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Sunday, June 12, 2022
As always, Trinity Sunday should not be a dry recitation of the technical language of the Creeds. The preacher must bring out how the three Persons relate to us in their operation in order to make the doctrine vital to the congregation’s life and worship.
In Year C, the Holy Spirit takes center stage in John 16. The Spirit, often supposed in certain traditions to be the “wild child” of the Trinity, subverting church order in favor of new and strange revelations. John’s gospel tells us the opposite. The Spirit does not speak of his own accord, but reveals to the saints “all the truth” about Christ. The Father gives all to the Son, the Son gives all to the church and the Spirit illuminates the church so they can understand what is given. The Spirit glorifies the Son, only delivering and clarifying what Christ revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. So, the Trinity is not a far-off mystery but a present reality, God’s own self embracing his created people.
Sunday, June 19, 2022
This Sunday represents a crossroads for the preacher. For the rest of this year, the Gospel lectionary returns to the Gospel of Luke but the attendant Old Testament and Psalm are split between two different tracks.
Option I walks through a mostly chronological series of Old Testament texts which are not thematically linked to the Gospel passage in any way.
Option II (which is sometimes listed as Option III) is the more traditional set of Old Testament (and some Apocryphal texts) which do thematically link up with the Gospel for the day.
A third option is to follow the Epistle readings, which also run along their own track, disconnected thematically from both sets of Old Testament readings and the Gospel.
The preacher should be prepared to commit to one of these options exclusively for the rest of the Christian year, since each is designed with its own arc in mind. This guide will follow the more venerable Option II, as the theological and typological connections therein will introduce the congregation to the Christological principle of the scriptures, which will aid in their Old Testament study going forward.
The story of the demoniac liberated from the “legion” of demons is a story of Jesus’ power to defeat the darkest evils and restore those very far from God to adopted sonship. As in the other Synoptics, many of the story’s details hold up the demoniac as the prime example of the oppression of the spiritual powers of the world. The story has a Gentile context, far from the sanctity of the Jewish people. He has no clothes—a frequent biblical symbol of enslavement—and no house, no possibility of living in sanity among people; the demons often drove him out into the wilderness. Moreover, he is among the tombs, and therefore ritually unclean. The portrait is almost inhuman. After Jesus is done with him though, he is clothed and in his right mind.
The point of documenting the deliverance is straightforwardly to show Jesus’ power over evil and his ability to restore anyone in creation. The significance of the pigs could be either their ritual uncleanness—sending unclean spirits into unclean animals was appropriate—or that they were a symbol of Roman military power (the region the story takes place in happens to be nearby where a Roman legion was stationed). It is likely that the story works on both levels, showing the reader how Jesus has power over all temporal powers that oppress: spiritual, political, and otherwise. The point is that Jesus has the power to deliver all humankind from the powers that oppress them, and that no case is so far gone as to be beyond his ability to restore.
Sunday, June 26, 2022
Luke’s story about the rejection at Samaria is seen through the lens of God’s saving work through Jesus. The text begins by mentioning Jesus’ ascension and that the time is drawing near. This is not the headspace the disciples are in. They are stuck in 2 Kings 1:9-16 with Elijah calling down God’s fire on his adversaries. But Jesus is not Elijah (John 1:21). His work is salvation, not death. In the same way, the church is to bear with those who reject her, not seeking their demise but their salvation and healing. The disciples eventually do understand and follow Jesus in the way of suffering and rejection by the very ones they were sent to save. The work of the modern church is no different and ought to bear with those who persecute them and reject them from society instead of rebuking them or desiring their ill.
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Jesus sending out the seventy-two presages the church going into all the world. The preacher here has many levers to pull on in encouraging the congregation in their earthly mission.
