Archive for July, 2013
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
American Dream | Meadowlands™ is located right here in our own neighborhood. You have probably seen it from the Turnpike. Governor Chris Christie has called it the ugliest building in America. A recent Quinnipiac University poll revealed that 74 percent of New Jersey residents agree. Whatever you might think about its architectural esthetics, you have got to admit that it’s an eye catcher. American Dream/Meadowlands is the latest reincarnation of what started out as Xanadu about a decade ago. When complete, it will be one of the largest and most unique shopping, entertainment and tourism centers in the world. At least that is what its website promises. According to its proponents, the mall will also bring more business to the meadowlands, generate more jobs and help stimulate or stagnant economy.
What interests me about this project is its name, “American Dream.” According to the Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, the term is defined as: “an American social ideal that stresses egalitarianism and especially material prosperity; also: the prosperity or life that is the realization of this ideal.” Much ink has been spilt lately lamenting the loss of that dream for many people in our country, the shrinking middle class and the shortage of opportunities for “upward mobility.” Debate rages in the U.S. Congress as well as in barber shops, bars and bus stops throughout this ever increasingly polarized land over how to remedy such growing inequality and loss of economic opportunity. I don’t take much interest in these arguments. I suppose that is because I am not convinced the American Dream is worth restoring. If “the realization of this ideal” means nothing more than the opportunity to shop in a big, glitzy mall offering virtually anything money can buy, I join the assessment of the “teacher” in this Sunday’s lesson from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
The teacher knows what he is talking about. He was a king of Israel. According to his own account, “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them, I kept my heart from no pleasure.” Ecclesiastes 2:9-10. This is a guy who knew prosperity. He “had it all,” everything money could buy. He spent a lifetime working, toiling and clawing his way to the top only to find out that, when he got to the top, there was nothing there. That seems to be the burden of the teacher’s message. He tells us in no uncertain terms that the tasks with which we busy ourselves are largely meaningless and the pleasures with which we seek to entertain ourselves finally dead end into boredom. More of the same will not make our lives any better.
This ought to be no secret. God knows we have seen enough child actors and entertainers rocket into the big time only to crash and burn. If money can buy happiness, the line in front of the Betty Ford clinic indicates to me that happiness is overrated. The teacher warns us that “upward mobility” is just a downward spiral that we cannot recognize because we do not know which end is up. So forgive me if I cannot get enthusiastic about anyone’s plan to stimulate the economy or restore the American Dream. More wealth and prosperity for the American people is about as helpful as giving an alcoholic a gift certificate for Stew Leonard’s. If we are lifting children out of poverty only so that they can receive paychecks for meaningless work to consume more needless commodities at American Dream/Meadowlands and do their rehab at plush residential treatment centers in the company of Lindsay Lohan, the game is not worth the candle.
I have read through the Book of Ecclesiastes several times during my life. I am not sure the teacher ever manages to think his way out of the quagmire in which he finds himself. For that we must turn elsewhere. Jesus has plenty to say about living well. He agrees with the teacher as far as his teaching goes. Wealth is not necessarily evil in and of itself, but a life dedicated to acquiring wealth or the things wealth can buy is bound to end badly. Jesus urges us in Sunday’s gospel lesson to be “rich toward God.” The wealth of God’s Kingdom is found not in “upward mobility” but by worshiping the God who “looks far down…” and “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts up the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7. To be rich toward God is to be transformed into the image of this downward reaching God who sees the poor and the needy as unique and gifted persons-not merely as potential consumers. As Paul points out in our lesson from Colossians, God’s reign promises a humanity reconciled as one Body in Christ Jesus, sharing God’s good gifts to strengthen the bonds of faith, friendship and love. Sure beats the heck out of a shopping mall, doesn’t it?
According to most scholars, the book of Ecclesiastes was composed in post-exilic Jerusalem late in the Old Testament period, most likely between 350-250 B.C.E. It stands in the biblical cannon as a direct antithesis to the preceding Book of Proverbs. Proverbial wisdom maintained that there exists a moral underpinning to the universe discernible to the wise and virtuous. “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:6-8. The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes casts serious doubt upon this assumption. He declares, “I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.
The double irony here is that both of these works are attributed to King Solomon. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon formed treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms transacting commerce and military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
However the question of Solomon’s connection to Ecclesiastes might be resolved, the teacher clearly has a literary incentive for attributing his work to the king. If ever there was a man whose wisdom could have answered the mystery of suffering, injustice and the emptiness of material success, it was the proverbially wise King Solomon. Yet not even Solomon can unravel these deep and terrifying mysteries. Most people sweat their lives away toiling under the sun and have nothing to show for it in the end. Even in rare cases, such as that of Solomon, where wisdom and hard work produce an abundance of wealth, such success brings neither joy nor satisfaction. Death will erase whatever a person manages to accomplish. Sensual pleasure finally becomes empty and boring. “So,” says the teacher, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:17.
The message of the teacher is not one that a positive, anything-is-possible, can-do culture like ours likes to hear. As I pointed out in my opening remarks, we believe fervently in the value of hard work and the blessings of prosperity it promises to bring. But I cannot tell you how many people I know who hate their jobs and are counting down the days until retirement. I have known more than a few individuals over the years whose hard work and dedication to the company earned them only the jealousy of their co-workers and termination at the hands of supervisors worried that they might get “shown up.” The world of work as we know it is often a heartless environment where the bottom line reigns and workers are little more than replaceable cogs in the machine. This reflects the experience not merely of unskilled, minimum wage employees, but also that of more highly compensated professionals.
“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.
The teacher could well understand the rage of the 99%, but he would have little enthusiasm for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. That is because a bigger slice of the pie will not bring about the better life for which such folks seemed to hunger. Life is no better for the 1% at the top of the heap. They will learn soon enough that their acquisitions and achievements amount to “vanity and chasing after wind.” So King Solomon discovered:
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it? I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
Perhaps the teacher can help those of us in the church begin changing the conversation about wealth and poverty which too often mirrors the partisan divide in our country. We need to focus our discussion on what makes life good rather than accepting uncritically the American Dream of middle class “upward mobility” as the good life and then arguing about how to get there. The teacher can help us deflate the notion that the good life depends on satisfying an endless thirst for accumulation that finally will exhaust the planet and leave us empty and despondent.
