Archive for November, 2012
First Sunday of Advent
December 2, 2012
Psalm 25:1-10 1
Prayer of the Day
Stir up your power, O Lord, and come. Protect us by your strength and save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings and welcome to the start of a new church year. The older I get, the more conscious I become and the more sensitive I am to the passing of time. I also have discovered that there are many different ways to measure time. Time is measured by historical events that change the world and shape the outlook of generations that have lived through them. “Was that before or after 9/11?” we hear people ask. For my parents, no such moment was more significant than the bombing of Pearl Harbor-an event that marked a sea change in our nation’s understanding of its place in history. For my own generation, there was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1962; the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and the first moon landing in 1969. For my children, the attack of September 11, 2001 stands out as a formative historical event. For most of us, our outlook on the world and our self understanding is shaped significantly by historical events that occur in the most formative years of our lives.
Historical markers are not the only way to measure time, however. There are also cyclical measuring points that recur with each passing year. The beginning of school in the fall and its coming to a close in the spring were principal markers for me as a child-along with Christmas. As I took my place in the working world, April 15th began to take on an ominous significance. Since I have been married, my anniversary has become an important date on my calendar. With children come birthday celebrations and, as the children grow up and marry, more anniversaries and more birthdays. In addition to honoring milestone events in our lives and signaling the approach of impending deadlines, these annual dates tell us where we are in the year and remind us of everything that has shaped and continues to transform our lives.
Obviously, the way you mark time says a lot about who you are. That is why disciples of Jesus have their own way of measuring time. Our year begins in Advent with the hope born in the manger. It ends on Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate the joyous expectation of Jesus’ coming in glory. We measure time by the narrative of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and victory over death. We measure time from the milestones of Jesus’ nativity, his baptism in the Jordan, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We order time from the outpouring of Jesus’ Spirit upon his disciples. Keeping the liturgical year helps keep Jesus in focus. It reminds us that our lives are part of a larger story that is grounded in those things that matter eternally. We are reminded that we share the road with a “great cloud of witnesses” like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Ruth, David, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Esther, Peter, James, John, Mary, Paul and countless other women and men who hoped for, witnessed and followed Jesus, God’s incarnate Word. So I welcome you to this new church year, undoubtedly another one filled with hope, challenge and anticipation.
Jeremiah 33:14-16 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961070
The time is immediately before 587 B.C.E in the reign of Judah’s last Davidic King, Zedekiah. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city, shut off from the outside world for over a year, is stricken with famine. Jeremiah the prophet is imprisoned for his preaching against Judah’s unfaithfulness to her God and specifically for declaring that God will not fight on her behalf against Babylon. To the contrary, God has brought the wrath of Babylon on Judah’s head as a judgment for her faithless reliance upon foreign military alliances, idolatry and cruel injustice against the poor. That is a message the people of Judah desperately do not want to hear. They want to believe that God will come through with a miracle at the last moment to save them from the Babylonians. The last thing King Zedekiah needs is for Jeremiah to be frightening his already demoralized army with dire predictions of defeat. So Jeremiah’s imprisonment is understandable. It appears as though the end has come for Judah. Indeed, the end has come for Judah as an independent nation. The end has come for Judah’s magnificent temple built by the hand of Solomon nearly five centuries before. There will be no going back to the past. The good old days are gone for good.
But the end of the past is not the extinction of the future. Israel’s story is far from over. As dark as the situation looks for Judah and for poor Jeremiah, Jeremiah nevertheless maintains that there is salvation and a future for Judah. A righteous branch will sprout from the corrupt line of David. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. This promise shaped much of Israel’s faith in the difficult years of exile and domination under the empires of first Babylon, then Persia, then Macedonia and finally Rome. It continues to play an important role in Judaism today.
Yet even as this messianic hope can sustain a people in times of oppression, it is a dangerous hope. Israel’s history has seen any number of persons claiming to be God’s messiah, rallying Israel behind them and leading Israel into disastrous military confrontations ending in crushing defeat. It was at least partly messianic fervor that led to a Jewish revolt in the late 60s A.D. which, in turn, brought the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of her temple in 70 A.D. In 135 A.D. another revolt, led by the self proclaimed messiah Bar-Kokhba, brought on another fierce drubbing by Rome and further misery to the Jews.
As secular as we may be in this country, I believe that there is still a very deep longing within us for a messiah. I suspect that might be a large part of what lies behind the anger and lack of civility in our politics. We want to believe that there is someone out there who can take us to a better place; somebody who can solve all of our complex problems without asking us to sacrifice anything to get it done. Political strategists are all too aware of this deep messianic longing we have for a savior. Not surprisingly, then, they package their client candidates as messianic figures capable of meeting our unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, when the campaigning is over and the hard work of governance begins, reality sets in. We discover that we have not elected the messiah. We have elected a fallible human being like ourselves who cannot work the sort of magic that makes all of our difficult problems go away. Predictably, we feel betrayed. In fits of anger, we turn upon the idols we have created, kick them off the pedestals where we placed them and erect new idols in their place.
Israel had to learn (and hopefully we will one day learn as well) that no human being is able to bear the weight of messianic hope. Furthermore, that hope cannot become reality without a fundamental change in our hearts and minds. A change of leaders or a change in government without a change of heart is futile. The truth is, the Messiah, the Davidic branch that rules with justice and righteousness came-and we killed him. We were not then and we are not yet ready to live in the sort of world we long for. But the good news of Advent is that God did not wait for us to be ready. Jesus comes to us while we are still headstrong in our self destructive ways. Jesus embraces us even as we struggle to break free from that embrace. What is more, the love with which Jesus embraces us is stronger than sin and death. It refuses to let go. So the message of the season is clear: Here comes the Messiah, ready or not.
Psalm 25:1-10 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961127
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, meaning that the first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
I find particularly moving the first half of the third verse: “Let not those who wait for you be ashamed.” Advent is about nothing if not about waiting. And unfortunately for nervous, impatient and hurried people like us, we have a God who likes to take his sweet time. God waited for four hundred years while the children of Israel languished in slavery before sending Moses to liberate them. God led Israel for forty years in the wilderness before bringing them into the Promised Land. God sat with Israel for seventy years in exile before bringing her home. After hearing that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited a full two days before even beginning his journey to Bethany where Lazarus lived. In a world where time is measured in nanoseconds, where everything is urgently needed yesterday and cries for immediate responses come from every direction, it is maddening to hear the command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:20. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine that our “historic” presidential elections, our “Giant Black Friday Sales” and our never ending string of international, economic and social crises are so very important that we need a slow God. God’s salvation, like God’s Kingdom, will come in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will not be rushed. So we might just as well stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off and learn to wait patiently for God to act.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961183
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D. making this the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and he was understandably concerned that it lacked the maturity and solid leadership to survive under the pressures of persecution. Paul sent his fellow worker, Timothy, to visit and encourage the little congregation. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. The lesson for this Sunday reflects Paul’s thankfulness and relief upon receiving this good news.
Paul’s prayer is for an opportunity to visit the congregation himself. He prays that, in any case, the Lord may make the congregation “increase and abound in love to one another and to all people so that Christ may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This prayer brings into sharp relief how the church is a community that lives out of the future. The future is Jesus. Yet it is Jesus’ presence with his church now that prepares it for the future. For the church, the future is now. Among us, Jesus is already recognized as King. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. But the church does not wait for that day to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and live for him.
Luke 21:25-36 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=220961248
The Revised Common Lectionaryused by the ELCA, Roman Catholics and a number of other protestant churches provides a three-year plan for Sunday readings beginning at the start of each new church year with the season of Advent. For each Sunday and festival, four readings are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. Each year of the lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. John is read in each year in the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This year we focus on the Gospel of Luke. So before we begin looking specifically at this Sunday’s lesson, let me say just a few words about Luke.
The Gospel of Luke is probably best known for its story of the Nativity. Only Luke tells us of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Only in Luke do we find the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her of the child she is about to bear. Luke alone tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ child in the stable and the angels’ tidings of joy to the shepherds. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us anything at all about the childhood of Jesus. In the one story he tells us about Jesus’ youth, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never do-wander away from us in a strange place without telling us where they are going.
The Gospel of Luke also has many other popular stories not found in the other gospels. For example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan all are parables recorded in Luke alone. More than any of the other Gospels, Luke reveals to us the important role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. Elizabeth, Mary and the prophetess Anna have high profile involvement in the story line. Luke’s gospel tells us about the group of women who provided logistical and financial support to Jesus and the disciples. Women are frequently prominent in Jesus’ healings, his parables and in his teaching.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Luke is the fact that Luke was the only Gospel writer who also produced a sequel that we know as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts Luke narrates the early years of the church, it’s early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul.
The most remarkable thing about Luke-Acts is its lack of “closure.” The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to the Temple in Jerusalem (where his gospel began) rejoicing and gathering for prayer. The Book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still preaching and teaching from his place of imprisonment. We never find out what happens to him. It is as though Luke has deliberately avoided bringing his story to a fitting end because he knows that it is not over yet. The drama of the church in mission to the world continues. We are invited to become a part of this exciting story as it continues to unfold in our age.
Now for this week’s lesson. As is the case for Mark, Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction follows upon his noting the widow’s payment to the Temple treasury all she had to live on. For the connections here, see my post for Sunday, November 11th. The disciples ask Jesus when the destruction of the Temple will take place, assuming no doubt that this event would mark the beginning of the end of time. Not so, says Jesus. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be great signs from heaven.” But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.
Then comes Jesus enumeration of the “signs” of the coming of the Son of Man. What are we to make of them? It should be obvious by now that ominous signs have occurred throughout history. Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Someone suggested to me recently that perhaps “God is trying to tell us something” through Sandy. Maybe so. But I doubt it means that the end is near. Still and all, I think we might rightly refer to hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters as “signs” in some sense. They remind us that the earth upon which we stand is not as solid as it appears. Our orderly lives are not as stable as we think they are. Though we don’t like to think about it, we are always just one genetically altered cell, one virus, one careless driving error away from the end of the world. If we ever thought our years of careful saving and investment could give us a measure of security, the crash of 2007 surely disabused us of any such fantasy. International co-existence, economic stability and ecological balance are extremely fragile creatures. It takes very little to throw them off kilter. Recessions, hurricanes, wars and famines all serve to remind us how fragile and vulnerable we are.
