I’ve never been one for new year’s resolutions, but this new year coincides with another process of setting new resolutions (personal application of principles from the vine project). And one of my more ambitious thoughts was that I should write a short reflection at the beginning of each week on the sermon from Sunday, whether or not I was the preacher. I’ve never had a blog or done any regular writing other than sermons or assignments, so I’m not going to be naive about the chances of doing this 52 times in 2018… but I may as well at least try!
So, first Sunday of the year was Luke 14, and I was preaching. The passage largely revolved around a dinner party at a high ranking religious leader's house (a 'prominent Pharisee’), where Jesus challenges the attitudes and social practices of his host and guests regarding hospitality, social status and ambition. As I read back over the sermon this morning, it was this paragraph, summarising the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the wealthy host, that stood out to me:
“The main character of Jesus’ story started out as someone his fellow dinner guests could all relate to, but has ended up reacting and behaving in a way they would find completely alien – totally out of step with their values, attitudes and patterns of behaviour. And the point is that Jesus is challenging them to undergo a similar transformation. He’s trying to help them understand that those who embrace God’s good news and belong to his Kingdom are those who actually repent of sinful, self-seeking practices, even if they are considered normal and acceptable by the surrounding culture. They are those who deliberately pull back from exploiting people and social events for their own benefit, and instead seek to bless others regardless of material or social reward for themselves. They are people who act with uncalculating generosity.”
The challenge for those who wish to follow Christ faithfully in every generation is to discern those social practices and norms that are actually sinful and exploitative, and yet have somehow been accepted as normal and ‘fine’ by the majority here and now. Although of course it’s not just ‘discerning them’, it is repenting of them - no longer engaging in such practices ourselves, even if it leaves us feeling out of place and disadvantaged in ‘getting on with life’.
The form that Jesus suggests this should take for his original audience is inviting 'the poor, the lame, and the blind’ to their banquets, rather than their social equals or relatives. There are a number of important differences between our situation and that of Jesus’ first audience that mean the application to us will not necessarily be inviting ‘the poor and lame’ to our ‘banquets'. As I emphasised in the sermon, the key idea is not beginning with an attitude of “What can I get out of this?”, but rather “How can I bless others?" when it comes to our relationships, expressions of hospitality and really all of the social interactions and opportunities we are faced with in life. I really do think one of the simple and straightforward applications for us is to invite 'all sorts’ of people into our homes and to our meals, rather than always focusing on those we enjoy spending time with.
But it would surely be missing the pointy end of Jesus’…point, if we didn’t wrestle with what it looked like for us to bless the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalised in our community. I find this hard. My experience of Chatswood is mostly being surrounded by people who earn and spend a lot of money on themselves. And my only real experience of the poor and disadvantaged is a few individuals and couples who’ve come to the church office asking for money. I’m quite certain (due to the repeat visits and stories) that these particular people are not telling me the truth and that simply giving them money is not wise or even really blessing them. My concerns always seem to be validated by the fact that whenever I go with them to buy something like food or a train ticket (I never want to just give cash), there are always lots of reasons along the way why it would be much better to just give them money. I think one of the problems for many of us in this part of the world is that our normal day/week essentially just puts us in contact with relatively wealthy people, and the only poor and disadvantaged that we encounter are those who seek us out in a targeted way, asking for money. People we suspect are not going to be ultimately helped by receiving more cash handouts. And yet I know there are many struggling, even in this part of the world; they’re just not knocking on my door asking for money. And I know there are many people, perhaps you!, who somehow manage to get on with family and work life amidst all this wealth, busyness and materialism, and still proactively engage with those in real need and bless them relationally and economically. There are churches who seem to do a better job of cultivating this and facilitating it. Of course, there are some concrete ways that we have personally sought to be proactive in blessing those in need, largely through overseas child sponsorship or disaster relief, but in a way it just reinforces the issue - those we are helping and being generous to are totally cut off and separate from our context and community. It’s carried out via an organisation, and we have money Direct Debited, just like our gas bill. In terms of personally engaging with those in real need, it’s just so easy to go another week without really considering the issue... but that doesn’t strike me as an excuse Jesus would smile and nod at.
So… I’m nearing the end of my word and time limit for this reflection, having only really identified some sad problems in my own ‘routine of life’ (and presumably one or two of you reading this might identify to some extent!), but not offering much in the way of ‘helpful tips’ for applying Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14. Maybe you can help me?? Love to hear your thoughts...