Growing Through Struggle
Readings: Genesis 32:22-32, Secrets of Heave #4274 (see below)
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Photo by Keenan Constance: https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-person-in-black-pants-standing-on-a-rocky-river-5690986/
Today we're going to talk about the story of Jacob. Well, we're going to talk about one small part of the story of Jacob. This part of the story is all about learning to accept the path of growth, which is the path of struggle to expand from selfishness to generosity. There are a lot of ways to understand this story, a lot of ways we can apply it to our lives, today I want to consider how it shows up in our relationships. Our relationships with family, close friends, not so close friends, and partners or spouses. But before I get ahead of myself, let me take a moment and put this in context. Remember that Jacob is a twin. He's the younger of two boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. As they are born, Jacob is grasping his brother's heel, and so he is named “grasper” or Jacob. As the second born, he is certainly loved, but he is not the favored one, he will not inherit first, or have the highest honors which his brother Esau is granted simply by being born a few minutes earlier. Rather than accepting his lot, he manipulates the people around him to claim the rights and honors of his older brother. He tricks his brother into giving up his birthright, and tricks his own father into believing he is Esau and giving him a special blessing. He’s what we could call a problematic Hero. He’s the main character, and clearly the one we are invited to empathize with, but he’s a thief and con man at this point. Now what he’s done understandably makes his brother Esau quite angry. In fact, Esau begins plotting to kill him. So Jacob runs away to his uncle Laban in Haran, and lives there for 20 years.
Eventually he hears from God that it’s time to head home again. And by now he has 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons, a daughter, and many many flocks and herds. Clearly he’s done well for himself. But to go home again he has to encounter Esau, the brother he betrayed. He sends messengers to Esau to let him know he’s returning home. Jacob’s messengers come back and inform him that not only is Esau coming to meet him, but he’s bringing 400 men. Perhaps it's this news that leads Jacob to prepare gifts for Esau, and to send them off in batches ahead of himself and the rest of his family. These are incredibly valuable gifts. This lets us know that Jacob is aware of just how badly he betrayed his brother, and is sending a message that he wants to apologize, to make it right.
That is where our story for today begins.
Jacob has camped for the night, and in the middle of the night he gets everyone up, and sends them across the ford of the Jabbok river. It leaves him separated from his wives and sons and all his possessions. He’s probably thinking he may never see his family again. Perhaps Esau will come and take them away. He’s all alone.
In the Swedenborgian tradition we talk about what things represent, Jacob’s family represent truths Jacob had learned as he lived his life. We do the same, as we live our lives we learn things, we develop an understanding of the way things are, we develop a worldview. Jacob himself represents our natural self. The part of us that is oriented to prioritize our own needs - our ego. Our ego and our worldview are the characters in this story so far.
Now what happens when our ego and our worldview become separated? Think of this as being a time when something happens to make us question reality enough to undermine our worldview. The story says Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him untill daybreak. Swedenborg wrote that this symbolizes a time when truth is tested; a crisis of conscience. I’m sure you can think of an example of this in your own life, but here’s an example from mine. And before I share this let me say, while this is in the context of a herterosexual marriage, I think this dynamic can show up in any marriage, and in close relationships of any kind: a friendship, or a family member. So while this comes from a married perspective, I hope it translates into your own life in a useful way.
Several years ago, I realized that my husband Solomon and I had a significant difference of worldview from each other and it was leading to unhappiness. My worldview at the time was built on the assumption that if I needed something I would ask for it, if someone else anticipated my needs that was a lovely surprise. I assumed that Solomon held this same worldview. But I found out that as he saw it, his responsibility was to be attentive to the needs of the people around him, and not think much at all about his own needs. He was also struggling to understand that I saw things differently. He assumed that I would be paying attention to what he might need and offer it. So we were in a lopsided pattern where we were both paying atten to what Tirah needed, and no one was paying attention to what Solomon needed.
We can see that self-centered ego-driven worldview in Jacob’s past actions. He took the birthright and blessing because he knew it would be good for him, and he didn’t care what it would do to his brother. Now perhaps with the expansion of his worldview that came from becoming a husband and father, he’s looking back at his actions and it seems like he’s feeling bad about what he did.
