Archive for August, 2013
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, you resist those who are proud and give grace to those who are humble. Give us the humility of your Son, that we may embody the generosity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Humility is a much undervalued and misunderstood virtue in a culture like ours that places a high premium on assertiveness. Attorney, consultant and author, Susan Cain has observed:
“We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal-the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual-the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.” Sure, we allow technologically gifted loners who launch companies in garages to have any personality they please, but they are the exceptions, not the rule, and our tolerance extends mainly to those who get fabulously wealthy or hold the promise of doing so.” Cain, Susan, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, (c. 2012 by Susan Cain, published by Crown Publishers), p. 4.
Contrary to the proverbial wisdom expressed in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, conventional wisdom would say that if you are fortunate enough to get face time with the king, you need to make the most of it. Put yourself forward. Show the monarch that you are knowledgeable, confident and eager to get ahead. Make a positive impression that will be hard to forget. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted, you say?!? Hogwash! You don’t get to be Secretary of State by keeping a low profile. Humility never got anybody anything except the jobs nobody else wants.
Conventional wisdom, however, fails to comprehend the wisdom of humility. Being humble has nothing to do with shyness, introversion or cowardice. Humility is a virtue shaped by faithfulness to Jesus. It begins with contentment. Humble people are not looking for fulfillment in the next job, the next marriage or the next church. They recognize the place where they are as the place God has called them to be. They are thankful for the day to which they wake up with all of its opportunities and surprises rather than longing for better days ahead. They use their gifts and talents creatively in the work they have to do rather than pining for a better job where they can showcase their abilities. Humble people don’t concern themselves much with results. As long as she puts her best effort into preparing a solid sermon, a humble pastor does not care that only half a dozen came to church to hear it. A humble baseball player does not care what position he plays or even if he doesn’t get played at all. He is content as long as his presence supports his team. A humble worker does not care that she never got proper credit for her helpful ideas. In fact, she has probably forgotten that they were her ideas. The humble have no sense of entitlement to praise, recognition or reward. The satisfaction of having contributed their all is enough reward for them. If they are in fact entitled to more, they will receive it at “the resurrection of the just.” Luke 14:14. In sum, humble people recognize that the world, the church and their lives are all God’s project and that God will “bring them to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6.
Humility should not be confused with weakness. Rosa Parks was considered a humble woman by all who knew her, but she knew how to take a stand (or a seat rather). Most often, though, humble people are not found on the front lines of conflict. I think that is because they have learned that there are better ways than head on confrontation to diffuse aggression and achieve justice. They don’t draw lines of demarcation between “right” and “wrong.” They don’t measure life in terms of “wins” and “losses.” Humble people are self critical. They never assume that theirs is the “right” side of any conflict. They understand that behind the most irrational and hate-filled opinion is a complex individual with a unique story of hope, fear, pain and loss. They believe that they can get much closer to reconciliation and peace through listening and understanding than by arguing. They always assume that there is something of value to be learned from everyone they encounter, however hostile, ignorant or unreasonable they might appear. Humble people are strong enough to resist the temptation to “fix” people and their wrongheaded notions. They understand that only the Holy Spirit can work the miracle of conversion and they are patient enough to give the Spirit all the time necessary to accomplish that miracle.
In case you are wondering whether such people actually exist, I can assure you they do. I have had the pleasure of meeting several of them. I will not identify them because that is the last thing they would want me to do. And no, I am not yet one of them. But I hope to be someday. I say that because humble people are the happiest, most fulfilled and joyful folks I know.
The Book of Proverbs is a compilation of poetic exhortations and pithy sayings couched in Hebrew parallelism. Though attributed in its entirety to King Solomon by tradition and by the opening verse (Proverbs 1:1), material within the text is attributed to at least two other authors. See Proverbs 30:1 and Proverbs 31:1. Though it is certain that the book reached its final form in the period after the Babylonian Exile in the Sixth Century, the material upon which the author/editors drew might well be ancient indeed. I have previously expressed the view that some of these sayings might indeed date back to the time of Solomon. Nevertheless, as one would expect, they also speak to the realities of Jewish life under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule. Though life under foreign domination was no doubt difficult on the whole, there were always opportunities in the imperial bureaucracy for bright young Jewish boys like Daniel and attractive Jewish women like Esther. These opportunities were fraught with danger, however. Monarchs are fickle and prone to paranoia and cruelty. A little success leads to advancement. Too much success breeds suspicion, distrust and fear on the part of the king, as David learned. Success within the king’s court also invites jealousy and intrigue from those passed over for promotion. Keeping a low profile is, therefore, reasonably good advice for a young person desiring a long career and a secure retirement within the royal court.
A few words about proverbial wisdom are in order. Because Israel believed that “the earth is the Lord’s,” she also believed that it was governed by moral principles clearly set forth in Torah, but also evident in the realm of nature and human relationships. This strain of wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures has often been labeled “humanistic.” The label is inaccurate and misleading, however. While Israel believed the world to be intelligible, she clearly did not believe that anything like “human reason” could arrive at an understanding of God and creation independently. Whether understanding came from observation of the natural world or through meditation on the scriptures, the ultimate source of all knowledge is God’s revelation. It is not surprising, then, that Israel saw no dichotomy between “reason” on the one hand and “revelation” on the other.
