A reflection on the readings for Proper 20C: Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 138, 1 Timothy 2:1-8, Luke 16:1-13 by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A.
It’s another complicated week in the lectionary. Amos cries out against injustice in a way that may be very uncomfortable for our country, where CEO’s salaries have ballooned out of all proportion to those of their workers while many people go unemployed, have no healthcare, and deal with food insecurity. The psalm is a peaceful song of trust. The epistle urges respect for authority and promotes a quiet and peaceable life; the Gospel seems to undercut that, as Jesus, who faced conflict wherever he went, tells a strange story about a cheating steward and says things that are difficult to understand until we reach the stark, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” which is easy to understand but is not easy to hear.
Sets of readings like this one remind me of two different but recurring experiences.
In the first, I am with people of faith. I am in a church. We are all sitting quietly, nicely dressed, in a beautiful building, most of us looking tranquil (and some of us looking downright sleepy) as some of our number read cries of prophetic outrage, wildly puzzling stories, and sayings that threaten to change our lives completely, all in calm, matter-of-fact voices. I look around, thinking, "Is anyone else noticing how weird and scary this stuff is? Has everyone else found a way to deal with it that I don’t know about? What would happen if I asked these questions?"
In the second, I am listening a person who does not share my faith or anyone else’s, someone who is eager to explain to the world that any life of faith is simply a pathetic attempt at self-soothing by people who can't handle tough reality. I think about the incomprehensible passages and impossible demands I find in Scripture, the lives of the people we celebrate in the church calendar, the way study and prayer turn up more challenges and questions every time I practice them, and my own experience at trying (and mostly failing) to live a life based on faith, and sigh. Sometimes I wish they were right, because the placid and deluded life the person is describing sounds easier than mine.
In both cases, I am confronted by the terrors of faith. Scripture, when it is not smoothed over and harmonized out of the individual voices from which it came, is a contradictory, challenging, sometimes shocking thing—and sometimes it really is incomprehensible. There are dozens of studies on the meaning of the parable in the reading from Luke, there are lots of good potential answers, and it’s even more difficult and full of potential meanings than most parables; no one is ever going to be sure exactly what’s going on in it. Maybe the steward is getting back at an unjust master who is trampling on the needy. Maybe he is putting relationships ahead of material goods. Maybe he is crooked and his crookedness is a sign of the world’s corruption, and Jesus is using him to make a satirical point. (These and other intriguing interpretations can be found on this week’s page at textweek.com).
The life of faith is not cozy. Scripture is not always a comfort. Tradition can anchor us in a changing world, but tradition itself has to change as we face new circumstances. Ignoring it can end in a loss of many gifts; worshiping it leads away from living in the present. Our reason is limited and can lead us astray, especially if we use it to fuel denial and wishful thinking. This does not mean that scripture, tradition, and reason are useless, only that they cannot give us the certainty that we sometimes wish they would. I have come to believe that faith is not a matter of knowing the answers to every question, or of thinking God has them written up ahead of time and will dispense them if we ask, or of making up answers because we need them; it is a way of living based on the belief that a God who loves us is helping us do the best we can and understand as much as we can, if we will do our part, in a world that is flawed and painful. Faith is not about reading a map, but about deciding which way to go when there is no clear path, trusting in the companionship of God and each other.
The person who calls faith a comforting delusion has a point; she’s describing something she’s seen. It is a form of idolatry that happens when we worship certainty instead of seeking a living relationship with a living God. It is possible to imagine a God that holds everything in rigid control instead of one who gives us free will and allows us to experience the consequences of our actions. It is possible to take only the assurances of God’s real love and care for us and make a faith that is all about comfort. It is all too easy to assign ourselves the role of the good person, the righteous person, the persecuted person in every story. It is possible to hold such a faith without ever engaging with the troubling demands and the strange utterances of Scripture, and without ever seeing the ways in which we might be the sinners, the unclean, and the persecutors. It is possible to sit in church and not hear how dangerous the life of faith can be, even when those dangers are being preached. I’ve tried all those things myself, and watched them fail. Private griefs and public disasters can shatter a faith like that in an instant. At that moment, the person who has lost a false faith may come to believe that faith itself is an illusion, rather than realizing that what they have lost was never really faith.
Losing a false faith is terrifying and freeing. When we give up the need for certainty, we can choose to trust a God who is greater than our attempts to control or explain our surroundings. We are free to question Scripture, tradition, and reason, and in questioning, we are free to really listen to them and to receive their gifts rather than trying to force them to supply answers that support our preconceptions. We are free to hear all kinds of ideas from others, to have our own ideas, and to hold them lightly lest we make them idols to replace the broken ones. We are free to meet angry assertions of the one right way with the calm knowledge that only God knows the full truth and that we do not have to convince others of God’s will for us. Instead, we have the far more difficult task of working out our own salvation in fear and trembling, knowing God is at work in us.
Once we have faced the terrors of faith, we can find the living comfort that does not negate them but grows out of them: that whatever our uncertainty, God is with us, just as God is with our enemies and those we have harmed. God is working with us, and together, we are working things through, working them out. Whatever is happening in the world and in our lives, there is no one who does not matter to God. The responsibilities are great and we are called to be faithful. Luke Timothy Johnson, working on the parable of the steward, uses “reliable” where most translations use “faithful,” a change which reminds me that the life of faith is a matter of small daily actions as well as great decisions, of habit as well as crisis. The comforts of faith do not negate grief and uncertainty, but help us face them with honesty and courage. Thanks be to the God of weird and scary stuff.