Why Grace Sucks

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant has always been one of my favourites, but ever since I began working with young people it has become a very tricky one for me. The story is found in Matthew 18:23-35 and I’m sure you know it. In quick summary a king forgives a servant who owes him sixteen trillion dollars and then that same servant goes out and throttles his mate who owes him twenty-three cents. The king finds out, does his block, and puts the first servant back in gaol for being such a Grinch. In the same way we need to forgive the trifles of those who sin against us because of our awesome gratitude for the mountains of personal garbage which God put on Christ Crucified. As Jesus explains: this is how my Heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. This has not been a problem for me because I love God too much to say, and I know He loves me logarithmically more than I love Him. I have never been hideously naughty, but God has forgiven me for stuff I am ashamed to even think about, and beyond forgiving God is helping me to forget it just as He has. I have the brilliantest God: I love Him so much.

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Ser...

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Photograph of stained glass window at Scots’ Church, Melbourne (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So imagine you are seventeen and the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life is that one time when you were twelve and you nicked $50 from your mum’s bag before going down the Northern, flogging a bottle of black label from the drive-thru, spending the $50 on smokes and then hiding around your boyfriend’s place for three days of smoking, drinking and pashing yourselves stupid while your mum went out of her mind worried at your disappearance. That’s pretty bad, and as you sit and chat with the school chaplain you know that you owe mum and the man at the Northern an apology. And probably $50. Each. Perhaps, if the chaplain is brave enough to suggest it, you might even acknowledge your need for God’s forgiveness because you have broken two of the Ten Commandments: you disrespected your mother and you stole. Actually it’s three commandments if it happened on a Sunday because that’s the Christian Sabbath.

Now imagine you are seventeen and the worst thing that’s ever been done to you is that one time when your dad raped you. What if it happened eleven years ago, when you were six?

I can just imagine the conversation from there. Answer this one for me King Jesus: who owes who ten thousand years’ wages now, and who owes who a hundred days’ wages? Let me get this straight: because I can’t forgive my dad for doing unspeakable things to me when I was little, God cannot forgive me and will send me to be tortured in Hell for the sake of $50 and a few stolen kisses. But if my dad asks you to forgive him for what he did to me, and then he forgives me for making my mum upset, he will go to Heaven? Is that what you are telling me? Thank you for forgiving my sins, but if you’re gonna make my forgiving my dad’s sins the condition for your forgiving mine, then you can stick your grace.

Some of the children I worked with believe in the God of grace, and they don’t want to know Him. They ask “how can I worship a God that will forgive my dad as much as me? I can see that I am a bad daughter and a shoplifter, but my dad is an incestuous child molester and I was the child.” Hmm, they’ve kinda got a point there.

What if, as you see it, what you have done against God is outweighed by what others have done against you? What if you believe in a God who knows and sees all, but did nothing to stop those things being done against you? “Let me get this straight” you ask, “I have to forgive all that sin that God did nothing to protect me from. I have to forgive the horrible people who did those things to me, and then I have to ask that stand-by-and do-nothing-type God to forgive me for childishness and misbehaviour that is so insignificant compared to what I went through? And if I do that only then will God be pleased with me?”

No wonder the gospel is such a hard-sell these days; Amazing Grace can really suck as a message at times.

So how are we feeling so far? Ha ha, and you thought high school chaplaincy was about handing out free toast and helping Scripture Union to plan youth-friendly concerts.

The gospel we proclaim is a gospel of the grace found in forgiving others. It can be surprising to us how many kids know they need grace, but it really shouldn’t be. Undeserved mercy and favour is what kids live on. Unconditional love is what good parents do, and even poorly parented kids know that because love without limits is what they see they are missing. The need for people to be forgiven and to have the opportunity to make a fresh start is a gimmie for many: but the necessity to offer forgiveness and compassion to “those who sin against us” in life-changing ways lives in the category of foolishness to the Greeks. The gospel we proclaim is defined by this: forgiveness means giving up the right for revenge. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not mean that what was done was acceptable in any way, or that perpetrators should not face consequences. Forgiveness does not mean that perpetrators must be welcomed back into my life. There is great strength and divine justice in being able to say to someone “I forgive you, now get out of my life.” Of course this is not the answer for every conflict, but in some cases that sort of “grace of steel” is the cutters that can release someone once and for all from an abusive past so that they can fall into an abundantly loving and caring future found only in Jesus Christ.

The gift of the grace of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the character or activities of the person you forgive. You need to offer grace so that you can move on; not only so you can receive the grace of Jesus (forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) but also so that you can be free of the anger and bitterness which is holding you back from fully embracing the future and enjoying an extravagantly abundant life. Your anger only punishes you: let it go and let God sort them out for you.

This is a cause that moves Heaven to tears. Wicked outcomes are likely when children are seen as a lower priority in society or a second-best option. This is why youth work is of such importance. But wickedness is also the likely outcome when grace is overlooked in favour of revenge, or the pre-emptive strike, no matter how old the victims of abuse.