Jesus’ declaration that he is sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves does not mean that he expects them to be torn to pieces, but a reminder that he, the Good Shepherd, goes with them. He sends them together, two by two, reminding us that we never go into the world by ourselves, but alongside our brothers and sisters in the church. The two-by-two sending also hearkens the animals entering the ark, helping us see that the kingdom promises salvation and safety to all those who hear. For those who do not, only the flood awaits, and shaking off the dust should not be read as a positive curse but as a testimony against them, showing the inevitable result of their rejection of God unless they repent. The messengers do not have time to be waylaid by such as these, but must press on to willing hearts and listening ears. Jesus sends them to work miracles and healings, predicting the sacraments of the church.
Sunday, July 10, 2022
“And who is my neighbor?” is a fair question for a lawyer to ask. Jews, believing that the Law came directly from the mouth of God, paid scrupulous attention to each word, careful not to miss a nuance. The Law does not say “love everyone.” Rather, it says “love your neighbor.” There were three ways that “neighbor” could be construed according to the rabbis: someone who lives next to you, a blood relation or close friend, or else a member of your clan.
The hero of the parable: a Samaritan man on a journey, explodes all of those definitions and instead gives an expansive definition of neighbor—whoever is right around you at any given time. The added detail of the Priest and Levite avoiding the man on the road also has significance under the Levitical law. Touching a dead person would make a temple functionary ritually unclean. However, the man was not dead, only gravely wounded. The religious men, then, to avoid the burden of helping him (another serious command found in the Law!) crossed to a safe distance so that they could plausibly say that they assumed he was dead, using the Law as a cover for neglecting the one in need instead of following the spirit of the Law and rushing to help. By contrast, the Samaritan, despite being outside the covenant community, fulfills the commandment lavishly, displaying the heart of the Father for sufferers.
Sunday, July 17, 2022
Many are puzzled by the story of Mary and Martha, and try to turn it into either promotion of rest and “self-care” or else casting Jesus as a gender radical, denigrating the traditional link between femininity and hospitality and promoting the life of theological study instead. In fact, the key verse comes in 39, where Mary listens to “his word” which he identifies as the only thing that is necessary in v. 42. It is not that the practicalities of hosting and feeding people are to be despised in favor of the life of the mind. Rather, Jesus sets the goals of life in their proper order. The Word of God comes first, since “man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4), and all else will be provided for.
Martha’s complaint is understandable to anyone who has been left alone in the kitchen, but nevertheless we must learn with her that hearing and meditating on the Word of God is the path to eternal life, whereas the busyness of providing food and shelter only prolongs earthly life. Both are necessary, but it benefits no one to shut the way to eternal life in order to provide for the present one.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
The Fathers of the Church saw in the Lord’s prayer a microcosm of the Christian life, reading far more deeply than we, on the far side of 2,000 years of Christian tradition, are accustomed today.
In the ancient world the ability for just anyone to petition God as “Father” was an astounding promotion of humans. Those who prayed to a Father proclaim their status as sons.
“Hallowed be thy name” is a confession of holiness and the rightful fear of the God who dwells in unapproachable light.
“Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done ...” is the confident petition of those who know the final judgment will be in their favor, having lived holy lives in the grace of Christ—those who are not would not make this petition.
“On earth as in heaven” is the request of the church to be used by Christ to do his holy work, and to imitate heaven during her time on earth.
“Daily bread” is confessing reliance on God for our daily necessities and also the request for the supernatural Bread of Life, Jesus himself, whom believers require daily to nourish their spiritual lives.
“Forgive us our sins...” Our forgiveness of others follows God’s forgiveness of us. If we do not forgive others’ sins against us, we are in no place to accept God’s forgiveness of our sins against him.
“Lead us not into temptation.” It should hardly come as a scandal that God sometimes leads into temptation, considering the Spirit drove Jesus himself into the wilderness “to be tempted” (Matt. 4:1). God is not the cause of evil, but rather allows us to be tested, giving us every grace and ability to overcome. Nevertheless, we are not to be brash and presume on God’s grace to go looking for opportunities to test our own faith. Rather, we ask that God keep us from these trials and preserve us. The petition is of reliance on God, rather than confidence in our strength of faith.
Sunday, July 31, 2022
Luke’s particular concern on the spiritual dimension of poverty and wealth leads him to highlight this delicious parable from Jesus. Jesus’ teaching is not mystical but practical. Significantly, it is not the desire for security that is the problem for the rich man in the story, it is that he has a poor investment strategy from God’s perspective in heaven, for “life does not consist in possessions” (v. 15). Therefore, the man has failed to provide for his own life.
Jesus’ teaching on possessions is that wealth is effervescent. Storing up the fruit of labor is indeed the “vanity of vanities” for one day, we will die, and another will benefit from the temporal goods we have labored for. Nothing may be taken with us. Therefore, the right investment for the one who has much is to give to the poor and thus be “rich toward God,” storing up heavenly treasure that may be enjoyed eternally.
Sunday, August 7, 2022
The preceding week’s admonition against hoarding wealth is given an additional spiritual dimension: that one’s “heart” is to be found with one’s treasure. Therefore, giving alms is not an optional task but a spiritual necessity by carrying the heart to God and away from one’s wealth.
Luke 12:35-40 are sometimes cast in certain traditions as addressed to nonbelievers, since it is thought that Christians cannot sabotage their own salvation through negligence. However, from the word doulos (“slave”) in verse 37 and oikonomos in verse 42, it is clear that this passage is addressed to both ordinary believers and believers in spiritual authority: specifically the 12 Apostles and the others around them (v. 41). So, confessing Christians may not wiggle out of the warnings mentioned here and the preacher should encourage believers in the congregation to be diligent in prayer and good works, not because these things merit salvation, but that they keep them alert to the reality of the kingdom.
The preacher should take care to note that the master coming upon the slave is not only a reference to the end of time or one’s own death, but also the many small “comings” in our own lives: a difficult choice, a person in need. Those who have not prepared through prayer and fasting will find themselves shrinking back from the tasks God gives us. We ought to live into a habit of expecting Jesus to show up in our lives daily in these ways and so be good slaves and stewards, ready to do his will.
Sunday, August 14, 2022
Jesus’ words in Luke 12 are terrifying knowing that they come from the Son of God. What does it mean that the Prince of Peace comes with fire and division? The Jeremiah passage helps us to clarify the picture. In it, God’s word is described as fire. Fire is often held up as a purifying force, consuming worthless things and purifying what is worthwhile, like gold. Jesus then brings the fire of God’s word to bear upon people and they either accept or reject it, creating division, even in the midst of households (cf. Micah 7:6). Later, in Luke 24, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus exclaim “Were our hearts not burning within us ... while he was explaining the Scriptures to us?”
The preacher may remind the congregation that the faith has never promised peace without pain, and many whose families are divided over the faith may find great comfort in that their situation was not unanticipated by the Lord.
The remaining verses are against complacency: we know that we will have to settle our account before the Lord, but this will need to be done “on the way” (i.e. in this present life). Jesus’ admonishment in verse 56 asks us to apply worldly canniness to spiritual matters. If we spent half as much time preparing for our eternal destiny as we do scheming about how to improve the conditions of our worldly life, the Way would not seem so difficult to walk.
Sunday, August 21, 2022
That Jesus’ teaching is practical and logical is not always discussed. Here, Jesus contradicts the synagogue leader’s scrupulosity by making an argument a fortiori. If certain material goods can be provided for on the Sabbath, then certainly human beings, who are of greater worth, may be as well. This is essentially the same format as the parables in Luke 15 leading up to the prodigal son. The message is “if you would go to great lengths to go after one expensive sheep, or one month’s wage, then what about a human being? Aren’t they worth more than these?” The woman in the miracle also becomes a microcosm of the human race, bent over by sin. Jesus comes to heal from sin, and none may accuse whom he has vindicated.
Sunday, August 28, 2022
In Luke 14, the eschatalogical banquet of the kingdom of God is compared with the ordinary meals that people share with each other. The latter ought to reflect the former, and the repayment for generosity in this life is to be found in the life to come.
