Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Greetings once again to our weekly reflections on the Sunday lessons. As many of you already know, daughter Emily has arrived safely in Rhodes, Michigan where she is beginning a year of pastoral internship at Hope Lutheran Church under the instruction of Rev. Reed Schroer. She has been given a warm and enthusiastic welcome. You can view Hope’s welcome message to Emily and find out more about her church and its ministry by visiting the website at http://www.hopeinrhodes.com/. I ask that you keep Emily in your prayers as she begins this new chapter in her pastoral instruction.
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1343&cmpgn=5244
The lesson from Deuteronomy marks a new chapter in the life of Israel as well. Moses addresses his people, Israel, as they stand poised to enter into Canaan. The years of living as wandering nomads have come to an end. Israel’s settled future as a nation in its own right is about to begin. The critical question is: what sort of nation will Israel be? At the dawn of history, Cain asked God rhetorically, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I think Cain’s attitude reflects the mentality behind most nations of the world. We look after ourselves and our own. We guard jealously our sovereignty and our national interests. Even within nations there exists a hierarchy of loyalties. My state, my community, my tribe, my family-the further away you travel from the people nearest and dearest to me, the less I care. I don’t want my tax dollars squandered on people down in Haiti. As a matter of fact, I don’t even like to see them spent on my own fellow Americans that I deem unworthy of assistance. Why should I be responsible for them? Israel, however, must be a nation guided by a different spirit reflected in different national priorities.
Moses makes clear to Israel that God did not liberate her from Egypt and bring her safely through the wilderness only to create another Egypt, another oppressive empire living off the forced labor of its oppressed subjects. Israel is not to be distinguished by its commercial wealth or its military might. When the nations of the world look to Israel they are not to be terrified of its power or dazzled by its wealth. Instead, they will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” vs. 6. “For what great nation is there,” asks Moses, “that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us; whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?” vss. 7-8. Israel’s greatness lies in her recognition that the earth is the Lord’s. Her possession of the land is a gift given not in perpetuity, but as a sacred trust to be used for the greater glory of her God. Unlike Egypt which oppressed and enslaved the aliens living within its borders, Israel is instructed “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Israel is not to replicate Egypt (or Arizona either for that matter!). Furthermore, Israel is to be a nation without poverty. Disparity in wealth there may be, but Israel’s statutes and ordinances governing commerce and agriculture ensure that no one must ever go without the necessities of life: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:22. Furthermore, “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
Jesus also made it clear to his disciples that they were to be an alternative community modeling a different way of living together. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would 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 as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45. The community of disciples we call the church is a kingdom without borders. It is a household where rich and poor, strong and weak, saint and convict sit at the same table, eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, straight or gay, legal or illegal, criminal or law abiding citizen. All of these are called to be one body of which Jesus Christ is the head.
According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the Temple have less to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity than they do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. There is much that could be said about the importance of truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But I want to focus on just one characteristic of the righteous worshiper that caught my eye this week.
The one worthy to approach the Lord in worship does not put out his money at interest. Vs. 5. This injunction sounds a little archaic to generations raised in an economy that runs on credit. Unless we are one of the fabled 1%, most of us buy houses, cars and education for our children with money we have not yet earned. If there were no credit, I would not own a home and my children would likely not have had a college education. Hopefully, I would be able to find a rental unit within walking distance of the church. Otherwise, I would have to rely on public transportation or the kindness of my wealthier neighbors. There is no question that credit has allowed me to enjoy a lifestyle to which I could hardly expect to come close without it.
On the face of it, there is nothing unfair about reasonable interest. If I receive money from the bank that I have not yet earned, it is only fair that the bank be compensated for losing the use of its money for a period of time and for taking the risk that I might not be able to pay it back. But there is more than fairness at stake here. There is something fundamentally troubling about the fact that the middle class lifestyle many of us enjoy; the business opportunities that many entrepreneurs are able to seize; and the chances for making quick and easy fortunes on equities and commodities markets all are based on money which has yet to be made or on the future value of goods or business ventures that is speculative. If everything from my car to Facebook is being paid for with phony money-that is cause not only for financial concern but for deep moral reflection. There is an element of profound self deception here that hides the true cost of what we are purchasing and conceals the risks of the transactions we enter into. The projected cost as well as the anticipated profits from fracking for natural gas, exploiting offshore oil and building nuclear energy plants cannot possibly reflect the potential economic, environmental and geopolitical forces that might very well erase all profit and inflict losses now unimaginable. The value of the fruits and vegetables we purchase does not reflect damage inflicted on the soil and ground water by pesticides, agro fertilizers or the destabilizing effect of holding prices down through use of low cost foreign labor both here and abroad. What we should have learned in the 2008 debacle applies not only to mortgages, but to everything we purchase in a credit driven society: an economy that grows by encouraging people to spend money they don’t have to buy things they cannot afford is bound to crash sooner or later.
