September 8 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
Theme: Something about stark choices. For those brought up on Saturday morning flicks, "Your Money or Your Life" might have a certain nostalgic appeal. But try reversing it – "Your Life or Your Money" is perhaps a little closer to the biblical approach. In similar vein, "All or Nothing" may appeal to the "get-to-the-point", time-poor brigade. For the gym-enthusiasts and their fellow masochists a good choice might be "No Gain Without Pain" or "Extreme Religion". And for those looking for instant attention (if not detention) something more provocative might be "Jesus, Fundamentalist, Fanatic and Redeemer". Being by nature a trendy tree-hugging effete, I'm going for "The Lifestyle Choice".
Introduction. All three of our readings today are about just that – a choice of lifestyle, although "lifestyle" may not have quite the right connation in modern parlance. The essence is about the way of life we choose to live in the broad holistic sense. This is spelt out for us in this famous passage towards the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrews are on the brink of a whole new start: after the horrors of slavery in Egypt, and the trials and tribulations of decades wandering around in the wilderness, they are about to enter the Promised Land. Ironically, they are now in the greatest spiritual danger they have ever faced. How will they live in this new land of plenty – with God or without him? Will their spirituality be swamped by their material prosperity? Philemon faces a similar challenge when he receives this most brilliant letter from St Paul. Can he, a leader in a local faith community, receive back his escaped slave and recognise that this man is now his brother in Christ, his equal in every sense? Can he live out in his own life the gospel he is proclaiming to others – even if it means a loss of face and social ostracism? No wonder Jesus urges caution on anyone who might be considering signing up to this strange new way of life. It is costly – make sure you do due diligence before you commit yourself to this undertaking.
Background. I happened to have the radio on one afternoon this week when the rain had finally arrived and given me a long-awaited excuse to cease my tireless toil in the garden and retreat inside when I suddenly heard Jim Moira ask Mai Chen an astonishing question: "Is it immoral to send your child to a private school?" What on earth could that be all about? Even the usually hyper-articulate Wellington lawyer seemed stunned by the question. Quite how the issue had arisen on the programme I'm not sure; but it seems that someone had suggested that to chose to send our child to a private school was inherently self-centred – that we should have the same concern to ensure the best possible education for every other child and that we should all therefore work together to get the best possible public schools throughout the country.
The same sort of argument may well be made about public health care versus private, presumably. Regardless of the specifics, at its depth this is an argument about spirituality, or about what I am calling "The Lifestyle Choice". Is a healthy Christian spirituality, in essence, individualistic or is it communal or social? Is it about me or us?
Here's a bit more of what I remember about the discussion on Jim Moira's programme. One of the participants was (I think) the Principal of a Catholic School in Auckland – an interesting choice from whom to seek an opinion on such an issue. Equally interesting was how she opened the "case for the defence". She took a strictly economic approach, even quoting how much the private school sector contributed to the Government funds through G.S.T. payments; and assuring us that fiscally the Government was a net beneficiary –the money saved by the Government in having less children to educate in the public schools, and of course the G.S.T. payments by the private schools, exceeded the amount of money paid out by the Government to those schools.
But Jim was not to be so easily side-tracked. From a Christian point of view, he persisted, is there anything in the argument that we should not be focused on what is best for our own child but on what is best for every child in our community? Finally, the Principal was forced back to the obvious response: however wonderful that might be as an ideal, there is something strong and natural in our human nature that makes us give priority to the needs of our own children first. (As Richard Dawkins would say, genes are innately selfish.)
I was much more convinced by her second argument than her first. Without being too cynical I would be surprised if many parents who send their children to private schools do so primarily to save the Government the financial costs of educating those children in the public sector. They choose what they believe to be in the best interests of their child. Nor would it to be fair to assume that they have no concern for the quality of education available to other children in the state sector. A love of our own children does not preclude concern for the welfare of others.