Proverbial wisdom has its limits. “Waste not, want not” was one of my mother’s favorite proverbs. That maxim proves true often enough that we teach our children the value of thrift, careful planning and the avoidance of waste. Yet we all know that people sometimes lose everything and come to abject poverty in spite of a lifetime of careful planning and responsible spending. The universe does not run like a Swiss watch dispensing appropriate rewards for wise behavior and punishment for foolishness. We cannot assume that poverty is the fruit of foolish financial management or laziness anymore than we can attribute sickness to divine punishment for sin (as Job’s three friends had to learn). It is therefore best to view proverbs as portholes that give us unique perspectives on the world. Each proverb provides an enlightening, but limited view of life that is far from the full picture. It is one perspective. There are others.
For perspectives different from those set forth in Proverbs, one need not look any further than the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon. For further background on this unique book, see my post of Sunday August 4th. Suffice to say for our purposes that the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes fails to find much of any moral order in human existence concluding at last that “all is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 1:2. This gloomy outlook is poles apart from the enthusiastic testimony of Proverbs to God’s wisdom shining through every crack and crevasse of creation. Yet for a young father trapped in a refugee camp helplessly watching his family starve to death, the world probably looks exactly like the cruel and heartless place the “teacher” says it is. It all depends on which porthole you happen to be looking through and the scriptures give us many.
Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs. It affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. There is some truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.
But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, this same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Vs 7. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.
It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though some scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. As noted above, I believe that the wisdom material may well have roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies. Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The formal similarities between the two psalms are striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off half strophes. They share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion.
This reading brings into sharp focus exactly what the letter to the Hebrews is all about. The writer begins with an admonition for the believers to love one another and then goes on to flesh out exactly what that means. Sisterly/brotherly love means sharing the imprisonment and torture of fellow disciples. Despite the delusional ravings of some on the far (very far) religious right who imagine that the government is waging a “war against Christianity,” I maintain that we in this country have absolutely no experience or any concept of what persecution really means. And lest you imagine that persecution belongs only to the ancient past, be advised that in the last week more than sixty churches in Egypt have been attacked and vandalized. Washington Post, August 14, 2013. This is not the only place in the world where simply confessing Jesus can get you killed. So what does this scripture have to say to us? In what way do we “remember those who are in prison…and those who are being tortured”? Paul teaches us that the church is Christ’s Body and that when one part of the Body suffers, the whole Body suffers with it. I Corinthians 12:26. What is wrong with our nerve endings that we are not feeling sufficiently the pain of our sisters and brothers in Egypt?
The writer also calls upon this community to practice hospitality-a core biblical value deeply held throughout the scriptures. The reference to entertaining angels unawares goes back to Abraham’s encounter with the Lord and his angels in Genesis 18. In an age before Holiday Inn where lodging was scarce and the roads vulnerable to banditry, safe travel often depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This was certainly the case in the Bronze Age when the patriarchs lived and probably for much of the First Century world as well. When Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming of the God’s reign, they were sent out with no provisions and instructed to rely upon the hospitality of the towns to which they preached. Mark 6:7-13. This seems to have been the model for early Christian mission. While the admonition to practice hospitality obviously included traveling missionaries, I believe the allusion to anonymous angels suggests that the command applied more broadly to traveling strangers as well. In the gospel lesson, Jesus will push the parameters of hospitality to the limit.
Like so many other episodes in the gospel of Luke, this story takes place at a dinner party. Jesus notes how the guests are vying for the best seats at the table and delivers his “parable” about guests at a wedding feast. I am not clear on why Luke refers to this pronouncement of Jesus as a parable. From a literary standpoint, it is much closer to a biblical proverb such as we find throughout the book by that name. Indeed, the likeness of Jesus’ words here to the proverb in our first reading was probably not lost on the host and his guests. Perhaps they found it rather witty, Jesus holding their behavior up to the mirror of proverbial wisdom. But Jesus has a larger purpose than amusing/embarrassing his dinner companions. His remark is a commentary on the social and political underpinnings of this meal.
In both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, meals are sacred. One might even refer to them as sacramental. They are constitutive of community. Passover, Feast of Booths and so many other ritual meals define Israel just as the Eucharist defines the church. Who you welcome to your table tells the world who you are, to whom you belong and who you worship. The Torah makes clear that the Passover meal is to be celebrated by all Israel. Though observed by families, Passover transcends the immediate family to include “all the congregation of Israel.” Exodus 12:1-13. This meal to which Jesus was invited was anything but inclusive of all Israel. Evidently, it consisted of the host’s family and “rich neighbors.” The whole affair is strikingly similar to George Babbitt’s use of dinner invitations to advance his social and professional status. See Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis.
Jesus sees in this occasion a “teachable moment.” “When you give a dinner or a banquet,” says Jesus, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors, lest you be repaid.” Of course, that is the whole purpose from the host’s point of view. In typical George Babbitt style, he is employing the practice of hospitality, not in the way envisioned by the author of Hebrews, but in order to advance his own standing and build up favors that he can someday call in. Jesus lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is making a bad investment. Just how bad this investment is will be revealed in Chapter 16 where Jesus delivers the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. There it will become clear that this host, through his elaborate and exclusive dinner parties, is building a vast crevasse between himself and the coming messianic banquet with Abraham and all the folks he has seen fit to exclude.
