The Embarrassing Side of the Ledger
When Karen Armstrong, one of the most respected modern theologians and specialists in comparative religion, was speaking about her latest book “ The Lost Art of Scripture” she said “there’s a lot of bad religion about”. That might seem like an obvious truism, but we shouldn’t necessarily assume she was only talking about other people’s religion. While it is true that many claim to follow the same set of scriptures, the awkward reality is that whole Churches seize upon different interpretations and behave in very different ways as a result.
While Karen Armstrong acknowledges that a whole generation of Muslims have “grown up with a Maverick form of Islam that has given them a negative view of other faiths” she is just as concerned with the fist pounding, gun toting, scripture waving fundamentalism sprouting from a bed of Biblical literalism that has nothing to do with the scriptures’ original intent. Somehow we sometimes forget to remind ourselves that our religion is supposed to be transformational, so that we might live better, kinder and more fulfilling lives. Today’s text if actually taken in that spirit has the potential to shake the typical church-goer’s complacency.
What we find in today’s gospel should worry us and I suspect deep down we may already know that. While it is true that for many, Church membership is not much more than a non demanding ticket to a social circle and a more or less optional chance for a spectator’s seat for Sunday worship, in most denominations there are sufficient serious followers of Jesus to show us that there is a difference between a lived faith and a notional set of beliefs.
There has always been a choice between seeking a religion for what it offers by way of reward and seeking a religion for the opportunities it offers for service. Perhaps it is unfortunate that sometimes in the past, enthusiastic evangelists have talked up the reward side of Christianity and have almost hidden the investment side of the ledger.
Those few outstanding individuals who have made substantial contributions to Christian ideals, ideals like justice, equality and liberty, are often the very same folk as those who have given the most for their cause. Quite apart from the one we most associate with Christianity, Jesus himself, many who have upheld his principles, sometimes in the direct face of hostility, appear to have known exactly what it might cost. We may think for example of someone of the stature of Martin Luther King saying:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals”.Martin Luther King, Jr.
No doubt when there is comparative peace and full employment we can pretend that current indicators of progress and peace will continue without effort on anyone’s part, yet this is to ignore the realities of history. It may be that in those times that we should be rather more open to the words of the wise like Thomas Merton.
What was it he said? Peace demands the most heroic labour and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.
Perhaps Merton today might be looking at Brexit, shaking his head sadly and being found agreeing with Karen Armstrong that Brexit is really the distillation of the distinctly un-Christian dislike of immigrants and refugees.
If we return to Jesus’ teaching from today’s gospel, on reflection we can at least begin to understand why Luke chose to record this particular set of saying by Jesus.
When he set down the Gospel words from Jesus about giving up possessions, about counting the cost of building a tower and about carrying the cross as a prerequisite for discipleship, Luke had already witnessed some of the genuine costs suffered by the first Christians. Some scholars even believe that the gospel of Luke was written from a prison cell shared with Paul as they were awaiting trial so to him at least, the costs of following this new faith were hardly academic.
The one verse in today’s reading which is at the heart of this type of challenge comes in the last verse, verse 33: 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
This statement in its baldest interpretation leaves us with a very exclusive and very small band of genuine disciples. Rather than seeking cunning interpretations of this passage to avoid the full force of the words perhaps we should become a little more humble and somewhat less certain of our entitlement to be numbered amongst Jesus’ followers.
Sometimes the context or original words used leave us with a convenient escape clause. Many preachers seem to do one of two things with this passage. Some seem to want us to believe Jesus was not really saying what he appeared to be saying, and instead he was merely asking for a change of emphasis. The other common approach is to say this is why stewardship – ie giving to the Church is important – and even more important than first looking after yourself.
Unfortunately there is a flaw in both approaches. The Greek “apotassomai” has a general meaning of renouncing, forsaking or even simply saying goodbye to- and in this case it is directed to possessions. Without some serious response to this apotassomai, if we hear what Jesus is saying, we cannot consider ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples!
In terms of most local Church congregations, I can’t honestly say I can think of any members who reach this level of commitment. Although I have heard of those belonging to some odd-ball sects renouncing all possessions to hand over their all to the care of the sect leaders – and although I know of a number of religious orders , eg those in monasteries, who in effect do the same, it seems to me that they not so much renounce possessions as reallocate their control.
If the religious order is known to take over ensuring the well-being of its members, then even if the eventual goal is some sort of pension care of the Father Ted variety, this does not quite square with the existential leap into the unknown of total poverty.
Nor does giving generously to a self-interested Church quite seem in the spirit of commitment of the sort Jesus was advocating. While that attempt at stewardship might be considered best directed to the Church (at least in the eyes of some Church leaders) – this is to misrepresent what Jesus actually said, and since Jesus’ focus is often on those in need, it would be reasonable to surmise that the divesting of possessions should most likely be either towards the needy or at least via those who have a primary concern for their welfare.
If the Church is truly putting such needs before its own, there is no double standard. Unfortunately if we look at typical annual Church budgets as a guide, it is probable fair to guess that many Churches only have a passing commitment to the needy. To invite Church members to give unstintingly to the Church – without requiring the same commitment to unstinting giving on the part of the Institutional Church, is to misrepresent what Jesus was on about. This is not to say stewardship is wrong. But it does suggest that to be consistent, the same leaders who are encouraging us to give should be equally diligent about making sure that the church as a whole reflects this self-giving attitude.
I would imagine there is much there to make us uncomfortable. But there is something else as well.
One standard view of this passage that, if nothing else, it suggests your treasure should be directed to where your heart believes it should go. Again….and perhaps unfortunately….. even assuming we are looking for easy answers….. this is not the gist of that Jesus appears to be saying. If anything your treasure going in the direction of your heart is the opposite of his actual theme which is much closer to: where you put your treasure your heart will follow.
This is good psychology since we are probably much less free to make decisions than we might hope. The way our imagination translates to our action is confined by our realities. If we deliberately change those realities we are then open to different options.
Most of us will be familiar with targeted giving where special efforts have been made to help communities – either locally or overseas. Having witnessed or taken part in a number of such programmes, the realization that one has been part of such an effort seems to shape future giving and I have been amazed at how previously tight-fisted individuals appear to become more relaxed and even pleased that they have helped others.
In most Western nations denominational churches differ widely in their understood responsibilities. For example it is no mistake that the Salvation Army is often associated with care for the down and outs, whereas some of the older Churches appear to have somewhat lost their way when it comes to a total emphasis on compassion. It also makes the signs of reorientation of the current Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Francis seem so refreshing.
Perhaps here we might allow the last word to that creator of Peter Pan, JM Barrie,
Dreams do come true, if we only wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it. James M. Barrie