I continue now with my shameless promotion of Father DiLuzio’s Luke Live performance. Again, we were treated to a wonderful exchange of ideas, marked by a charismatic leader who helped enliven St. Luke’s Gospel and knit the narrative together. Father DiLuzio offered us to begin with the choice of hearing entire chapters at once, or breaking it down into slightly smaller pieces. Having seen yesterday the amazing continunity of a text that, for many of us, originally seemed a disjointed collection of brief non-sequitors, we voted roughly 55-45 to continue being inundated by large chunks of text. And so he began his recitation starting from chapter 18, and the parable of the persistent widow.
The overarching theme across the first section of chapter 18 is prayer. The chapter begins with the parable of the persistent widow, who continually nags a judge to render a just decision. The judge relents out of weariness at the nagging and fear that she might be riled to actually strike him. Jesus then explains the contrast, that if a judge who does not care will eventually render a just decision when nagged sufficiently, how better will God act in justice for His people?
The chapter continues then with the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (to which I pray, “Thank you, Lord, for not making like that Pharisee, a hypocrite and so self-inflated that he cannot see the evils he commits” (and that’s irony, for those who think I’m earnestly praying that)), the admonition to be like children, the story of the rich man whom Jesus tells to sell all he owns and the subsequent comparison with camels and eyes of needles. Then we hit the third prediction of the Passion.
I’m going to pause here because there’s an important theme that links this whole section together, especially in light of the driving forward to the Passion and the crucifixion. That theme is prayer, something we’re all called to do regularly and often, but perhaps have not invested as much thought into as we should have.
The first parable, of the widow, speaks to us of the importance of praying. When we pray, God answers, and He answers quickly (though maybe not to our eyes) and in ways that we need most. One of the questions from the crowd followed the lines of, “If God knows all our needs, why do we even need to pray? Isn’t it redundant?” Though many of us have confronted this, and have been satisfied with simple answers like, “God conditions what He gives us on our willingness to humble ourselves and ask.” There’s truth to that, sure, but there’s a lot more there than meets the eye.
In order to understand this depth, we detoured into an analysis of the Incarnation and some of the deeper implications of Jesus being fully human and fully divine, which has been asserted since Christ’s time and reaffirmed with the Council of Nicaea and several subsequent councils. If we are to understand the Incarnation correctly, we need to focus for a moment on Jesus’ humanity. Since he was fully human, he could only experience the divine–even the divine in himself, even though he was the Son, the second person in the Trinity–as humans do, and that is through prayer, and reading the scriptures, and faith. Throughout scripture, we see Jesus praying, especially in situations where it is puzzling that he prays. He knows his mission, he knows that, even though he’s going to die on the cross, he’s going to rise again. Yet he prays to his Father that, if He wills it, the terrible things not happen to His Son. And this prayer makes sense when we realize that Jesus experiences his own divinity only through prayer and dialogue with the scriptures and his own faith; his own humanity.
What prayer helped Jesus to accomplish was to be open to the divine, and the more he prayed, the more “in touch”, as it were, he was with the divine. So it is for us. Yet praying is not simply a matter of talking to God. Indeed, we see from the Pharisee (who prays to himself by patting himself on the back for being so self-righteous) that something deeper needs to take place. Jesus explains it by saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” There has to be humility in our prayer, which includes both a recognition of our own lowly state, our dependence on God (and especially His mercy), and honest thanksgiving for all the good that comes–not from ourselves–but from God, who is the source of all good things.
Indeed, Jesus tells us how best to behave in prayer: we must be like a child. Now, this doesn’t mean we should act infantile, irresponsibly, or without a care in the world. Rather, this is an admonishment to humble ourselves and realize that we are ever dependent on God, just as children are dependent on their parents. Our dependency, however, runs much deeper, and thus calls for a deeper humility.
What is interesting, though, is that Jesus isn’t say that we have to revert to childhood to enter Heaven. His words are, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” Well, this statement comes just after having been asked by the Pharisees (in chapter 17) when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus’ reply was: “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” So when Jesus tells us to be childlike to enter the kingdom of God, he’s not referring to reaching Heaven at the end of our lives, but in entering into the kingdom, right now, right here. And we do that through prayer. The more we prayer, the more we open ourselves to God. The more we humble ourselves in acknowledgement of our dependence on God, and the more thanksgiving we give to God for what He has given us, the more we “attune” ourselves to the Kingdom.
