Homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” – Luke 13:9
What exactly Luke means by these words, I don’t know; and I’m not sure anybody knows. And I want to return to Luke and these words, but first, some opera.
My introduction to Richard Wagner was not the happiest. Ashley and I had just arrived in Dresden, Germany, for an academic conference (hers). On the conference agenda for night number two was an option to attend Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Dresden opera house, which, when we were back in the States and in the comfort of our own home, sounded like a good idea; so we bought tickets. Never mind getting drenched in a crashing thunderstorm on our way to the opera house and then sitting in air conditioning. Never mind the backrow, “nosebleed” section seats. Never mind being jetlagged. Das Rheingold, as you may know, has no intermissions… and it’s two and a half hours long.
That’s the night I discovered that I’m a slight claustrophobe. I knew something was up because, as the evening progressed, I found myself making sure I knew where the exits were, and then even planning an escape route. (“What’s up with that?”) And I found myself wondering what I was going to say to Ashley afterwards if I simply got up and walked out. And I found that my anxiety level kept rising and rising… On stage the Rhine Maidens, I’m sure, were singing this, and Wotan, I’m sure, was singing that, and the low brass, surely, were belting it out. But on account of my anxiety I remember almost nothing save for the moment when, in the final scene (I think…) after Wotan has given the ring to the giants and, under the evil influence of the ring one giant brother has killed the other (I think), in the Dresden production the stage went entirely dark save for the sole figure of an old man with a cane, shrouded in black from head to toe—the figure of Death himself (I think)—[an old man with a cane, shrouded in black from head to toe] walked slowly and deliberately across the stage. Sooo slowly and deliberately. I remember thinking, “Isn’t it nice that the opera has found a role for this singer in his old age?” And, “Gosh, that guy must be really old.” (And, “There must be a lift somewhere that helped him up on stage.”) About three-quarters of the way across the stage, the figure stopped, and a hand reached up from out of his robes. Just his hand was visible—a strong, young hand. And as the actor clenched his fist and drew it to himself, he also drew himself up, as if in triumph. And then strode off the stage with power and ease.
There was an audible gasp as we in the audience were shocked, taken completely by surprise by Death’s entrance and then exit from the stage.
Each of the Gospels has its own way of dealing with Death’s entrance onto the “stage.” Matthew responds with extensive teaching (like the Sermon on the Mount) and by rooting his Gospel in a living tradition and people. Mark in classic Markan fashion just lets Death be Death… and then also just lets Resurrection be Resurrection (“They went out and fled from the tomb.. and… said nothing to anyone.”) John responds by digging deeper, where Jesus and resurrection are in the sheepfold, in the upper room, and where disciples have breathed in the Holy Spirit. But Luke, more than any other New Testament writer, utilizes movement; Luke is a dramaturg (one who helps oversee the production of theatre).
To watch Luke the dramaturg direct Jesus across the “stage” of his Gospel is to witness extraordinary “theatre,” if you will. Right from the beginning, Luke draws us his audience in with beautiful “sets” like the angel announcing unto Mary, Mary visiting Elizabeth, and “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.” Luke adds richness and depth to his production by rooting it in ancient Hebrew tradition: Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day, a genealogy going back to Adam, a quote from Isaiah to announce Jesus’ ministry (“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…). We know Luke has a keen sense of what makes for “show” because he includes poetry and music: Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s “Blessed be the Lord,” Simeon’s “Lord, you now have set your servant free.” And, after the fixed scenes of the opening chapters, Luke’s Gospel is a whirlwind of movement: here Jesus dashes off a parable, there he tells off the Pharisees; here he comforts, there he admonishes; here he heals, there he warns. And Luke’s Jesus makes full use of his “stage” for, beginning in chapter 9 and continuing through chapter 19, Jesus travels to Jerusalem—in Luke Jesus takes 10 chapters to travel to Jerusalem, the longest such journey in the Gospels—and it is here, as Jesus moves across the stage to Jerusalem, that he delivers the words:
Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
As they were on the figure in the Dresden production of Das Rheingold, in Luke all eyes are now on Jesus. We have watched, mesmerized, as Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha, as he ate dinner with the Pharisee and as he healed the bent-over woman on the Sabbath. We have listened, entranced, as he told the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. We have been challenged by Jesus’ teachings about entering through the narrow door, about not storing up treasures on earth, and about hating father and mother, wife and children and even life itself if we would be his disciples. On his walk across the stage, Luke’s Jesus is sure of himself, “commanding” even, in his presence. But those watching closely will notice that Luke’s Jesus does not always behave as expected, that there is more than meets the eye. Like: What did Jesus mean when he said to Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part?” Or why, when somebody asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” did Jesus not say, “Of course everybody will be saved,” but instead answered with the parable of the owner of the house who said, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me… you evildoers”? And why did the parable of the Prodigal Son end as it did, with the older son becoming angry and refusing to come in? (Luke knows how to tell a story. Why did he end it like that?)
I wonder if Luke, as he directs Jesus across the stage, engages us with questions such as these—troubles us with questions such as these—because Luke wants us his audience to pay even closer attention as Jesus moves across the stage, to notice his every gesture, every twinge of a gesture, so that Jesus might surprise us. So that—lest we think we know who “Jesus” is and what “Life” all encompasses—we might see a hand emerge from the robes, as it were, and be taken completely by surprise. Like: “Yes, ‘Life’ is proclaiming good news to the poor… but it is also, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” Or, “Yes, ‘Life’ is proclaiming release to the captives, of course… and it is also, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me you evildoers.” Or, “Yes, ‘Life’ is about the recovery of sight to the blind—absolutely!… And it is also, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
What exactly Luke means by these words, I don’t know; and I’m not sure anybody knows. But I trust Luke. (I may not always like Luke, but I trust Luke.) Luke knows how to tell a story; Luke knows how to direct theatre. He understands gesture and movement and choreography. And… Luke is a master of surprise. Luke is, after all, the evangelist who gives us Pentecost with its “surprise” of the Holy Spirit. So my plan is to keep watching this Jesus—closely—in the coming weeks, and I invite you to do the same. Perhaps as we pay attention to Jesus, watching his every move, we will be surprised. Surprised that Jesus is and, thank God, isn’t who we thought he was. Surprised that Life is and, thank God, isn’t what we think it is. Surprised at the boldness and daring and fullness of life offered by Jesus, thank God, to us through his wonderful, joy-filled, soul-satisfying and surprising gift of the Holy Spirit.