Archive for June, 2013
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In this Sunday’s lesson we meet Elijah very near the end of his prophetic career. His herculean efforts to turn Israel’s King and its people away from the worship of Ba’al and back to faith in Israel’s God have been largely unsuccessful. By instructing him to anoint his own successor, God is making clear to Elijah that his own hands will not complete his life’s work and his eyes will not even see that completion. The most he can do now is obey God’s command to anoint Elisha as prophet, Jehu as King of Israel and Hazael as king over Israel’s arch rival, Syria. We who know the rest of the biblical narrative understand that Elijah is setting in motion a string of events that will finally topple the reign of King Ahab’s wicked and oppressive line and bring a measure of restoration to the worship of Israel’s God. All of this is quite beyond the horizon for Elijah, however. He must perform these simple acts in hope.
I think that is a pretty good description of how most of us live most of the time. We live under the shadow of unfinished tasks, unfulfilled hopes and unrealized goals. Life just isn’t long enough to get everything done. I doubt any of us will depart this life without some measure of regret for something we failed to do or complete. Furthermore, whatever we do leave behind in the way of accomplishments will be fairly modest. Most likely, our names will not be immortalized in history texts explaining to generations of school children yet to come the importance and significance of our lives. Yet because we believe the Holy Spirit is active in our lives and in our world, we dare to hope that our days are filled with eternal significance; that the seeds we plant today will eventually bloom into something beautiful; that we have helped set in motion a chain of events through which our God will one day shake the world.
Living in such faith requires both great confidence and great humility. Humility, because the future is God’s project. Our help is not required to establish God’s reign, but God graciously offers us the opportunity to participate in that good work. At the end of the day life must be surrendered with all of its unfinished business to the one who gave it to us with the prayer, “establish thou the work of our hands, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17. Confidence is possible because Paul’s affirmation of God’s faithfulness is ever ringing in our ears: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Frank recognition of our own limits and shortcomings together with bold confidence in God’s power to tie up all the loose ends, false starts and wrong turns in our lives, mysteriously weaving them into the fabric of a new creation, makes possible a life of freedom, joy and hopefulness.
The legends of Elijah and Elisha probably pre-existed the composition of I and II Kings which was completed after the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E. They reflect a fierce cultural struggle in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between the religion of Ba’al and the covenant faith of Israel in her God, Yahweh. At the beginning of Elijah’s career, Israel was ruled by Ahab, son of Omri. He was a formidable ruler whose exploits are recorded in other non-biblical texts. Ahab entered into a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. This union provided much needed military support for Ahab in his ongoing struggle with Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram). It also facilitated trade between the two nations leading to the rise of a wealthy merchant class having significant political clout with the throne. Along with Jezebel came her religion, worship of the Tyrian Ba’al. Though used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Ba’al” was an honorific title given to a range of deities. According to the scriptural witness, Jezebel was a fierce proponent of her god and an equally fierce enemy of the worshipers of Israel’s God. Ahab seems to have been ambivalent about the Tyrian Ba’al. Though he built a temple to the deity in Israel’s capital Samaria, probably at the insistence of his wife, he seems to have remained a devotee of Yahweh. All three of his sons have names derived from that divine name. Nevertheless, when it came to matters of state religion, it seems that Jezebel was the power behind the throne. During Ahab’s reign, the priesthood of Ba’al under Jezebel’s patronage increased its hold upon the population as the worship of Yahweh declined as a result of neglect and outright persecution.
Elijah first appears in I Kings 17:1 where he announces a drought that will befall Israel as a result of her apostasy and which does in fact occur. Ahab evidently blames Elijah for this natural disaster and seeks to kill him. The Lord directs Elijah to flee from Ahab and Elijah spends the next three years of the drought as a fugitive, taking refuge first in a wadi and then across the border from Israel at the home of an impoverished widow in the land of Sidon. Finally, Elijah is directed to show himself to Ahab and he does. Elijah then challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel for what will turn out to be a showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al. Two altars are erected, one to Yahweh and the other to Ba’al. It is agreed that the god who answers the prayers of his devotees by sending down fire from heaven to consume the offerings on his altar shall be deemed God of Israel. Yahweh answers with fire. Ba’al is a no show. Elijah declares victory and proceeds to execute the prophets of Ba’al. He then invokes Yahweh praying for rain to end the devastating drought. Yahweh provides the rain that Ba’al, the rain god, has been unable to produce for the last three years. If Elijah thought the matter was now settled, he was sorely mistaken. When Jezebel learns of Elijah’s doings, she swears that she will do to him what he has done to the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is again a fugitive.
Broken and discouraged, Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. According to the traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this mountain was the one on which God revealed the law to Moses. There Elijah complains that his zeal for God has been unrewarded, that he alone is left among the faithful and that he wishes to die. God directs Elijah to “stand before him” on the mountain. At this point, the prophet witnesses a severe earthquake, a mighty wind and a fierce fire. These are the sort of phenomenon one would expect to encounter on the mountain of the Lord, but Elijah does not find a word from God in any of these events. Only in the sound of sheer silence does he hear God speaking. It is here that Elijah receives the instruction to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor.
