Archive for September, 2013
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying ‘When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the epha small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the refuse of the wheat?’” Amos 8:4-6.
I doubt that anyone in Israel’s commercial class actually spoke these words, but their conduct did. Amos was obviously trying to make that clear to them. But if Israel’s upper class bothered answering that cranky preacher with the southern accent, they probably lectured him on the economic realities of the Iron Age. “Look, Amos. This is no longer the old Bronze Age that gave us the laws of Moses. In this new economy, we cannot afford to entertain Moses’ quaint notions of bringing all commercial transactions to a grinding halt for an entire day; or musty old statutes requiring us to let good and productive land remain perpetually in the hands of families that clearly cannot make the best financial use of it; or leaving our fields to lie fallow for a full year every seven years and permitting the poor to pick up whatever falls to the ground during the harvest. Enough about the poor already! They should thank their lucky stars that there are enterprising folks like us who know how to generate wealth so that they can have jobs, never mind complaining that they don’t get paid enough.”
Similar sentiments have been expressed in response to the Fast-food workers strike this spring against McDonald’s, Burger King and other restaurants throughout the United States. To put this in some kind of perspective, the National Employment Law Project (NELP), an advocacy group for lower-wage workers estimates the median wage for front-line fast-food workers is $8.94 per hour. Assuming an eight hour day, this amounts to $18,595.20 per year. When you figure that about $10,000 is eaten up for rent alone; $1,500 on groceries; $2,600 for transportation (assuming availability of public transit) and the need at least occasionally to purchase fresh socks and underwear, you might just get by-if you are single and unattached, if you live very frugally, if no unforeseen financial burden overtakes you, if your hours don’t get slashed so that you lose your health care coverage and if you remain healthy enough to work. That’s a lot of “ifs.” Such a worker with children, a sick spouse or an aging parent to support…well, you do the math any way you want. You won’t come out with a positive integer.
In response to the strike, the Employment Policies Institute ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal with a picture of a robot making pancakes, warning that higher wages would mean “fewer entry-level jobs and more automated alternatives.” So there you have it. Low wage earners have no more value than machines and can be replaced just as easily and without scruples when it serves the bottom line. In the words of Amos, these folks can be bought for “a pair of sandals.” Amos 8:6. The message is clear: be satisfied with your slave wages or starve. It’s all the same to us.
I wouldn’t waste my breath arguing the point with Wall Street or the likes of the Employment Policies Institute. I doubt they care anymore about what Amos has to say than did the people of Israel who finally deported him. But disciples of Jesus ought to care. It may just be that some of the employers and some of the individuals behind that atrocious ad are still members of churches. It is time their congregations exercised a little discipline. Yes, I am talking excommunication. To be sure, this is hard medicine rarely used. But perhaps this is one of those rare circumstances where it is appropriate. Refusing to pay a living wage is not “a corporate policy decision.” It is sin. Moreover, it is sin that dehumanizes its victims and desensitizes the perpetrator. It brings shame upon the Body of Christ. For the sake of victimized workers, for the health of the Body of Christ and for the salvation of any employer caught up in exploitive behavior, we need to name this conduct for the sin that it is and deal with it as sin.
Amos was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, but the preaching we have from him comes to us from his ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the death of King Solomon, the small empire King David had built split into two separate nations. Judah, consisting of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, continued under the reign of the house of David until its final destruction by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Israel, consisting of the remaining ten tribes, was less politically stable. It was ruled by a succession of royal families succeeding one another through violent coups. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 723 B.C.E. Amos came on the scene during the long and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II beginning in about 782 B.C.E. Little is known about Amos. He describes himself as “a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees,” which could mean that he was a wealthy land owner or that he was merely a servant on someone else’s estate. Amos 7:14. In any event, Amos makes it clear that he has no prophetic credentials other than his call from the Lord to preach, not to his own people of Judah, but to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Amos 7:15. By this point, the struggle in Israel between the worship of Yahweh and the cult of the Ba’als was all but over. A decisive death blow had been struck against the priesthood and temple of Ba’al by King Jehu two generations before. After taking power through a bloody revolution, Jehu killed Queen Jezebel, the widow of King Ahab and the chief patron of Ba’al. He then extinguished the entire line of Ahab. By the time Jeroboam II took the throne, worship of the Lord had become the religion of the Northern Kingdom once again. Peace, prosperity and religious revival seemed to demonstrate God’s pleasure with Israel.