I am not suggesting a return to barter economy. Nor am I suggesting that you all go out and cut up your credit cards (though in some extreme cases, that is actually good advice). I do believe, though, that in this time and place when everyone is fixated on “the economy,” people of faith need to go beyond the sterile debate over how best to revive it and begin questioning the fundamental assumptions that underlie our economic relationships and whether those assumptions ring true.
First, a word or two about the Book of James: Though styled as a letter, the book reads more like a string of sermonetts on different topics. There is no lack of debate among scholars as to whether James, the putative author of the letter, was actually the brother of Jesus we meet in Acts addressing the earliest disciples of Jesus, or a disciple of James writing in his name to a second or third generation Christian community or some other Christian leader named James. Though many of the teachings in the book are close and even identical to the sayings of Jesus, Jesus is mentioned only twice. For a more thorough review of the book, its origins and content, I urge you to read the summary written by Prof. James Boyce of Luther Seminary at Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/newtestament.aspx?rid=59
The one theme that strikes me particularly this week begins at verse 19. “Let every man be quick to hear and slow to speak.” This is at variance with the encouragement I have always been given to “speak up.” As a shy introvert, I suppose that encouragement was a salutary influence. Yet as introverted as I might be by nature, I am just as prone as anyone to let anger take the wheel of my heart. Frequently, I take issue with people before trying to understand what the issue is. Often, I am more interested in refuting people I believe to be in error than in listening carefully for whatever truth may lay at the heart of what they are saying. Even when I remain characteristically silent, that does not mean that I am listening with care. Often my silence is spent in crafting my response to an argument I have not thoroughly considered. So shy people no less than extroverts must take James’ warning to heart.
Perhaps this admonition is also a good one for the church as a whole. We set great store by preaching-as well we should. Our ELCA has produced a number of provocative and thoughtful statements addressing important moral, social and ethical questions facing our world today. But as important as it is to speak boldly and truthfully, James reminds us that it is equally important to listen carefully and empathetically. I wonder what a ministry of listening would look like? I must confess that I have often been tempted to publicize a special event at our church inviting everyone in the community who has left the church, who is not interested in the church or who is angry at the church to come and tell us why. For our part, we would promise not to argue or even answer their charges. Our role would be simply to listen.
I would love to do that some day and perhaps I will. The only thing that gives me pause is doubt about my ability to keep my mouth shut. I am sure that I would hear many criticisms of the church that seem unfair, inaccurate or misplaced. I would be tempted to jump to the church’s defense with some well reasoned response. But that would defeat the whole purpose. The ministry of listening is just that: remaining silent; making space for people to express their hurt without having to fear retaliation; showing hospitality to strangers; and creating an environment in which reconciliation is possible. So what do you think? Are we up for this?
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1345&cmpgn=5244
Once again, the lectionary people have so thoroughly butchered this text that I hardly know what to do with it. Generally speaking, chapter 7 of Mark begins with a dispute as to what constitutes uncleanness. The disciples’ eating pods of grain in the fields with “hands defiled” sparks a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. Mark tells us by way of a parenthetical remark that the Pharisees do not eat without washing. It should be noted that this has nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with ritual cleanliness. Jesus does not reject this practice per see. Rituals serve as reminders that every aspect of life is holy for God’s holy people. This is particularly true for meals. (That should come as no surprise for disciples of Jesus whose most significant worship activity is the Eucharist.) But ritual is distorted and burdensome when it becomes a master rather than a servant. When sickness or hunger prevent a child of God from enjoying the Sabbath rest God intends for all his creatures, it is sinful to prevent healing or preparation of food that would open the door to Sabbath rest for such excluded persons. So also the disciples, being out in the field and having no access to water or vessels for cleansing, should not be prohibited from receiving with thanksgiving what God provides to satisfy their hunger. The disciples were actually exercising their right to “gleaning” discussed in our review of the Deuteronomy text above. Where God makes provision for the poor, no one must seek to revoke that provision by resort to humanly devised rituals however useful or legitimate those rituals might be.
Excluded from the Sunday reading is Jesus condemnation of the use of “corban” to deny an aging parent the support owed by their children under the Ten Commandments. Vss. 9-13 The point here, too, is that the law was intended to serve God’s people in honoring God and loving the neighbor. When the law is used to circumvent that purpose, it is abused. A literal application of the law that violates its spirit is just as evil as outright disobedience.
Jesus goes on to discuss what makes a person unclean. Clearly, it is not what goes into a person, but what comes out. This theme will be repeated in the story of the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter Jesus heals.