Lenten Lockdown

Luke 16: 1-8

*Sermon above. Text of Sermon below*


The Parable of The Dishonest Manager basically goes like this:

There was a really rich guy who heard a rumor that the manager of his estate was wasting his money.  He decided to fire him, but before having security escort him from the premises, he told the manager to go by himself to retrieve all the confidential financial information.  The manager, like a failed preacher, had no other job prospects.

He was desperate to keep his job.  So he did the only reasonable thing he could to impress his boss:  he manipulated the books lowering the amount his debtors owed the rich guy significantly lowering the rich guy’s profits.  After discovering this, the rich guy thought, “Wow! What a great manager!” and decided to keep him.  Then Jesus told his disciples to maybe act like the manager because a life centered on money is bad.

Great story Luke.

The previous story is the Parable of the Prodigal Son which may just be the best story in the Bible.  The story that follows is The Rich Man and Lazarus, another all-star level story that has everything from rich people being condemned to hell for the crime of being rich and wild dogs on the verge of eating people because they’re poor.

It’s tough company, but the Parable of the Dishonest Manager makes up for it by being the weirdest, most confusing parable in the New Testament.

I could spend lots of time here breaking down the economic and political issues at play.  And I did, but after meticulously going through the background and multiple competing analyses and writing up my interpretation, the document on my laptop was corrupted and I lost everything.

I spent the next 24 hours crying about it AND I couldn’t go outside to buy snacks.

I planned on a shorter version. It got even longer.  Much of the background and economic info here is based on William Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech, of which I am obsessed.  Enjoy.


On an estate like the one we see in the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, peasants work the land of rich landowners.  Rich guys who prefer to live in the city hire managers to handle their affairs.

Managers write contracts, collect money, and threaten people.  The best managers are people who understand the culture of peasants but can also read, write, and keep track of finances.

So rich guys identify a promising peasant, invest tons of money into him, make him completely reliant on their patronage, and turn him against other people in their social class.  The manager, after betraying his own people, can never return to his community and must faithfully serve his master for life.

The wealthy turn hatred of the rich into a weapon against the poor.

The manager makes money by taking an under the table cut on each deal.  Everybody expects this.  If he takes too much, he risks upsetting his master and losing his job.  If he doesn’t take enough, well, then there’s no point in being a manager.

The upside to being hated by everyone and being isolated from your community is money – lots and lots of money.

Peasants hate managers.  Managers take what peasants think belongs to them and betray their own people.  Peasants barely have enough to survive as it is.

Landowners distrust managers.  They always think the managers are cheating them.  They’re usually right.

Managers fear everyone. When he receives a generous bribe from a peasant, the manager will negotiate a better deal.  But if he demands too much, the peasants will start rumors and the rich landowner may fire him.  Being fired is a death sentence.  After a year or two, the manager will be certainly be dead.  There are no competing job offers.

Managers fired for wasting money will never be hired by any other rich landowner because the entire point is to make managers completely reliant on their masters.  The existence of alternative options ruins the whole scheme.

His only other options are digging and begging.  He cannot dig.  Managers are not manual laborers.  He has neither the strength nor the skills.  He cannot beg.  A fired manager is a traitor to his people.  He inspires no sympathy.  Soon enough, malnutrition, disease, or violence will claim his life.  He will die alone and in great pain.

The only real option is to keep his job.

The Manager’s Plan

 Many interpretations, like my own Harper Collins Study Bible, argue that the manager reduces his own cut to ingratiate himself to his master or to the peasants.  This is a terrible interpretation.  It’s absolutely impossible.

The parable tells us that the manager summoned the debtors, one by one, reducing the debt to each.  One man owed 100 jugs of olive oil.  His bill was reduced by 50% to 50 jugs.  Another man owed 100 bushels of wheat.  His bill was reduced by 20% to 80 bushels. An interpretation that claims the manager is reducing his own cut would have to assume a preposterous 100% commission.

But a bigger problem is that the manager reduces the bill in the books.  The manager’s cut is under the table.  An interpretation that the manager is cutting out his own commission must assume that the manager has also documented his own crime which is especially problematic given that a 100% commission is so ridiculous.  If losing his job is a death sentence, why document the justification for being fired?

This interpretation does not even attempt to explain why he would he reduce one bill by 50% and another by 20%.  Luckily, there are a better options.

Oil is a more risky investment than wheat given that oil is far more likely to spoil and more difficult to transport and store.  Given this, a 50% and 20% reduction of oil and wheat respectively is best explained as the manager removing interest which corresponds to the level of risk for each product.  Profits from interest go to the owner of the debt, not the manager.

Interest is, of course, unlawful in Jewish society.  Charging interest is one of the most flagrant violations of Jewish law.  So if you want to charge interest, it needs to be hidden yet remain enforceable.

Luke 16 shows a common tactic in hiding interest by including it in the total amount of the bill rather than as a separate line item.  Besides the owner, only the manager who writes the contracts can prove that interest is owed.

Cutting out the interest payment isn’t charity.  Cutting interest is a threat to his boss.  Interest is unlawful and the manager is threatening to expose him.  The rich landowner can either accept the public praise of the peasants for being so generous by lowering their debt or he can be exposed for charging interest and be known as incapable of controlling his own house.

He chooses praise and recognizes the value of a ruthless, shrewd manager working on his behalf.

In the end, debts are forgiven.  Peasants are given a temporary respite from predatory lending and they get to keep more of what belongs to them. The rich landlord is praised by the public for upholding the Torah.  The manager is saved from death and brought back into his master’s house.

 The Narrative Context

If we read this parable independently from the rest of the Gospel of Luke, it can tell us how the weak can triumph over the strong, and it can provide examples of how the rich oppress the poor.

These are useful lessons that we should hear, but this parable isn’t told in isolation.  It’s part of a group of stories that Jesus tells in response to criticism from Pharisees in the beginning of chapter 15.

Luke 15:2:  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus responds by telling four parables.  See if you notice a pattern.

1)  The Parable of the Lost Sheep:  It’s a parable about a shepherd who loses a sheep.  He leaves behind 99 sheep to search for the one who was lost.  When he finds it, he gathers his friends and they rejoice.

2)  The Parable of the Lost Coin:  It’s a parable about someone who loses a coin. A woman searches her whole house, finds the lost coin, gathers her friends, and they rejoice.

The first two parables are exact mirrors of each other.  By now, Jesus’s response to the criticism of him welcoming sinners and eating with them should be clear.  Jesus seeks out the lost.  Having made his point, he could have just left it there and walked away, but he keeps going.  Why?

3)  The Parable of the Prodigal Son:  A little more complicated so I’ll outline it here.  The theme of seeking out the lost continues.

  • The prodigal son squandered his property and his family.
    • The prodigal son faces isolation and death.
      • The prodigal son schemes so his father will let him rejoin his house.
      • The father offers forgiveness and welcomes him back.
    • The father’s eldest son rejects the prodigal son as sinful and unworthy of forgiveness.
  • The father’s eldest son squanders his family.

This parable is similar to the previous two in that something is lost, what is lost is found, and the people rejoice.  The Parable of the Prodigal Son introduces two new features.  First, the son who is lost is at fault.  No one blames a sheep or a coin for being lost.  But here, being lost and facing isolation and death are entirely the fault of the prodigal son.

Second, there is a third character who does not celebrate the lost being found, and, instead, rejects it.  The prodigal son’s older brother does not think his brother deserves forgiveness, which, if we are to be honest, is pretty understandable.

The parable introduces sin and rejection to the previous formula of something is lost, what is lost is found, and the people rejoice.

When this story is read as a response to the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus, that Jesus is sitting with sinners and eating with them, it becomes apparent that the older brother’s rejection of his brother is comparable to the Pharisees’ rejection of the sinners who sit with Jesus.  Like the Pharisees, the older brother follows all the rules, but knows neither forgiveness or love.

Jesus isn’t just telling moralistic stories.  Jesus is answering the Pharisees’ criticism with criticism of his own.  Having told stories of a lost coin and a lost sheep of which no one could object, he set up the Pharisees in a rhetorical trap.

Once you concede that the shepherd should look for the lost sheep, it becomes harder to claim that God shouldn’t seek out what God has lost.  Even though the prodigal son is unworthy of forgiveness, his unworthiness only strengthens the virtue of the father.  After all, who can fault a father for loving his children?

The Pharisees have rejected God’s children, but God has not.  When God’s children are lost, God finds them.

Jesus still isn’t done.  He has one story left.  He’s already criticized the Pharisees for rejecting those who are lost.  He already caught them in his trap.  Who’s left?

4)  The Parable of the Dishonest Manager:  This parable follows the exact same pattern as the Prodigal Son.  It follows the same theme with an identical structure and uses identical language found nowhere else in the new testament: “squandered his property” (Luke 15:13 and 16:1).

Furthermore, it is the last parable in a set of four in which the first two parables are exact mirrors of each other.  As a result, we should consider the final two stories similarly linked.

Unlike The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Dishonest Manager does not have a sympathetic patron like the prodigal son’s father (even if the prodigal’s father is a landowning, rich, slave owner).  Instead, this story  has an absentee landlord who preys upon peasants.  But like The Parable of the Prodigal Son, this story has a central character who is lost because he rejected his people for money.

We understand that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is a trap because we sympathize with a father who forgives his son.  We sympathize with him when he pleads for his older son who followed all the rules to forgive his brother who broke all of them.

When the older brother doesn’t forgive, even though he is blameless and his younger brother is guilty and sinful, we immediately recognize that the virtue of forgiveness is more important than the inevitable results of sin.  We side with the father, and identify the Pharisees with the older brother who cannot forgive.

Because the characters in The Parable of the Dishonest Manager have no redeeming qualities, it isn’t obvious what Jesus is doing.  I argue that this parable is a mirror of the  Prodigal Son like the first two parables mirror each other.  If this is right, who in this story rejects what is lost being found, like the prodigal’s brother rejecting the wishes of his father?  Who is Jesus criticizing this time?

After reading three stories of celebrating what is lost being found and the people rejoicing in a stories about lost coins, lost sheep, and lost sons, does anyone celebrate the manager saved from death?  Do the peasants?  Does the rich man?  Do you?

I think we reject his forgiveness.  The parable is so difficult to interpret because Jesus has laid a rhetorical trap.  When we hear the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, we tend to think the lesson is that he got away with something and that we need to be wise and shrewd in a difficult world.

The whole point of a trap is to fall into it without realizing it, and if you don’t get who Jesus is criticizing, it might just be because he’s criticizing you.

This time, he’s laid the trap for us.  We don’t think the manager is worthy of forgiveness.  We don’t celebrate death turned to life.  We don’t celebrate what is lost being found.  Our only response to him is condemnation.

You can check yourself.  Does the text provide any evidence that he’s being dishonest?  If so, by whose standards?  If you think the manager is dishonest because he cut out the interest, you’re taking the side of the rich landowner, and against peasant or the Torah.  If you don’t celebrate him because he’s sinful, you’re taking the side of the Pharisees.

Jesus is criticizing us.

The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, just like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, looks like this:

  • The dishonest manager squandered his property and his community.
    • The dishonest manager faces isolation and death.
      • The dishonest manager schemes so his master will retain him in his house.
      • The manager’s master welcomes him back.
    • The listener rejects the dishonest manager as sinful and unworthy of forgiveness.
  • The listener squanders the Kingdom.

Jesus is calling us Pharisees.  He’s not wrong.

Lenten Lockdown

We’re approaching the end of an especially odd season of Lent, the traditional Christian observance when the faithful prepare for Easter through spiritual practices like fasting and self-denial.  Lent in 2020 finds many of us in isolation in our homes or otherwise limiting physical proximity with others due to a global pandemic.

