The Wilderness: The Making of God’s Upside-down Kin-dom (Luke 4:1-3)

Today we hear the account from Luke of Jesus’ journey into the wilderness for forty days. Wilderness was the wild place, the waiting place, the place of preparation. It also connected then, as it does now, to very basic spirituality: a place to grapple with God, a place to learn dependence on nature and its provisions, a place of extremes or contrasts, of wild beasts and desert.

Displaced peasants fled into the wilderness from the imperial Roman system that stole their lands for larger plantations. The wilderness was a place of safety as well as to carry out raids against the system. Many had to become bandits to rob from the rich to share what they secured for those impoverished by the system.

Jewish religious revolutionaries sought out the wilderness as a staging platform to fight against the Roman Empire and the Temple authorities. The hopes for liberation lived from the stories of liberation, especially the story of Moses who fled into the wilderness, called by God to return to Egypt to liberate his people.

Pious groups, like the Essenes, created the Qumran community, a priestly and pure settlement in the wilderness, waiting for the messianic drama and climax. Individual religious figures like John the Baptist made the wilderness their starting point where his baptismal ministry would be forged.

Jesus went to the wilderness. He has had a profound experience and revelation of God’s beloved child during his baptism. I suspected that he needed time to process the meaning of the event. In the wilderness, today’s gospel focuses on the temptations that Jesus faced for his future mission. I will talk about those later, but I want to speak on what we usually don’t’ focus: the wilderness.

A number of authors suggest that Jesus learned and accepted his messianic ministry in the wilderness; some of have suggested that he learned his lifestyle there. My observation is that the wilderness presented him with opportunities to learn about the “wild grace” of God, his dependence upon God, and perhaps an itinerant, carefree lifestyle. In a wild habitat, the Spirit is everywhere, and one needs to pay close attention so not to miss the Spirit.

Passionist priest and earth theologian (geologian) Thomas Berry recognizes at the heart of nature there is “a wild component, a creative spontaneity that is in its deepest reality, its most profound mystery.” He comments on the wilderness:

Wilderness we might consider as the root of the authentic spontaneities of any being. It is that wellspring of creativity whence comes the instinctive activities that enable all living beings to obtain their food, to find shelter, to bring forth their young: to sing and dance and fly through the air and swim through the depths of the sea. This is the same inner tendency that evokes the insight of the poet, the skill of the artist and the power of the shaman. (Berry)

The wild, especially in the wilderness, presents a sense of sacredness. If the natural world reflects the image of God, then the wilderness reflects a wildness of God that we witness in the action of the Holy Spirit as coloring outside boundaries and human categories. Nature is wild, and the Holy Spirit, and we come from the wild—original life from the surging oceans, then our hominid ancestors from the savannahs of Africa. Wilderness is a type of out of bounds or wild gardening by God, and we discover in the wilderness the wildness of God in the uncultivated and disordered wilderness. I believe that Jesus discovered this insight about the wildness of God/

Wendell Berry, American novelist and ecological activist, understands “wilderness as a place” where we must go to be reborn—to receive the awareness, at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we part of creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us.

Wendell Berry writes of the three principles of the “kin-dom of God.” I will suggest that Jesus learned these three principles of the kin-dom of God:

The first principle of the Kingdom of God us that it includes everything in it, the fall of every sparrow is a significant event. We are in it whether we know it or not and whether we wish to be or not. Another principle, both ecological and traditional, is that everything in the Kingdom of God is joined both to it and to everything else that is in it, that is to say, the Kingdom is orderly. A third principle is that humans do not and can never know either all the creatures that the Kingdom of God contains or the whole pattern or order by which it contains them.

Wendell Berry described the kin-dom of God as, the Great Economy or what Jesus includes in his notion of the companionship of empowerment, for Jesus expressed the economy that God designed in creation. It is a considerate economy found in nature, and all human economies need to fit harmoniously with that companionship ship economy. It is an extension of the Great Economy of companionship of empowerment into the natural world. Berry perceives an ecological and economic sustainability within the words of Jesus. He sees an inclusivity of human and nonhuman animals and nature as part of this kin-dom.

The image of wilderness most characterizes our relationship with the Spirit. Jesus discovered he wildness of the Holy Spirit in the wilderness across the Jordan. And in in the wilderness, he discovered how God sees life so differently from human beings.

The wilderness experience revealed how God colors outside human categories and religious boundaries, for God’s grace is wild, untamed, and disruptive of human exclusions. God’s grace and love were wildly inclusive, beyond human imagination. God’s inclusivity was incarnated in his own flesh and blood, and he sensed that in his intimate moments with God in the wilderness. He intuited a sense of God’s inclusive love for all humans and for all other life. God’s providential care was expressed in God’s love for the lilies of the field, and God’s sustaining the life of the birds of the air and for animals in the wilderness.