This psalm is a wisdom psalm in the same tradition and genre as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. For this reason, most scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile. Again, while I think this is probably correct, I also believe that the psalmist might very well be working with material reaching back to the Davidic monarchy. Thus, when we speak about the age of this psalm we need to be very precise about what we mean. The material utilized might very well be ancient indeed, even though the composition took place at a later date and subsequent editing was done more recently still.
The theme here is consistent with what we have seen in Ecclesiastes. Death is the great equalizer before which the wise and the foolish, rich and poor come to the same end. The jubilant refrain appears twice in the psalm: “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” Vss. 12 & 20. The psalmist is particularly scornful of people who “trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches.” Vs. 6 Their wealth cannot ransom them from the grim reaper. If you were to read on to verse 15 (not in our reading), you would discover that the psalmist is more optimistic than the teacher. Of him/herself, s/he says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Most likely, this is an expression of confidence in God’s power and readiness to rescue the psalmist from the power of his/her wealthy enemies rather than an expectation for immortality or resurrection. Still, the psalmist maintains confidence in the moral underpinnings of human existence that the teacher has long abandoned.
It is interesting that this psalm (like many wisdom psalms) is addressed not to God but to the psalmist’s fellow Israelites. See also, Psalm 37; Psalm 52; Psalm 53. Biblical prayer is never an entirely personal matter. The psalmist’s expression of confidence in God encourages other worshipers to place their trust in God as well and call upon God’s saving power in their own circumstances. Even those psalms which appear to be intensely personal have been preserved and included in Israel’s public worship book for use by the whole people of God.
To refresh your recollection concerning the background of the Letter to the Colossians, see the synopsis by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament. For my thoughts about its authorship and why I continue to refer to the writer as “Paul,” see my post of Sunday, July 14th.
The first four verses summarize Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of the future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and head of the church which is his body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler, that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.
“Do not lie to one another.” Vs. 9. This admonition seems almost trivial and superfluous in its simplicity. Yet truthfulness is the most critical ethical demand for the community of disciples. Without complete honesty and transparency, it is impossible for the “love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” to exist. When you think about it, so much of day to day life is sustained by an elaborate network of lies. There are the lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live with the actions in our past we cannot help but know are wrong. There are the lies we tell each other to cover the imperfections in our marriages, the failures we experience in raising our children and the lack of success and recognition we feel in the work place. Of course, there are the lies that our society tells itself in order to continue believing in its goodness and the rightness of its causes. Too often, church is the place where we put on our “Sunday best.” There seems to be a tacit agreement that we will not probe too deeply into each other’s lives. There is an unwritten rule against shaking each other’s façade of well being. Yet while that might keep us from getting hurt, it will also finally prevent our being healed.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be a truthful people. We know that “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Luke 12:2. Consequently, there is nothing to be gained from lying. Our lies and the lies of all people will be exposed in the end. Therefore, we live our lives conscious of the fact that we have no secrets. The whole truth will come out in the end, so it is best to make peace with the truth now. It is best to start living in the truth today so that when it is finally revealed to the entire world, it will be our friend and not our enemy.
Confession of sin is the ultimate expression of truthfulness. It takes an enormous degree of humility to confess before God and one another that we are not the people we pretend to be; that our families are not the models of domestic tranquility we try to project to the world; that our marriages are struggling; that we work in an environment where we are not valued. In a culture that values independence, individuality and self sufficiency, it is hard to confess that we need God’s healing forgiveness and that we need one another’s support to become whole. Yet such honesty is also liberating. It takes a lot of energy to keep in place a carefully orchestrated network of lies. Paul reminds us here that we don’t have to tire ourselves anymore with play acting. We can drop the mask and be assured of a welcome-just as we are.
This parable begins with a dispute between two sons over an inheritance. Presumably, the father has died (though that might not necessarily be the case as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates). This leads me to wonder whether the “rich fool” in Jesus’ parable that follows is not actually the father of these two sons. The parable concludes with the question: “and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Could the answer be in the opening interchange between Jesus and the brothers? The man’s wealth will go to his two sons where it will create disharmony and animosity for his family-not feasting and merriment as he supposed. Obviously, for father and for sons, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Vs. 15.
Taken by itself, the parable is long on what “abundance” is not and short on what it is. I have to tell you that this fellow in Jesus’ parable has done nothing my own financial advisor has not urged me to do. He experienced a good year and wisely (as my advisor would no doubt agree), he put away a substantial amount of profit for the years to come. We call that retirement planning. Jesus calls it stupid. Why? Part of the answer may lie in the rich man’s soliloquy. Oddly enough, this man appears to be pathologically lonely. He has no one with whom to share the good news of his bountiful harvest or anyone to congratulate him. He must do that for himself. He also has no God to thank, so naturally he takes credit for his own good fortune. He has no one with whom to share his bounty and so he concludes: “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for yourself; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” Vs. 19. The future he paints for himself is hardly a life worth living. We are left with the image of a man sitting alone at his table, eating, drinking and trying very hard to be merry-by himself.
Not until the end do we get a hint at where Jesus is going with this. “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Vs. 21. A little later on in this same chapter Jesus spells out for us exactly what it means to be “rich toward God.” “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34. Jesus’ call is to a life of abundance found not in accumulation but in generosity and relinquishment. What we possess we will surely lose and to suppose otherwise is, well, foolish. But when we are possessed by the One who promises us an eternal kingdom built not upon accumulated wealth, but on the bonds built through sharing, compassion and faithfulness, there is no place left for anxiety or loneliness.
This brings us right back full circle to the American Dream/Meadowlands which would revive the economy by selling us a ticket to everything money can buy. Economy built on an orgy of self centered and unsustainable consumption? How very foolish!