In a season where many choose to “give something up”, this Lenten lockdown has denied us much of our normal lives, luxuries and necessities alike.  Many are sick.  Many have died.  Many more will follow.

This has come at the church sideways.  We claim in loud voice that Jesus triumphs over death, but we cannot say it together for fear dying.  We say that Jesus sits and eats with sinners, but we now find ourselves eating alone.  We tell stories of Jesus healing the sick, but many churches who have insisted to gather to tell the old stories have been at the center of outbreak and disease.

The church is weak and fractured in many places, but the pandemic didn’t attack us there.  It hit us where we’re strong, and it still found us lacking.

Spiritual disciplines have become the focus of Lent, but, in part, this is because the church has turned increasingly insular.  Spiritual disciplines are what we do for ourselves.  People outside the faith don’t fast for Lent after all.

But the church has used the Great 40 Days of Lent for purposes other than just invigorating the faith of its adherents.  The 40 days of Lent were once the final days of preparation for those who were to be baptized and welcomed into the fullness of the church, and it was the time when the church would seek out those whose sins were so great that they had separated themselves from its people.

Lent was a time to seek out the lost remembering that we too were found. Whether by accident, like a woman who loses a coin, by one’s own nature, like a sheep separated from his its flock, by youthful stupidity, like the prodigal son estranged from his family, or by greed and betrayal, like the dishonest manager from his own people, Lent is a season to seek out those who find themselves alone.  It matters little the reasons why.

These days will be long.  They will be dark.  For those of us who hide in the shadow of the cross, even in weakness we know that we are not alone.

Yet it has become painfully obvious that there are so many who are alone.  And for the first time, we have come to know by what has been denied to us just how close they are.  The lonely are six feet away, and we cannot touch them.  We are separated by a window or a door, and we cannot visit.  In a pandemic, the very presence of other people fill us with fear and dread.

Years ago, I chose to isolate myself from the church and from my home by running away as far as I could.  I made it as far as the biblical wilderness.  I like it here.  More than most, I’m prepared for a life of social isolation and distance.  I’ve been doing it for some time.

I’ve always struggled to meet people, whether they were lonely or lost or not.  I can fake it well enough, but I never knew how quite to get over the feelings of panic and fear with most interaction.

For a long time now, much of normal life has eluded me due to feeling this way.  There are times when I miss meals for fear of going outside.  In grad school I would often “forget” to make it to a lunch in our cafeteria out of a fear of others, even when those others were my friends.  Trying to work this out while working as a pastor was a constant struggle, one in which I never did overcome.  Seeking out the lost is what we are called to do but it sure does seem impossible when seeking out your friends is hard enough.

The problem of how to interpret the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is easy enough for me to figure out.  It is the concluding parable in a series of four in response to criticism from Pharisees about Jesus spending so much time with sinners.

His response is that he seeks out the lost.  Then he criticizes those that don’t.  That includes the Pharisees who, by definition, separate themselves from others in an attempt to vigorously follow the law.

It also includes his own followers who are eager to separate themselves from people like the dishonest manager in their vigorous attempt be more “Christ-like”.  I’m sure we all know Christians who are so Jesus-y that we can’t stand to be around them.  I’m probably one of those to be honest.  Sorry.

Our desire for good never will never escape our capacity to condemn.  But our capacity to condemn will never surpass God’s desire to seek out the lost.

I can understand that The Parable of the Dishonest Manager is telling us to seek out the lost, even those who we don’t deem worthy, but how we do that, I’ve never known.  I’m not going to figure it out now.  So if you’re looking for a “how” in accomplishing the demands of the parable in this time of crisis, you’re not going to find it here.

I don’t know how to seek out the lost, but I do know what it feels like to be alone.  And I know what it feels like to be afraid.  If that’s you – even if you’re new to these feelings – alone in your home, even if surrounded by people, afraid of going outside, interacting with others, panicking in a crowd, desiring to interact and retreat all at once, not knowing when or how this ends – I’ve been there.  I’m there now.

Still, I believe, that we are not alone.  God seeks out the lost.  He’s called the church to seek us out, even when we don’t want it.  God has placed that obligation on you too, even when you don’t know how.

And finally, I believe, because I’ve lived it for a while now, you’re going to be okay.  It’s going to be okay.  God hasn’t forgotten.

Feel free to reach out to me about it! 50/50 chance I get back to you.

They Aren’t Christians. Or I’m Not.

I no longer believe that I share the same faith with those who deny the rights of migrants and foreigners. With those who believe that our collective obligations are diminished by state borders, I do not share the same baptism. I do not share the same cup. I do not share the same god.

I don’t say this to cause offense, just as I don’t mean to offend Hindus by stating the fact that we don’t share the same faith either. I say this because I don’t think Christians should call anti-foreign Christianists to repentance any more than we should call those from other faiths to repent for their own religious beliefs. A false unity that rejects both Scripture and Tradition serves only the goals of those who attempt to borrow from our credibility so that they can violate the rights of the poor while they wash themselves clean in a fount of cheap grace.

We cannot separate the person of Jesus from his work. The resurrected Lord cannot be separated from the historical Jesus. Indispensable to our historic and biblical faith is the unwavering claim that each person, everywhere, is entitled to the full bounty of God’s grace and that we, the disciples of Jesus, are to see this fulfilled most especially for those to whom grace has been long denied. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Rome.

If you don’t think the foreigner is fully human, you’re not one of us.

The full humanity of other people is a clear dividing line between Christian and Christianist, between orthodoxy and heresy, between those who serve Christ imperfectly and those who serve their own interests while borrowing from Jesus’s perfect name.

Migrants and foreigners are people, actual and whole. When we stand beside those who treat them as anything less, who bomb them, use them, detain or deport them, while singing our songs and saying the old words, we are choosing a false unity over the person and work of Jesus.

They don’t need to repent, for by rejecting the humanity of the foreigner, they are rejecting the full humanity of Jesus, the humanity that Jesus assumed in the incarnation. Christianists do not share our baptism, our cup, or our god. We are judged by our rules. They are not.

It’s the Christian, not the Christianist, who needs to repent.

I Don’t Pray Anymore

Luke 11: 1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I don’t remember when I stopped praying. It wasn’t a conscious choice or anything, but like so many things, it just slipped away unnoticed. Prayer became foreign, something that I did when I acted out the part of someone I used to be. That’s a comfortable role to play, and I knew it well, but as time goes by who you used to be becomes further separated from who you are, and the space between you and yourself can be avoided no longer. I don’t remember when I stopped, but I do remember when I noticed. I was praying at the time.

During the unnatural pause that all pastors employ before saying “Amen”, I noticed that the very thing I was doing was something that I didn’t do anymore, unless I was doing it for someone else. My pause became unnaturally unnaturally long, and I sheepishly muttered “Amen” in what many in the congregation probably assumed was moment of deep personal piety. I sat down. I stared at the oscillating fan hidden from view behind the pulpit wondering when the last time actually was. I prayed a lonely prayer, “Lord, what am I doing?” I stood up as the choir finished, and I preached on faithfulness or something. I don’t remember.

Listening to religious people tell me how to pray has always been like listening to the cool kids tell me how to dance. “See, like this!” “Ohhh, like this?” “Yeah, no.” Eventually you just figure out your one public dance move that gets the least amount of looks and you stick with it for life despite social occasion or musical genre. Or you get drunk, which doesn’t work as well with prayer, especially in public.

Praying in public has always been easier for me than praying in private. Public prayer follows a pattern, and it was always a little game to see if I could connect what was happening immediately around me into a timely biblical reference moving towards a satisfying conclusion. For me, making it a game was the only way I knew how to do it well. But out of public view, I never knew what to do, I never got anything out of my efforts, and I always felt like a fraud.

Religious people are as incapable of understanding the effect of their religiosity on the rest of us as good dancers are of understanding the effect of their sweet moves on those who have finely tuned their one acceptable dance. Watching people enjoy dancing is enjoyable on its own, and I’m glad you can do all those things with your feet, but your presence actively makes me want to stand by the wall and watch – without participation.

For people like me, who struggle with what to say in the lonely one sided conversation with God, Luke 11 comes as a relief. The spiritual demands of Christianity are like when a great dancer demands that you dance, to dance publicly, to do it every day, and then demands you enjoy it. But the story of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray is like a great dancer teaching you the steps to The Macarena. The steps are easy. The tune is catchy. And, there are few things that bring comfort to a petrified dancer like simple, choreographed steps. The Lord’s prayer is The Macarena of Christian life.

Unlike the prayers of the religious which are often long and overly-spiritual, Jesus’s instructions for prayer in Luke 11: 2-4 focus on regular people’s most pressing and most common needs. The instructions are just three verses long and consist of only five parts: 1) Blessing the name of God, 2) Appeal to bring God’s Kingdom, 3) Appeal for daily food, 4) Appeal for the forgiveness of debt, and 5) Appeal to avoid trial.

Throughout the Gospels and in the lives of those who listen to Jesus and hear the words of Luke is the ever-present crisis of peasant life. Can our land provide us with enough food to survive? Will we go into debt to pay for our next meal? Will our creditors take us to trial to seize our land because we can’t pay our debts? If we lose our land, how will we eat? Life in Roman Palestine during the time of Jesus and Luke is a time of perpetual crisis as peasants are squeezed by war, taxes, and greedy landowners who want to trap peasants into debt for the purpose of acquiring their land. As friends and neighbors fall further into debt, more pressures rise for the small farmer as his friends and neighbors appeal to him for help.

Every instance of helping his neighbor pushes him closer to the edge of debt and poverty. But the small farmer also relies on his neighbor when his crops fail or when something goes wrong. He cannot survive by himself. If he doesn’t give when help is requested, he not only shames himself and violates the laws of Moses, but he also cannot expect help from his neighbors when, inevitably, he falls on difficult times. The farmer is stuck. Give and he risks debt and losing his land now. Don’t give, and he is alone making debt inevitable in the future.

To whom can the farmer turn for help? Jesus tells them to bless the name of the Lord, the god who saved their ancestors from slavery, provided their daily food when wandering in the desert, and gave them the land on which they live and the law which governs it. This God has a name. Jesus teaches them to appeal to this God’s rule instead of the rule of others who would seize the land given to them by God in perpetuity. Jesus tells them to ask for daily bread, for the forgiveness of debts, and to avoid the trials which take their land from them.

By lending and by forgiving the debt of their neighbors, farmers have a chance to remain solvent and free.

The Lord’s Prayer, commonly known as The Macarena of prayers, is an invitation to those who don’t have the time for lonely, long spiritual speeches to participate with God. And, it is Jesus’s instruction that the most pressing needs of the most vulnerable people are the greatest concerns of spiritual life.

Consider the parable following Jesus’s instruction to pray. The parable is about actual bread and a man’s actual obligation to give without counting what is owed.

The story asks you to imagine that you go to a friend at midnight telling him to give you food because a friend of yours has arrived and you have nothing to give to him. Honor insists that you feed your guest, and honor insists that your guest eat. Your friend, to whom you tell to give you bread, responds with rejection because he is already asleep.

This would never happen in an ancient village, and any of the original hearers of this story know it. The idea of a man refusing to help his neighbor fulfill the demands of hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable. But even with a friend who will not, on account of his friendship or his obligations before the law, get up to provide food for the guest in the village, the man will eventually do so because his friend will shamelessly persist in his demands for bread to feed his guest. Shameless persistence inspires adherence to Jewish hospitality laws.

The petitioner may be shameless, but as William Herzog asks in Parables as Subversive Speech, “How can the behavior of the villager in the parable be described as shameless and boundary-breaking? By whose standards? According to whose boundaries?”