To be totally forgiven is to be released from sin: your sin and their sin because if you can’t give forgiveness you can’t receive it. It’s not that God refuses to forgive you unless you first forgive others; all sin was forgiven at Calvary and there is no unforgivable sin except the sin of unbelief. The point of Jesus’ story was that if you carry a root of bitterness in your heart you won’t be able to access that peace which passes all understanding which the grace of God brings. Your sins will be blotted out in God’s book, but you’ll continue to live a life of pain if others’ sins are not blotted out in your book.

One of my favourite definitions says that sin is the vandalism of shalom. It comes from the theologian Cornelius Plantinga. This idea sits well in this situation: don’t let anger spray paint all over your joy; and don’t let the grudge that you carry rip out the upholstery of your peace.

I used to work in a gaol. You learn a lot about crime and punishment when you work in a gaol. Inside our gaol we had 768 prisoners. Outside our gaol we had none; well, none that we could see anyway. But I wonder; if the man who had done something nasty to me or my family was locked-up in a particular gaol, and I knew he was there, wouldn’t I want to camp outside that gaol day and night to make sure he was being punished properly? Would you do that? Of course you wouldn’t, and neither would I. We could be angry about the crime, and angry at the man, but we’d leave the punishing up to the officers and governors of that gaol because that is their job. In the same way our God says “vengeance is mine”, not because our God is a God of vengeance, but because God’s people are not supposed to be a people of vengeance. Plantinga entitled his book about sin “Not the way it’s supposed to be.” What has been done to you may well suck, but Jesus died so that you could live free from that. A life filled with vengeance and hatred driven by an identity of “I’m the victim of crime” is not the way it’s supposed to be.

So let’s get back to the Bible. In Matthew 18:34 the evil to be punished by the torturer is not the debt of the unforgiving servant, but his decision not to freely extend grace another. The God of Golgotha hates our lack of mercy because it stops God from being merciful toward the victims of crime. Mercy is wasted on the merciless: and those who have the greatest pain and the greatest need for grace are often the very ones cut off from it. This too is a cause which brings Heaven to tears.

I say to pastors when they invite me to speak that whatever the topic they give me, the outcome would be a message on social justice. Anything I say, and most of the things I do, comes back to social justice. But in this case I feel justified by the editors of scripture as my Poverty and Justice Bible has highlighted key phrases of this story in orange ink. I wonder what their thinking was. This story illustrates one key for me with respect to the girl I mentioned earlier; grace and justice don’t compute. Retribution doesn’t happen in a world ruled by grace, indeed in this king’s case it wasn’t until grace was refused by the unmerciful servant that he rescinded the pardon and handed the man over to the law. The whole of the Bible is very clear on this message: live by the law and you will die by the law, but live by grace and you will LIVE by grace.

But getting back to youth work. As Christians we know that we can’t truly forgive until we’ve been forgiven; I must have experienced grace before I can offer it to another. Christian and non-Christian children grow up with patient and loving parents, and they learn to love patiently. If a child does not grow up with love and patience then the results of that are seen in the child’s life. Patience and forgiveness are normal; but normal patience has limits. Only God, and those who are enabled by God to love as God loves, can show unlimited patience and truly unconditional love. A forgiving spirit will always express and accept forgiveness, it’s never one without the other.

The message we proclaim as Christians is that it is up to the individual to take the initiative to forgive those who have sinned against you, (Matthew 18:15), but that you can only do this from a place of first having been forgiven by grace. Even the most unchurched of children knows about grace because they have seen it: the grace of God the Father is hidden in every supportive human adult. Grace cannot be offered unsupported because for people grace is unnatural.

Jesus’ teaching in this story follows four other stories which were gathered together to make up Matthew 18. Together these stories present grace as a dynamic within the fellowship of believers and a fundamental characteristic of the local church. In fact this passage is one of only two places in the gospels where Jesus specifically uses the word “church”; here he is specifically referring to a local congregation. It is the church which supports the act of conciliation and forgiveness in the lives of those who belong to it: that is why it is the role of school chaplains as local Christians to be part of this conversation. These kids may not belong to you, but they belong to me, and I belong to you. This is why I need your support in what I do, not because I need money to offer toast and Milo to empty tummies but because I need grace to offer oil and wine to broken hearts.

The message we can all give to the girl I spoke of earlier is not that God refuses to forgive the unforgiving. The message is that the unforgiving lack the humble attitude that would release them to seek and accept forgiveness, and frees them to extend it to those who don’t deserve the time of day from us. It’s the two sides of a single coin, or the two wings of the one dove. Which wing on a bird is more important, the right or the left? It’s a bit of a silly question, but grace works the same way. It is equally important to both give and receive forgiveness because one on its own can only send you spiralling into the landscape, or at the very least make you walk in circles.

