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Sunday, July 31, 2016

pleonexia and Kingdom Living

Luke 12:13-21
As He is teaching, Jesus is approached by an unknown man who cries out for justice: "Tell my brother to split the family inheritance with me." Jesus responds, “I am not the one to make that decision.” Jesus then tells a story about a rich man who has so much extra that he is worried about where to store it all, so he decides to build bigger storage space only to be told, “Time’s up, you are dead! Now what are you going to do with all this stuff you have to leave behind?”

The complaining man is actually each of us. We all have our own list of perceived injustices. We harbor resentment at the unfairness in life. We know this man had harbored his such thoughts and feelings enough to interrupt Jesus and publicly voice his complaint. Jesus’ response is an indication that He did not sense the man was a victim. Instead, He warns us all to avoid this sin.

The Greek word pleonexia is translated as Greedy or Covetous. It is a compound word which literally means “to have more.” I recently read a 4th century monk who said that once we seek more than we need there is no limit to our desires. In his example, he said when bread does not suffice we want jam on it!  I was shocked; jam a step too far?  I know he was an ancient, middle-eastern, desert monk, yet it does give one pause…

Jesus tells us, avoid “I-want-more” because life is not about piling up stuff. Yet, in truth, I know few Christians who haven’t embraced middle class materialism.
Today I will be in Children’s Church, talking to little folks about the dangers of “I want more”--but what can I possibly say to them? Many of these kids have dozens and dozens of shirts and pants. Jesus told people with one change of clothes not to want more and more. These kids have refrigerators and cabinets filled with all manner of food, much of it treats with little nutritional value. How can they understand Jesus’ word to people who generally lived day to day eating the same diet? (No cake, no coke, no chips)Not want more when we have many times more than what we need?

Why is Jesus warning us about the dangers of “I want to have more”? I can only conclude it is because it is dangerous. In order to become who God made us to be, pleonexia must be avoided. Our relationship with God, peace, love, joy--all of it is at risk if we suffer pleonexia. The problem is, our society is based on pleonexia. To want more is the American dream--it is a virtue in most places. Being dissatisfied is a badge of honor. Of course, our society is not the Kingdom of God, so, if Jesus says something that the world finds offensive or ridiculous, it is a moment to decide.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Phone Numbers & Prayer

In my work it is common for people I do not know to call me with needs and requests. Churches are much maligned in many segments of society, but when people have needs we seem to be high on the list of "who you gonna call?" Many times non-church goers inform me that churches are supposed to help people.

What I find interesting is how often the person leaves a long, rambling message about all their problems and then concludes with a rapid fire recitation of their number. I have literally had to replay a message three or four times trying to decipher exactly what number to call. And that long rambling message becomes more and more a frustration as I have to hear it again and again, waiting for the seven digits which will allow me to make a connection.

Why do we do that? Why do we spend so much time and energy on the wrong things? If we want someone to call us, why not give the number clearly and slowly? Twice! The rest of the message is what you are going to talk about in person, but you aren't gong to talk if I can't figure out where to call you!

This is true in prayer as well. How often do we give long rambling messages to the Lord while making the actual connection with Him hard to accomplish? We give Him our list but hold back our soul (mind, heart, desire, will). We offer spirit and body but without handing opening the door to make access available. Sure, sometimes the Holy Three God makes things happen in our lives without our knowledge or consent. But that does not mean it is the ideal.

Asking "from" the Holy Three without offering one's self "to" the Holy Three is like leaving a phone message articulating every trouble and every need and then leaving an indecipherable call back number.

Be aware what you are trying to do, what is most important. Figure out "what is the point of this action?" When you want someone to call you make sure they know what your phone number is. When You want the Holy Three God to answer your prayers, make sure you open your life to Him so He can accomplish your salvation.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

"Chosen": The shadow side

Judges 6:1-24; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Mark 3:20-30
In praying over the Scriptures there are many approaches. It is always a work of the Holy Spirit, so we begin asking the Holy Spirit to lead us and instruct us. One highly recommended approach is to read the text and summarize, re-read the text and pick out key words or phrases and ponder them, read for the broader context (how it fits into the book of the Bible it comes from; how it interacts with other Scripture passages--especially in lectionaries). Always we end with a request that God inform
us: what we you have me know? What you have me do?