What nobody seemed to challenge in the whole discussion was the assumption that there must be, as a general principle (weasel words for a binding commandment) that Christians should not send their children to private schools – Yes or No? As St Paul said, we are set free for freedom, not for a new form of slavery. But we are set free together, not rescued on a case by case basis. We seek and enter the Promised Land as one people, not one person. Or in more specifically Christian terms, we pray to Our Father that his kingdom may come on earth, not to My Father that I may escape to heaven. We are called to seek this kingdom first, before any personal desires or needs, because in that kingdom all desires and needs are met for all its citizens. As individuals we are free to make choices; as Christians we are called to make every such choice on the basis of what we sincerely and prayerfully believe will best promote the coming of the kingdom in all its fullness.
And now here's a little true story brought to my mind by our second reading. In a little Anglican rural parish in the Diocese of Wellington one of the lay leaders was a local farmer, widely respected for his faith, his community spirit, and the fair way in which he treated his employees. Even at the busiest times of the farming year he would not allow his employees to work on Sundays – he would do himself whatever had to be done; and he would be at church every Sunday morning no matter what. He was of the old school – a man of courtesy, reserve, and good manners. When he became aware of any need in the local community, he would quietly meet that need without any fanfare. Many people had reason to be grateful to him over the years, even though not all of them would have known it. He was particularly well-known for his willingness to take on the odd troubled youth and give him a job for a while.
It came time to replace one of his full-time employees, and he appointed a suitable young person, called Bob. Bob started on the Monday, and all went well until the Sunday. Bob turned up in the local Anglican Church. Not knowing anyone else, when he spotted his employer and his wife in the front pew he joined them. As it happened there was a young, visiting priest taking the service that day. After preaching a sermon on the brotherhood of all believers, he continued the theme when it came to The Peace (which, in those days in that church, was NEVER shared with one another). The priest not only invited them to share the Peace but urged them to look into each other's eyes and greet them as "Brother ....... or Sister......" Bob therefore turned to his employer and said "Peace be with you, Brother Gerry." The farmer's name was Gerald, and only his wife called him Gerry. No employee had ever before called him anything other than "Mr....." or "Sir". On Monday Bob was told that in future it would be best if he did his worshipping in the Methodist Church. When did this happen? About 40 years ago, roughly nineteen hundred years after St Paul wrote to Philemon.
Deuteronomy. On the verge of freedom, the people are reminded that they have a fundamental choice to make. Will they live out their faith or without their faith? On offer is a life of fullness (prosperity) or adversity. Notice that the framework is one of consequences rather than specific acts of divine judgment. If they continue to love God and walk in his ways the consequence of that lifestyle choice will be blessings; they will live long and their numbers will increase. Alternatively, if they turn away from God, stop listening to him, and allow themselves to be led astray by false gods, the consequence will be an untimely end to the community. So make your choice – and make it a good one!
Taking It Personally.
· Before you pray the Lord's Prayer next, take some time to imagine what the Kingdom of God will be like on earth when it comes in greater fullness. In other words what are you asking for when you pray "your kingdom come"?
· Notice the reference in verse 16 to commandments, decrees and ordinances. How do you react to words like that? Now substitute words like "advice, guidance, and teaching". How do you react to those words?
· We are constantly urged to eat well, and get sufficient sleep and exercise regularly. Do you perceive such exhortations as commandments or advice?
· Is self-care part of "seeking the kingdom"?