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons all seem to touch on the topic of prayer in some fashion. Abraham intercedes with God on behalf of the Sodomites. The psalmist gives thanks to the Lord “with a whole heart.” Paul encourages the church at Colossae to “be rooted and built up” in Christ. Jesus responds to his disciples’ request that he teach them to pray. Volumes have been written by saints, sages and spiritual seekers on the subject of prayer. A few that I have found useful are Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton; Prayer, by O. Hallesby and Prayers by Michel Quoist. These books are all well worth reading as are many others. But for me, the most formative book on prayer is the biblical Book of Psalms. Here you find God framed in praise that is sublime, imaginative and at times disturbing. The God of the Psalms is not “nice.” God is as terrifying and ruthless as he is merciful and compassionate. The fear of this God is the beginning of wisdom. So also the psalmists are not an otherworldly spiritual lot. They are human to the core and often deeply flawed. They express anger, jealousy and a thirst for vengeance that makes us pious Protestant types cringe and wring our dainty little hands. Yet all of this reminds us that there is no part of our lives that ought to be excluded from prayer. The psalms invite us to “come as we are” and to speak freely all that is within us, however ugly it might be. Most significant of all, God speaks in the psalms. In fact, God sometimes initiates the process of prayer reminding us that prayer is a two way street. Freedom to pour out our hearts to God in words goes hand in hand with the obligation to listen for God’s Word to us. That is why I never tire of recommending two psalms every day, one in the morning and one before bedtime.
In popular culture, prayer is often touted as the means to some end. There is “power” in prayer that helps us overcome adversity. Prayer gives us peace in the midst of a stressful day. Prayer helps us shape and achieve our goals. It is an important part of our lives. But what if prayer is more than that? What if prayer is not designed to “get us through life,” but life is given to us so that we can learn to pray? What if prayer is the goal and meaning of life? As a child of the 60s, that notion does not go down well with me. My generation put a lot of stock in “doing” and “accomplishing” things. We were activists, organizers and agitators. (Actually I was never any of those things, but I am enough of a flower child to experience the nagging feeling that perhaps I should have been). Prayer is fine-as long as it fires us up for the pursuit of justice, peace and other abstract nouns. But prayer as an end in itself? That is just self centered, otherworldly, navel gazing.
Or is it? Throughout its history the church has been accompanied by the monastic movement, communities made up of persons convinced that prayer is their life vocation. Their disciplined lives revolve around intervals of corporate prayer, meditation on daily scripture readings and singing the psalms. The monks and nuns who have undertaken this life of prayer are anything but inactive. In the middle ages they built and ran hospitals, libraries, schools and orphanages. They grew food, manufactured household goods and even carried out early scientific research. But their productive lives were built around prayer. For them, prayer was not simply an oasis of peace in a busy day or an aid to coping with their heavy work schedule. Their work was an outgrowth of their vocation of perfecting the art of prayer.
Lately, I have been rethinking my priorities and the place of prayer in my life. Or perhaps I should say, I am rethinking the orientation of my life toward the practice of prayer. Too often, prayer is an “add on;” something I try my best to fit into some part of every day. The implication is that I value other things occupying my time more than I value prayer. Time belongs to me. Time is limited. I must decide how to parcel it out wisely and efficiently so that the important things get done. But in truth, time folds into eternity and eternity belongs to God. So in fact, we have all the time we need to know and enjoy God. That, according to St. Augustine, is what life is for. Something is seriously out of kilter with our lives if we cannot find time for the very reason we exist. Furthermore, if I cannot manage to recognize the highest calling for my life, how can I begin to prioritize the lesser tasks crying out for my attention? Is something important merely because I think it is? Is it possible that the outcome of my actions may not match my good intentions? Is it possible that my good intentions might be misguided? Is it conceivable that God might have priorities other than mine? To ask these questions is to answer them. As it turns out, life without prayer is a little like texting while driving. Fixation on the urgent can distract you from the truly significant, life altering matters that demand your full attention.
I am not ready to join a monastery just yet. Still, the older I get, the more evident it seems that God cannot make much good use of me or anything I do unless I am, to use Paul’s words, “rooted and built up in [Christ].” Colossians 2:7 Unless my life becomes prayer, my best work is just a lot of aimless busyness no matter how well and efficiently I may carry it out. So at the ripe old age of fifty-seven, after completing thirty years of ordained ministry and having just entered the estate of grandfatherhood, I find myself asking, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Better late than never!
The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:
“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do,seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19
This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.
The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we might see as Lot’s character flaws.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?
I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might be only a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Perhaps you can still recall how seven years ago on October 2, 2006 a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?
I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?
I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CIS or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,” abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.
Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.
Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
If I live to be a thousand, I will never understand the method behind the madness we call the common lectionary. This week’s reading from Genesis narrates the delightful tale of three mysterious visitors to the tent of Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Perhaps he dozed off. We are told that when he “lifted up his eyes,” he saw three men standing in front of him. Springing into action (as much as one can at the ripe old age of ninety-nine), Abraham bows before his visitors and implores them to accept his hospitality and share a meal with him and Sarah, his wife. He orders his servants to fetch water so that the visitors may wash the grime of the desert from their feet. He directs Sarah to whip up some pancakes, then dashes off to prepare a roast. Ever the attentive host, Abraham serves his guests and stands by, ready to provide for their every need.
“Where is your wife, Sarah?” asks one of the guests. “She is in the tent,” Abraham replies. No doubt she is busy with the work of meal preparation. The visitor announces that Sarah will have a son. That is where the lectionary would leave it. But the best part is yet to come. If you read on, you discover that “Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?”14Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ 15But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’” Genesis 18:10b-15. Like Mary in our gospel lesson, Sarah was being attentive to a word of the Lord that seems to have been directed to her as much as to Abraham.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That question is almost unintelligible to us moderns. We inhabit a wonderless world circumscribed by physical laws dictating to us what can and cannot be. We firmly believe that what we do not yet understand can be explained and demystified once we have gathered enough data and conducted a sufficiently rigorous investigation. “Wonder” belongs to an open universe that is too big to fit into anyone’s “theory of everything.” Wonder belongs to a people who worship a God that is mysterious, terrifying, unbridled and uncontrolled; a God that is “good,” but not by the measure of our preconceived notions of goodness. Wonder happens when we enter into the world of the Bible to be transformed instead of trying to domesticate the Bible to fit the confines of our own cramped, stuffy, limited and wonderless world.
Abraham and Sarah felt trapped in a world without wonder. This is not the first time they had received the promise of a child. As a youngster of eighty-six, Abraham was told that his descendents would inherit the land of Canaan in which he was currently just an immigrant. When Abraham reminded God that he had no descendents and that the heir to all his property was a slave born in his company, God did something unprecedented. God swore an oath to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son who would become their heir.
