Monday, December 16, 2013

multiplication and justice

The sermon at Nelson Mandela's Qunu funeral service yesterday, delivered by Methodist bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, reflected an interpretation that has become popular in some liberation theology circles.  While the bishop used his platform to focus on Mandela the advocate for justice--certainly a necessary complement to the more popular Mandela as agent of forgiveness--his interpretation does not to me do justice to the biblical texts which enshrine our notions of justice in the first place.

In the preacher's increasingly-worn interpretation, the third slave in Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is the truly heroic one, the one whose decision to bury his only talent exposed an unjust system because it forced the master to admit that he is indeed cruel and unjust, "reaping where he does not sow, and gathering where he does not scatter" (25:26).  In such a reading, the third slave is noble because he refuses to play the game of an unjust (read "capitalist") system, unlike his two  "comrades in slavery" (Siwa's term) who invest their money presumably along the lines of their master's expectations.  The first two slaves are collaborators; the third fearless in his resistance to evil.  Even so, the clear commendation of the third slave in such an interpretation fits awkwardly with the text's simple condemnation of that slave, a contradiction which the preacher himself left unresolved.  For indeed, although the action of the third slave was applied to the life of Nelson Mandela, so too was the master's approval ("well done, good and trustworthy slave")--an approval in the parable which is given only to the slaves who did not bury their master's property.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to substantiate our claims for justice by setting aside a simple reading of the text, a reading which reconciles our modern dichotomy between the increase of wealth and the doing of justice.  If indeed, we are able for a minute to set aside either our "capitalist" or "communist" hermeneutics, we will find that the context of Matthew 25 enshrines both dignity and justice for those who have little and the abundance that is the hallmark of God's creation.

On its own, the parable of the talents might be read straightforwardly as a call not to "squander" the gifts that God has entrusted to his people, but to use them to bring about an increase of God's goodness in the world.  Nevertheless, because the text has been susceptible to a reading that enshrines a capitalist principle of investment apart from concern for those who have little, it is helpful to be reminded of the parable within its larger, literary context.  The parable of the talents, then, does not appear in Matthew's gospel on its own but as a continuation of the teaching about the coming of the Son of Man in chapter 24.  Moreover, within chapter 25, the parable of the talents is the middle of three stories which Jesus told, the first being the parable of the ten virgins and the third being the parable of the sheep and the goats.  All three parables are set within the context of the Lord's coming, and illustrate the type of life that befits those who are waiting for him.

The first and third parables, the ten virgins and the sheep and the goats, highlight different values of the life lived in hope of the kingdom which is coming.  In fact, those values that each teaches may seem not merely different but contradictory.  While in the parable of the ten virgins, for example, the five who were wise entered into the kingdom because they did not give some of their oil to their foolish counterparts who had made no provision for their lamps should their initial oil run out, the parable of the sheep and the goats commends those who give to those who have little, to the "least of these" (Matt 25:40).  If the parable of the ten virgins commends not giving as a way to the kingdom, the parable of the sheep and the goats commends giving as the way to the kingdom.  How can Jesus teach two seemingly contradictory values?

Perhaps the answer simply is that the life which brings glory to God is about both giving and not giving, withholding and bestowing, each in its own time.  In the parable of the ten virgins, the will to give not is the reflection of the broader purpose of accompanying the bridegroom into his kingdom.  The wise virgins know their task, and base their decision not to give to the foolish on the consideration that "there will not be enough [oil] for you and for us" in order to light the bridegroom's way (25:9).  To spread the oil too thinly among too many is to extinguish the light, whereas a few burning brightly can show the way.  In such a situation, what the foolish need is not to receive the oil which will soon be exhausted, but to replenish their own stocks so that they too may enter the banquet.  Some things the wise cannot give the foolish, but the foolish may become wise by knowing the purpose of their existence, namely, to participate in the glory (light) of God.  Perhaps we may then say that the parable of the ten virgins does not counsel not giving, but precisely giving in the form of the admonition of the foolish by the wise.

On the other hand, there is a time for giving not only in word but in deed, in giving to others who have want of the physical gifts we all need to survive.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the recipients of giving are described as neither foolish nor wise but in need--hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, imprisoned (25:37, 42-43).  To give to these determines our worthiness to enter into eternal life (25:46), and reflects the justice of God that all should have enough to live.

