Detecting God in the mystery of life
Most days you’ll find me spending an hour on the treadmill or the exercise bike reading a novel. Reading while exercising is for me accomplishing two goals simultaneously - both good for my health - exercise and reading. I also aim to spend a little time in the late afternoon with a cup of tea and whatever novel I am reading. Usually I am reading a murder mystery. Currently I am making my way through Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, which take place in Quebec, usually in a fictional town called Three Pines. Previously I read the entire Maise Dobbs series, written by Jacqueline Winspear, which takes place in London. Both series’s have a lead character, the detective, who is complicated, thoughtful, insightful. In particular, if one starts with the first novel in the Maise Dobbs series and moves through them in order one experiences the development of Maisies’ character as she grows through life’s challenges that include the death of her mother, her survival as field nurse during WWI, the loss of her fiancé, her effort to gain an education and the wise people who mentor her and help her develop her strengths, wisdom, and insight. Whenever she is working a case she listens carefully, observes closely, sets aside all judgment of people and their motivations until all the pieces of the mystery are revealed and she solves the case. Ultimately, her primary motivation is not about punishment, but in bringing forth reconciliation between characters in the story who have hurt one another. This motivation toward reconciliation creates a more complex story and shows a depth of character in Maisie Dobbs, as she learns from her own life experiences.
I remember when I was in my mid-twenties becoming aware that I had no insight into myself. Lacking self-awareness is fairly common. Unraveling my family system dynamic and developing an authentic sense of my self that allowed for me to claim my values, beliefs, and perspectives and have those be a conscious source of motivation in my thoughts, words, and actions, took decades of work. This work on myself is intentional and ongoing, for one is never fully complete, fully developed, a finished product. Life is forever giving us challenges that, if one engages them with the intent to learn about one’s self and others, will provoke deeper growth and new insight.
Our readings this morning from Jeremiah and from Luke are a challenge to understand. Luke, in particular, is confusing. Jesus tells a story about a man who looks out for his own interests, makes deals to save his own skin, his own position and job, and Jesus approves. What’s up with that?
Jeremiah makes a little more sense as he continues his lament about the faithlessness of God’s people who have become self-focused and greedy. They have forgotten all about God and God’s desire for them. Jeremiah warns the people of impending doom if they continue to be so thoughtless and self-centered, they will self-destruct from their own actions. Be aware, he says, consider your motivations and what provokes you to do what you do and say what you say. Aim to have the foundation of who you are focused on God’s desire; that you love God, love self, and love others - this is the warning from Jeremiah. His frustration is that people ignore his warnings and instead ridicule him as if he is the problem.
And, what’s the deal with this parable in Luke? What might we take away from this reading that could offer up some food for thought? How might this reading inspire one to focus on God when the story is focused on the self serving actions of one person to save his own behind?
It’s going to take a little detective work to reveal some meaning in this text.
Although fictional detectives both Maisie Dobbs and Inspector Ganache’s characters listen closely and observe people carefully in order to discern deeper emotions and unconscious motivations. This parable provokes one to consider a similar process of character development. The unjust steward gets caught in his laziness and greed and resolves the problem by making deals with other people, which provides them with some relief, satisfies the needs of the steward’s boss and gains the steward accolades for his business dealings, unscrupulous though they are. The steward comes off looking like a savvy deal maker and Jesus says, well done. What the heck?!?
From this one might deduce two things: God loves us just exactly as we are, in all of our imperfections. And, Jesus, who is God’s love revealed in human flesh, tells the story with the hope of inspiring people to grow in maturity and wisdom, and become better human beings. Its intended to be provocative.
So, this parable is like me when I was in my twenties, getting by with responses learned from my childhood that helped me get along in my family. Those learned responses were challenged when I realized that what had worked in my family were unsatisfying as an adult out in the world. People in the world are not trained to respond as one’s family does, and so the veneer of that old behavior cracks until one wonders what the problem is. When that crack in my self-awareness finally broke open I began to look deeper and wondered how I might live a more whole and satisfying life. What might I do to be happier and healthier?
The parable commends the person for where they are in life, getting by on old survival mechanisms, but its intent is to provoke one to go deeper. This parable is provocative. It offers a sharp contrast to what is known about Jesus and God. It spins on its head the values, beliefs, and perspectives that Christians have been taught to hold dear.
Dig deeper. Listen closely. Observe. Ponder. Consider all the variables of what one might do in the same situation as this steward.
Is it ever, really satisfying to protect one’s self at the expense of one’s integrity, and at the cost of the dignity and respect of others?
How much more satisfying might it be to do the right thing, the God thing?
How much more fulfilling would it be to become motivated by God’s desire, even though it could be difficult, instead of the same old self-centered protection?
a reflection on the readings from Proper 20C: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13