Being married to Solomon, being in a front row seat for how my actions affected him, slowly but surely awakened me to our differing perspectives, and I finally noticed the imbalance. It was not fun. My ego said I had the right worldview, but my love for my husband told me something was not quite right, and my worldview was too small. The internal struggle is what we can call temptation or spiritual struggle. That’s what Jacob was experiencing, as he wrestled with this person all night. and it was exactly how it felt to confront my own self-centeredness. It was very tempting to claim that my lopsided marriage could be solved by Solomon changing. All he had to do was be like me, and we would be fine. We could be side-by-side self-centered people - ‘cause isn’t that what makes a happy marriage? Maybe not. Of course I could just change to his worldview and maybe that would work. We can spend all our time trying to guess what the other person needs, and maybe some of the time we’d be right. The reality is we can’t read each other's minds, so that won’t work either. For me, this wrestling match meant facing my part in that unhealthy pattern, and it was really hard. I floundered for a while.
In the story, Jacob’s hip is injured, when it says the man saw that he could not overpower him. This means that natural goodness - what I’ve been referring to as ego - won the conflict. Swedenborg tells us that Jacob’s ego could not be overcome, meaning that his worldview didn’t expand or connect. This resonates with me, I have been through plenty of times when I have faced an opportunity to expand my worldview, and I didn’t. I have lost opportunities to nurture a relationship, even lost friendships entirely. This story seems to have two endings, one where Jacob doesn’t change, he stays in a self-focused view, his hip dislocated, and another ending where he does change, he expands his view. When we come to these ego and worldview changing moments we have a choice - We can expand our worldview to include the wellbeing of others, or we can make excuses for ourselves, and keep our ego and worldview as they were. This choice is represented by the injury to Jacob’s hip. The hip joint represents where the Natural and the Spiritual can meet and be united. It's the place where we have our worldview, but connect it to the care of others.
Adopting an expanded worldview is an ongoing challenge that is represented by the new name Israel. The name can be interpreted as “One who Struggles”. And isn’t that just terrible and wonderful. To become an embodiment of the effort to evolve, to identify with the messy human process of enlightenment.
Jacob gets his new name, and now he wants to know who this is he’s been wrestling with. He says “Please tell me your name.” But this being doesn’t want to be known and answers with a question “Why do you ask my name?” And then immediately blesses him. Swedenborg gives us two directly contradictory interpretations of who this being is. One says the being is evil spirits, and another says it’s angels. In both cases they don’t want to be known. I think this is describing the way we go through a struggle and we can wonder if it’s a gift or a curse. We need to make our choices to grow, in a state of freedom, and if we are certain that some experience was a message from heaven, perhaps we are a little less free. The blessing he is immediately given is all about the gift of the spiritual growth this experience has provided. Indeed, though facing my faults has hurt, facing them has been the only way to become a kinder, more compassionate person. The human connection that is only possible with compassion is a blessing beyond measure. I suspect that parts of my life that I look at as only tragic, are merely spiritual struggles I have not yet finished with, so I haven't gotten to the blessing part.
Jacob called the place Peniel, which means a state of temptation, of spiritual struggle. He says, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” He realizes he has had a spiritual encounter and lived. It certainly resonates with me and the miraculousness of surviving the shame-filled process of facing my harmful behaviors. In the hardest part of the struggle, there’s a time when it doesn’t feel like something I can survive. And yet, by holding on and not giving up, we do survive, and the blessings on the other side are profound. As Jocob’s story continues he is referred to as both Israel and Jacob. It seems to be to a recognition of the reality that growing is an ongoing process, that we will continue to be graspers, but we will also have success in being strugglers. I am better at thinking of what Solomon might need than I was in the past, but it still takes effort. And he is working with me, telling me more about what he needs, so that I don’t have to guess. As is so often the case, the best path of growth is the one that we take in step with our friends and partners, intentionally working toward greater connection as a team. Jacob does indeed return to his family, though he has a limp, he is reunited to the truths that made his worldview, but he is a different Ego now. We return to our world view, and we are changed. And it doesn’t happen all at once, or once and for all. When we are wrestling with our self-focused Jacob, and working on becoming that Israel-Struggler, limping along doing our best to be kind and compassionate, that's a beautiful imperfect human place to be. Amen
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak.
