Monday, August 01, 2011

Sharp stories of a salty alternative to tower building and war mongering

A couple of weeks ago I was preaching on the end of Luke 14. At first sight it seems to be just a general call to discipleship, wrapped up in a couple of think-about-it stories. It comes after the parables of the great banquet but seems to have little connection with them. Furthermore, Jesus speaks off his own bat rather than in response to a question or observation from the crowd. Luke reminds us that Jesus still had a big audience and that they were 'travelling' - ie Jerusalem is getting closer and we all know what will happen there.

And maybe that should alert us to the fact that there's a sharper focus to these words than just a general call to serious discipleship. It also suggests the link with what's gone before. At the end of chapter 13 we have Jesus words about Herod and his tears for Jerusalem. Now we have stories about tower builders and war-mongers. Perhaps we are in the same territory. Tom Wright helpfully suggests that Herod the great was probably the tower builder and that the tower in question was the still unfinished temple and that those plotting rebellion against Rome were the war mongers. Suddenly the story is freighted with spiritual and political urgency.

The parables of the great banquet have strongly suggested that the party God will throw at the end time is for the poor, the marginalised, the dispossessed, those with no stake in the current order who are always being pushed around by what a writer in today's Guardian wonderfully called 'the feral elite'. Followers of Jesus ought to be concerned about the poor and not the dreams of the tower builders and war mongers.

This throws light on the puzzling little saying about salt in 14:34f. God's people were supposed to be showing the world a different set of values, an alternative lifestyle. They are meant to be - in the words of  American historian and cultural critic Theodore Roszak who sadly died last week - a counter culture. The trouble is that Jesus looks around at Israel and he sees that it's anything but. That is why he weeps over the city, why he longs to be able to gather it to himself like a hen gathers her chicks. That is what lies behind his despairing comment that what should be salty is just bland and indistinguishable from the surrounding cultures; it's just another empire of tower builders and war mongers. And Jesus weeps.

Having told the story of the banquet, he calls people to join his revolution, his counter culture, his way of being that embodies the values of the God who reigns. Hence he ends by asking those with ears to hear what he's saying.I don't think it's an accident that this is immediately followed in Luke's account by the parables of lost things (sheep, coins, sons) that are kicked off by the Pharisees grumbling that Jesus models these values in who he offers his hospitality to; nor that the apparently mystifying parable of the unjust steward (the subject of another post to come) follows immediately on with no change of audience or pause for breath.

I was thinking all this when the postman arrived with my copy of Kavin Rowe's World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. I've been looking forward to reading this for ages, having read a couple of Rowe's papers on Acts, because he argues a political reading of acts that is based on God's apocalypse in Jesus and treads the fine line between being a counter culture that turns the world upside down and fermenting a revolution that seeks to replace one tyranny with another. I'll keep you posted on how it shapes up.

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