This is but a thumbnail sketch of the colorful, entertaining and sometimes shocking tale of Elijah’s career up to this point. It hardly does the story justice. Nevertheless, I felt this cursory telling necessary for placing Sunday’s lesson in its narrative context. There is no substitute for reading the account in its entirety at I Kings 17:1-II Kings 2:18. The wonderful thing about the scriptures is that its characters are all too human. Despite all the miracles attributed to him, Elijah is no superhuman hero. He becomes discouraged, he loses his temper with God, he gives up in despair and throws a childish snit. In short, he acts exactly as we do when we are overworked, underappreciated and unsuccessful in what we see as our life’s calling.
The Elijah story (and that of Elisha which follows) is exceedingly violent. The lectionary people do their best to protect us from all that. I think these folks wish with all their hearts that the Bible had given us a “nice” God. Because it has not, they do their best to deliver one through their relentless butchery of the texts. Try as they may, though, the lectionary folks cannot conceal the obvious: God is not “nice.” God is good, however and loves us too deeply and too passionately to sit up in the heavens ringing his lily white hands over our beastliness while remaining righteously above the fray. God’s hands are soiled with the blood of history within which God is at work turning even our bloodiest deeds toward his own gracious purposes, making room here and there for epiphanies of the new creation. “God so loved the world…” not the ideal world, not the world as we might wish it to be, but the world as it is in all of its cussedness. That is the world God loved enough to get involved with and die for.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.) 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. As we have seen from our lesson in I Kings, this was an ongoing struggle particularly acute in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her 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. 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.
Here Paul speaks of freedom. That word “freedom” is problematic because we use it so very differently than does Paul. In our modern context, freedom is all about doing what you want. It means fewer restrictions, more expansive rights and less restraint. Paul would have been altogether mystified by these notions. The greatest tyranny, according to Paul, comes not from governments, laws or moral restraints, but from domination by “the flesh.” Left to do anything we wish, we invariably fall prey to the “desires of the flesh,” namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Vss. 19-21. Such conduct is not freedom, but slavery of the worst kind. It leads to our self destruction and robs us of our inheritance under God’s reign.
“Works of the law” cannot set us free from the flesh. Adherence to the rules only breeds resentment against their restrictions and makes the outlawed conduct all the more alluring and desirable. We all know how fanatical devotion to religious observances can lead to hateful and violent acts. According to Paul, that is inevitable where individuals use religious observances and charitable acts (even acts that are beneficial) in order to win favor with God. This kind of religion makes of God a stern disciplinarian. It also takes the focus off the entire purpose of the law-turning us toward service to our neighbors.
According to Paul, freedom resides in being led by the Spirit of God rather than driven by the flesh. Under such leading, we are thankfully free not to do just anything. Paul makes the remarkable statement that we are to use our freedom to be servants of one another! Vs. 13. Freedom through becoming a servant!!! That sounds strange to our ears, but Paul is absolutely serious. Freedom is never found in libertarian communities of self interested individuals. Freedom is found in covenant communities where each person is responsible for and dependent upon his or her neighbor. In such a community, everybody’s child is everybody’s business. Everybody’s marriage is worthy of protection and support. The security of everybody’s home is the concern of the whole community. The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, says Paul: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Vs. 14. That is the only way to be free.
Note well that this love manifested in the “fruits of the Spirit,” is not a product of adherence to any moral code. It is the heartfelt response of the believer whose sins have been freely forgiven by a God who loves without limit or restraint. It is spontaneous, never coerced. Life in the community of faith governed by the Holy Spirit is where we discover the freedom in which Paul would have us walk.
This is the pivotal point in the Gospel of Luke. Up to now, Luke has been roughly following the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, the chief source upon which he relies. If you have been reading Luke attentively, then you know something big is destined to take place in Jerusalem. In verses 28-36, Luke relates his version of the transfiguration story in which Jesus is found discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus” he will soon accomplish in Jerusalem. That Jesus should speak of this upcoming event as an occurrence on a par with Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt tells us that we must focus our attention in that direction as well. Now in verse 51 Luke gives us a sentence loaded with nuanced language telling us where the narrative is taking us next.