To a great deal, this is why wealth poses such a barrier for entry into the kingdom. Jesus tells us that “For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a neelde than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And the reason this is so–indeed, keep in mind we’re talking about the very kingdom which is present now among us–is because wealth gives us the illusion of independence. If you consider our world, we tend to fall furthest from God not when times are hard and we need help, but rather when we’re fat and lazy from our own aflluence and excess. When we are wealthy, we start to think that we no longer need God, that we can care for ourselves just fine, that we needn’t be humble and dependent.
Following up on this, we see Jesus make two encounters that really exemplify how we are to behave. Jesus comes across a blind man who cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” Because of this man’s faith, his acknowledgement of his lowly status, and his humility to ask, Jesus restores his sight. Later, Jesus comes across Zacchaeus, a tax collector potentially with small man’s syndrome, who had climbed a tree to see Jesus because he was so short. When Jesus called him out of the tree and told him that he would be staying with him, Zacchaeus rejoiced and then proceeded to (offer to) give half of his belongings to the poor and make amends with anyone he might have extorted. And hearing this, Jesus tells us that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house. So obviously a rich man can enter the kingdom, hard though it may be. It just takes the humbling of oneself and being “in tune” with what God wants us to be doing.
As an aside, now we’re into chapter 19. These divisions are rather arbitrary, and have a tendency to isolate text that should flow together seamlessly. The important thing to note is how this text comes together, each section bolstering others and bolstered by them in turn. We had back in chapter 16 a call to good stewardship in small matters to large, for those who are good stewards in earthly matters will prove to be good stewards in the kingdom. We are called to be humble, and not counting wealth and status as the end of things, for indeed, as we’re told through chapter 17 and 18, those things are a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God, which is now among us. It all builds, and this building is rapidly propelling us towards Jerusalem, and the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. Indeed, the message becomes louder through the chapters, as Jesus speaks of the kingdom, and the Son of Man coming and taking his place in the kingdom.
I will note two final things before wrapping up. (We made it through most of chapter 20, through the entrance into Jerusalem, the cleansing of the Temple, and the testing by the Pharisees and Sadducees, but I won’t delve into that too deeply. After all, I’m encouraging people to invite Father DiLuzio to come and speak at their parishes!)
First, let us look at the placement of the third prediction of the Passion in the text. It seems almost an aside, but it comes right after Peter has said, “We have given up our possessions and followed you” in response to Jesus speaking of the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom of God. We can probably get out of this either a smugness–look, we’ve given up everything, so we’re doing something right–or a tentative query, as though just checking that they had indeed done the right thing. We can surmise that the apostles probably thought that they would be prominent in the kingdom of God–think cabinet members advising the president–and at the very least, they had certain expectations of what Jesus would accomplish as Messiah. After all this talk of the kingdom, and who would enter and who wouldn’t, the apostles were probably getting pretty eager to see the culmination, especially since they’d been doing the right things to get in. But Jesus takes a moment to admonish them that things would not be as they expected. The Son of Man would enter Jerusalem in triumph, but be handed over to the Gentiles and put to death. But of course, the apostles did not understand. Perhaps those expectations were too great to admit what must have seemed to them a tragic defeat. Maybe Jesus simply meant that there was the possibility of being put to death, or that people were definitely opposed to him and the coming of his kingdom, and thus they needed caution.
Second, we had an interesting aside regarding the entry into Jerusalem, which came from Father Carl. Some historians have suggested that at the same time, on the other side of the city, another procession was going on as some representative of the Roman Empire was entering the city. One suggested person is Pontius Pilate, under whom Jesus was crucified. Indeed, it makes for quite a symbolic gesture, to have the ruler of the kingdom of God entering on one side, and the ruler (or at least his legate) of the kingdoms of the earth entering on the other. Even if this speculation is not true (for more information, check out The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem by Borg and Crisson), it is still apparent that a great confrontation is brewing as the kingdom of God comes in direct conflict with the worldly orders, which unfortunately include people who are supposed to be spiritual leaders among the Jews.