Category Archives: Robert Farrar Capon

Get Out of the Way of the Seed

[The parable of the Sower] does indeed call for a response from us; but that response is to be one that is appropriate not to the accomplishing of a work but to the bearing of fruit. The goal it sets for us is not the amassing of deeds, good or bad, but simply the unimpeded experiencing of our own life as the Word abundantly bestows it upon us. And that, as I said, is entirely fitting; because the parable is told to us by none other than the Word himself, whose final concern is nothing less than the reconciled you and me that he longs to offer his heavenly Father. He did not become flesh to display his own virtuosity; he did so to bring us home to his Father’s house and sit us down as his bride at the supper of the Lamb. He wills us whole and happy, you see; and the parable of the Sower says he will unfailingly have us so, if only we don’t get in the way.

Robert Farrar Capon, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment”, page 74.

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Death Is All of the Resurrection We Can Now Know

Let us make an end: as long as you are struggling like the Pharisee [in Luke chapter 18] to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.

It is, admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it is only one step. Second, it is not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction into fact. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was: it wasn’t a trip at all; you were already there.

Death…is absolutely all of the resurrection we can know. The rest is faith.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pages 343-344

The Evil Eye of Bookkeeping

It is the evil eye, you see – the ὀφθαλμός πονηρός, the eye that loves the darkness of its bookkeeper’s black ink, the eye that cannot stand the red ink of unsuccess as it appears in the purple light of grace – that is condemned here. Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven. For in that happy state, the books are ignored forever, and there is only the Book of life. And in that book, nothing stands against you. There are no debit entries that can keep you out of the clutches of the Love that will not let you go. There is no minimum balance below which the grace that finagles all accounts will cancel your credit. And there is, of course, no need for you to show large amounts of black ink, because the only Auditor before whom you must finally stand is the Lamb – and he has gone deaf, dumb, and blind on the cross. The last may be first and the first last, but that’s only for the fun of making the point: everybody is on the payout queue and everybody gets full pay. Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in; the only bruised backsides belong to those who insist on butting themselves into outer darkness.

For if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus. The law was just fine. And God gave it a good thousand years or so to see if anyone could pass a test like that. But when nobody did – when it became perfectly clear that there was “no one who was righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1-3), that “both Jews and Gentiles alike were all under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9) – God gave up on salvation by the books. He cancelled everybody’s records in the death of Jesus and rewarded us all, equally and fully, with a new creation in the resurrection of the dead.

And therefore the only adverse judgment that falls on the world falls on those who take their stand on a life God cannot use rather than on the death he can. Only the winners lose, because only the losers can win: the reconciliation simply cannot work any other way. Evil cannot be gotten out of the world by reward and punishment: that just points up the shortage of sheep and turns God into one more score-evening goat. The only way to solve the problem of evil is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking it into himself – down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind – and to close the books on it forever. That way, the kingdom of heaven is for everybody; hell is reserved only for the idiots who insist on keeping nonexistent records in their heads.

Robert Farrar Capon, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment”, page 396

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What A Preacher Sees After the Sermon

As I said, when I preach something [purely grace-focused], I get two reactions. At the end of the sermon, I see smiles. I see faces light up – faces which, in spite of a lifetime’s exposure to the doctrine of grace, seem for the first time to dare to hope that maybe there isn’t a catch to it after all, that even out of the midst of their worst shipwrecks they are still going home free for the pure and simple reason that Jesus calls them. I see barely restrained hilarity at the sudden perception that he really meant it when he said his yoke is easy and his burden light.

But after the sermon, in the time it takes to get downstairs to coffee hour, the smiles have been replaced by frowns. Their fear of the catch has caught up with them again, and they surround the messenger of hope and accuse me of making the world unsafe for morality.

I propose, therefore, that you and I stop our progress at this point and do justice to the frowning, coffee-hour mood that my parable of grace has put you in.

– Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace

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Capon on The Unjust Steward

In my opinion, the Holy Gospel for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity is the most difficult to preach in the Church Year. Robert Farrar Capon’s take on the Unjust Steward is a good one and worthy of consideration.

[T]he unjust steward is nothing less than the Christ-figure in this parable, a dead ringer for Jesus himself. First of all, he dies and rises, like Jesus. Second, by his death and resurrection, he raises others, like Jesus. But third and most important of all, the unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.