Repeatedly asking for bread to provide for a guest to a village would never be seen as “shameless” by the people of the village. However, we, who don’t live by the values that Jesus is promoting in Luke 11, would certainly see such midnight persistence as “shameless”. So would the wealthy class of Roman Palestine. From the perspective of the wealthy to whom the villagers were either hopelessly in debt or on the edge of becoming indebted, Herzog writes, “the hospitality of the villagers was shameless. It was expended on a virtual stranger and gained them nothing in return… The villagers would have done better to save their food for hard times rather than expect their social superiors to take care of them when their subsistence failed. They were fools for expending their necessities to feed a stranger off the streets.”

The peasant was shameless precisely because he lent without expectation of repayment when he should have been paying back the loans of the rich.

He was shameless because he fed and housed the stranger who came to them at night when he should have been lending his wealth at interest.

He was shameless because he asked his neighbor for help when he should have been investing his money properly from the beginning.

By whose standards? According to whose boundaries?”

The peasant was shameless because he followed Scripture.

Jesus’s instructions for prayer are instructions to be shamelessly persistent in a world that demands you live by someone else’s standards and someone else’s boundaries. In such a world, faithfulness is to be proud of perpetual shame.

I stared at that oscillating fan counting down how long it would be before my sermon was to start. “Lord, what am I doing?” I waited in silence as the choir sang above. God didn’t answer. It was just another lonely one sided conversation.

As the week pressed on I relived that moment over and over. The distance between me and myself seemed wider than ever, so much so that it was growing difficult to recognize where I was. Feeling like a fraud has a strange effect. Even when you do something right, the right just makes the phoniness feel more real. Success, encouragement, and praise all made the problem worse and I grew to hate praise more than criticism. At least criticism felt honest.

I made a strange little deal with myself. Struggle was a sign of belief. Persistence through doubt was faith. With this little move, I could tell myself that not praying was somehow faithful. I was, for a lack of a better word, shameless, and not in the way Jesus praises in our parable.

I kept up the fiction until the next Sunday when I had to pray again. It wasn’t as jarring, but my rouse fell apart as soon as I started going. I worked through it and we ended, as we usually did with the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t lead that section. Congregations usually don’t need the help there. I just stood back, heard the words, and joined.

In Jesus’s instructions, he taught his Disciples to pray for the regular things that common people needed most. Food, debt forgiveness, and God’s Kingdom free from empire. It was a prayer for regular people, over regular concerns, without anything extra in either content or form.

I stepped back from the pulpit and looked down at the oscillating fan by my feet hoping to find something – anything – which wouldn’t let down my church or God. As I meekly mumbled the words, that empty space between me and myself was filled by the chorus from the pews shared across generations of the hypocritical faithful, and old familiar feeling crept forth one more time. In this moment, at least, I wasn’t a fraud.

Luke 7, Jesus and the Centurion

Middle Management Conquers the World

This weekend, on June 22nd, is the anniversary of the Battle of Pydna, an event that shaped life in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come. The outcome saw the end of Macedonian and Greek rule of Greece, and it cemented Rome as the only dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean. The decline of Greek powers and the rise of the Roman Republic dramatically changed life in biblical Israel and ultimately led to the events that unfold in the New Testament. The outcome of the Battle of Pydna and the ultimate conquest of all of the Mediterranean by Rome is in no small part thanks to a middling military rank in the Roman army, which is the focus of the story in Luke 7: the centurion.

In 168 BCE, Roman legions under Lucius Aemilius Paulus launched the final campaign of the Third Macedonian War in mainland Greece after King Perseus of Macedonia attempted to conquer all of Greece, threatening Rome’s eastern borders. In the previous two Macedonian wars, Rome did not attempt to conquer and annex territory, instead choosing to leave Greece independent and form alliances with military powers under Roman influence. However, continued instability led Rome to occupy and annex Greece – the beginnings of Rome’s quest to dominate the entire Mediterranean.

Perseus’s forces were formidable. They had nearly twice as many men, more cavalry, and were fighting in Greece on a battlefield of Perseus’s choosing. The Macedonian phalanx was legendary, dominating battles for centuries since Alexander the Great’s father Philip became the master of Greece with their tight formations and sarissas, 20 foot long spears, which moved in unison crushing helpless troops in front of them. When Roman officers saw tens of thousands of heavy Macedonian spear across the river from them at Pydna, they were said to have torn their clothes shouting in fear at their impending deaths.

The Romans didn’t fight with spears, nor did they fight in the heavy phalanx formation that Alexander used to conquer the world or that Athens and Sparta used to dominate Greece for centuries in defiance of much larger, more powerful empires. The Roman weapon of choice was the gladius, a short sword that had no hope of matching the reach of the Macedonian spears. The short sword allowed them to carry a larger, curved shield, but more importantly, Roman legionnaires were more flexible on a battlefield as their formations and soldiers could maneuver themselves to changing conditions. The phalanx, with its long spears, must keep tight formations at all times and can only move slowly and fight effectively directly in front of them.  But when used properly on even ground with their flanks protected and fighting in front of them, the phalanx was practically invincible.

The Roman advantage was their ability to manipulate their units and soldiers on the battlefield to changing circumstances and enemy weaknesses. Their formation, the maniple, consisted of units of (originally) 100 men called centuries led by an officer, the centurion. The centuries were designed to be flexible; they could detach from the larger formation and operate independently under the direction of higher officer or the initiative of the centurion himself. The Macedonian phalanx was designed to overwhelm opponents and relied on a top down command structure with everyone working together. The maniple was designed to exploit weaknesses and relied on middle officers, the centurions, operating quasi-independently or under direct command of the general.

Initially, the Romans were pushed back. The power of the Macedonian phalanx gave the initial advantage of the Battle of Pydna to Perseus. The Romans began to sustain significant losses. The phalanx pushed them so far back so quickly, that they left the battlefield entirely moving onto rocky foothills and amazingly, the Roman centuries under the command of their centurions didn’t break as the unstoppable wall of death was running over them. As the ground became uneven on the foothills, the Macedonian phalanx could no longer hold their lines, creating large gaps. The Romans saw their opportunity and the centurions ordered their men into the gaps of the Macedonians. The Phalanx began to break as sword and shield saw large advantage on uneven terrain attacking forward-facing spears from the sides at close range. Roman elephants and auxiliary troops attacked the crumbling flank of the Macedonians, and the battle quickly turned to disaster for the Macedonians. Perseus fled.

The Macedonian army was devastated. Their army of 40,000 plus cavalry saw as many as 20,000 dead and 11,000 men captured. The Roman army of 25,000 plus cavalry and elephants suffered losses of 100 dead and 400 wounded. Greeks wouldn’t rule Greece again for nearly 2,000 years. As Rome pushed eastwards, the old fragmented kingdoms of Alexander’s empire crumbled before them, encouraging local rebellions like the Maccabean Revolt in 167 BCE. 100 years later, Israel and Judea would fall to the Roman Empire and suffer under numerous, brutal wars from the Romans and their client kings.

The backbone of the Roman war machine, other than their unmatched economic output, was the middle officer and leader of the century, the centurion. In order to become a centurion, you had to be at least 30 years old. You had to have years of military experience. You had to be able to read and write – a rarity in the ancient world. And, you had to be large, strong, a skilled fighter, and, most importantly, terrifying.

The Roman legion was designed to be flexible, and the only way they can do this was to have middle officers who command absolute authority over their men. Centurions had to be smart enough to recognize opportunity and weakness. They had to be competent enough to act independently of central command. They had to be strong enough to fight on the front lines with their soldiers, often the first one in a fight. And, they had to be fearsome enough to command the respect of professional soldiers. If someone made a mistake, it was the centurion who disciplined them with the whip. If someone disobeyed orders, it was the centurion who carried out their execution. When occupying cities and towns, it was these middling officers who worked alongside locals, dispensing favors, mercy, and Roman justice.

Rome conquered the world through middle management.

Luke 7: 1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Pastors and interpreters often make a common mistake when reading Luke 7: 1-10 – they believe the centurion is a good and noble man. The text does not give us any reason to think this, and every honest reader should reject this interpretation. Luke 7:4, “When they (the Jewish elders) came to Jesus, they appealed to him saying ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ ”

Why believe the Jewish elders? These are the people in the story who repeatedly oppose Jesus. Just before this story, Jesus upends the social structure with elders and Romans on the top and the commoners on the bottom in the Sermon on the Plain. Where does the centurion get the money to build the synagogue? There is little chance he pays for this himself. The centurion likely gets it from taxes or by seizing it from the public to gain the favor of the elders. Who benefits from the synagogue? Mostly the Jewish elders who curry favor with the Romans for which Jesus criticizes them constantly and who ultimately conspire to get Jesus killed.

Believing that the centurion is “a good guy” is to take the side of the Jewish elders in a larger argument against Jesus and the Gospel writers: participation with and appeasement of oppressors vs peaceful non-compliance through faithfulness to God. The “good guy centurion” interpretation is not only lazy, but it’s in opposition to the message of Luke and the immediate narrative of the Sermon on the Plain. Maybe the centurion really is a worthy person, but we don’t know this from the text. All we know is that the common people who are following Jesus wouldn’t have believed the testimony of the elders and would have hated and feared the centurion.

The danger here is that this story becomes just another healing story and we miss how shocking it would be for Jesus to praise the faith of such a man. It would be as if a modern pastor praised the faith of a terrorist. There are only two instances in the Gospels in which Jesus performs miracles for Gentiles: here with the centurion’s slave in Luke 7 and the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter in Mark 7. Both are healed at a distance. Both miracles are Gentiles petitioning for a lower status person in desperate need. Both show a kind of faith that leaves Jesus in amazement.

When Jesus mentions similar stories from the Hebrew Bible of a Gentile woman and a foreign military commander in Luke 4: 24-27, the people of Nazareth attempt to murder him by trying to throw him off a cliff. These are scandalous stories precisely because they are about foreign enemies hated by local people.

In this case, the centurion is the symbol of Roman occupation and persecution. The centurion is the means by which the Roman Empire destroys the kingdoms of the old world and enacts a new order. The centurion is the backbone of the army that slaughtered tens of thousands in conquering the land of Israel, and the centurion is likely the Roman officer who dispenses order and justice to a local population who suffers at the hands of Rome. Jesus is amazed at his faith more so than the faith of anyone in Israel.

The purpose of the story is to criticize the lack of faith in Israel by religious leaders, especially the Jewish elders present in the story, claiming that their faith can’t compare to even the hated centurion. Jesus is criticizing religious leaders, the very ones that cooperate with and legitimize centurions. By falling for “the good guy centurion” and lifting him up as an example to follow, the preacher and interpreter are choosing the side of the Jewish elders in Luke 7 against Jesus.

A plea to preachers and interpreters: stop praising the centurion. Stop taking the side of hypocritical religious leaders and join Jesus in scandalously criticizing your colleagues who side with oppressors. Make sure people understand who the centurion is and what he represents. And if you’re in the pews and your pastor makes this mistake, maybe try Jesus’s strategy, praise the faith of an enemy foreign military leader and call it greater than that of your pastor. But, be careful. They might throw you off a cliff.

The Wisdom of Suleiman

Every day when I leave for work, my mom packs my lunch. Even though I work alone, she packs a lunch for two. I might meet someone along the way who has nothing to eat, and this way, we can eat together.

I met Suleiman, a Jordanian Bedouin, on a weekend of hiking in southern Jordan. Suleiman lives in the middle of two very different worlds, as a Bedouin living a traditional semi-nomadic life with his family herding animals and as a tour guide for hikers traveling through southern Jordan’s desert mountains. I asked him if he liked his job as a tour guide. “No” he said looking down at the ground. After a pause or two, he looked up with a dry smile, “I love it.”