Evidently, Abraham and Sarah felt that such wonders were beyond even the reach of God. So they tried to help God out. They turned to surrogate parenthood. Abraham impregnated Sarah’s slave girl who, as Sarah’s property, would produce a son that would likewise be hers. In so doing, they were trying to make sure that history came out right; that God’s promised word would come true. Instead, they created a host of lethal domestic problems for themselves. Now, thirteen years later with the biological clock at one minute to midnight, the promise is repeated and Sarah laughs. This is no joyful laugh. It is a bitter, cynical laugh. “Shall an old woman enjoy a roll in the hay with her ninety-nine year old husband?”
Bitterness is what remains when our sense of wonder is lost. Aging becomes a process that continues to narrow possibilities, limit activities and destroy capabilities of sight, hearing and memory. Time is a conveyer belt taking us to the grave. The future seems to offer nothing but more of the same. It is precisely here that God breaks into our closed universe and opens our eyes to the wonder of the possible. Sarah will laugh once again, but not with bitterness. She will laugh when she holds her newborn son Isaac in her arms. She will laugh at how small and hopeless her world once was. She will laugh at the absurdity of her unbelief. She will laugh with a holy wonder at the new possibilities God has opened up for the world even as he opened her womb. Sarah will laugh because she knows that along with Isaac, a flood of new wonders has come tumbling into the world. They will culminate in the wonder of a group of women centuries later as they meet the resurrected Lord they came to prepare for burial. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
This is a delightful story whose significance unravels in the telling. It begins with the aging Abraham receiving three visitors. There is nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary here. Travelers in the early bronze age were a vulnerable lot, subject to abuse and exploitation-as can be seen from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which follows. It was not unusual for them to seek food and shelter from nomadic tribesmen like Abraham. Nor was it unusual for these tribesmen to exercise hospitality. After all, one never knows when it might become necessary to travel for some reason. It would then help to be able to call in some favors and be assured of hospitality along the way. It is not until verse 9 that we learn the Lord is among these three visitors. There the promise is made to Sarah that she will have a son.
As I pointed out above, the lectionary brings this narrative to a close prematurely. It is significant that the three visitors inquire specifically about Sarah. Their message seems to be directed to her at least as much as to Abraham. At any rate, she is the one who responds with laughter. I find it amusing that, while the visitors seem focused on the “wonder” of the birth of a child, Sarah seems focused on the “wonder” of good sex at her and her husband’s advanced age. Vss. 11-15. In any event, we now discover that the Lord is among these three visitors and that God’s purpose is to reaffirm the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah.
The significance of the three visitors has sparked all manner of speculation. They seem at some points to speak as one person, prompting some early Christian commentators to see a Trinitarian presence. However, as we discover later on in the narrative, two of the visitors clearly are “angels” or messengers of God. We ought not to press this distinction too much though. God frequently acts and speaks through “angels,” which in the biblical languages simply means “messengers.”
According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in the community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.” Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.” For my thoughts on the prohibition against interest, see my post of September 2nd, 2012 .
Here Paul* makes some incredible claims about Jesus of Nazareth. In short, Jesus is not one in a pantheon of great prophets, teachers, community organizers or moral examples. He is the “image of the invisible God,” the “firstborn of all creation” and the “first-born from the dead.” “All things were created through him and for him.” “He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Jesus is described both as Lord of all thrones, dominions and powers as well as the “head” of the Body of Christ, the church. The only difference, then, between the church and the rest of humanity is that the church recognizes its head. It is not that Jesus must struggle to become Lord of all. He is Lord of all even if all do not yet know that.
Paul sums up in succinct fashion what God accomplished in Jesus: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vss. 19-20. I suppose that my reading of this verse is colored by my participation in the 2013 Ekklesia Project Gathering this past week in Chicago. Ekklesia, as you may already know, is a network of Christians who are discovering a uniting and empowering friendship rooted in our common love of God and the Church. This year’s theme for the gathering was “Practicing the Peace of Christ in Church, Neighborhood and Country.” What I have taken away from my years of association with Ekklesia and this last week in particular is the recognition that peace is not a tangential aspect of the gospel. It stands at the gospel’s very core. The willingness of Jesus to shed his blood rather than employ violence against his enemies and God’s raising of Jesus from death to offer him to us again rather than retaliating against us for the murder of his Son demonstrate God’s mercy triumphing over judgment. The cycle of retaliation has been broken within the heart of God and in the realm of human history as well. The peace of Christ reigns at God’s right hand. The resurrected Body of Christ lives that peace in the world as church.
What follows? Disciples of Jesus are called to live under God’s gentle reign, practicing the peace made by Jesus through love for enemies, forgiveness of wrongs and reconciliation of all things. The renunciation of violence is a direct corollary to accepting the peace of Christ. Hostility is to be met in the same way Jesus always responded to it throughout his ministry and at the very end. Because peace has been made through the blood of the cross, coercive force is no longer a weapon in the disciple’s arsenal. Our sole weapons are righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, prayer and the Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 6:13-20.
This is a difficult message to proclaim in a culture so thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of violence that it cannot imagine life without it. Seldom does anyone question the proposition that “a strong military is essential to our security.” The right of self defense is written into our law and presumes the necessity of force or the threat of force to keep one’s self safe from harm. From police dramas to westerns, the entertainment industry reinforces our belief that the only sure way to deal with violent evil is by employing a violent response. In our creed we may be confessing the Prince of Peace, but in practice our lives are more often shaped by Kenny Rogers’ lyric: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Coward of the County, Kenny Rogers. Disciples of Jesus do not accept the proposition that “sometimes you have to fight.” Sometimes you have to suffer. Sometimes you have to forgive as many as seventy times seventy. Sometimes you have to die. But fighting violence with violence is not an option.
*See last week’s post of July 14thfor my thoughts on authorship of the letter to the Colossians and why I continue to refer to the author as “Paul.”
