘Father, forgive.’

And, in contrast, we see the crowds, who are carried along, at turns excited, confused, disappointed; on more than one occasion, rising up to make Jesus their king; on more than one occasion, incited to call for his death.

Jesus always has compassion for the crowds, but he is not a popularist.

Without doubt, we are seeing a powerful surge of energy in the crowds of children, women and men taking to the streets in towns and cities around the world, demanding action on climate change.

There is an amazement to this, with some being swept along in an exciting, rising tide of protest—and, conversely, others being swept along in a torrent of derision against it all.

Moreover, crowd dynamics are complex. They are easily manipulated by those whose agendas are far from the intentions of the originators. Then again, they are also vulnerable to dissipation, as suddenly as they came together.

The crowds we see today are welcome, and call for a compassionate response. But we ought not be naive about crowds.

Pondering what we witness today will involve taking into ourselves the powerful energy, filtering out any hatred and anger, and allowing only love to flow through us. This will determine how we respond honestly to climate change, sacrificing personal comfort; how we respond, graciously, to climate change denial, or apathy; and how we engage with the complexity of global relations to build with pragmatism and hope.

We are all out of our depth. Amazement feels good, being part of a tribe in the face of emergency. But the important, non-urgent discipline of pondering these things is what will really transform the world for the better. Those who do this will be a lasting force for good.

It seems to me that climate activist Greta Thunberg is such a person, who not only inspires crowds but who ponders, in the gospel sense, the climate emergency we face, and how we ought to respond.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The forgetful man

The Gospel writers are not primarily concerned with presenting a chronological record of the life of Jesus, but with presenting a theological reflection on the event of Jesus, woven from the life of Jesus as source material. So, for example, John places the cleansing of the temple early on in Jesus' ministry, whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it within the final days.

The Gospel reading for Holy Communion today (Luke 7:36-50) is striking, in that it takes the account of a woman anointing Jesus with ointment, which the other three Gospels locate within the final days leading up to his death, and places it much earlier on in the narrative. This, in order to do something different. Whereas in Matthew, Mark, and John, this is about preparing Jesus’ body for burial, in Luke it provides occasion to consider the possible and varying responses of sinners.

Nonetheless, the Church is not given one record of this event, but four; and therefore, we must consider all four if we are to fully understand what is going on.

We know, from Matthew, Mark, and John that this event takes place in Bethany; and, from John, that the woman who anoints Jesus is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

We know, from Matthew, Mark, and Luke that the host is a man called Simon. Luke tells us that he is a Pharisee, a member of a sect who sought to live under God’s approval. But we know from Matthew and Mark that he is known as Simon the leper, a term relating to skin diseases that were seen as evidence of God’s disapproval. A leper would be excluded from the community. That Simon is a Pharisee surely implies that he is a healed leper. Indeed, it is entirely within the realms of possibility that he is one of those who were healed of leprosy by Jesus, restored to community, restored in standing before God.

The woman is identified, in Luke, as a sinner. To be a sinner is not, primarily, a moral designation but an ontological one, a matter of being, and of how we understand ourselves and others to be. For many in Jesus’ day, the term sinner applied to those whose life circumstances ‘self-evidently’ showed God's disapproval. For others, self-identification as a sinner expressed utter dependence on God.

That Mary is a sinner has, for far too long and without any justification, been interpreted in terms of prostitution. But how might we re-frame her as a sinner?

Mary and Martha are unusual in their culture, in that they are adult women, living with an adult brother; yet both are unmarried, and it is Martha, not Lazarus, who is the head of the family. In recent times, commentators have speculated on whether their parents, who would have brokered marriages for their daughters, had died while the sisters were still very young; and whether Lazarus, who never speaks in the Gospels, was disabled, including some form of profound learning disability. Such family circumstances would certainly have been seen as evidence of God’s disapproval, would brand someone a sinner. Here, sin is not primarily personal wrongdoing, but separation from God (perceived) and neighbour—indeed, multiple barriers between them. Yet, in his friendship with this family, Jesus has overcome the barriers. Sin has been forgiven. Relationship, restored.

It is possible, then, that both Simon and Mary have had their lives significantly transformed by Jesus (and all the more-so when we note that John places Mary’s actions after Jesus has raised her brother Lazarus from death). Yet, one knows herself to have been forgiven many sins, or barriers between herself and God and neighbour, and so loves greatly in return; while the other knows himself to have been forgiven a lesser debt, and so loves, but loves sparingly.

The tragedy is that Simon cannot identify with Mary (even knowing her history with Jesus, who, for Simon, does not know his own friend). She remains, in his eyes, a sinner—and he, not—even though both have known what it is to be judged and excluded by the community, and both have known what it was to be utterly dependent on God and to have been restored to community by and through Jesus. (John tells us that Martha served, while Lazarus was at table. This might suggest that Simon saw himself as benefactor to Mary’s family. They are not impossibly far apart; but neither are they here as equals.) Simon suffers from selective amnesia.