“When the days drew near” literally translated reads “when the days were fulfilled.” Similar phrases are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote the coming of a decisive moment of judgment, salvation or both. See, e.g., Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:1; Jeremiah 23:5 . Commentators are divided over what is meant by Jesus’ being “received up.” It is highly unlikely that this refers to Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God following his resurrection. Luke uses a different word to describe this event in both his gospel (Luke 24:51) and in Acts (Acts 1:9). As someone traveling to Jerusalem is said to be “going up” to the city regardless of which direction he is coming from, some commentators suggest that this verb only amplifies Jesus’ intention to journey there. I don’t find that interpretation persuasive. In the first place, it comes before Jesus’ express resolution to go to Jerusalem. Secondly, use of the passive voice to express this thought is syntactically clumsy. I believe that the most likely interpretation is that Jesus is to “be received up” by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who will ultimately deliver him to Pontius Pilate for judgment and execution. Jesus has already told his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” Luke 9:44. Now, we are told, this time is near.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Though Jesus is to be betrayed, delivered into the hands of the gentiles, judged and crucified, he is no mere passive victim. Jesus is making a conscious and deliberate choice to confront his enemies in the heart of the holy city. His expression of determination echoes that demanded of the prophets called upon to deliver hard words to the people of Israel. In calling Jeremiah, God declares, “I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” Jeremiah 1:18. So also the prophet Ezekiel was told, “I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads.” Ezekiel 3:8. Clearly, Luke is letting us know that we are about to follow Jesus into an epic confrontation with the powers of religious oppression, political domination, illness and demonic possession he has been battling from the inception of his ministry. From here on out, everything that transpires in this gospel will take place under the looming shadow of the cross.
Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem has immediate consequences. He is rejected by the Samaritans for that very reason. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Needless to say, Jesus’ decision to travel to Jerusalem was interpreted by the Samaritans as a rejection of them and their faith. That Jesus does not see it that way is evidenced by his rebuke to James and John who suggested “nuking” the Samaritans.
At this point, discipleship takes on a new urgency. We the readers know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. That is not public knowledge, however. Furthermore, though Jesus has revealed to the disciples his coming suffering and death, we will soon learn that they have no comprehension of this message yet. Thus, the three “would be” disciples of Jesus in verses 57-62 cannot possibly have any idea about what following Jesus actually entails. The first of the three volunteers to follow Jesus. This is highly unusual in the gospel narratives. In virtually every other case, it is Jesus who chooses his disciples. The disciples never take the initiative in choosing Jesus. Clearly, Jesus does not “take all comers.” Unlike the ads of so many churches that offer elaborate programs, air conditioned sanctuaries, good fellowship and free coffee, Jesus is brutally honest about what discipleship entails. He isn’t interested in wooing the masses or growing his following. Jesus is looking for a few good people.
The next candidate is actually called by Jesus and responds affirmatively, but requests a brief reprieve to “bury his father.” Was this fellow’s father already dead and awaiting burial? In that case, the delay would have been a matter of days. It is possible, however, that the man’s father was not dead, but infirm and dependent upon his son. In that case, the man would not be free to follow Jesus until after the death of his father. If that were the situation, the delay would be indefinite. In either case, delay is not an option. The dawn of God’s reign has arrived and will not accommodate our busy schedules. The Kingdom is now and must be proclaimed today.
The third candidate appears to be asking for no more than what Elisha requested of Elijah before following him: an opportunity to say farewell to his family. Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but Jesus will give no quarter to his newly called disciple. There is at least one important distinction. Elisha’s intent to follow through was made clear by his actions. Recall that he slaughtered his plow oxen and used the wood from their yolks to roast them in a farewell feast. In so doing, he destroyed his means of livelihood and so had nothing to which he could look back. This action on Elisha’s part did not delay his prophetic career. To the contrary, it was a powerful testimony to his new identity as God’s prophet and the successor to Elijah. One might say that Elisha’s farewell gesture was his first prophetic sign. That does not appear to be the case for the man Jesus called.
I suspect that with the last two “would be” disciples the problem boils down to just one word: “first.” “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” “first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ call must always come first. That call may or may not preclude the fulfillment of other obligations, but it cannot ever be deemed secondary to them.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In this week’s gospel lesson Jesus casts a legion of demons out of a man, sends them into a herd of pigs which, in turn, rushes headlong into the sea. That’s something you don’t see every day. In fact, it is something we moderns don’t expect to see at all. There is not much room for demons or the devil (some would also add God!) in a world governed by discoverable scientific principles. To be sure, there are some phenomena we don’t understand. But we assume that is only because we have not yet uncovered the data we need to provide a rational, scientific explanation for them. As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to believe that “the truth is out there” and by dogged investigation, experimentation and theoretical application we can arrive at the “truth.” In any event, those are the assumptions our culture has inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers of the late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.
We are not only children of the Enlightenment, however. Our Nineteenth Century confidence in the persuasiveness of “reason” has been shaken severely by the Twentieth Century’s genocidal wars and the world’s seeming inability to unite in preventing global violence, environmental ruin and grinding poverty. It is no longer taken for granted that human beings are capable of being “objective” and that everyone looking at the same set of data necessarily sees the same things and draws the same conclusions. We are just beginning to understand how the way we see, hear and understand is all shaped by family influences, cultural conditioning and psychiatric traits coloring the way we process information. Philosophers, historians and literary critics refer to this new skepticism as “post-modern.” We know too much about our world to return to the Middle Ages and pretend that the earth is flat, that we reside in the center of the universe and that heaven is just beyond the sky. At the same time, we have discovered that we are incapable of being “objective,” and that the scientific method of objective observation, experimentation and extrapolation, though it has brought us a long way in many respects, cannot finally bring us to a “truth” capable of saving us from ourselves. Modernity has failed us, but we don’t have anything yet with which to replace it.