Sex and Drugs and Jesus Christ

Sex and Drugs and Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In truth the amount of money owed in each transaction didn’t matter. The relative depravity or effect of the sin each one of us brings before Jesus is beside the point. What matters is that whatever is owed to God, God forgives each sinner the same amount. All. Now we can argue that the girl’s all might be a lot smaller than her dad’s all, but even in Bible College authorised New Testament Greek the word “all” means all. We each acknowledge that the shed blood of Jesus Christ is sufficient to save both the girl and her dad from their sins. What the girl needs to hear is that the same blood and the same death is also sufficient to save her from the sins of her dad, if she is prepared to accept that all means all.

And so to the application phase. “All good so far Damien, but what do we do about it”? Well I’m glad you asked because there are two key outcomes.

1. As Christian women and men we must allow God to work God’s healing in us, to redeem our histories and to save us from the destructiveness of hating our enemies. I hope you’ve got that from what I’ve already said this morning because I don’t want to say much more about that now. However, if you are struggling with the actual work of trying to forgive someone who has acted heinously toward you then I invite you to come and find me or one of the team and allow us to pray with you. Being Church means no one has to defeat the demons of the past on their own. There are Christians here this morning who are ready to help you in any way you need. Just ask, and do so quietly later on if you want.

2. As local Christians and members of the Church in our cities and towns we must see to it that no child is disqualified from an abundant life because of the sinfulness of their significant adults. If we had time we could read in the next chapter from Matthew (Matthew 19:14) that when his disciples prevented a mob of children from approaching him Jesus was indignant. For those of you who speak Bible College approved New Testament Greek this is the same word indignant that the Ten felt towards James and John when the sought the cushy seats in Heaven, and the same indignant that Judas Iscariot felt about Mary wasting her jar of spikenard all over Jesus’ feet in the days before his burial. This Jesus is not some meek smiley man going gooey over the ickle wickle bubby wubbies, but the Lord of All Glory thundering that such as these must no longer be inhibited. It says in Matthew 18:3-6 that Jesus had told the Twelve that children are important and that entry to the Kingdom depends upon having a childlike spirit. The God Jesus revealed is searching for those who have a spirit like a child’s; not a childish spirit of selfishness and squabbling but a childlike spirit that is trusting and open, uncomplicated and obedient. There are children in our city who have had their trust and openness stolen from them and who are destined to a life of complication and disobedience if they are not shown that grace release them from all of that into another way. That lie of a life, that you are a worthless piece of nothing left over from your early childhood’s tragedies, has got to stop. More than that it has got to be fixed and fixed right now.

So who’s with us?

What Makes You Angry?

Mark 9:33-37 and 10:13-17

 I dunno about you, but I hate the word “dunno”.  It seems to be one of the three most common words among the people I work with, alongside “wot-eva” and “nuthin”. 

What are you doing?  Dunno. 

What are you supposed to be doing?  Dunno. 

How was your weekend?  Dunno.  

What do you want to be when you leave school?  Dunno. 

What do you enjoy doing?  Dunno. 

What are you good at doing?  Dunno. 

What makes you angry?  Dunno.

 Want to know what makes me angry?  It’s kids who dunno, especially kids who dunno about nuthin.  Wot-eva!

 I wonder what makes you angry.  Now I am not asking you what makes you annoyed, or what puts your back up.  I’m not even asking what offends your ego.  What I want to know is what is it that stirs your guts; what is that one thing that can fire you up to action?

 If you could use your powers for good, what good would you seek to do with your power?

 In Mark 10 we read an account of the disciples of Jesus seeking to prevent a group of children coming to see him.  We see in verse 14 that Jesus was indignant.  What we need to understand is that this was not some meek man going gooey over the ickle wickle  bubby-wubbies, but The Lord of All demanding that such as these no longer be inhibited from coming into his presence.  This same word indignant is used for the feelings of some of the Twelve over the waste of Mary’s spikenard.   Jesus is recorded by Mark as being angry on three occasions; this one, the time when he cleared the temple, and on the day when he healed a man on the Sabbath while the religious leaders were goading him.  In these accounts we see Jesus acting with premeditation; not out of some angry flare-up.  In the clearing the temple account in Mark 11:1, 15-17 we see that Jesus went to the temple on the day before, but left again because it was late.  He took to the crowds with a whip he had plaited himself.  Did you know it takes four hours to plait a whip?  Jesus took his time, and then went atomic.  In the case of today’s reading Mark records in 9:37 that Jesus had already indicated to the Twelve that children are important, and that entry to the Kingdom, to say nothing of prominence within it, depends upon having a childlike spirit.  God is looking for a spirit like a child’s; not childish (selfish and squabbling) but trusting and open, uncomplicated and obedient.

 But do we know any children like that?  Uncomplicated, trusting and open, obedient?  I hope you do, I certainly do.  But we also all know that children can be easily upset.  My experience as a teacher and an uncle is that little children in particular will always be upset by two things.  One of those things is disappointment.  But I want to!  I want that one!

What’s the other one?  Anyone?  Dunno?  It is perceived injustice.  If an upset child isn’t saying “I want” then he or she is probably saying “oh, that’s not fair!”