When Jesus tells Mary, your sins are forgiven, he is restating what she already knows, for this knowledge is what her act of love sprung from. But he is also making the point that Simon’s sins are not, yet, forgiven; he has not yet been fully restored to community—not because of any lack of willingness on Jesus’ part, but because of lack of perceived need on the part of Simon and his friends, who are content to be restored to one another without being restored to a wider and more radical community.

The stark warning of Simon the leper who became a Pharisee is that it is too easy to forget the only debt we ought never be free from, the debt of love we owe to God and others. For we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


There is no pain like being a parent; nor like not being a parent. No pain like sharing your home with others; nor like living alone. No pain like that of youth, life stretching, out of reach, too far ahead of you; nor like that of old age, life stretching, out of reach, too far behind; nor, again, like that of those stranded between those two horizons.

Every condition of life has its own unique sorrow, that can only be known from the inside. But the purpose of all pain is to train us in empathy. I do not know your pain, but I know pain. We are in this together. We get to choose whether we harden ourselves against pain, which will harden us against the pain of others; or allow pain to soften our hearts, our souls, towards one another.

Be as gentle and as courageous as you are able today; and forgive yourself and others where, in our pain, we lose sight of these things. This will take a lifetime.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The household manager, part 2

Further thoughts on Luke 16:

[1] The parable at the start of the chapter is not primarily about money, but about ‘true riches.’ However, our attitude towards money, how we use or are used by money, reveals our attitude towards true riches. So, it is about money.

[2] I propose that we might see the rich man as the nation of Israel (and perhaps, in a secondary sense, as the Pharisees). That he is rich is significant. As Jesus points out, you cannot serve both God and money (the wealth of injustice). This parable sits within the tradition of the Old Testament prophets sent by the LORD to confront the wealthy over their injustice. So, for example, Amos—whom the Lectionary pairs with this Gospel reading—accuses the rich of buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:4-7).

[3] This parable also sits within Jesus’ continued polemic against a group of Pharisees who are objecting to his behaviour, his failing—refusing—to separate himself from sinners. Jesus has turned from addressing the Pharisees, to speaking to his disciples in front of the Pharisees. The Pharisees see themselves as the godly—to use a phrase that had currency at the time, as ‘sons of light’—and as the wise interpreters, par excellence, of Torah; but they are not as wise as they think they are. And for all their considering themselves set apart, they absolutely share the love of money at the heart of the corruption of the nation.

[4] Jesus casts himself as the manager of the household of Israel. If the charges brought against the manager are correct, he has already been giving away the rich man’s wealth, redistributing, subverting injustice from within. And, indeed, Jesus repeatedly has charges levelled against him, including of misrepresenting his opponents and of inappropriately blessing those on the margins by the way he has been conducting himself.

[5] As matters come to a head, the manager subverts the system—the exploitation of the poor by the rich—even more flagrantly. This, too, is an analogy for Jesus’ mission, as he moves towards Jerusalem.

[6] In the parable, the master of the house, who was set to dismiss the manager, repents, and, instead, praises the manager, who, according to the terms of an unjust system, has acted unjustly. The rich man, who has served wealth rather than God, repents, and accepts a redistribution of resources. This, too, is part of Jesus’ polemic: he is not only challenging the nation (including the Pharisees) over their love of money (the wealth of injustice), but extending the invitation to be like the rich man and repent. However, the Pharisees reject this invitation, and, instead, ridicule Jesus. The rulers of the nation, including also the Sadducees, will likewise reject Jesus as the manager over the household of Israel.

[7] Jesus tells his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, who see themselves as godly and wise but are in fact complicit in godless foolishness; but to be like the manager who takes what the rich have built up for themselves and give it back to the people. This should be read at both the material and the spiritual level, as our attitude towards money and our attitude towards true riches.

Yet further thoughts on Luke 16:

[8] The sin of the elite of ancient Israel was to hold the poor in material poverty through injustice, while at the same time patronising the common people both intellectually and morally. In contrast, Jesus came to set the captives free.

[9] This couldn’t possibly have anything relevant to say to contemporary British society, where we live in a utopia in which multi-millionaires are the champions of the honest hard worker...


There is an interesting intertextuality at play between the Old Testament prophet Haggai, whom we are reading this week at Morning Prayer (Common Lectionary), and the Gospel for this coming Sunday.

Speaking through Haggai, the LORD opposes those who live in their paneled houses while the house of the LORD, the temple, lies in ruins. Those who look to their own wealth, while ignoring God.

The LORD challenges them by confounding their expectations. When they take stock of their resources, they expect to find twenty measures, but find only ten; they expect to find fifty measures, but find only twenty.

And, after that, the LORD speaks through Haggai a second time, saying that he is about to shake the heavens and the earth, to judge thrones and nations, and to make Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, the Lord’s signet ring.

All this resonates with my reading of the parable commonly known as that of the dishonest manager, in which I contend that the rich man stands for the household of Israel, and in particular the elite; and the manager of the household, who depletes the rich man’s hoarded resources, stands for Jesus.

It resonates also with the setting of the parable, as Jesus heads towards the cross, and the significance of his death, resurrection, and ascension, as judgement over the nation, the surrounding nations, and powers of heaven.

