Let us pray: Creator God, you have perfectly designed us in your image. You have breathed your Spirit into our lives, and you have blessed us with privileges and gifts. We confess that God that we do not always recognize the privilege we have been given or use the gifts you have given us in faithful and generous ways. We pray, that we may come to see you. We pray that the ideas that often crowd our hearts and minds would dissipate until we only have a clear vision of how you are calling each one of us to use our privilege and our gifts to be generous stewards of your kingdom here on earth. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you, Lord, are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
One of the running jokes in my New Testament Bible class in seminary was that we never know, with 100% certainty, who wrote the various accounts of the Gospel and many of the epistles. We don’t know because we were not there, so the best that we can do is to trust the research that has been done in Biblical Studies and to learn what we can about the various books of the Bible from what the content of the book tells us. Take, for example, the Gospel according to Luke. The first four verses of the Gospel of Luke say:
Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the world handed down to us. Now, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received.
From these verses, we know that Luke read other accounts of the Gospel before he wrote his own. He “investigated everything carefully” before writing his account. Second, Luke lets us know that the accounts of the gospel arise from an oral tradition, from the “original eyewitnesses and servants,” from the accounts of the saints who “handed down” these accounts. Third, Luke had a skeptical or scientific mind. He needed more than to hear a story from someone who knew someone who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Fourth, Luke felt like he had something to add to the Gospel account, something important that was not being addressed or said in the other accounts he had investigated.
Furthermore, from all of this information about Luke, we can infer Luke was a person of means, a person of great privilege and self-confidence. Luke was able to read. He was educated well enough to not only read and investigate, but to write an entire book. His book, in our Bible, is actually two books: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, or more commonly called, the book of Acts. We can also infer that Luke had the leisure time to make independent investigations. This likely would have required him to travel to verify information he had collected. Of most interest to me, though, is that for all the privilege and self-confidence Luke seemed to possess, he did not hold himself in higher esteem than others. On the contrary, one of the most notable differences between the gospel account of Luke and the other gospel accounts is his emphasis on the place of women, the poor, and the outcasts, including but not limited to, the lepers and the Samaritans in Jesus’ ministry in the early church.
In the past two years, I have heard more about privilege than I had since I took a course called The Church in Its Social Context. This particular course was taught to my class by a Womanist Theologian named Dr. Evelyn Parker. Dr. Parker is an African-American feminist and grew up in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In my class of about 20 students, it was not lost on us that Dr. Parker appeared to be harder on my white male classmates. On any given assignment, theirs were the last to be handed back and often had the harshest sounding comments. No matter how a white student answered in class, it never seemed to be the correct answer. It took a lot of time (I took her class in the fall of 2006) for me to begin to understand that maybe Dr. Parker was teaching all of us what life for her is like on a daily basis. Yes, she is educated and published and respected in her profession, but she still lives as an African-American woman in our country, a country which still finds itself fractured by the systems of racism, classism, sexism, and ageism. No matter how educated Dr. Parker is, someone will always accept the research of a white male colleague more easily than hers. No matter what proof Dr. Parker offers, it will be scrutinized more closely simply because of her race and gender. We live in a time, in a place, in a culture where people of European descent, or white people, have more privilege than people of color.
Please understand that when I say privilege, I am not saying that all white people have more money, more education, and/or have lived a life of ease. I know plenty of white people who struggle to make ends meet; I know plenty of white people who have worked hard and who work hard for everything they have ever earned or achieved. This summer I had the opportunity to teach about race and civil discourse, and in one of my classes, a gentleman described privilege in the best way I have yet to hear. He said privilege is understanding that we have been born into a story in which the stage has already been set for us. Those of us who have known or who do know privilege do not need to apologize for the stage props, but we do have the responsibility to acknowledge them and to use the props for the betterment of the entire community and not just for ourselves.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Ever After: a Cinderella Story. It is a movie in which the character of Cinderella is a strong, intelligent young woman and in which the prince is someone who wants to be free from all of the tradition a monarchy requires of him. After being paid some money for her silence, Cinderella impersonates a countess in order to free one of her late father’s servants. Dressed as the countess, Cinderella meets the prince, and in one exchange she says to him, “With privilege comes specific obligations.” The gospel writer of Luke used his privilege with great generosity. Luke used his privilege—his resources and his gifts to make it very clear that Jesus does not value people of privilege any higher than a child, a person who was perhaps the least privileged in Jesus’ time.
Zaccheus, whose name means Innocent was anything but innocent. He had stolen money and cheated his neighbors—his community. Zaccheus colluded with the Roman authorities, and because he helped raise money to strengthen their army, he was given the privilege of collecting as much extra tax as he could get away with to enrich his own life. Zaccheus used the privilege and wealth he had to his own benefit and not for the benefit of anyone else.
In all of our research on the author of the gospel of Luke, we do not know what Luke was like before he was compelled to research other accounts of the gospel and to write his own. On the other hand, in the story of Zaccheus, his conversion is swift and thorough: one look and one invitation and Zaccheus goes from being a self-serving tax collector to being a most generous community member; he immediately gave half of his possessions to the poor, and repays all those he cheated 4-fold. We don’t know what this cost Zaccheus; maybe it cost him his entire earnings. Jesus did not notice Zaccheus because of the wealth and power he had secured, but because Zaccheus—a person who had made himself an outcast—wanted so badly to just lay eyes on Jesus that he was willing to make a fool out of himself.
As a bi-racial person, I have benefitted from privilege. I have used my Puerto Rican heritage to apply for scholarships, and it is never lost on me that I may get selected to serve in positions of conference leadership because I am a female who is also bi-racial. Although I have, at times, been insulted because of my heritage, I have never been made to feel less safe or underserving than another person. As an adult in a 2-working parent household, I do not always use my privilege as well as I can to the benefit of others, but it is certainly an area I pay attention to in our lives. My husband and I strive to instill in our kids, the lessons, the gifts, and the privilege—both spoken and unspoken– that were handed down to us. As I celebrate both of my maternal grandparents on this All Saints Weekend, I am thankful, that while they, like me, were human and had short-comings, they also had a work ethic that taught that there was no job too menial to do if it helps you to achieve your goal. What are those gifts, those privileges that we have been given by the beloved saints in our lives? How will we choose to use this privilege, these resources, and these gifts to better the world around us? May we, like Zaccheus, accept the love and forgiveness Christ offers to each one of us. May we, like St. Luke the evangelist, and our own foremothers and forefathers offer ourselves: our privilege, our resources and our gifts to expand the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth. Amen.