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.