Amos 6:17, 1 Timothy 6:11-19, Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 146 1-9
The Scripture reading this week is full of prophecy and it affords us a brilliant opportunity to explore what prophecy is and what it is not. Prophecy is not Edgar Cayce seeing a fixed, predestined future. Iit is not Professor Trelawney reading an imminent and unavoidable grim into a tea cup. It is Bob Dylan warning that if we don’t change our ways, a hard rain is gonna fall. Like Scrooge in the final moments of his Christmas Eve dream, in prophecy we see the shades of things that might be, not things that will be.* If we mend our ways and “wake a new man” as Scrooge does, then our future is not set.
It is vitally important that we remember that distinction whenever we read prophecy in Scripture. Fortunetelling is a promise, not a threat. Prophecy is a threat, not a promise.
My eldest child is learning to drive this summer. It will come as a relief to some of you to hear that it is not as stressful a process as you imagine. In the initial stages, when she was learning the rules of the road and getting in the habit of rolling on her heel from the accelerator to the break, we drove around a cemetery and empty parking lots. On those occasions I would say things like, “Okay, slow down around the curve” and “start to unwind your turn a little earlier…” Initially I was training her to drive. Now, I am training her to be the driver.
Now that she has a clear idea of what to do, she drives to places, on errands and etc. This process requires a very different set of instructions from me: “If you don’t want to drive down streets packed with parallel parked cars, how should we go” and “There is construction up ahead there, how will that impact you?” In those first lessons I was helping her to learn how to be a driver. Now she’s the driver and I have to ask her whether she has thought about where she’s going.
Our Scripture this week does very much the same thing.
I can totally relate to Amos in this text. He’s sitting next to his readers in the passenger seat, his arms crossed over his chest, his lips pressed together with all his power. When he does speak, its with considered resignation, he knows he’s going to be late at the least and there may be a five point turn in a parking lot in his near future. “Are you sure you want to go this way?” he’s asking. “Because I can see down this road and I know that if you miss the turn onto Niles Center you’ll end up at the Golf Course.” He shrugs helplessly and maybe even whispers, “I’m just sayin’.”
The authors of the letter to Timothy are in a similar place. Timothy is in charge of a new church at Ephesus and this letter is written to give him guidance from knowledgable people who are, however, not actually in the car with him. It’s the next step in the evolution of the driver - one I have not yet made. The driver is left to her own devices and all that can be said is, “You know how to do it, just think about it before you do.” The authors of the letter are pretty good parents, to my mind, they express confidence, they promise goodness. And they place the burden of the outcome on the driver with the most important instruction that can be given, the one that was given by Christ with every parable: “You know how to do the right thing, just think before you act.”
It may seem that I am avoiding the obvious meaning of this week’s readings, they are clearly about wealth, privilege and charity. (We hate these passages, don’t we? The ones that point right as us and make us cringe?) I will tell you that I am never comfortable telling other people how to spend their money, or their time. I hate unsolicited advice and I avoid giving it at all costs. I do not know, after all, who among my friends are wealthy and who are upside down in their mortgage. I do not know who is generous with their time and talents and who is jealous of them. I do not know these things, I cannot judge them, therefore I do not tell them how they should act.
But I know that they know. They know what God expects of them as regards their fellow man. They know who the Lazarus is at their doorstep and they know what they could do for him. They know who in their lives has spoken a word of warning to them about their habits, about their reputation, about the path they are on. And they are able to choose for themselves to heed or not to heed those prophets in their midst. This is, I think what is meant by the parable of the wealthy man. He knows but he does not do. And when his actions lead to his inevitable demise and he pleads for another intercession for his brothers on earth he is told, “They haven’t believed anything they’ve heard so far, what difference could it possibly make to send another?” This seems to be particularly pertinent in the 21st Century. Having ignored good advice your entire life, would you suddenly be convinced by a zombie in your office suite? Was Scrooge convinced by Marley, jangling the chains he forged in life? Or by the prophetic spirits who illuminated the path before him?
The day may come when my daughter acts rashly or stupidly and breaks the law in a car. God willing, no one will be injured. God willing, the accident will be minor. But in the moment that the police officer pulls her over, in the moment when the ticket is issued, in the moment when she stands before the judge and hears the age-old adage that “ignorance of the law is o excuse,” God willing she will remember that she knows the right path. And God willing she will elect to follow it from there on out.
We are always encouraged to put our faith in God. But, I think it is just as important to remember that God has put his faith in us, first. He knows we can do it, he knows we are good drivers and capable of making safe and smart choices on the road. Because he is a good and loving parent and, like all parents, wants only the best for his children.
You may think my metaphor, of the parent teaching her child to drive, is a silly one, but clearly I think it is apt. Not the least because clearly the writer of the Psalm for today is praying like the Dickens that the God in whose hands he has put his life, or the life of his child, is a good and faithful and kind one. Clearly, this is the prayer of a parent watching a child drive away for the first time. But I also think the metaphor works because the stakes are the same. When your child gets behind the wheel of a car they take their own life in their hands. And potentially the lives of others. You have to trust in them, believe in them, know you have done every possible thing to prepare them and then you have to let them make their way.
God and God in Christ does the same for his children. He offers us the rules of the road, he’s given us the best driving instructor we could possibly imagine, and he vests us with boundless and unyielding love. But it is for us to decide whether to steer ourselves along the road he has paved for us, or to depart from it, and pay the price with our souls.
*For this reference and analogy I am indebted to “Prophecy and Apocalypse,” a brilliant chapter of Barbara R. Rossing’s, The Rapture Exposed: The Messages of Hope in the Book of Revelation, (Oxford: Westview Press, 2004), 80-102.