Tag Archives: Robert Tannehill

Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B (Mundahl20)

Courage Tom Mundahl reflects on beholding versus seeing.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (2020, 2023)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

While there is no doubt of the significance of Davidic pedigree (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), or of the evangelical energy with which Romans concludes (Romans 16:25-27), this final Sunday in Advent belongs to Mary. Both the Annunciation and the Magnificat reveal the power and mystery of the coming of God.  As poet Denise Levertov writes:

Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage, unparalleled,
opened her utterly.
(Denise Levertov, “Annunciation,”
The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov,
New Directions, 2013, pp. 836-837)

As he narrates the births of John and Jesus, Luke clearly favors Mary.  Zechariah  finds the message from the angel that his elderly and “barren” wife, Elizabeth, will bear a child more than a little ridiculous.  With understandable skepticism he asks, “How will I know that this is so?” (Luke 1:18) But the lack of faith demonstrated by his cross-examination guarantees there will be no more questioning. He is struck dumb until the birth.

What a contrast Mary provides!  She is very young in a world that values age, a woman in a male-dominated culture, and poor in a highly-stratified economy.  All of these are intensified by her lack of a husband, a situation made all the more precarious by Gabriel’s announcement (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 39).

That this is a visit of great moment is made clear by Gabriel’s greeting, “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)  From the Rosary’s “Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” to  “Grace be on you, en-graced one,” the message is unmistakable: this is the one to bear the long-expected child.  Unlike Zechariah, who doubts the very possibility of this enterprise, Mary’s only question is procedural: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34b)

Gabriel’s response goes far beyond any obstetric explanation. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you….” That this is a movement of deep meaning is made evident by the “overshadowing” (επιςκιαζω) of the Most High.  This sense of the looming presence of God appears in the Exodus story (Exodus 40:34-35) and it also occurs in the Transfiguration narrative (Luke 9:34), where the presence of the Holy One “overshadows” the disciple group, making any suggestions about “marking the occasion” with traditional wilderness “booths” ridiculous.  What’s more, the scene reminds us of the “wind from God” overshadowing the “face of the waters” at creation (Genesis 1:2). Here the evangelist suggests we are dealing with nothing less than new creation that, with this “deep incarnation,” includes the life of all creatures (Niels Henrik Gregersen, Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, Fortress, 2015, pp. 20-21).

That his birth brought on by the “overshadowing” of the Most High transcends all notions of status is  made evident by the fundamental reversal demonstrated by Luke’s language.  Instead of being named the “Queen Consort” of the divine, brave Mary calls herself “the servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38) This theme blossoms with Mary’s song, the Magnificat.

Luke Timothy Johnson and other commentators remind us that Luke uses a compositional technique common to Hellenistic historians (cf. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War) by recreating speeches given by major actors to advance the narrative (Johnson, p. 43). Whether the speeches are given by Pericles or Cleon, there are few orations in this technique that match the Song of Mary in richness of poetic image. Not only is the Magnificat full of Hebrew parallelism, but the fact that it has been set to music  throughout history suggests that it is, at minimum, lyric poetry.  To paraphrase the old hymn, when we hear these words, “How can we keep from singing?”

Part of that impulse to sing comes from the simple fact that we are in the realm of what Walter Brueggemann calls “the theology of the impossible” (The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress, 2001, p. 141). This stems primarily from Gabriel’s assurance, “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37). As he continues to reflect on the struggle of the earliest church to begin the birth story, Brueggemann writes: “The beginning must be just right, for there is something new here that can scarcely be articulated, and the articulation must match the reality of the newness” (p. 102).  This cannot be done in prose, the language of royal decree, or even with forms of Greek historical rhetoric; it must be done in lyric leading to song. So we have the “Song of Mary”(Luke 1:46b-55) following the annunciation; the “Benedictus,” the “Song of Zechariah” (Luke 1:68-79) following the birth of John; the “Gloria,” or “Song of the Angels” (Luke 2:14) following the birth of Jesus; and the “Nunc Dimittis,” or “Song of Simeon”(Luke 2: 29-32), following the presentation. Is it a surprise that all of these are still part of the musical treasure of God’s people?

Even a piece of lyric poetry like the Magnificat contains structural elements.  The poem begins with the reversal of Mary’s condition from humility to blessing (1:46-49), moves to a wider statement of God’s mercy for the faithful over the generations (1:50),  continues with a vivid description of the reversal of social positions between the poor and arrogant (1:51-53), and concludes with a reminder that all of this fulfills promises to Abraham and descendants (Luke 1:54-55, Johnson, p. 43). This schema is reinforced by an additional pattern that “emerges from the repeated use of strong action verbs at the beginning of clauses.” For example, “magnifies,” “rejoices,” “he has looked,” “has done great things,” “shown strength with his arm,” “has scattered,” “has brought down,” “has lifted up,” “has filled,” “has sent the rich away,” and “has helped;” all serve to stress that this is, without question, God’s action (Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986, pp. 26-27).

