Image. Parable of the Unjust Judge by Nikola Saric
At the start of each Vestry meeting one person leads a process we call Embedding the Bible. This practice originated as one of the initiatives from the Renewal Works program, which you will remember we participated in, in 2015. This was the first initiative after my arrival to try to understand the spiritual needs and desires of the congregation. From it, we developed three key priorities of which embedding the Bible throughout all aspects of our community life was the first. Embedding the Bible is a practice I commend to all our ministry teams. It has enormously enriched our Vestry experience by helping us to a deeper place of reflection and listening for God’s purposes as we approach the business of the evening.
Last Wednesday evening David Whitman embedded a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 16, in which the writer speaks of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Our following discussion centered on the question – is the hope that is set before us the hope of eternal life? At first sight this may strike most of us as a somewhat esoteric question – especially for a Vestry meeting. But actually, given that we all experience the continued death of loved ones and friends, it’s a somewhat relevant question.
Popular Christianity, particularly of an Evangelical or conservative Catholic flavor answers the question this way. Life is a process to be got through as cleanly as possible, which means not blotting your copybook any more than is necessary and following all the rules you are told to follow, chief of which is all is well if you must confess Jesus Christ as your savior, or if you go regularly to mass. If you do these things you can, at the end of your biological life, approach the heavenly gates without fear because you’ve bought yourself a ticket to ride the heavenly express – destination, the life eternal in heaven with God and all one’s loved ones, family and friends.
However, the New Testament offers a different answer. The hope that is set before us is hardly ever mentioned as destination heaven. The hope that is set before us, as the Letter to the Hebrews phrases it, draws on Israel’s transgenerational hope that God will eventually complete the process of creation not with us all shuttling up to heaven – that is if we haven’t got there already -but with the heavenly Jerusalem descending to become a reality on earth.
The Christianity the flows directly from the New Testament writings understands eternal life not as the life of heavenly bliss, but the renewed life that will come about when Christ returns to usher in new heaven here on a new earth.
As this is not likely to occur in our own lifetime or even that of our children, their children, or their children, down to the 10th generation – a phrase used as metaphor rather than as prediction, why should this matter to any of us?
It matters because it goes directly to the nature of the Christian life we are called to live. Are we called to live a life in which our concern is for our individual salvation, regardless of the state of the world around us? This is the Christianity of feeding the hungry on an individual case by case basis as an act of personal charity or piety but never asking why the hungry have no food?
Or, are we called to live out the promise of eternal life in the here and now time? Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the world are the two bookends between which we live the new life that is eternal in that we live out the hope that is set before us as something if it is already fulfilled, is in the process of fulfilment anticipated in our actions.
Although we await God’s renewal of creation we do not wait passively. We live as God’s horticulturalists, planting the seeds and nurturing the growth of kingdom values and expectations found in Jesus’ Gospel teaching. We feed the hungry, motivated not by personal charity or piety, but by protesting the social dynamics that perpetuate hunger and inequality.
What will happen to us at biological death is God’s business not ours. Our attention must be focused on this world and our role for good in it, a role I would sum up as the call to a life of protest.
On Thursday evening at the end of the weekly meditation hour which runs every week from 5:30-6:30pm, I spoke of meditating as a political action of protest. Again, there is a tension in our motivation towards meditation similar to the tensions in the understanding of the meaning of taking hold of the hope that is set before us. Is meditation a personal action we undertake only for the benefit of our own spiritual, emotional, and physical health?
Of course, it has an effect on all three, otherwise psychologists would have little interest in what they refer to as the science of mindfulness. However, what I was getting at with my suggestion to the group of ten meditators gathered in the tranquil setting of the fireplace room on the 3rd floor of the Parish House was that meditation as a political action is a motivation to change the world for the better.
Luke’s parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow is another of Luke’s perplexing Jesus parables. It’s about a man who cares nothing for God’s justice or for the plight of the widow who persists in demanding justice from him. Luke employs the image of the widow as a metaphor for the vulnerability of powerlessness. What this widow shows the judge is that while he thinks he can ignore her because of her low social status, he has not reckoned with the ferocity of her persistence as she continues to protest over and over again against his callous indifference to her demand for justice to be done.
There is a funny translation twist in this story. Modern English translations like the NRSV like to smooth-out the rawness and roughness conveyed by these stories in their original Greek. The judge, foreseeing he will have no peace from this woman says to himself: I had better give her what she wants so she will wear me out with her coming.
Whereas in the Greek he says to himself: I had better give her what she wants otherwise she will beat me black and blue with her pounding. It’s as if modern translator want the parables to behave themselves and fit into our neat world views. But the parables of Jesus will not behave themselves. So much for little old ladies! This widow is certainly is not one of them.
We all know first-hand the experience of powerlessness in the face fears that ill health will bankrupt us; that we won’t be able to afford the college tuition fees to educate our kids; that we have no power in the face of an economy that measures the very things that make us poorer and calls it prosperity and economic growth; that the environment is degrading around us through malign government action that allows our water to become undrinkable and our air unbreathable – all in the service of greed; that in the face of the earth’s rising temperatures government and intergovernmental inaction is tantamount to criminal neglect.
Returning to my original question: what does it mean to lay hold of the hope that is set before us? It means to live a life in which the focus of our endeavors is not to go to heaven, but to live a life where the focus shifts back from the future to the quality our persistence and the ferocity of our protest in real time between the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world.
Are we living lives of quiet complicity with the values of the world and it’s privileging of power and denial of justice for all? Or are we living lives of persistent protest in the face of the world’s denial of kingdom values and expectations?
Are we laying a firm hold on the hope that has been set before us? Now that’s the hardest question!