Here is an opportunity for the preacher to explain the New Testament’s vision of charity to the poor. The act displays total reliance on God for repayment. Nothing we have in this life: either money, material goods, or time, is completely frivolous. All of it represents sustenance, enjoyment, or social capital, in short, the stuff of life itself and the things that make it worth living. People recoil from giving because they rightly perceive that they are giving away parts of their life—the only one they’ve got. Jesus, again, does not repudiate the activity of providing for oneself, but rather recommends wise investment. Eternal repayment awaits those who give to the least fortunate precisely because there is no worldly repayment. Charity is an act of faith in God, and the life to come. Only those who have shown that they believe enough to give toward that life are counted worthy to enter it.
Sunday, September 4, 2022
A misunderstanding of the word “hate” here has caused much confusion. A Hebraicism, it means the opposite of “prefer.” Jesus is not prohibiting love of family or holding possessions (v. 33) but demanding that he be put first in people’s lives. The disciple must be ready to renounce family, wealth, and anything if it comes between him and Jesus.
The idea may seem afar off to many modern Christians, but the reality is coming on quickly. It seems likely that there will be a very near future in the West which the Christian’s adherence to the moral vision of the New Testament will disqualify them for employment and social status and put them at variance with those closest to them, and whom they depend on (indeed, in many places this regime has already arrived). In these cases, Christians must soberly take account of the cost of the Way to which they have been called, not so that they may decide whether it is worth it, but so that they may steel themselves for the journey.
This is why Jesus warns against the sin of apostasy: a Christian who sets out and then stalls halfway presents a unique conundrum: if one has let go of the lifeline, then what else is there to grab hold of? We see many jaded, lapsed, former Christians today whose very history in the church inoculates them to taking hold again of grace. Jesus’ command is stark here, but believers who pass these tests may rejoice in the confirmation that they have proven themselves true disciples.
Sunday, September 11, 2022
These parables have been unfortunately segmented off from the parable of the Prodigal Son, which they play the prelude to. Here, Jesus responds to the offense given by his attention to the dishonorable by two parables, each with the same message but aimed at a male and female audience.
The lost sheep has been often made into a sweet picture of God’s willingness to leave the great flock to go after “just one” but this gets the intent totally wrong. Sheep for a shepherd of the ancient world were about as valuable as a used car. That a shepherd would leave his flock to go after the one would have been blatantly obvious to anyone in the biz.
Next, Jesus turns to the ladies and asks which of them would not sweep their house to find a lost silver coin (worth about a month’s wages). The answer would have been the same as the first parable.
This sets the stage for the prodigal Son by moving from the lesser material things, to the more valuable human being, lost to sin, but found by God. Given the difficulty posed by the protracted pericope, the preacher may choose to simply emphasize that people are valuable to God, and so their welfare and eternal destiny ought to be as valuable to us.
Sunday, September 18, 2022
Those inexperienced in accounting fraud may have a hard time understanding the self-preservation strategy of the unrighteous steward. More puzzling still may be why Jesus makes a sinner the hero of the story. The message is deeply valuable and engaging, so it is worth explaining in detail.
The steward runs a classic fleecing scam, however instead of taking money for himself he accepts favors instead. He can be compared to the manager of a clothing franchise. When a customer comes to the register with a $100 dress, the manager may say “I control the cash register, so let’s just say it costs $50 and we split the difference: so you give me $25 and I make your bill come out to only $75.” However, this steward understands that his predicament is graver than that. So instead, he doesn’t ask for the difference. Instead, he will take a favor: when he is cast out into the streets, the ones whom he benefited may return the favor by taking him in.
Jesus uses this picaresque fable to demonstrate how his disciples ought to use their worldly goods: not to defraud their managers, but to give to the poor. This is not the only place where Jesus suggests that the recommendation of the poor is needed for the entry ticket into heaven. However, verse 13 is the key, lest one think Jesus is saying that charitable works by themselves merit eternal joys. The same spiritual principle is at play here as in 12:34, that how one uses their money discloses one’s true allegiance far more reliably than words.