But that is not the way Amos saw it. Peace and prosperity had come at a terrible price. The new commercial economy that brought so much prosperity to the commercial classes in the urban areas led to oppression and impoverishment for the rural masses. Property that under Israelite tribal law was held in perpetuity by family clans was now open for purchase or seizure. Statutes limiting the power of creditors over debtors were disregarded. The “safety net” for the poor consisting of “gleaning rights” was likewise ignored by farming interests that routinely soled “the sweepings of the wheat.” Amos 8:6.
Amos criticized the religion of Israel as empty, false and hypocritical. Religious observances, however faithfully performed and liturgically correct, are worthless unless accompanied by justice and compassion. Speaking on behalf of the Lord, Amos has this to say concerning the worship of Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 6:21-24. Not surprisingly, Amos’ preaching came to the attention of the Israelite authorities. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, informed King Jeroboam about Amos’ preaching, saying to him “the land is not able to bear all his words.” Amos 7:10. Shortly thereafter, Amaziah ordered Amos to return to Judah and never again preach at Israel’s sanctuary at Bethel. Amos 7:12-13.
What application does this have today? I dealt with one societal issue in my opening remarks, but find it necessary to repeat the point I made last week with respect to application of biblical texts to the contemporary scene. Amos is not speaking to the world at large on the basis of human rights, natural law or some universally recognized concept of justice. He is speaking specifically to Israel as God’s covenant people convicting her of violating the terms of her covenant obligations. That is precisely why we cannot go marching up to Wall Street quoting Amos and insisting that Wall Street has broken the covenant. Wall Street would quite understandably reply, “What covenant?” Neither AIG, nor Bank of America nor J.P. Morgan Chase is God’s chosen people. The United States is not God’s people. The words of Amos are thus directed toward Israel and, through its baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ, to the church.
That said, there are obviously both Jews and Christians who live in the United States, have obligations to the United States and owe loyalties to the United States. So what happens in the United States cannot be a matter of indifference. Disciples of Jesus are called upon specifically not to conform to the surrounding culture, but to be transformed by the renewal of their minds that they may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2. That means it is not our aim to transform society or “change the world” or “make a difference.” Our call is to live faithfully and counter-culturally as the Body of Christ in whatever context we find ourselves. That, of course, might very well turn out to be transformative bringing about significant change that makes an important difference. But whether faithfulness to Jesus does or does not bring about change or the change we hope for and expect is not our concern.
This psalm is remarkable in its juxtaposition of God’s overwhelming power and transcendence against God’s intimate concern for the “weak,” the “poor” and the “childless.” Verses 4-6 glorify Israel’s God as sovereign over nature and history, exalted over the nations and even far above the heavens. Yet the greatness and magnitude of God are manifested not chiefly in his transcendence, but in his imminence, and particularly in his concern for the lowly. God is glorified in the exaltation of the weak, the salvation of the helpless and the deliverance of the childless from the curse of barrenness. God’s special concern with the weak and the powerless is grounded in Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the Exodus and is reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s compassion for the childless woman echoes the experiences of numerous women of the Hebrew Bible, including Sarah, Rebecca and Hannah to mention a few. This theme is given expression in Luke’s gospel through Elizabeth, the aged and barren wife of Zechariah to whom John the Baptist was born.
This psalm is the first of a collection (Psalm 113, 114, 115, 116, 117, 118) labeled “Hallel.” These psalms are essentially expressions of thanksgiving and joy for divine redemption. In later Jewish liturgical practice they were sung for feasts of pilgrimage at Passover, Weeks, Tabernacles, New Moon and the Dedication of the Temple. It is nearly impossible to determine the original setting of Psalm 113 or its original connection, if any, to the other Hallel psalms. The archaic Hebrew expressions found throughout the hymn suggest that it may have ancient roots in the monarchical period of Israel’s history prior to the Babylonian Exile.
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone…” So begins the lesson. Just as Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, so the church is the mediator between Christ and the world. When you think about it, the chief social function of bodies is mediation. What do I mean when I say, “I know Janet”? Most likely it means that, among other things, I can recognize her face, describe her features and identify body language unique to her. I must qualify this with the word “likely” because the digital age has made it possible for relationships to develop on line without the parties thereto ever meeting face to face. I have a few of those relationships myself. Yet even for these people I have developed mental “pictures.” I know full well that these people probably do not look anything at all like my mental pictures of them. Still, I cannot help myself. I think this involuntary imaginative reflex of mine just goes to show how impossible it is to conceive a disembodied person. That is also why the church confesses “the resurrection of the body” and not the immortality of the soul. Bodies with eyes, ears, noses and mouths are the way persons engage one another. That is why the Word became flesh.