Philemon. Read this marvellous letter for sheer enjoyment of the master's art! This is surely St Paul at his supreme best. The nearest parallel I can think of is his appeal in 2 Corinthians 8, but this letter surely trumps even that. Notice first of all the greeting in verse 1: Philemon is addressed as "our dear friend and co-worker". You just know a favour of some sort is about to be requested! And notice, too, that the letter is addressed to others as well as Philemon. Although seemingly on a private matter between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul does not mark the envelope "For Your Eyes Only". This matter is to be addressed in the context of the local faith community. There are to be no secrets among members (a truly frightening thought!). Paul plays the sympathy card – I'm an old man who is imprisoned for my faith; but he also more than hints at his status in the Church. He could, if he were so inclined, simply order Philemon to comply with his wishes; but, of course, he wouldn't want to do that, instead appealing to him in love. Then there is the self-sacrifice: Philemon has been of great use to Paul who has come to love him very much; yet he is sending him back. And notice the low punch in verse 13 – "in your place". (Subtext: at least Onesimus was here with me in my time of need, which is more than I can say for you.) But, of course, it would not be right for Paul to put his own interests first. It's Philemon's call – even if (verse15) the original estrangement was God's way of bringing about a new relationship between them. (Subtext: just a thought!) And don't you love verses 18 and 19? If you are out of pocket, Philemon, just send your account to me and I'll repay you – even though you owe me your very life (though "I say nothing about [that]"!) And verse 21 is the perfect finale to this letter. How could anyone say no, particularly with his fellow church leaders reading over his shoulder?
Taking It Personally.
· Read the letter slowly as Paul advances his case. How does it seem to you? Is it the letter of a man of love and gentleness urging his friend to do the right thing, or a flagrant piece of Machiavellian sophistry?
· Think of a relative, friend, employee/employer or colleague who is also a Christian. In what way is your "formal" relationship affected by your shared faith? Do you think of that person primarily as your relative, etc or as your brother/sister in Christ?
· What is your reaction to the story of the farmer and his worker (Bob) above? Do you have any sympathy for the farmer's feelings?
Luke. Jesus is drawing large crowds: they are not just attending an event and then going home for dinner. They are "travelling with him". Why? Well, Luke doesn't tell us, but we can hazard a guess or two. There will be some who are along for the "entertainment value" – they are the "miracle junkies" - the sort of people we've seen on TV hanging around Dynamo the Magician Impossible. Some will be curious – what's this guy on about? But included in the crowd will be some genuine "seekers" – people who have already seen or heard enough to feel that Jesus has something to teach them, but are not yet ready to make a commitment. It is to this last group that Jesus seems to be speaking in this short passage. Notice how different his "sales pitch" is compared with that advocated by some church growth consultants. Far from glib assurances and wondrous promises of personal gain – absolutely guaranteed – Jesus gives them the hard, cold facts. Do you want to sign up with me? Well, there's a price to pay, my friends, and that is everything you have – everything you value, everything and everyone in which you have put your trust. So the question for you is this: how much do you want the life I am offering you? A little bit – just enough to fill in the gaps in an otherwise busy and comfortable life and give some shape, purpose and meaning to that life? Forget it. Only if you want the life I'm offering you more than anything else in your life now, and more than anything else you can even conceive of, should you come even one step nearer to following me. Think about it very carefully. Do your sums. Recognise what you have to lose. Are you really prepared to give all that up? Do you really want the life I'm offering that much? And notice verse 33: so much for those who like to argue that the Rich Young Ruler was a special case!
Taking It Personally.
· Before you became a Christian, did anyone tell you this stuff?
· Place yourself in the crowd. Why are you there? Why are you travelling with Jesus? Are you as close as possible to Jesus or are you hanging back, somewhere on the edge of the crowds? Listen to his words in verse 26: how do you feel about them? Take your time – these are shocking words. Let those words sink in. What sort of man would say such a thing? Now listen to the next bit (verse 27): is he serious? Do I have to be ready to be crucified with him? Does his explanation help? How about verse 33? Are you still hanging in there, or have you turned for home?
· What sort of non-material possessions might we need to give up to be a follower of Christ? Power, status, reputation, self-interest, personal ambition, the "right" to judge others, to retaliate, to make ourselves ill by over-indulgence?
· No focus on verse 32. What application does this verse have in the context of discipleship? Rather than meet the cost of discipleship we seek terms for peace with whom? What sort of peace is that? Are you, or have you ever been, tempted to settle for this kind of peace?