Sunday, September 25, 2022
Jesus tells another dark parable against the rich who do not care for the poor. First of all, the rich man’s sin is one of omission. He fails to help Lazarus (who is named in the parable to indicate that he is written in the book of life; the rich man, on the other hand, is given no identity) and lets him die in squalor while enjoying his own life. There is no indication that the rich man actively oppressed Lazarus in any way or has behaved especially cruelly. The image is one of separateness: the rich man in his “high castle” while the poor suffers from his poverty (Prov. 10:15) and this distance is recapitulated after death as the very gulf separating the rich man from Abraham. The very fact that the poor man was beneath his notice is what condemned the rich man. The point of the parable is that ignorance is no defense, since Scripture is abundantly clear on the matter of care for the poor (cf. Deut. 15 and countless other mentions in the Prophets).
This is a frequent Lucan theme in both his Gospel and Acts, whereby the same Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes out in his life and ministry has already spoken throughout the Old Testament. This continuity is expressed in a dark way in verses 30-31, which hints at how Jesus’ miracles, even his Resurrection, does not by itself cause repentance. That must come from a changed heart, and those who are callous toward the Law and the Prophets will not be softened by even so great a sign as this. Wealthy Christians today have even less reason to plead ignorance for failing to help the poor, since we also have the pointed witness of the New Testament added to the Old. The message should not be sugarcoated: care and involvement with the poor is an essential feature of the saved person and those with means must take special care that they share them with the less fortunate as a constant discipline.
Sunday, October 2, 2022
There are two themes in the Gospel passage that the preacher may discuss. In v. 5-6, even a very little faith is capable of surprising things. Our own weak faith is all that God needs to multiply it and work wonders with it.
In v. 7-10, Jesus warns his disciples against the sort of religious presumption which leads to pride. To follow the commandments is only what is expected of a dutiful servant. The master sitting the slave down to eat with him is a reference to the eschatalogical banquet at the end of the age. Worldly honor for discipleship is as though one expects the “well done good and faithful servant” before the work has been completed. As Christians, we are not to draw attention to ourselves, as though we are anything special. Perhaps this saying is included after the first because pride is spiritual kryptonite. We are only to be regarded as slaves to God, giving him glory for things he has done through us.
Sunday, October 9, 2022
The key detail often left out of the story of the one grateful leper was that he was a Samaritan. The foreigner returns with gratitude while the Jews feel entitled to their cleansing. God blessing foreigners outside of the Jewish fold is nothing new. The first reading about Naaman the Syrian shows how God has always intended to extend his gifts to the nations. Ironically, it is the Gentile who recognizes the Giver rather than simply going away satisfied by the gift. The nine may have been healed, but only the one was saved, because he recognized the healing of his skin as a sign of a greater restoration of his whole person.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
In another of the dark parables, Jesus uses the example of rascally, wholly irreligious characters to illustrate how they ought to practice their religion. Again, Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater: if a godless, immoral judge will finally grant a woman’s request simply to stop her from annoying him, how much more speedily will God, the source of goodness, justice, and mercy, listen and fulfill the requests of the saints? Once again “the sons of this world” are smarter in their own way “than the sons of light” (Luke 16:18). Unlike the judge, God’s will is with the poor and oppressed. But those who fail to pray do not have faith that God is their ally. The point is to encourage frequent prayer, never despairing, since we know we have an advocate in God.
Sunday, October 23, 2022
Even if one follows all of the pious practices Jesus has urged in Luke, prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor, it avails us nothing if it becomes a source of pride. On the other hand, humility paves the path to true repentance.
The Pharisee in the story imagines himself to be self-sufficient in his righteousness, having no need for God. The tax collector recognizes his need for God and reaches out to him. In another stroke of irony, Jesus declares that the one who lifts himself up will be humbled by God, and the reverse. The deeper point is that our fortunes and ultimate destiny depend on God, not us. Because it is God who justifies, and not we ourselves, the one who relies on him will be saved.
