Wednesday, August 31, 2016
September 4, Proper 18, Prophecy 7: When God Is Unreasonable
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
These are tough texts, all of them. Not that they don’t all have their logic. In the first reading, from Jeremiah, the metaphor of the potter’s house makes sense enough. The metaphor illustrates the sovereignty of God and the freedom of God, and that God is free to change God’s mind. Not that God is capricious, but that even God’s mind-changes keep steady on God’s own personal standard of righteousness.
Fair enough, but what’s troubling in this is God reserving the right to plan evil against us. That may be reasonable, if God is both sovereign and free, and it does honor human responsibility, but how can such a supposedly loving God plan evil against anyone?
The epistle to Philemon is troubling to people because of what the Apostle Paul does not say. He wrote this letter during one of his times in prison, perhaps in Ephesus. He wrote it to his friend and convert Philemon, a wealthy man, who subsidized the Colossian church and hosted it in his house. Philemon had a slave or two, as was customary then. His slave Onesimus had run away, and ended up with St. Paul, taking care of him in prison. But now St. Paul was sending him back, carrying this letter appealing to Philemon to take his slave back without punishing him, and more, to take him as a brother instead of a slave. St. Paul’s appeal is pushy but reasonable. But his appeal is not on the ground that slavery itself is wrong. That he fails to say that is what has troubled many people.
Then in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus is impossibly unreasonable. He says you have to give up all your possessions. But then won’t you become dependent on someone else who has possessions? Like a Buddhist monk, or even like a slave! The Lord Jesus says you have to hate the members of your family, the very people you’re supposed to love. So you have to abandon your wife and kids and condemn them to begging and poverty? Does the Lord Jesus mean to scare us off by this?
You want to get close to God, that’s why you’re here, you are drawn to Jesus, you want him to make a difference in your life, but when you get close to him, he turns around and talks like this, that you renounce all your substance and your relationships and all that you hold precious. What you wanted from Jesus was the wisdom to improve your relationships with your family, not to renounce them. What you wanted was the pattern by which to handle your possessions ethically, with good stewardship and generosity, not just throw them away. He doesn’t even allow for you defending your family and property, because if you’re carrying your cross, you can’t take up arms.
The Lord Jesus is very much the prophet here. In Biblical prophecy, the words of a prophet are not meant to be reasonable. The prophet does not offer explanations and does not negotiate. The prophet does not answer your questions, the prophet rather questions everything. No deals are made and no excuses are accepted, no matter how reasonable your particulars may be.
You have noticed that the Bible never explains its claims to the standards of our satisfaction, and that God just does not justify Godself to us. God does not indulge us, and God is not even tolerant. I know it sounds contradictory, that God is both lavishly gracious and yet not tolerant, but God doesn’t care about such contradictions. God never justifies God’s claims, and neither does the prophet.
So the words of the Lord Jesus here show no concern for reasoning with us. There’s no deal to be made, no solution, no synthesis. His words do ripping up and tearing down. He means his words to clear the ground, and he rips out the flowers with the weeds. His words are like the waters of a flood. Water in a lake is lovely and live-giving, but water in a flood carries everything off before it, wrecking everything. So his words push everything aside without regard, indiscriminately. He means his words to trouble us.
So let’s not try to soften these hard sayings of Our Lord. Let’s keep it all hard and challenging, like a big rock right in your pathway that you always have to reckon with. Jesus offers you a constant obstacle, a persistent problem that you cannot solve. This is a problem you have to live with all your life. You have to keep facing it again and again, and examine yourself, even judge yourself. All your good convincing reasons that you need this thing, or that connection, or this arrangement, to all those reasons the Lord Jesus says, Really? Over and over again, ever more drily: Really?
Don’t bother trying to reason it through with God. God is not convinced. God places no value on our affluence. God has no interest in protecting our possessions for us, or of getting us more of them. That’s not what God does for you. God’s opinion about our possessions is right here in Luke 14. We have to keep coming back to that. We have to keep returning to the sober realization that the Christian life requires loss as much as gain.
It will cost you. Especially if you work for justice and righteousness in this world that is biased towards injustice and ungodliness. You might feel like you are losing, not winning. In this world, to accomplish any real change requires you to sacrifice, maybe even your life. That has to be troubling. A commander of an army has to keep fighting the battle even at the cost of casualties and death among his soldiers. There’s no way that’s not troubling.
That’s what Our Lord means by you carrying your cross. Remember that at this point in time the cross was not yet the religious symbol of Christianity. It was a symbol of Roman oppression and vindictiveness. It was a negative symbol of pain and loss. To carry your cross means that even in the midst of pain and loss you still follow Christ, that you stay faithful to God even in the midst of suffering and tragedy (Calvin). The cost of discipleship. Christians are expected to stretch towards devotion and obedience. It’s discipline. It’s medicine—but not a drug! It’s actually power.
Because, ironically, though Jesus died on a cross he never surrendered. He continued to say exactly what he wanted and do exactly as he willed. In that sense they had no power over him. He was free to the end, though he knew it would cost him. That was his power. So this is the gospel question underneath all his troubling words: How much do you want to be free?
I once had a parishioner whose husband treated her badly. She put up with it, and always said, “He is my cross to bear.” You hear Christians say that. But that’s not right. She was bearing her husband’s cross, but she’s supposed to be bearing her own. As long as she was carrying his, he didn’t have to, and she was diverted from her own. The possession she had to give up was her marriage to that man. If she had done that, all her family would have reviled her. Her husband’s family, yes, but her own family too. They would have accused her of disloyalty and selfishness.
That’s what Jesus means when he says you have to hate your father and mother: he doesn’t mean the internal emotion, he means the external reputation, that your family accuses you of not considering them, or of not loving them enough. They act all offended at you, and that can be your cost of discipleship. They may cut you off from their good graces and their sympathy; and that’s when you realize that you have begun to carry your cross.
Also ironically, Jesus did not finish carrying his cross. Simon of Cyrene did that for him. On the other hand, Jesus did die on it. So you don’t have to. Jesus does the dying but not the carrying, you do the carrying but not the dying. His death has virtue for you, to free you from your death. To give you power and freedom. There is a mystery of exchange and substitution here, ransom and replacement.
This mystery has challenged and troubled theologians through the centuries. All explanations falter because it is finally unreasonable. God does not explain it, God only offers it. In the loss is your freedom and your power, and on the cross that power is revealed as love, the great unreasonable love of God for you. “Amazing love, how can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me.”
Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.