3rd Sunday of Easter
Texts: Luke 24:13-35;
THE POLITICS AND ECONOMICS OF GOD
Clearly, there’s more than one way to tell a story. Jesus — on the road to Emmaus with two fellow Jews — takes their Jewish story and tells it according to himself, according to what has happened to him over the past several days.
Love Wins, the book by Rob Bell that we are studying between the worship services gives a splendid example of this principle, that there is more than one way to tell a story. (1) He presents the parable of the Prodigal Son as multiple stories within the same story. The sons in this story have a way of seeing their own life stories, and the Father offers them a different way to tell the same story. When the Prodigal Son, for example, is ready to return home, he tells himself his own story. He rehearses the speech he’ll give his father. He is convinced he’s “no longer worthy” to be called his father’s son. That’s the story he’s telling, that’s the one he’s believing. It’s stunning, then, when he gets home and his father demands that the best robe be put on him and a ring placed on his finger and sandals on his feet. Robes and rings and sandals are signs of being a son. Although he’s decided he can’t be a son anymore, his father tells a different story. One about return and reconciliation and redemption. One about his being a son again.
The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s. One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found. There are two versions of his story. His. And his father’s. He has to choose which one he will live in. Which one he will believe. Which one he will trust.
Same, it turns out, for the older brother. It’s an even more stunning difference than for his prodigal brother, but I won’t recount Pastor Bell’s rendering here. I continue to encourage everyone to read this book, not only for such brilliant treatments of the stories in Scripture, but because he is gently and compellingly helping us to see that the way we’ve told our Christian story in recent generations may have gotten off track — badly off-track, as a matter of fact.
I think we can get our own take on the Elder son in Luke’s parable through this morning’s masterpiece Gospel story, because the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are close to the Elder Son’s position. They have had their own way of telling their Jewish story which gets off-track, and Jesus tells that same story according to himself to correct it.
Here’s what I mean. “We had hoped,” they tell Jesus without recognizing him, “that this Jesus of Nazareth was the one to redeem Israel.” They have heard reports of Jesus resurrection, but they are slow to believe because the hopes had been dashed on Good Friday. In their minds, in their way of telling the Jewish story, the Messiah doesn’t redeem Israel doesn’t by suffering on the cross. More likely, the coming of the Messiah should mean that their enemies suffer. According to the usual human way of telling the story of political power, being free means being free of someone forcing you to lead a life in subjection and shame, a life of oppressed suffering. It means being able to turn the tables and make your enemies suffer.
Jesus responds, ‘How foolish you are and slow to believe.’ And he tells them another way to tell the same story, a story of liberation, but one in which the Messiah himself suffers and is raised from the dead, in order to show the fruitlessness of that entire way of human politics in which you make sure that it is someone else who suffers, not you.
Now, there’s at least two ways to understand how Jesus corrects those disciples understanding. One way might be the way recent generations of Christians have understood it. I think we’ve been tempted to tell the story as about denying politics are involved. Clearly, these two disciples have real world politics in mind, one where they come to power over the Romans. One way to see Jesus’ response might be to say, ‘Well, the cross isn’t about real world politics at all. It’s about the world of eternity where there’s a heaven and a hell to go to after you die. It’s all about going to heaven someday.
But there’s at least two problems reading our Gospel in this way. First, it’s simply not Jewish. There’s nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures about going to heaven when you die. Luke tells us that Jesus took the Jewish story and tells it according to himself. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Hey, you two, we have scrap our Jewish story and replace it with a brand new one.’ No, he took the Jewish story, which is all about the politics of rising and falling empires. It’s a story about being freed from slavery, rising to power under kings David and Solomon, and then falling into disarray, oppressed by a centuries long succession of neighboring empires.
Yes, Jesus is a prophet in a long line of Jewish prophets who are all about politics. It’s just that the God of Israel’s politics are so very different than human politics. In human politics, it’s always assumed that there’s a scarcity. Someone is going to be left out. Someone is going to suffer, so you make sure it isn’t you. But if God is truly love, that way of politics isn’t open. Instead, the Anointed One of God, the Messiah, must come as one who takes on the suffering of our human politics in order to show its futility. And God raises him to new life to show forth the abundance of God’s power of life in the face of our gloomy expectations of scarcity.
When Jesus says “How foolish!” to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he specifically follows that up with, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Several hours later, with all the apostles, Jesus repeats the same point:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day….” (Luke 24:44-46)
Luke is very careful in making sure we understand that this is still all about the story of the people of Israel, a very this-worldly story. There is absolutely no hint of it being changed to an other-worldly story.
So you might ask, ‘How then did so many generations of Christians come to make it mostly an other-worldly story about going to heaven when you die.’ Glad you asked! Because the most recent generation of biblical scholarship has shown that it doesn’t come from the Bible! Could it be that we have so badly lapsed back into human politics of scarcity that creating our own version of the story as being about other-worldly politics conveniently misses the point of God’s conflicting politics of abundance?
But let’s conclude with the second aspect of today’s Gospel story that shows forth God’s politics. The Emmaus disciples finally recognize Jesus when he breaks bread with them. This recalls the night before his suffering and death. But it also recalls one of the well-known miracles of Jesus, the feeding of five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. Everyone there that day saw a scarcity — except Jesus. He gave thanks to God, presuming an abundance.
In Wisconsin, I was invited to a very nice conference at a local Christian college, where the economics professors saw it a ministry to teach pastors about capitalism. I’m afraid I was not a very cooperative student. On the first day, in the first hour of classes, the teacher covered axioms and principles of capitalism. He said that capitalism assumes a scarcity, such that economics needs to develop principles of fair distribution. I raised my hand and cited the Feeding of the Five Thousand as an illustration that Jesus did not live by the assumption of scarcity but rather of abundance. I was told that capitalism cannot rightly proceed without the assumption of scarcity. I’ve used the word “politics” today in connection with God. But if you’re uncomfortable with that, how about God’s economics? Our word economics comes from the New Testament words for law and home. Economics is the “law of the household,” which in God’s case is the whole world. God apparently has a very different economics than we human beings do. God presumes abundance not scarcity, and that makes a huge difference. God presumes that there is enough for everyone, because the world was created that way. We presume scarcity so that we can carry out an economics where some people have to be left out of the bounty. And the politics that go with it are a politics of making sure those left out are someone else, not us.
As we come to God’s table once again in a few minutes, hosted by our Lord who let himself be one of those left out, can we leave to go about our business this week with a different economics? Fed with the abundant life of the Risen One who gave his body for us, and poured out his blood for us, can we follow in his way of giving ourselves for others?
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 8, 2011
1. The next several paragraphs are an edited version from Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne, 2011), chapter 7, “The Good News Is Better Than That.”