This brief story has been cited numerous times for the proposition that the contemplative life of prayer, meditation and worship is superior to the active life of work and service. Both the proposition and the use of the text to support it are off the mark. There are a couple of things going on here. Jesus is a guest in the home of Mary and Martha. As such, protocol demands that he be shown hospitality in the tradition illustrated by Abraham in our Genesis reading. But Jesus is not simply a guest. He is a teacher or rabbi and is in the process of instructing his disciples. Mary is among those disciples “sitting at his feet” and listening to his instruction. While women in the first century were not forbidden to learn Torah, it would be highly unusual for a rabbi to accept one as a disciple. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 163. It would also have been considered extremely poor etiquette at the very least for a woman to neglect her duty of hospitality toward a visiting rabbi in order to sit listening with his disciples. It is hardly surprising, then, that Martha is not pleased with Mary.
By taking Mary’s part, Jesus is recognizing her as one of his disciples invited to hear and obey his word. So far from denigrating Martha’s service, Jesus is actually elevating Martha. By implication, he is telling her also that she is far too important to be tied to domestic chores when the word of life is being spoken. Mary has chosen the “better” part and that choice is now open to Martha also. If the reign of God calls one to leave behind home, family and livelihood, how much more whatever is cooking on the stove! Let the beans burn.
As he does throughout his gospel, Luke is once again elevating the role and status of women in Jesus’ ministry. Consistent with the tone of urgency that has taken hold since the turning point of the gospel toward Jerusalem, Luke is here pointing out that the good news about the reign of God disrupts the conventions of proper hospitality just as it does funeral preparations, Sabbath observance and class distinctions.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Some years ago I had a chance meeting with a fellow I had known in college. I cannot remember where or how we met, but I do remember well what we talked about. He told me that he had joined the Marine Corps and had served in the first Gulf War. I told him that I had gone on to seminary and the ministry. That prompted him to ask, “How does the church feel about soldiers?” I proceeded to outline the “just war” theory that has informed the Lutheran Church’s thinking about combat. I explained that, while individually Christians are called upon to practice non-violence and forgiveness toward their enemies, when Christians assume the mantle of the state they are permitted to use force to secure justice and peace. I explained that Christians view war always as a last resort and a tragic necessity at best. When we engage in combat, we recognize that we are taking human life and so the decision to go to war is always a serious one fraught with deep sadness.
My friend sighed and said, “With an attitude like that, you wouldn’t last ten seconds in combat. You can’t think of your enemies as human beings. You can’t be fighting them and thinking about what a bullet will do to them or how their families will manage without them. You can’t think of them as anything except targets to be taken out before they take you out.” That is when I first began to question the soundness of the “just war” theory. Can a disciple of Jesus engage in an activity that requires him to blind himself to the humanity of his enemy? And after having hardened yourself in such a way, is it possible simply to return to the state where you were before? The prevalence of traumatic stress syndrome, depression, suicide and difficulty adapting to civilian life experienced by so many returning soldiers suggests that for some people there is no going back. On a high level of abstraction, the “just war” theory seems to make sense. On the ground, not so much.
The memory of this conversation prompted me to recall a story I heard once as a sermon illustration. I cannot vouch for the truth or accuracy of this account-at least as far as whether it happened. But as author John Steinbeck once observed, “just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.” Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck, (c. 1954). In any event, the story is about a British pilot in the First World War flying a mission over Germany. He had gotten separated from his squadron and was caught off guard by a German fighter that had him dead in its sights. The Brit thought it was all over for him, but instead of taking him out, the German plane banked and flew away. Years later after the war had ended the pilots of the two planes somehow met and discovered that they had encountered each other that day. The British pilot asked, “Why didn’t you shoot me down when you had the chance?” “Because,” the German pilot answered, “I could see your face.” Somehow, recognizing the humanity of his enemy prevented the German pilot from killing his foe.
I think that something similar is going on in Jesus’ parable about the Samaritan and the injured Jew in Sunday’s gospel. As I will point out in my discussion of that lesson below, the hatred between Jews and Samaritans ran deep, having been rooted in centuries of hostility. These two groups would probably have been at war but for the occupation of Rome which kept a lid on such local hostilities much as the Soviets did for the Balkans up until the 1990s. Jew is to Samaritan as Serbian is to Bosnian or Croat. Yet this Samaritan is able to look beyond the confines of his own ethnic identity and past the wall of his people’s hatred toward the Jew. He saw simply a human face. The word that Luke uses to describe the Samaritan’s “compassion” is the same one used to express God’s pity for the poor and the needy calling on his name. The message is clear. Loving your neighbor means loving your enemy.
There is no more important calling for the church in time of war than to put a human face on our nation’s enemies. This is particularly true in our age where combat is conducted by pilotless drones guided by computer operators sitting in cubicles thousands of miles away from the action. For them, the enemy has no more humanity than the grainy images of an action video game. There is something very disturbing about this long range warfare that allows a person to spend a day at the office obliterating lives and then go from “work” to a son’s soccer game, a daughter’s dance recital or perhaps an evening prayer meeting. Sunday’s gospel lesson calls us to put a face on our enemies. That is the only way we will ever escape the vortex of violence and find the way to peace.
The language of this lesson naturally grates on my Lutheran ears. Since I was knee high to cricket I have been taught that it is impossible for human beings to keep the law; that the law always and only accuses us and shows up our sinfulness. I was always taught that the purpose of the law is to drive me to seek God’s forgiveness. So what does God mean by telling Israel: “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you…”? I think we need to make an important distinction here. The law was not given to Israel so that she could earn God’s favor. She already has God’s favor. God demonstrated his unconditional love for Israel when he liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to Israel so that she might remain free, so that she would not become yet another Egypt. God calls Israel to obedience in Torah, not because God is a neurotic rule maker who cannot abide violations. God calls Israel to obedience because obedience is the only way for Israel to prosper and live well in the land.
When God declares that the law can be kept, God does not mean that it can be kept perfectly or flawlessly. Indeed, God knows otherwise. That is why the law makes provision for sacrificial offerings and rites through which God’s forgiveness is declared and reconciliation is facilitated. It should be noted that in the larger context of today’s reading, Moses assumes that the people will be disobedient to God’s commands, that they will suffer the consequences and that they will be carried into exile. Nevertheless, Moses goes on to say that God is merciful and forgiving; that God will always hear Israel’s prayers and will always respond to her expressions of repentance with forgiveness. God may punish Israel, but he will never reject her. God is always there for Israel to help her begin anew.
When St. Paul and Martin Luther declare that people are incapable of keeping the law, they are simply saying that the law cannot be used to curry favor with God. When the law is employed to please God rather than to serve the neighbor, it becomes a curse instead of the blessing it was intended to be. Where law becomes the measure of righteousness before God, then we find ourselves embroiled in those endless “where do you draw the line?” discussions. What constitutes “work” in violation of the Sabbath? What constitutes “good cause” for divorcing my spouse? Who exactly is my neighbor? All of these questions suggest that if only we can figure out where to draw the line between obedience and disobedience to the law and stay on the right side of the line, we will be OK in God’s sight. That was precisely the outlook of the young lawyer in our gospel lesson. He was appealing to the law “to justify himself.” He wanted Jesus to clarify for him his duty of neighborliness so that he could be sure he was meeting all of its requirements.
But as Paul and Luther point out, that is not how it works. Sin is not a matter of keeping or breaking the rules. It is a matter of the heart. It all boils down to whether we love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and our neighbor as ourselves. You can keep all the rules but still lack faith and compassion. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence for lack of faith than a false dependence on and pride in keeping the rules. Israel has not been called to a slavish compliance with nit picking demands. Rightly understood as pure gift, Torah is the shape human life takes when drawn into covenant with a gracious, merciful and forgiving God.
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.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.
At this point it is clear that the church is beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire and is “bearing fruit.” Paul opens his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the faith of the church at Colossae of which he has heard. It seems that Paul has never actually visited this church because much of what he seems to know has come through what he has heard or been told by others, specifically, “Epaphras.” Vs. 7. Paul then moves into a prayer for the Colossian church, that it may be strengthened, filled with wisdom and understanding so that it may “lead a life worthy of the Lord.” Vss. 9-10. As we will see in the weeks to come, Paul makes a sweeping argument for the cosmic impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in whom “the fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” Colossians 2:9.
In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah and the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem, eventually establishing their own capital city in Samaria. This break up took place after the death of Solomon, David’s son around 922 B.C.E. The Samaritans asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel that existed prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith.
The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendents born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.
According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the vacinity of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.
As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. That the conflict was very much alive in the first century is evident from Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. The first question she asked upon learning that Jesus was a prophet involved the proper place of worship: the temple in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim? John 4:19-26. This background information important as it makes clear that the neighbor to be loved includes not merely the stranger on the side of the road with a flat tire, but the mortal enemy that would kill you given half a chance.
The antagonist in this story is a lawyer. While we need to take care that we do not read too much of what we know and understand about lawyers today into what the New Testament means by the term, there are some parallels worth noting. Lawyers typically focus on the outer limits of the law. Modern lawyers advise their clients concerning the extent to which certain conduct might violate the law. Thus, a corporate client might want to know whether its newly designed logo is sufficiently different form a similar one belonging to another company to ensure safety from liability for trademark infringement. A company might consult a lawyer to determine whether it can safely designate certain income as non-taxable without incurring the scrutiny of the IRS. Similarly, lawyers in Jesus’ day were responsible for determining what conduct lay within or outside the parameters of the Torah. The Rabbis spoke of erecting a “hedge” around the Torah consisting of prohibitions and requirements that went beyond Torah. The thinking was that if you observed these “hedge” provisions, you would never get close enough to the Torah to violate it. The problem was, however, that these provisions sometimes prevented people from getting close enough to Torah to obey it. The case of the lawyer in this story is an illustration of that very thing.
The lawyer first seeks to “test” Jesus by asking him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus will not take the bait. “You know the answer to that question well enough.” Jesus replies. “What does the law require?” The lawyer correctly responds with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Right,” says Jesus. “Do it and you will live.” Here Jesus is on the same page with Moses. This command is doable and understandable. Of course, that does not mean that it is easy, but that is another question and perhaps the very one the lawyer seeks to avoid. In true lawyer fashion, the lawyer manufactures a hurdle to obedience by seeking to render the statute ambiguous. “All well and good to say, ‘love your neighbor,’” he says, “but who is my neighbor?” Obviously, the lawyer is trying to drag Jesus into one of those hopeless “where do you draw the line” arguments. You know what I am talking about: “If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Yes, but what if he does it again? How many times do I have to let him hit me? What if I am an abused spouse? Do I just stand there and take it? What do I do with an armed maniac who points a gun at my dear old grandma…” On and on it goes.
Jesus will not be drawn into this silliness. He simply does not answer the lawyer’s question because he knows it will only lead to more stupid questions. He will not get into an argument over who should be classified as “neighbor,” but instead tells a story about neighborliness. Now if Jesus had told a story about a Jew who happened upon a wounded Samaritan and helped him, the lawyer might have nodded with approval. “Yes, we Jews certainly know how to act like neighbors-even to Samaritans. But tell me Jesus, how far do we have to go with that? What if the Samaritan is threatening me? What if he is trying to rob me?” That would bring us right back to the “where do you draw the line” argument.
But Jesus tells a story about a neighborly Samaritan. This takes the whole matter of neighborliness outside the realm of law, regulation and custom-the very ocean in which the lawyer swims. The Samaritan, to the lawyer’s way of thinking, was a man without any true law. The lawyer is now completely out of his element-like a fish out of water. There are suddenly no longer any points between which lines might be drawn and therefore no more lines to argue about. There is simply the Samaritan feeling compassion, a word Luke uses in Zechariah’s song of praise to describe “the tender mercy of our God.” Luke 1:78. The question now is no longer “what legally constitutes a neighbor,” but who is acting the neighbor. At its root, this is a grammatical problem. For the lawyer, neighbor is a noun to be defined. For Jesus, it is a verb to be acted upon. So Jesus tells the lawyer who asks him “who is my neighbor,” to stop obfuscating and be a neighbor. “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
According to the letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul says “Let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor.” Ephesians 4:25. That might seem like a no-brainer, but it is not. The virtue of truthfulness involves far more than simply refraining from blatant falsehoods. Truthfulness imposes upon us an obligation to speak the whole truth. Anything less than the whole truth is a lie. Truth is more than the sum of the facts. If you make a correct factual statement that is incomplete and therefore misleading, you have lied. When you quote accurately what somebody else said, but take it out of context so that it reflects a meaning different from that intended by the speaker, you have lied. Putting “spin” on the facts is a form of lying. Insinuating (without actually claiming) that your product can deliver more than you know it can is also a lie. All speech designed to mislead, conceal and distort is lying speech.