My education was modern in nearly every respect. Back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I was in seminary, we set great store by the “historical critical” method of Bible Study. We assumed that by applying to the biblical text the proper analytical tools, we could arrive at its true meaning. That “true meaning” could nearly always be harmonized with our modern world view. To be fair, most of my teachers recognized the limits of historical criticism and were far more modest in terms of what they felt it could deliver. Biblical commentators of that era had not yet caught up with my teachers, however. Typically, they equated instances of demon possession in the New Testament with mental illness. Clearly, if the biblical writers had had the benefit of our superior scientific knowledge and understanding, they would not have employed such primitive notions.
But maybe the biblical witnesses were not quite as primitive as we imagined and maybe we were less advanced than we supposed. The demoniac in our gospel displays conduct (aggression, self destructive behavior) that we often associate with mental disorders. He may actually have been afflicted with a degree of mental illness. Yet that is not the full extent of his problem. I think it is significant that the demon gives his name as “legion.” That probably speaks to the source of the demons as well as their number. What do you think happens to a people occupied by a hostile army, stripped of freedom and self respect, forced to raise pigs (an abomination to central tenants of its faith) in order to feed the legions of its occupiers? The same thing that happens to kids whose childhood is dominated by teasing, bullying and abuse. Anger turns inward, becoming self hate expressed in self punishment and indiscriminant violence. That is the clinical end of it, but this is not finally a clinical problem. The demoniac in the gospel lesson cannot be healed by “talk therapy” or by any medication. That will only mollify the symptoms of a sickness that is bigger than he is and afflicts not only him, but his people. For this demoniac and for all Israel to be healed, “legion” has got to go.
With that in mind, let me say that casting out demons is still very much a task for the church. I don’t have to know what a demon is or where it came from or why it exists to know that demonic power infects our culture and destroys human life at every level. I cannot read this story anymore without recalling the images of young girls, some of whom I have known, who starve and mutilate their bodies because they do not look exactly like the flawless (airbrushed and photo-shopped) women in teen and glamour magazines. Offering these girls crisis intervention, counseling and medical treatment is all well and good, but it is not true healing. As long as the systemic evil oppressing them remains, we have only “healed the wound of my people lightly.” Jeremiah 6:14. Maybe the demons that need to be named these days are called Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan and Victoria’s Secret. Perhaps it is time to call out the devil from behind the “beauty” industry and tell him in no uncertain terms: “You don’t get to say and decide for us what is beautiful anymore. Now get the hell out of the hearts and minds of our children.” This truly is a liberating word of the Lord that many, many of our young people need desperately to hear.
This passage comes to us form Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). For some background on Isaiah generally, see the summary article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. For our purposes, it is enough to note that our lesson for Sunday was directed to the Babylonian captives who had returned to Palestine inspired by the prophetic utterances of an earlier prophet of the exile. That prophet’s sayings are collected at Isaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah). Filled with hope and expectation, these pioneers soon discovered that their dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple would not easily be realized. The land was inhabited with hostile peoples who claimed it as their own. Jerusalem was in ruins and the hoped for influx of additional returning exiles had not materialized. Broken and discouraged, the returning exiles were on the brink of extinction.
In order to fully appreciate this Sunday’s reading, you need to back up a chapter to Isaiah 64 which begins with the cry, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” The anguished prophet recites God’s doing of “terrible things” alluding to prior acts of salvation for Israel. Though Israel has sinned against her God, the prophet reminds God, “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter.” S/he then asks why God remains silent when the people cry out for salvation.
Our lesson for Sunday is a response to this question. In a nut shell, God replies: I am not silent; you are deaf. God has been reaching out to Israel, trying to get her attention but Israel is a rebellious people who will not listen. They have fallen back into idolatrous ways, “sacrificing in gardens and burning incense upon bricks.” vs. 3. Commentators are divided over what this means. Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann believes that this is a reference to “sacrifices in the high places,” a problem referenced throughout I & II Kings. Westermann, Claus Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press) p. 401. Though most likely intended for worship of Israel’s God, these shrines and the priests that oversaw them absorbed Canaanite practices into their cultic worship. While the biblical authors and the prophets understood worship of Israel’s God to be wholly incompatible with Canaanite religion, the Israelite people did not always view it that way. Worship at these “high places” was never thoroughly eliminated at any time throughout Israel’s history as an independent kingdom. Thus, it is not surprising that it springs up again as the Jews begin to return from Babylon to resettle what once was Canaan.
It is alleged that the people “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places.” vs. 4. Again, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on here. Westermann believes that the reference here is to rites designed to obtain oracles from the dead. Id at 402. Such rites are not unknown in Israel, see, e.g., Saul’s appeal to the witch of Endor, I Samuel 28:3-25. Whatever is happening, it constitutes resort to someone or something other than Israel’s God whose word alone is worthy to be trusted. One cannot expect to hear a word from God when seeking other words from other sources.
