Monthly Archives: September 2016

18 September – The dishonesty of God

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Pentecost 18

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1
1 Timothy 2.1-7
Luke 16.1-13

The gospel reading we’ve just heard presents us, at first, with a troubling parable. The story of the parable itself is fine, and one we could well imagine such a thing happening. The troubling part is that Jesus commends for our consideration the behaviour of the man dismissed for squandering his master’s property, who then continues to do the wrong thing.

There is a fairly straightforward explanation of why Jesus might use such an illustration but, because it is straightforward, I’ll not go into it this morning. Instead, let’s consider a much less straightforward reading which side-steps our concerns about Jesus’ morals and, if less straightforward, is nevertheless much, much more interesting.

Consider this little syllogistic turn of thought: if, according to Jesus, we are to be as the dishonest steward was, and if, according to other New Testament preachers, we are to be as Jesus himself was, then the dishonest steward is, in fact, Jesus himself.

So let’s see whether this interesting thought can be sustained, keeping in mind that here we are dealing with a parable. As a parable it is intended to suggest or evoke, and to break open new thought. It is not a strict allegory, and so not every element in the story can be correlated to some particular thing in the world or in the ministry of Jesus.

Consider again the basic scenario. The relationship between the steward and the master has changed in such a way that the steward is to be sent away. No longer being able to claim the security the master would normally have been for him, the steward is required, so to speak, to make his own way in the world.[1] He does this by becoming a liberating presence for those around him, who are also subject to this master. For the one who owes on 100 pots of oil, the debt is reduced to 50 pots; for the one who owes on 100 baskets of grain the debt is reduced to 80. By lightening the load of those who owe not the steward himself but the master, the dishonest steward earns himself a welcome into the homes of those he relieves, and so earns also the commendation of the master.

Is this not the work of Jesus, humbled and sent into the world in order to serve humankind for the relief their “debt” to the “master”? This is scarcely a perfect fit with the parable, but it will do. And this forced interpretation is warranted by virtue of the purpose of preaching itself – the very act we’re now engaging in as speaker and hearers.

It is our natural tendency when reading such passages as today’s to make them about ourselves. This is quite understandable, for on the surface the parable plainly is about us and what we do with the resources we have. But if that is all we hear then we waste our time in the reading and the preaching. There are no shortage of voices today crying out about what we should and shouldn’t be doing with our money. In an age in which the economy is God and economists the priests, everything is touched by fiscal concern. We don’t need gospel readings to suggest to us to be wary of the dangers of too much or too little attention to our property and wealth.

But to hear the gospel – as distinct from hearing economic and moral law – is to review our actions in the light of the actions of God in Jesus. It is this divine work which informs our work. We might say that it is only if God himself has found a place in our lives by means of so-called “dishonest wealth” that it becomes meaningful to say that we might find ourselves welcomed into the “eternal homes” by means of our dealings with the same “dishonest wealth”: God working “dishonestly”, that we might too. If we hear the parable only as a word about how we ourselves should behave, we will be tempted to imagine that we are to buy our way into God’s life such that, if we give away enough of what we have, we might then be assured that God will reward us. Yet, we will usually think the price too high – or we simply will not know what the price is and so what to bid. We will then experience the word of God as a mere demand on us and the things we have or desire.

But if Jesus is the dishonest steward in the parable, and we are the ones whose burdens are reduced, then the parable is not merely about our buying a way into God’s favour, but about God having greatly, and graciously – even “dishonestly” – lowered the prices.

Whatever the parable itself might seem to be about, then, the point of preaching the parable as gospel is to draw us into the sphere of what God has done. What God has done and what we are to do, then, become one thing. As God opens heaven for us by making it “affordable”, so are we to find a welcome in the “eternal homes” by doing likewise.

And a word about these “eternal homes” will be the last thing we say here.

Heaven is another one of those “most useless words” in the life of the church. I won’t attempt to rank this useless word in relation to the other useless words we’ve noted in the past (including “religion”, “spirit” and “god”), but perhaps we could sharpen the point by noting that “heaven”, as a religious idea, is more misleading or even dangerous than it is useless.