So the Body of Christ mediates God to the world just as Jesus’ bodily presence mediates God to the Church. Precisely because God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4), the church is to pray for all people without exception. Accordingly, the Kyrie begins with the words, “For the peace of the whole world, for the well being of the church of God and for all people, let us pray to the Lord” (emphasis supplied). Just as the focus of prayer is not confined to those within the church alone, it is not withheld from any nation, tribe or clan even if some of these folks are considered enemies of our own nation or even the church. Thus, prayer is to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions.” Note well that the first century authorities were not particularly well disposed toward the church. To the contrary, they were suspicious of the church and prone to hinder its mission-and that was on good days. Persecution of the church, though not systematic or wide spread at this point, was not infrequent. Nevertheless, Paul understands that however flawed and corrupt government might be, it makes possible the living of a “quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” I Timothy 2:2.
All of this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 where he writes: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Romans 13:1-7. I hasten to add, however, that I think protestants and Lutherans in particular have loaded far too much freight on these verses. The terms “instituted” and “appointed” appear to suggest that God has ordained whatever government happens to be in power and that, therefore, disobedience to government constitutes rebellion against God. But that does not follow.
The Greek words used in Romans for “instituted” and “appointed” actually mean more to “order,” “direct” or “arrange.” Thus, God did not ordain the Roman Empire, but God does order, arrange and direct it to do God’s bidding and accomplish God’s purposes. In the same way, God directed Assyria and Babylonia to bring about his judgment upon Israel and arranged for Persia under Cyrus to enable Israel’s return from exile. To say that God makes use of governments (without their knowledge or approval) is quite different from saying that the structures of power that exist were ordained by God and therefore cannot be resisted. Paul’s point, therefore, is not that obedience to government is obedience to God, but that faithful disciples who conduct themselves righteously need not fear the authorities. They are God’s tools whether they want to be such or not. Even if they act unjustly and persecute the people of God, God can be trusted to turn even this conduct to his own good purposes. Consequently, no argument can be made here to support the proposition that God wills for there to be nation states, governments or empires. Neither can this verse bear the weight of that uniquely Lutheran concoction, “The Two Kingdom’s Doctrine.” But don’t get me started on that.
Verse 5 contains what appears to be a fragment of early Christian creedal teaching:
5For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all.
The term “mediator” is not used anywhere else by Paul in this or any of his writings. Yet if this is indeed a citation to some other fragment of church teaching, it is hardly surprising that it differs from Paul’s own way of expressing the faith in linguistics and vocabulary. Paul seems to be citing this saying in support of his appeal for prayer directed to all people and reflecting God’s desire that “all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” I Timothy 2:4. One God-One Mediator-One ransom for all.
This parable has famously (or infamously) been labeled the “Dishonest Steward.” I am not convinced that this fellow in Jesus’ story was dishonest. The parable begins with a “rich man” who had a steward. According to most commentaries, the “rich man” was an absentee landlord letting out his property to tenant farmers. The “steward” was a “property manager” in charge of supervising the tenants and selling the landlord’s share of the produce. Such arrangements were apparently common in first century Galilee. See Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 617 citing Grundmann, W. Das Evangelien nach Lukas (Theologischer Handkommentar zum NT, Berlin 1966) p. 317. The charges brought against the steward involved waste and mismanagement. Such conduct surely evidences carelessness or incompetence, but it does not imply dishonesty. Moreover, we cannot even be sure these charges are true. The allegations of misfeasance against the steward came from third parties that are not even identified and we never hear that the steward was even given a fair opportunity to contest them. In today’s corporate world, heads must roll when mistakes are made and they are often not the heads of those actually responsible. That could well have been the case here.
The steward finds himself in an untenable position. In our culture of unemployment benefits, disability payments and the like, we might be tempted to roll our eyes a bit when the steward reflects: “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Luke 16:3. This is no laughing matter, however. Day laborers were paid a mere denarius per day in Galilee. See Matthew 20:1-16. The work was brutally difficult, dangerous and not always available. Ibid. Begging was also difficult work and paid a good deal less than labor. Either profession would have been the death sentence for a man of delicate physical constitution.