The people are castigated for eating “swine flesh” contrary to specific biblical injunctions, e.g. Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8. This practice might have been dictated more by hard times and scarcity of food than by willful disobedience. Nevertheless, it reflects a lack of faith in the God who promises to provide for the needs of his people. Dietary restrictions and other cultic rules might sound petty and nonsensical to us, but for Israel they were part and parcel of a holistic covenant existence where every moment of life is filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness and opportunities for thankful obedience. Because the presence of God is known within the framework of the covenant relationship, rejection of the covenant naturally creates a sense of God’s absence.
“As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” vs. 8. Though Israel’s faithlessness will be punished, God will not make an end of Israel. To the contrary, God will “bring forth descendents from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains.” vs. 9. Judgment is a necessary word, but never the final word from God. There is a future for this harried people and a promise-if only they have ears to hear it.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. Our reading begins at vs. 19 where the psalmist makes a plaintive cry for salvation. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
This passage spells out the consequences of faith in Jesus Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” vs. 28. Yet I find myself asking in good Lutheran fashion: “What does this mean?” Surely it cannot mean that we lose our distinctiveness through unity in Christ. It cannot mean that there is some spiritual essence that is truly “me” and that my maleness, my American identity, my love of J.S. Bach and Ella Fitzgerald is merely accidental. So what, then, can oneness in Christ mean?
I believe we need to expand our literary scope to I Corinthians to answer this question. Paul does not envision oneness coming about through the shedding of our differences. To the contrary, unity in Christ is achieved through harmonizing these differences in a community bound together by love. This is not a sentimental sort of love. It is a love that is practiced between people who might not like each other very much. It is the kind of love Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. Becoming one in Christ is a slow, painful and difficult process built through ongoing repentance and forgiveness.
One might conclude from all of this that Paul is replacing the requirements of circumcision and dietary rules with the far more onerous burden of loving each other by our own strength of character. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intent. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1. The life to which Paul calls us is one of joy and thankfulness. Note well that Paul distinguishes between “works of the flesh” which, however well meaning produce sin of one kind or another, and “fruits of the Spirit” that bring life. Galatians 5:16-25 The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control are not achieved by following any rule. Instead, they grow spontaneously from a forgiven heart that knows the generosity and love of God through faith in Jesus. Knowing God’s limitless generosity toward us enables us to be equally generous and accepting of our sisters and brothers in Christ-with all of their differences. The Body of Christ is enriched and strengthened as the one Lord Jesus is reflected in many and diverse ways through its individual members.
Just prior to this story of the demoniac and the pigs, Jesus calmed a threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee leaving his terrified disciples asking, “Who then is this, that he commands even the wind and the water, and they obey him?” Luke 8:25. In last week’s gospel lesson the guests at the party of Simon the Pharisee were asking each other, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49. Ironically, the answer is given by the legion of demons who recognize Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The evil one knows his enemy.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think it is no mere coincidence that the demon answers to the name of “legion.” Matthew and Mark agree with Luke on this point, (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20) but Luke seems to take the story to a heightened level of confrontation with the Rome Empire which has been lurking in the background since the first chapter in his gospel. A “legion” was a Roman infantry division of 6,000 troops. Four such legions were holding the province of Syria, which included the principalities of Palestine. While the Decapolis was predominantly gentile territory, it had a substantial Jewish population as well. The quartering of hogs in what Jews considered to be part of the ancestral holy land could not have been welcome. In all likelihood, the hogs were being raised to feed the Roman legions and their servants. That would explain why the inhabitants were so eager to get rid of Jesus. The Roman commanders would not be pleased to learn that their dinner had been chucked into the lake and less pleased still if they were to discover that this had been the work of a Jewish exorcist. This would also explain why Jesus wished for the man who had been healed to remain in the Decapolis and proclaim all that God had done for him rather than accompany him with his disciples. The people need to know that there is a new sheriff in town. God, not Caesar, is Lord; God, not legion is in command.
The demons beg Jesus not to command them to depart into the “abyss.” This is a broad term. In Hebrew cosmology it constituted the watery deep over which the Spirit of God was blowing at the dawn of creation. See Genesis 1:1-2. In later Hebrew thought this “deep” or “abyss” became associated with the place of subterranean confinement for evil spirits. Jubilees 5:6; I Enoch 10. It figures heavily in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1-11; 17:8 and 20:1-3) and is mentioned also at other points in the New Testament. See, e.g., Jude 6; II Peter 2:4. The confinement of all evil spirits in the abyss is an apocalyptic event signaling the end triumph of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus appears to spare the demons at least temporarily from this fate, but their entry into the swine which, in turn, perish in the sea suggests that maybe the demons found their own way to the “watery deep.” Perhaps we ought not to read too much into the fate of the demons. The point seems to be that “legion” no longer occupies the man he once possessed and cannot long maintain his hold on the people God calls his own.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day
O God, throughout the ages you judge your people with mercy, and you inspire us to speak your truth. By your Spirit, anoint us for lives of faith and service, and bring all people into your forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
You might know the story of David and Bathsheba very well. But in case you don’t, here is the thumbnail version. David’s general Joab was leading Israel’s army against Ammon, a hostile kingdom east of the Jordan River. David remained home in Jerusalem. One hot evening, he was walking about on his roof and spied a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of a neighboring house. David inquired about her identity and learned that she was Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Uriah was one of David’s commanders away fighting with Joab against the Ammonites. How very convenient! David brings Bathsheba to the palace for an overnight fling. Who will ever know?