This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the sabbath. He consorted with crooks. And he died as a criminal. Now at last, in the light of this parable, we see why he refused to be respectable; he did it to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead. Crux muscipulum diaboli, St. Augustine said: the cross is the devil’s mousetrap, baited with Jesus’ disreputable death. And it is a mousetrap for us, too. Jesus baits us criminals with his own criminality: as the shabby debtors in the parable were willing to deal only with the crooked steward and not with the upright lord, so we find ourselves drawn by the bait of a Jesus who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners – of us crooks, that is – and of all the losers who would never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others.

You don’t like that? You think it lowers standards and threatens good order? You bet it does! And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus. Unfortunately, though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is: it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen. Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into. But for all that, Jesus remains the only real peach – too fuzzy on the outside, nowhere near as sweet as we expected on the inside, and with the jawbreaking stone of his death right smack in the middle. And therefore he is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust steward, he is no less a loser than we are – and like the steward, he is the only one who has even a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, pages 307-308

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Heaven Is Miller Time

Just before Jesus launches into the payout sequence in this parable [Matthew 20:1-16], he says, “ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης, when it was evening, the lord of the vineyard said to his steward….” I have an image for that. On Shelter Island, where I used to live, there is an odd local custom. Every Friday evening, at exactly five minutes of five, the fire siren goes off. For years, I wondered about it. What was the point? They tested the siren every day at noon, so it couldn’t be that. I even asked around, but nobody seemed to know a thing about it. Then one day it finally dawned on me: rather than run the risk that the festivity of the rural weekend by delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the working week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party from the top of the firehouse – the 4:55 siren was the drinking siren. Miller Time on Shelter Island.

ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης. Heaven is Miller Time. Heaven is the party in the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the rednecks, and all the wood-butchers, and all the plumbers who never showed up – all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who just gave up on winning – simply waltz up to the bar of judgment with full pay envelopes and get down to the serious drinking that makes the new creation go round. It is a bash that has happened, that insists upon happening, and that is happening now – and by the sweetness of its cassation, it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Heaven, in short, is fun. And if you don’t like that, Buster (ἑταῖρε), you can just go to…well, you’ll have to use your imagination.

You’ll need it: this is the only bar in town.

Robert Farrar Capon, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment”, pages 396-397

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Caponiac Comments on the Pharisee and the Publican

[Luke 18:9-14] is an instruction in the futility of religion – in the idleness of the proposition that there is anything at all you can do to put yourself right with God. It is about the folly of even trying…. It is a warning to drop all religious stances – and all moral and ethical ones, too – when you try to grasp your justification before God. It is, in short, an exhortation to move on to the central point of the Gospel: faith in a God who raises the dead.

As far as the Pharisee’s ability to win a game of justification is concerned, he is no better off than the publican. As a matter of fact, the Pharisee is worse off; because while they’re both losers, the publican at least has the sense to recognize the fact and trust God’s offer of a free drink. The point of the parable is that they are both dead, and their only hope is someone who can raise the dead.

Death is death. Given enough room to maneuver, it eventually produces total deadness. In the case of the publican, for example, his life so far has been quite long enough to force upon him the recognition that, as far as his being able to deal with God is concerned, he is finished. The Pharisee, on the other hand, looking at his clutch of good deeds, has figured that they are more than enough to keep him in the game for the rest of his life.

What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass a test like that, and that therefore God is not about to risk it. He will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity. He will take only the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. He condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the publican because he rests his case on a death that God can use. The fact, of course, is that they are both equally dead and therefore both alike receivers of the gift of resurrection. But the trouble with the Pharisee is that for as long as he refuses to confess the first fact, he will simply be unable to believe the second. He will be justified in his death, but he will be so busy doing the bookkeeping on a life he cannot hold that he will never be able to enjoy himself. It’s just misery to try to keep count of what God is no longer counting. Your entries keep disappearing.

The point of this parable was that the publican confessed that he was dead, not that his heart was in the right place. Why are you so bent on destroying the story by sending the publican back for his second visit with the Pharisee’s speech in his pocket? The honest answer is, that while you understand the thrust of the parable with your mind, your heart has a desperate need to believe its exact opposite. And so does mine. We all long to establish our identity by seeing ourselves as approved in other people’s eyes. We spend our days preening ourselves before the mirror of their opinion so we will not have to think about the nightmare of appearing before them naked and uncombed. And we hate this parable because it says plainly that it is the nightmare that is the truth of our condition. We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life, that means not until we are dead.

For Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable…but then, I have said all that. Let us make an end: as long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are finally able, with the publican, to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.