Today I want to model the lectionary interaction, which we will do in Sunday School as well

Judges 6
The first verse "did what was evil in the sight of the Lord" occurs seven times in Judges (and twenty five times in 1&2 Kings). It is an explanatory statement, which is connected to God's Judgment and Israel's plight. Evil in Hebrew is rah and is a comprehensive term including nature, behaviors and results. After forty years of peace, the evil produces seven years of oppression. The verb nathan  means to give, to deliver (and a dozen other related things; the noun means gift) and this is used to day: YHWH gave them over to the enemy. Sin can be seen as breaking the protective bond with God and God's wrath is often times handing us over to the world as it exists. The roving herders who prevail over Israel are eating up all the produce, so Israel must hide in caves. Note the suffering is universal and corporate, not individual. Justice is a community experience (all in it together). Also take note of the typical Biblical hyperbole (not a thing, innumerable, utter misery)

A "prophet" appears who gives the basic creed: God saved, God warned, you blew it, life is hard"... In the Jewish Bible, wrong worship is the mother of evil behavior. "You become what you worship" may be a helpful way to understand it.

Then an angel appears to Gideon, in another case of human reluctance to believe. The exchange is a middle eastern one with self-depreciating statements. Salvation is most often through a human instrument but God's promise is to be trusted. Gideon tests the messenger. He makes food (angels don't eat!) which the angel miraculously ignites before he miraculously disappears. This demonstration inspires some 'belief' and he constructs an altar adonai shalom (Lord Peace). A time reference (to this day it stands) reminds us that the book we are reading was written at a much later date.

So Gideon is chosen, not to receive a blessing but to give a blessing: salvation to God's people.

2 Corinthians   
The ninth chapter of this letter is, ironically, about giving money: a subject many people complain about in church. In particular, Paul is writing about a collection for the church in Jerusalem, the "mother church," which is in financial distress. [as an aside, every Good Friday our collection goes to the Anglican Church in Jerusalem, arguably a Biblical thing to do] Paul walks the line required of every fund raiser in a church setting, complementing his reader's generosity and enthusiasm, assuring them it is voluntary, but including a warning that it would be "shameful" (remember this is an Honor/Shame culture) if the church failed to live up to the "boast" Paul made on their behalf.

Our reading Sunday picks up with verse 6. A proverbial saying about reaping and sowing certainly echoes a similar statement by Jesus in Luke 6:37-38 (the measure you give is the measure you receive) and the theme of how God deals with people (e.g. forgive us as we have forgive, those who do not forgive are not forgiven). Paul also says that you will reap what you sow in Galatians 6:7. The "other side of grace" is manifest here. God loves a cheerful giver (nature of God manifest in His children) and He graciously supplies us so that we can supply others. Giving to the needy saints is a means of thanking and praising God. Alms to the needy glorifies God, is commanded and it is deeply intertwined with the Gospel. There should be no surprise here. Paul, as a Jew, had always been taught that there is a salvific benefit in alms-giving. Once more, the chosen ones at Corinth are to share their abundant blessings (what might be called the fullness of salvation) with others in the church. What better way to break down the world's model of family (biology) and broaden it to Jesus' definition of family (faith members in Him). I would argue, this is one of the greatest obstacles and challenges Christians face in this or any age. Even so, once again we see the shadow of Calling. It costs much to be called because the call is always for others.

Mark 3:20-30
The excitement of the beginning of Jesus' ministry is writ large in this chapter. Jesus is healing and curing, throwing out demons and preaching to great multitudes. The opposition is also growing, but Jesus silences them in direct confrontations and unclean spirits are declaring Him to be the Son of God. He has likewise empowered His disciples to "be with Him" and "to go out (apostle) to proclaim the message and have authority over demons." In the aftermath, He goes home, but the crowds make it impossible to eat.

The cost of Messiah ministry is being too busy to eat. Here is another dilemma for anyone serious about following Jesus and going out in His Name. There is no easy line to be drawn, the needs are always mulitplying and one is hard pressed to meet basic personal needs. It impacts one's family life and the "world" renews its offensive against the Kingdom. His family declare Him crazy in response to the huge crowd interrupting dinner. Mark gives us no more information about what must have been an incredibly painful family conflict (in a culture which overvalues family as the source of identity and personhood). However, a new layer is added as the theological elite (Scribes) sharpen the attack saying He casts out demons by Beelzebul.