Jesus warns his host to bridge the divide, close the gaping crevasse and open up the table of fellowship with all Israel before he finds himself on the wrong side of that divide. Let us not trivialize this message by turning it into a call for more social programs to care for the poor or for more advocacy on their behalf. Understand that I am not against either poverty assistance or advocacy. In fact, we could use more of both. But that is not enough and it does not get to the heart of the problem-the great divide between those of us who live in relative ease and the ever increasing numbers of people living in deplorable poverty. That divide will keep on growing as long as we continue treating the poor as a social problem to be solved rather than “the treasure of the church” as St. Lawrence would have it. It is not enough to feed the poor. Jesus sends us to invite them to the messianic banquet, to share our table.
In all candor, I am not keen on welcoming the poor into my home and seating them at my table. I would prefer to write a check or spend an evening every week dolling out food at the shelter. Let me be clear: don’t stop writing checks or volunteering down at the shelter. Just understand that we cannot let it end there. Meals are about more than eating. They are for building the people of God. So we have to find a way to make room at the table, our table, for the poor. I must say that I was delighted to learn of a church that is doing just that. At St. Lydia’s, in Brooklyn, N.Y., whoever comes to the table gets fed. The church is made up of approximately thirty people from a variety of faith journeys and backgrounds. They join each week to cook, eat and worship in each other’s company around the congregation’s three practices: working together, eating together and sharing their stories. Everyone who attends an evening service is invited to help cook. That way there is no distinction between the helpers and the helped. Everyone contributes to preparing the meal. Everyone is equally a member of the community. That is what makes St. Lydia’s so different from a mere soup kitchen. It is an extension of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone can feed hungry people. But only Jesus can invite them to the messianic banquet.
Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, the prophet admonishes his people to “call the Sabbath a delight” and to “honor it.” The gospel lesson narrates a story of how Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath Day-technically a violation of the letter of the law. In the spirit of Sabbath, however, Jesus honors the law by relieving this woman’s life of pain and inviting her to share with everyone else the rest of the blessed seventh day.
Sometimes I wonder whether we should not reduce the number of commandments from ten to nine. The commandment to remember the Sabbath (which for us Lutherans is number three) has fallen altogether out of practice for most of us Protestant types. And let me add that when I speak of the Sabbath, I am not speaking of Sunday, the Lord’s Day on which we honor Jesus’ resurrection with our celebration of Eucharist. Yes, I know that Martin Luther treated worship and the public preaching of God’s Word under the heading of the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism. While I agree wholeheartedly with what Luther has to say about worship and preaching, I believe that his treatment of the topic belongs under the heading of the Second Commandment dealing with the appropriate use of God’s name in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. At least that is my own humble opinion. Furthermore, I wish that Luther had had more to say about the proper observance of Sabbath. There is no shortage of material in the scriptures.
While Sabbath observance comes third on the list of commandments, it was in fact the first commandment God gave us. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.
The Sabbath, then, is not about going to church. It is about rest for all of creation. Elaborating upon that commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Work is a good thing, but it must not be allowed to reign over all of human life. That prerogative belongs to God alone. Israel had just been rescued from a life of slavery in Egypt. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand. God gave us the Sabbath to keep work in its place. The Sabbath was to be strictly enforced throughout Israel. Violation of Sabbath rest was a capital crime. I suspect that God was so very emphatic about Sabbath observance because God knows that if we are not specifically commanded to rest and told precisely where and when it must be done, we probably never will rest. After all, we are such very important people and our work is so very significant. How can we justify spending an entire day loafing around doing nothing? The Sabbath ending to the six days of creation is a not-so-subtle way of letting us know that even God can find time for rest in the midst of his creative life. Unless your work is more important than God’s, you should be able to set aside a day in your week for rest also.
I have to make a disclaimer here and confess that among Sabbath violators, I am chief. I was raised in a family with a hyperactive work ethic gland. I always wondered why my father was never quite as irritable as when we took a vacation. I now understand that while the rest of us were taking in the wonders of Yellowstone Park, he was fixating on all the things he should have been getting done. Dad could never quite shake the notion that all of this time spent accomplishing nothing was a colossal waste. I have followed in his footsteps to a large extent. Perhaps that is why I thrived in the law school environment and then in the practice of law. Both provided me with an endless supply of work with which to fill my days. And fill them I did. I worked twelve to fifteen hour days. I went into work on weekends. I went into work even when there was no work that had to be done. My life revolved around my work because I felt I had no right to rest until the work was done-and it never was. I expect that I have this distorted sense of my work’s importance to thank, at least in part, for my high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and near borderline diabetes. Now, at this late hour, I am trying to change a lifetime habit of ignoring the Sabbath. I am finally taking the Third Commandment seriously.
The wounds I bear from violating the Sabbath are largely self-inflicted. I did not have to work as hard or as deliberately as I did to feed myself and my family. I freely and foolishly chose that perverse lifestyle. That is not the case, however, for millions of people throughout our country and the world. I know personally of several families in which both spouses work two and sometimes three jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table. Their labor is apparently not worth even the paltry amount it takes to keep them alive. Let us be absolutely clear about this: failure to pay a living wage to an employee is a Sabbath violation. It effectively robs the employee of his or her Sabbath rest. To my libertarian friends who insist that this is a function of the free market with which we ought not to interfere, I can only say, good luck with that argument at the Last Judgment.
Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. The ravages of strip mining, deforestation and the increasing list of endangered animal and plant species testify both to the wisdom of this commandment and to the perils of ignoring it. God will not have us work our animals to death, exploit our employees with unlivable wages and working conditions or ruthlessly consume the fruits of the earth with no thought for tomorrow. It is more urgent today than ever before to “remember the Sabbath Day.”