It is, admittedly, a terrifying step. You will cry and kick and scream before you take it, because it means putting yourself out of the only game you know. For your comfort though, I can tell you three things. First, it is only one stop. Second, it is not a step out of reality into nothing, but a step from fiction into fact. And third, it will make you laugh out loud at how short the trip home was: it wasn’t a trip at all; you were already there.

Death…is absolutely all of the resurrection we can now know. The rest is faith.

Capon on The Rich Man and Lazarus

One of the fun things about moving into the non-festival portion of the Church Year is that I get to read more Robert Farrar Capon. The “green season” features more parables than the festival season, and Capon always gives food for thought on the parables. You might not agree with everything he says about them, but his comments are provocative and stimulating.

Here’s a taste of what he has to say about the parable for this coming Sunday in the One Year cycle (Luke 16:19-31):

For those convinced that living is the instrument of salvation, death is such an unacceptable device that they will not be convinced, even by resurrection. From the point of view of those who object to the left-handedness of the Gospel, you see, Jesus’ mistake was not his rising in an insufficiently clear way and then sailing off into the clouds. That, if anything, was only a tactical error. His great, strategic miscalculation was dying in the first place: after such a grievous capitulation to lastness and loss, no self-respecting winner could even think of doing business with him.

 

Contrary to the misreading of the spiritual advice of earlier centuries, we are not to go searching for loathsome diseases and rotten breaks. Life in this vale of tears will provide an ungenteel sufficiency of such things. The truth, rather, is that the crosses that will inexorably come – and the death that will inevitably result from them – are, if accepted, all we need. For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.

Both quotes are from “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment“, pages 316-317

More Capon on The Parable of the Sower

A look at the word karpos (fruit) as Jesus and the New Testament writers use it provides insight. The concordance citations are too numerous to list here, but two in particular stand out. The first is the discourse in which Jesus calls himself the true vine and characterizes his disciples as branches (John 15). The point he makes is complementary to the parable of the Sower: as the branch is not able to bear fruit unless it remains in the vine, so they cannot bear fruit unless they remain in him. In other words, the response most needed is that of simply abiding in the power of the Word himself – which means, in terms of the Sower, neither putting obstacles in the way of the seed nor involving ourselves in the search for other, more plausible responses to it.

The other passage that reinforces the lesson about response in the parable of the Sower is the famous one of Galatians 5:16-26 in which Paul distinguishes between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit. The works are a list of disastrous character traits that the apostle says result from our trying to achieve the fullness of life in our own way: that is, according to the flesh (not just the body, please note, but the entire range of human responses – be they physical, mental, or even spiritual – that proceed from our inveterately right-handed wrongheadedness). They are a grim shelf-ful of products, hazardous not only to our health but also to our education and welfare: among other things, they include fornication, witchcraft, strife, envy, and murder. The fruits of the Spirit, however – those results that are not manufactured by our plausible and deliberate efforts but simply allowed to grow unimpeded under the guidance of the Spirit who takes what is the Word’s and shows it to us – are, every one of them, truly human traits: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. They are not results of, or rewards for, our frantic efforts to make ourselves right; rather, they are the very rightness for which our nature was made, bestowed upon us as a free gift.

It is in the light of such passages as these that the parable of the Sower needs to be seen. It does indeed call for a response from us; but that response is to be one that is appropriate not to the accomplishing of a work but to the bearing of fruit. The goal it sets for us is not the amassing of deeds, good or bad, but simply the unimpeded experiencing of our own life as the Word abundantly bestows it upon us. And that, as I said, is entirely fitting; because the parable is told to us by none other than the Word himself, whose final concern is nothing less than the reconciled you and me that he longs to offer his heavenly Father. He did not become flesh to display his own virtuosity; he did so to bring us home to his Father’s house and sit us down as his bride at the supper of the Lamb. He wills us whole and happy, you see; and the parable of the Sower says he will unfailingly have us so, if only we don’t get in the way.

Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

Capon on The Parable of the Sower

You should read the whole thing in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment. For now, here’s a lagniappe.

[T]he supreme act by which the Word declares the kingdom in all its power is not an act at all but a death on the cross inflicted on him by his enemies. Therefore, whatever else needs to be said about hostility to the Word – about its power and function in the Gospels or about the presumed menace it poses in our own day – the first thing to be insisted on is that all the antagonism in the world has already been aced out by Jesus. Not overcome by force as we would have done – not bludgeoned into submission or out of existence – but precisely aced out: finessed, tricked into doing God’s thing when all the while it thought it was doing its own thing.

Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Kindle Locations 830-834). Kindle Edition.