While guiding hikers and tourists on anything from a leisurely walk around the local ecolodge to multi-day hikes over desert mountains while sleeping under the stars, Suleiman tells those who walk with him about desert life. He describes plants and animals. He tells you what kind of wood is best for cooking or to burn to keep away insects. He shows you how to make “Bedouin soap” using ground up bits of plants and a small amount of water. He describes the mountain, the spring or the wadi, which all function as his second home when out with his flock. But mostly, Suleiman talks to you about life, about local Bedouin values and beliefs, and encourages you to take with you photos and lessons alongside a people who have lived this way for thousands of years.

As you walk, you learn that he isn’t just telling stories. He actually carries extra food with him. And when you happen upon a stranger out in the desert, he invites you to live out his stories of Bedouin life for yourself.

There is a family in this place who had 150 goats. The rains came very fast, and the water rushed through the wadi. The water washed away all 150 goats, and the family was left with nothing. How will they eat? How will they make money? And all of the animals? They died. This was very sad. The families in the area gathered together and one family gave 10 goats and another gave 20. At the end of the day, the family who lost everything had 180 goats. People who live in nature, we rely on each other to survive.

The deserts in Jordan aren’t always dry. If you hike, as we did in the spring, you’ll find the wadis between the mountains in full bloom. But a short climb up a mountain or hill will reveal vast areas of gray and brown, of dust and rock. The months ahead will see no rain, and soon, water for Bedouins and their animals will be scarce. Months of hot sun on dust and rock make the rains of winter a welcome and dangerous sight. Floods come quickly with the power to wash away anything in their path. As we were walking, Suleiman gave us a long explanation for how to cross rushing flood waters – always with a stick to check the depth, always 45 degrees into the current when crossing, and never when the water is at or above your knees. For him, this information was a matter of life and death, and they’re among the earliest lessons you learn as a child in the desert.

The rainy winters can bring disaster for any family. Unlike those of us living in developed economies, in this place, insurance, savings, or public disaster assistance don’t really exist. Flooding, drought, pestilence, or disease can wipe out a family’s livelihood at any time. The only way to live in such a place and the only way to adequately mitigate risk are to do so together as a community, relying on neighbors and friends. But they don’t lament. The difficulties of living there and the necessities of living together are a point of pride. They speak as if believing the desert to be a blessing rather than a curse because the desert forces the Bedouin to live together.

If I told you to walk over there and move that boulder, you could not do it. Even if you could, it would be very difficult. You might hurt yourself. But if all of us went over there we could easily move the boulder anywhere we wanted. Sharing burdens, this is what we believe.

Come over here. Place your hand over your heart. See, I am placing my hand over my heart. It is the same heart.

Suleiman wasn’t just proud of the world in which he lived and the people with which he shared it, Suleiman believed, as taught to him by his mother and father, that all people share a common dignity and a common humanity. Our hearts are the same hearts.

No doubt, a universal, monotheistic faith teaches him this, believing in a god who is creator and judge of all things. To an outsider, a counter-intuitive reality emerges when talking to Suleiman. He greets outsiders with warmth and hospitality displaying great pride for his home and his culture while also showing an unexpected curiosity about the places from which his guests call home. When Suleiman discovered that I studied religion and formerly worked as a priest, we had a long conversation about religious movements in America, particularly the theology, background and practices of Mormons. But while outsiders are treated with warmth and hospitality, and while he believes that all people share in one common humanity of dignity and worth, Suleiman is Bedouin, and you are not. Nor can you ever be one of them. For an American, whose civic and cultural identity is wrapped up in the myth of a people bound by a civic idea rather than ethnicity or religion, Suleiman’s belief in shared humanity while living in a community whose membership is closed off to the rest of the world due to birth is jarring.

Yet again, he seems to live between two very different worlds. Though for Suleiman, this is a natural fact of life. We may share the same heart, but Bedouin and American are forever separated. As Suleiman says:

Your fingers and your face. Look, they are very close, but they are not the same.

Everybody in the desert gets stung by the scorpion. I have been stung 5 times. This is why I’m so dangerous.

Standing at cliff on near the peak of a mountain, Suleiman reached down for a rock, looked at us out of the corner of his eye and said “Watch. Listen.” He sidearm threw an oblong rock with a odd snapping motion upon release. The rock loudly buzzed like a drone as it sailed into the wadi below. I’d never seen anything like that. As we sat eating lunch, he entertained himself by throwing rocks making them buzz or throwing one as high as he could trying to hit it with a second rock.

I guess shepherds have a lot of down time and rocks are never in short supply, because he was the best thrower of rocks I’d ever seen. If he had to face up against Goliath with a handful of rocks, I’d bet on the skinny shepherd every time.

I told him I would try. I failed. Miserably. I tried a second time. “Wow. I’ve never seen someone get so close on their second try.” It took me a minute to realize it, but he was making fun of me. He gave a wry side-smile and continued doing so for about 5 minutes. He continued to tell us jokes through lunch, usually about everyday things – goats, scorpions, or tea. I don’t often meet Jordanians who can so easily slip into dry, sarcastic humor, which relies on a level of personal comfort, cultural knowledge, and a mastery of English and non-verbal cues, and I certainly don’t share those skills with them. Suleiman learned this while living in the desert, as a shepherd, and occasionally guiding around western tourists after he was well into his 20s.

He told us he was often alone, but never lonely. People in cities are surrounded by people but talk to no one. He was often the only person for miles when with his flock, but he spent every day with his family while talking and sharing meals with shepherds he would meet in the mountains. Conversation and rock throwing were often his only forms of entertainment; he practices both everyday with stranger and friend alike. No wonder he’s better than me at both. I always thought I was pretty good at throwing rocks.

There are venomous snakes here in the desert. Most people think you need to fear the large snakes, but this isn’t so. The old snake knows that if he bites you, he should only use a little venom. If he uses it all, he must wait a few days to make more and will then have to wait to eat. The young snake doesn’t know this. The old snake is smart. Be afraid of the young snake.

Look out at that mountain over there. How many goats do you see? There are 80 goats and a man on a donkey. We spend our whole lives outside looking into the distance. Some people spend all of their lives inside looking at a screen. Bedouins have better eyesight.

Suleiman pointed out a flock and a shepherd in the distance. “Oh yeah, I see them.” I didn’t. We started walking. As we neared the shepherd I pretended to see 20 minutes prior, we heard a loud voice from the north. It was a second shepherd was with his flock about a kilometer or two away shouting in our direction. Suleiman elbowed me with a smile, “Bedouin cell phone.”

We stopped. One shepherd would shout. There would be a long pause. And the other would respond. Suleiman shouted too. I couldn’t follow along in Arabic except for a few words. When westerners shout to each other from far away, we tend to draw out our words and use short phrases followed by pleas to repeat ourselves. These guys were shouting in paragraphs and doing so quickly. I guess shouting over multiple kilometers is something that you learn in the desert. Normally, being a bystander to people shouting at each other far off in the desert would make you fairly uncomfortable, but they weren’t arguing. They were negotiating.

After a few minutes of shouting, Suleiman laughed and told us to come along. We walked ahead to meet the shepherd. The man to the north got on his donkey and raced over to us as fast as he could. As we arrived, an older shepherd was preparing tea. The negotiation was to find out who would have the honor of hosting the foreign hikers and Suleiman. The second shepherd arrived and jumped off his donkey. To my surprise, he was about 13 years old, alone all day in the desert with animals – which was probably most of his family’s assets.

The two shepherds were very interested in us, especially because we could speak a little Arabic, and they were excited to present us with our tea. My mom packs my lunch. Suleiman pulled out some food and gave it to the 13 year old boy. He wanted us to see him do it. He wasn’t showing off his morality. He was demonstrating how to be hospitable. The older shepherd was out by himself, but of course brought along at least 6 tea cups so that all could drink together. Who when planning to spend all day working by themselves hiking mountains brings 6 glass tea cups just in case they run into 5 strangers?

As we were preparing to leave, Suleiman leaned over to us and asked us if we had any food. “Give some to this man and the young boy. This is a nice thing to do. Everybody will have something.” I had some nuts and fruit that I packed for our journey. I shared with them as they held out their hands. They ate, smiled, and walked away. It was the strangest feeling, as if I was back in my old church sharing bread and wine with those who gathered for a common meal.

Now when I hike, I try to bring extra food. Who knows who you might meet along the way?

Be careful about who you marry. Some people bring more problems. I would never marry a woman my family didn’t approve of, even if I loved her. The family name is important. She could be nice. She could be beautiful, but beauty doesn’t last forever.

People who live in nature feel the effects of climate change more. And often these people didn’t do anything to change the climate. Some people even control the exact temperature of the inside of their home. We live in the heat, and we live in the cold. But now, there is no more snow in Feynan. We will live with this.

Bedouin shepherds are having a difficult year in the region. While Amman received a very large amount of rain, southern Jordan didn’t receive very much, making cultivation of plants and finding water for family and animals quite difficult. The price of goats has been falling as locals are increasingly competing against imports of cheap, foreign meat, especially from southeast Asia. The Bedouins complain that rain patterns are changing and the winters and summers are growing warmer. “I live outside”, Suleiman said. “I know when the weather is different.”

The fact that a Bedouin shepherd was guiding foreigners on goat paths was evidence enough that Suleiman’s world is changing. Feynan Ecolodge, where he works part-time as a guide, works to support locals and have a minimal impact on the land. We arrived to Feynan on foot after a long hike from a neighboring nature reserve. But to return (a long uphill climb), Feynan arranged for a Bedouin to drive us in his 4×4 truck. Shepherds are finding work as guides and as a transport service between caring for animals. If you want a longer hike to Petra, they can arrange a Bedouin to come along with a donkey to carry your bags.

Even though the area is remote and rough, Suleiman’s family and his neighbors are still there. Like generations before him, he’s raising animals and welcoming strangers, though now he probably does less of the former and more of the latter. He’s not just a product of a traditional life, he’s working to defend it and to share with outsiders the lessons and wisdom learned from a life spent in the desert mountains under the stars.

More than any other lesson from Suleiman, a visitor learns a sense of the hospitality of the people in this remote place. They learn that it isn’t just a matter of morals or tradition. Hospitality and kindness are how Bedouins survive in unforgiving terrain with unpredictable weather in a rapidly changing world. It has made them into adept farmers and herders, resilient survivors, and excellent guides and hosts in a new tourism industry. It’s a hospitality born out of necessity, but practiced with joy for those who brave the long journey. A great love for the land and a genuine curiosity for outsiders is, surprisingly, even more incredible than the beauty of the wadi, the shepherds fields, and the desert sky.

Everybody is different. This is a good thing, otherwise the world would not be so interesting.

*Special thanks to Loren for taking photos when I forgot my camera in our hotel room.  Suleiman took one of the photos.  Oh this button right here?  Thank you.  Is that how cameras work?

**If you’re interested in hiking here, check out Wadi Dana Eco Camp and Feynan Eco Lodge.  Bring food for two.

***Please note, these are paraphrases from Suleiman, not direct quotes. I wasn’t hiking with a pen in hand. He was memorable, so they’re fairly close.

If I Had a Pulpit:

Eavesdropping On The Early Church

Luke 6:17-26

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

If I had a pulpit the week where the church read Luke 6:17-26, I would have a few objectives that I hoped to accomplish in preaching to the unlucky group of people who had to endure sitting quietly in front of me for what would, hopefully, take about 15-20 minutes.

Objective Number 1: Invite people into my weird, little world.

The Bible, like anything else, is heard by your ears and seen by your eyes. It is filtered through your experience, your biases, and your life. You cannot hear the Biblical stories as anyone other than yourself. There’s a tendency, I fear, for modern readers to try to receive the bible “without bias” as if we could remove ourselves from the experience and become impartial observers to some type of “biblical truth”. If you pay attention to the stories, however, you will notice that the biblical writers aren’t impartial, and perhaps more importantly, neither is God. Do we even want an impartial God? Or do we want a God who is for us? How exactly do you become an impartial observer to a story about your own salvation? Or your own condemnation?