 This is what makes me angry.  Not the whiney tone of a small child, but the fact that a child can go from “that’s not fair” to “dunno”.  I wonder if Jesus was thinking of that too.  To have a childlike spirit is not only to think that your dad is Mr Amazing and your mum is Mrs Gorgeous Masterchef, to be devoted, trusting, and obedient; but that in being uncomplicated as children are we must have a very strong sense of what is and is not unfair.

 I remember when I was a Day Supply Teacher in the south of England that on a couple of occasions I told a class of children, “there is far too much noise in this room so you are all spending the first five minutes of Recess inside, in silence.”  This was accompanied by my best scowl, and a hand gesture or two.  Then after a pause of between five seconds and nine hours, I would ask, with aggression, “is that fair?”

 Yeeesss Meester Ta-aa-aan, they would invariably reply.

 “Is it?”  I would ask.    “Okay.  Put your hand up if you were not talking just now.  Be honest, who was doing the right thing.”  I would usually get about 80% of the children raising their hands at that point.  Since it was usually only 5% of the kids who were actually out of line that was a good result, and if a noisy kid did raise his hand he would get a “No Jaxon, you were talking!  Mr Tann Jaxon was noisy!” from the kids at his table.  I would give Jaxon my teacher’s stare and Jaxon would sheepishly drop his hand.  Then I would say, “okay hands down.  Now tell me, and put your hand back up to answer, why is it fair that all of you have to stay in when most of you were being good?”  I would leave a pause and say, “just because a teacher makes a decision does not mean that it is the right one.  So here is what we will do.  Everyone who raised your hand just now, you will go out when the bell goes.  The rest of you will stay in for the five minutes.  (And Jaxon, you’ll stay for ten.)  Now, is that fair?”

 Yes Mister Tann!

 Where do kids lose their sense of personal injustice?  By my experience it’s around Grade Four, or age 9.

 And that makes me indignant.

 I think asking a school leaver “what makes you angry” is a great question to help him or her direct his future.  Generally your talents and abilities, both God-given and self-improved, follow your heart.  I am a good teacher, but I am a great Christian Pastoral Support Worker.  I am a natural teacher, I love to study and then to share.  I am a trained teacher; I have a Graduate Diploma in Primary Education from what was then called Northern Territory University.  But above all things I am a natural counsellor, I love to listen and to encourage.  I left teaching because I saw too many hurting children being pushed through formal education with no concession to their personhood.  No-one seemed to want to listen to the single-parent child, or the child who is herself a single parent.  No-one wanted to spend time with the immigrant kid, or the indigenous kid.  The misbehaving kid was boxed and tested beyond his capacity to cope, and then labelled as troublesome because he was frustrated.  The issue wasn’t that people didn’t care, but that the system didn’t have time for them to act on their concern.  So I left the system.  I gave up the curricular and administrative duties of being a specialist Behavioural Support Needs teacher, and committed my attention full-time to being a provider of pastoral care and an advocate for school-based social justice.

 Those who can, do.

Those who can do well, teach.

Those who can’t do well need people to help be better so that their teachers can help them to do well.

 A child who has been taught to forget that “it’s not fair!” is what makes me angry.  I think it’s what makes Jesus angry too.

 I am angry that children arrive at school without breakfast.

 I am angry that children are treated based on how they behave.

I am angry that children do not know that they were created in the image of a creative, magnificent, wonderful and loving God.  This is not about religion or the merits of Christianity as a lifestyle or a philosophy, but about self-esteem, self-image, and self-respect. 

Because I am angry, the people I work with can live in peace.  Because I am angry, the people I work with can get angry about things that truly matter.  A recent graduate of the school where I worked has a passionate anger for the end of Slave Trafficking.  He has joined the Stop The Traffic network and is seeking to get onboard as an activist with them.  I want to say to him be angry, young man!  You be angry that there are more people enslaved today than in any time in human history.  Be angry that 205 years after William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery across the British Empire, and 148 years after Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery in the United States of America that the number of human lives in captivity has increased!  Be angry about those facts, and not about the fact that the Collingwood won the flag in 2010, or that you dropped $1 down the gutter and you can only afford the small Iced Coffee.

Children who are looking to get into fights at school really need to get into fights in society.  Above all the personal conversations, the chocolates and postcards to teachers, the toastie-toast at 8:30 or the cuppa soups at 1:30, the Uno cards, and the phone conversations to Families-SA, what I do as a chaplain is share my passion of a world bigger than myself, and the myriad opportunities children with an attitude of “dunno/nuthin’/wot-eva” actually have to know, and to get involved, in the world. 