But it gets complicated. You can get pregnant from a one night stand and Bathsheba did. Clearly, Bathsheba is going to have some explaining to do when Uriah comes home from the war. David does his best to cover his tracks by calling Uriah back from the front on the pretext of getting news about the progress of the war. Then he generously offers him a day of leave from combat hoping that Uriah will go home and spend a wildly romantic evening with Bathsheba. That, in turn, would account for the pregnancy. But Uriah will have none of that, not while his comrades are sleeping in tents on the field of battle. Exasperated and desperate, David resorts to plan B. He sends Uriah back to the front with a letter to Joab. Little does poor Uriah know that he is carrying his own death sentence. The letter from the king directs Joab to place Uriah in a position on the battlefield where he will most certainly be killed. Joab does as David instructs him and Uriah falls in battle. In a magnanimous show of compassion for the fallen war hero, David takes Uriah’s grief stricken widow into his harem as wife. In so doing, he manages to succeed where so many American political leaders consistently and famously fail. David managed to conceal his sexual dalliance from the public. No one is the wiser.
Except God. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” David must have known that from the get go. The king of any other near eastern country would simply have taken Bathsheba without further ado declaring in the words of Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.” If Uriah were to complain (and perhaps even if he did not) the king would have him killed. But Israel was not just any other near eastern country. She was God’s chosen people. In Israel, kings are not gods and they do not rule autonomously. Like every other Israelite, kings are subject to the covenants with Israel’s God. Psalm 72, a royal coronation hymn, spells out exactly how kings of Israel are to rule:
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
13He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
14From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Psalm 72:12-14. David’s conduct is inimical to these high standards. So far from saving the needy when they call, David sent Uriah to his death. So far from redeeming his people from oppression and violence, David abuses his power to work oppression and violence against Uriah whose blood was cheap in his sight. As I said, David must have known that his conduct was at odds with his covenant obligations. Otherwise he would not have gone to such great lengths covering it up. So why did he do it? How could David have concocted such a ruthless and cleaver cover up leaving God entirely out of the equation? Did he really think he could pull the wool over the eyes of the Lord?
There is something more sinister here than overactive hormones. Former President Bill Clinton said of his affair with Monica Lewinski, “I did it for the worst reason possible: because I could.” Granted, it is possible that neither Lewinski’s nor Bathsheba’s hearts were pure as the driven snow. Nevertheless, there is in both cases a huge imbalance of power. In both cases, a man of great authority and influence acts upon a woman of much lesser status with dire consequences. Power and authority seem to have a corrosive effect upon the character of male leaders luring them to abuse that power and exploit people under their command for no better reason than that they can. I suppose that is what the serpent’s temptation boils down to in the end. Why take what God has directed you to let be? “Because you can,” the serpent replies.
Political power is not an inert gas. It is intoxicating. To say that “power corrupts” is putting the matter too mildly. Power distorts the perceptions of those who wield it, giving them illusions of invulnerability and godlike prerogatives. The one who possesses power can easily slide into being possessed by power. Perhaps that is why writer and philosopher Eli Wiesel warns us that, “Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.” Until we can achieve that, we cannot safely exercise power over the lives of others, even when done with the best of intentions and for their sole good.
I like the story of David-from beginning to end. It reveals both the promises and the dangers of political power. David was capable of extraordinary generosity, forgiveness and mercy. He could also be vain, vengeful and petty. He professed great faith in the Lord and exhibited such faith in many instances throughout his life. But David was also an astute and ruthless politician unafraid to employ the sword against his enemies at home and abroad. The monarchy David built lasted over three centuries. It produced some heroes of faith and some faithless tyrants. In the end, the House of David was unable to lead Israel through the clash of empires into a new beginning. That task was left for the faithful prophets, scribes and teachers who inspired the exiled remnant of Israel with a new vision and gave us the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David through the parable of the stolen sheep is one of the most masterful tales in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does to David precisely what parables are intended to do: draw the hearer into the story, induce him to choose sides between the characters in the story and then expose the hypocrisy reflected in that choice. Jesus will employ the very same strategy against Simon the Pharisee in our gospel lesson for this Sunday. By appealing to David’s sense of justice and arousing his compassion for the poor man in the story, Nathan is now able to place Uriah in the shoes of this poor man David was so ready to defend. There is now only one other pair of shoes left in the parable and David cannot help but recognize that he is standing in them.