Now that should make us all rather paranoid, but hear what Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” For the new creation to be born, the old has to die. And whether you see these “signs” as death throws or as birth pangs depends on whether you view them through the cross. Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that his present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. The presence of God with human beings-the longed for hope of Israel-is put to death on a cross. It doesn’t get much worse than that. In fact, you could say that the worst thing that could ever happen to the world has already happened. The world murdered its last, best hope. Yet even this dark and terrible sin could not deter God from God’s redemptive purpose for the world. In the midst of death, God was working the miracle of new life. And so we can confess with St. Paul that “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16 Even in the signs of death and destruction, disciples of Jesus discern a new creation struggling to be born.
Sunday of Christ the King
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings and welcome! This coming Sunday we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. This feast day, which marks the conclusion of the church year, is relatively new to the church calendar. The Roman pontiff, Pope Pius XI, instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 for the universal church in his encyclical Quas Primas. He saw the rise of nationalism as a denial of Christ as king and viewed with alarm the rise of dictatorships in Europe with the captivating lure of their autocratic leaders. Protestant churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary also observe Christ the King Sunday (titled Reign of Christ Sunday by some). These include the ELCA as well as the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in North America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church.
By ending the church year with a confession of Christ as King, we remind ourselves that history has an end and the end is Jesus. The day will come, St. Paul tells us, “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.” Our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus. Loyalty to family, community and nation is only provisional. When faithfulness to Jesus our King brings us into conflict with any of these other claims to our loyalty, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1424
I discussed at some length the historical context and the outline of the Book of Daniel in my last post for Sunday, November 18, 2012. In short, the book was written to encourage the Jewish people during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes over Jerusalem from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus used barbaric means to force the Jews in Jerusalem to abandon their faith. Those who resisted him were often subjected to torture and execution. In this Sunday’s lesson the prophet Daniel sees God, “the ancient of days” give all rule and authority to “one like a son of man.” It is not clear whether this one is understood to be a human ruler or an angel of God. His rule, however, will be universal. Unlike the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece which invariably fracture under the weight of so many ambitious rulers seeking dominion, the kingdom of the son of man will remain forever.
As is usually the case for apocalyptic literature (see post for Sunday, November 18, 2012), the message is one of hope and encouragement. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God is still at work in the midst of all the political, social and military turmoil that is turning everyone’s life upside down. It is tempting to sum up all of this with the trite phrase “God is in control.” I don’t care much for that assertion, however. Control is something you exercise over your lawn mower or automobile. It is not something you exercise over someone you love. I don’t think God engineers the events of history so that they occur in accord with some predetermined plan. I do not believe that the murder of six million Jews was part of God’s design. Nor do I believe that God wills cancer, auto accidents, hurricanes and earthquakes. Is God triumphant over all of these things? To be sure, but God’s triumphal victory is a strange kind of victory. It is God’s patience rather than any exercise of power that carries the day. God does not fight fire with fire. That only results in a bigger fire. Instead, God responds to the wastes of our wrath with forgiveness, patience and eternal love. God does not clobber evil. God simply outlasts it. Against God’s eternal determination to save us, our stubborn resistance finally just runs out of steam. That might take some time, but God is nothing if not rich in time. The redemption of all creation is too important a job to rush.
In this psalm the God of Israel is acclaimed king, though the proper translation is a matter of some dispute. Some scholars claim that the phrase echoes the proclamation that a human ruler has been elevated to kingship, i.e., “Absalom is King,” (II Samuel 15:10) or “Jehu is King” (II King 9:13). If this be the case, then the proper reading would be “The Lord has become king.” As such, it might contain traces of ancient mythology reflecting a battle between the waters or the great sea monster, Tiamat and the creator god. See vss 3-4. Such mythological imagery is clearly reflected in the Genesis flood narratives, though the “waters” in Genesis are not portrayed as hostile enemies of God. Instead, they are the instruments of God’s judgment against a sinful world. The psalm, then, is a declaration that God is supreme over all other gods and forces of nature. The lack of any specific denial of the existence of other gods argues for an earlier date for the composition of this psalm, surely before the Babylonian exile of 587 B.C.E.
Other scholars are inclined to interpret the psalm as a simple assertion that God is king. Such a confession declares by implication that all other rulers who claim the title of “king” are mere pretenders. In short, it is a political statement. Such an interpretation would comport with a distaste for the monarchy consistent with much post-exilic Judaism fueled by prophetic criticism of Judah’s kings and their unfaithful, disastrous policies. It would also be entirely at home in an environment where, as was the case in post exilic Judaism, such kings as there were ruled over empires whose armies occupied Judah and Jerusalem exercising varying degrees of oppression. Though the kings of the earth may make proud claims of sovereignty, God alone rules the earth and God only is worthy of the title “king.”
