First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 10

Pentecost 10: 28 July Luke 11:1-13

In today’s passage we have the shorter and probably earlier form of the Lord’s Prayer. Luke brings it in a context which teaches about prayer. It is just as much also teaching about God.

This is already the case in the simple way with which the Lord’s prayer begins: ‘Father’. Jesus was one of those who gave the formal designation of God as the great father in heaven and creator a familiar tone: ‘father’. Elsewhere we find traces of the common family term: ‘abba’. It is not baby talk, but it does reflect the kind of intimacy one might expect in a family. It assumes a parent who is not remote but accessible, not violent and overbearing, but supportive and caring. As verses 11-13 suggest, this is the kind of parent who is responsive. That is also the point of verses 9-10.

The kind of supportive relationship Jesus has with the Father is not exclusive, but rather a model of the relationship which all can have. That is made possible because of the kind of God God is. This is a theme repeated elsewhere, not least in the image of the father in the parable of the prodigal son. Compassion and caring are central.

Jesus would have known about abusive fathers, just as he knew about abusive rulers. He used the ambiguous images of king and father because they were part of the tradition in which he was nourished. He engaged that tradition critically, subverting its violence and asserting its love. The ambiguity of the traditional images of king and father has been reflected in the very diverse consequences which they have spawned throughout history. Interpreters of the tradition in every generation have a responsibility to engage these images critically, helping people perceive where they bring life and where they bring death. This ambiguity needs to be named, not least because among our hearers are many, both women and men, for whom the image of father is almost irrecoverably destructive.

Hallowing means respecting, treating as holy. This is fundamental to our relationship with God and to all other relationships. Acknowledging the holiness, the dignity, the otherness of the other, must not be reduced to a metaphor of cringing before one who is more powerful, even if that is dressed up respectably as obeisance before the almighty. For then it reinforces the assumption that might is right and the bigger and stronger is the better. Such thinking often results in abusive relationships. Parents emulate their god. People emulate their god. The victims are disempowered. There is, however, an awe in relationships which flows from profound respect and love. It is often when we are standing on our feet face-to-face or bowed, not the one before the other, but together in service and mutual care.

‘Your kingdom come’ remains in the realm of the same ambiguity and has been equally a source of life and death. Our eucharist remembers the image of that kingdom as a great feast where all are included, from east and west and north and south, where swords become ploughs, spears become pruning hooks. It is also a feast focused on a life broken and poured out in compassion. This is one of the central images and actions which has the capacity to control the ambiguity, if we make the connections. But even it is capable of subversion until it becomes a feast of exclusion and a trivialised appendage for people claiming privilege.

Day by day human need has a firm place in Jesus’ prayer. There can be no separation between visions and life here and now. The same need for food and forgiveness is fundamental to every human being. That is why it is also part of the vision of the kingdom. As the prayer continues, Jesus has no shame in abandoning the ideal of the hero; instead we are to pray not to have to face the hard times. This will be as much personal as it is linked with the adversity we are likely to face if we take the kingdom vision as our agenda and engage in all our relationships on the basis that the other is holy.

Embraced within the teaching about the Lord’s prayer in 11:1-4 and the assurances of being heard in 11:9-13 is a very down-to-earth parable in 11:5-8. As recent passages have highlighted, hospitality was of major importance in the ancient world. What happens when a friend arrives unexpectedly? There could be no question that hospitality would be expected and would be given. Even among friends it would be irksome to be woken in the night to be asked to help with some of tomorrow’s fresh bread. We might imagine that in a small Palestinian house a disruption would be quite major. The household would be disturbed, the secure gate would be unlocked. It is made to sound quite onerous and probably was. It was stretching friendship a bit far! But Jesus is realistic. The social pressure on people to respond to the requirements of hospitality was so great and the shame so great for all concerned when it was not provided, that the poor fellow would get up and respond to the request.

It is typical of Jesus to argue theology by using the paradigms (parables) of everyday life. It is a kind of theology of reasonableness. The argument works like this: ‘everyone knows’ that a friend will help another out in a situation like that, even if reluctantly. Why can’t you think of God being like that? The same logic is implicit in the parable of the prodigal son. ‘Everyone knows’ that this is what a father would (want to) do (even though it was in that case contrary to behavioural norms for a dignified father). Everyone knows something about compassion: why can’t you think about God like that?

It is a kind of secular theology in the sense that the argument is not from the great biblical tradition, citing the epics or the law. Instead it stands in the tradition of sages who employ the everyday to do theology, also rooted in biblical tradition. We should not imagine that Jesus played the one off against the other. Clearly his theology is informed by the great tradition, but it is also grounded in perceptions about human life and human relationships. The tradition has a way of being hijacked by the articulate and educated, and then employed in ways which reflect their agenda. That agenda is usually about holding onto power and privilege and creates a theology of God in those terms: the most powerful and therefore the most privileged. That easily becomes the basis for hierarchical control.

Instead, Jesus democratises the basis for doing theology, locating it in the human relations which we all know and experience, and where we all have some basic insight and understanding, whether we can articulate it in abstract or not. Do we know what it is like to love and be loved? Then we are well on the way to a sound theology. What is more, it is a sound basis for critical theology where you can then see through ‘father’ and ‘king’ or ‘kingdom’ to the qualities they are meant to represent and which they often stifle. God is not a ‘father’ and a ‘king’. God is not a male. God is not a claimer of privilege. God is like the mum or dad who really cares (and confronts us with reality), who is holy and makes you feel holy. So prayer is an activity of intimacy and awe and thus a model for all relationships; it is the language of the kingdom. It brings the gift of the Spirit.

Epistle: Pentecost 10: 28 July  Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)

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