We may now observe that the parable of the talents likewise commends the will to give which the parable of the ten virgins expresses as admonition and the parable of the sheep and the goats expresses as compassion.  The first act of giving is that of the master who "summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them" (25:14).  This master need not be, judged by human standards, the absentee landlord who reaps what others have sown, but the gracious creator to whom we all owe our existence, the God who loved us enough to entrust creation to our care.  Our slavery, therefore, is not the inequality of otherwise inherent equals--a predicament known simply as sin--but the indebtedness of creatures to their Creator; the slavery described by the parable is not the inequality of injustice but the inequality of grace.  Moreover, if God is the master and grace is God's will, then we who are slaves are accountable to that grace.  As God was gracious with God's gifts, entrusting them to our care, so we are responsible to "be fruitful and multiply", bearing fruit now for the kingdom which is to come (Gen 1:28).  What we are not to do, that which is inconsistent with God's giving, is to bury the property entrusted to us.  Far from being the commendable act exposing the system of injustice, resolving not to multiply wealth endowed precludes the extension of that wealth to others, thus defeating the ends of justice.  At the same time, that which may not be overlooked is that very end itself--that the purpose for which we were created is not multiplication for multiplication's sake, but multiplication for sharing the goodness of God (justice).

Seen within the context of the parable of the ten virgins, we might reaffirm the call of the parable of the talents to the responsibility of each person to use his or her gifts in the service of God's kingdom.  Just as the foolish virgins could not receive the oil which they were not prepared to hold, so, on account of his carelessness, the third slave was unable to "enter into the joy of [his] master" (25:21, 23).  His failure to care was the forfeit of his talent to the one who had been "trustworthy in a few things" (25:21, 23, 28).  That some receive the more that others might have had is, in certain cases, the evidence of the interplay between responsibility and carelessness.  But viewed within the light of compassion to "the least of these", that personal responsibility which the parable of the talents upholds is always for the sake of justice.  God's first commandment to his creatures--"be fruitful and multiply"--always goes hand-in-hand with the greatest commandment--"love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and your neighbor as yourself" (Gen 1:22, 28; Mt 22:36-40).

Our choice, then, is not between multiplication and justice, or between a personal responsibility and a communal ethic.  In any moment, we must choose how to love God and neighbor, faithfully using the gifts entrusted to our care.


Friday, November 1, 2013

the vision everlasting

The Revised Common Lectionary's Old Testament reading for this "All Saints' Day" is Daniel 7:1-3, 18-15.  The reading is one of those which, for the sake of brevity, omits a large middle section of text, in this case that which is found from verses 4-17.  Verses 1-3, an introduction in the text to one of Daniel's dreams, seem to be provided in the lectionary in order to set the scene for the assurance of verse 18: "But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever--forever and ever."

In the context of Daniel's sense of terror produced by "the visions of his head", such an assurance is indeed comforting (7:1, 15).  Beset by the horror of strange beasts representing the arrogant and violent kingdoms of the earth which were oppressing Daniel's people, the assurance that the "holy ones" of a God greater ("the Most High") than even the kingdoms will reign is good news indeed.  But something is missing. 

Between the terror and the comfort is the revelation to Daniel of "one like a human being", the "Son of Man" whose coming to the fore signals the arrival on earth of "an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away" (7:13-14).  Though "the holy ones" or "saints" are to "gain possession of [that] kingdom", their inheritance is not conditioned by themselves but by him to whom "was given dominion and glory and kingship"--the Son of Man himself (7:14).  The saints do not move from terror to comfort by virtue of any inherent right of theirs to rule but by judgment of him who holds the power to judge (7:22, 26).  Without the "one like a human being", the "holy ones" do not rule at all.

In fact, we may go beyond the scope of Daniel's vision to say that, without the Son of Man who determines their way to the kingdom, the saints, though they should rule, are doomed to go the way of the arrogant and violent kingdoms to which they were once enslaved.  Like the "fourth beast" of the vision, "terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong", the saints without the Son will too "devour, break, and stamp" all who come under their authority (7:7).  Without the Son, they will do to others that which they would not have had others do to them. 

Jesus, whose favorite self-designation was "Son of Man", defines for his followers the shape of that dominion which will last.  "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk 10:42-45).

On this so-called "day of the dead", then, let us give thanks to God for "the great cloud of witnesses" that surrounds us, but let not them be our focus; let us look to Jesus, "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Heb 12:1-2).