It is misleading because it instantly fills our heads with images of a place and a time which is not here and now. And yet, God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done in the very worldly location of Jesus of Nazareth. The dishonest steward does all of his work in the world. To see Jesus, making his way in the world, is to see heaven. Here-and-Now is the possibility of the heavenly act, the possibility of catching a glimpse of heaven.

Perhaps even more importantly than that – and to move from the gospel of God’s work with dishonest wealth to our becoming God-like in that way: now is the time to learn to recognize heaven as something which has to do with very worldly realities.

What are we to do with what Jesus calls “dishonest wealth” – which is to use it in “dishonest”, unexpected, uncalled-for, gracious ways – this is begin to learn what heaven is like. This is to begin to practice the removal of debts, the relieving of burdens, the work of forgiveness and reconciliation: the achievement of the impossible in a world which thrives on the law credit and indebtedness, which demands that we earn our way.

The dishonesty of God is not a moral failing, but God’s own refusal to play by the rules, to cut the cost of life with him through gift and call to repentance. It is the “children of light” who receive this gift and call, and are to become themselves light to the world.

By the grace of God may we, with all our dishonest wealth, find in the shrewdness of God’s dealings with the world another, better way with what we have, and so begin to build something worth building on the foundation which God has laid for our eternal homes.



[1] …“being on the form of God, he did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped but humbled himself…”

11 September – Abraham and the Ultimate Test

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Pentecost 17

Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 4:1-3, 13-17
Matthew 3:7-10

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

A word or two of explanation about what follows is necessary before we begin. You may, or may not, know of the very large painting by Rupert Bunny of the sacrifice of Isaac, which hangs in the narthex of Wesley Church in the city. Three weeks ago, the OT lecturer at the CTM offered a study of this text before the evening service. Alistair McCrae asked me to preach on this text at the service which followed. I happily agreed. In more than fifty years of attempting to write sermons, to the best of my memory I have never had a previous opportunity to do so with this text. Craig suggested that I offer it to you this morning, so with some changes this is what I prepared then.

Without doubt, this story is one of the most confronting we can imagine: the call to Abraham by his God to kill his only son is surely something humanly unimaginable. But that is the least of it. What is far more troubling is its implication about Abraham’s God. For this is the God who had earlier made the epoch making promise that the already aged Abraham would be the father of many generations – a promise heightened by the laughable response to that announcement by his equally aged wife Sarah of the humanly impossible birth of a son called Isaac. Isaac’s life, therefore, would surely appear to be the most not negotiable of any human life at all.

So what are to make of this apparently monstrous affair? Here as is always the case with Biblical texts, we can have confidence in a solution when we know something of its background. We have already referred to the significance of the promise “that in Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed”, a promise that is the foundation of everything not only for Jews, but just as much for Christians, and Muslims as well for that matter.

The monumental significance of this promise rests in its repeated sentence from 10 chapters earlier, standing as it does at the very beginning of recorded history:

Now the Lord said to Abraham: Go… so Abraham went”.

These two single syllable words: “go” and “went” are the two most important words in the Bible. With them a revolution was set in motion. They represent the beginning of a new history, not only for the Hebrew people, not only therefore for the Church, but equally for two millennia of Western culture. If Abraham had not gone, our society literally would not be here today in any recognisable form.  Why can I say this with such boldness? Because before the summons “go”, and Abraham’s obedient “going”, the only reality was the fateful immersion of human life in a precarious world: a world of nature that was literally dripping with divinity. In the storm, the mountain, the river, the rock you met the residing god. Since so many gods inhabited the whole of the natural world, you could never know what they might do next. We can readily understand why the Canaanite god of the rain – whom we know as Baal, was the most mercurial. No rain, no life. This was a life of sheer unpredictability – everything human depended on the eternal return of the cycle of the seasons of the natural world: summer, autumn, winter, spring. So the gods had to be cajoled to work if life was to occur at all; even more, they had to be placated so that they would not work to harm human beings. It was a world of a frightening fate for human beings to be immersed in the unpredictable actions of the gods of the natural world.