Jesus' response is a delightful display of logic. [We all do well, in this age of Twitter and FaceBook to test what we are saying.] Jesus says that if Satan is against Satan then the problem of Evil is about to self destruct. Next, in a self-reference, He says that if you are going to plunder a strong man you need to be a Stronger Man. Exorcisms is plundering Satan. Jesus is the Stronger One. The failure to recognize God's deliverance in Jesus is a fatal flaw. The Holy Spirit is present and active. The sick are healed and the demonic are delivered. People, even common folks, are being invited to reorder their lives in trust of God. The opposition, which is calling this saving work of God (active Holy Spirit) demonic, have cut off any hope. If you reject the doctor and send her away, you cannot be cured. It is an unforgivable error, because the forgiveness is cut off!

The cost of being Jesus, and by extension to be a Jesus Follower and a member of the church/Body, is huge. He is the Savior, reaching out to others and addressing their needs, sending us to do the same. It will generate the worst kind of reaction from family and those opposed to Jesus. In our age, this resistance is growing more and more strident. No way to avoid it. Jesus said, "follow me," then He said, "go in Me."  Chosen...

What is the Holy Three God saying to us? What am I hearing? What should I do in response?

The Office Lectionary provides us readings from three different Books, each one a theological entity. The juxtaposition of the three readings interact with each other within our minds and hearts. They illustrate that being chosen has a shadow side, one might call it the "cost of the gift." I have long believed that "nothing is for free"---their is always a cost. Remember, the cost of the Kingdom is "everything" (its like carrying a cross and dying) but it is worth infinitely more than the everything we have. The shadow side is cost, but the bright shining light is the cost is nothing to the glory to be revealed.

I should be aware that grace is not free in every sense of the word.
I should act to embrace my mission as a servant of God's people, bringing salvation to those entrusted to me, and providing the physical needs of those near and far through generous alms. I must live a life in Jesus and not let the opposition take me from the life as a chosen one. It is a cruciform existence but God prevails in resurrection love. So respond to the Call and live as a Chosen, but expect there is a shadow side!

Do You Believe in Prayer?

The Creeds grew out of the "I believe" professions of faith at baptism in the early church. Later Church leaders debated what "we believe" at different Councils (like Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Ephesus; for more information see--- Trust in God is primary; it is faith as relationship. The Creeds are secondary, faith as "beliefs." Right belief ("orthodoxy") is about the truth so it matters very much. The Creeds, however, do not address everything. For example, we also believe in the Bible, in the sacraments and in prayer. Unfortunately, we know that we "believe" in exercise and healthy eating; sometimes belief is just an idea in our minds. We need to act on our beliefs.

In Luke 11, Jesus teaches us how to pray. Prayer opens us to "communion" with God the Holy Three. It places us in the loving arms of our Creator-Savior. Through it we are sanctified as His holy children. In it we find out true identity and home!

The Bible is filled with prayers and stories about praying people. Luke says Jesus prayed constantly, both alone and with others. Jesus commanded His disciples to pray. Praying is hard for impatient people so He taught us to "pray and not lose heart" (Lk 18:1). Prayer is also a waiting game. It is a faith expression.

To pray in Jesus Name means to pray like Jesus. In the ancient world the name, character and person are deeply connected, and can be used interchangeably. This is why the Lord's Prayer is so vital. It shows us how to pray in Jesus' Name (in, with, through Jesus). First, in the Lord's prayer, we focus on the Father--His glory and His Kingdom. This is "loving God" in action. After this, Jesus says we should ask for forgiveness, sustenance and protection. This is trust.

So here is the key: Make the Kingdom your heart's desire! Glorify the Father and actively trust Him for your needs, then you will be like Jesus. You can pray with confidence because you are praying for the things the Father has kindly promised to give us in love. This alignment with the Father is the center.

In the parable Jesus says, "If you can get grumpy humans to give you what you want; how much more can you trust God to hear you?" TRUST is the key! Jesus calls God Abba (Daddy). Before we pray we should recite this ‘creed’: "I am His precious child. He is love. Our Dad in Heaven cares. He wants us to pray."  