Saturday, October 26, 2013

security in mercy

Several weeks ago it was my assignment to preach on Luke 16:1-13, the parable of the unjust steward and Jesus' ensuing interpretive comments.  This parable tied my mind in knots, not least because the moral that Jesus draws from the parable does not ring true in my ears: "make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they make welcome you into the eternal homes" (16:9).  I do not usually associate Jesus with dishonest wealth.

What I do associate with Jesus, on the other hand, is his statement that "you cannot serve both God and money" (16:13), a phrase that given its location must surely have something to do with the parable that precedes it.  So how might we reconcile such seemingly contradictory statements?

I found some measure of clarity by reading the parable in light of other parables, and particularly the parables that just precede the tale of the unjust steward, namely the parables of "the lost" in Luke 15.  In fact, it seems that Luke would want us to read these (four) parables together, as they all fit within a common frame: references that Jesus told these stories in the hearing of the Pharisees who were "grumbling" or "sneering" at him (15:2, 16:14).  In other words, these parables illustrate a common theme illustrated in a long textual unit stretching from 15:1-16:14.  That theme touches upon other themes, but it may be best expressed by a simple phrase from Jesus' aforementioned moral: "make friends for yourself."

The counsel to "make friends for yourself" is precisely what Jesus' opponents (the Pharisees) didn't want to hear, and what Jesus' disciples (to whom he told this parable) might accept or reject--thereby going the route of the Pharisees.  In telling the three parables of the lost (15:3-32), Jesus was responding to the Pharisees' complaint that he ate with and welcomed sinners and tax collectors (15:1-2).  The third and probably best-known of these, the parable of the two sons ("the prodigal son"), most directly connects the two parties--"the sinners" and the "Pharisees"--who were always around Jesus (with the disciples perhaps caught between these two).  It is not hard to see, for example, that the younger son in the parable of the two sons represents "sinners", those who have "squandered" the wealth that their father has graciously given them.  It is equally easy to see that the older son in that parable stands for the Pharisees, those who have not left the home or active service of their father but who grumble unmercifully--unlike the father whose character they purport to share--at those who have.

The parable of the two sons, then, sets the table for the parable of the unjust steward. For, just as the younger son in the preceding parable had "squandered" the wealth of his father, so the steward of a certain rich man "squanders" the wealth entrusted to his care (15:13, 16:1).  And just as the prodigal "comes to his senses" in an inner monologue before putting his words to action, so the unjust steward when stripped of his stewardship decides what he will do to provide for himself before putting the plan into action (15:17, 16:3-4).

What then did the unjust steward do?  The answer to this question makes all the difference, for it describes the action which Jesus commends.  That action is to use his authority to in some measure "forgive" the debts others owe to his master, thereby winning their favor.  Seeing that his job security is gone on account of his mismanagement, the unjust steward determines that his life no more rests in the service of "unjust mammon" but in the mercy of "God" through the welcome of his master's servants "into their homes."  Though the steward may not be commended for having come to such a realization freely but only when pressed to act out of utmost need, his seeking of security in mercy rather than mammon makes him too a child of God.  Like his fellow "tax collector" Zacchaeus a few short chapters later (19:1-10), the steward on occasion of the master's call transfers his allegiance from the realm of mammon to the realm of God.  No more is he a servant of money, enslaved to one master, but the servant of God, enslaved to Another.  The unjust steward, like "the sinners and tax collectors" who wandered far from home, is the one whose repentance ("turning around" or " changing direction") has gained him welcome in "everlasting homes."  Specifically, that repentance which leads to eternal security is the "making of friends", the welcoming of others in order that they may welcome you.

What then of the "dishonest wealth"?  To "make friends" may seem like good counsel, but shall we do so "by means of dishonest wealth?"  As other English translations have it, the Greek phrase which the NRSV translates "by means of dishonest wealth" might also be rendered "use worldly wealth" (NIV) or, as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, "use money, tainted as it is."  That would seem to strike close to the reality of our own situation.  Who could argue that the world in which we live is not built upon "tainted" wealth, that the lands in which we make our livelihoods were stolen from others, that the food which we buy was produced from lands unjustly possessed and using means often degrading to the earth itself?  The world of mammon is incontestably unjust.