But then in the face of all this, an absolute miracle occurs: “Abraham went”. And he took us with him. The nearest equivalent of his going might be that of the explorer figure of Christopher Columbus setting out in 1492 to find the new World, very likely with the shouting of the crowd ringing in his ears: “You’ll fall off!”

So it is that these original mutual promises by Abraham and his God at the very beginning of recorded history are sealed once more in the miraculous birth of Isaac. And now Isaac is to be killed by his father’s hand, and therefore, we, in his loins, as it were, are about to expire with him.  And most people are shocked, appalled, disgusted.

But even more affronting, the text is devoid of what at the very least we would want to hear, assuming that we are prepared to give it any hearing at all. It is all so unfeeling. At no point does Abraham’s God give any possible motive for the sacrifice of Isaac. Indeed quite the reverse. He cruelly rubs it in: “Take your son, whom you love…” Is the implication on Yahweh’s part: not me?  Who knows? And what of Abraham? No weeping or wailing in protest. We would surely be looking for even a hint of something like this.  The C19 philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a monograph on this text which he called “Fear and Trembling”, but there is no sign in the text by either party of any fear and trembling. Any fear and trembling potentially and rightly belong to us the hearers of the story.

Listen again to the cool and clinical unfolding of the narrative: God says to Abraham: “Take your son, whom you love… and go” – there it is again: Go. And since we know that Abraham has a track record of reliability, it is no surprise to be told that, with no trace of protest or anguish: “Abraham rose and went”.

Is there anything being said to us in this absence of any hint of anguish? Perhaps this. That all that matters when the Word of God is heard is obedience. Even here, especially here, human emotion has to recede into the background. That might be part of the price that has to be paid. Certainly the history of the Church demonstrates that countless martyrs have felt the force of Abraham’s unprotesting example. One recalls the voice of the Orthodox priest about to be martyred. “I salute you dead men; I go to the living ones”. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer calmly and quietly led to the gallows: “This is the end, for me the beginning of life”.

So we journey on with father and son, only to learn that Isaac is carrying his own funeral pyre – just as centuries later we hear that Jesus, too, will carry his own cross. And then the dramatic arrival: ‘on the third day Abraham saw the place of sacrifice’. “The third day” – that phrase should ring some bells. “The third day” appears eleven times in the Old Testament. The crucial thing for us to understand is that “the third day” is not so much a space in time as it is an announcement for a surprising event of salvation that is just about to occur: supremely for Easter day, for example, “on the third day”.

And so it is here. Arriving at the chosen place, on the third day, in all innocence, Isaac understandably asks: “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”, only to receive Abraham’s enigmatic reply: “God will provide”. What was Abraham thinking? Do we know? No, we don’t. He has no apparent warrant for such a last reprieve; nothing is at hand to provide any confident anticipation of a happy outcome for what looks like an immediate tragedy. So the text unfolds itself dispassionately, all coming to us as part of a piece.

But then the dramatic resolution, the cataclysmic revelation: a snared lamb as a potential replacement for Isaac. As we travel with Abraham and Isaac to their third day rendezvous we surely have no need of being reminded of what is here being anticipated: Jesus, as a son of Abraham, was to find no substitute as Abraham did. On the contrary, he became the slaughtered lamb himself.

But now what about this? Look at the picture on the front of the Order of Service, and read the text: a Sumerian nature god from 2600 BC, the ram in the thicket, predating Abraham by at least a thousand years is now the central character in the story.  What is going on here?  Surely this. By virtue of the obedience of Abraham, a substitute sacrifice of the god of the surrounding culture, the ram in the thicket, replaces Isaac: an idol, a god of natural world, is to be consumed by the fire of the God of history – and all because of Abraham’s obedience.