Whenever this psalm was composed and however one might interpret the opening acclimation that God is King, the message is clear. God reigns to the exclusion of all others who claim divine sovereignty. On Christ the King Sunday it is appropriate to remind ourselves that we are subjects of Jesus, God’s only Son, our Lord. That does not preclude obedience to human governmental authority. To the contrary, government is a gift of God given for the sake of ordering our lives for good. Yet in a sinful and rebellious world, government tends to overstep its bounds and claim authority that rightfully belongs to God alone. No government has authority to command what God forbids. No government may exercise power that rightly belongs to God alone. No flag of any nation must ever fly higher in our hearts than the cross of Christ.
Revelation 1:4b-8 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1425
The Book of Revelation is, as I have said before, the most frequent victim of preacher malpractice in the Bible. Many people flock to this book with an insatiable interest in discovering when and how the world will end. If centuries of clever and complex interpretation along these lines proves anything at all, it proves that Revelation is entirely unsuited for such a purpose. The book was written to encourage the persecuted churches of Asia Minor with their immediate struggle rather than to spawn speculation by 21st century suburbanites about the distant future.
Our brief lesson for Sunday is taken from a larger greeting from the author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, addressed to the churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to whom the epistle is written. This is a culture in which it was universally acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord.” To assert that “Jesus is Lord” was an act of sedition. Thus, when John confesses Jesus as “ruler of kings on earth,” he was firing a shot across Caesar’s bow that could well have gotten him crucified.
Like the Book of Daniel, Revelation is written to a people living under persecution or, at the very least, the threat of persecution for their faith. Under such circumstances, it might seem as though God has abandoned his people or that God is powerless to save. How else can one explain Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields and the Armenian genocide? Revelation takes this suffering seriously. Jesus warned his disciples that the persecution that fell upon him would meet them as well. His disciples should therefore not be surprised at the ordeal they must undergo. Instead, they must remain faithful even when faith seems ineffective and unable to assist them. They must continue in confidence that the God who raised Jesus from death will prevail over the forces of death embodied in the Roman Empire.
One important theme to keep in mind is the “word” by which God overcomes the forces of evil throughout Revelation. When John describes his vision of Jesus, the only weapon Jesus has is the two edged sword issuing “from his mouth.” Revelation 1:16. When Jesus Christ returns sitting upon a white horse ready to conquer his enemies, he is referred to as “Word of God.” The weapon with which he smites the nations is “the sharp sword that issues from his mouth.” Revelation 20:15. In short, it is the incarnate Word of the church’s preaching and teaching by which the political and military machinery of Roman oppression will be overcome. That is the only weapon God wields and it is the only arrow in the disciple’s quiver. God prevails through the incarnate Word by which hearts are won over by faithful witness and preaching. As we sang last Sunday, “For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
This brief snippet from the lengthy interchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate is laced with irony. Pilate stands in the shoes of Caesar, the one acclaimed “king,” yet as John’s passion story unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that he has no real authority. Pilate must go out to meet his Jewish subjects in the portico because they refuse to contaminate themselves by coming into his courtroom. Though he purports to pass judgment on Jesus, it is Pilate who comes under judgment. Pilate’s tenuous hold on authority weakens with each verse. His interrogation of Jesus gets completely away from him. He cannot get Jesus either to admit that he is a king and so incriminate himself, or to deny his kingship and so pave the way for his release. So far from wielding kingly authority, Pilate finds himself bullied, intimidated and blackmailed by those who are supposed to be his subjects. He sounds almost pathetic when he protests to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?” John 19:10 “Power?” says Jesus. “You must be joking. You have no power. You know as well as I do that this is entirely out of your hands. God is at work here and there is nothing you or your little empire can do to stop it.” (my highly paraphrased rendition of Jesus’ response in John 19:11).
This gospel lesson brings into sharp focus the issue of the day: Is Jesus our King? What sort of King is he? Obviously, he is not the sort of king his accusers are making him out to be, that is, a messianic partisan seeking to overthrow Rome by violence. His kingly authority is not the sort that can get the charges against him dismissed. Yet there clearly is authority here. Jesus is the one character who is not driven by fear, anger or jealousy. Jesus alone is where he is because that is where he chose to be. Jesus is not a victim of circumstance. He is not an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight. Jesus has stepped into Pilate’s court to bear witness to the truth. Pilate cannot handle the truth, but he cannot silence it either. The truth shines through the thin venire of Pilate’s pretended authority and imagined control.
Of course, in the final analysis the truth is not a what, but a who. Jesus is the truth and to know and trust him is to know the truth. It is our bold testimony that we cannot see rightly or understand what is true apart from submission to the kingly authority of Jesus.
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Prayer of the Day
Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Greetings and welcome back to the Portico! I just got back from our congregational meeting held this morning (Sunday, November 11, 2012). We had a delightful exchange of ideas and concerns about our ongoing revitalization effort and I came away convinced that we have our priorities right. Our facilities, like our worship and programming, must be mission based and community oriented. There is a danger in becoming fixated on buildings-or anything else that draws us away from mission. In our gospel lesson, Jesus warns of destruction for a Temple that has become a center of profit for the clergy rather than a house of prayer for all nations. We need to keep in our hearts the words of the psalmist who calls us to put our trust not in the foundation of any human structure, but in the unshakable faithfulness of our God.