The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for this Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarrelling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:12.
Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, nor a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.
I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.
Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether. Matthew 5:38-42.
In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.
It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.
The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”
This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26; Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.
In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The phrase “family values” has become an increasingly common and increasingly politicized rallying cry invoked to marshal support for or opposition to everything from health care reform to regulation of our soda intake. We all have differing opinions about a lot of these issues, but everybody supports family values. The worst thing you can say about your political opponent is that s/he denigrates family values. The best way to undermine support for a piece of legislation is to argue that it is “anti-family”. If you are going to run for office on a platform without a solid family values plank, then you might just as well come out against Mom, apple pie and saluting the flag. Your campaign is doomed.
I am never quite sure what people mean by the term, “family values.” It seems to me that we are far from agreement about what constitutes a “family” and what kinds of “values” hold it together. Rather than attempting to define that nebulous term on my own, I consulted a neutral authority for that purpose. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, “family values” are “values especially of a traditional or conservative kind which are held to promote the sound functioning of the family and to strengthen the fabric of society.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. I suspect there might be some dispute over which values qualify as “traditional” or “conservative,” but let’s put that to one side. Obviously, whatever these values might be, they are deemed important for the promotion of “the sound functioning of the family” and for strengthening of “the fabric of society.”
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus is not merely indifferent to family values. He is downright hostile to them. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’” Luke 12:51-56. If you think that is anti-family, just listen to this: “Now large crowds were travelling with [Jesus]; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” Luke 14:25-26. It makes you wonder how so many avowedly Christian individuals and organizations can claim Jesus as an ally in their fierce battles to uphold family values. Do they ever actually open up and read those Bibles they keep waving in our faces?
As it turns out, Jesus does hold family values. But he defines “family” altogether differently from our “traditional” cultural norms and his “values” differ greatly from our preoccupation with strengthening “the social fabric of society.” We meet Jesus’ family in the 8th Chapter of Luke. “Then [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” Luke 8:19-21. Jesus’ understanding of family can be summarized in just five words: Water is thicker than blood. The community of disciples born of water and the Spirit radically re-defines the meaning of family. No longer are marital, filial and fraternal relationships the defining parameters of family identity. From now on, the family is the community of faith. All other relationships are secondary. Loyalty to Jesus takes precedence over familial duties, clan loyalties and responsible citizenship. There is no higher calling than discipleship-even when answering that call shatters the peace of the “traditional family.”
For too long, the church in our culture has tried to function as a tool for strengthening the traditional expressions of family rather than acting as a destabilizing agent of the Spirit breaking them up, redefining them and bringing them under the Lordship of Jesus. It might sound rather cold to insist that one must “hate” one’s own family in order to follow Jesus. But the hard truth is that anything we put before Jesus is an idol. The things that become idols for us frequently are not evil in and of themselves. But they become evil when they demand from us loyalty and devotion that belong only to our Lord. While I am no psychologist, it is my sense that a lot of family dysfunction arises from our demanding too much from family relationships. Too many parents are trying to live the lives they wish they had had through their children, placing on their backs the burden of their unfulfilled dreams. Too many children are walking around with anger toward parents who (like all parents) were less than fully supportive, understanding and empathetic. Too many marriages are disintegrating under the strain of having to meet needs for intimacy, meaning and self worth that no human being can satisfy for any other. Bottom line: Family is a great thing, but it isn’t God. If you try to make it God, it will implode, collapse and crush you along with it.
Paradoxically, as soon as you learn to hate and to see through the idol that your family has become, you are free to start loving it as a gift of God. That is why I believe that the best thing we can do for our families is to stop making them the center of our lives, stop demanding of them the intimacy only God can give and recognize them as one of the many places where we are called to live out our obedience as disciples of Jesus. Families thrive when freed from the burden of being the “the basic unit of society” (Heritage Foundation Website). Families are strengthened when we begin to understand that they are not individual, self contained units, but subsets of a much larger family called into existence by the incarnate Word, rooted in the baptismal font and gathered around the Lord’s Table. According to Jesus, family transcends blood relations, racial identity and national allegiance. Simply put, Jesus’ family values are “the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
Jeremiah is a prophetic book that reports the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel both before and after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. It is made up of poetic and prose oracles interspersed with vivid narrative capturing the prophet’s ministry among a resistant and hostile people in the twilight years of the Davidic Monarchy. Like most of the prophetic books, the book of Jeremiah has gone through several stages of editing. It reached its final form long after the death of the prophet and this is most likely because it was not until after the fall of Jerusalem that Israel recognized the truthfulness of this faithful prophet who had been hated, persecuted and ignored throughout his lifetime.
Jeremiah’s chief adversaries were his own prophetic colleagues. As the Babylonian military machine tightened its grip on Judah and began besieging the city of Jerusalem, these prophets continued to insist that God would yet intervene to save the holy city and its temple. Not surprisingly, the people were drawn to their messages of hope. These hopeful prophecies were entirely consistent with Israel’s past experience. Hadn’t God always come to the aid of his people in the days of the Judges? Didn’t God break the army of Assyria at the gates of Jerusalem a century before? What reason was there to think that God would not come through for Israel once again?