So, what makes you angry?  What can God direct your time and attention into?  Not everyone has to live for a passionate or noble cause, everything that happens on earth happens to fill a need and a life that is useful is a life that is not wasted, even if that life does not revolve around a social struggle.  But everyone gets angry, I know of no one who doesn’t.  Jesus got angry.  God The Father got angry.  God The Holy Spirit can be grieved, so I guess that is anger too.  Anger is good.  Anger is protective.  Anger is proactive, but anger in the guise of passion must be directed.  The anger of our God in Three Persons always bought improvement.  Jesus’ anger at the disciples brought peace to the children and a less aggressive attitude into the disciples.  The anger of the Father brought the Year of Jubilee.  The anger of Wilberforce brought the end to slavery.  You go get angry Church, see what you can change!

As for me, I want to see a passionate generation raised up in South Australia in the next decade.  I want Generation-Z to be the generation that sees the world recreated in God’s name, (unless my own Gen-X gets there first of course).  It is not correct to say that God is looking for anger and indignation, but perhaps the activity born out of our cries of “Enough!” is what Jesus had in mind all along.  Especially when it comes to children.  Amen.

Understanding Biblical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics can be described simply, if somewhat insufficiently, as the art of understanding[1].  More fully it is the identification, analysis and removal of obstacles to understanding the historical presuppositions of a text[2].  Alexander Jensen argues that if a culture does not reflect on its presuppositions then it can too easily take for granted theories that were discredited long before the contiguous generation came about[3].  In its theological sense hermeneutics is the field of study which deals with the theoretical interpretation of scripture[4]: practical application of scripture is left to the work of exegesis[5].  Hermeneutics is about communication, meaning, and understanding, all of which require varying degrees of adaptation to the culture of the reader[6].

One of the key understandings of hermeneutics as it has been practiced in the last two centuries is that different people will see different things in the one text.  It is worth acknowledging from the outset of any examination of what Biblical Hermeneutics might be that what is seen (acknowledged) and understood (interpreted) by any reader depends upon his or her social location.  In my case I am an English-Australian man, first generation and fifth, of the Reformed Evangelical tradition within the Uniting Church.  I am of Generation-X and have an Arts degree in Sociolinguistics, a post-graduate diploma in Primary Education, and a VET diploma in Youth Work.  I live on Kangaroo Island.  I read as a tertiary educated, Bible-based, Christ-focussed, mission-minded, forty-something Aussie from the bush.  I have experienced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Generalised Anxiety Disorder in the past so I also read toward compassion and justice for those participants in society who are marginalised on account of their health.

The hermeneutical journey began in antiquity when the authoritative myths of ancient Greece were reinterpreted in centuries later than those in which they were composed.  Questions were asked as to how an authoritative text might remain authoritative when the worldview of its recipients had changed[7].  They asked what old texts, upon which their culture was established, could continue to say to them when their culture had progressed through the centuries to new forms of understanding the world around them.  Later the trail of previous interpretations began to be examined as each new age, (century, generation), reinterpreted not only the original text but the series of intervening reinterpretations.  One of the key forms favoured by Jewish and Christian writers and interpreters in the first four centuries of the Common Era was the use of allegory and typology or “prefiguring”[8].  The old story foreshadowed the new; for example the stories of the Exodus and the passing through the sea were used by Paul as a typology of baptism, connecting a particular story of Jesus to the whole story of the Hebrew people.

In the ongoing Jewish tradition the midrash method of interpretation was used when a particular text was chosen as the basis for telling a new story: the text was interpreted in such a way as to make it apply to the current situation, giving the new story the added weight of the old.  As the Jewish-Christian story moved out of Israel and into the Greco-Roman world in Asia and then Europe the story was reshaped by its retelling in the new context.  The imagery and metaphors of the story’s own worldview were no longer those of the receiving culture.  The Christian story also began to divide between the Platonic school of Antioch and the Aristotelian school of Alexandria.

The Alexandrines were readers in allegory and questioned the literal historicity of text.  Where chronological inconsistencies arose these could be left behind when the text was interpreted symbolically.  There was an attempt to explain away the exclusiveness of Israel and the apparent anthropomorphism of Hebrew understanding; Philo saw the revelation of God to the Greeks as not different to the revelation to Israel[9].   In contrast the Antiochenes were readers in rhetorical analysis: they were text-grounded and the intention of the author and editor was considered vital.  Original meanings were important, as were literary contexts, historical references, chronology and principles of translation.  Their taking a literal-historical approach meant that the scholars of Antioch had to try to explain discrepancies in the text.

Historical biblical criticism tends to focus on the world behind the text and its author.  Who composed this text, who later edited it, why and when?  It is diachronic and looks at the history of the text itself and how it has been edited and changed across time.  The authors’ and redactors’ intention is vital, what matters is how the text was used initially and at discrete moments in the history of its readers. Literary biblical criticism tends to focus on the world of the text and its readers. What does this say about the writer and readers?  What is the text’s meaning for us in its final form? The authors’ intention is irredeemable and irrelevant, what matters is how the text is used today. Everyone interprets the Bible in her or his own way, yet there is a great deal of common ground in how people go about the processes of interpreting the Bible[10].  Oftentimes a combination of historical and literary means are used in a reader’s interpretation; sometimes traditional (historical) critical forms are used in non-traditional ways.