Daniel 12:1-3 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219740154
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctive Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. This and other stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar are retold in the new context to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.”
The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the conclusion of Daniel and constitutes about the only specific mention of the resurrection of the dead found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The author promises that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” The “wise” are those who remain faithful to their God and refuse to submit to Antiochus’ demands to abandon their faith. They will shine eternally just as they shone in their faithful martyrdom. Some folks will awake from death to face everlasting shame. These are the ones who have given in to Antiochus and betrayed their faith. This punishment of everlasting shame for the unfaithful should not to be understood as hellfire or damnation. It is rather the shame of discovering that their lives have been lived on the wrong side of history. They cannot shine in the resurrection because they chose not to shine when they had the opportunity in life to bear witness to their God. Their punishment is having to live forever with the knowledge that in seeking to save their lives at the cost of their faith, they have wasted them. Perhaps that is even worse than hellfire.
The fiery ordeal faced by the authors of Daniel and of Revelation is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. In a culture where outright lies are camouflaged as “negative campaigning,” “editorial opinion” and “advertizing puffery,” truthful speech is often unwelcome. It takes courage to be the only one to come to the defense of a person under group criticism. It requires uncommon (though not unheard of) valor for a high school student to take the risk of befriending the kid everyone else picks on. Even in a culture where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross.
The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile efforts to change a stubbornly wicked world. Lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus sake will not have been wasted. Neither will be the dollars contributed to this good work. But what of the times we have buckled under social pressure? What of the many times we have denied Jesus? I am not sure Daniel can give us much help here, but Jesus surely can. We are spiritual descendents of the disciples who misunderstood Jesus, betrayed him, denied him and deserted him, leaving him to die alone. Yet when he returns from death and finds these cowardly disciples hiding behind locked doors, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, “get out there and shine!” In Jesus we discover the God of the second chance-and the third and the fourth.
Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm, but the psalmist makes clear that they have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
The psalmist opens his prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith (See discussion of Daniel preceding this note). Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219740297
I have written at length in the last three posts about my take on Hebrews. I will not do so again here, but wish to call attention to what I believe is the practical takeaway: “24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Hebrews 10:25 This is why we go to church. Being a disciple of Jesus is not a private matter. Compassion, generosity, hospitality and courageous witness do not come naturally. We need to be “provoked” to these acts. The preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ is just such a provocation. When we fully comprehend the generosity God has shown to us, we discover a newfound ability to be generous with one another. But generosity cannot be exercised in a vacuum. You need someone to be generous toward. You need people to forgive and people who can point out to you the sin you often fail to see in yourself-and forgive it. All this talk we have heard the last couple of weeks about Jesus being the final sacrifice for us; the only priest we will ever need and the temple wherein God’s saving presence can be experienced-it all boils down to this: go to church.
Now some might object to that as overly simplistic. Church after all is not a place we go, but a people we are called to be. True enough. Still, in order to be that people of Jesus, you need to meet together. You need to be in the presence of one another, serving one another, speaking the truth to one another in love and encouraging one another. You cannot be the church without going to church. If you continue in the book of Hebrews, you will note that chapter 11 constitutes a roll call of saints who have given their all for the Kingdom of God. The point? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us…” Hebrews vs. 12:1. This is all about encouragement. We all need that! We need to be reminded that we are not alone. We are walking a path well worn by the saints from Abraham and Sarah to the Apostle Paul. We are encouraged by their witness and supported by the prayers of a worshiping community that is there for us every week. Whether we are singing hymns, drinking coffee or standing side by side dishing up food for the homeless the Spirit is at work building the bonds that will hold us together on the day when all things are made new. So don’t neglect to meet together! Your presence with us on Sunday is more important than you know!
Mark 13:1-8 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219740350
If you read last week’s post, you already know my take on this passage and that it relates back to the story of the widow’s offering in the treasury. Jesus speaks an uncompromising word of judgment upon the temple and its corrupt and corrupting practices. It is tempting to identify overly much with Jesus, as though, of course, had we been there we would have all been nodding in agreement. But for all pious Jews-which Jesus and his disciples all were-the temple was a precious gift of God. According to the scriptures, God “caused his name to dwell” upon the temple in Jerusalem. It was the symbol of God’s gracious presence for the people Israel. Upon dedicating the first temple, King Solomon prayed: “I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell forever.” I Kings 8:12. Understandably, then, Israel treated the temple with great awe and reverence. The prophet Jeremiah was put into the stocks over night and beaten for suggesting that God might allow the temple to be destroyed. One of the charges against Jesus at his trial was a claim that he had threatened the temple with destruction. An attack on the temple was viewed as an attack on Israel’s God.
Yet Solomon also uttered these cautionary words: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” I Kings 8:27. God in God’s love for Israel chooses to dwell in the temple she has made. But God will not be confined there. Neither the temple nor its elaborate worship can be used to manipulate God. Nor are maintenance of a building and adherence to ritual substitutes for faithfulness to the commandment of love for God above all else and for one’s neighbor as one’s self. The temple is God’s gift to Israel, not Israel’s handle on God. What God gives, God can and will take away when it becomes a substitute for faithfulness and obedience.