So here is where the story gets interesting. The steward calls in his master’s debtors and reduces their bills. On the face of it, this appears to be dishonest and it might well be. But if that is the case, why would the master praise his erstwhile steward for defrauding him? That makes no sense. Of course, Jesus’ parables sometimes are counter intuitive. Only last week Jesus told the parable of a shepherd who left 99 sheep alone and unprotected in the wilderness to go searching for one lost lamb. But that was to show how God’s valuation of those persons we have written off is entirely different than our own shallow cost/benefit analysis. There was a point to the implausibility of the parable. It does not seem to me that there is any such literary purpose for the master’s improbable response to getting fleeced by a disgruntled employee.
The most plausible explanation I have found was given by two commentators who suggest that the amount of each debt written off by the steward was his own commission for collecting the debt, not money that was owed the master. Findlay, J.A., Luke, The Abingdon Bible Commentary (c. 1929 Nashville/New York) p. 1049; Fitzmyer, J.A. Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament, (c. 1971, London) pp. 161-184 cited in Marshall, I. Howard, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 615. If that is in fact what happened, the master would have no cause to complain and might indeed admire the shrewdness of his former steward for using his last commission to create a “golden parachute” for himself.
In either case, Jesus commends this fellow because he understands that he is now in a position where his money will be of very limited use to him. What he needs now more than anything else is friends. He recognizes that his future does not lie with his master or any of the master’s rich friends who no doubt know of his dismissal and are unlikely to hire him to a position of responsibility. Any future he has is with his master’s debtors, the folks he was accustomed to exploiting. For him, the “great reversal” that Mary sings about in the Magnificat is unfolding in his own life. The rich, of which he used to be one, have been cast down. The future belongs to the hungry soon to be filled. This fellow understands that the future belongs to them and that he had better make sure he is among them. To that end, he employs his last commission. He does exactly what the rich young ruler should have done in Luke 18:18-30.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for forty days receiving from the mouth of the Lord the covenant promises, teachings and practices intended to shape Israel’s life as God’s covenant people. But before the stone tablets of the law have had a chance to cool, God informs Moses that the people of Israel have already built an idol for themselves. How could this possibly have happened? After the Exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, how could Israel so soon turn away from her God?
Let’s try to be a little sympathetic toward Israel here. Forty days is a long time when you are stuck in the midst of a wilderness that cannot long sustain you. It is unnerving when you have no idea where you are and there is no visionary leader in the camp to give you guidance or inspire you with a stirring description of your destination. It is under anxious circumstances like these that the temptation to idolatry so frequently raises its ugly head. When you are lost, vulnerable and directionless you are likely to fall for anyone or anything that promises to make sense out of your chaotic life and lead you out of your predicament.
I often feel as though I am living in the wilderness myself. The cultural landscape that was friendly and supportive of the church has evaporated within my very lifetime. The new cultural environment often seems hostile and forbidding to the life of the church. In the face of alarming membership decline and loss of financial support, it is difficult to be patient, to wait faithfully for God’s guidance and to do the hard work of prayer and discernment. All of that requires confidence we lack and time we think we don’t have. We want something tangible that we can do right now; something we can see and touch; something that will yield measureable results. That is exactly what idols promise to give us. Whether it is a golden calf, a “mission strategy,” a new stewardship program with a catchy name or a top dollar church growth consultant, an idol gives us something we can get a handle on. It gives us a sense of control. But God will not be controlled and God will not be rushed. God will act in God’s own good time. By trying to hurry God, we only hinder our own progress. “Forty days in the wilderness too long for you?” Well then, says the Lord, “How about forty years?” One way or the other, God will teach us patience and trust.
Perhaps, like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, we have arrived at a point in our journey where faith requires that we simply wait. That is a tall order for a “can do” people like us who pride ourselves on setting goals, working hard and getting things done. Waiting is not in our cultural DNA. But if you follow the biblical story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, you will discover that there was a lot of waiting around. Israel could not move until the pillar of cloud did. It was nearly impossible to plan for the journey because Israel never knew which way God would lead her. The way from Egypt to Canaan was anything but direct. It must have been frustrating, but when you are lost, you have little choice other than to follow one who knows the way.