The origin of biblical texts was in the life-experiences of communities, a situation that asks questions of whether experience has meaning before thought and word are constructed around it.  The Bible is of central importance to the faith community of Christians[11]; it is not one “word” but an intelligible divine discourse; yet Schneiders observed that this discourse is figurative since God cannot be said to have vocal organs to make sounds[12].  Language is limited in its capacity to express the ineffable being and the thoughts of God.  All words fall short even as they express the logos in graphemes. “The Word of God” is a root metaphor where speech fills the place of divine self-revelation[13]: inspiration and infallibility are faith affirmations, not objective statements, of the way in which God interacted with the various writers of scripture through the agency of Holy Spirit and human talents in writing and editing[14].  Authority vested in God is conferred on the Bible, but the words hold no intrinsic value without them being the revelation of an active God.  With particular regard to a hermeneutic of the Bible it must be remembered that scripture is God’s self-revelation carried by language: the words tell of ways beyond themselves of communication, for example prayer, sacrifice, fellowship, and a life of obedience.  The scriptures are a living metaphor, moving with the development of language through reinterpretation, re-presentation, and recognition of the movement of God’s Holy Spirit upon writers, redactors, and readers.

In the Middle Ages authority was vested in the Roman Church and the rule of faith and exegesis was subordinated to doctrine[15].  The scriptures could mean only what the Roman bishops said they could mean, yet mediaeval scholars had a thousand years of Christian historical and traditional interpretations.  The text began to be used for teaching and therefore interpretation had a purpose; the message of the scriptures was used as a basis for teaching rather than interpretation.  By the time of Thomas (Aquinas) interpretation was being moved aside in favour of theology, and the Bible began to be read as a proof text for philosophical ideas rather than being the defining reality itself.

During the Enlightenment it was discovered that the Bible could be read as an historical document distinct from its theology and that a hermeneutic for historical criticism might be employed[16].  Enlightenment scholars placed more authority on Reason than on tradition and their interpretative methods sought scientific bases for their authority.  It was at that time that the historical critical methods emerged and the search for the Jesus of history began.  Each of the historical critical methods seek to reconstruct the historical context in which individual Biblical texts had their origin.  The methods set out to reconstruct the historical meaning of the text, the meaning the text had for the audience, for which it was intended, placing central importance upon source material and reconstructing, where possible, the initial form of the text.  The key outcome of reading with an eye to hermeneutics is that the way in which a text is structured determines the way in which its meaning is perceived.  If a text is seen as myth it will be read very differently to if the same text were perceived as being a “true history”.  Scholarship is never value free and the claim of the historical critical forms of hermeneutics value-neutrality is unfounded.

What then can be done then to make meaning clear, or indeed to simply make meaning mean something?  The Hermeneutic Cycle offers three elements in response to this question: consider each of sender, receiver, and text.  The reader must reflect upon the world where the sender or writer is situated, the text may or may not give him or her clues to this world so this would be looked for in wider study.  Text itself creates a world; but what world is created?  Certain codes or symbols are found in texts which point toward the intention of the text; this is one way of reading for meaning.  Receivers or readers belong to a world which has an effect on the meaning of the messages received; invariably there is interaction between the reader’s worldview and his or her circumstance, his or her ideology leads the reader to receive texts in a particular way.  Christians see the Bible as “Word of God” and bring that level of appreciation to it; others see the Bible without this faith stance and read it as literature or cultural artefact.  With regard to understanding Biblical Hermeneutics it must be remembered that for Jewish and Christian believers in God interpretation of the Bible is essentially a work of discerning the will of God[17], whereas for literary or cultural seekers it is not the understanding of God which is sought but that of the people who inhabit the book and faith communities it informs.  What is come to be understood after the hermeneutic process is engaged with depends upon the questions asked of the text in the first place.

Bibliography:

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. London: SCM Press, 1984

Holladay, Carl R. “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, 415. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996.

Jensen, Alexander S. Theological Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2007

Lategan, Bernard C. “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

McKenzie, Steven L. And Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Thiselton, A.C. “Hermeneutics.” in New Dictionary of Theology. edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson et al., 293-297. Leicester: IVP, 1988.


[1] Bernard C. Lategan, “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 149.

[2] Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, (London: SCM, 2007), 2.

[3] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 1.

[4] Carl R. Holladay, “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996), 415.

[5] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 149.

[6] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 24, 26.

[7] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 9.

[8] ibid 11, 24.

[9] Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. (London: SCM Press, 1984), .54.

[10] Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   (Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 5.

[11] Sandra M. Schneiders. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), 27.

[12] ibid, 27-28.

[13] ibid, 32.

[14] Ibid, 53.

[15] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 150.

[16] Ibid, 150.

[17] Ibid, 150.

