The Common Good
September-October 1998

Agents of the Kingdom

by Kari Jo Verhulst | September-October 1998

To be agents of the kingdom of God is a full-time occupation. It requires a whole-life commitment; it requires preparation and energy.

To be agents of the kingdom of God is a full-time occupation. It requires a whole-life commitment; it requires preparation and energy. The passages in these weeks of ordinary time involve Jesus preparing his disciples for their role as shepherds of the new church. They are full of befuddling lessons drawn from enigmatic tales. No sphere of society is beyond Jesus' reach. He uses managers, judges, and military leaders to prompt the disciples to take seriously their charge.

Beneath the particular morals of the stories recurs the theme that a life of discipleship requires nothing less than complete surrender to God. We cannot move freely amid this world if we are burdened by possessions, titles, institutions. To release everything that prevents us from living fully as God's children, we need to return again and again to God's presence. So as Jesus warns us to pay attention to the imminent kingdom, he beseeches us to fall freely into the everlasting arms of God. That is all the equipment required for the journey.

September 6

All or Nothing

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Philemon 1:1-21

Luke 14:25-33

I was recently out for dinner with a friend when it started raining hard. A homeless woman came into the restaurant crying, begging for help. While the restaurant staff quickly ushered her back outside, she continued to plead. Some other guests left the restaurant soon after she exited and helped her somehow. The next time I turned around to look, she was gone.

I am still shaken by my failure to act. I was seated upstairs and far from the door. If I'd been closer, maybe I would have gone to her. My fear of embarrassment and inadequacy in the face of such overwhelming need paralyzed me.

How can we gain the courage to act? How can we be equipped to be Christ's hands and feet on this earth? Jesus stresses the importance of preparing for discipleship. The prerequisite for discipleship is to give up everything.

This isn't the demand of a capricious God, but an invitation to a life of freedom. The root of the fears that incapacitated me is the fear of being annihilated. This question of survival, says Helio Gallardo, "is internalized not only by the impoverished sectors, but by the global society. No sector or economic function is assured continuity in the new model." So we cling to status, possessions, even relationships instead of falling completely into the hands of God.

Discipleship is an all or nothing proposal, which means we are doomed to fail, as I did that night. The good news is that giving up everything isn't a one-time event. It is a lifelong process. As churches and communities, we need to remind each other time and again that God has laid claim to our lives and our beings. We need to ground ourselves in the presence of the One who knit us in our mother's womb, who formed us from the clay. This will equip us to live out of perfect love that casts out fear.

September 13

Return to Reverence

Psalm 14

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

1 Timothy 1:12-17

Luke 15:1-10

This Sunday's passages urge us to view the world from God's vantage point. In the psalm and Jeremiah passage, God laments our failure to recognize him, like a parent or teacher grieving a child's self-destructive behavior. Jesus has this same tone of voice when he implores the Pharisees to see what he sees. He wants them to enter into his view of the worldùto delight at the returned precious thing, to grieve over the lost.

God looks at the pain we cause each other and despairs over our small-minded harshness. Our laws for criminals and immigrants reflect compassion fatigue, embodying the feeling that for too long law-abiding citizens have been taken advantage of. And in the din comes the voice of God, imploring us to remember who we are and where we've come from.

Jesus' "99 righteous people who do not need to repent" are the psalmist's fools who say there is no God. All are in need of repentance, as Paul reminds usùhe most of all. Yet he has been received by God's grace. Paul's awareness of his past sin is only part of his sense of amazing grace. God's holiness and power at work in the world are the true agents of conversion.

Outside of this grace, too much is in our hands, and our families, our church, and our nation become ours to protect and promote at all costs. Within it, we own nothing yet are claimed by the owner of all. We get to participate in the redemption story trusting that the outcome is not in our hands.

Worship is the gateway to this grace. In an age of over-stimulation, a return to awe is the best route to returning to God. Abraham Heschel wrote, "Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to God who is beyond all things....The loss of awe is the great block to insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God." Open yourself to the immortal, invisible God only wise.

September 20

Engaging the World

Psalm 79:1-9

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Luke 16:1-13

This week's passages are confounding. Jesus advises his disciples to use "worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings" (Luke 16:9). Paul seems to endorse the use of worldly power structures by advising Timothy's congregation to pray for those in power that "we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." What's going on here?