For Jesus, God’s empowered companionship denotes community, mutuality, co-creating together through the mobilization of diverse gifts. It includes the virtues of forgiveness, unconditional love, non-violence, compassion, sharing goods, and care for the vulnerable. God’s inclusive love was extended to humanity and nonhuman animals.

The wilderness retreat helped Jesus to distance the option of empire and power games of domination and conquest that he witnessed with Herod Antipas, the co-opted Temple rulers, and the Romans . He affirmed the counter-option of the companionship of empowerment. Let me read quotations of authors that capture what Jesus learned in the wilderness:

There are no more outsiders! Everyone is in—irrespective of their religious state or condition. Radical inclusiveness is a core value in the new companionship. And then comes the bombshell, the queerest twist; the final act of inclusiveness is done by one regarded as a radical outsider, and a hated one. (a Samaritan who shows compassion for Jewish man beaten and left for the dead on the road to Jericho). Diarmuid O’Murchu

Here is the radical act of inclusion envisioned in his retreat in the wilderness. This would significantly impact the style and flavor of his ministry.
The three temptations in Luke’s Gospel are temptations to a style of messiah, exemplified by the rulers of the Temple and the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors were proclaimed as gods and saviors in conquering the world through the force of the Roman legions.

The first test is the temptation for food: He rejects the temptation for his own self-interest and comfort. He will not have a regular place to lay his head to sleep. He will be itinerant and dependent upon Abba God. Jesus will be hungry and dependent upon the gracious gifts of others to receive shared gifts. This temptation is based on false notions of scarcity, for it points to the abundance of shared goods by disciples of the companionship of empowerment. Empire takes food, and its logic is one of scarcity, abundance for the elite and taking away of what is necessary for life of the poor and the peasant. God’s logic is shared abundance for all is celebrated in the new meals, not of scarcity of food or grace but an extravagant abundance of both. Scarcity is the logic of the ruling classes, the 1%. for Jesus, God’s table had to always be open to everyone. Scarcity, privilege, and exclusion were not God’s ways, but abundance, inclusiveness, and compassionate care.

The second temptation is the possession of power and domination: It is the logic of empire, mainly the Roman Empire.

To resist empire—as-such we must know what we are up against. It is something inherent in civilization itself. Non-imperial civilization is something yet to be seen upon earth. John Dominic Crossan

The logic of God’s kin-dom is not imperial domination and ruling, but service of the greatest as the least and the least the greatest. Those who wish to be disciples must choose the lowest position at table, that of a slave, in serving the rest. The first will be last, and the last first. He would tell his disciples, some of them with their notions of power share similarly those notions with the Romans: You are to take the role of the lowest, a slave in service to all. This is the counter-vision that Jesus learned of the upside-down kin-dom in the wilderness. It is humble service over dominating power and coercion of Empire.

The third temptation is to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. It is a temptation to test God. God does not need to be tested but trusted. It is not wonders and miracles that will generate faith, but the great miracle of all, changed lives—the transformation of people, who have become more compassionate, and who are reaching out to outsiders as brothers and sisters in love and care. It is God’s grace that is effective in people’s lives:

The logic of domination, violence, reward, and punishment that prevails in the everyday world is challenged and replaced by a new logic, the logic of grace, compassion, and freedom. Peter Hodgson

Grace is ordinary and unseen, but more effective than the powerful signs.
All three temptations have bearing in shaping Jesus’ ministry of God’s empowered companionship when he returns to society. They were rejected as style of ministry. It chose not the privileged position of religious leaders then and now in many churches. Remember the priest who walked by the man beaten and left for dead on the road of Jericho. Just imagine a high priest, or now a bishop, elder, or moderator who refuse to take up Jesus’ model of humble service, willing to wash the feet of his disciples or serve at table. These temptations were countered by a new vision of service and inclusiveness with forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus would begin his ministry by preaching the good news of the forgiveness of sins without requiring any penance, he would invite the pure and impure to sit at table to eat at God’s table, he would heal on the Sabbath because compassion was greater than the law.
So in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus recites from the scroll of Isaiah:

To preach good news to the poor.
To proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the
blind.
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Jesus preached a new vision of God’s compassion for those who are not included in the vision: God care for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and those enslaved through indebtedness. Jesus proclaimed a new freedom of God’s Spirit for a new era. It was the freedom that the Holy Spirit, who is God’s wildness,” and whose wildness was passed into the message, ministry, and person of Jesus.

