July: Announcing the reign of God
Sunday 3 July – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
In our Gospel reading for this Sunday, Jesus invites his disciples into his mission as he sends a wave of them to go ahead of him, announcing the reign of God. Luke firmly portrays following Jesus as a journey where you learn as you go, and it seems that being a disciple – right from the start – means participating in Jesus’ kingdom mission.
In chapter 9, Jesus had sent the Twelve to heal and proclaim the kingdom. Now, we have the Seventy (or Seventy Two) sent in pairs. The instructions for these bearers of the Good News are similar to the Twelve: pack light, and be reliant on hospitality in the towns you visit. However this time there is a far greater sense of potential hostility and rejection. There will be an element of risk and vulnerability for the disciples going ahead of Jesus.
There are strong parallels in this passage between the disciples potential rejection on the way to Jerusalem and the rejection Jesus will ultimately find in Jerusalem. There is talk of lambs in the midst of wolves. The tone is bleak to say the least! And yet, despite these overtures, the mission is a great success. The Seventy return rejoicing, announcing their victory over demonic powers.
Jesus acknowledges their success, however is quick to bring them back down to earth by telling them not to rejoice in their powers over the demons, but rather that their names are written in heaven (v. 20).
Perhaps, then, Christian joy is not ultimately about achievement but rests upon a deep sense of relationship – with God and with each other – and knowledge of where that relationship ultimately leads.
Sunday 10 July – Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10: 25-37
Most people, whether churched as children or not, will likely have some recollection of the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’. Parables are not, however, children’s stories or banal statements of the obvious. The audience Jesus was talking to were familiar with the parable structure he was telling – or so they thought.
A man, travelling down from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed by bandits and beaten to within an inch of his life. A priest comes by, sees the beaten man, and walks on by. A Levite does the same. Much has been said by scholars and commentators about the reasons behind this. A commonly given reason is that they feared that if the man was dead, this would have affected their ritual purity. Jewish New Testament Scholar (yes, you’ve read that correctly), AJ Levine cites that this would not have been a reason. For one, they were headed from Jerusalem where ritualistic purity would have been important. She suggests that one reason may have been the real fear that the bandits on the road could have targeted them should they have stopped to assist the man. Whatever the reason, the parabolic structure Jesus uses here was the common “rule of three” that his audience would have expected. We see it employed in other parables – when two things are listed, the third is the real point of the story. The priest comes, the Levite comes, and then the Samaritan. Oh. Hang on – a Samaritan?! Not an Israelite? This is where the story shocks his listeners. It was the cultural equivalent of suggesting Hitler today. It interrupts our expectations.
Sometimes, when we hear this parable, we can’t help but expect to see ourselves as the Samaritan. Instead, Levine encourages us to see that “We are the one in the ditch”. Sometimes we may think, when we see the Samaritan coming, that “I’d rather die than acknowledge that one of ‘that group’ helped me”. Levine states, in her book “Short Stories by Jesus” that this is when it gets hard, as we then have to realise that the face of the ‘enemy’ is in the image and likeness of God. The face of the person we think might kill or harm us, is the face of the very person who might save our lives and enrich us with their presence.
Sunday 17 July – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10: 38-42
How exciting it must have been for Martha and her sister Mary to have Jesus come and visit their house. This Teacher and miracle worker they had heard so much about, sitting around their table! I don’t know about you, but whenever I have had someone even remotely outside my immediate friendship circle come to visit, I go into tidying up overdrive! I am always making sure food and drink is a plenty and that things are “just right”. God forbid anyone see how our family truly lives, right?
In this encounter, we have a challenging of priorities. As with the previous week’s reading, we have the habit of thinking we’re the ‘good guy’, or in this case – Mary. Sitting at the feet of the Lord, listening intently. In many cases however, we’re Martha – with competing demands and priorities drawing our attention away from that which should be the object of our attention.
I recently used this reading to reflect on the theme of ‘busyness’ with a group of young adults. What came from that discussion was their experiences of being caught in an ever-busy world where there is no concept of “slowing down” and where “busy” equals “productive”. Mary and Martha have something each to teach us in this space: there is always important work to do, but there are perils in ignoring the need to slow down and reflect. Find the things that strengthen and bring light to the Kingdom but don’t be afraid to sit in the presence of God and say nothing.
Sunday 24 July – Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 11: 1-13
It is within a story about how to pray that we encounter a parable on hospitality and a lesson on persistence. The parable of the midnight visitor would have rung true to the ears of Jesus Palestinian listeners.
In Luke’s gospel we have a more concise version of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ than we find in Matthew, but with the same basic content. By addressing God as ‘Father’ in this prayer, the disciples and community of faith places itself within the family of God they have been introduced to by Jesus. Brendan Byrne notes that the petitions in the prayer may come across as ‘wishes’ (may …) but in the original tongue of Jesus, these would be much stronger – in effect telling God to bring about what they propose. The community that prays this prayer prays it in the world, as part of the world, on behalf of the world, to which it tells of the onset of the Kingdom.
And so, having taught what to pray, Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples of the attitude that must go with the words. We have a parable of hospitality where – even if friendship is found insufficient – obligation and persistence will deliver. Jesus uses this to explain further that all things sought will be found. Why? Because it is inconceivable that a good parent such as God would present anything to us that would harm.
This parables engages our intense human feelings and draws a direct link between those emotions and our attitude to God.
Sunday 31 July – Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12: 13-21
The parable we’re presented with comes from in the midst of a longer teaching from Jesus where someone in the crowd listening decides to try and get some free legal advice! This is part of a wider section of teaching that has generally been referred to as some of Jesus’ most difficult teaching in the Gospel of Luke.
This is a difficult parable that challenges our cultural understandings on greed and wealth. The man in the parable was mostly concerned with himself and setting himself up for his later life. God, in the parable, calls him a fool as he never knows when his life would be demanded from him. Perhaps there is some reflection here on a focus on “future proofing” and planning for things to come, without giving any attention to the ‘now’?
Is this a warning against being “self-centred” and “self-obsessed”? The wealthy landowner’s thoughts (the dialogue he has with himself) are for Jesus an example of wrong thinking—the rich fool focuses entirely on himself. In just three verses he uses “I” six times and “my” five times.
The problem presented in this parable is not so much the possession of riches as such. It is that the desire to acquire and enhance them, fed by insecurity, prevents people from attending to relationship with God and each other that brings the only security that counts. Such desire erodes our concern for the ‘other’ that is the basis of community. Attachment to wealth, therefore, is incompatible with living, sharing and celebrating the hospitality of God.