Nevertheless ensnared, God holds us responsible to use our "worldly wealth" to "make friends" out of enemies, to apply what resources we manage not to the breaking but to the building of relationships.  That in itself, creating a community of mutual care, would go a long way toward alleviating the suffering of our world.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

no minor message

From Monday, I've started a one-on-one study with a student leader at Bethany Bible School.  As our discussion circled around the theme of the Old Testament prophets, I shared with him certain "summaries" of the Old Testament Law.  Of course, we discussed the centrality of the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the commandment Jesus chose to summarize the Law, coupled with Leviticus 19:18.  Also I pointed him to Micah 6:6-8, whose triad of "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God" has been cited as the summation of the Law within the history of Jewish biblical interpretation.  Other rabbis boiled Micah 6:8 down to Habakkuk 2:4: "the just shall live by faith."  Quite naturally, therefore, our discussion highlighted the interrelatedness of faith, justice, mercy, humility, and love.  To put it another way, what it means to have faith is to walk humbly with God, accordingly living justly with and showing mercy to others.  That all sounds very much like loving God with all one's heart, soul, and might, and one's neighbor as oneself.

Within our study, my friend testified to me of Micah 6:8 that "this was his first time to see this verse." He also had this to say of the "minor prophets", the corpus of twelve prophetic books of which Micah and Habakkuk are two:

"They are not minor in meaning.  They are very direct.  I sometimes go into Christian bookstores and buy books with 200, 300 pages.  But they don't say anything new.  These books [the minor prophets] say far more in fewer words."


Friday, August 16, 2013

from nakedness to clothed

Several weeks ago I was given the opportunity to address the teenage children of a school hostel in Cradock.  Every Sunday evening, Lawrence Coetzee, our friend and pastor of MWC-member Grace Community Church, organizes a service for the students.  He usually invites pastors from the community to speak and, because we were visiting, he invited me to share the word.

I had been studying the book of Ephesians a lot in the previous months (I taught a course on it in June), and so it was in the forefront of my mind as I pondered what I might say.  I chose to focus on the well-known armor of God passage (Eph 6:10-17), and found myself preaching on clothing as a motif for the proclamation of the gospel message.

Since armor is a type of clothing, and since Paul exhorts the Ephesians to "Put on the whole armor of God", it follows that the goal of the Christian life is to be dressed (6:11, 13).  That might sound unremarkable, except that in the Genesis account of creation, human beings in their state of primal "goodness" are depicted as naked: "the man and the woman were naked together and unashamed" (Gen 2:25).  If the original intention was nakedness, how can the final intention be a state of being clothed?

The tension between clothed and unclothed as both expressions of the will of God gives rise to the insight that our state of blessedness or goodness as human beings consists not in returning to a previous state of our existence but in going forward to the place where God's Spirit is leading us.  We cannot return to Eden; we can only go forward to the New Jerusalem.  We cannot recover the goodness of the first human being, unmarred before the sin of disobedience to the will of the Creator; we can only receive the goodness of the second human being, Jesus Christ, and allow his righteousness to overcome our sin.  We cannot go back to our original nakedness; we can "put on the whole armor of God" and "be clothed with the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 13:14).

Such a view of salvation, of being not returned but being transformed, frees us from the weight of striving to retrieve that which we find impossible to retrieve, though we often struggle precisely to put back into place that which was.  A friend once related a story to me of a "saved person", a born-again Christian, who reasoned on the basis of his faith that his old life of sin was of no consequence, and thus he has cut all ties with the child who was born to him out of wedlock.  The implicit view of salvation in such a strategy would seem to be a going back to the life one had before the act of which one is ashamed, since the man's present "peace" consists in pretending that he is in some sense as he was before--not a father to the child he "fathered".  In the biblical canon, such a strategy for dealing with regret was represented by Ezra and Nehemiah, who demanded after the return from exile in Babylon that the Jews "put away the foreign wives" whom they had married (Ez 10:3, 11, 44).  Ezra and Nehemiah espoused salvation as return to an idealized past before a time of foreign contamination of the covenant community.  In the Old Testament, books such as Ruth would seem to counter such a perspective; the blood of a Moabite woman, Ruth, mixes with Boaz to produce the line of Israel's greatest king.

The good news of Jesus Christ, likewise, accepts the consequences of behavior as a point of departure toward greater things, not abandoning the fallen or eliminating the foreign but incorporating them into the body of Christ.  Within his body, things do not look as they were before nor are they left as they are; rather, "there is a new creation" (2 Cor 5:17).  That new creation is very much a matter of clothing the naked.  It covers the shame of sin, not by undoing what has been done (which no one can do!), but with a shirt of righteousness; a belt of truth; shoes of peace; a hat of salvation; a shield of faith; and a sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  Christ himself transforms us as we "put him on."