Jeremiah had the difficult task of letting his people know in no uncertain terms that there would be no miraculous act of deliverance this time. Judah’s belief that God would be compelled to defend Jerusalem in order to protect his temple amounted not to faith, but godless superstition. There was indeed hope for Judah and even the promise of deliverance-but not for the monarchy, not for the temple and not for a society built upon injustice and exploitation. Salvation lay on the far side of judgment. Not until Judah’s false hope for salvation without repentance was crushed could genuine hope come into view.
Our lesson for this morning finds the Lord addressing the false prophets through the lips of Jeremiah with a series of rhetorical questions: “Am I a God near by…. and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Jeremiah 23:23-24. These prophets of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace” are reminded that they will be held accountable for the messages they proclaim. They cannot hide behind the poor excuse that they were simply mistaken. Of course, they can speak all they wish about their dreams and visions. They can express their views about what is taking place in Jerusalem and perhaps even venture an opinion about what God might be up to. But one dare not frivolously preface such remarks with “Thus saith the Lord.” That seems to be Jeremiah’s chief point: if you are going to speak in the name of the Lord, you better be sure that you have got it right and that what you speak is in fact the Lord’s word and not your own.
Of course it is easy for us to side with Jeremiah from our own safe vantage point. For us this is all ancient history. The outcome of the war with Babylon is well known as is Judah’s subsequent interpretation of that traumatic event. I doubt that matters were so clear in the midst of Jerusalem’s siege. Jeremiah’s prophetic colleagues turned out to be wrong in the end, but the people listening to them and to Jeremiah were not at the end. They were in the anxious middle trying to discern the word of the Lord in the midst of all this prophetic wrangling. I don’t think it was unreasonable to hope that God would rescue Judah from Babylon at the eleventh hour just as he had saved Israel from Pharaoh at the Red Sea and rescued Judah from the army of Assyria in the days of King Hezekiah. If I were standing in the shoes of the audience, I cannot say whether I would be more inclined to trust Jeremiah over his more hopeful critics.
Perhaps we can never judge the genuineness of prophecy except in retrospect. In any event, that appears to have been the case for Jeremiah. With the temple destroyed, Jerusalem in ruins and the people in exile, Jeremiah’s was the only prophetic word able to help the remnant of Judah make sense out of the terrible thing that had happened to them. His promise of salvation on the far side of judgment, a word that people frantic to escape judgment could not possibly hear, now relit the flame of hope.
I often wonder whether we mainline protestants are not even now facing our own 587 B.C.E. In the face of precipitous decline, we are turning to consultants, gimmicks and motivational techniques in an effort to turn ourselves around. Though the rhetoric of change is rampant, from where I sit it appears that we are all in high gear preservation mode. We are cutting costs, consolidating administrative functions and merging task forces, etc. But that strikes me more as siege behavior than genuine transformation into a new thing. Could it be that the real enemy is not secularization, anti-institutional sentiment or generational differences, but the Lord God? What if God does not need our denominational machinery anymore than God needed the Davidic Monarchy, the Jerusalem temple or the land of Palestine? What if God is bringing our years of societal influence, strength in numbers and established patterns of ministry to an end? What if the church we are striving to save is not the church God needs? What if our efforts to revive our church are really just desperate acts of rebellion?
I would be committing the same offense as Jeremiah’s colleagues if I were to suggest that I know this to be the case. I don’t. Nothing here is prefaced with “thus saith the Lord.” Nevertheless, I believe it is worth thinking about where we might be in time, not chronological historical time, but in time as measured by the biblical narrative. Is 2013 also 587 B.C.E.? If so, it is reassuring to know that we are not without hope and light. However dark this stretch of the road may be, the scriptures testify to people of God who have traveled there before us. They have wisdom and encouragement to share that we very much need. As we shall see, our lesson from Hebrews makes this very point.
This psalm reflects an early period of Israelite history when the existence of gods other than the Lord was more or less taken for granted. Nevertheless, these gods were always viewed as inferior to Israel’s God, YAHWEH. The psalmist gives us a peek into the grand council of the gods in which YAHWEH rises to criticize these lesser gods for the unjust management of their respective realms. These lesser gods are “national” gods in the true sense of the word. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 164. That is, their sole concern is to promote the interests of their national patrons. Ibid. It is important to note that YAHWEH does not rise to assert the rights of Israel over the nations governed by the gods. Israel is not even mentioned. YAHWEH’s agenda for this meeting is justice for the “weak,” the “orphan,” the “destitute” and the “afflicted.” The “foundations of the earth” do not rest upon any kingdom, empire or nation state. They rest on justice. Naturally, then, these “gods” who base their reign upon princes or kings will share with them the same fate of mortality. The psalmist concludes by affirming that, notwithstanding the many gods worshiped among the nations of the world, these nations nevertheless belong to YAHWEH who will judge them according to justice.
There is much debate over the extent to which Israel, even in the early period of its history, accepted the existence of gods other than the Lord. While academically interesting, this question is hermeneutically irrelevant. The take away here is that Israel’s God is not a national deity. God’s chief concern is not with Israel’s nationalistic ambitions, but with justice for the weak, the orphan, the destitute and the afflicted in whatever land they might be. To be sure, Israel is God’s chosen nation. But she has been chosen not to receive special favors or achieve national prominence, but to be a faithful witness to the justice and compassion God desires for all people. Needless to say, this insight is also applicable to the church.