David’s repentance is true and heartfelt. Nathan’s assurance of God’s forgiveness is therefore appropriate. Nonetheless, there will be consequences. The lectionary has done a hack job on the reading, omitting some unpleasant but critical information. In 2 Samuel 12:10-12 God declares in judgment against David that the sword he used to strike down Uriah will now strike his house. Just as David has taken Uriah’s wife, so David’s wives will be taken-not in secret as was David’s crime, but publicly to David’s great humiliation and shame. This pronouncement foreshadows the coming rebellion against David’s kingdom led by David’s son, Absalom. The House of David will henceforth be a fractious and divided family right up to the time of David’s death. Like David his father, Solomon will secure the throne only through a series of assassinations and executions. From inception, then, the Davidic monarchy has been founded as much on blood as covenant. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the house of David is portrayed in the books of Samuel and Kings both as a symbol of promise and as an object of idolatrous infatuation.
The prophetic tradition is likewise ambivalent about David. Some prophetic voices see the monarchy as a rebellious departure from God’s intent for Israel. Other prophetic voices, though critical of the Davidic kings and their evil and unjust ways, nevertheless looked for a descendent of David that would exercise his power and authority with justice and in obedience to the covenant. Jeremiah and the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) are examples of this sentiment. The omitted material is therefore important for giving us a balanced view of David and the monarchy he founded. The New Testament takes care in pointing out that the one sometimes called “Son of David,” promises a very different sort of kingdom under the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. For good reason he warns his disciples that “all that take the sword perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52.
The most troubling aspect of this story from the perspective of us moderns is the death of David’s and Bathsheba’s child as a consequence of David’s sin. Even if we assume that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair-an assumption we cannot fairly make in view of David’s status as king and the subordinate position of women in near eastern society-it seems unnecessarily cruel to inflict death upon their child. After all, we don’t choose our parents. Yet it remains a sad fact of life that children do suffer the consequences of their parents’ selfishness, neglect and stupidity. Sinful acts have unpredictable and unintended consequences that sometimes harm the people we most love. The entire human family is inescapably bound together and linked in ways we cannot begin to see and understand. While from a modern scientific perspective the causal link between sickness and death of a child and the adulterous relationship in which it was conceived is problematic, the theological understanding of sin’s insidious propensity for sending destructive ripple effects into the larger human community is sound. We live among the ruinous effects of our ancestors’ sins and our descendents will have to cope with the destruction we have wrought in our own time.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This psalm presents the same issue as our lesson from II Samuel. Just as we do not typically associate the death of an infant with the sin of its parents, so we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
If all you read were the verses set forth in the lectionary, you would never guess that what Paul has to say here is all about meal fellowship. Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14 how Cephas (Simon Peter) came to the church at Antioch where Paul was working among the gentiles. Peter was quite content to eat with these gentile believers and share their table fellowship until the arrival of some Jewish believers from Jerusalem. When these folks came, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the gentiles eating only with the believers from Jerusalem. He probably had the best of intentions. He did not want to offend his fellow disciples from Jerusalem and so cause division within the church. (Similar reasons were given back in the 1960s by churches resisting integration.) We all get along better by keeping our distances.
Paul went ballistic. For him, this was not a matter of whether believers could eat meat from the market place that had been used in pagan sacrifice or whether disciples should or should not marry or whether and under what circumstances one should pray in tongues. In all of these matters Paul urged compromise, patience and acceptance for the sake of maintaining the unity of Christ’s Body. But meal fellowship was a cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus got himself into trouble precisely because he went about with sinners and even ate with them. Jesus’ most intimate expression of fellowship was the last supper he shared with his disciples. To exclude people from the table is to exclude them from the church and the presence of Jesus. To divide the table between Jews and gentiles amounts to a division of the Body of Christ and a denial of its reconciling power. Peter and his fellow disciples from Jerusalem were thus not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Vs. 14.
So now we can understand why Paul launches into his declaration that people are justified not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith in Jesus that constitutes table fellowship. Dividing the table between Jew and gentile therefore reflects not only prejudice. It amounts to a rank denial of the good news that all are made God’s children through faith in Jesus. This is not just a theological disagreement over “justification” in the heady realm of doctrinal abstractions. This is a critical matter of the church’s most central and constituting practice-a matter of life and death. Oneness in Christ is not an ideal. It is a concrete reality grounded in one table to which all are invited and welcomed.
Paul relates this dispute he had with Peter in order to illustrate the insidious effects of that “other gospel,” to which the Galatian church seems to have turned. The “truth of the gospel” is Jesus, not Jesus plus something else. There is room for cultural diversity in the church; there is room for theological disagreement in the church; there is room for differing liturgical practices in the church. But there can be only one savior in the church. When it comes to where faith rests, it is Jesus and Jesus alone. If Jesus is not all, then Jesus is nothing.
From the language he uses, you might get the impression that Paul hates the law and Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul both loved and lived under the Torah throughout his life and ministry. It is rather “works of the law” that Paul hates or, more specifically, works of the law aimed at earning God’s love and salvation. Paul points out in many of his letters that Judaism at its best has always been grounded in the God whose generous, free and undeserved mercy sustains Israel. The church at its worst sometimes forgets this marvelous good news.