Saturday, July 13, 2013

resounding compassion

Some observations on Luke 7:11-17, the story of the widow's son raised at Nain, a text I preached on some weeks ago when it came up in the lectionary:

The story is about compassion, God's suffering with us in Jesus.  Jesus' compassion for the widow is central to the text.  Luke reports that, "When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her" (v. 13).  Luke underscores God's compassion for the widow in the detail that the "man who had died" and who "was being carried out" was "his mother's only son" (v. 12).  The phrase "only son" immediately evokes other New Testament texts, most notably John 3:16, in which Jesus himself is the only begotten of God whom God gave, even unto death, out of his love for the world.  Consequently, the tears of the widow for her only son are as the tears of the Father for his only Son, the very experience of loss in which human pain touches divine pain.  The Spirit of the Father in the person of the Son recognized the widow's pain for her only son as God's own, and was moved to action.

Further emphasis is laid on the close association between the divine and human experience of suffering in the crowd's acclamation of Jesus in response to the raising of the widow's son.  As Jesus had raised the son from his bier, so the crowd testifies, "a great prophet has risen among us!" (v. 16).  Just as the widow's son was dead and raised to life, so Jesus will die and be raised.  The crowd's acclamation that that prophet has even now arisen, powerful even over death, is an anticipation of God's ultimate victory over death in the resurrection of the prophet Jesus from his own grave.  Luke thereby invites the reader to see in the experience of the widow's son from death to life the eventual resurrection of God's Son from death.  All in all, the suffering of God in the suffering of humanity is an illustration of compassion, God's suffering with his people.

If compassion is God's suffering with us, then the antithesis of compassion is the posture of separation from the suffering of another.  The widow's predicament in this story, as in so many other biblical examples, is a suffering of separation from the men from whom she has been cut off.  In this story that separation is a result of the death of her son, though within its broader Lukan and canonical context, the separation of women from men is due to the unfaithfulness of men.  One example occurs subsequent to this story in the same chapter, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus' feet while he is sitting in the home of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  The issue in that story, as it is in the story of the widow of Nain, is the evidence of Jesus' prophetic identity.  Thus, whereas the crowd of Nain acclaimed Jesus a prophet for his mighty deed of compassion on the widow, Simon the Pharisee can only doubt the prophetic status of Jesus due to Jesus' refusal to reject the woman's act of love toward him.  Simon's concern is that the woman is a "sinner", and that Jesus' acceptance of her gift shows that he is unaware of her status, thus negating his status as prophet. Of course, the point of the story is that Simon, not Jesus, is the man unable to perceive the things of God; whereas Simon seeks to protect worldly status and privilege, Jesus values mercy and the repentance of sinners unto salvation.  In light of our first point, where Jesus values compassion, Simon would uphold separation.  Simon, consequently, is the embodiment of anti-compassion in the narrative, the contrast to Jesus' overwhelming compassion both in this story and in the story of the widow at Nain.

In valuing separation over compassion, Simon commits the sin of other men in the biblical narrative who abandoned women to their shame as sinners in the eyes of society.  An Old Testament example, the story of Tamar and the sons of Judah (Gen 38:1-26), brings together the themes of shame and death in the meaning of widowhood.  In that story, Tamar is not only a widow due to the death of her husbands (in turn the brothers Er and Onan), but a "sinner" in the eyes of Judah her father-in-law who blames her for the death of his sons.  As Judah should have provided for Tamar in her loss, he relinquishes responsibility by sending her back to her father's house.  Judah, by cultural convention responsible for Tamar his daughter, banishes her to the shame of separation from his household.  Judah too, therefore, is an embodiment of an all-too-common masculine aloofness, the anti-compassion to the compassion of the man Jesus.

The examples of Simon the Pharisee and Judah, therefore, paint the broader biblical context, both Lukan and canonical, in which the desperation of widows may be clearly seen.  Widows, as well as other women whom men have left behind, bore not simply the sting of death but the suspicion of society for the deaths of their husbands.  The predicament of "widowhood", therefore, is not simply a matter of losing a husband to death, but the abandonment of women by men to bear the shame of society.

A folk song from the American context captures well the widespread phenomenon of the separation of women from men in the South African context.

From a teenage lover to an unwed mother,
kept undercover like some bad dream
But unwed fathers, they can't be bothered,
they run like water through a mountain stream.  