Our lesson for Sunday builds upon last week’s discussion of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Having ended his inspiring roll call of faithful saints from the dawn of creation to the Israel’s entry into the promised land, the writer identifies and alludes to many other such heroes of faith whose stories would hardly fit the printed page. He goes on to point out that their faithfulness, courage and willingness to suffer stems from the conviction that God is leading them to a better country. For the sake of that promised homeland, they were content to be pilgrims, travelers and outcasts.
This is a helpful reminder that the church is a pilgrim people. Something deep inside of me resents that. I yearn to be settled. Yet I must admit that, for reasons I have never been able to explain, I feel the deepest sense of anxiety when I finally do get settled into a place where I am happy, enjoy my work and feel content. Perhaps that anxiety arises from my knowledge that nothing ever remains quite the same. Pleasant conditions never last forever. The neighborhood I moved into twenty-one years ago is not the one I live in today. My children have left home. Many of our friends have moved on and strangers live in the houses that once were oases of hospitality. I scarcely recognize the town in which I grew up. Even the church that I have served for the last five years is not the same. Some dear old souls have passed on to the church triumphant. New people have stepped in and made their presence felt. The words of the old hymn ring true: “Change and decay in all around I see.”
This letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are called not merely to endure such changes but to embrace them. The suffering and loss that go with being always on the move constitute more than the death throes of our old way of life. They are also birth pangs of a new creation. It is the firm conviction that God is at work in the midst of conflict, suffering and death bringing to birth a new creation that makes endurance possible. So the author of Hebrews urges his/her readers to take comfort from the example of this scriptural “cloud of witnesses” whose faithful lives both challenge and encourage them to persevere in suffering and persecution. More than that, they are called upon to look to Jesus who embraced the cross-not because suffering is a good thing in itself; and not because God needs a blood sacrifice in order to be merciful; but because the cross is the natural consequence of faithfulness to God’s command to love even the enemy.
Jesus’ opening words here call to mind the preaching of John the Baptist in the early chapters of Luke: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Luke 3:16-17. Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem will cast fire upon the earth. The consequences that John speaks of metaphorically as separation of wheat from chaff, Jesus spells out with brutal particularity. The line of demarcation between loyalty to Jesus and unbelief will split families down the middle and create discord. Such is the cost of peace through reconciliation, not to be confused with the tense, brutal and unjust peace imposed by Rome. That false peace is soon to be shaken to its core. As pointed out earlier, this is fully in accord with Jesus’ teaching about the cost of discipleship elsewhere throughout Luke’s gospel. Luke 8:19-21; Luke 9:57-62; Luke 14:25-26.
Jesus does not call his disciples to endure this baptism alone. Indeed, the lesson opens with Jesus’ declaration that the baptism of fire is first and foremost his own. Jesus will be the first to endure the betrayal, abandonment and loneliness that goes with prophetic faithfulness. Because Jesus goes before his disciples into this baptism of fire, his disciples will not face that ordeal alone. In the hostile reception and treatment they receive from the world, they will be united with him. That unity is the basis for the new community, the family of God bound together not by ties of blood but by the promises of baptism.
At verse 54, Jesus changes his focus from the disciples to the multitudes gathered about him. The charge that these folks are “hypocrites” suggests that Jesus’ hearers are actually more astute than they let on. Their ability to recognize signs of imminent weather phenomena does in fact extend to “interpret[ation of] the present time.” Vs. 56. By now it must be evident that Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem signals stormy weather on the horizon. Such knowledge should impel his listeners toward an appropriate response, namely, repentance and reconciliation. Instead, Jesus’ hearers choose to remain blind to the signs of the times. This is further spelled out in the parable which follows (but is not included in the gospel reading): “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Luke 12:57-59. With every step Jesus takes toward Jerusalem, the judgment draws closer and the call for repentance and reconciliation becomes more urgent.
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?” That is actually the title of a book written by Martin Thielen. The book evolved from Thielen’s friendship with a self identified atheist who, over time, became increasingly open to faith and finally posed the question that became the title. The first half of Thielen’s book identifies ten notions that Christians do not need to accept. These include the claim that God causes cancer, that the theory of evolution must be rejected, that women must be subject to men and that God is indifferent to ecology. If these notions were all that stood between atheists and faith in Jesus, then the scandal of the gospel would be just a PR problem. The church has bad actors and bad theologians in her midst who have muddled the message. If we can just make the atheist understand who Jesus really is and what he is really about, the atheist will recognize that we don’t confess the god s/he has rejected. Conversion is just a few conversations away.