Christian Responsibility for the Hungry (Lk. 16:19-31)

Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be satisfied. Lk 6:21

It is our second Sunday of Lent where we snuff out the candle of hunger in our Lenten Wreath. Hunger besets our world. Here are some sobering facts: Over 800 million people suffer from malnutrition. Most people suffering from hunger are from developing countries, but people die from malnutrition in our own country. 5 million malnourished children die from hunger each year. (Catholic Relief Services) We live in the world’s wealthiest nation with vast agricultural production, and more than 40% of American households do not have enough to eat. Yet we live in a country where 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth of the country. In Jesus’ time, 1% of the Romans owned 16% of the wealth. The 1% of the wealthy Americans have the ability to feed all the hungry in the world. And the scandal is how many children and people in our country are hungry. These include the homeless; the elderly on fixed income who can’t afford medication costs, utility costs and rent, and food—usually, food suffers; families who live below the poverty line. That is 18% of the people who live in the San Fernando Valley, that is 810, 000 persons around us. Or since the Supreme Court declared that corporations are to be considered as people, I find an extremely troublesome dilemma. Walmart has just raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 hour for some four hundred thousand employees but do not allow them two work full time to secure benefits. This has created the situation that nearly $7 billion dollars in food stamps, medicaid and health bills, and subsidized housing is paid for these folks so that Walmart to be profitable and that Walton family to be one of the richest families in the world at the expense of the poor and those paying taxes. There is something unjust in this situation.

Hunger in our country and around the world is related to poverty, drought, famine, and extreme weather events, and war. Both hunger and poverty remain as a social concerns for Christians to assist those that Jesus called “the least of my family.” (Matthew 25:45).

Too many Christians read the Bible from the side of the powerful or socially comfortable, usually as a sin management text. But I have found the Bible a dangerous book to read, especially, the gospels for myself. I will give you an example: “Give us this day our daily bread” from Jesus’ prayer. The powerful and rich spiritualize the interpretation to refer to the Lord’ Supper or eucharist. Reading from this from below, from the perspective of the preferential option for the poor, Jesus’ prayer refers to hungry and the need for food
I always try to read scripture from the side of the poor, the suffering, and the vulnerable because God continues reveals God’s concern for the suffering, the hungry, barren women, eunuchs, the poor, the outsider, lepers, and the vulnerable. If we read the scriptures from the side of suffering, it makes a real difference how we understand the poor and the hungry as blessed or special in God’s affections.

Lent is a time of mindful reflection on our daily actions. I want to focus on the suffering and pain of the hungry. The world Bank and a number of International organizations issued a report last year, The State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) 2014, has issued a millennium development goal for the next decade and a half to cut in half the numbers of malnourished people globally and to achieve the goal of ending hunger worldwide by 2030. This is morally right and just to end hunger of “the least of my family.” But we could end hunger today if people were committed.

Today’s gospel from Luke (16:19-31) is Jesus’ parable about a poor man Lazarus and wealth (Dives). The focus of Jesus’ story is the disparity between extreme wealth and poverty, abundant luxury and hungry suffering. The “gate” describes this is a wealthy mansion or palace with a wall to keep the poor outside. Jesus has brilliantly sketched the disparity of the 1% and lower spectrum of the 99%.

He describes the rich man dressed in “purples and fine linens,” indicating royalty and extreme wealth, who “feasts sumptuously each day.” In contrast is Lazarus, lying (or the word in Greek means “thrown down” or “afflicted”). He is “thrown down” by the forces of unmentioned misfortune. In others words, Lazarus is crippled physically and spiritually, he is constantly hungry and suffers from sores from a skin condition—malnutrition or chronic disease. Even the dogs come and lick Lazarus’ sores. He has lost his ability to beg for food.

Jesus communicates how hungry he is as longing to satisfy his hunger with the scraps fallen from the rich man’s table. This phrase indicates a custom that we would not recognize today. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the wealthy used loaves of bread as napkins. They wiped their hands on bits of bread and then let them drop to the floor for the household pets.(Herzog) This communicates conspicuous consumption and luxurious waste to Jesus’ peasant audience where every scrap of food was precious, especially when you had nothing to eat.
He sits outside the gate of the rich man’s house. He suffers from sores and is very hungry. Lazarus hopes to receive some of the scraps of bread fallen to the floor when the wealthy man’s servants threw the garbage into the street.

The rich man’s crime is his absorption in his life of luxury, wealth, and abundance. You can imagine the table of the rich man, spread with a choice of food, delicacies, fruit and vegetables, and the best of wine. The rich man is walled in his estate with the poor and Lazarus outside the gate. The household dogs are let in to clean up the scraps while Lazarus receives nothing.
From the parable, Lazarus is neither virtuous nor non-virtuous. It is his condition of extreme poverty and hunger that is the focus of Jesus’ parable. Nor is the rich man particularly wicked. There is fixed and inseparable barrier between the two. The rich man is not even aware of the poor man’s existence—let alone hunger and suffering.