“Believe and trust," but remember that we don't always know what we really need. We are messed up by sin. The devil and the world confuse us, too. We miscalculate, focusing on the wrong things. In fact, sometimes we think we are praying for “bread and fish” but it's actually “snakes and scorpions”! This is why the gift of the Holy Spirit is the most important thing we can ask for. God inside us is the greatest need. Focus on the Holy Spirit in prayer! We need to discern what is best. We need to align with God.

Jesus promises it will all (every good and beneficial thing) be ours
Ask... Seek...Knock... Keep at it! Constantly. Remember, though prayer is about union with God, becoming His earthen vessel, His Temple, His child. So do not let lists of requests deter you from loving communion.

If you understand that the Holy Spirit of God prays in you...
If you trust Jesus prays with you...
If you believe the Father loves you and wants to give you all you need...
Then you believe in the power of prayer.
If you believe in the power of prayer, then pray.
Talk to God and listen to God. Constantly.

Friday, July 22, 2016

On God, War, Love, Violence and Real Life

The Bible is not a mythological work. It has stories which are familiar to real life. The Book of Joshua, a story of battles and conquest, is not terribly different from what we read about ISIS. People enter a land and massacre the inhabitants in a "divinely inspired" quest for a purified theocratic homeland. Now, there may be debates on whose God is the real God (Jew or Islam), but the treatment of the vanquished is unnervingly similar. The impulse to renounce violence in the name of a loving God is strong in me (and you?). Many claim that Jesus has revealed that God loves us all so (heresy alert!) we must leave the Old Testament and its violence behind. "We are in an age of grace; not bloodshed and law!" they say. Yes, love and sweetness rule the day!

But what is love? In the Bible, all these wars of Joshua are an act of love. God loves Israel and gives them this land. Love is at work, even if we think it unfair. That is the problem. We have embraced values and virtues in theory, not seeing how difficult it is to place them in practice in a real, concrete world. We also do not know how to judge rightly. What should God do for His landless people? What should God do with the pagan folk who reject Him? What mode of love's expression can balance the competing demands of these disparate peoples? Does love rule out judgment? [p.s. Jesus' warnings, some parables and some teachings were certainly in line with His Bible, that Divinely Inspired Jewish book we call the "Old" Testament.]

The Book of Joshua confronts us with material which boggles the mind. In chapter 24:1-15 (Sunday Office reading) Joshua recounts to the people that God "took" Abraham. The Hebrew word laqach also means to snatch, to seize, to buy, to marry... So in this Jewish creed (it is a faith declaration and account of salvation history), we hear that God grabbed Abraham and took him away from worship of pagan Gods. It continues quickly through Isaac and Jacob to the deliverance from Egypt. It culminates in a declaration that God Himself has dispatched the enemy with mighty acts and concludes with a choice: Which God will you serve? The Lord God or the pagan deities of this land?
Faith story and choice. We, like them, are confronted with the same question.

We live in a fallen world. We prefer our religion untainted by that, wishing for something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. This is an heretical impulse as well (Gnosticism). The belief that material reality is impure and unnecessary and the wish that the real God is to be found in a disconnected spiritualism is an escape hatch. It lets us spin easy answers because, freed from the constraints of actual reality, we can employ fantasy and magic. "Why," we can ask, "doesn't God just create those problems away?" We think resolution of human conflict should be a simple thing for God to deal with. And it would be, if He were not constrained by the limits of time and space, of free-will and human choice, of the laws of physics and biology---you know, reality in general.

War is a human invention. It was a seed planted in Cain and Abel's up close and personal incident, but eventually blossomed into a cast of thousands (tens of thousands) as ancient peoples grew and multiplied. Technological advances provided for the population increases, but also provided new and improved ways to kill, maim and destroy that growing population.

God's answer to violence, in the end, is the cross of Jesus. But in our real world, adherents of different "faiths" (including secular, non-religious faith) have different opinions which produce conflict. Conflicting desires can only be dealt with by compromise or capitulation.  Compromise is hard because it often requires that no one gets what they want, besides often we do not like the other side, so why play nice?