Thielen’s book does an admirable job of dispelling inaccurate notions about Christianity and clarifying what is central to Christian teaching for those harboring hostility toward the church. While that is a worthy undertaking, I doubt that it brings atheists or any of the rest of us closer to faith in Jesus. Having less to believe might seem to make faith a lot easier. But faith is not supposed to get any easier. The truth is, the more you learn about the God of the Bible and what that God demands of you, the more you are called upon to believe. The deeper you are drawn into the mystery of God, the more problematic your life in this world becomes. The more the mind of Christ is formed within you, the deeper the contradictions between what you see and what you believe. If you follow Jesus to the end, you will be reduced to walking by faith and not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7
In this week’s lesson, Abram is asked to believe that his descendents will inherit the land in which he now wanders about as an alien with no legal status. He is asked to trust God’s promise to make his descendents as numerous as the stars-even though Abram and his wife Sarai, both in their late 80s, have no children . Abram is being asked to stake his life on a promise that seems beyond any reasonable hope of fulfillment. In our gospel lesson Jesus assures his disciples that that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and then challenges them to “sell your possessions, and give alms…” Luke: 12:32-33. Against the yawning gap between these magnificent promises and the hard realities in which we live, a minimalist approach to faith leaves us only two options. Either we reduce the promises to metaphors of things that will fit plausibly the confines of our cramped and confining world view-a rationalist solution that requires no faith; or we reject the promises as wishful thinking-a nihilist solution that likewise requires no faith. Perhaps that is why Jesus had such contempt for “little faith.” Matthew 8:26. In reality, “little faith” is no faith at all.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 1:1. To put it another way, faith is the conviction that the promises God has made to us are just as real as the obstacles that seem to stand in the way of their fulfillment. Faith stubbornly shapes life according to God’s promises and leaves to God the task of removing the obstacles. Faith understands that the reign of God appears under the sign of the cross in a world that rejects it. But God’s reign is present nonetheless and will one day be recognized by the whole world as the only enduring reality. The new creation is the real thing and is destined to replace the old. Militarized borders will be broken down; swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks; nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore. Every knee in heaven and on earth will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. How and when will this happen? I don’t know. But the zeal of the Lord will do this. Can you be a disciple of Jesus and believe in anything less than that? Perhaps, but why would you?
Abram’s arrangement with Eliezer reflects a custom known to have existed in Mesopotamia documented in the Nuzu tablets. Nuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian city located southwest of Kirkūk in Iraq. Excavations undertaken there by archaeologists in 1925–31 revealed material extending from the prehistoric period to the age of the early Roman Empire. More than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered at the site. These tablets date from about the 15th century B.C.E. and contain numerous statutes governing family relationships and civil institutions. According to these provisions, a childless property owner could provisionally adopt a slave who would then be obligated to care for his owner until death and see to his proper burial. In exchange for these services, the slave would be freed and inherit his owner’s property. The arrangement was provisional insofar as it became null and void upon the birth of a legal heir to the owner. Such was the case for Eliezer upon the birth of Isaac. (Sorry Eliezer. Close, but no cigar.)
Abram is assured that his line will not become extinct, but that a son born to him will be the channel of fulfillment for the original promise made in Chapter 12 (Genesis 12:1-3) and repeated here. Abram’s response is to believe the promise. This particular response of Abram is prominent in Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians for the primacy of faith over works. Knowledge of this background is critical to understanding what Paul means by “faith.” It is not the unquestioning acceptance of doctrinal propositions, but confidence in God’s promises. Therefore, even though faith is primary, it is never divorced from a faithful response. Abram has already demonstrated his confidence in God’s promises to him by uprooting himself from his homeland and becoming a wandering sojourner in Canaan. Though some of Abram’s subsequent actions reflect a less than faithful attitude, that only goes to show that the fulfillment of the covenant promises finally depends neither upon Abram’s faith nor on his works but upon God’s faithfulness.
This psalm of praise celebrates Israel’s God as both creator and lord of history. Sunday’s reading begins at verse 12 with the exclamation, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his heritage!” God is not a passive and objective observer when it comes to the affairs of nations and peoples. God is unashamedly partisan and favors Israel through which he will be made known to the world of nations. Neither kings nor their armies direct the course of history. Reliance upon them is futile. By contrast, the Lord can be trusted to deliver those who rely upon him. Consequently, while the nations rely upon their rulers and their armies, Israel’s hope is in the Lord.
It is difficult to date this psalm. An argument can be made that, given the psalmist’s dismissive attitude toward the power of kings and military might, the psalm was likely composed after the Babylonian Exile when Israel had neither the monarchy nor an army. On the other hand, even during the pre-exilic monarchy Israel always understood that victory comes from the Lord. Consequently, it is altogether possible that this psalm constitutes a festival liturgy used for worship in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps even during the era of the Judges.
In a culture that is prone to rely increasingly upon military might, violence and raw power to settle disputes, this psalm sounds a dissonant chord, calling us to recognize God’s reign and leave the business of retribution to him. The Lord neither needs nor desires our assistance in punishing the wicked. Instead, we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness in lives of faithful obedience. The extent of faithfulness to which we are called is the measure of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death. Knowing that “the eye of the Lord is on all who fear him [and] on those who hope in his steadfast love,” we can face the might of kings and their warhorses without violence and without fear. “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.” Vs. 20
As we will be hearing from the Book of Hebrews for the next four weeks, it might be helpful to refresh our recollections with an overview. As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Christians who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For Christians it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews and Christians alike. Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the ministry and mission of Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews comes after the conclusion of these arguments. The disciples are called to live faithfully in an uncertain time. There are no eschatological markers (such as the Temple) to indicate where they stand in relation to the consummation of God’s reign. The day might be just around the corner, but it is more likely somewhere further out into the indefinite future. The disciples must therefore accept their current status as aliens in a hostile land awaiting the country God is preparing for them. In this respect, they are following in the train of a long list of Israelite heroes whose faith sustained them and who died without seeing the realization of their hope. Abraham is raised up as a primary example of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Vs. 1. In obedience to God’s call, Abraham set out for a land he had never seen on the strength of a promise whose fulfillment was humanly impossible.