This week the lectionary has given us a reading from the Gospel of Luke with a gaping hole in it. The lesson narrates the commissioning of the seventy disciples Jesus sent to proclaim the reign of God in the towns and villages he intended to visit on his way to Jerusalem. If you read only what the lectionary has given you to read, you probably will conclude that there are no adverse consequences for rejecting the good news of God’s reign. It is a matter of indifference whether one welcomes Jesus, his disciples and the tidings they bring or ignores them. It makes no difference whether a disciple meets with hospitality or hostility. You can take the kingdom of God or leave it. If you read only what is in the lectionary, you would never know that for the towns rejecting the good news of God’s reign Jesus says , “on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.” The reign of God matters. Ignoring it exposes one to devastating consequences. Leading the people of God to think otherwise by editing the very words of Jesus is, not to put too fine a point on it, a big, fat lie.
Now I hasten to add that I don’t believe there is any malevolent intent behind the editing in the lectionary. I think that the people who crafted the lectionary were trying to help us preachers put a positive face on Jesus, a face that will comport with the white, upper middle class, college educated, slightly left of center social and political values that we mainline folk tend to hold. But I don’t think it is the job of the church to make Jesus palatable to twenty-first century tastes. I don’t believe we do anyone any favors by trying to smooth over the sharp edges of the biblical witness that clash with our accepted understandings of what is true, beautiful and good. The inescapable truth is that the God Jesus called “Father” is not some deist conception of a creator who constructs an orderly and rational world that can run just fine on its own and who does not intervene with its workings other than to give us moral instruction. No, the God of Jesus is none other than the God who unleashed the flood, the God who brought Israel into the land of Canaan displacing the Canaanites and who blatantly took sides in the historical conflicts of the ancient world. So Jesus is not speaking out of character here when he warns us that the God who destroyed Sodom with fire will deal in judgment with the towns that have rejected his reign.
Here, then, is the bottom line as I see it. We need to preach the Jesus to which the scriptures bear witness in all his unwashed, socially indelicate, culturally offensive and deeply embarrassing ways. Instead of trying to wash him up, socialize him and edit him in order to make him acceptable to the “modern mind,” we need to set him free to set the modern mind straight. Rather than edit the biblical witness to give us a God that is inoffensive to contemporary notions of morality and decency, preaching needs to let loose the God who is not answerable to anybody’s notions of morality and decency, but who passionately loves and vigorously engages us, though always on his own terms. To that end, I have given you the complete, unedited, uncut and uncensored Jesus of Nazareth in this Sunday’s gospel lesson.
The 66th chapter of Isaiah is a complicated section of scripture possibly constructed from several sources including passages from psalms, utterances from prior prophets and material original to the prophet him/herself. The prophet of which I am speaking is Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile, but before the second temple was completed. (Isaiah 56-66) The temple project was very much on the peoples’ mind at this point. The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Third Isaiah. In his preaching Haggai urged prompt rebuilding of the temple suggesting that its completion was essential to initiating the messianic age. Haggai 2:18-23. It is but a small step from here to the false conclusion that completion of the temple by the work of Israel’s own hands could bring about this age of blessing. Against this notion, Third Isaiah makes the following remarks:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting-place?
2 All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine, * says the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:1-2.
God does not need a temple in order to save Israel. At most, the temple is a symbol of God’s presence given as a reminder to Israel that the Lord is always in her midst. Moreover, as the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures point out repeatedly, properly performed worship is an abomination when practiced without an obedient and faithful heart. E.g., Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 6:20.
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain-offering, like one who offers swine’s blood;*
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
The prophet is making the point that neither the rebuilding of the temple nor proper temple worship will move God to save Israel. But then the prophet changes his/her tone and addresses those who “tremble at [God’s] word.” Isaiah 66:5. It is possible that the people to whom the prophet is speaking are a persecuted minority among the exiles, perhaps a sect of believers within the post-exilic community similar to the Rechabites who lived in Judah prior to the exile (See Jeremiah 35). It is also possible that the prophet is speaking more generally to the faithful core of believers among the exiles who hold a proper understanding of faithfulness and obedience. In either case, the prophet goes on to deliver a startling oracle of salvation:
Listen, an uproar from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
dealing retribution to his enemies!
7 Before she was in labour
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
8 Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labour
she delivered her children.
9 Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.
Isaiah 66:6-9. The voice sounds “from the temple,” leading some scholars to conclude that this section of the oracle refers to a later time when the temple had already been completed and worship resumed. But that is not necessarily the case. It would be quite in character with the prophecy for God to speak from an as yet unfinished temple to make the point that its completion is not necessary to enable God to speak, act or save. God works independently of the temple. If we assume that the prophet is speaking to a group within the larger exilic community, then the birth analogy suggests that this community is the “womb” from which God will deliver his new and redeemed people. That sets the context for Sunday’s lesson, an exclamation of praise calling upon the hearers to “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her.”
Remarkable here is the feminine imagery used to describe God’s care for Israel, which is likened to infants sucking at God’s breast. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Vs. 13. Such a word of comfort was no doubt very much needed by this community within a community sharing not only the brunt of persecution from hostile inhabitants of the land against the Jewish population generally, but persecution from their fellow Jews as well. The hope sustaining them, though ridiculed now, will ultimately be vindicated when God acts to restore Jerusalem. Be patient, Oh people. Hang onto your hope. It will not be disappointed.
This is a psalm of praise containing two distinct parts. Verses 1-12 constitute a liturgy of praise offered by the worshiping assembly extolling the majesty of God made manifest in his “terrible deeds” and his “great…power.” Among these deeds is the Exodus from Egypt and God’s salvation of his people from the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. The worshipers affirm God’s faithfulness by testifying that God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” The reading for Sunday comes from this section of the psalm.