Think of the news stories we have seen the last week:

"Do what I tell you or I will shoot"
"Do what we want or we will shut down your interstate"
"Do what we want or we will make a coup"
"Do what I want or your failed coup will cost the freedom of thousands"
"Do what I want or I will shoot up your night club, your cafe,or run you over in my truck at your celebration, take out my sniper rifle and assassinate you, etc. etc. etc.)
"Do what we want or we will invade, or bomb you."
"Do what I want or I will make this one particular issue (bathrooms) the reason to take away your All Star game."

The news is full of "do what I want or else" stories. Violence is the last resort if you have the power of lawyers and it works, but in the end it is all about resolving conflict by winning. Winning. Winning may or may not be "violent" (and that term seems to be pretty amorphous in the hands of some); but winning is always about winners and losers. Winning is fun. Losing, not so much. And history teaches us that the perennial losers sometimes embrace violence, if only out of despair in hopeless rage.

Joshua, ironically, is not really a book about winning. Even with God on their side the 12 Tribes never really quite win. They subdue the inhabitants of the land (or so it seems, in the Book of Judges things are less rosy). Yet, Israel will always face new threats from outside, and more importantly, the pagan faith of the inhabitants of the land inside. The reason God cleaned out the Promised Land was to cleanse it of the pagan gods and their abhorrent practices. From Exodus to 2 Kings we read over and over that those same gods and practices are embraced by God's people on a regular basis.

How to deal, then, with the horrible violence in the Book of Joshua? I think its helpful to remember that the "historical" purpose of the writer was theological. In other words, there is deeper meaning here. Perhaps the best option is to read it metaphorically (metaphors are no less true than facts, so the truth of the Scripture is not at risk). Without getting into all the archaeological debates, suffice to say that the simple picture painted by the biblical books is too sparse to cover the wide ranging content of these many years of conflict and invasion. However, the stories as stories do provide us with stunning parables for life. [side note, when Jesus told His parables (like the Sower and the Seed) I think He was often pointing at things that were currently present to His audience and He used to illustrate a deeper point.] The actual story of the rise of Israel is compressed into several short vignettes really, and like the life of Jesus, much, much more is left out than is included.

So how to read Samuel? As a template for life it reminds us that we must choose our God, but that choice is in response to being chosen beforehand. Say what you want, God is free to do His thing and we are all bit players in a wider, more encompassing production. Much of what happens is done by us, but there are always the times and places where we are acted on, receiving benefits (or suffering losses) as an Invisible Hand has its way in the world around us.

Would ISIS recant if ten thousand Pacifists were to show up in their theater of operation, offering love and understanding? We don't know because around here there are few volunteers, but it seems like it wouldn't work. Will shooting random police officers make the other policemen less likely to shoot those they are arresting? Will Turkey have peace now after the coup failed, and are the 100,000 enemies of the state going to make things better for everyone? Is the NBA the best arbiter of public morality in our difficult societal debates?

We embrace God (or try to) and with open mind and heart try to discern where He would have us go and what He would have us do. In a fallen world, none of us is infallible. And even if you claim the Bible is, whatever else we learn from reading it is the role of Joshua leading an army is countered by Jesus (Joshua in Hebrew!) carrying a cross. Kill or be killed? Which Jesus/Joshua is the true one? If we know they were each right in their own choices, can our Bible give us infallible certainty on what we should do in our time and place?

So Sunday we will pray over and discuss the reading from the Book of Joshua. We may also pray over Psalm 24 & 29. We may also toss in some Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus tells the Bible Thumping Pharisees (their mantra was, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it") that the Bible may say working on the Sabbath is a sin, but you have to read deeper to understand what is really there. And that, in the end, is the beginning and end of the discussion. We need Jesus to be the Final Arbiter of the Interpretation. We are at risk, all of us, because thinking we are "obedient Joshua" fighting a holy war for God (even metaphorically) we could end up being ISIS, producing sins against humanity for the sake of an error (at least from my perspective).

War, love, violence... God is only encountered by us in real life. Real life is messy because of the Fall and Sin. Real life is filled with half truths, contradictions, mysteries and conundrums. We can't sit on the sidelines and wait for it all to be sorted out before we act. The action is all around us and even refraining from action can be a great evil. Yet, if we seek to truly choose God, the God who already chose us, is it not safe to hope that somehow He will make it all right in the end? If the Cross is God's answer to the violence of the real world, then resurrection is the remedy. Resurrection is our hope, a flickering candle in the darkness. The Book of Joshua reflects our violent, conflict riddled, winner-loser world. Facing such darkness, our only light is hope. And the Second Joshua, Jesus, is that light.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Bad News or Good News? You Choose?

