Thursday, September 22, 2016

Pastor vs. Prophet


During the long season after Pentecost, the New Testament lesson, which typically follows an independent progression through the Christian canonical letters, is not chosen to coordinate with the other lessons. Every once in a while, a connection can be seen--perhaps forced by the preacher. This week, though, it is as if the authors of the lectionary had a tremendous collision in mind from the very beginning. In Luke 16, we have Jesus depicting the rich man's torment in Hades while the once-poor Lazarus snuggles into Abraham's bosom, but, in 1 Timothy 6, we have Paul taking a far more moderated approach: "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty..." To this preacher, it sounds like the difference between a pastor and a prophet.

Jesus tells us to sell everything that we have. Jesus tells us that we cannot worship God and wealth. Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven. Paul, on the other hand, warns those who are rich in this age not to be haughty, not to put their hope in earthly riches, to be rich not only in wealth but also in good works, and to share some of what they have. After spending these summer weeks in Luke, hearing Jesus decry the half-hearted commitment of one person after another, Paul seems to be taking it easy--perhaps even undermining what Jesus would have said. Paul sounds a lot more like a preacher who is worried that his words could upset his flock and the money they have promised to give him.

I've long held that Jesus would have made a lousy rector, and this is one of the major reasons why. Jesus the prophet chose a prophet's life. He had no where to lay his head. He slipped out of trouble more than once. Whenever he visited a synagogue, at least someone was disappointed, if not outraged, in what he said or what he did. His independence gave him the ability to tear into the establishment with full force. Paul, however, needed that establishment to fund his mission and support the church in Jerusalem. Jesus could say things that made people angry and then walk on to the next town, but Paul had built deep, personal relationships with these churches, and he consider himself their long-term pastor. Was Jesus callous and insensitive? Was Paul cowardly and self-serving? No and no. But it reminds me that context is everything.

What will I preach this Sunday? Will I let Jesus' insistence that the kingdom of God be a reality in which everyone has enough leave everyone squirming in his pew? Or will I let Paul's gentler instruction lead the day because we are beginning a capital campaign, and our parish needs the establishment to support the effort? Actually, those aren't as mutually exclusive as they seem, and the extremes with which I've depicted the messages of Jesus and Paul deny their real intent. Jesus wasn't interested in shaming the rich. He wanted transformation in their lives and preached it the best that he could. Paul wanted the same thing--not merely the financial support of his patrons but that they, too, would be transformed into faithful disciples of Jesus. He, likewise, preached that the best that he could. Hopefully the congregation can tell that this is a struggle for the preacher and that it's supposed to be a struggle for all of us. That's the only way we'll be transformed together.

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