Our weird, little worlds are the only place, within the individual, in which salvation has any meaning. God is not interested in saving your public face. But, salvation is not an individual work. God redeems the world. God’s plan for salvation is the collective church. We experience it as individuals. The only way for the Bible to make known God’s divine salvation is to discover its individual humanity. We need to know the humanity of Jesus. We need to know the humanity of its authors and its audience. And we need to know yours. Every sermon, every bible study, every interaction at the church should be a window into our weird, little worlds that are seen, and redeemed, and made far weirder by the peculiar behavior of our god.

Objective Number 2: Discover Something About the Text

For some people, the reading actual text is a discovery, particularly if you go off the lectionary or choose less common biblical stories and themes. For others, discovery in Luke 6 might be diving deep into form criticism or oral performance and Luke’s literary relationship with Q. When you engage with the Bible with groups, you’re likely going to be engaging both of these people simultaneously. And if you’re really honest, regardless of your biblical expertise, you’re likely both these people at different times. If you were preaching on the Book of Obadiah, or some passage in Numbers, I probably wouldn’t know the text at all.

This causes some Christians who engage with others on the Bible to be afraid of getting “too complicated”. I think this fear is unfounded. Just because people aren’t familiar with the text, at a church or bible study anyway, somebody just read the text to them, and as long as they have a phone or a bible in their hands, they can access the text and the footnotes and endless commentaries for themselves. Neither the preacher nor the super special educated Christian is a guardian of secret knowledge, and the people around you are plenty capable of understanding. It’s almost certain that none of us understand it as well or as poorly as we think we do. Instead, the Christian should be engaged in a process of discovering the text, sharing with others what we’ve discovered, and what that means in our weird, little worlds. We should be excited to hear how others are doing that too.

Objective Number 3: Discover Something About the Author and the Audience (the context)

Remember what we said about hearing the Bible as an individual, and particularly a certain individual? You know, you? The writer of Luke (who also wrote Acts – see something that might be new!) is also a real, individual person.*** Luke’s intended audience is also a real group of people who Luke likely knows well.

But there are problems with this. First off, the author of The Gospel According to Luke is anonymous. Like the other Gospels, the author isn’t named anywhere in the text. The name “Luke” is added to the title later in the 2nd Century. We also don’t really know where the author, who we’re just going to call “Luke” for convenience sake, lives and works. That means that we don’t know with a lot of precision who Luke’s audience is or what their context would be. But due to what we know about the history of Israel in the 1st and 2nd centuries, due to the how that history is presented in the text, and due to the Gospel of Luke’s literary relationship with the other Gospels and the ministry of Paul, the general academic consensus is that Luke is a Gentile writing around 90 BCE to a Gentile audience and that his audience is familiar with and sympathetic towards Judaism.

Here’s where it gets weird. Because we don’t know a lot of the details about who Luke is or who his audience is, it’s difficult to figure out exactly what Luke is saying. We are not the audience that Luke has in mind. Luke has an audience. He knows them. The Gospel of Luke is his story, likely presented as an oral speech, to them. We are separated by 1900 years. Luke is writing in Greek. We’re reading translations in English. The original manuscripts of The Gospel of Luke have not been found. We’re reading Greek copies from much later. While a preacher can preach to a congregation with the congregation in mind, and while a person can have a conversation with another person in mind, when we read the Gospel of Luke separated by time, and space, and culture, and language, we’re experiencing a conversation or a speech between speaker and audience of which we aren’t a part.

That doesn’t make us the audience of The Gospel of Luke. That makes us eavesdroppers. We are overhearing a conversation. Better yet, we’re overhearing a conversation in another language that is being translated for us. That’s a feeling I know well living overseas. I usually have a good idea what’s going on around me, but I’m never quite sure.

It gets weirder. Because Luke isn’t an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus and is likely a Gentile in another country who speaks Greek, Luke and his audience aren’t the intended audience of Jesus’s speech described in Luke 6. In this speech, Jesus has an audience: the Disciples and the crowds who have come to see Jesus. Luke discovers the speech through a second independent source (see footnotes), and works it into his Gospel. That makes Luke and his audience eavesdroppers on the conversation/speech between Jesus and the Disciples and crowds.

Better yet, because Jesus is speaking in the Galilean common language of Aramaic and Luke is writing in Greek, Luke and the early church are overhearing a conversation in another language that is being translated for them. Our relationship with The Gospel of Luke, separated by time and space and language and culture is, in many ways, analogous to Luke’s relationship with the ministry of Jesus separated by time and space and language and culture. Like Luke is to Jesus, we are eavesdropping on the early church and thus should approach these texts with humility. But because we’re doing something similar that Luke and the other Gospel writers are doing, who approached their tasks with an absurd level of prophetic boldness, we should remain humble but never timid.

Objective Number 4: Engage the text (objective #2), the context (#3), with you (#1), and if you can manage it, your audience (call it #1B)

Side note: If you’re a preacher, you don’t necessarily need to connect with your audience. This is a mistake they teach us in preaching class. Your audience knows you better than you know them. It’s simple math. You’re one person and your congregation are many, unless you’re Methodist and there’s like 4 people in the pews. Plus, they listen to you talk for at least an hour every week and you don’t do the same – again, simple math. If you adequately connect the text and context to yourself, they can do the connecting between you and them on their own. Connecting the sermon to you is the top priority. Connecting to your audience is great, but it’s like the Gospel of John on top of Matthew, Mark, and Luke: nice but unnecessary.

When I read Luke chapter 6:17-26, I imagine the individual speaking it and the individuals hearing it. I imagine the context in which they are living. And I imagine what it might mean to them. At the same time, I think of my life and my context, my weird, little world of an idealistic failed preacher who moved to Jordan with the naive belief that my wife and I could follow God’s calling in a place filled with the dispossessed. We’re not always doing that very well.

When I hear Jesus saying “blessed are the poor”, I hear an actual poor man speaking to other actually poor people. It’s important to remember that neither Jesus nor his Disciples, nor the vast majority of the crowd listening to him, are the absolute poorest people in society. Instead, they’re on the edge. They’ve been pushed there by the rich – the landowners, the state, religious bureaucrats, and Roman clients in Jerusalem and Galilee. They can see over the edge of the cliff. Their way of life is being destroyed by the unstoppable march of Empire.

Because of the way the Scriptures are written by the prophets, who regularly spoke to kings and rulers – you know, the people who could read, and because of the way the Scriptures are interpreted, again by interpreters who live in the centers of power, regular people believe that tragedy has struck them because they have been sinful. They believe they deserve it. This is particularly true of those who are desperately poor – those who are orphans or widows or crippled or sick. Covenant language in the Hebrew Bible generally follows a pattern. Scripture sets forth the law. If you follow the law, you will be blessed. If not, wrath of God.

This pattern mostly makes sense in the following circumstances: 1) When a prophet is speaking at the temple court to a King or to some powerful royal client, and 2) When the Scriptures are read and proclaimed in a village community operating inside a well-functioning and independent Judah or Israel. These are the situations in which the text was created and developed that I think of as “normative political economy”. But it doesn’t work in an imperial economy, when a king rules over you for the purpose of extracting wealth from your lands. When your land is being taken away by rich landowners empowered by kings and your land raided by armies stealing and burning, the cause of your poverty isn’t breaking normal political/moral/economic relations with your neighbors, the cause is the empire. Blame belongs with them, not you.

Jesus does something remarkable here in Luke 6. Instead of the normal pattern of 1) Set forth the law, 2) Declare blessings on those who follow and woes on those who don’t. Jesus does it the other way around. Jesus starts with the blessings.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled…

He moves onto the woes:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

Then after the blessings and after the woes, he gives the law. When he gives the law, it’s covenantal in nature, meaning, its straight from Exodus and Deuteronomy and Leviticus. He’s renewing the covenant that God makes with Moses and Israel, but only after Jesus blesses the poor and hungry and declares woe on the rich and the full. Jesus is forgiving them so that they can follow the covenant.

This isn’t a regular type of speech. It’s a performative speech. It’s like the efficacious signs present in the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Like the sacraments, Jesus’s speech accomplishes the very thing that it represents or symbolizes. When Jesus says it, it actually is. When he says the poor are blessed, instead of cursed, they are blessed. They are free to follow the covenant when previously they were too poor to follow the laws and traditions of the Judeans. When Jesus says “blessed are the poor” and “woe to the rich” to those very people who are on the brink but not yet desperately poor, Jesus frees them live into the Mosaic covenant which demands they give of what they have, demands they forgive each other’s debts, and demands they liberally lend to those in need. These are the only protections against crushing, desperate poverty that they will ever have. When others act like this, they can afford to do so as well. Jesus speaks with authority.

Performative speech is like a umpire calling balls and strikes or a judge declaring someone guilty. When the umpire says “strike” or the judge says “guilty” it is a strike and they are guilty, according to the law. In his performative speech, Jesus is not just telling you what is moral, he is making what is moral a lived experience among the actual, living individuals that listen. (NIB Commentary, Matthew, 177)

What do we make of this? What do eavesdroppers on the early church make of Jesus’s message to a people on the edge? It’s little wonder that Jesus’s radical message to people who live under the Mosaic Covenant is dulled a bit when overheard by Luke who is a Gentile living over half a century later speaking to an audience of Gentiles. Even still, his message is radical and powerful.

It’s little wonder too that the modern church has taken this story and domesticated it further. We have spiritualized it – what Jesus means is the poor are blessed but really only in a symbolic way. We have normalized it – what Jesus means is those who are poor in fill in the blank, not just the obvious-meaning, actual-definition poor. We have broadened it – what Jesus means is that we are all poor sometimes therefore this is a universal, unbiased message from a universal unbiased god.

We live under two layers of domestication and the radical speech still shouts from the pages. I ask, do we live under a “normative political economy” or do we live under empire? Most people who read this probably live under the former. But what about the poor? What about the desperately poor, the 10% of the world who live on less than $2 a day? What about my Syrian or Palestinian neighbors? What about the stranger, the alien, and the migrant? With such people do we start off with a word of blessing or woe? With them do we start with law or grace? Do we start with what they need to do or what we need to do for them?

The bible outlines both patterns. When do we apply each one? My answer: the poor get the blessings first. The rest of us start with the law. Jesus declared it and made it so in the performative speech of Luke 6.

I’ve tried here to welcome you to my weird, little world, where I struggle with the text, the context, what it means for our society, and with myself. I’ve tried to introduce Luke and Jesus and their respective audiences as individual people with real concerns. In doing so, I’ve tried to lay out my thought process of a sermon and have it function as the sermon itself. The goal is to lay out the objectives of a sermon and have describing those objectives function in accomplishing them as if it were performative speech. I don’t know how well I did. I struggle to make my objectives accomplish its conclusions in an article. Jesus did it with one speech flipping the Torah and the Mosaic Covenant on its head with blessings for the poor as the starting point forever.

We aren’t Jesus, nor are we Luke, but we can rethink how blessings, woes, and covenant obligations function differently for those of us with power, and those of us without. In your community, are the poor blessed? Are the hungry full? Are the mourners comforted? Are you?

***Well kind of. Luke/Acts was written by one person, but Luke used at least three different sources in writing it. Luke and Matthew often copied from The Gospel of Mark (aka the best gospel) word for word and at other times reworked Mark’s stories for their own purposes. Luke and Matthew also used a second source, called “Q”, which is a series of sayings/speeches that form a cohesive narrative when read as part of Israelite covenantal language in the context of 1st century Roman Palestine. Luke 6 just so happens to be the longest and most important part of these speeches. We call this source, “Q” because German scholars hypothesized its existence and their word for “source” starts with a Q, thus the “Q Source”. Luke also includes some stories unique to Luke’s Gospel, so therefore, we assume, that Luke has a third source to which the other Gospel writers don’t have access. The Gospel of Luke has also been edited in a few places, and, obviously, what you read in English has had a number of different translators. So, while Luke was a real, individual person, the document that you have in your Bible was created by a number of different people.