This narrative structure in no way compromises lyric freedom. Here is no royal decree, no official administrative order.  As Brueggemann concludes, “The event will not be contained by the rationality of kings, ancient or contemporary. Rather, there is here a brooding, a wondering, and an amazement” (p. 104).  “For nothing will be impossible with God”(Luke 1:37).

The wonder of this  may be signaled by the use of the word that used to be translated “behold” (ιδου) three times in the annunciation — vv. 31, 36, and 38.  The first two uses, by Gabriel, are rendered by NRSV as “and now.”  While the desire to avoid language of “excessive holiness” that communicates with contemporary listeners and readers is understandable, isn’t this just a bit too weak?  It may be that returning to “behold” may restore a bit of the necessary authority of messengers like Gabriel, and help us to recover a sense of mysterium tremendum with its sense of awe and overpowering urgency (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, Oxford: 1958, pp. 12-24).

Maggie Ross suggests “Hebrew and Greek authors are careful to distinguish bodily seeing from beholding or inward vision….To put this more simply, ordinary seeing is analytical; it discriminates, grasps, and controls.  Beholding is organic, ungrasping, and self-emptying” (Writing the Icon of the Heart, London: BRF, 2011, p. 11). Joseph Sittler agrees, and goes on to claim that the biblical view of reality is particularly ecological — an ontology of creation community– that requires a “beholding of actuality” (“Ecological Commitment as Theological Responsibility,” in Bouma-Prediger and Bakken, Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 79).

Sittler goes on to suggest: “‘To behold’ means to stand among things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of the nonself with one’s arrogant hat on….To stand ‘beholding’ means that one stands within the Creation with an intrinsically theological stance” ( p. 80). Ross puts it more practically: “It was in the context of beholding that we were given stewardship of the earth; it is in the context of distraction that we have mismanaged it.” (Ross, pp. 11-12)

The final use of “behold” in the annunciation is Mary’s most moving affirmation, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  While it may not be in reaction to a personal visit from Gabriel, it may be that as we share in Mary’s servanthood, we will be “overshadowed” by the power of the Most High and given the courage (Levertov) to build justice and health for each other and the earth household.

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2014; edited and revised by Tom Mundahl in 2020.
Elm Cottage, St. Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Sunday September 18 – 24 in Year C

Embracing a gift economy – Tom Mundahl reflects on Luke 16:1-13.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for September 18-24, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

A recent steamy August afternoon found my son and me in a movie theater eager to see Neil Blomkamp’s dystopian film, “Elysium.”  Set in the year 2154, when, despite the efforts of websites like this one, life on planet earth has been degraded to utter bleakness. Nevertheless, there is still a wealthy minority living on the satellite Elysium, who enjoy clean water, air, and ease just nineteen minutes by space freighter away from “plantation earth.” Not only was this film a good escape from the summer heat, it reminded me of the “problem of wealth” offered by this Sunday’s readings.

The theme is first heard from Amos, “the herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees” (Amos 7:14), who brings God’s word to those “who trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land . . . .” (Amos 8:4). It is echoed by the music of Psalm 113 that praises the LORD “who raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes . . . .” (Psalm 113:7-8).  But it is our Gospel text, the parable of “the Rich Man and the Manager” (Luke 16:1-13) that provides the drama and depth to focus our discussion.

Unlike most traditional interpretations, we begin with the rich man. The problem of wealth is central to this section of Luke. From the ‘solid citizens’ who turn down the invitation to the banquet and are replaced by the ‘poor and outcast’ (Luke 14:18-22), to the parables in Luke 15 that confront the religious establishment’s criticism of Jesus’ habit of dining with these folks (15:1-2), to the parable of “the Rich Man and Lazarus” following today’s passage (Luke 16:19-31), the warning against centering one’s life on wealth is clear (cf. Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol 1. Fortress, 1991 pp. 185-186.) Before there is a problem with a shifty manager, the sheer fact of wealth must be confronted.

The problem of wealth is unveiled by the introduction to the parable. Just as the introduction to the previous parable, “there was a man who had two sons” (15:11), suggests tension, so the simple sentence “there was a rich man who had a manager”(16:1) suggests conflict to come. The fuel for these conflicts is money and property. And, not surprisingly, both the younger son and the manager engage in the same activity of “squandering property” (Luke 15:13, Luke 16:1). If the reaction of the “running father” to the “prodigal” surprises, the ultimate commendation of the manager by the rich master (Luke 16:8) nearly takes our breath away!

What prompts this unexpected response? As the first charges against the manager surface, it is natural that the owner asks for an accounting. At first, according to Luke Timothy Johnson, this ‘audit’ is not necessarily punitive.  It may be more a simple matter of ‘let’s go over the books and see how things stand.’  (The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 244)

But this is no simple matter for the manager. Since he knows the difficulty he is in, there is desperation in his mind as he imagines alternatives, until the crisis forces a decision. “I have decided what to do so that when I am dismissed as manager, people will welcome me into their homes” (Luke 16:4). Without delay, he summons his master’s debtors and settles their accounts with deep discounts (Luke 16:6-7).