This is one of the many instances in the Gospel of Luke in which a Pharisee shows Jesus genuine hospitality and expresses a degree of openness to him. Simon invites Jesus to dinner and it is clear that he has not quite made up his mind what to think of his notorious guest. But he has clearly formed some very firm opinions about the woman who appears in this story to anoint Jesus’ feet. In all likelihood, the dinner took place in a sheltered, but open air setting where people from off the street might wander in. Even so, it would have been highly inappropriate for a woman to enter unaccompanied into a gathering of men. Most of the commentaries I have read assume that the woman was a prostitute, but none of them have given me any convincing reason to draw that conclusion myself. The gospel refers to her merely as a “sinner.” At least one commentator points out that this could mean merely that she was the wife of an impious or irreligious man. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott), p. 122. Thus, her being labeled a “sinner” might be a reflection on her social status rather than her character. In either case, Simon views her as unclean and untouchable.
Simon is at a loss to understand how Jesus, who is purported to be a prophet, fails to see that the woman touching him is a sinner-something that is obvious to him. He therefore concludes that Jesus could not possibly be a prophet. But it turns out that Jesus knows more than Simon supposes. Jesus is keenly aware of where sin is residing and so, in the tradition of Nathan, poses a parable to Simon. Two debtors owed their creditor a sum of money. The first owed a substantial amount, the second only a small sum. The creditor forgave both debts. “So,” Jesus asks Simon, “which of the two will love him more.” Like David, Simon is boxed into giving a response that will trap him. “I suppose,” he replies, “the debtor who was forgiven more.” Jesus has Simon where he wants him. Now he can contrast the woman’s lavish affection with Simon’s quite proper but strictly formal hospitality. Simon discovers that Jesus is in fact a prophet. Not only does he know the woman’s heart better than Simon, but he also knows Simon better than Simon knows himself.
And there is more. The guests and onlookers marvel when Jesus declares to this woman that her sins are forgiven. “Who is this that even forgives sins?” vs. 49. That is an understandable question. Forgiveness of sin is the prerogative of God alone. See, e.g., Mark 2:7. Luke is pressing the question of Jesus’ true identity here. Simon and his guests do not know the answer to that question, but the implication is that the woman does. Her faith, that is, her assurance that Jesus would receive her and accept her has been vindicated. Her confidence that Jesus can and does in fact offer her forgiveness of sin has inspired the love so evident in her lavish kindness toward him.
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The casket floats above the crowd of wailing mourners as the funeral procession wends its way through the village and out onto the dusty road leading to the cemetery. This could be a scene from modern day Palestine where the death of young men leaving behind widowed wives and grieving mothers is all too common. It could also be a scene from a funeral on the south side of Chicago which has seen a spike in violence among and between young men. We don’t know whether the young man in our gospel lesson died a violent death. It is altogether possible that he did. Palestine in the first century was a violent land filled with bandits, insurrectionists and soldiers of Herod Antipas who were little better than murderous thugs. One had only to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Of course, there were plenty of other ways for young men to die in first century Palestine. Building of silos, storehouses and homes was dangerous work. There was no OSHA in those days. A broken bone or a deep cut as frequently as not led to subsequent infection and death. The vast majority of the population was chronically malnourished and thus vulnerable to all manner of diseases and disabilities. So it is also quite possible that the widow’s son in this week’s lesson died an unremarkable death from causes which, if not entirely natural, were common enough.
The tragic nature of the untimely death of this young man is amplified by his sole survivor, his mother. In a land that knew nothing of Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, a woman left widowed and childless was a most pathetic figure. Her options for survival were few: migrant worker; slave-or worse. That is the circumstance into which Jesus walks. He touches the dead man’s coffin-an act that rendered him ritually unclean for the rest of the day. But what has occurred in the case of lepers and notorious sinners happens here as well. Instead of being rendered unclean by what he touches, Jesus touches uncleanness and renders it clean. The young man who was dead now lives.
The gospel lesson gives us some straight talk about death. Let’s start with the obvious. God made us mortal. That means there is a limit to life. God gave us life and God means to take it back from us in the end. We will all die and there is nothing we can do about it. Still, we face death with confidence. The One who made us from dust and returns us to dust promises to raise us up from dust once again. This is no empty promise. God has already begun to raise the dead through Jesus. So we are free to live and to die in hope.
That said, there are deaths which ought never to occur. No child should ever die from malnutrition, preventable diseases or from neglect or abuse. No young man or woman should have to die because the governments of the world cannot resolve their disputes without resort to violence. School children should not have to die because mental health treatment is inaccessible while assault weapons are as accessible as chewing gum. Millions of children should not be dying of malaria throughout the world while there are means of prevention that are easily implemented and affordable. Disciples should be no more accepting of these deaths than Jesus was toward the death of the widow’s son at Nain.
This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 11th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia. He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year draught that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of draught. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”
There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.
The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.
This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.
The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God.
As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.
Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.
It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?
This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”
Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.
Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.
Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day.
Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56. See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.
Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.