If I Had A Pulpit:

We Cannot Be Made Great Again

There’s a story about ancient Assyria, when King Ashurbanipal ruled in Ninevah, that gives some clarity to Isaiah chapter 6 from this week’s lectionary text. In 653 BCE, Ashurbanipal invaded the Kingdom of Elam and decimated the country. Overwhelming military victories weren’t enough for the Assyrians, nor was the destruction of Elam’s cities and its people.

One of the defeated Elamite generals, in a display of humiliation before Ashurbanipal, was forced to wear the severed head of the Elamite king around his neck as he walked back to Assyria accompanied by the songs of Assyrian musicians. Alongside the general were plundered Elomite treasures and idols and the exiled Elamite population. Elamite nobles watched the scene in horror, some reportedly killing themselves at the sight of their decapitated king. Upon reaching Assyria, the general was slaughtered and strung up like an animal, his brothers were tortured and pieces of their bodies were sent throughout the empire. Others were flayed alive and had their tongues torn out for speaking against Assyrian gods. In a particularly horrific scene, two Elamite nobles were forced to grind the bones of their departed fathers, crushing them into ash.  (A. T. Olmstead, History of Assyria)

The Assyrians were terrifying. The consequences of losing to them in battle was well known as scenes such as these were proudly cataloged and displayed by the Assyrian bureaucracy. Their armies were larger. Their soldiers? Better trained. Their technology? Far superior. Their political organization? More efficient. They were the first civilization in history to have a standing professional army and the first to equip their soldiers entirely with iron weapons. They pioneered siege technology, including battering rams and ultimately, siege towers. The cost of inevitably losing to the Assyrians was high.

The modern reader has very little context for the horror of this type of overwhelming gratuitous violence. Imagine if ISIS wasn’t just a terror group struggling against weakened Arab states and opposing secular militias. Instead, imagine they were the most powerful empire on Earth, and they regularly invaded other states and decimated their populations. Imagine that other nations were seemingly helpless before their military might, and they had been ruling in this capacity for centuries. Imagine if you were a small kingdom facing up to the reality of an impending invasion by ISIS with no hope of defeating their armies and no hope of saving yourself, your families, or your history – not even the bones of you ancestors would survive. What do you do?

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Isaiah chapter 6: 1-8 is a well-known biblical story. It’s regularly repeated in churches and Sunday schools. The church sings hymns on Isaiah’s call story, and Isaiah standing before God with angels shielding their eyes from God’s glory is regularly depicted in Christian art.

But, we usually stop at verse 8 and ignore verses 9-13.

Isaiah 6:9-13

And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
   and stop their ears,
   and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
   and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
   without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
   and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
   it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
   whose stump remains standing
   when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

The prophet Isaiah writes the first 12 chapters of the book bearing his name during the Syro-Ephraimite War which started around 736 BCE. The name of the conflict references the alliance between the nations of Syria (Aram) and Ephraim (which I will refer to here as “Kingdom of Israel” or “Israel”) against the Kingdom of Judah. As the Assyrian Empire is rapidly expanding westward towards the Holy Land, the kings of Syria and Israel create an alliance to oppose Assyria and try to force Judah to join. If Judah refuses, these kings will invade Judah and install a new king who will join them in war against Assyria.

(It’s common to confuse “Judah” and “Israel”. After the rule of King Solomon, the United Kingdom of David and Solomon split into two separate kingdoms: the southern Kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem, and where Isaiah lives and works, and the northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Shechem and later Samaria.)

Upon the death of King Uzziah, mentioned in Isaiah 6:1, Isaiah counsels the new king, Ahaz, not to join the coalition of Syria and Israel against Assyria. He advises the king to wait, to stand firm in faith. He essentially says that in the face of the coming threat to do nothing. He believes that if they wait, Assyria will destroy Israel and Syria and, the threat will pass.

Ahaz listens, sort of. He doesn’t join the coalition. Instead, Ahaz joins with Assyria asking the mighty empire for protection from their northern enemies. Assyria invades Syria and Israel who face a predictable end when small kingdoms fight against superpowers. A decade later, Assyria invades Israel once again. Israel’s armies are destroyed. Its cities razed. Its people deported. The Kingdom of Israel and its people become lost to history. And Judah and the House of David, once a proud and independent kingdom, survives, but, they become a vassal to the Assyrian Empire. Their independence comes to an end.

Isaiah’s moving call story in chapter 6 verses 1-8 quickly loses its luster for both Isaiah and the reader when God reveals what Isaiah must do now that he’s called. Isaiah will preach and prophesy of complete destruction, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.” Isaiah’s mission from God is to “make the mind of the people dull” so that “they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds”.

Isaiah is to prophesy destruction and, he is to be the vessel that hardens the heart of the people, as if he were Moses before Pharaoh, so that they do not repent nor find God’s salvation.

If modern Christians and priests were honest enough to admit it, especially publicly and before their communities of faith, they would admit that we find what God doing through Isaiah in chapter 6 to be both shocking and cruel. If we were honest, which we aren’t, we would label our reactions to God’s here as being one of condemnation of evil. If God is truly hardening the hearts of God’s own people to prevent their own turning away from wrongdoing with the inevitable result being the total destruction of kingdoms, and cities, and lives, with the type of horror that the Assyrian Empire is sure to bring, we must ask ourselves if this is the work of the God who saves, or is this the work of the one who condemns? Is this the work of a God who is good? Or is this the work of the one who is undoubtedly, evil. Just who is calling Isaiah?

Christianity faces a crisis with a weary world and with our own adherents over a problem that we do not want to admit or one that we cannot see. It’s not a crisis over whether our God exists. That’s an old crisis. It’s not a crisis over whether our church is effective or good. That’s an even older one. The crisis that we face is whether or not our God, as depicted in Scripture and in history, is worthy of worship. It’s not “Is God dead?” Our crisis is “Is God good?” Can you answer that question with Isaiah chapter 6?

As long as you think God brings progress to creation in fulfillment of a better world and as long as you think that history’s arc is long but bends towards justice, I don’t think you can answer that question affirmatively. As long as you think God preserves our people and our church through the practice and protection of our traditions and through the worship and belief shared with our church fathers, I don’t think you can answer that question affirmatively. Isaiah chapter 6, along with numerous texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament show God breaking the world in often horrifying ways. We can justify the present order only when we ignore what God is doing in the Bible. See for yourself how many preachers this Sunday preach on Isaiah 6: 1-8 and leave out 9-13. I’m sure it will be a moving and reassuring sermon.

When God makes the mind of the people dull and stops their ears and shuts their eyes so they cannot see, or hear, or understand, God is doing what God often does to people in positions of power and comfort when God is nudging the world to change. Before God liberates God’s people and creates a new political community through Moses in the Exodus, God hardens the heart of Pharaoh and unleashes destruction throughout the land. Does King Herod find the news of the birth of a new king to be a liberating message? Or, does his heart harden and respond with violence as if he were Pharaoh reborn? Jesus even quotes from Isaiah 6:10 in John 12: 37-43 in response to the people who don’t believe, and particularly to the Pharisees who saw his many signs yet were afraid “they would be put out of the synagogue, for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” God acts this way in history to end empires and bring about the possibility for human freedom.

“The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self-madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister. It is the task of the prophet to invite the king to experience what he must experience, what he most needs to experience and most fears to experience, namely, the end of the royal fantasy is very near. The end of the royal fantasy will permit a glimpse of the true king who is no fantasy, but we cannot see the real king until the fantasy is shown to be a fragile and perishing deception. Precisely in the year of the death of the so-called king does the prophet and the prophet’s company see the real king high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1).

“I believe that the proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit. It is indeed their own funeral.”

Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

There is no better time for this type of prophesy and no more necessary time for these types of prophets than when you church is facing its end, as mine is doing in the United Methodist Church, and when your country’s historic injustices are made plain for all to see in a domestic political movement that no longer covers biblical injustice up or wishes biblical injustice away, but instead chooses to celebrate them as a defining characteristic. No wonder that the hearts of our political leaders are hard and that we as a political society are incapable of being moved by God.

Those of us who dare to open the Bible and live in communities of faith centered around its witness are called, as Isaiah was, to put an end to the powers that co-opt and domesticate our faith. We are called to revive and energize the communities of faith bound to that witness through a prophetic imagination that chooses the future God has promised us over the comforts fiercely and violently defended by the present order.

Brueggemann reminds us that perpetual fear and grief comes from those who cannot see any possibility beyond the present, especially when that order faces crisis. But, those of us who live according to God’s promises can see hope in the midst of despair, can see God’s kingdom when the foundations of the world shake, and can see life after death – even though we don’t comprehend what those things look like. He tells us that Jesus “was clear that rejoicing about that future required a grieving about he present order.”

We cannot be made great again. Those who say so are the prophets of a secular faith who place their hope in that which is rather than that which is promised. To these prophets, crisis is akin to a apocalyptic doom with no hope for ourselves or for a world that looks to them for stability, for hope, and for peace. For a people hopelessly attached to a politics and to a church whose old joints groan with any movement, our role is to mourn the passing of church and state with all the appropriate funeral rites so that we can imagine life unbound to its service.

I mourn the loss of my church and my denomination. I mourn the loss of the calling to which I was called. I mourn the loss of a body politic who was once, or at least once pretended to be, held together by values of liberty and peace. We don’t need to pretend that losing these things doesn’t hurt or that old wounds don’t sometimes re-open.

Isaiah lives to see the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. He lives to see Judah go to war with Assyria. He lives to see Assyria besieging the city of Jerusalem, only to mysteriously turn back their armies back and go home. He isn’t finished prophesying destruction, nor is he finished criticizing the kings who sit in Jerusalem. The book bearing his name, with a number of different authors, write about future historical crises after his death including the the destruction of the temple, the people of Judah exiled to Babylon, and the end of the House of David.

Isaiah is a book that fully practices the task to which we are now called. It mourns what was lost, it condemns the powerful who choose to live by injustice, and it calls upon God to end it. And yet after each crisis, and after each horror of which kings and priests believe is the end of history, Isaiah sets forth a vision of a new world and a promise for new Israel. He never promises that we can be made great again. He promises that God’s future is great, that trusting that future is faith, and our faith requires us to move on.

A New Theology of the Trinity

I don’t usually write about theological matters in which I cannot make a clear and not so obvious connection to issues of politics, economics, or social justice, mostly because I feel a bit out of my element, and I’m prone to mistakes easily identified by smarter people. Yet, for as much time as these smarter Christians put into talking about the Trinity, most make clear mistakes. These mistakes distort the church’s image of who God is and what God is doing as proclaimed by Christian scripture and tradition, and it leads to a misunderstanding of Christian life. So here’s my best shot, easily identifiable problems and all. The verdict: most Christians are heretics.

I’m not going to attempt to recap the formation of the Trinity because neither you nor I have that kind of time. Instead, I’m going to present what I think most Christians, particularly Protestants, think about the Trinity. Then, I’m going to try to show a better way. Warning: in my attempt to correct what I believe is heresy, I’m probably going to engage in it. At best, I’m walking the line between barely acceptable and blasphemy. That line is where all Christian theology should start. A god incarnated as a poor man from nowhere whose mission is a kingdom over and against the kingdoms of man who is tortured and murdered on a cross – a theology for that god can only exist on such a line. “Acceptable theology” is inherently heretical. Christianity without scandal is not the Gospel.