Verses 13-16 make the point that neither Abraham nor the other Hebrew heroes of faith were truly at home. They had received the promise of a homeland more real to them than the land of their sojourning. Precisely because their lives were pattered after the ways of this anticipated homeland, they were constantly at odds with the predominant cultures in which they lived. Such lives, lived in faith and ending in hope, became paradigms for discipleship in the early church. We see rightly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, only as the biblical narratives become our own stories. I think the late John Howard Yoder says it best of all in his book, Body Politics:
“Whereas contemporary dominant mental habits assume that there is ‘out there’ an objective or agreed account of reality and that faith perspectives must come to terms with that wider picture by fitting into it, as a subset of the generally unbelieving world view, I propose rather that we recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme or analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole or apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias. The modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around. That means we can afford to begin with the gospel notions themselves and then work out from there, as our study has done, rather than trying to place the call of God within it.” Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics, (c 2001, Herald Press) p. 74.
I am not sure what the lectionary people had in mind here. It seems as though verses 32-34 belong with verses 22-31 in which Jesus gives his sermon on God’s care for the ravens and the lilies of the field, admonishing his disciples not to live anxious and fearful lives. Verses 35-40 advance into a new topic, namely, watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. So it seems to me that, if one chooses to preach on the gospel, it probably will be necessary to make a choice between these two topics.
The admonitions against anxiety follow naturally from last week’s parable of the rich fool. It is just as foolish for the destitute disciples to fret over their seeming lack of necessities as it was for the man in the parable to fret over what to do with his surplus of goods. God provides for the ravens (crows) that feed on carrion. Are not the disciples of more value than these birds? So also God clothes the lilies, short lived plants that perish in a matter of days, in raiment more glorious than that of kings. Can the disciples imagine that this God will neglect them?
That sounds comforting until Jesus spells out the natural consequences. “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Vs. 33. There is no need to amass any degree of wealth if you believe what Jesus has just said about the birds and the lilies. To store up supplies for the future is to make a mockery of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet as I pointed out last week and in last Sunday’s sermon, accumulation is a way of life culturally ingrained upon our consciences. The financial industry impresses upon us constantly the need to save through investing, the need to plan for the indefinite future and the necessity of obtaining to that nirvana of “financial security.” In the face of all this, obedience to Jesus in this instance appears to be highly irresponsible. So who do you believe: Jesus or the banks? Whose word do you follow, Jesus’ or that of your financial advisor?
I cannot find an easy out for us here. Of course, there are plenty of tricks preachers have used over the years to dodge this bullet. One is the contextual argument: The society in which Jesus lived was vastly different from our own. The banking and monetary systems on which we depend did not exist. Therefore, you cannot take what Jesus said in the context of an agricultural subsistence economy and simply apply it to the economy of a modern industrialized society. So the argument goes, but I find myself asking, “Why not?” How is piling up money in the bank different from storing your surplus grain in barns? Isn’t this just a distinction without a difference?
Then, of course, we can spiritualize the text and argue that Jesus was speaking only figuratively. Selling all of your possessions means simply remaining sufficiently detached from them. That is, “have your wealth as if you had it not.” I have heard that one too. It sounds about as convincing as the drunk who insists that he is not an alcoholic because he really could quit drinking any time if he wanted to. In the end, I think this is one of many instances where Jesus tells us something about our lives, our values and our culture that we really would rather not hear.
Verses 35-40 mark an abrupt change of subject. The topic now is readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus begins by directing his hearers to “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Vs. 35. The Greek word for “loins” or “waist” is “osphus.” It refers to the locus of the reproductive organs. In the first century, garments were worn loosely around the waist without a belt while inside the home. When one went outside the home, it was customary to tie them up about the loins with a belt functioning in much the same way as a male athletic support. Thus, having “your loins be girded” was a sign of readiness for immediate departure or vigorous work. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 535. There is an echo here of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in Exodus on the eating of the first Passover meal: “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” Exodus 12:11. Just as the Israelites had to be prepared for God’s imminent act of liberation from Egypt, Jesus’ hearers must be prepared for the salvation God will usher in through the coming of the Son of Man.
Jesus uses the image of a man gone off to a marriage feast, leaving his slaves in charge of the house. Marriage celebrations in ancient Palestine could last for days and so the slaves would have had no way of knowing precisely when their master would return. They must therefore be ready to unlock the door and welcome him home at any time of day or night. This much is entirely plausible. But then Jesus goes on to promise that, should the master of the house find his slaves ready and waiting for him with everything in order upon his return, he will invite his slaves to sit at table and will gird himself for work and serve them. It is hard to imagine a fellow making dinner for his servants after coming home in the middle of the night from days of partying. Yet that is precisely the point. The coming of the Son of Man brings with it rewards that are beyond imagination-for those ready and waiting for it. But for those who are unprepared, the day will come like a thief, catching unprepared the householder who leaves his home unattended.
Whether the coming of the Son of Man is understood as the final event signaling the end of the age or whether one understands this coming as an event occurring throughout the life of the church, the point is the same. For those waiting with eager anticipation for that day and who have pattered their lives on obedience to the Son of Man, the coming of the Son of Man will be an occasion of unimaginable joy. For those living as though Jesus’ coming were some distant event so far in the future that it has little bearing on day-to-day life, that coming will be a rude awakening.
In some respects, this latter section of the gospel lesson ties in nicely with the lesson from Hebrews urging us to let our lives be shaped and our expectations informed by the narrative of those heroes of faith who lived in anticipation of God’s future. Make friends with God’s future now and you need not worry that it will overtake you like an ambushing foe.