Waiting does not mean “doing nothing.” It involves listening, prayer, discerning conversation and a willingness to confess that we are lost. That takes a great deal of courage. We read in Chapter 32 of Exodus that the people came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, with the demand: “make for us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1. Aaron caved and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Again, I can sympathize. While Moses was up in the stratosphere conversing with the Almighty, Aaron was down in the trenches face to face with an anxious congregation and no synodical support in sight. That is a hard place to be. Every week it seems I get some missive from the larger church telling me about some initiative I should be supporting, some program I should be implementing or some ministry that my congregation should be doing. Each month my denominational periodical has inspiring stories about the wonderful things that “growing” congregations are doing-as if saying to me, “and what are you doing to be a ‘missional’ pastor?” Of course, my own congregation is also eager for me to come up with a “plan” a “strategy” for growth. Understandably, they want some answers. Like Aaron, I don’t have any. But I am sorely tempted to fake it, to cobble together some program or strategy in response. I may not believe that it will grow our church anymore than Aaron believed a golden calf could get the people to the Promised Land. But at least it will convince everyone that I am “doing something” about our challenges and get the church off my back long enough for me to figure out which rabbit to pull out of my hat next.
Last month our ELCA elected a new bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eton, over the incumbent, Rev. Mark Hanson. I was not at the national assembly and so I have no sense for what drove the election. But I suspect that the election of Rev. Eaton was, at least in part, a desire for leadership that will take us in a new direction. That is not a bad thing, but it does represent a potential danger. I don’t doubt that the new bishop will be under immense pressure to provide us with a new “vision,” new “missional strategies” and new “programming.” Like the Israelites, I expect that we will soon be clamoring for her to build us a “golden calf” to get us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land with as little pain, toil and sacrifice as possible. I pray to God that she is made of sterner stuff than Aaron and that she resists the temptation to give us what we crave. I hope that she will resist the temptation to saturate us with stirring rhetoric and flurries of programmatic activity that are only thinly veiled idols designed to disguise our underlying anxiety. I hope she finds the courage to do what Aaron should have done, namely, tell us the truth. “Look folks, I don’t know which way to go from here and I don’t know when or from what direction God’s guidance will come. But come it will. In the mean time, we all need to wait with open, prayerful hearts and minds.” I think the kind of leadership we need is spelled out in a profound article written recently by L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson:
“In his 1990 Harvard Business Review article “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter described leadership this way: First, leaders set direction. They look to the future and say, “Here’s where we are going.” Then they set strategies for getting there and prepare people and systems to communicate the new “vision of an alternative future.” Then leaders motivate the people. But in a dark night of the soul, other leadership traits are required. A church may not need a leader who casts a vision, sets a direction and rallies everyone around it. A church that’s in a dark night of the soul needs a spiritual director. A good one. In the dark night the number one temptation is to get out. To flee. We want things back the way they were, and we want out. But if it’s a true dark night, that’s not what we need.”
“How countercultural it would be for a church in a narrative of decline, with a need for visionary leaders to lead it out of confusion, pain and decline, to have a leader who would be a friend for its soul. That leader would encourage the church to consider what [psychiatrist Gerald] May says might be impossible to believe-that what is really going on is a graceful process of liberation and that instead of fleeing our anxiety we should sit with it and let the process unfold. What kind of leader would that be?” Owens, L. Roger & Robinson, Anthony B., “Dark Night of the Church,” The Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 30.
I pray that our new bishop will be precisely the soul friend we need to see us through the night.
This story is strategically placed after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. It prefigures the religious and cultural struggle Israel will encounter in the land of Canaan. The religion of the “Ba’als” was imbedded in the agricultural practices Israel would need to adopt in order to thrive in the Fertile Crescent. In a world where the science of agriculture was inseparably bound up with the religion of fertility, it was not possible for Israel simply to pick up Canaanite techniques while leaving Canaanite religion behind. The struggle between Elijah and the wicked King Ahab reflects the prophetic argument that Israel’s God was as much Lord of agriculture as he clearly was Lord of Israel’s Exodus. See I Kings 17-18.
Indications are that this story reached its final written form in the later stages of the development of the Book of Exodus. The motif of sin and forgiveness runs throughout chapters 32-34 forming the compositional unit for which our lesson is the opening scene. See Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1964,Westminster Press) p. 557-558. Accordingly, this story speaks also in a powerful way to the circumstances of the exiled Jews in Babylon. They, too, found themselves in a wilderness of sorts. Like the Israelites journeying in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the exiles living in Babylon following Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. were a vulnerable minority living in a hostile cultural environment as forbidding as the desert wilderness. The temptation to abandon the faith that seemed to have failed them was strong and the pressure to conform to Babylonian religion and culture considerable. The story of the golden calf served to illustrate for the exiles the nature of this temptation and to lay out for them the consequences of surrendering to it. Not one inch of God’s reign must be surrendered to the gods of Babylon. Like the Israelites of the wilderness wanderings, the exiles were in a posture of waiting upon their God to act. No doubt God’s faithful leading of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai to Canaan provided much of the inspiration for Second Isaiah’s poetic depiction of Israel’s way of return from Babylon to her homeland. See, e.g., Isaiah 43:16-21; Isaiah 48:20-21; Isaiah 49:8-13; Isaiah 51:9-11.