The Wise Manager

Luke 16:1-13; I Tim 2: 1-7

Today is Stewardship Sunday across the Kangaroo Island Linked Congregations of the Uniting Church so it seems appropriate that we take some time to talk about money.  At first glance it may seem strange that we’d want to talk about the Shrewd Manager in this context, but this one of those stories which is printed in red in the Bible; it is the words of Jesus and so it is worth taking a look at.  There are two traditions around this reading from Luke, two ways in which various commentators and preachers of scripture over the past five hundred years or so have grappled with what appears to be a difficult set of teachings from Jesus.  Why would God-made-Man tell us a story about rewarding dishonesty in business?  So let’s see where the traditions each lead us and where they leave us.  Remember as we go along that this is the Bible: you can’t argue that it’s some weird idea from a self-help book.  I didn’t buy some random book in the Koorong money aisle or at some weird Pentecostal convention; this is what the Bible reads in several English versions.

The manager in this story is a paid servant and is probably working for an absentee landlord.  While the boss is off living it up in his villa in Caesarea our man is living in the manager’s flat above the office and is running the daily accounts and investments.  News has reached Caesarea that things are not good in the business and the boss has decided to take action.  There is no evidence in the story that the servant-manager has been dishonest, more that he has been careless.  Luke uses the same Greek word here to describe how the servant-manager has acted as he used to describe the activities of the prodigal son in the previous chapter.  He has been wasteful, inept.  It is then, with his job and his manicure on the line, that the servant-manager becomes wise.  He uses his position to make friends, and here’s where those two traditions I spoke of earlier begin to diverge.

  1. The servant-manager cuts the debts of those beholden to his master.  One hundred measures of oil become fifty, one hundred measures of grain become eighty.  Tradition one says that what the servant-manager is doing is removing the interest from a loan.  The debtors are required to pay back the master’s principle, but the interest is written off by the astute work of the servant-manager.  This would be a godly act since under Hebrew Law the charging of interest is illegal, and if the master were to push for charges against the servant-manager he’d be in trouble with the priests for charging interest in the first place.  This is what used to be called “the sin of usury” and the compulsion to not charge interest is still a basic principle for Islamic businesses.  So not only does the man make true friends of his business associates, and ensure himself of a cushy place to flop when he’s finally evicted by the boss, he also acts in accordance with God’s higher law that to enslave people to debt under exorbitant rates of interest is morally wrong.  Look at the oil, one hundred measures is reduced to fifty.  That’s a 100% interest rate.  Even the grain carried a 25% loading.  The master is happy because he gets his principle returned, he doesn’t actually lose anything, and he admires the shrewd action of the servant in covering his own backside under the law.  “Yeah, okay, you got me, now get lost” says the master with a sly grin.  So, getting back to Jesus’ point, the remission of interest is an act of grace and an act of godliness against the money-focussed practices of the day.  Therefore the servant-manager is shrewd and just, and not dishonest at all.   That sounds more like something Jesus would say doesn’t it?
  1. Tradition two says that the above is all rubbish and that the servant-manager was probably completely on the take from the outset; by reducing the debts he was simply saving his own backside with no sense of grace toward the law of God or toward his debtors.  He’s using his master’s wealth, even after he’s been given his notice, to secure his future.  Once a crook, always a crook, but at least this crook is a good crook and he gets away with it.  In this tradition it’s not the master of the servant-manager who commends the way he has acted, it is Jesus “the Master” who commends the behaviour.  Have a look at verse eight; is it “the master” or is it “the lord”.  The same word “kyrios” is used, the word we use in Kyrie Eleison or “Lord have Mercy”.  Needless to say this tradition puts Jesus himself in the story, commending a crook for excelling in his crookedness.  What do we think of that?

Make no mistake, this is not a lesson on ethics, it is a lesson on money.  Verse one says that Jesus was speaking to his disciples when he told this story.  It’s something he wanted his own followers to know.  In the second half of verse eight he says that they (which means us) must be shrewd in dealing with their own generation, the people who live alongside them regardless of how old they are.  (Generation is not an age-group thing.) The followers of Jesus are to be as shrewd as the people of the world are in their dealings with each other.    Jesus says in verse eleven that if a man or woman has not been faithful in handling worldly wealth how can he or she be trusted with true wealth, the things of God?  Prove by your wise use of money and possessions that you are worthy to be trusted with the power from on high and the responsibilities of being a good steward of God’s possessions, the actual “things of God”.  This is a clear challenge to the Church to be in the world. Yes we are told to be not of the world, to be “worldly” or to “act according to the flesh”, but we are to be in the world all the same.  In other words Jesus says if you can prove capable of looking after yourself in the midst of all that is happening in society around you then you can be trusted with the care of others.

Remember, Jesus is speaking to his disciples.  In the reading from I Timothy Paul is writing to his disciples, the Christians in the city of Ephesus, the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  This is not an injunction to the World to give up chasing the dollar, if anything it’s a spur to local Christians to be penny-wise and pound-sure.

Lesson one from Jesus and Paul is to know what you possess and to use those possessions well.