25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.
26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
Secrets of Heaven #4274
And a man wrestled with him symbolizes a time when truth is tested. This can be seen from the symbolism of wrestling as a trial. Spiritual trial is nothing less than a struggle or fight, because it is an attack on truth by evil spirits and a defense by the angels with us. Our awareness of that struggle is the trial.
We cannot undergo times of trial unless we have a goodness based on truth—that is, unless we have a love or desire for truth. If we do not love or desire truth as we know it, we do not care about it; but if we do love it, we are anxious that it not be harmed. The life of our intellect consists solely in what we believe to be true, and the life of our will, in what we have convinced ourselves is good. An attack on what we consider true is an attack on the life of our intellect, and an attack on what we are sure is good is an attack on the life of our will. When we are being tested, then, it is our life that is at stake.
The Greater Masterpiece
Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4, Secrets of Heaven #3854:2-3 (see below)
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This morning we are going to spend some time with the prophet Habakkuk. You’d be forgiven for asking: Who? Habakkuk is only included once in the three-year cycle of the lectionary and is not usually a go-to for other bible readings. And though the common invocation “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him,” does come from Habakkuk, we might not have heard much more from him.
We don’t know a lot about Habakkuk. He does not provide us with much information about himself, nor is there much opportunity: the book itself is a scant three chapters long. We can surmise a few things. Since he prophecies about an immanent defeat for Judah by the Babylonians, he was probably active during the reign of King Jehoiakim, which was 609-598 BCE. This would make him a contemporary of the more well-known Jeremiah.
As obscure as Habakkuk may be, however, I think that even now we can resonate with his writings. We might know something of the world Habakkuk describes. He writes:
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong-doing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife and conflict abounds. Therefore, the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. (1:2-4)
How familiar this sounds! Human beings, then and now, make choices that lead to corruption and violence, choices that seem to actively prevent justice from being manifested in the world. Those who love justice, who value integrity, see evil prospering and it is perplexing, it is discouraging. Habakkuk, too, sees the prevalence of such forces and it pains him, distresses him, not only because they exist, but that their existence might imply that God tolerates these evils.
So he makes a complaint to God, lays out his case for his reasonable and rational distress, and asks for God’s reply. He asks: why does injustice prevail? and desires for God to answer for the state of the world. God’s initial reply, as characterized by Habakkuk, complicates matters. God says that he is sending the Babylonians to lay waste to the Israelites as payment for their crimes. This is how ancient peoples of all kinds understood the relationship between the divine and human history. They saw the divine as interceding directly in human affairs. That human history could be interpreted to reveal God’s acts of justice on a worldwide scale. Modern religion has, in many sectors, re-evaluated and evolved this relationship between God and human history. Even so, we see elements of evangelical religion stating that God has sent hurricanes or epidemics to punish certain groups of people whom they call sinners. So, we are not so far removed from this perspective as we might imagine.
Habakkuk though, pushes back. For as much as the Jewish tradition contained a strand of covenant thinking (ie God would give reward to those who followed the law, and punish those who didn’t), there was also a tradition such that we see in the book of Job, that grapples with a reality much less simple. For Habakkuk, God’s answer raised more questions on the topic of justice than it answered. How can it be just, Habakkuk asks, that even good people be destroyed wholesale by divine retribution. He asks God:
“Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (1:13)
It does not add up for him. How can God’s ends be met by the wicked and vicious Babylonians? Yes, the Israelites (or anyone else for that matter) should receive punishment for their misdeeds but by the Babylonians? This divine act would perform a retributive purpose but not a restorative one, and Habakkuk knew God to be deeply and steadfastly restorative. How can God answer injustice with more injustice, and still be considered divinely loving?
Habakkuk decides to wait upon the Lord once more, to press God for a different, better answer. He says:
“I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.” (2:1)
This time God’s answer is different.
“Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is puffed up in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” (2:2-3)
This is an answer that transcends Habakkuk’s original question. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “It is an answer… not in terms of thought, but in terms of existence.” (1) For still the vision awaits its time…and the righteous shall live by their faith. God opens up the realm of justice so that it is no longer about retribution in the short-term but rather restoration in God’s time. God turns the question back to us: What will you do, Habakkuk? What kind of vision will you write? What kind of vision will you live by? If you were truly to believe in the justice that forms the heart of God, how would you live differently?
Habakkuk had already given a clue that he was ready to hear such a word. He had written: I will look to see what *he* will say to me, and what answer *I* am to give to this complaint.” God’s answer and humankind’s response are linked; the first meaningless without the second (2), for humanity and God are now in a creative partnership. In the words of Heschel: “The universe is done. The greater masterpiece still undone, still in the process of being created, is history.” (3)
The “greater masterpiece” still to be finished, is the story of our choices, the history that we make. We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom…
Evil and injustice are travesties, but they exist because we are given the gift, the respect, the mercy, of freedom. We are given the agency to craft an internal life of choices that reflects the divine, or reflects the lack of it. Swedenborg continues:
For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Heschel says it this way: But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. (4)
What he is saying here is that God’s desire for mercy and righteousness cannot be satisfied in any other way than in the still quiet moment of human decision, pure only in its freedom. Every small fraction of a moment contains a new beginning that might become resonant with the desire of God, and along with Habakkuk, we mourn, bitterly, desperately, when that desire goes unfulfilled, when that moment of human decision decides to give birth to in-justice, to imbalance, to oppression.
And yet still the tension remains. Can any appeal to the ultimate value of freedom justify the worst of what humanity has wrought? How can it be that the freedom of one can be allowed to harm another? How can we bear to speak of the “greater masterpiece” while things are falling apart, while real suffering is happening in the here and now. It hurts. We cry out. We lament. And well we should. It is not a sign of a lack of faith to protest the existence of injustice, and of suffering, even to God. It is a sign we are taking seriously the desire of God, the vision of God, that would bring all people into thriving. It means, as Heschel says, we understand that “Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern.”(5)
And so it remains something of a divine mystery, a bewilderment, that God would, in any way, cede to us something so freighted with divine concern, something so important. What *was* God thinking? God was thinking that the only way for our choice for justice to mean something is if we have the opportunity not to make it.
This is where faith and hope come into the picture. Our brains don’t really help us out with this predicament. In the words of science writer Erik Vance, the human brain is a prediction machine.(6) Its job is to take what has happened in the past, apply it to the present in order to make a prediction about the future. This helps us survive in the world, to learn what we need to learn.
And yet, in this way of looking at the world, we are acutely vulnerable to Habakkuk’s lament. When we observe rampant and persistent injustice, oppression and suffering, when we recognize how long it has been a part of human history, a good prediction machine would say it will always be so. And this can completely overwhelm us, it can debilitate us.
But there is a part of the picture that is outside of our history, outside of our neurology, outside of reason and prediction, and this is God’s promise of ultimate restoration. We have no real reason to believe it, except that each of us have experienced it, a small moment of blooming, of joy, of healing, growing up through the cracks of this world, somehow, someway. And if we do believe in it, against all odds, if we believe that justice is possible in the future, we are free to act for it in the present. For every single moment of our life is a new beginning.
(1) Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, 143
(2) Ibid, 142,
(3) Ibid, 198
(6) On Being with Krista Tippett, Interview with Erik Vance, The Drugs Inside Your Head, September 19, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-7, 12-13, 2:1-4
1 The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.
2 How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The LORD’s Answer
5 “Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. 6 I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7 They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
Habakkuk’s Second Complaint
12 LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgment; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. 13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?
2:1 I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.
The LORD’s Answer
2 Then the LORD replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. 3 For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. 4 “See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright— but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
Secrets of Heaven #3854
 …The Lord foresaw from eternity what the human race was going to be like in the future and what every member of it was going to be like, and that evil was going to increase all the time, so that at length humankind, of themselves, would [wish to] rush headlong into hell. That being so, the Lord has provided not only the means by which He makes it possible for human beings to be diverted from hell and led towards heaven, but also does in His providence divert and lead us all the time. The Lord also foresaw that it would be impossible for any good to take root in humankind except in our freedom, for that which does not take root in freedom is dispelled at the first sign of evil and of temptation.
