The reading from Luke this morning talks about Jesus being a bringer of good news to the poor. The author is quoting from Isaiah 61, and taking licence to thread in a bit of Isaiah 58. He defines the poor as those who are captive, downtrodden, oppressed, and blind.
While these words were originally those of a prophet announcing Israel's liberation from exile in Babylon in the late 6th century they become for Luke a description of Jesus' role and calling.
In the Lukan infancy narrative, which we read over Christmas, these themes are already present, particularly in the freedom songs like the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. Jesus is the hope for those who are oppressed by the 'world system' and look for liberation and true peace. They are the poor, the lowly, and the hungry that wait to be lifted up. They are more than economically poor.
So Luke begins describing Jesus’s ministry within the world of the Jewish poor in Palestine. This context should not be spiritualised away. The ongoing mission of the Church, the body of Christ, should always strive to be real good news for the real poor in every age. This is why a significant part of our church activity here at St Luke’s is in learning about, supporting, being engaged with, and encouraging programmes and activities supportive of those damaged by the intersection of poverty, violence, racism and gender.
Luke also knows that this good news and these aspirations are bigger than Israel. In the next ten verses Luke gives two examples of this ‘good news’ ministry from the days of Elijah. The first being the widow of Zarephath – an individual intervention to a grieving impoverished woman in a time of famine; the second being the leprous Naaman of Syria – again an individual intervention to one who was not grieving or poor, but rather was an enemy. Note the text tells us that not all grieving Phoenician widows or all leprous Syrians experienced good news. Of course neither of these recipients were Jews, and this angers Luke’s ethnocentric audience.
What I would call ‘restoration’ or ‘transformation’ therefore is not straightforward. Even after the intervention – the experience of what I would call ‘grace’ – the recipient may continue in a context that undermines their restoration. So, for example, the widow and her son still have to survive a famine. And Naaman is still a soldier in the service of a foreign king with foreign gods.
In a modern context, when say a counsellor works with a client and the latter experiences a restorative moment of grace, that client still has to keep on dealing with the context of their relationships at home and work which may try to actively undermine that experience. Transformation can be a lifelong process.
I think the Jesus movement recognized this early on. People who had experienced a life-enhancing, life-changing moment needed the support of a small community in order to sustain that change. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, uses the metaphor of a body to describe how that small community [scholars think about 20-30 people] could ideally work.
The metaphor simply says that we are each different – a fingernail is different from an arm, a hair from an eye – but it would be a mistake [as Paul saw it] to think that one part is more important than another. We are different, we are all needed, and none of us are more or less important than anyone else. And of course Paul was using this metaphor to try to curtail the behaviour of those who did think, due to their ‘gifts’, that they were more important that anyone else!
That metaphor though also reflects how a community, due to their connections with each other, give each other support and sustenance in living out the alternative way of life as expressed and shown by Jesus. This community meet weekly for a long, though simple, meal with each other – talking over the issues of life, faith, etcetera. It was out of this supportive context that rituals of liturgy and ethics of pastoral care developed. Theologically communities like this were the ongoing life of Jesus.
Sometimes Christians and other people of faith have constantly used stories or parables to convey and try to more deeply understand the good news of transformation and its nuances.
Consider this story[i]:
The Kingdom of God is like two brothers who lived contented lives until they both received a call from God upon their lives.
The older responded to the call generously. He gave up his aspirations of a career downtown and of normal family life, and went off to a distant land where he spent himself in the service of the poorest of the poor. After a number of years he caught one of the many diseases prevalent in the ghetto where he worked and, weakened by inadequate nutrition, his body succumbed and he died.
God said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand talents worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents worth of reward. Enter into the joy of your Lord’.
The younger brother’s response to the call upon his life was less than generous. He decided to ignore it and go ahead with a life similar to those around him. He developed his career and prospered. He married and had children. Occasionally he would do an act of kindness for others, but usually those others were his family members. Occasionally too he would send a sum of money to his elder brother. ‘It might help you in your work with those poor devils there’, he would write to him.
And when it was the younger brother’s turn to die, God said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You gave me a ten talents worth of service. I shall now give you a billion, billion talents worth of reward. Enter into the joy of your Lord’.
The older brother was surprised when he heard that his younger brother was to get the same reward as he. And he was pleased. He said, ‘God, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you.’
There is another version of the story which at the conclusion has the older brother turn to the younger and say, “Today my joy is finally complete, for we are together again. Come let us break bread.” In response his brother said nothing but began to weep.
This is a story which interrogates our ideas of justice, exposing the deep-seated idea that to act morally is justified only by some kind of recognition or reward. The story’s power is felt to the extent that the listener finds the equal reward at the end to be unjust.
It is common to think of God as one who delivers rewards in relation to how we act. The mathematics of God’s way though is quite different from how we usually think of investment and return.
Consider: what if the act is in itself its own reward? I certainly hope the older brother wasn’t working in that ghetto for the benefit of a reward – like the praise of other people, or the praise of his God – but because he liked and was committed to the people who lived there.
This story though also helps us understand how transformation can happen in the kingdom of God. Common sense would consider it irresponsible for the deity to give a great gift to someone who lived quite self-centredly. However, is it possible that the very act of handing over a generous gift can encourage the receiver to become worthy of it?
This idea is found in the wisdom that tells us that people become more lovable when they are loved. For example, if, from an early age, we are shown love and affection, then we are more likely to grow into persons who evoke love and affection from others than if we did not experience such love when we were tiny. It is as we are offered the gifts of grace, mercy, and love that we are drawn towards becoming persons who exhibit grace, mercy and love, and drawn towards receiving more such gifts in our lives. Unfortunately the reverse is often true too – growing up with violence one often later exhibits violence and attracts violence. How can this cycle be broken?
In the second ending of our story the younger brother is in tears. Is this because of the billion, billion talents of reward that the God character gifts to him? Or is it because of the joy his older brother has in witnessing this gift unconditionally given to him? Or is it simply the words of the older brother about being together [physically, emotionally, spiritually] and wanting to break bread?
Maybe it is all three gifts that create in the younger brother a change of heart. It is in the giving of the gifts that create the conditions for the brother’s transformative moment. Maybe, similarly, it is in unconditional giving to a person withered by violence that transformation may begin.
So then in our story, whereas we might have expected the older brother to have been angered by the injustice of an equal reward for unequal work – and there are links here of course with Matthew’s parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard[ii] – and the younger brother to be overjoyed with his turn of good fortune [getting a big reward for little effort], the second ending of the story turns this on its head. It’s the older brother who is overjoyed – for he acted the way he did out of love [which needs no external reward], while the younger brother, when confronted with unconditional love, weeps.
This story of the two brothers can be told different ways. In another version the younger is a rogue, the older a saint. Both are offered grace. Sometimes, like in the story of the Prodigal Son it is the older brother who struggles to accept. All the stories aim both for individual transformation, particularly of the younger brother, but also reconciliation between brothers [the breaking of bread], for ‘good news’ is found in both. Good news is the restoration of an individual, but it is also the finding of peace with others in the context of a home or community.
[i] This story in one form can be found in Anthony De Mello’s Song of the Bird, and in another in Pete Rollin’s ‘The Orthodox Heretic’. I have drawn upon Rollin’s reflections.
[ii] Matthew 20:1-16.