Text and context
In Table Talk I noted the tension inherent for us in reading the gospel accounts of Jesus relationship with the Pharisees – the product of a later period – back into the time of Jesus ministry. What by the time of the Evangelists had become a deep communal animosity between emerging Rabbinic Judaism and fledgling Christianity, had been in Jesus own lifetime simply a legitimate disputational relationship between advocates of a progressive approach to Torah interpretation. Both Jesus and the Pharisees drew from strands within the prophetic tradition to arrive at different conclusions about the nature of the Kingdom of God – the reign of shalom. Remember the Talmudic saying – two Jews, three opinions – at least.
Luke 15 opens with a continuation of the running dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the consequences of different approaches to the ritual proprieties of table fellowship. Jesus’ was willing to eat and drink with a general category of ‘sinners’ – for him, an expression of the open invitational nature of the kingdom. For tax collectors, we must read collaborators with the occupation, and for various other sinners, we must read those ritually unclean because of their choice of lifestyle or because of their inability due to circumstances to follow the strict observances of the Law of Moses. As a result, Luke tells us that many of these people began to flock to Jesus; Let’s hear Luke:
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:…
Parables political statements of the kingdom
In chapter 15 we have three parables concerning the good shepherd, the diligent woman, and perhaps one of the two most famous of parables, that of the prodigal son. What’s distinctive about these three parables is that they only appear in Luke’s gospel and therefore, we can deduce, go to the heart of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ politics.
I use the word politics deliberately because Luke presents Jesus with a highly political message, one the places him in the direct line of the Hebrew prophets. A definition of politics is activities and attitudes concerning governance or government. Luke understood Jesus to be political because the whole way Luke presents him in his gospel reveals Jesus being deeply concerned with the politics i.e. the activities and attitudes, values and expectations at the heart of his understanding of the kingdom of God.
The lectionary offers the possibility of stopping at 15:10 or continuing on to include the parable of the prodigal son, which should be renamed the parable of the forgiving father. I choose to stop at verse 10 because the prodigal son is such a dramatic parable it tends to suck all the air out of chapter 15 leaving the parables of the good shepherd and the diligent woman – somewhat deflated.
What interests me is the way the parable of the diligent woman is sandwiched between two parables in which men are the focus. The diligent woman is usually noted en route – in passing as it were, between the images of the good shepherd and those of the father and his two sons.
Luke’s presentation of Jesus’s politics
One of the characteristics of Luke’s view of Jesus’ politics of the kingdom is Jesus’ concern for women and children. More specifically, within the categories of women and children, Jesus is particularly concerned for widows and orphans. Widows and orphans come last in the politics of patriarchal societies, but first, it seems, in the politics of God’s kingdom.
The diligence of the woman who turns her house upside down in what amounts to the spring-clean of spring-cleans in search for her lost coin speaks to me in two ways, one general, the other specific.
Beginning with the general message, this parable presents an image of diligence.To be diligent means to exert constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken. Diligence requires a persistent exertion of body or mind. In my experience, diligence is a key quality displayed by women because diligence is a quality that is particular to the arena of everyday life.
Diligence and gender
Diligence is not heroic. Its practice is not dramatic. Because diligence has a quiet quality its practice goes largely unnoticed. Diligence involves an attention to the details of relationship. It is a taking care in ordinary everyday circumstances. Diligence is a characteristic of the feminine principle in the spiritual life. It’s a gentle competence in ordinary things. It’s an unsung characteristic of discipleship.
In the politics of gender, in my experience diligence is a quality more often displayed by women than by men. Even in the modern world where the gender divides of traditional societies have been greatly eroded, the parable of the diligent woman symbolizes the many women’s lives of service to relationship building and nurture. Whether this is in the traditional areas of service to others in the family or now more commonly in areas of service to wider communal, national, and international political life, diligence and service as gentle, yet determined competence strongly shape women’s experience in ways that are less evident the lives of men. Men are less focused on nurturing relationship beyond those of mutual advantage. Competitiveness and the drive of ambition are more culturally acceptable in men. In an age of apparent gender equality, many Americans still seem to have a cultural aversion to women seeking power.
None of us needs reminding that in our media-driven world where news is now entertainment, diligence is not sexy, it is not sound bite-y. It mostly goes unappreciated in the clashing and discordant cacophony of the politics of bread and circuses. As a society can it be true that we have lost our appreciation for diligence in public service as well as private life – preferring instead the peacock display of self-serving egotism?
Diligence and community
I have already noted that diligence is a quality of the spiritual life, and though many of us chafe against this, it is so. My specific observation from this parable can be applied to the challenges facing the parish community in which I live and work. In many aspects of community life, the pace dramatically picks up after Labor Day. We face into a new program year – but for what purpose? Is our purpose only that of maintenance; keeping things nicely ticking over, or is it more than this. As I discern it, the challenge my parish community faces is the need to grow.
In the culture of populist American religion, growth is a sign of success. I am not interested in growth as success. I am concerned with something more fundamental – growth as a sign of becoming more fit for purpose. My community needs to grow because growth is the indication that we are moving from the passivity of being a so-called welcoming community, to the magnetism of being an inviting community. I believe the diligence exemplified in the parable of the diligent woman expresses the persistent exertion of body and mind in pursuit of a recovery of that which has become lost to us. Diligence, the perseverance to do what needs to be done with the resolution of heart, mind, and body, is the quality we most need to mirror for one another.
Politics of the kingdom
In the politics of Jesus, as Luke presents them, God does not welcome us into the kingdom, God invites us into the kingdom. We are not to wait within our walls and smile sweetly to those who venture through the doors, although in many parish communities to do this is to take a much-needed step closer to the kingdom. God sends us out into our lives, the lives we live in the world among friends, neighbors, and colleagues – sends us out in order to invite them in.
Invite them in for what purpose, to simply mimic the signs of success? No! The invitation is to engage in the struggle to realize in our own time and place the expectations of the kingdom of God. We are they who are called to embody the future hope of the kingdom as if it is already a reality. And we invite others – into solidarity with us – as together we fight to realize the expectations of the kingdom; expectations of inclusion, justice, and peace.
 A phrase used by a Roman writer to deplore the declining heroism of Romans after the Roman Republic ceased to exist and the Roman Empire began: “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.” The government kept the Roman populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles.