The Gospel reading this week is another difficult one, one that should make us uncomfortable, but is nonetheless very significant. Jesus is instructing his disciples to do the opposite of the expected custom of his times. They are not to be seen as having greater status than anyone, and they are to be content with a humble and hospitable lifestyle.
Switch now to the Hebrews reading. The author also gives instructions about hospitality. Make sure you welcome and entertain strangers, he says, for it might be angels that you are entertaining. Be content with what you have. Have empathy for those in distress. Do not neglect to do good and share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
And in Jeremiah, when Israel ignores the covenant of the Lord, then the Lord cries out to the heavens to be appalled. Israel has chosen idols rather the living water of the living God. The image of the broken cisterns is a powerful one. Israel has preferred a poor substitute to the real thing and brings down judgement on herself.
The gospel reading is typical of Jesus in Luke, where the conventions of the day are turned upside down. Those who are faithful disciples will be humble and give generously without expecting to be repaid. They do not sit in places of honour, and are instructed to invite the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind to their dinners. Justice and generosity, not their status is what is crucial. It raises the question for us: how often as a church do we defend the poor and marginalised against those of status who would oppress them?
If you have been listening closely to the OT and gospel readings of the last few weeks, you would have noticed that when justice is ignored, and the poor and vulnerable are oppressed, God is angered, and judgement is prophesied
You might have also noticed a similarity between Luke and the readings from the prophets. These readings have similar themes because the teaching of Jesus is based on the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus often expresses many of the views of the Old Testament prophets. How should these teachings impact on the way the church views its mission today? What exactly are the issues concerning the poor, the rich and justice today? Are we really showing the hospitality of God to others? What idols do we make for ourselves? I do not propose to answer all of these questions. Instead I invite you to explore them with me, and decide for yourselves what Jesus, the author of Hebrews, and the prophets might be saying to the church today.
This week’s message from the prophet Jeremiah speaks of God who has been betrayed. The fierce anger displayed here by God is over Israel’s searching for false gods. If you read on to the end of the chapter, you will also find God’s anger about the poor being oppressed – ‘on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor.’ Jeremiah makes it clear that those who saw themselves as holy and who were in leadership roles are the ones most culpable of either causing or allowing such oppression.
This song of the prophet was likely never sung in worship. It would have been sung in the streets, literally, in public places, and not part of Judah’s worship. This was the prophet addressing the public world, not a group of religious insiders.
What was the purpose of such prophetic songs? Why did the prophets risk death and persecution to sing them? A brief flick through the Old Testament prophets shows that most of them shared a public propensity to condemn those who took advantage of the poor and disadvantaged members of society. What really lay behind the anger of the prophets and their songs of justice was not simply the fact that wealthier people were dishonest leaders and traders who squeezed the poor. The real object of this anger of the prophets is that these same people who cheat and oppress were also the religious pillars of society, who sat in the best seats and who sought their own honour.
And it was these leaders who had chased false gods and worshipped the work of their own hands. They trusted in their own works, in the status quo, and in their wealth.
In the mind of Jeremiah, this is rank hypocrisy. The people who substituted justice and righteousness with the bloodshed of the innocent poor were conveniently overlooking the deeper moral demands of religious observance. They failed to make the connection between their religious belief and how one should live their life. They placed many things before their faith, trusting in idols.
To put this into context, the prophets’ message of doom is nearly always directed to the comfortable members of society, the wealthy ruling class who live in Jerusalem (Zion). They are the ones to whom the ordinary people come, for justice and for good government. They are the law makers and the law keepers of society; they are the ones that set the religious example for the common folk. When they fail to show hospitality, justice and mercy, God promises that they, in turn, will be shown no hospitality, justice or mercy. This raises another question for us – have we become the comfortable ruling class who maintain a status quo of inequality today?
A quick look in my concordance this week revealed some interesting things. Justice for the poor is mentioned over 200 times in the OT. Directives to help the needy, weak, widows and orphans are found over 130 times. Directives about being fair to one’s neighbour’s occur around 130 times. These themes are found across the whole OT. The frequency at which they occur suggests that justice to the poor and marginalised was very close to the heart of God.
When we move to the NT, we see that Jesus had a lot to say on wealth and poverty. We have heard in Luke warnings about storing up treasures on earth only. He tells his disciples to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. When Jesus ate, it was with the poor or marginalised. When the rich young man wanted to follow him, Jesus told him to give away all his possessions to the poor. For Jesus, these actions equaled faith.
All of these things are found in the three synoptic gospels. But Luke goes further in his gospel. In Luke, the pregnant Mary denounces the rich and prophesies that the rich and great will be torn down from their positions of leadership and the poor will be elevated. She predicts the hungry will be filled, and the rich emptied. Jesus reinforces this with the Lukan beatitudes, where it is the poor, hungry and weeping who are promised the kingdom. For the rich, they can expect the exact opposite. The Lukan Jesus deliberately associates with prostitutes and the down and out. He even associates with Samaritans, the traditional enemies of the Jews. These fringe dwellers of society are the ones invited to Jesus’ dinner. This raises another question for us. How do we as a church show hospitality to those on the margins of our society?
