Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Consider the Lilies

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, 'Consider the Lilies'. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity.

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 12:32-40

If you talk to people about Jesus’ teaching, it soon becomes clear that most people see Jesus’ teaching as the sort of feel-good thinking you get in a Ted Talk. It’s positive and interesting and not the sort that you would disagree with. It does not mean you follow it, but you approve of it. After all, what’s there to disapprove of? For many, Jesus’ teaching can be summed up in the phrase: ‘Be nice and be kind.’ You can’t really argue against it.

Immediately before our reading this week, we read of how Jesus tells his disciples:

‘Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’ (Luke 12:27)

People put these words on pictures of lilies and hang them on their wall or post them online. And again, what’s not to like? They provide comfort and reassurance in a world that is often hard and demanding: ‘Consider the lilies!’ Who could take offence at that?

It comes, then, as a bit of a shock to be told that with these words Jesus has effectively:

rejected the present economic system upon which our society and that of the developed world as a whole is based together with the educational system that goes with it

condemned the values and attitudes that most people subscribe to and live by

criticized the mission priorities of many churches

Now I realize that these are sweeping claims, and it is not going to be easy for me to justify them in less time than a speaker is given for a TED talk, but I hope at least to indicate where I am coming from and why I think this is what Jesus’ words imply.

As we saw in the sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, Jesus’ teaching in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel is given after Jesus has attended a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee, which St Luke describes in chapter 11. At the dinner, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being ‘full of greed and wickedness’ (Luke 11:39). This is certainly not how the Pharisees thought of themselves and, perhaps more to the point, it is not how anyone else thought of them. As far as most people were concerned, the Pharisees were both deeply devout and role models of religious commitment. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, writes that people held the Pharisees in the highest esteem. The Pharisees showed what a good Jew should be like. People listened to the Pharisees and took them seriously (Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 11-17). Jesus’ criticism of them would not only have shocked the Pharisees, it would have shocked everyone else as well.

Jesus, however, strongly condemns the Pharisees for their love of show, their concern for status, and their desire for stuff. They made a point of tithing even the smallest item but neglected what really mattered (Luke 11:42); they loved having the best seats in the synagogue and being greeted with respect in the market-place (Luke 11:43); and their greed (Luke 11:49) was to be seen in their love of money and what it bought (Luke 16:14-15). It is dangerous to criticize those with power and influence, and Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees leads to them becoming, not unsurprisingly, ‘very hostile’ towards him (Luke 11:53).

When Jesus leaves the dinner, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus begins by speaking to his disciples warning them of the ‘yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). Jesus tells his disciples that there will come a day when not only the truth about the Pharisees will come out, but when everyone’s secrets will also be revealed. Jesus warns them not to fear those who can kill them but to fear the One who after killing them can throw them into hell (Luke 12:4-5).

These are strong words, and so Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples that they are valuable to God. Anyone who acknowledges Jesus has nothing to fear; when the time for judgement comes, he will acknowledge them. When they find themselves having to defend themselves for belonging to Jesus, they are not to worry about what words they use, the Holy Spirit will teach them what they are to say (Luke 12:12).

Again, as we saw last week for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, this talk of judgement leads a man in the crowd to ask Jesus to act as a judge now to make sure the man gets what is due to him from the family inheritance. The man wants what is his own. Jesus rejects the role that the man wants to thrust upon him and warns the crowd that life is not about what we own.

Jesus then tells the famous story of the rich man who thought he had everything he could want and had nothing to worry about. What he had would last him for many years to come. He could ‘relax, eat, drink, be merry’ (Luke 12:19). God tells him, however, that on that very night he will die. God asks the rich man whose what he owns will belong to then. What use to him are his possessions when it matters? Jesus tells the crowd that this is how it is with those who save up for themselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:21).

Having challenged the crowd to think about what constitutes real wealth, Jesus speaks to his disciples. They are not to worry about material things; Jesus tells them that ‘life is more than food and the body more than clothing’ (Luke 12:23). Jesus invites them to ‘consider the lilies’: the lilies do not engage in productive economic activity, yet not even Solomon in all his glory looked as good as this. God will look after the disciples’ physical and financial needs; they are to concentrate on what really matters. Referring to his followers’ material needs, Jesus says:

‘For it is the nations of the world that seek all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Luke 12:30-31)

It is not that ‘these things’ are wrong; as Jesus says, the disciples’ Father knows that they need them. It is wrong, however, for Jesus’ followers to prioritize these things and centre their lives on them. Yes, they need them, but they are to trust God for them. They have more important things to concern them. Jesus tells them:

‘Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’ (Luke 12:31)

God’s kingdom is what they should want to discover above everything else. Given how important Jesus says finding God’s Kingdom is, the disciples may have understandably been afraid that they might not find it. Jesus seeks to reassure them. Jesus tells them not to be afraid, God wants to give them the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).