Amazingly, the master commends him for (what NRSV translates as) his “shrewdness” (phronimus), a word that may also be translated as “prudence.” Whether it is “shrewd cleverness” or “worldly prudence,” it is a quality that “the Parabler” wishes that the new community, “the children of light,” would learn from (Luke 16:8b). Perhaps the reasoning underlying this advice is the importance of using “dishonest wealth” (lit. “unjust mammon”) to make friends who will welcome them. Certainly, in keeping with the Hellenistic notion of “reciprocity of benefit,” the former manager has now formed bonds of obligation with those receiving discounts, who will now be expected to open their homes to him.  (Johnson, p. 244)

But the rich master’s commendation suggests a move beyond reciprocity, simple ‘deal making.’ Perhaps an alternative translation to “shrewdness” is “appropriateness.” This sudden burst of discounting unveils the structure of economic activity and its basis in real human relationships. It discloses to the rich man the interdependence of the flow of economic activity and gives him a way out from the idolatrous weight of endlessly seeking wealth, mammon, a Semitic word meaning “that in which one fully trusts.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, III. Oxford: 2001, New Testament, p. 128, n. 9)

No wonder this parable is completed with words suggesting the authority of a ‘dominical saying:’ “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 [perhaps better: ‘a community that lasts’]” (Luke 16:9). Suddenly the realm of economics is ‘normed’ by friendship (“make friends for yourself”). What kind of an economics might that be?

Clearly, Luke believes that possessions can be used for good, especially when, instead of being kept out of circulation by wealthy greed (lit. mammon) they flow into a pattern of bargaining kept in check by friendship, a force even more powerful than the reciprocity sought by the manager.

Johnson is partially right in holding that “The crisis character of the story is essential. It is the manager’s ability to respond to the crisis, literally a “visitation of his Lord,” which is the point of the story, the reason for the master’s admiration, and the example for the disciples. His cleverness consists in continuing to disperse possessions . . . . (author’s emphasis, Johnson, 247). By reducing the amounts owed, a new kind of economic activity is foreshadowed. But the rich master also learns from the manager’s action, for he is the one who “commends” the shifty steward.  And it is this master who begins to see it as a way beyond the shackles of “mammon,” a new way of being.

This new vision of economic relations as a dispersal of possessions or a circulation of gifts surely fits into Luke’s “new exodus” theme. It is a process that will ‘lift up the lowly’ (cf. Luke 1:52) and characterize the new community (cf. Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-35). In his important work, The Gift (New York: Vintage, 1983), Lewis Hyde describes what can happen when trade relations are re-imagined.  Hyde describes anthropologist Lorna Marshall’s work with a band of Bushmen in South Africa in the early 1950’s. Upon leaving after several years of work, she gave each woman in the band enough cowrie shells for a short necklace, one large brown shell and twenty smaller gray ones. When Marshall returned a year later, there were very few cowrie shells to be seen among the women in the band where they had been given. Marshall was dumfounded to notice that because of the flow of gift-giving “they appeared, not as whole necklaces, but in ones and twos in people’s ornaments to the edges of the region” (quoted in Hyde, p. 74).

Certainly this moves beyond economy as we understand it. Yet this notion of living generously with possessions is clearly in harmony with the teachings following the parable (Luke 16:10-13)  Perhaps most important—if not chilling—for North Americans is the final pronouncement: “You cannot serve God and wealth [“mammon”] (Luke 16:13). Johnson puts an exclamation point on this saying in his translation by retaining “mammon” and capitalizing it to remind us that Mammon certainly retains godlike power—especially in our culture.

Transforming culture is, of course, what this parable is about. It is crucial that the parable itself ends with the notion of being welcomed into “eternal homes” (lit. “tents”, skene, another reference to the New Exodus experience (Luke 16: 9). Because of what has happened in Jerusalem with cross and resurrection, God’s people are secure in their pilgrim existence and free to live by gift.  This cultural change toward a “gift economy” has enormous implications for earth care. Seeing what we use in our lives not as possessions to control but as gifts to be shared could not be more important.

Blomkamp’s “Elysium” affirms this. While oppressed Earth dwellers long for the “good life” enjoyed by the 1% on Elysium, the film’s hero, Max, (Matt Damon) still carries a medallion given to him by a Roman Catholic sister, his former teacher. As the film reaches its climax with Max expending his life to find a way to use Elysium’s medical technology to heal the leukemia of the daughter of a childhood friend and, as a result, opening access to the 99% who have been excluded, the dying Max opens the medallion. What he sees is no iconic image of a saint; it is a photo of the beautiful Earth taken from Elysium.

Tom Mundahl          St. Paul, MN     tmundahl@gmail.com

For additional care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288