Just when the disciples think they understand the kingdom of God, Jesus throws them with a new idea. "It's not what you think," Jesus is saying. "Keep on your toes, keep engaging with the Word." Within these strange verses we learn something of the new order Jesus issues. We are to engage with every sphere of life with holy, transforming reverence. The children of light should never assume that they've figured it all out and have nothing to learn from outsiders.

We are not free from engaging with the world and its structures. This includes filthy lucre. According to verse 14, the Pharisees were listening. Jesus is once again trying to draw these teachers of the people into God's view of things, inviting them to use wealth as a means to serve God's people.

We are not permitted to abandon anyone within our society, including those within the ranks of the powers and principalities. This is not an endorsement of structures of oppression, but an invitation to stay engaged and compassionate, praying for their transformation and liberation to serve God. To live as God's children is to refuse to regard people through the labels and categories the system of oppression creates. This means those at the top of society need as much (if not more) love and prayer as those at the bottom of society.

The manager responds with urgency to an imminent eventùhis dismissal. Jesus prods us to be alert, for the kingdom of God is nigh. Do we live with a sense of the imminent kingdom of God? Do we recognize God in the small things as well as the large? Do we consider the "very little" with which we are entrusted as being of utmost import?

September 27

God's Redeeming Gesture

Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

1 Timothy 6:6-9

Luke 16:19-31

The story of Lazarus and the rich man has its origins in an Egyptian folk tale that made its way into Jewish folklore. In one Jewish legend, a husband repents after his wife sends him a warning from the underworld. In Jesus' tale, no admonition is given to those who refuse to heed the word of God.

While the reversal of fortune in this parable promises a great day of justice, this passage poses some tough questions about the nature and capacity of God's forgiveness. The abyss between Lazarus and the rich man is reversed in eternity. No mercy or forgiveness can reach the rich man because of his refusal to bridge the chasm in his lifetime. Is God's mercy limited by our refusals and selfish behavior? Can we behave so reprehensibly that God will forever cast us out of his love?

Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God's eternal response to our sin. I ache for the rich man's family to get the message and repent of their ways, but this is a paltry feeling compared to God's deep longing. God groans for repentance and justice, just as Jesus longed for the Pharisees to correct their ways and lead and teach the people in the ways of the Lord.

We've all fantasized about justice for those who persecuteùfor appropriate punishment to fall on those who most abuse, who most torment, who most benefit from the injustice of our world. Yet this tale comes from the one who was God's redeeming gesture on this planet. In Christ, the cycles of violence and neglect are ended. We still live with the repercussions, but the promise is that ultimately all will be free in love and forgiveness.

October 4

A Holy Awareness

Psalm 137

Lamentations 1:1-6

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

Jesus shifts his focus to the "apostles" (Luke 17:5) who will lead and teach the future church. Their demand that Jesus "increase [their] faith" revealed their fear that they will not have enough. Jesus challenges their assumption that faith is a scarce commodity. The smallest amount can lead to seemingly immense results. An enormous tree will uproot itself at the mere suggestion. This example is pointedly absurd. Jesus does not tell them that if they have even a little faith, thousands will convert and follow. This further challenges the disciple's view of faithfulness as quantifiable, making it clear that the magnitude (or lack thereof) of our actions is really beside the point.

The next lesson is harder, in part because Jesus employs the metaphor of slavery without challenging the institution. In an age in which everything is a commodity, our workplaces and communities often behave as if this passage were an endorsement of non-mutual ownership of another's gifts and time. We see this from sweatshops to churches, when those in power claim the right to name and utilize another's gifts for the ends they have determined.

This passage is neither an endorsement of slavery nor a release from encouraging and affirming one another. Though the meaning has been applied abusively, these verses are an extension of Jesus' challenge to a quantified faith. Discipleship is a whole-life occupation that must be rooted in a holy awareness of God's sovereignty. It is not about pleasing others or serving for the sake of congratulations. This rests the purpose for our lives in the hands of God, not in the fickle approval of the human heart. We are equipped with the promise that our faith will be sufficient, and the assurance that "God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline."