 From this it may be seen how far someone errs who believes that the Lord has not foreseen and does not see the smallest individual thing with a person, or that within the smallest individual thing He does not foresee and lead, when in fact the Lord's foresight and providence are present within the tiniest details of all the smallest individual things with us, and in details so tiny that it is impossible to comprehend in any manner of thought one in many millions of them. For every smallest fraction of a moment of a person's life entails a chain of consequences extending into eternity. Indeed every one is like a new beginning to those that follow, and so every single moment of the life both of our understanding and of our will is a new beginning.
Recovering Our Original Unity
Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #997:1 (see below)
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Photo credit: Noelle Otto
Two weeks ago, we considered the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, and we grappled with it, because it is one of those parables where is not entirely clear what Jesus is trying to say. This week’s parable is of the opposite kind. It is pretty darned clear what Jesus is getting at with this story.
We first hear about a rich man who reveled in his financial means while he lived on earth. We are told he was clothed in purple and fine linen. The color purple was a rare and expensive color in ancient times, and so traditionally indicated royalty and wealth. Lazarus, a poor beggar laid at his gate, clearly suffering due to lack of nutrition and care, covered in sores. I’m sure he was a sight to behold. Sadly, we can imagine the rich man holding his nose as he steps over Lazarus each day to go about his business.
After both have died the situation is flipped. Lazarus finds himself by Abraham’s side, safe in the heavenly company of the patriarch of their faith, and the rich man is tormented in hell, with a wide chasm in between. Even then though, in the midst of his suffering, the rich man treats Lazarus as someone who should serve him, asking that he first be sent to bring him some water, and then be sent to warn the rich man’s still living relatives.
The purpose of this parable is not to paint a literal picture of the afterlife. The purpose is to bring our attention to what kind of life we are creating and enacting right now on earth. The consequence is not so much that we will find ourselves cast into hell, but rather, that we will become the kind of people who in the afterlife still think that we ought to be served, rather than being willing to serve others. The discomfort for this week is not so much in trying to interpret what the parable is trying to say, but in trying to figure out how to deal with its implications in our real lives.
On one level, it’s pretty simple. When we see people in need, we should help them. Obviously, we each cannot the solve suffering of the entire world but as Martin Luther apparently once said: You cannot feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate(1). We should do what we can. We believe in a God who loves us and wants us to extend and grow that love forward into the world, into the lives of people right in front of us, not *only* because God loves all people but because God knows that doing so, stretching us to do so, will help *us* become infinitely more loving. For this reason, Jesus speaks voluminously about the need to care for the vulnerable among us, especially in the gospel of Luke, and he doesn’t mince words about it. The kingdom of God necessarily includes the least, the last, the lost and the left behind.
We have all failed on this count, one way or another. We have all walked by someone on the street asking for money and not given it, we have all missed opportunities to give help when we could have. And, this is not the sermon where we analyze the complicated nature of homelessness, or the breakdown of our mental health infrastructure, or the efficiencies of charitable giving. Yes, the economy of need is very complicated, but that is not what this parable is about. This parable is about making sure we are the kind of people who *see* need when it is in front of us. It is so easy, feels almost necessary, when we (for example) pass person after person asking for money on the street, to steel ourselves, to close ourselves off, to learn how to habitually ignore them. This parable is warning against this tendency. Whether and how we choose to give in order to alleviate the world’s problems is not the point here, the point is rather, to ask: does it still *pain* us to see the vulnerable, day after day. Or have we shut our hearts down because that is easier than having empathy for their suffering and grappling with the existence of need.
We heard in our reading today that Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is one that is based not in the notion of heavenly peace, joy, and satisfaction but on useful service out of which those blessings come. And I quote:
For with good spirits and angels useful service is the source of their delight; and the services they perform determine the amount and the essential nature of the delight they receive(2)…Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses.(3)
This is a beautiful vision, of a heaven that is built upon the freedom and joy that comes from giving: giving love, giving hope, giving presence, giving knowledge, giving nurture. But what goes almost unsaid within this vision is the necessity that undergirds being able to give in the first place, and that is being able to *see need.* We cannot perform useful service unless we can identify where that useful service is required. And this means we have to be able to see and identify need. Help that is given indiscriminately, without any attention to need, certainly may well be called service, but can it be called useful? I’m not sure it can.