Lazarus is the only person given a name in any of Jesus’ parables. His name means “helped by God.” He is the focus of God’s attention. Jesus brings this out in the reversal after death. The rich man dies and is buried according to religious tradition. But Lazarus dies was either thrown into the garbage heap of the city for the birds and dogs to devour. The rich man goes to Hell, and the Lazarus is carried by angels to the side of Abraham. I can’t help remembering the verse from Mary’s prophetic song in accepting becoming the mother of Jesus: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

Jesus uses the reversal in the afterlife to stress how cares for the poor and hungry—those who are suffering, for now there is an even greater chasm than the previous wall between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man cannot alleviate his punishment but asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. Abraham mentions that they already have the Torah and the Prophets—the scriptures. The rich man knows that this will not be enough to change the hearts of his wealthy brothers, for they will read the scriptures from the perspective of the wealthy, ignoring the multiple times that the scriptures says God care for the poor and suffering and the hungry.

The fundamental crime of the rich man is blindness to the hungry and suffering man outside the gate and his failure to hear God’s message in the scriptures that God cares especially for the poor and suffering. This point becomes very relevant to the many Christians in opposition to food distribution to the homeless or any other services given away without paying or earning the service—from health care, to welfare services, to educational subsidies. And the 1% get richer, and the chasm between the 1% and the 99% has become wider in the last three decades and even during the latest recession as many middle class folks have been squeezed out of the middle class.

Christians and businesses owned by Christians have pushed municipal governments to ban feeding the poor and the homeless. Nearly 40 cities have made it illegal to distribute food to the homeless. Even LA City Council was looking at such a banning of food distribution programs a year and a half ago. Some claim that food distribution programs to the homeless in the parks aggravate the situation by preventing the homeless from seeking help in recovery programs. Such restrictions or blaming the food distribution of food to the homeless not seeking recovery programs. Such blaming the poor results from bad theologies that claim I am prosperous because God has elected me and that you are poor because you have brought upon this yourself. There are people in congress who want to cut food stamps programs, and I want to shout them at the top of my voice that this is wrong. Jesus said, you are doing this to the least of my family.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to ensure that every person has access to basic material necessities, including food. We model this at table each Sunday where everyone is invited to come forward and share communion. No is excluded. This value emerges from the biblical notion of God’s preferential option for the poor and the vulnerable. How can we help the poor access food? How can we help them access a greater variety of food and other services?
We as Christians believe that feeding hungry people is an honorable and socially just endeavor, that farming is a noble vocation that gives great pride to those involved in it. We believe that we are responsible for promoting justice in our own lives, in our communities and in the world. We do this for the sake of our neighbors, future generations and all of God’s glorious creation. We believe that all of our actions have an effect on the common good of creation and that we carefully consider our personal and eating choices we make.

Jesus shared meals constantly as celebration of God’s forgiveness and presence in our midst with sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He drank wine to party with folks, yet there are Christians who rigorously will abstain from wine and all alcohol. Some have good reasons to abstain from alcohol because it has controlled them. The same can be said for many of us who are controlled by food.

We celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday by sharing consecrated bread and grape juice. Is everyone called to the table? Is everyone’s presence expected at the table? Who is called to Christ’s table? Does Christ have any expectations of his disciples when they gather at his table? How are the disciples expected to treat one another? Paul face such questions in the Corinthian community. There were a few wealthy members who brought food for an agape meal with the breaking the bread and sharing the cup in memory of Jesus’ last supper. These wealthy folks refused to share the food that they brought with the poorer members of the community who went hungry. Hear Paul’s words: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 11:27) The “unworthy manner” that Paul mentions is to selfishly not share with the brothers and sisters what you have brought.

We here on Sunday model a meal where all are welcome, no matter who you are or where you are on your journey, you are welcome to the table of God’s abundant grace. It is a free gift of God’s unconditional grace given to us. The meal models the hospitality that Christians who have been welcomed to the Lord’s table need to extent the same hospitality to those who are hungry, poor, in need, suffering, and vulnerable. When we become the like the rich man by ignoring the hungry and homeless on the streets. I passed a sign of a homeless person on the street on my way with Joe to Pantages Theater. The sign read, “Am I invisible?” It was the cry of the least of Christ’s family, calling for people to take note of his plight and assist him. How many of us walked by without seeing because we are so-absorbed in our own luxuries?