Amos 7:7-17 is a terrifying word of prophetic judgment. A sheepherder from Judah,  he has been sent north by God with the "Bad News" to Israel. He pronounces doom with harsh words of judgment. We would prefer a gentler melody; songs of love and amazing grace.

Prophets don't care what we prefer. They share His message. Every encounter with God is judgement: either salvation or destruction. God offered life/salvation, but Israel broke covenant, rejected love and opened their land to death and exile. They ignored Amos and chose a happier but false gospel. So, bad news, Assyria invaded and destroyed the nation. The Samaritans are the heirs of the exiled tribes of Israel. Samaria and Judah will be at odds for centuries.

Jesus speaks of love, but he does so with a prophetic emphasis. A lawyer asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. We are told it is a test so when Jesus responds with a question He is turning the tables. The lawyer says the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor. Jesus tells him he is right, "so do this and you will live." One last challenge, how exactly does one "do it"?

"Who is my neighbor?" is a serious question in any society. Insider/outsider status was even more important in ancient culture with its emphasis on group membership. "Love" means a strong attachment or loyalty to another expressed through acts which benefit the others. Clan connection--family--are the primary object of love. The neighbor is one of us. Or is he?

Jesus' story would have been familiar to His hearers. Travel was on the violent fringe of society where outlaws were a real threat. The traveler is called an "anthropos" (Greek for human). The priest and Levite are generally thought of as trying to avoid being made unclean by a dead body.  However, a good case is made in the Jewish New Testament that this is not about purity law (the man was going away from the Temple, if they were headed away from the Temple uncleanness was not an issue. In any case the Law provided for a process to become clean and it was quite managable) but obeying the command to care for the needy (or respect for the dead). The hearers would expect a Jewish layman next (the third category of Jews). Unexpectedly, Jesus choose a Samaritan to illustrate love and care. The Samaritan is outside the tripartite (priest, levite, laymen) structure of Judaism. The message has a depth of meaning.

Remember, the Lawyer had asked Jesus "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The word
"inherit" is frequent in the Jewish Bible to describe God's bestowal of His blessings. An inheritance is not a reward, it is always a grace. What must one do to receive an inheritance? Usually being an heir is relational, to be family (literally or figuratively). Jesus is expanding the scope of family connection. Jesus implies that loving care is for all people, especially the outsider.

The word of God is clear. Jesus says "do this and you shall live." His language is not as harsh as Amos, but it is still a terrifying challenge. What if I cannot see the "other" with the eyes of love? What if I am reluctant to bind up the wounds of others? What if I don't want to spend my hard earned money on someone I hardly know, who, after all, got themselves in trouble. What if I just want to hurry on my way and take care of the 101 things on my "to do list"?

Love God. Love neighbor. It is the Torah. Jesus' prophetic word of judgment is "do this and you will live." Let those who believe listen and obey!

for further reflection:
[Mark 12:18-27 is a drawn out conflict on resurrection where Jesus bests the Sadducees; then in 12:28ff a scribe asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. It is Jesus who declares the love of God is the first commandment and the second, love of neighbor, is like it. When the scribe responds positively, Jesus declares that the man is not far from the kingdom of God. Matthew 22:23ff follows Mark with the same narrative combination, however, in Matthew's account, the lawyer is a Pharisee and he asks to test Jesus. Once more Jesus delineates a first and second, this time with an addition "this is the great and first commandment." However, in Luke the resurrection debate has been moved to chapter 20, inserted between the question about paying taxes and the Messiah as David's son. The reading today (Luke10:25ff) is sandwiched between the mission of the Seventy and Jesus rejoicing that God has revealed Himself to the "infants" before it and the Martha and Mary visit and teaching on prayer afterwards. In addition, Luke does not have Jesus speaking, but rather the hostile lawyer who combines the commandments as one. It is Jesus who says you have given the right answer. Luke then adds the Parable not found elsewhere.]