Jesus stands in the traditions of the prophets, who were the conscience of the nation. And when one teaches such things, and actually lives them, then it should be pretty clear that various people – most likely the rich and those who were leaders and enjoyed the seats of privilege – were going to be unhappy. Jesus preaches the world upside down, just as his mother Mary did before him.
What about our world? In the face of economic struggle, there are those who are eager to justify their own prosperity, and who see the poor as a means to producing wealth, and therefore see no need to change the idols of wealth and power that cause inequality and injustice. Like Jesus, those who question the status quo, are frequently rejected and scoffed at. The ‘economy’ is now the god many worship, and the well-being of the poor, and indeed the atmosphere of the world, is incidental or unimportant. As I speak, we see this in the burning of the Amazon rainforest, with resultant environmental destruction, displacement of indigenous peoples, and the aim of making wealthy people wealthier through crops like cattle and soybeans.
That leads us to the thorny issue of climate change. Those who profit from fossil fuels are eager to tell us that there is no problem, and they would conceal the truth to protect their interests. Those who insist on challenging oil companies, energy companies and governments, those who insist on calling attention to the danger of our ever-increasing consumption, are now the prophets who are scoffed at, questioned or ignored. There are many voices in our world that want to promote their own interests, and ignore the signs of injustice, poverty, and the god of excessive consumption. Where does the church stand on such matters?
What of asylum seekers, who face a perilous journey across hostile countries and the risk of a leaky boat? Jesus very clearly said that when we welcome the stranger, it is the same as welcoming him. Jesus said love your neighbour and even love your enemy. Jesus said whoever gives a cup of cold water to those who ask will be blessed. The author of Hebrews reminds us to never neglect hospitality to the stranger, as it might just be an angel seeking our assistance. Yet this issue has become a political football between the major parties. It has inflamed xenophobia and racism in our land. It shows no sign of the hospitality our scriptures instruct us to show.
Following gospel values is difficult. Are we, as a church, willing to embrace the suffering of living out the Gospel message that we preach, while also embracing the suffering of the mocking, accusations and rejection that will come from those who refuse to change the status quo or to acknowledge the brokenness of our economic, political, healthcare, education, immigration, security and justice systems?
Has the church become one of the moral and well-off leaders in society that the prophets and Jesus criticised? Do we pay more attention to Sunday rosters than we do to the fact that over 15,000 children die each day from poverty? Are we more willing to put our church dollars towards band aid solutions than we are towards alleviating the problems of the poor and oppressed? Do we give more time to rhetorical debate in our meetings than we do to speaking out publicly against war or social injustice? Are we swayed by th voices that refuse to be hospitable to the stranger?
What is the gospel for today? What biblical teaching is most relevant for a society with increasing problems of wealth and poverty? Of environmental degradation? Of displaced persons in their millions? These are the questions we must now ask ourselves.
In our world today, over 150 million families live in sub-human conditions while only 30 million live in prosperity; two-thirds of the world’s population does not get enough to eat, thirty million people die each year of starvation, many more than any war has ever destroyed. 43.7 million have been displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution. 16.2 million of these are refugees. 80% of these are hosted by some of the poorest countries. Thanks to pollution from the western countries, global warming means droughts are now more frequent, rivers are drying up, and natural disasters happen more often. At least two island nations are being swamped by rising oceans. Because of western habits, tribal homelands in Africa and Asia that are needed to sustain indigenous people are being destroyed for grazing cattle or soy or corn crops to make hamburgers. Is this really what God intended to happen to the world and the people that he created?
Every Christ-following community and individual is faced, daily, with a choice. We can choose to adopt an ‘escapist’ faith, ignoring the pain of the world while waiting for heavenly bliss after we die, or we can do the work of listening, watching and understanding our societies and neighbourhoods, and the times in which we live. We can choose a faith practice that is easy, comfortable and expedient for us – that requires little sacrifice and work, and that makes us feel good, but changes little – or we can draw attention to the signs of injustice among us, we can call out the false gods of corruption and exploitation, and we can hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to care for the marginalised and vulnerable. Ultimately, if we take the latter course, we will face the suffering of getting involved, for we will have to actually do something about the issues we expose. We will also, inevitably, face the aggression and threats of those who are invested in the status quo. We will find ourselves upsetting the peace and being labelled as “threats to the economy”, “rabble-rousers” and other names. The question is whether we have the conviction and courage to follow the teaching and example of Jesus, or not. This is a choice we face as the church in our society today.
As a church, we must beware of conveniently overlooking the deeper moral demands of religious observance. We must not fail to make the connection between religious belief and how one should live their life. Like the prophets, we need to act and speak relevantly to our communities.
Only then can we hope to survive as a powerful force for good as we enter the next century. Only then can we make the world the peaceful, just and prosperous place that God intended for all people.
Written by Rev Elizabeth Raine
Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018.
Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister.More from Rev Elizabeth Raine