October 11

An Invitation to Live

Psalm 66:1-12

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

The disciples' preparation course continues as they move toward Jerusalem. The 10 lepers are met along the Samaria-Galilee border. These societal outcasts lived in a mixed community of Jews and Samaritans, thrown together by a common disease. Jesus initiates their healing by sending them back to the society that cast them out. The "foreigner" understands that the living Word he encountered was greater than the barriers of sick and well, Jew and Samaritan. His act of thanksgiving completes the circle of his healingùnot only is he free from the disease, he is free from the tyranny of division that would hold him back.

What of the other nine? By implication, they were Jews, and so had less to stop them from returning to Jesus. It is possible that they moved back into Jewish society as quickly as they could, leaving this painful chapter of their lives behind. Safely returned, the indignity of being cast out became a distant memory and they assumed the privileges of their social standing once again.

The word "foreigner" in verse 18 is the same word that appeared on the "keep out" signs on the inner barrier of the temple. This was to preserve the sanctity of the temple and prevent it from being defiled. Lepers and Samaritans alike were a threat to the purity. Jesus issued a new code of purityùone that understood holiness to come from the heart; one that demanded the inclusion of all of God's children.

Too often in the human story the oppressed, once free, become the oppressor. The fear of future persecution leads to tightly drawn lines of in and out. Our healing is incomplete until we come back to serve in gratitude. The command to rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances is an invitation to live freely into the promise of God's blessing. This freedom equips us to go out into our world and dismantle the barriers that deny God's children dignity.

October 18

Kicked Into Action

Psalm 119:97-104

Jeremiah 31:27-34

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18:1-8

The parable of the persistent widow is partnered appropriately with passages about the eternal law and Word of God. Jeremiah 31:31-34 declares the new covenant, which extends to every human heart. No longer are we doomed to follow in our forebears' footsteps. The tools for transforming the world have been written into our very hearts. This law is inescapable, whether we heed it or not.

This parable is often taught as a lesson about intercessory prayer. If we keep at it long enough, God will respond, and then not necessarily in the way we'd like. This advice is often offered by the well-intended to the suffering, yet it holds little comfort and much to be troubled by. God is sovereign and does operate in a manner other than humanity's. But Jesus contrasts God's swiftness to respond with the stubbornness of the unjust judge. God does not wait until sufficient prayers have accrued before acting. God's desire for our healing and justice exceeds our greatest imagination.

Jesus' point is that we must work fervently for God's unshakable justice. The persistent widow nags the unjust judge until he acquiesces. The verb "wear out" can be literally translated "give a black eye to someone." The judge's disregard for the law of justice does not alter that law. His admission that he doesn't "fear God or care about people" reveals his awareness that there is a God to fear, people to care about, and a code of justice to rule by.

We are privileged to participate in the redemptive story, but thankfully we are not the primary author. Jesus' closing question, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on this Earth?" is meant to kick us into action. Paul charges Timothy to preach the gospel in season or out, to stay engaged with the world. We'll not get it all right in our lifetime. The results of our work, praise God, are not in our hands.

October 25

Grabbing God's Bounty

Psalm 65

Joel 2:23-32

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Luke 18:9-14

My father has a children's sermon in which he invites a child up to the front of the church, fills her hands with rocks, and then offers her a dollar. After struggling for a bit, the child usually gives up and drops the rocks, allowing her to take hold of the bill. The moral was simpleùyou can't take hold of the good things of God with your hands full of rocks.

We live with such a heightened sense of scarcity. From the top to the bottom of society, we live in fear of not having enough. This goes beyond our checkbooks to our position, standing, and value in the eyes of others. This week's passages offer a wonderful contrast to the economy of scarcity. Abundant forgiveness, love, and blessing will come. There will be singing and dreaming, abundant rains and overflowing food. But before this time of righteousness comes, we need to release all that enslaves us to the demon of scarcity.

The tax collector comes before God with nothing in his hands. Openly and without shame he lays his sin at the altar and goes home justified. The Pharisee is too caught up in who he isn't and in what he does to lay who he is at God's feet. He is incapable of entering into the economy of abundance that God's grace offers.

What are our own versions of the Pharisee's prayer? Who are we grateful not to beùbigots, materialistic, knee-jerk reactionaries, backlash conservatives? Do we live as if we have been given all that we need? What actions or positions in our lives are we unwilling to release so that we might grab hold of God's bounty?

Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).

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