Lesson two from Jesus is don’t get trapped in a world of debt. Live in such a way that you are free to serve God and not bound so tightly to a mortgage or a lender such that you are not free to witness Christ.  “What if I lose the house?” says the servant-manager.  Use what you have to make friends with those who will take you in, (and be wise enough in business acumen that the house is never at risk).  Make right use of the opportunities of daily life; make wise decisions now which will free you to be all that you need to be when the time comes to be it.  The here-and-now possessions don’t matter in Heaven, but what you did with them does.  Use your things to make friendships.  And pray for your friends and leaders says Paul to Timothy.

But hang on a minute, can that be right?  Doesn’t the Bible say that all money is dishonest?  Well no, what the Bible actually reads is that all money is tainted, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t use it for good.  Pull out a note or a coin from your pocket.  Do you know where that money has been? What was it spent on before you received it?  Does it matter now that it’s in your hands?  What about this money in the bag?  It’s now God’s money, or the Parndana Uniting Church’s at least.  What if this random $20 note was once used to buy drugs, or porn? What if it was once pick-pocketed? Does it matter now that it’s in the bag; now that it’s being used for good?  Once again if we can’t be trusted to use money wisely how can we be trusted with real wealth, with the things that God finds valuable?  Prove your integrity by using well what you have in your hands.

I want to make one thing clear at this point however, before you accuse me of preaching a prosperity gospel, money is not the reward for righteousness.  As I see it money is the means of exchange in our capitalist society, and as such it can be the means for accomplishing righteousness.  Money is the reward of being a good citizen and a good business person and in today’s world we can do nothing without money.  But as John Wesley, among others, has said use all you have to do all the good you can.  Know this clearly; there is no guarantee that if you tithe 15% God is going to give you a Ferrari.  We don’t preach that story in this Church.

Yet even with that Jesus says inverse eight that as well-intentioned as we may be, the World uses its possessions better than we do.  Like the servant-manager we must use our possessions to gain (rather than lose) our desired future as it suggests in verse nine. So what future do we desire?  Do you want loneliness in a big house, or a well fed and educated African village?  Do you want the only Ferrari on Kangaroo Island, or do you want to see a vibrant and active Church serving Kangaroo Island such that no man, woman or child goes to sleep hungry or cold and every one of them knows that they are loved by God?

I wonder how the servant-manager on the brink of dismissal for carelessness suddenly became so wise.  Did he perhaps get to keep his job after all?  Perhaps his master’s reputation was so enhanced by the servant-manager’s gracious arrangement with the debtors that it was to the enhanced good-will of the business to keep him on.  The way we use our Master’s resources makes our Master look good.  Jesus takes people’s attitude to money as a means of teaching the lesson that discipleship must be whole-hearted.  Verse ten tells us that faithfulness is no accident; good stewardship takes practice and effort.  As verse thirteen says one can be whole-hearted in the service of God, or the service of stacking up possessions for the sake of possessing them, but not both.  We can have God and have money, but we can only serve one.  Who is your master, God or stuff?  Who is your servant, God or stuff?

In his letter to the young leader Timothy, Paul instructs him to live well, to live quietly, and to ask God for all that he might need in terms of wellness and peace.  In the same way we desire to live in such a way that we are not encumbered by anything, but are free to give all our time and talents to God’s purposes of seeing the world come to know the Prince of Peace; the God who has no lack.  Paul instructs the Ephesians to pray for every living person that each will come to know the fullness of God’s saving grace.  Pray especially for the heads of government that they will rule securely and that their subjects may live comfortably.  It is much easier to serve God in a nation where there is no civil unrest.  Today we might want to pause and think about the Christians of Syria.  I read in a mission newsletter a few months back of how the Christians of Egypt were praying not that their persecution would stop, but that the men and women in authority over them would come to know Jesus Christ.  “How will Mohammed Morsi know the love of Jesus now that he has been toppled?  He is too angry.”  Isn’t that sad?

In chapter fifteen of Luke’s gospel and the readings directly in front of today’s reading Luke leads us through three stories where what was lost was searched for until it was found.  Time and effort were invested in recovering what was cherished and dear and no effort was too small, not even an effort to the exclusion of everything else.  The shepherd left the 99 to go after the one.  Why would Luke append this passage, about a shonky manager, to the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost or “prodigal” son?  The answer is simple, I believe.  People are what is most dear to God.  There is no better use of our resources than to employ them in reaching and recovering God’s lost sons and daughters, God’s own lost valuable belongings, the ones who belong to God.  All must be found, rescued from what Rev Rob described last week as “what blankets us – financial pressure, health issues, and family concerns – the things that leave us cut-off, floundering, exasperated and alone.”

Think about the joy of the shepherd who recovers his lost sheep, and the woman who finds her lost coin, from those stories.  Think of the joy of the prodigious father at the return of his wayward son.  In grace God allows each of us to experience the joy of the one doing the finding when we invest all we have in recovering God’s lost treasure.  The more we have in our hands, the more we can do for the Kingdom.  This is wise stewardship.

Amen.