There are plenty of things that get in the way of us seeing and responding to need. Sometimes for myself, I’m not able to see what my children might need because of my desire to control their path and their outcomes. Sometimes I am not able to see my spouse’s needs because I am preoccupied with being right. Perhaps we might choose not see the need of some people, like with homelessness, or with climate change, because we feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to help in a substantive way. Or we might not see the need of some people because it makes us feel superior to blame them for their own circumstances. Or we might not see a real deeper need because it is covered up by other socially unacceptable behaviors. Or, like the rich man, we might just be so wrapped up and invested in our own worth, that the needs of others don’t matter to us.
You see, the enormous chasm between heaven and hell that we hear about in the parable is not so much a revelation about the spiritual architecture of the afterlife, but a symbol of the kind of life that the rich man had constructed in the world. He had literally put a gate between himself and Lazarus, and figuratively put a gate between his heart and the need of those around him. If heaven is a realm of useful service, how else would the rich man experience his relationship to such a realm after he died? He would experience it as a chasm, something far away and incomprehensible, because he had never tried to reach past it, had never wished to reach past it, during his life.
He had forgotten a very fundamental truth, that we all are made in God’s image and likeness, and so all are worthy and deserving of love, even if figuring out how to show that love and care is difficult or inconvenient. That is what we are here for. Not to enrich ourselves but to expand in love, to learn that giving connects us more closely to God and each other than having. And we will never be able to appreciate that fundamental truth if we continually erect a wall or a gate around our hearts, if we continue to convince ourselves that we are separate and different and more deserving that other people.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, once wrote of stopping at a busy intersection in the center of the city of Louisville. He said:
…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . .(4)
Which leads us to the final level, the final necessity, the final acknowledgement that lies fundamental to even the seeing of need. When we are able to identify a need and fulfill it, when we are able to give what is needed when it is needed; what an amazing feeling! It is the joy and fulfillment we were created for. But, even this purposefulness can have its dark side. We can become overly invested in being the savior. We can become expectant and reliant on the ego-fulfillment that “solving problems” gives us. We can begin to think that we know better about what is needed than those experiencing the need. We can over-identify with a selfhood that is shored-up by being useful. And so finally, we recognize that the ability to see need must be grounded in humility. We must be willing to listen. Need sometimes shows up in ways that we are blind to, in ways that we weren’t prepared for, in ways that we don’t feel ready for. And so we recognize how much a heaven of useful service requires not only activity but also sacrifice, the constant sacrifice of our sense of ego and separateness, of believing that we are the one to know what is needed, so that we can truly be present to what is *actually* needed. So that we can be present to what each moment is calling us to, without our need to overlay our expectations upon it.
As Merton puts it: My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.(5)
When we recover our original unity, then the distance between us is reduced, and we have nothing to gain from our selfhood. We can serve purely, simply, humbly, and freely. And this is heaven, wherever we are.
5. Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven 997:1
…People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor - from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives - have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as themselves never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more pre-eminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.
Photo by Matthias Groeneveld: https://www.pexels.com/photo/one-us-dollar-banknote-on-table-4200744/
Readings: Luke 16:1-13, Secrets of Heaven 4063:3 (see below)
See also on Youtube
So, remember the show Breaking Bad? It was quite the phenomenon a number of years ago, garnering critical acclaim and devotion, many awards and at least one spin-off. It tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with incurable cancer and decides to become a drug dealer as a way to secure his family’s financial future. It chronicles his descent into a life of crime and the subsequent darkening of his soul. Now, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the lead actor, I’ve chosen not to watch it. It’s not that I don’t value complex, nuanced stories, or that I cannot handle realistic depictions of violence. It is rather that I don’t like having to root for an antagonist. It makes me feel uncomfortable, compromised somehow. And so I avoid having to do it.
