Sun, Feb 03, 2019

A prophetic religion


This week…

at the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland––

a meeting that brings together world corporate leaders and tech billionaires––

there was much discussion about the problem of inequality…

and the way that it leads to social unrest and violent populist nationalism.

At one panel discussion, a Dutch economic historian––

by the name of Rutger Bregman––

bravely spoke up:

“Ten years ago the WEF asked the question what must industry do to prevent broad social backlash. The answer is very simple: just stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes”.

Reflecting on his experience at this year’s meeting, he noted:

“I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency. But then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance…and of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a fire fighters’ conference and no-one’s allowed to speak about water”.

Describing the nineteen-fifties, in the United States, as a “golden age” for innovation and development…

he noted that most of that innovation came about “through government spending”…

at a time when the top marginal tax rate was well in excess of seventy percent.

That, he asserted, is what is needed again, today:

“We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes…but…we’ve got to be talking about taxes…All the rest is bullsh*t, in my opinion”.


Needless to say, his argument rankled many of the billionaires in the audience.

None of us likes having our noses rubbed in our inconvenient truths;

none of us likes to be reminded of things that we would rather ignore…

or pretend never happened.

It’s bad enough when disinterested bystanders do it.

It’s far worse, of course, when it’s done by people who we know and trust.


So, imagine then what it would have been like for the people of Nazareth.

As the author of Luke’s Gospel weaves his story…

there they were, sitting in their synagogue––

a comfortable place;

a place that affirmed their sense of corporate identity;

a place where they were surrounded by family and friends…

doing what they did every week.

And up gets Jesus––

whom they all know because it was a small village…

and whom they had watch grow from a baby…

into a toddler…

a youth…

and a man––

and he lets them have it:

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”.

And then he reminds them of two embarrassing stories from their nation’s history:

that the prophet Elijah helped a widow in Sidon––

that is, in Phoenicia––

ignoring all of the needy widows in Israel;

and that the prophet Elisha healed a Syrian with a skin condition––

ignoring all of those in Israel similarly afflicted.

In effect, what he was saying… 

is that God chose to help despised foreigners––

and people who didn’t even profess belief or faith in Israel’s God––

rather than helping God’s own people;

because God’s people continually failed to recognise where and how God was at work;

because God’s people were continually closed to what God was doing––

unlike foreigners…


and the sort of people whom “insiders” dismiss or despise.

It’s as if Jesus were to get up in our church today…

and inform us that God is at work among the Muslims of Iran or Syria…

not among us, in the Christian West… 

let alone in Australia.


But why?

Why such a pointed reminder?

Why such a stinging rebuke?


Because sometimes we need to be shocked.

Sometimes we need to be shaken out of our complacency.

Sometimes we need to have our illusions shattered.

Especially when we start to think that we know God;

that we understand God and God’s ways;

and we presume to know what it means to be God’s people.

There are times when we need to be shocked and shaken––

even disillusioned––

because it’s easy to make religion into a sort of prop…

or a life-buoy…

which we cling to amid the storms of life.

Religion can easily become just something that gives us a sense of security;

something that can help us face the perils of our ever-changing and uncontrollable world.

An eternal God––

wrapped up in eternal truths…

fixed, stable, certain, unchanging––

is a comfortable and comforting thing.

Such a God––

and such a religion––

not only provides a prop or a life-buoy…

it also provides us with a shield to hide behind…

which can help us to avoid facing what it is that we’re afraid of.

Such a God becomes “our” God––

a God who exists to meet our needs;

a God who watches over and protects us, and who, we expect, shouldn’t let anything bad happen to us;

a God who blesses us;

a safe, predictable, domesticated God.


And yet… 

the God revealed by and reflected in Jesus of Nazareth––

not least in this story from Luke’s Gospel––

is anything but that.

Rather, what we see is a God who isn’t safe and who can’t be domesticated.

What we see is a God who isn’t afraid to upset us or offend us;

a God who isn’t afraid to remind us of the things that we would like to ignore… 

or the things that we would like to pretend don’t exist.

What we see is a God who forces us to embrace our doubts––

to confront our sordid history, our fears, our illusions, and our prejudices—

in order that we might grow.

What we see is a God who is bigger than we can imagine;

and bigger than our experience or our tradition would have us believe. 

What we see is a God who continually does the unexpected…

who breaks down the barriers that we erect…

who challenges us to take risks and to embrace change.


But so much of that goes against the grain.

As a community of God’s people, we may say that we want to grow––

but we don’t want the pain that goes with it;

we yearn for growth but we’re resistant to change.

We don’t want our comfort disturbed.

We don’t want our traditions or our beliefs challenged.

We don’t want our crutches exposed for what they are.

And so we play games.

We avoid controversy.

We avoid conflict.

We opt for some bland mediocrity or some banal, inoffensive middle ground.

And, in so doing, we miss our God-given opportunity to grow…

and to become who, in Christ, we might yet be. 

But the God revealed by, and reflected in, the person of Jesus…

loves us too much to leave us there;

and continues to send us prophets––

whether we recognise them or not.

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