It is important to be aware of the second section in order to appreciate what may be going on here. Verses 13 to 20 constitute a hymn of thanksgiving offered up by an individual who has experienced God’s salvation in his or her own life. It is possible that verses 1-12 served as a liturgical invocation offered up by the assembly as a preface to individual prayers of thanksgiving for specific saving acts toward particular worshipers accompanied by a sacrifice in the temple. So says at least one commentator. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p.468. Other commentators maintain that it is just as likely that the psalm is a unitary prayer offered by a single individual who prefaces his own thanksgiving with a more general hymn of praise for God’s saving works on behalf of all Israel. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977, Cambridge University Press), p. 76-77. Either interpretation would be consistent with Israel’s understanding of prayer as grounded in God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Indeed, God can be relied upon even in the absence of any saving act on the personal level because God has proven faithful to Israel throughout her history. See, e.g, Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 77:11-15. For this reason, the petitioner can be confident that his/her prayers have been heard by a God who is both willing and able to save.
This hymn is a reminder that we live in the narrative of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The believer is strengthened by the conviction that his or her individual life is a microcosm of the greater story of God’s saving work in biblical history that ends with liberation from sin, death and the devil. That, too, is why I recommend without fail: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.
This lesson constitutes Paul’s final summation of his argument against his opponents. For more background on them, see my post from Sunday, June 2nd. Paul suggests here that the motives of his opponents in seeking to compel the Galatian believers, who were gentiles, to be circumcised was to avoid criticism and escape “persecution for the cross of Christ.” This may well be so, but there might have been more to it than that. Perhaps Paul is not giving his opponents a fair break. Maybe they were not merely trying to avoid persecution but also were genuinely concerned about keeping the bridge between the Jesus movement and the rest of Judaism open. It may be that they saw their work in terms of preserving the unity of the church and its vital connection to its Jewish roots. I suspect something like that was Peter’s motivation in the conflict with Paul at Antioch. See Galatians 2:11-21. Is that so very wrong?
There is no question that the church is called to express the unity of Jesus with the Father as John’s gospel teaches and to live as a single body as Paul maintained. Division within the church diminishes its witness to the world and undermines our belief in “One Lord, One Faith, One Spirit and One Baptism.” Ephesians 4:4-6. Yet although Paul was a strong proponent of unity within the Body of Christ, he understood that true unity in the Spirit cannot be built upon anything less than Jesus Christ. If the foundation is flawed, the building will not stand.
The question addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very much alive in the church today. Our church’s decision to begin ordaining women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the 1970s clearly raised another barrier to reconciliation with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It has been argued that our more recent decision to welcome gay and lesbian people into that ministry has divided not only our own church body but may further complicate ecumenical relations with other churches. That may very well be so. But if the price of unity is shutting the door to people the Holy Spirit is calling to minister among us, then the price is too high. We cannot afford to sacrifice the good and liberating news Jesus brings to anyone on the altar of a false and ill founded unity.
Last week Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem where we know he will accomplish his saving “exodus” for his people through his suffering and death. That determination has already cost him the loyalty of the Samaritans and has sharpened the demands of discipleship. Now he sends out seventy of his disciples to go before him on his itinerary to Jerusalem proclaiming that “the reign of God has drawn near.” This reign of God is not a future promise/threat. It is a present reality. The number of seventy (seventy-two in some New Testament manuscripts) signifies completion. It might also be an allusion to Moses’ selecting seventy elders to share his burden of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. Numbers 11:16-30 (Again, seventy-two elders according to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint). Some scholars see an allusion to the list of nations in Genesis 10-11 numbering seventy, thereby foreshadowing the mission to the gentiles that will come to fruition in the Book of Acts.
The time of harvest has arrived. This is an image heavy with eschatological or “end times” significance. Nothing remains but to reap the fruits. There is a sense of urgency here echoing Moses’ injunction to the children of Israel to eat the first Passover meal with haste (Exodus 12:11) and Elisha’s command in sending his servant Gehazi to the home of his patron, the Shunammite woman whose son had just died: “If you meet anyone, do not salute him; and if anyone salutes you, do not reply.” II Kings 4:29.
Jesus is sending the disciples out as lambs among wolves. There is some irony here in that the reign of God is characterized as an age of peace in which the wolf and the lamb dwell together in harmony. Isaiah 65:17-25. The disciples are to share this peace with the towns to which they are sent. Yet although the peaceful reign of God is a present reality, because it is present in the midst of a sinful and violent world, that reign of God takes the shape of the cross. The disciples can anticipate hostility and rejection.
The disciples are sent out with no provisions for their journey. They are to depend solely upon the hospitality of the towns and villages to which they preach. It should be noted that the practice of hospitality toward traveling apostles and prophets was widely practiced in the early church-and was sometimes abused as noted in the Didache, an ancient teaching document from the second century.
“3 But concerning the apostles and prophets, so do ye according to the ordinance of the Gospel. 4 Let every apostle, when he cometh to you, be received as the Lord; 5 but he shall not abide more than a single day, or if there be need, a second likewise; but if he abide three days, he is a false prophet. 6 And when he departeth let the apostle receive nothing save bread, until he findeth shelter; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet.” Didache 11:3-6, Translated and edited by J. B. Lightfoot.
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to remain in one house rather than going “from house to house” might be an injunction against exploiting hospitality.
That the mission of the seventy depends upon hospitality goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus warns that, for those refusing to show such hospitality to the disciples and rejecting their message, the result will be judgment more severe than Sodom’s. Vs. 12. The ancient city of Sodom was destroyed largely for its hostility to strangers and failure to show hospitality to God’s angels. How much more shall the towns and villages rejecting God’s messiah incur the wrath of God! This wrath of God is simply the flip side of God’s passionate love. Is it not the case that the people with the greatest capacity to hurt us, wound our hearts and incite us to anger are those we love most deeply? God’s love for his covenant people is not an emotionless philosophical abstraction void of all feeling. God’s love is fierce, passionate, jealous and relentless.
This lesson brings into sharp focus what is at stake here. For all who accept it, the reign of God is “peace.” For all who reject it, the dawn of this reign is judgment. But the message is the same for the receptive and the recalcitrant: “The reign of God has drawn near to you.” The “peace” the disciples are called to share is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the reconciliation of all things and all peoples with their God. It is well being for all of creation, the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “shalom.” The only alternative to such peace is enmity, hostility, division and finally self destruction. You are either with the reign of God or against it. There is no middle ground upon which to stand. The disciple’s mission is therefore a matter of life and death.