And it makes Zerubbabel a ‘type’ for Jesus, the governor a type for the manager of the household; a type, also, for Jesus as (in the previous parable) the younger son who was dead and is alive, on whom the Father confers a signet ring.

The household manager, part 1

It is my contention that Jesus is always talking about himself in his parables, yet without any need to massage his ego, allowing him to cast himself as the weak and humiliated character through whom conventional wisdom is subverted.

I have already argued elsewhere that in Luke 15 Jesus casts himself as the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the younger son who ‘was dead and now is alive’ and now I would contend that, in the following chapter, he casts himself in the role of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13).

Jesus is here speaking to his disciples, in the hearing of a group of Pharisees; but the backdrop is that the Pharisees are increasingly distancing themselves from Jesus, as the tax collectors and sinners are drawing near to him.

In this parable, I would suggest, the rich man stands for the nation, or ‘household,’ of Israel; with an additional layer of meaning, in keeping with the earlier prophets, connecting the public leaders of the people with the wealth of injustice.

In the parable, Jesus takes upon himself the role of the servant who oversees the life of the household of Israel (a role his disciples would see as divinely appointed in the case of Jesus, as opposed to a character in a parable). And an accusation has been brought against him, that he is mis-managing that role.

Knowing that he is to be rejected from the position he holds, the manager sets in motion a plan to be welcomed into another home. Not as a friend, or guest, but as overseer. In keeping with his plan, he writes-off considerable amounts of debt to his master.

Now, why would anyone go on to appoint as manager over their affairs someone whom you knew first-hand would operate by writing-off those debts owed to you? You would only do so if you knew that the debt owed to you was considerably less than the debt you owed...

And this is where it gets really interesting, because the nation was in debt to the tax collectors. That is, the nation funded public works by auctioning the rights to collect certain taxes to the highest bidder—usually a ‘society’ of tax collectors, rather than an unlimited personal liability—who, at the end of the contract would expect to earn interest on their loan, plus—as pure profit—any tax they raised in addition to the amount they had anticipated on raising when making their bid (there was, of course, the risk of making less than anticipated).

So, if anyone would not welcome the debt owed to them being written-off—if any households would be unlikely to rehome the rejected manager—it would be the societies of tax collectors. And yet, these were the very groups drawing near to Jesus. Why? Because debt, here, is an analogy for forgiveness and empathy. And the tax collectors, despite providing the means of funding public work, were widely despised.

Jesus goes on to instruct his disciples to use ‘the wealth of injustice’ to make friends, so that, when the money runs out, they may be welcomed into ‘the age-long tabernacle.’

All money is dirty money. We are all complicit in injustice, in our financial dealings. Moreover, all money that can be made can also be lost, will run out. The same is true of social capital. We gain social capital by loaning our social standing to others, in hope of a good return; or by demanding a high interest-rate from those who would seek to gain from association with us. We seek to have our sins forgiven—our debts written-off—while withholding forgiveness from others. Yet, if forgiveness is the true currency of maturity, Jesus instructs us to squander what we steward for our household, to forgive and forgive and forgive others until we have nothing left to our name.

What happens then? Here, Jesus switches from the language of the settled household, with its place in relative economic stability, to the language of tent-dwelling, from the time Israel wandered in the wilderness, knowing themselves to be dependent on God.

(Moreover, when, in AD 70, the nation loses the temple, the ultimate symbol of both its wealth and—according to Jesus in Luke 19—its injustice, in robbing the gentiles of a house of prayer, all that remains for them is a tabernacle...if I may be permitted a little intertextuality between Luke and John.)

Only once we have lost our name, as the manager in the parable lost his name, as Jesus lost his reputation among the scribes and the Pharisees, will we discover what it means to know the age-long provision of God-in-our-midst: that we are forgiven our debts, endlessly and without measure.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us...”
Jesus, Luke 11:4.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

True story

The reason I love the Bible so much is because I find it to be true. Not, primarily, on the basis that the events told therein happened to someone a long time ago in lands far away; but because they resonate, in my deepest being, with my personal experience of being part of humanity. And not only with me, but with everyone I see around me; indeed, I would suggest, with everyone who has ever lived. The largest scientific sample ever undertaken.

Take, for example, the Great Lie, in which our first parents, the archetypal Earthling and the Mother Of All The Living were deceived into believing that God did not want the very best for them. There were consequences to such a belief. Are consequences.

For one thing, the Earthling, knowing the world to be not as it should be, not all it could be, would strive to make the world right, to subdue and cultivate it according to their will; until their strength was spent, and, at last, they would have to make peace with their own limitations...

For another, all the children of the Mother Of All The Living would know pain, in the bearing and sustaining and letting-go of more children, of one another. Pain matched by, and at least in part caused by, the desire to love and be loved, to protect and be protected...

If you can honestly tell me that this is not your story, not the story of your family and friends, not the story you read in the paper each morning, then I recommend that you don't waste your time reading any further with the Bible.

But if, in all honesty, you know this story to be true, then I can only recommend that you waste no more time in not reading the Bible.