Which is a bit of a problem for me as a preacher though, because the bible is full of complicated characters that make me feel the same way. There is Jacob for example, a patriarch of Israel, who deceived his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. I squirm and wonder: Does God implicitly condone what Jacob did by making him the patriarch of a nation? Or there is Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, cruelly casting out her maidservant Hagar, Jesus’ disciples acting stupidly and arrogantly, and Paul upholding patriarchy and slavery within his ancient context. The dishonest steward joins a long list. What are we to make of him and the fact that he is praised here? The fact that the clever trickster is prominent in Jewish folklore(1) doesn’t make me feel much better, nor the fact that is was his ingeniousness that was clearly valued, not his dishonesty. I still don’t like it.
I personally much prefer the Josephs, Daniels and Marys of the bible. Perfect, uncomplicated figures who are faithful and dutiful. It makes me feel more confident and safe to exist in a black and white narrative world, where everything makes sense and is put in a reasonable order. But of course, that is not what the real world is like. The world is full of complicated people, ourselves included. A black-and-white perspective is comforting but it is not reflective of reality. The bible is telling us stories about real people who defy our easy categorization, including this dishonest steward who clearly acted selfishly but who was then praised for his shrewdness. And if we are feeling uncomfortable, then it means the parable is doing its job; we are questioning. So then, how do we make sense of this text?
Well, in his own particular context, the steward’s actions are somewhat understandable. As a steward, a manager of an estate, his world was transactional, relationships were mediated by money. That’s how everyone got what they wanted. Even the master’s loyalty itself was dependent on how well the steward did his job, and it seems he wasn’t doing it well at all. And so when thrust into crisis, he continued to act according to his context, his story about the world, which was: Money not only buys goods but buys influence. Relationship, cordiality, good standing, these things are created through transaction. With no resources of his own, he nonetheless manages to purchase good will through a financial transaction, the abatement of debt, borrowing the power to do so from his master. It is a desperate but clever plan, and the master recognizes it as such, seemingly unconcerned about the money that will no longer be paid to him.
And this is where it becomes so confusing. Because it is not so much that we are surprised at what the steward did. The parable is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward after all, and he acted very consistently. The surprise, and the discomfort, comes from the fact that the master praises him, and that in the interpretation, Jesus lifts him up as a positive example. What, on earth, is up with that?
Much scholarship around this text, wonders about the steward’s motivations and what exactly he meant to accomplish. I think it is also important to ask, what did he believe were his options? What other story about his life and potential did he have recourse to? In a culture where social and economic standing was remarkably fixed and intractable, what other option was available to him?
We all have our own stories that mediate our identity, our options, our decisions. Many times, these stories, these meta-narratives, operate unconsciously unless we have had reason to try and notice them. And we operate within these realities, everyday. It is completely unavoidable. There are many different stories that people have about themselves, we can change stories if we want to, but not having an operating story is not an option, it is just part of being human. I believe that one of the things we are hearing in this parable is that God understands this about us, that God can work with us, and our stories. We start wherever we are, and God starts there with us.
Sometimes we might be led to imagine that God is separate from us and our contexts. And in a way, God must be, for God cannot be limited by *our* stories about ourselves and the world. But that doesn’t mean that God disdains our stories, that God refrains from entering into our stories. The incarnation itself is the ultimate example of how deeply God is willing to enter into our stories and our contexts. God is not afraid of our incompleteness. God does not condescend to simply tolerate the ways in which we all endeavor to create meaning, God instead uses them, without a moment’s hesitation. For, “God so loved the world…” says John 3:16 and God indeed, still loves it, both for what it is now and for what it could be.
And so, we get Jesus’ advice to us at the end of the parable. He tells us to “use worldly wealth”, or as the King James Version says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” And perhaps we might want to pretend that we are above all of that. Well, its a bit too late for all of us really. Money, and its value, is a predominant human story, one of many, but one of the most prevalent and powerful. Maybe we personally have a different main story, for we all are shaped by our different experiences. But what Jesus is telling us is to make friends with our story, whatever it is, and to use it as far as it can do some good.
For example: There are some times that I am find myself striving to get my children to their various activities on time, not only because of my love for them but because I want to appear as if I have it all together. It’s not great that I’m motivated by appearance but still, on time is better than late. Or many times that having guests in my home will prompt a grand cleaning up that might otherwise never have happened, because I care about seeming like a moderately competent housekeeper. Better the stress of frantically tidying up first, so to later provide a space where my guests and I feel relaxed and can actually enjoy each other. Our less than heavenly concerns can help us conform to the basic civility that keeps us all in relationship with each other, that keeps the world moving.