And so, we come to this week’s reading in which Jesus begins to draw out the practical implications of his teaching for how his disciples are to live. Jesus uses language and imagery that would have been familiar to the disciples, but which means little to us. Jesus tells them that instead of acquiring possessions, they are to sell them; and rather than spending the money on themselves, they are to give it to those in need. This much at least we can understand, even if we are reluctant to do it. But what does, ‘Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out mean’?

Speaking to us today, Jesus might say, ‘Make investments for yourselves that do not fall in value’. This type of investment is every investor’s dream, but, as the banks always warn us in the small print, ‘investments can go down in value as well as up’ and our ‘capital is always at risk’. Jesus encourages his disciples to put their trust in an unfailing investment in heaven. As Jesus observes, where what they value is, there their heart will be also. Jesus wants his disciples’ hearts to be with God, who will never fail them, and for them not to trust in material things, as such things can never offer any security.

Jesus’ teaching is a rejection of our economic system, then, not only because it encourages us not to trust in what we can earn and get, but because buying and acquiring stuff is fundamental to our economy. If you think this unfair or more than a little na├»ve, I would simply point to how the government at the moment is giving out the latest batch of ‘consumption vouchers’. So essential to our economy is it that we consume and purchase stuff, that the government is even giving us money to do it. The money is not to make our lives easier but is to encourage us to spend, whether we need what we spend it on or not. Consumption is essential to a modern market economy. The economy would collapse without it.

Our educational system is, of course, inextricably bound up with our economic system. Its principal aim is to enable those who will be its products to leave with the qualifications they need to be a part of the economy and to keep it functioning. The nations of the world may seek all these things, Jesus’ disciples are not to.

The obvious question in response to what Jesus says is, ‘Wouldn’t taking Jesus’ approach make his disciples seem a bit odd?’ And that’s rather the point, it will make them seem very odd, that is why people will bring them ‘before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities’ (Luke 12:11), and why they will need the Holy Spirit to teach them what to say (Luke 12:12).

We may not understand the implications of Jesus’ teaching, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews certainly did. In our second reading, he is writing about those who have been examples to us of faith in the past. It is worth quoting in full what he writes of them. He writes:

‘They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.’ (Hebrews 11:13-16)

As Jesus’ followers, we do not belong to the cities of the earth whether that be New York, London, Beijing, Hong Kong, or wherever. We belong to the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, which is above, ‘she is free, and she is our mother, as St Paul puts it (Galatians 4:26). It is the values of the New Jerusalem that we are called to make our own. We live here as ‘strangers and foreigners’, as the writer to the Hebrews puts it. We are, in other words, ‘resident aliens’.

The fact that we don’t look odd and that we live as if we are entirely at home in the cities of this world says a lot about the extent to which we as Jesus’ followers today are failing to follow Jesus’ teaching. We have allowed ourselves to be conformed to this world rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2), and we are failing in the charge Jesus gave us to seek first his Kingdom, both in our own lives and in that of our churches.

How then should we be living if we are to take Jesus’ teaching seriously? I would suggest three words to describe it: expect, express, expose.

1. Expect

If, as the writer to the Hebrews says, we are strangers here, if we desire a better country, a heavenly one, and if God has prepared a city for us, it follows that we should be looking out for it and eagerly expecting it.

This is precisely what Jesus in his teaching in chapter 12 of St Luke’s Gospel goes on to say. Jesus begins his teaching about wealth and possessions in chapter 12 by talking about the Son of Man and who he will or will not acknowledge when he comes (Luke 12:8-10). The phrase, ‘Son of Man’, is Jesus’ way of referring to himself. It is at the coming of the Son of Man that the secrets of all will be revealed. Having spoken about what his disciples’ priorities should be, Jesus goes on to speak of the importance of being ready when the Son of Man comes.

In our reading, Jesus tells a parable about slaves waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet and how they need to make sure they are able to open the door for him as soon as he knocks. Jesus says that those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes are blessed and will be rewarded. Jesus continues with the observation that if a house owner had known when the thief was going to break into his house, he would have prevented it from happening. Jesus is making two points. Firstly, that, like the slaves in the parable, it is essential to be ready for the Son of Man’s return, and secondly, that the Son of Man is coming like a thief at an ‘unexpected hour’.