As I have said many times before, it seems to me that we are facing a time of transition for the church. The demographics indicate that we protestants on the East Coast will soon be a much smaller, much poorer church in terms of numbers and dollars. For many of us who have become accustomed to doing church in a particular way, that is about as threatening as the destruction of the temple for Jesus’ contemporaries. I think that for many folks, a church without real estate holdings and sanctuaries, a church without a national office and a host of agencies, service organizations and professional leaders, a church without a nationwide network of bishops, seminaries and professional clergy is simply not church. We think we need all of this to be church, but that surely is not what God needs and may not even be what God desires. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the edifice we call the ELCA will be reduced to rubble so that not one stone of it will be left upon another.
OK. Before you jump all over me, let me confess that I do not know this to be the case. Perhaps God plans to renew protestant churches in the United States. Perhaps we will see people flowing back through our doors and the ELCA as we know it will experience a robust institutional future. God does not consult with me on these matters. Consequently, I did not preface any of this with “Thus saith the Lord.” But here is what I do know: It takes only a couple people, the Bible, some water and a little bread with wine to make a church. That is all. Of course, it is preferable to have a roof over your head when you meet. Seminaries producing learned preachers and teachers are great to have. Leadership and accountability for congregations is important, too. Large scale ministries addressing hunger, injustice and environmental concerns are swell, if you can support them. I do not suggest for one moment that churches should impoverish themselves. All the extras I have mentioned are gifts to be received with thanksgiving. But for all the wonderful things they accomplish, they are extras. We can lose them all and still be the church. The greatest danger for us lies in our believing that the extras are essential. When that happens, we cease to be the church and become simply a social service agency. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a social service agency. But that is far, far less than the embodiment of God’s reign to which Jesus calls us.
The destruction of the temple turned out to be good news. The church was forced to rethink its mission and articulate in new ways its faith in Jesus’ coming in glory. A new and vibrant Judaism rooted in synagogue worship and the internalization of Torah emerged following Rome’s invasion of Jerusalem. What seemed then to be the death throes of an ancient hope for salvation turned out to be the birth pangs of a new age. So I believe this passage from the Gospel of Mark is a message of hope for believers in every age. In the midst of “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines and hurricanes, and the end of a lot of what we know and love, God is doing a new thing.
1 Kings 17:8-16
Prayer of the Day
O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Greetings! I am pleased to report that thus far our sisters and brothers here at Trinity have managed to come safely through the wrath of hurricane Sandy. We were particularly concerned about our sister Eunice. Eunice lives in Little Ferry which was severely flooded. Thankfully, she is safe and staying with her granddaughter in Poughkeepsie, New York. Though her basement was flooded, the house is intact.
While we have much for which to thank our gracious God, we cannot forget the millions in our state that have been crushed under the weight of this storm. We might be tempted to wonder how we can thank God for the mercy shown to us while others no more or less deserving have lost homes, possessions and loved ones. That is a temptation we ought to resist. Such speculation does little else than keep us preoccupied with circular discussion when action is called for. Rather than wonder why people suffer, we need to recall that we have been blessed in order that we might become a blessing to others. When I was just a teenager I heard a representative from Lutheran World Relief speaking to our congregation about world hunger. A woman in the audience asked him, “If God is a God of Love, why doesn’t he do something to stop children from starving to death?” Quick as a flash the speaker responded, “Oh, God has done something to stop children from starving to death. And part of that something is sitting right there in your purse.” God has blessed us with all that we need to care for our neighbors. So rather than faulting God for the problem, let’s lay hold of the solution to the problem that God has given us.
That brings me to the next point. Those of you who were in church this Sunday know that our Youth Group is losing no time in addressing the critical needs of our neighbors by seeking your donations to the Red Cross for hurricane relief. This drive will continue throughout November. Also, given the stark rise in homelessness, loss of employment and lack of mobility occasioned by the storm, food banks throughout this state are facing severe shortages. I therefore urge you to continue your regular contributions of non-perishable food items and to increase them if possible. Our neighbors are depending on us now more than ever. We who see in them the face of our Lord need to be in the vanguard of those seeking to serve them.
Now to the texts for this week.
1 Kings 17:8-16 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219138937
This story is from the beginning of the Elijah/Elisha tales. These tales come into the Bible from the Northern Kingdom of Israel that broke away from the Davidic Monarchy after the death of David’s son, Solomon. This Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E. The stories of Elijah and Elisha were likely brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah shortly after that time by refugees from the north. The stories were then incorporated into the traditions of Judah, which continued to exist under the Davidic monarchy until its conquest by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. During and following the Babylonian captivity the Elijah and Elisha stories were woven into the narrative fabric of Israel’s life in the land of Canaan.
On its face, this is a touching story about kindness shared between a couple of strangers living on the margins. Some context is helpful here to give the story its full narrative punch. Elijah is a fugitive on the run. King Ahab is out to kill him for his fearless words of judgment against the king’s idolatry and the ruthless oppression of his administration. The woman in this story is a native of Phoenicia, a gentile outside the scope of Israel’s covenant and not a worshiper of Israel’s God. She is also a single mom living in the depths of poverty in the midst of a famine. As with hurricanes and other natural disasters, famine hits hardest the weak and the vulnerable. A widow with a small child living in a society with no “safety net” is about as weak and vulnerable as weakness and vulnerability get. When Elijah encounters this woman, she is gathering sticks to make a fire and cook a small biscuit form the last bit of wheat she has. She will then split this small morsel with her little boy. After that, they will both starve.
