Well, I did something this week, that I haven’t done for a long, long time: I pulled out my old, dusty New Testament notes from seminary! I sneezed as I opened the old, black binder that sits under my desk, and opened up to the section on the Gospel of Luke -- just to see what what was there…
My professor, David Rhoads -- maybe I’ve shared this before -- was the reason I went to Chicago for seminary. His groundbreaking work on “narrative criticism” as a mode of studying the bible, his emphasis on and mastery of memorizing entire books of scripture, and his central theology that was rooted in a cosmic, deeply ecological understanding of God’s grace and presence, was so enlightening and formative for me. One day he brought his African American adopted grand-daughter with him to class and that’s where I got the idea of blessing our children -- and having them bless us -- at bed time with the sign of the cross. His New Testament class was one of the best classes I took in those fantastic 4 years of training...and that’s saying a lot!
So I wanted to share with you this evening/morning what he taught me was the main theme for the Gospel of Luke, which I believe helps us get into this text for today. When we understand the wider theme at work, it sheds great light on the specific story. So put your bible study hats on with me for a moment. (Also fun to take you with me back to seminary…)
Dr. Rhoads subtitles the Gospel of Luke: Society with Mercy. Mercy is at the heart and center of Luke’s gospel. He lays out a stark comparison motif that runs throughtout Luke of a society without mercy vs. a society with mercy.
So just to run through his list, and I think you’ll get the drift…
|St. Luke, depicted with the ox, when I visited |
Cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium in 2015
In a society without mercy, there are inequities in wealth/power/status (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, everyone is equal. (Zaccheus: Salvation/healing is actually defined as the ‘giving up of wealth’!)
In a society without mercy, “sinners” are excluded (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the “lost” are found and forgiven and included. (Prodigal, shepherds)
In a society without mercy, people love and hoard wealth (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, people give to the poor. (Rich man who built another barn.)
In a society without mercy, the poor and the ill are neglected (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, the poor and the ill are cared for. (*our lesson here in Chapter 6*).
In a society without mercy, one puts human things before God. In a society with mercy, one puts God first. (shepherds: “Let the angels watch them!” Leaving their nets.)
In a society without mercy, you exalt yourself (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, you humble yourself. (Impenitent Pharisee: “I thank God I’m not like the others.”)
In a society without mercy, there is hardness of heart (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one repents and is forgiven. (Zaccheus comes to mind again! “Anyone I’ve defrauded, I’ll pay back 4x as much”.)
In a society without mercy, one justifies their own ways (often the Pharisees in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one only justifies God’s compassionate ways.
Finally, in a society without mercy, one only seeks his/her own interests (in Luke’s Gospel). In a society with mercy, one is empowered by the Spirit for others. (Zechariah)
So you see the pattern? Story after story in Luke can be seen through this lens of starting with a society without mercy, and then Jesus is the primary agent for ushering in a society with mercy. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, sets the tone...Jesus unrolling the scrolls, repeats that. And so on...
Dr. Rhoads said that reading Luke, you’ll become “either Pentecostal or political”. Either way the Spirit’s moving!
So let’s come back to this text today/this evening: With this awareness of “society without mercy --> society with mercy”.
Jesus feeds the hungry on one Sabbath, heals the sick on another. Fits right in, right? Mercy, compassion, justice, peace, love over-rides legalism. Society with mercy is where Jesus always takes us in Luke...according to the brilliant Dr. Rhoads.
Friends in Christ -- Could Jesus be calling us to “stretch out our hands” too? I love that scene. “‘Stretch out your hand’. He did so and his hand was restored.” And the Sabbath is redefined as a day of healing and grace rather than just militant rule-following.
Stretch out your hands, and be healed. Jesus says this to us too. And there are all kinds of ways that we stretch out our hands in healing: One way is to literally stretch. Stretch out. Take a rest, even a nap. Stop working. Yes! It feels so prophetic and radical, saying that in our culture! But that’s because for some reason, in our culture, we’ve made the Sabbath commandment ok to break all we want. But Jesus is lord of the Sabbath, and we’ve got to make time to stop. Recreate. Relax. E. Peterson: “Praying and playing.” Stretch out your hand.
But six days shall you labor in God’s fields, too. Six days shall we stretch out our hands in healing in other ways.
Open up your hands: I want to say a prayer of blessing over our hands --
God, make our hands agents of your mercy and compassion, for our hands belong to you. Heal our hands from selfish endeavors. Cast away all the evil deeds of our hands, forgive us for all the ways we’ve used our hands to harm other people, other animals, and even the planet itself, for all the ways our hands have helped foster merciless societies. Forgive our withered hands. // Take our hands, now, gracious God and cleanse them. Heal our hands, as you did long ago. Where there is oppression, use our hands to bring compassion. Where there is inequity in power and status, use our hands for sharing and working for equality for all. Where outsiders are excluded, use our hands to welcome them. Where money is hoarded and worshiped, use our hands for sharing and giving to the poor. Where human things come first and seem most important, help our hands to let go. When we exalt ourselves, use our hands for acts of humility. And when we seek our own interests first and foremost, bless our hands, empower our hands, fill our hands through the Holy Spirit to be about the work of putting others first, reaching out, holding and nurturing the stranger, the alien, the lost, the forsaken, the hungry, the tired, the little ones, the sinners...even the enemy.
[I invite you to join hands and let’s conclude as you repeat after me...]
Loving God / God of grace / Make our hands / agents of your mercy / from this day on. AMEN.
Pentecostal or political. Either way the Spirit’s moving! AMEN.