Another way to illustrate the idea of making friends with our story comes from the Buddhist faith. The story goes that one day, the Buddha is meditating under a tree, and the demon Mara approaches, hoping to distract Buddha from his enlightenment, to lure Buddha into battle with him. But the Buddha sees Mara coming, and simply says “I see you, Mara.” And rather than taking a defensive stance, the Buddha invites Mara to sit down and have some tea.
I believe this is what we are being invited into with this parable. We cannot separate ourselves from our context, from the effect of our experiences on the formation of our identity, from telling ourselves a story about “the way things are.” But we can learn how to see these influences and these stories for what they are. We can say, “I see you, Mara,” and not be drawn into battle that distracts us from sitting under the tree, that distracts us from enlightenment.
And thus we heard in our Swedenborg reading about the mercy of “intermediate good.” Our spiritual journeys cannot be instantaneous; they must be incremental and sustainable if we are to truly transform our earthly natures. God works with and within this reality, which means that sometimes our intentions are mixed. This is okay. God invites us to make friends with what-is, instead of denying what-is, so that then we might truly see the stories we are telling ourselves with clarity.
But we also receive a warning. We are told to remember that we cannot serve two masters, prompting us to consider who we really want to serve overall. We need to be super clear: The Buddha may have been serving Mara tea, but that does not mean he was serving Mara’s agenda. We should make friends with our stories, and with the dominant stories of the world we live in, because they have real effects upon us, but we don’t want to end up serving those narratives instead of God. There is a necessary tension here. For example, I might want my children to buy into the cultural norms of appearance enough so that they look presentable, but not so much that they learn to hate their bodies. Or, I might want them to value success enough to create a fulfilling forward motion in their careers, but not at the expense of their mental health.
We all need to exist both inside and outside of our stories. This is what we are taught in the cross: God entered into our story, all of our stories, not only in an act of radical solidarity with our experience, but as an act of revelation, to wake us up to our dominant narratives. And with the crucifixion, we saw humanity choosing to serve our own stories instead of serving God and God’s story for us, leading to the ultimate in human over-reach: the death of the incarnate God. Conversely, serving God means seeing Mara, being unafraid, calm, and clear in Mara’s presence, and then subverting Mara’s expectations and agenda. We are to make friends with unrighteous mammon, with the worldly ideas by which the world is run, but we are not to serve them. And this is really really hard to do, which is one of the reasons I know that I prefer the simple, perfect bible characters. That black-and-white world seems much easier…even as it asks for perfection, that seems less to ask than dealing with balancing the world of grey.
Another way of expressing this whole idea is that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Now, it is only by the most generous of assessments that we can call what the steward did “good” but to the folks who benefitted from his debt abatement, objectively it was. He could have done something much worse. What I believe that we are hearing in this parable, is that God doesn’t make the possible the enemy of the actual. God does not love who we are becoming more than who we are.
God sees us. Seeing us in terms of who we are right now does not inherently compromise God, or condone us and whatever we might be doing. Nor does it mean that God cannot be against evil either. But it does mean that God can uncynically, unreservedly, root for the antagonist, because those categories of protagonist and antagonist, of good guy and bad guy, are not God’s story, they are ours. God is always for all of us.
(1) The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p256.
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Secrets of Heaven 4063:3
So that a person may be led from the state of the old person into that of the new, worldly passions have to be cast aside and heavenly affections assumed. This is effected by countless means known to the Lord alone, many of which the Lord has made known to angels but few if any to humanity…When therefore a person is converted from an old person into a new one, that is, when they are regenerated, it does not take place in an instant as some people believe, but over many years. Indeed the process is taking place throughout the person's whole life right to its end. For their [selfish] passions have to be rooted out and heavenly affections implanted, and they have to have a life conferred on them which they did not possess previously, and of which in fact they scarcely had any knowledge previously. Since therefore their states of life have to be changed so drastically they are inevitably maintained for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless they are maintained in that intermediate good, they in no way allow heavenly goods and truths into themselves.