Trinitarian theology is what I think of as “negative theology”. By that, I mean it was developed in response to heresy. Early Christians were not particularly interested in defining the inner-workings of the “persons” of the Trinity, nor were they eager to define terms and develop a grand theology of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as Christianity developed, people began to speak about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in ways which began to undermine the message of Jesus Christ, particularly as the faith spread across different languages and cultures. Christians began to define what was “acceptable theology” and what was heresy, and the people who did so didn’t speak the same language, come from the same culture, or from the same social or economic class as Jesus or the original disciples. The Christian understanding of God began to look more Greek and less Jewish dominated by the rich instead of the poor. The model for the basic formula developed by the Church Fathers over a few hundred years of study, discussion, argument, and excommunication, is still with us. I call it the “Traditional Model”:

The Traditional Model above describes what most of us were taught about the Trinity and what most of us would say “the Trinity is”. Simply put, one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are of one substance, but the persons of the Trinity are distinct from the other persons. Most Christians simply understand it as “three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

The details of all of this are lengthy, but it is important to remember that the Trinity is a “negative theology”. Most of Trinitarian theology is a reaction to theological errors, either faulty interpretations of Scripture, or reasoning whose conclusions undermine what Scripture proclaims about God. So to understand it fully is not only an act of a responsible and faithful reading of the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church, but also a study in language, culture, and philosophy of all the various theologians, both orthodox and heretic in the church’s history that has led to the doctrine’s development. Unfortunately, the result of the complexities of Trinitarian theology hasn’t been correct belief as was sought by the original “negative theology” project. Due to its complexity, and church leaderships’ obsession with avoiding error, the response has been non-engagement.

Christianity can survive theological error. Christianity cannot survive a church that doesn’t engage. So Christians memorize Trinitarian theology to its simplest level, and leave it alone creating a massive chasm between theologians who imagine what God is like, and the church who attempts to make the prophetic imagination meaningful in lived experience.

As a result, most Christians, I believe, make a terrible error in how they understand the Trinity.

The Traditional Model shown above is an image of the “Immanent Trinity”, or the inner-life of God. It aims to describe the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and how all the persons of the Trinity are one God while remaining distinct from the other persons.

The problem with Traditional Model and the “Immanent Trinity” is that Scripture doesn’t talk about the inner-life of God very often, and when it does, Scripture is, at best, indirect and vague, leaving us to make numerous assumptions independent of what God has revealed. Worse yet, it assumes that the fullness of God’s nature exists separate from creation. How can a god whose nature is to create, redeem, and sustain exist separate from what was created and have that existence somehow be “full”? By definition, a creator cannot be a creator without creation. A savior cannot be a savior without anything to save. How can created beings say anything of a god who exists “outside of creation”?

Any theology of the Trinity that only depicts the inner-life of God is impossible, but separate from what God has done, it also lacks meaning. It fails to answer the question of “so what?” rendering the issue of God’s being pointless to creation (which isn’t a problem if the church’s response is non-engagement). It fails against the basic reality that what we know of God only exists through God’s revelation, and that God reveals through acting in history. Depicting God as anything other than a god who acts in history is to depict a god foreign to the Gospel.

Rather than speculate about what God must be like “outside of creation”, and rather than to be so proud to assume that the limited depiction in Scripture of the Immanent Trinity could possibly give us a reliable way to speak about the inner-life of God, and rather than limit God to our own understanding of what is logically necessary as if the bounds of human logic somehow limit God’s nature, Trinitarian theology should rightly point towards what God has done. What God has done and what God is doing in the created world as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is known as “The Economic Trinity”.

Karl Rahner’s axiom, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity, and vice versa” addresses this problem succinctly. His axiom in plain-speak means “God really is what God actually does” or “God acting in creation is God in God’s inner-self”. God isn’t just telling us what God is like through God acting in history; these acts are God. The god who creates, redeems, and sustains does not exist outside of history. There is no god “out there”. God is here, or God is nowhere.

I believe the consequences of this to be immense. Christians should reject a stale, unchanging model of God who doesn’t feel, act, or change. This means that by acting through love, compassion, and mercy, that God is becoming rather than simply is. God is constant in love and the nature of God remains steadfast, but God isn’t constant in being. By being active in history for us, God is changing God’s being to become more like God’s own nature, by becoming more of a god who creates, redeems, and sustains in history.

The traditional understanding of God as unchanging, is inherently contradictory for Christianity and must be abandoned. An unchanging god cannot become human. An unchanging god cannot die on a cross. An unchanging god cannot rise from the dead. A god who doesn’t change, who doesn’t act, who doesn’t feel or think, who doesn’t rejoice, or laugh, or mourn, cannot be fully human. Yet, by doing these things in Jesus Christ, God is no less God. In Jesus Christ, God is not less than, God becomes more of a god for us.

The Traditional Model which has described Trinitarian Theology is at best incomplete and at worst detrimental to a Christian understanding of God and God’s history of salvation. It depicts God “outside of creation” to be what God actually is, but the manner in which the persons of the Trinity are “related” has no meaning for how God acts in the world. Furthermore, the model has no meaning for how Christians should treat each other or how we should treat the people with whom we share God’s creation. Against nearly 2000 years of Christian history, I reject the Traditional Model as heresy, and I propose something different.

Below is my model of the “Immanent Trinity” but I place the Immanent Trinity independently here only for the sake of convenience for a purpose which I will soon make clear. I do not believe the Immanent Trinity exists independently, if it “exists” at all. The model is inspired by Thomas Weinandy’s thesis in Spirit of Sonship, The Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten by the Father in the Spirit and thus the Spirit simultaneously proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Son, being begotten in the Spirit, simultaneously loves the Father in the Same Spirit by which he himself is begotten (is Loved).” That model looks like this:

Weinandy believed that his thesis solved a key problem for Trinitarian theology. He argued that this view recognized the proper place for the place of the Holy Spirit rather than relegating the Spirit to secondary status in Christian theology as has been the historical norm. The Spirit, for Weinandy, acts as a sort of “relational person”. The Spirit is what makes the Father, the father of the Son, and it makes the Son, the son of the Father. Without the Spirit, the Father and the Son are not only not Father and Son, but are not one. This process isn’t a linear event in history like the incarnation. This process happens eternally, because begetting and loving is God’s nature. The Son is eternally begotten. The Son eternally loves the Father.

But this still leaves us with the problem of describing God’s “inner-life” and all the problems that a stale view of the “Immanent Trinity” brings. It doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about how God interacts with or loves creation, nor does it tell us about how we should treat each other. If, however, we accept Rahner’s view that “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”, that God’s inner-life actually is what God is doing in creation, then the model that we have created for the Immanent Trinity could also describe what God is doing in and for you as the process of discipleship:

The Traditional Model of the Trinity shown originally does two things really well. It demonstrates that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God and that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. However, it is a poor model for depicting anything with regard to Trinitarian theology other than those two statements. If Rahner is right, then the Traditional Model should also be able to show what God is doing in the world in the same manner in which it shows that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one with each other in the Immanent Trinity. The Traditional Model cannot do this. The manner in which it holds together the Trinity and shows how the persons of the Trinity are related to each other cannot be duplicated for God’s relationship with humanity or the created world. In this respect, the Traditional Model is a failure.

Weinandy’s view solves this problem when expanded, as I have done, beyond the Immanent Trinity. The manner in which the Father is the father of the Son, and that the Son is the son of the Father, and that the Holy Spirit binds you together as disciple of the Son and children to the Father, is the same manner in which the Immanent Trinity is held together as one. In other words, “The Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity and vice versa”. What God is doing in God’s relationship to you is what God is doing in God’s inner-life.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too are we made in the image of Christ and sent by Christ in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too are we, baptized Christians, obedient to the Son in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the Son love us in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father, the father of the Son, and the Son, the son of the Father (as the “relational person” in the Trinity), so too does the Spirit make the Son the Lord of humanity and make you a disciple of the Son.

Furthermore, the Scriptures and the Tradition of the church do not just tell us that God is making us disciples of the Son in a relationship that is one-to-one, it also tells us that God’s plan for the salvation of the world is accomplished through making humanity one with each other and by making humanity witnesses to and the object of a church bound by the Spirit with Christ at its head. As Father and Son are made one by the Spirit and the individual is made disciple of the Son in the Spirit, the church is made one with each other in the Spirit.

As the Father begets and sends the Son in the Spirit, so too do we make and send disciples in the Spirit into the world. As the Son is obedient to the Father in the Spirit, even unto the cross, so too is are those in the church subject to one another in the Spirit, even unto the cross. As the Father loves the Son in the Spirit, so too does the church love each other in the name of the Son in the Spirit. As the Spirit is that which makes the Father the father of the of the Son, and the Son the son of the Father, so too does the Spirit make the church brothers and sisters in Christ. The “inner-life” of God is revealed and is truly present in the church with Christ at its head.

The models I have proposed, “The Immanent Trinity”, “Discipleship”, and “The Church” follow the same pattern and subsequently do not exist independent of each other. They are necessarily connected as flowing from the relationship of Father to Son in the Spirit and Son to Father in the Spirit as revealed through Scripture and Tradition. They tell a story of what God has done, and how the disciple of Jesus Christ, and the church to which the disciple belongs, are part of God’s larger story of salvation history. These models when combined together are “The Economic Trinity”. They describe what God has done and point towards what and how God has revealed.

Most pastors and theologians can define an endless number of terms for you about the Trinity. They can give you history, philosophy, and scriptural references about how all this is held together. But my experience has shown me that most pastors and theologians cannot explain why it matters. They can’t tell you what difference it makes. They cannot tell the church who lives its faith in the created world why its Traditional Model has any bearing on their life.

A Trinitarian theology that can’t tell you this isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

God is so desperate for us to know what God is like, that God becomes human so that we can see and touch and know God for ourselves. A Trinitarian theology that is indecipherable to nearly everyone and breeds non-engagement isn’t Christian theology. It isn’t good news.

Trinitarian theology is the story of what God is doing for us. It’s a story of creation and liberation. It’s a story of salvation and love. It’s a story of mourning and loss, death and resurrection. And this story plays out in your church, in your family, in your community, and inside you. It’s happened. It is happening. It will happen tomorrow. This is God.

Anything else is a theology of less than, and that, in my opinion, is heresy.

Joseph and the Technicolor Budget

After a series of unfortunate events, Joseph finds himself imprisoned in Egypt along with prisoners of Pharaoh. Once the favored and youngest son of his father Jacob, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy after he tells them that they bow down to him in his dreams. Betrayed by his family, grieved by his father, alone and imprisoned in distant land, the book of Genesis is steadfast in its claim “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”

Fellow prisoners, the cupbearer and baker of Pharaoh, imprisoned for offending the king, turn to Joseph to interpret their dreams, desperately looking for hope and answers while languishing in prison. Joseph does so, and his interpretations prove true. Just as Joseph foretells, the cupbearer is shown mercy by Pharaoh and is restored to his life, while the baker is hanged. The cupbearer, now freed, does not speak for Joseph, but forgets him in prison. We ask, where is God’s steadfast love?

Years later, Pharaoh dreams and is afraid. None of the wise men or magicians in Egypt can interpret his dreams. The cupbearer, still serving Pharaoh, remembers Joseph, and tells Pharaoh of a young man in prison who successfully interpreted his own dreams years ago. Pharaoh summons Joseph up from the prison, and the boy who was once sold into slavery by his brothers for interpreting dreams, now hears the dreams of Pharaoh of Egypt who demands an adequate answer.

Genesis 41: 17:

“I was standing on the banks of the Nile; and seven cows, fat and sleek, came up out of the Nile and fed in the reed grass. Then seven other cows came up after them, poor, very ugly, and thin. Never had I seen such ugly ones in all the land of Egypt. The thin and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, but when they had eaten them no one would have known they had done so, for they were still as ugly as before. Then I awoke.