The Pharisee though, by his works, has attempted to “bribe” God, as Sirach says, maintaining a prideful distance and not come to grips with his own sorry state in comparison to the Almighty. The proper posture of humility would lead him to act in the same way as the tax collector, and embrace him as a brother, instead of deriding him as an inferior. This humility before God, then, is the basis of Christian fraternity in the church: fellow sinners saved by grace, worshipping their Savior shoulder to shoulder.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
Sunday, October 30, 2022
It will aid the preacher to point out that the story of Zaccheus comes on the heels of the rich young ruler. That dignified, rich man went away sad because he could not part with his possessions, leading Jesus to comment on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven but that “what is impossible with man is possible with God” (18:27).
Zaccheus’ conversion fulfills Jesus’s words. Given the Lucan themes of justice to the poor, Zaccheus ought to be singled out as a chief villain since he has made his money by defrauding the poor. Instead, he becomes the hero, repenting and restoring money to his victims. He even goes beyond both Jewish and Roman law by taking the initiative to repay fourfold anyone he has shaken down.
Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation is tied to this act. Repentance is an active thing, turning away from wrongdoing means restoring those we have wronged and pledging to sin no more. Not mere intellectual assent to Jesus’ lordship (there is no mention of that here), receiving the gift of salvation means taking action.
Sunday, November 6, 2022
On All Saints’ Sunday, the texts focus on the fundamental problem of humanity, and God’s answer to it: death and eternal life.
The first reading comes from perhaps the oldest biblical text, long before any tradition of resurrection and final judgment had formed in Jewish consciousness. The arresting words of Job the sufferer that somehow, in some way, God would “awaken” him, even from beyond the grave, and that he would behold his defender with his own eyes.
The Sadducees in Jesus’ time were textual rigorists, counting as canon only the Pentateuch, which makes no mention of life beyond the grave. This is why Jesus’ reply comes from Moses: that God cannot be called both the God of the patriarchs and also “the God of the living” unless those who die “live in him.” So, the communion of saints consists not only of the presently alive, but those who have died and are alive in God. Hence, it has been traditional to pray for the dead along with the living.
Unlike most social justice movements today, this passage shows how Luke’s moral vision is grounded in supernatural reality. The life beyond the grave and the investment in that life is the basis for charity, and Jesus’ moral exhortations cannot be excised from that context.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
Jesus’ prophecy is “bifocal.” In the near term, he is predicting the destruction of the Temple at the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 (verse 21’s prophetic import has been confirmed by historical records that Christians indeed fled the city to the neighboring mountains when the Romans besieged it). On the long view, this is also a foreshadowing of the end of the world. The one prophecy is nested inside the other. In the midst of such world-shaking events, Jesus instructs his disciples, and us, of our conduct. Christians are hated and unjustly blamed for disasters. In those days, Christians must be upright and rely totally on God’s intervention.
This is not exactly the banner advertisement for becoming a Christian nowadays, especially in the West. The idea that one may be required to suffer or die without resisting is a hard pill to swallow for modern people. But, nearing the end of Luke, the people should understand that faith is not a mild thing and God’s power is not far from the weak and downtrodden.
Sunday, November 20, 2022
On the final Sunday of the church year, Christ’s reign from the Cross is brought to the fore. The Cross shows the final Lucan irony: Jesus, executed as a common criminal is nevertheless labeled, properly, as a king.
Christ’s kingship comes from his passion. Though apparently his humiliation, the Cross is in fact Jesus’ coronation. Conquering death through laying down his life, Jesus stretches out his arms in love and restores humanity through this saving embrace. No one is beyond this salvation, not even the thief next to him who recognized his lordship as head of the kingdom.
In the Cross, God is revealed to be truly a king who can identify with the poor in their weakness, and yet his final humiliation in death opens the way to everlasting glory and life. Christ the King calls all of his subjects to shoulder their cross in the form of good works on behalf of the poor, humility before others, and meekness in suffering, and so reign with him, both now and in the age to come.
Thursday, November 24, 2022