Central to the salvation that Jesus brings is the restoration of men to women.  In the story, the compassion of Jesus for the widow led to the raising of her son from death.  What Jesus said to the corpse, he says to all men who have left women behind: "Young man, I say to you, rise!" (7:14).  And just as Jesus "gave [the young man] to his mother", so all men quickened by the voice of Jesus shall return to their wives and mothers as loving husbands and sons.

The compassion of Jesus in the lives of his people will resound across the earth.  The text moves from the predicament of death in "a town called Nain" to the proclamation of God's grace through Jesus "throughout Judea and all the surrounding country" (7:11, 17).  The good that is done in Nain is made known elsewhere. The compassion of Jesus spreads to all from wherever it is put into practice.

Then let the compassion that was in Jesus abound through his church.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

forgiveness and rest

My father-in-law led the workshop at Bethany Bible School over the weekend on the topic of vengeance and forgiveness.  The workshop yielded many personal stories and fascinating insights into scripture from the participants.

Among the scriptural allusions was one man's application of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58-60) to the theme of forgiveness.  The man's particular contribution was to link the resting of Stephen's spirit to his act of forgiving his murderers.  Thus we read that, during his stoning, Stephen first prays, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (7:59)."  Not having yet died, however, Stephen further cries out, "Lord do not hold this sin against them (7:60a)."  Only then, after having given up the desire for vengeance in pronouncing forgiveness for his enemies, does Stephen die (7:60b).  In other words, it is only in Stephen's forgiving of his enemies that his own spirit is received or returns to its origin in God.  His first prayer--a plea for his own ultimate salvation--is answered in his second prayer--a word of forgiveness to others.

Whether or not the man's reading of the death of Stephen was the author's intended meaning, I regarded it when I heard it as an interesting and powerful testament to forgiveness.  Upon further study, however, I regard his comments as likely indicative of the author's intended meaning as well.  Indeed, the stoning of Stephen in Acts bears striking resemblance to the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, both the telling of a single author (Luke).  Just as Jesus forgave his enemies with "Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:34)," so Stephen said, "Do not hold this sin against them."  Likewise, each man, first Jesus and then Stephen, prays that his spirit might be received.  Such comparisons of Acts with the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and John are not available; it is only in Luke that the crucifixion of Jesus includes the words of explicit forgiveness and the personal plea for rest.  Jesus' first and last word from the cross in Matthew and Mark is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", whereas in John his last word is "It is finished (Mk 15:34//Mt 27:46; Jn 19:30)."  If the reader should thus view the account of Stephen's stoning and the crucifixion of Jesus in Luke together, the point at which the respective narratives diverge then becomes significant in terms of meaning.  What was Luke trying to say about the deaths of Jesus and Stephen?

For Luke, Jesus as Israel's Messiah sets the standard for the church which lives by his Spirit.  The spirit of Jesus' suffering is paradigmatic for his followers.  It is interesting to note, then, that the order of Jesus' twofold plea of forgiveness and rest is reversed in Stephen's twofold prayer of the same.  Whereas Jesus first pronounces forgiveness and then finds rest, Stephen first pronounces rest but only later finds forgiveness.  It is only in coming to forgiveness--as had Jesus before him--that Stephen finds rest.  It is only when Stephen forgives his enemies that his spirit returns to God.  It is only when Stephen's "order" of suffering truly follows that of Jesus that his spirit becomes one with his Lord.  Just as Jesus' progression from the pronouncement of forgiveness to the request for rest ended in his death, so Stephen's request for rest was finally granted in his pronouncement of forgiveness.  "When he had said this," that is, when Stephen had forgiven his enemies, "he died" (Luke 7:60).

Finally, a couple of caveats:

1. Though the above interpretation is an affirmation of the Christian necessity to forgive, also the very heart of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, it should be taken as an affirmation of the graciousness of the forgiving spirit rather than as a condemnation of the spirit that cannot yet forgive.  It should be taken as a clear affirmation of the goal to which the Christian aspires rather than as a compulsion to forgive before the time is right.  In fact, the story of Stephen itself implies this process, albeit in a short space of time.  Stephen himself did not find the rest that comes with forgiveness without a struggle.  If Jesus' graciousness in suffering is paradigmatic for the believer, Stephen's is perhaps more representative.  Victims of violence should expect, and be afforded time by others, to go through a process toward ultimate rest.

2.  Jesus' suffering is a model for Christians at the point of showing love for (forgiving) others, not for suffering's sake alone.  The stories of the crucifixion of Jesus and the stoning of Stephen have to do with suffering in order to redeem others ("do not hold this sin against them").