I fell asleep a second time and saw in my dream seven ears of grain, full and good, growing on one stalk, and seven ears, withered, thin, and blighted by the east wind, sprouting after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. But when I told it to the magicians, there was no one who could explain it to me.”

Joseph tells Pharaoh that the two dreams are one in the same. The seven fat cows and the seven full heads of grain are seven years of plenty that will come to the land of Egypt. The seven thin cows and the seven withered ears are seven years of famine that will follow. The famine will swallow up Egypt and the time of plenty will be forgotten. Joseph instructs Pharaoh to appoint a wise man over Egypt to take one fifth of the produce from each of the years of plenty and store it up as reserve for the coming famine, “so that the land may not perish.”

Pharaoh is pleased, and chooses Joseph, the man imprisoned, to be the wise man set over all of Egypt. He is second only to Pharaoh in authority and in power. Joseph set to his task of collecting and storing up during the time of plenty in preparation for the famine. Each year, he takes up one fifth of all the produce in Egypt, and when the famine arrives with all its power seven years later, all the world comes to Joseph bowing before him to buy grain – including ten brothers from the land of Canaan, sons of a man named Jacob.

When biblical interpreters read the story of Joseph, his brothers, and the famine in Egypt, they are mostly caught up in the relationship between Joseph and his family. This is, in part, due to the amount of attention that the text gives to Joseph and his brothers encompassing most of chapters 42 through 45. But, it’s also due to interpreters’ lack of imagination and curiosity about the story as a political and economic text. The events that drive this story forward are the great famine that befalls Egypt and Joseph’s plan, approved by Pharaoh, to manage the famine through taxation and political authority, the relationship of Joseph and his brothers is what happens on the side. How Joseph deals with the famine, and its effects on Egypt and the nations that surround it, has been largely ignored, especially by Christianity’s most influential interpreters and theologians, the pastors who preach and teach the scriptures. We have done so to our own detriment.

When we hear Joseph’s interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, we recognize, like Pharaoh does, that his plan is wise and right, for we know just how much the land will produce and when it will stop. Joseph’s plan to save in times of plenty by taxing the people and storing excess grain for the famine is wise and good. He combines the ability to discern the future through dreams and the foresight to minimize the cost of the famine through present action with the power from Pharaoh to carry out his plan. As a result, the people live.

Notice what has happened here: the writer of Genesis has declared that it is wise for the rulers of the people to enforce saving and restrict consumption during good economic times, and that it is wise for the rulers of the people to mandate spending and boost consumption during bad times. What Pharaoh recognizes as wise and what Jacob interprets from Pharaoh’s dreams as a gift from God is exactly what modern economists describe as an ideal fiscal policy in the modern economy.

Market economies have historically gone through cycles of growth and recession. Long periods of growth tend to be followed by periods of slow, stagnant, or even negative growth. The causes of these cycles are hotly debated as is the best course of action for how to respond or prevent high volatility and downturns, but over the 20th century, a general consensus developed among economists for how governments should ideally spend during these cycles as part of the normal spending process and in response to stagnant or negative growth. Their general outline is fairly simple and promises less volatility, less painful downturns, and higher long term growth. Politicians have never followed it.

Save during booms. Spend during recessions. Higher taxes during booms. Lower taxes during recessions. Higher interest rates during booms. Lower interest rates during recessions. Do that, and the economy and everyone in it, will be better off.

Of course, that’s not so easy. It isn’t easy to figure out if you’re in the beginning, middle, or end of growth or recession or when state action will start to affect the economy. It isn’t clear what combination of spending, tax rates, or interest rates a country should have or how to implement them in a timely and effective fashion. Furthermore, such action may not address underlying problems that triggered a downturn and spending, and, taxes and interest rates are prioritized by things other than just macroeconomic fiscal policy. Still, the general consensus holds true even among economists who would otherwise disagree. If you’re going to spend at levels above current revenue, it’s better to do so during times of recession than times of high growth. But, that doesn’t happen. We spend all the time.

When we stray from the general consensus and have deficit spending during periods of growth, two things naturally occur: 1) the boom is accelerated increasing volatility and ultimately causing a bigger fall when the market turns and 2) deficit spending limits the ability of the state to counteract a recession through deficit spending in the future by decreasing the effectiveness of future spending and reducing the availability of funds at a given price – future spending will be more expensive to finance. A third outcome is also inevitable, deficit spending on both ends of the business cycle results in a higher national debt, that may or may not be manageable given its size, the particular nation’s overall prospects, and interest rates. This result may ultimately lead to fiscal crisis.

One ironclad rule of economics and psychology is “People respond to incentives”. This is always true. Those in office are almost always incentivized to spend now rather than saving for later. This holds whether or not the country is growing or in a recession. A president or legislature ruling during a business cycle of growth and recession will likely face an election before the particular cycle is finished. And given that voters vote according to how they are currently doing rather than a more complex understanding of overall economic health or strategy, they will reward faster present growth rather than predictions of future growth or stability. They will reward leaders who spend to boost the economy now, even if current deficit spending is unwise, and the leaders will likely be out of office once the boom turns to bust. At that time, the leaders will be rewarded for spending to stimulate the economy out of recession once again.

The only way out of this is a disciplined, informed electorate who punishes politicians who are self-servingly fiscally irresponsible. We can only do this by valuing future growth more than we value present growth, and by valuing expert opinion more than we trust those who directly benefit from a change in spending like politicians or the direct beneficiaries of such spending like connected businesses.

The advice of Joseph, taken up by Pharaoh and shown by modern economists time and again still holds true: spend during recessions from what you save during booms, “so that the land may not perish.”

However, there is a danger present in following Joseph’s advice. It’s a danger that Pharaoh misses and that present experts often ignore. It’s a danger that the writer in Genesis sees clearly but sadly is not often told by pastors and preachers.

Many of us intentionally or not, preach on the scriptures in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a selection of scriptures that follows the liturgical year over three year cycle. It attempts to go through as many books and biblical themes while equipping the pastor and the church to faithfully teach and learn from the Bible. Unfortunately, by organizing it this way, the church overemphasizes the texts that are listed and sometimes completely misses texts that are not. The lectionary follows the chapters and verses in Genesis that focus on the relationship of Joseph to his brothers. It does not include what happened to Egypt as a result.

An odd section of Genesis appears abruptly in the middle of chapter 47 that interrupts the story of the Joseph and his family. It describes the famine in Egypt from which Joseph’s plan was meant to limit harm. Famine had reached the whole of the land, and the people cried out for bread just as Joseph foretold. Joseph had taxed the people during the times of plenty and had stored up their excess grain to relieve them during the famine. When the people cry out for land, what does Joseph do?

Joseph does not give the grain away. He sells it back to them. Genesis 47:14 “Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house.”

The people ate the food. Joseph kept the money. When the food was consumed, the famine continued, and the people were still hungry, they cried out to Joseph for bread again. Joseph responded in verse 16, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” And they did. Joseph took all the livestock of Egypt and Canaan and added it to Pharaoh’s house. The people ate, and they lived.

The year ended. The famine did not. The people cried out for bread once more. “Our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands… Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.”

Joseph bought all the land of Egypt, and took all the people as slaves for Pharaoh. Joseph enslaved the entire nation for the price of the food, which he took from them as taxes years before. They gave their food because of his power. They gave their money because they trusted him. They gave their livestock because they were starving. They gave their land and their bodies because they had nothing left. Joseph, the boy sold into slavery by his brothers, enslaved all the world through the power of God’s gift of interpreting dreams and through the foresight of a favorable fiscal policy. He took something great, the ability to limit mass suffering, and with it, forced the whole world to his knees in submission.

The danger in all of this is that the power we grant to our leaders to spend in times of want and save in times of plenty – this power we grant them will be closely guarded by those who hold it and closely sought after by those to come. They will use it to buy our support and to manipulate our feelings. But like the people of Egypt, it was their food in the storehouses, not Joseph’s and not Pharaoh’s. The power to spend is our power. It is our money. It is our land. It is our bodies. We must hold it more tightly than the leaders to whom we entrust with this power. If Joseph, son of Jacob, the one favored by God, can use such power to enslave all the world, what will our leaders do?

The deficit under President Trump grew to $666 billion in his first year, up nearly $80 billion from the year before. The deficit proposed under the President’s budget could reach $1 trillion by the next year and is set to grow further. Taxes have decreased. Interest rates have been raised, currently the only “lever” of the economy following the general consensus under the leadership of Janet Yellen in the Federal Reserve. She was dismissed by the President against precedent after serving a single term and replaced by a member of the President’s party.

The economy is booming.

In Defense of Overhead

Today is Giving Tuesday, a day in which many non-profits and charitable organizations will make appeals for donations to worthwhile causes. I hope you give, and continue to give generously.

Unfortunately, the manner in which many such organizations solicit funding from donors is deeply problematic. One of the most popular ways to compete for donation dollars is to claim that the organization spends little money on overhead and that a high percentage or your money goes directly to programming. From my own tradition, UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, says that 100% of what you give goes to programming.  That sounds wonderful. Who could object to more money going to people in need rather than administrative costs?

Well, me.

The accounting practices used to claim that money is going to “programming” rather than “overhead” borders somewhere between unethical and outright fraud. You would be shocked to find out what counts as “programming” in the non-profit world. They feel justified in doing so because it has become standard practice in the industry to invent and follow a new budgetary language foreign to any business school. There are almost no non-profits that advertise based on “programming vs overhead” that are being honest with you.

They do this, not just to trick you, but primarily because you, the donor, demand it. We want to be tricked. We want our money to go to the cause, not fill bank accounts of non-profit CEO’s. This notion is foolish. Organizations are successful because the people running the programs are successful, not because X% of dollars goes to programming. The people running the programs can be successful when their headquarters are competent, and well managed. They remain so if they are properly supported, properly equipped for the job, and properly paid. The jobs they do are complicated and require extensive education and training. The places where they work are often difficult, dangerous, and far from home. They have to monitor where money goes in areas where they may not speak the language or may not be able to perfectly navigate cultural differences. They also have to do this in places where the rule of law and beliefs about corruption don’t work the same as in the West, and even at home the job is difficult and expensive.

How do non-profits reconcile the problem of the need for high-end staff and the need to send X% of money to programming as required by donors? First, they short their staff, and rely on staff’s feelings of commitment to the cause so that they can pay them salaries and benefits below the market rate and far below what they deserve. The result is high turnover, high stress, high levels of dissatisfaction, high level of cynicism, and overworking them until they burn out. Second, they lie to you, or rather they knowingly define “programming” different than everyone else in the world, hide such definitions in the unwritten assumptions of the budget, and know that you will never look at it.

The result is predictable.  When staff aren’t properly paid or properly equipped to do their jobs, the work suffers.  Beneficiaries who need the assistance given to them by non-profit organizations receive worse services.  Non-profit workers can often move into other industries, but people who rely on their assistance usually have few other options.

The core problem here is unrealistic expectations of donors. You want your cause of choice solved for cheap. You want to outsource solving near impossible problems to “do-gooders” but don’t want to give “too much” money. You want staff to be experts but want to pay them like amateurs. Most of all, you don’t want to do the hard work of going through a budget, understanding complex issues, questioning your assumptions, or evaluating projects and staff, so you take a shortcut of “programming vs overhead”.  Non-profit workers are professionals, not volunteers.  If you want professional work, you have to compensate them like professionals and pay for a professional work environment.

If an organization promotes their giving based on “programming vs overhead”, run away. Or, ask to see their budget and ask questions about what counts as programming. Better yet, have a meal with one of their workers doing the actual work of interacting with beneficiaries and figure out for yourself if they and their projects are worth supporting. Then write a check earmarked to “overhead”, “employee salaries”, “office equipment”, or “parental leave” and walk away knowing that you might actually have done some good.