The expectation of Jesus’ return does not figure very highly in most parts of today’s church. In those parts where it does figure, discussion focuses on the precise date when Jesus will return and the details of what will happen when he does. This is particularly ironic, as the exact timing is something that Jesus tells us we cannot know (Matthew 24:36). That’s rather the point. It is because we don’t know when it will happen that we need to expect it at any time and to allow that expectation to govern our thoughts, actions, and emotions.

We cannot settle and make our home here because we are expecting Jesus’ return at any time. The obvious response is that it has already been some 2,000 years, so isn’t it about time we accepted that Jesus is not going to return or, if he is, that it is not going to be any time soon?

This, I think, is to misunderstand the idea of being ready. Being ready is a mindset, a way of thinking that should determine how we see the world around us and our role in it. Whether Jesus returns in our lifetime or not, our attitude and outlook should reflect the belief that he could. If this was how we thought, it would have major consequences for how we lived as individuals and as a church, and also for how we viewed our mission in the world around us.

In about 597 BC, the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, carried off into exile some of the ruling elites in Judah. Things looked pretty desperate for the southern Kingdom. Quite understandably, this all came as quite a shock to the people of God. How could God let this happen? Why hadn’t God come to the aid of his people?

So unable were they to accept that this could be happening and that even Jerusalem, the Holy City, was at risk, that they believed that even at the last moment God would intervene and save his people from the disaster that was facing them. They clung to the hope that those who had been taken into exile would soon be allowed to return.

Many of the priests and prophets encouraged them to think like this. For example, Hananiah, one such prophet said:

‘Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.’ (Jeremiah 28:3-4)

It may have been what the prophet wanted the Word of the Lord to be, and it may have been what the people wanted to hear, but it was not what God had said nor was it what God had planned. Hananiah dies as a punishment for his false prophecy (Jeremiah 28:16-17).

There is to be no last-minute reprieve for the people of God. Destruction had come upon them because of their idolatry, apostasy, and sin. The exile and what was happening was God’s judgement on them, and it would only be when they had served their sentence and learned their lesson that they would be allowed to return to their homeland. The prophets who are telling them otherwise are telling them a lie (Jeremiah 27:16).

Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles with a Word from the Lord for them in it (Jeremiah 29:1). The exile is not going to be short. They are to settle in the place where they have been taken into exile. They are to marry and have families. Jeremiah tells them:

‘But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ (Jeremiah 29:7)

This message for the exiles to seek the welfare of the city has been taken up by many in the Church who see it as also defining what the mission of the Church should be today. We too, they argue, are to settle in the cities and places where we live and to have families and make our home here. We also, they say, are to work and pray for the welfare of the city.

It is a plausible and attractive message. It tells us what we want to hear, and it not only gives us a strategy for mission, it also gives us one that fits our own priorities and concerns. It is though, I believe, deeply flawed and as false a word in our day as Hananiah’s was in his. For now, briefly, three reasons why I think it should be rejected as a strategy for mission:

1. The New Testament writers never use this idea in relation to the situation of the Church and believer in the world. It uses the idea that we are exiles and that we are foreigners and strangers in this world, but not the idea that we are to settle here and make ourselves at home. This alone ought to make us cautious about basing the Church’s mission strategy on Jeremiah’s words.

2. The people of God in Jeremiah’s day were in exile because of their sin and as a judgement on them. In the New Testament, however, the Church is not in the world as a punishment. It is made up of those who are being saved from punishment. In other words, our respective situations are not analogous; they are very different.

3. Jeremiah’s word to the exiles was that they were not to live as if their exile would end soon. He tells them that it will, in fact, last a lifetime (Jeremiah 29:10). It will be some time before God will visit them. This is the exact opposite of Jesus’ message in the Gospel, which is that we are to live as if the Son of Man could come at any time.

The cities we live in are now under the same judgement that Jerusalem was under when Jeremiah lived there. Even now, St Paul tells believers in the Church at Corinth, the present form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31). St Paul’s word to the Corinthian believers is also the exact opposite of what Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon. St Paul writes:

‘I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.’ (1 Corinthians 7:29-31)

St Paul here is reflecting Jesus’ teaching, and it is this teaching that should be the basis for the Church’s mission. Yes, there are questions to be asked and answered about what it means to live as if the Lord could return at any time, when for 2,000 years he hasn’t! But again to emphasize the point: a Word of the Lord to exiles God is punishing in Babylon is not his Word to those who he is saving in Hong Kong. Jesus tells us to be alert and look for his coming, not to settle in the city and forget about it.