Elijah asks her to bake him a biscuit also from her meager store. That is a mighty big ask. In the first place, this man is a stranger, a foreigner and a criminal. Why help him? What does she owe him? Helping him might get her in trouble with the authorities. Furthermore, what little she has cannot even sustain her and her son for long. Charity begins at home, after all. Could anyone blame this woman for denying aid to a perfect stranger to save the life of her own son?
This story, however, takes a turn that we would not expect. This is no chance meeting. We learn that God sent this prophet Elijah to this particular widow. That changes everything. God is behind all of this. The prophet therefore can promise the widow that her little jar of wheat meal and her flask of oil will see all three of them through the famine. That is in fact what happens.
So here is the take away: Disciples of Jesus do not believe in “chance,” We should not be caught uttering nonsense like, “Well what are the chances of our meeting here?” or “I guess we just got lucky.” At least we should not be using these terms when it comes to the people we encounter in our daily lives and the opportunities God gives us to show them compassion and hospitality. We believe that our God is behind every encounter we have with another person. We believe that every encounter is another opportunity to give or to receive God’s tender loving care. Too often, I miss opportunities like that. Sometimes I think I am too busy to give people the time they seek from me. Sometimes I am too proud to receive the gift of compassion, forgiveness and encouragement they offer me. There are times that I am so consumed with what I believe to be important or what I think I need to do in order to survive that I turn away people who might actually be my salvation. If the widow in this story had been practical and pragmatic, she would have sent Elijah away empty handed and kept for herself and her son the little she had left. Ultimately, she probably would have starved. Instead, she had compassion on Elijah, she trusted the promise of his God who was surely unknown to her. In so doing, she discovered what the people of God have had to learn again and again: Our God is a God of generosity and abundance. Despite all the talk in Washington of belt tightening, deficits and fiscal cliffs, there is no shortage of anything we need to live well. However little we may thing we have, when we place it at the service of our God it is always more than enough for ourselves and our neighbors. That is the divine economics of the loaves and the fishes. It is the economy of the people of God.
Psalm 146 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219138883
This hymn of praise is among a group of psalms called “Hallelujah Psalms” (Psalms 146-150) because they begin and end with the phrase: “O Praise the Lord!” commonly translated “hallelujah.” The fact that this hymn speaks of royalty and the reign of justice solely in terms of God’s sovereignty with nary a mention of the Davidic monarchy suggests that it was composed after the Babylonian conquest of Judah when the people had no king or prince of their own. Such kings and princes as there may have been were no friends to this conquered people living in a land not their own. This would explain why the psalmist urges people not to put their “trust in princes.” Skepticism about human rulers may also reflect Israel’s disappointment in her past rulers whose selfish, shortsighted and destructive actions contributed to the loss of her land and her independence as a people. In either case, the psalmist would have us know that God is the only king worthy of human trust and confidence. God alone has the interests of the widows, the fatherless and the resident aliens at heart. God is able to exercise power without being corrupted by it.
I have always loved the phrase from the second verse translated by the old RSV as “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” The Hebrew notion of “soul” or “nephesh” is nothing like the contemporary understanding of the soul as an immortal part of the human person that survives and goes on living after death. In Hebrew thinking, the soul is the life force, the self, the innermost person. This innermost person must be urged, encouraged, prodded to praise the Lord. That is very much the way it is with me. I do not always feel like praying when I first wake up. In fact, more often than not I must discipline myself to make time for prayer. It is not until I am well into praying that I experience the joy that prayer brings. Like the psalmist, I need to encourage myself: “Come on, soul! Get with it! Wake up and look around at all there is for which you ought to be thankful!”
I must also say that I love these psalms of praise above all others. I am convinced that they are transformative. If we let them shape our hearts and minds, they make of us the joyful people God desires for us to be. Happy people are thankful people; people who recognize that all they have received is a gift; people who receive thankfully their daily bread without turning a jealous eye to see what is on everyone else’s plate. They are people who recognize, even in their failures and defeats, the presence of the one who makes each day new and finds new directions where everyone else can see only a dead end. This psalm was in all probability written by one who knew well the realities of oppression, poverty and human cruelty. But these things do not reign in his/her heart. God reigns throughout all generations. To God belongs all praise and trust.
Hebrews 9:24-28 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219138825
As I have pointed out in previous posts, I believe that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.