You ask: what does it all mean? This is what it means: that Abraham was prepared to kill the gift of God at the word of God. The question with which the text confronts the Church, and each of us, is this. Are we so prepared?  Whether as Church or individually, are we prepared to crucify for a greater gift, all that has made us? Are we prepared to sell all our religious pearls for the pearl of great price?  The texts are unrelenting.

Are we then surprised to hear in the gospel today the rebuke of John the Baptist to his opponents: ‘Do not say: “we have Abraham as our Father” for I tell you God is able to raise up from these stones children of Abraham’.  It is tempting to imagine that here John might be pointing to the ruins of the temple, the place of worship, now reduced to a heap of stones – heavy, inert, passive, lifeless. But that is impossible – with the Baptist that crisis is still some way off, and in any case we are with this imagery far from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, this metaphor seeks a timely correspondence for us as a congregation – all the crisis about buildings that has been before us last week, and which continues to exercise us, is ultimately about a heap of stones. But then the truth must be that they, too, exist only to raise up children of Abraham. To be Abraham’s child is to know ourselves as being contemporary with him; to require him no longer to be merely some austere distant patriarch of long ago, but instead to permit him to come to us as one in whom we recognise our original: as the faithful one who risked absolutely everything, even a willingness to kill all that he knew to be the certainty of the gift of God, in the greater confidence that “God will provide”. To be a child of Abraham is especially good news for us today as we wrestle with the problem of a future for stones.

The truth is that without the faith of Abraham, without the prospect of a terrifying sacrifice of Isaac, not to speak of that of Jesus, only stones lie in wait to trip us up. But with trust like his, a new creation can be ours; a new gift lying before us at every moment.

I had a dream as I started to prepare for the service at Wesley. Scripture encourages young men to see visions, but it also permits old men to dream.   It was a dream equally appropriate, I like to think, for us too. In my reworked dream, without any authority, I asked Gus, an enthusiastic bike rider, to go to K Mart to buy 50 bicycle helmets. We would put the helmets on a table inside the door, with the name of each member of the congregation on the outside. Each Sunday, after receiving a hymn book, every member would put on their helmet, since it is an accident waiting to happen to fall into the hands of the living God.  For unlike Abraham, we lesser mortals need protection from the Word of God. We need to put on our particular helmet, because one day in Church our sleeping God may wake and take offense. But it gets even better. Like Abraham, “for us and for our salvation”, the waking God may draw us to a new place of which today we have no advance notice. A place from which we can never return.

As I say – it was a dream!

MtE Update – September 8 2016


the latest MtE Update

  1. Sunday worship this week will be lead by Rob Gallacher and Bruce Barber; Bruce has selected a set of texts different from the RCL for the day; for those who like to read up before the service, they are: Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 4:1-3; 13-17; Matthew 3: 7-10
  2. We are seeking another set of hosts for further coffee-and-cake conversations about our buildings project in the weeks of Sept 19-23 and Oct 3-7. If you are able to assist with this (a lounge room for a couple of hours, morning, afternoon or evening), please let Craig know and he’ll pass your offer on to the meetings coordinator.
  3. Hotham Mission’s food security research has featured in a recent article in the Moonee Valley Leader.
  4. The most recent Presbytery Newsletter (September 6) is here; an older newsletter which hasn’t been circulated (August 29) is here.
  5. The Institute of Postcolonial Studies, with which MtE runs occasional joint programs, has a special presentation by Samah Sabawi on the theme “My Words My Story! A Palestinian Australian’s Quest for Voice and Inclusion”; see the top item here for more details.

Other things of potential interest:

  1. Brunswick UCA has two theological conversations in the coming weeks; see here for more information.
  2. Some might be interested in a one-day symposium, Rethinking Liberation, Emancipation, and Inequality, at Melbourne Uni on Oct 21; details here.
  3. A public lecture on “Islam in our world today: Learning to understand & respect Islamic cultures & religion” is being presented at Yarra Theological Union (Box Hill); details are here.