2. Express

In chapter 12, Jesus has at times been talking to the crowd and at times to the disciples in the presence of the crowd. Peter asks Jesus whom the parable about slaves waiting their master is for. Is it just for the disciples or is it for everyone? Jesus answers by telling another parable that makes plain that both it and the previous parable were for his disciples. In this parable, Jesus again describes what will happen when the master returns. The previous parable told how the master would reward the slaves he found alert and waiting for him. In this parable, the master will reward and punish his slaves depending on how they have behaved in his absence. Those given great responsibility while he is away will receive the greatest reward or punishment (Luke 12:43-46). Those other slaves who knew what their master wanted them to do but did not do it will receive a severe punishment (Luke 12:47). Those who failed to do what their master wanted out of ignorance will get a light punishment (Luke 12:48).

This is a tremendously important parable. As followers of Jesus today, we think that Jesus’ return is something that we don’t have to worry about. If it is going to happen, it will happen some time in the future. It is not something that need concern us now. Jesus makes absolutely clear it should very much affect us now, and there will be severe consequences for us if it doesn’t, especially for those who have positions of leadership and authority in the church. Jesus says:

‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required, and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.’ (Luke 12:48)

If, as clergy, that doesn’t keep us awake at night, I don’t know what will.

Jesus tells his disciples that the coming of the Son of Man should always be on their mind and influence their behaviour in the present. God’s Kingdom will only come with the coming of the Son of Man. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, during its history the Church has grown impatient and has wanted to establish God’s Kingdom for him. While it might be understandable, it can’t be done, and the Church’s attempts to do so have been a dismal and tragic failure. Despite this, many have not given up on the idea.

We can’t establish the Kingdom, that’s why we pray to God for it to come. We can, however, express its values and ideals in our thinking and behaviour. Our worldview as Jesus’ followers should be that of God’s Kingdom, and we are to show something of what God’s Kingdom will look like in our lives and that of the Church. As a Church we should seek to give people a preview of what the Kingdom of God will be like when it comes. Our task as a Church is to prepare people for it when it does.

This is why the New Testament writers put such a strong emphasis on teaching and growing in the knowledge of God, while also warning against false teaching (see, for example, 1 John 4:1-6). It is especially important that we pass Jesus’ teaching on to our children, for they are constantly being taught to seek what the nations seek rather than to seek first God’s Kingdom and then to wait patiently for it. As St Paul writes:

‘But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.’ (Philippians 3:20)

3. Expose

We have, as believers, come to accept the idea that Jesus’ teaching was all about being nice and kind. We have accepted it to such an extent that we cannot imagine Jesus criticizing anyone and certainly not passing judgement on them. All of which makes his uncompromising criticism of the Pharisees difficult for us to understand, and so we simply filter it out or deliberately ignore it altogether.

The Jesus we present to people is welcoming, inclusive, and non-judgemental. This image of Jesus is given credence by our selective use of Jesus’ teaching and actions. Jesus did tell his disciples that they should do to others as they would have others do to them (Luke 6:31). Jesus did teach that we should love our neighbours as ourselves and show mercy to those who need it (Luke 10:27; 10:37). He did forgive those that others refused to forgive (Luke 7:36-50). But as we shall see as we continue to look at Jesus’ teaching in this chapter and into the next, Jesus also spoke about how he had come to bring the fire of judgement to the earth (Luke 12:49).

After telling his disciples that they must be ready for the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus asks whether they think he has come to bring peace to the earth. This is precisely what we do think he came to bring. No, Jesus tells them, he came not to bring peace to the earth but division (Luke 12:51). His coming will, he says, from now on divide families (Luke 12:49-53). When Jesus is told about how some fellow Galileans have suffered a dreadful death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, Jesus asks those present whether they thought the Galileans have died as a punishment because they were worse sinners than other Galileans (Luke 13:2). Jesus tells them that those who have been killed were not. But rather than dismissing the idea that God punishes people, Jesus continues by telling them:

‘No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish just as they did.’ (Luke 13:5)

We are to preach the good news of Jesus and tell people how he offers forgiveness, but that means exposing what it is people need forgiveness from and what will happen to them if they don't find forgiveness in Christ. St Paul writes:

‘Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness; rather, expose them.’ (Ephesians 5:11)

This is what Jesus did with the greed and wickedness of the Pharisees, and it is what we need to do with the greed and wickedness in our own world.

We wait expectantly for the coming of the Son of Man and the City that is to come, we do so as foreigners and strangers here. But while we wait, we extend a welcome to people to find forgiveness in Christ and to join us in waiting for his coming.

May, then, we consider the lilies and seek first God’s Kingdom, knowing that it is the Father’s pleasure to give it to us.


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