This message is difficult for us to get our heads around because we are so far removed from the trauma it is intended to address. Yet, as I have said previously, there are perhaps some parallels in our own experience. We preach, teach and confess that the church is the body of believers in Jesus. Yet we cannot help getting attached to the building in which we worship. The sanctuary is a place where treasured memories coalesce. It is the place where we bring our children for holy baptism. It is the place where we witness their confirmation. It might also be the place where we spoke our marriage vows to our spouses and where we bid our last farewells to dear ones gone to join the church triumphant. When a sanctuary filled with so much meaning and so many memories is taken from us-whether through its destruction, the disbanding of the congregation or through renovations that altar the look and feel of the sanctuary-the result can be a deep sense of loss. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the building, however deeply we may be attached to it, is only a symbol or reflection of the reality which is Christ. As John points out in his gospel, worship of God is not tied down to any location or physical structure. The same can be said of particular liturgies, hymns or styles of worship to which we have a tendency to become attached. We can afford to lose them, provided we keep our focus on the person of Jesus to which they point us. As a book written to a church traumatized by loss and change, Hebrews speaks a timely and much needed word of hope and encouragement.
Mark 12:38-44 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=219138737
While the scriptures themselves are the inspired word of God, the same cannot be said of the chapter and verse designations that come with all of our Bibles. The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury in about 1227 A.D. While these divisions make citation of Biblical texts easier, they can also blind us to connections between related portions of scripture that are arbitrarily broken by Langton’s system. I believe this Sunday’s text is a victim of this distortion. I should also say before going any further that I owe this insight to Professor Gerald O. West, a remarkable young theologian who teaches at the University of Theology at Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Professor West was a speaker at the Trinity Institute National Theological Conference which I attended in January of 2011. He is the one that alerted me to the context of this story of the “Widow’s Mite” which I simply failed to see for all of my life because I have always stopped reading this story at the end of Mark chapter 12. Now I invite you to read this story in its full context:
“38As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
“41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ 13As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
Mark 12:38-Mark 13:2.
We have always used this text as a stewardship lesson. We urge people to be more like the poor widow who gave to the point of impoverishing herself rather than like the rich people contributing large sums of money representing only the excess of their great wealth. But that might not be the point at all. First of all, notice that Jesus does not commend the woman or her offering. He merely states the obvious. Her little coins are far dearer to her than the excess of the rich. For the rich, their offerings would at most affect the quality of the hotel they choose to stay in while vacationing at Monaco. For this woman, her offering represents her last chance of survival. Does it make sense for Jesus to commend this woman for committing suicide? When Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell everything and follow him, he instructed him to give his money not to the Temple and its commercial enterprises (which Jesus soundly condemned), but to the poor. Moreover, Jesus did not leave the young man without any options other than starvation. He invited the young man to follow him and find his security not in wealth but in the community of faith through which all disciples are blessed. This woman has no such option.
Perhaps we need to read the story of the widow in connection both with what precedes and what follows. Just prior to this incident, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the scribes who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” The widow in our lesson appears to be “Exhibit A” for this very point. She has put into the Temple treasury all that she had to live on. We have always assumed that this was a voluntary donation and thus an expression of generosity and faith in God. But that isn’t exactly what the text says. The gospel tells us only that Jesus was watching “the multitude putting money into the treasury.” How do we know that they were doing so voluntarily? Could this have been a sort of tax? We know that there were such taxes imposed for the support of the temple from other biblical sources (See, e.g., Matthew 17:24-27). Taxes, as we all know, fall harder upon the poor and lower classes than on the rich. Again, our lesson is a case in point. If I am right about this, then the first two verses from chapter 13 which are not a part of our lesson, make perfect sense. Jesus leaves the Temple with his disciples who have presumably heard his teaching in Chapter 12. As usual, they are clueless. All they can do is gawk at the Temple like a band of tourists coming to the big city for the first time and yammer about how marvelous it is. But Jesus has been telling them from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that the Temple and the corrupt and exploitive practices it represents are not marvelous in God’s eyes. Instead of glorifying the God who is the guardian of widows and orphans, the Temple and its priesthood, aided by their Roman overlords, are impoverishing and exploiting widows. For this reason, the Temple is doomed. Not one stone of it will remain upon another when God is through with it.
I have to confess that I have been unable to find another single commentator on the Gospel of Mark that agrees with this reading or even considers it. (I have consulted four) But given the context, I must say that I find this interpretation very compelling. How, then, does this text so construed speak to us? I don’t think the church in the United States can fairly be accused of impoverishing anyone. Unlike the Temple authorities in Jesus’ day, we don’t have the power to impose taxes. We ask for financial commitments, but these are voluntary and they are not legally enforceable. Still and all, there is often a tendency in the church to view people from the standpoint of consumers. Very often dialogue about mission degenerates into tiresome discussions in which the dominant question is “How can we get more members?” The trouble here is that we begin to view people not as persons to be served and cared for, but as raw meat to fill our committees and help finance our operations. Naturally, people flee from organizations seeking to exploit them and so we fail both in our purpose as a church and in our objective of bringing on board new members.
The lesson also forces us to face the troublesome fact of economic inequality within the church. If we take seriously what Jesus teaches us about the proper use of wealth and if we take to heart Paul’s understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ whose health depends on the wellbeing of all its members, we must ask ourselves how it is possible that we have disciples of Jesus here in the United States and around the world that lack the basic necessities of living. If we are called to be an outpost for the reign of God in the world, then we ought not to import into the church the same disparities and lack of concern for our neighbor that is distressingly common in our culture today.