The story of the golden calf is cited twice in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the golden calf story, along with several other wilderness wandering episodes, to make the point that many of the ancient Israelites proved unfaithful in spite of their participation in the baptism of the Exodus and the communal eating of the manna from the hand of God. So also, Paul warns, believers in Jesus, though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church likewise journeys through a hostile environment laden with temptations. Just as God’s judgment and discipline brought Israel back to repentance and faith, so the scriptural accounts of these acts serve as a salutary warning to disciples of Jesus to resist temptation and remain faithful. See I Corinthians 10:1-31.
The second citation occurs in Stephen’s speech before the high priest in Jerusalem. Stephen recounts the story of the golden calf (Acts 7:39-41) as yet another instance of Israel’s stubborn rejection of God’s word and Spirit culminating in the rejection of Jesus. On the whole, the speech is extremely harsh in its condemnation of Israel and it should be used cautiously in preaching for that reason. It is critical to remember, however, that Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts which he also authored were written before the final break between Judaism and the church. Thus, Stephen is not speaking from outside Judaism at the Jews. He is speaking within Judaism as a Jew to fellow Jews. As such, Stephen stands in the shoes of Israel’s prophets whose criticisms of Israel’s faithlessness were no less severe than his. Moreover, Stephen’s ire is focused chiefly upon the Jerusalem temple establishment and not to the Jewish people as a whole. That said, his use of the golden calf story as illustrative of Israel’s (and the church’s) tendency to abandon faith in the true God for idols of one sort or another is quite in keeping with the rest of biblical tradition.
Perhaps most significant is the intercession motif. God declares his intention to destroy Israel and Moses intercedes. We have seen echoes of this motif in Genesis where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom. Genesis 18:16-23. We see Stephen also interceding for his executioners. Acts 7:59-60. Of course, Jesus also prays that God will forgive his tormentors. Luke 23:33-34. Such prayer, like all prayer, is possible only because of God’s covenant with Israel. Moses does not appeal to high sounding moral principles or “human rights” when pleading for Israel. God is not defined or confined by any human conception of morality. Neither do humans have any rights against God. God, however, has made promises to Abraham to give his descendents the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendents and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. It is only because of the covenant with Israel-to which we gentiles can appeal only through our baptism into Jesus Christ-that prayer is not merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody is listening.
Why stop at verse 10? I don’t know. It is one of the many unfathomable decisions made in the smoke filled room where our common lectionary was born. The very idea of severing this psalm is akin to dividing the living child as proposed by King Solomon to the women disputing their right to it. I Kings 3:16-27. Unfortunately for the church, the makers of the lectionary lacked the sensitivity and compassion of the child’s mother and so we have inherited a mutilated psalm. Nonetheless, I shall consider it in its entirety. This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It can be divided into four sections: 1) An invocation raising the theme of forgiveness (1-3); 2) confession of sin (4-6); 3) plea for forgiveness (7-9); and 4) the call for renewal (10-17). As we will see, 18-19 constitute a later addition.
The title associates the psalm with King David, identifying it as a prayer the king uttered after being confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. See II Samuel 11:1-12:24. It should be noted that the titles given to the individual psalms were affixed at a much later date, probably subsequent to the Babylonian Exile that ended around 530 B.C.E. Their purpose appears to have been to legitimate the psalms by tying them to pre-exilic scriptural figures and to officials and musicians in Solomon’s temple. In this way the returning exiles could establish the newly reconstructed temple in Jerusalem and its liturgies as true and genuine over against the rites and places of worship maintained by the Samaritans throughout the exile. Moreover, the Hebrew preposition preceding David’s name (le) can mean “by,” “for” or “to” David. Consequently, the title might say no more than that the psalm was written in honor of or in memory of David. Of course, none of this forecloses the possibility that the psalm might actually go back to David himself. The tradition that David was a musician is well attested. Skeptics point out that the psalm does not mention any of the characters involved with the Bathsheba affair or identify the psalmist’s offense, but that is hardly unusual. The psalms of lament (of which this is one) seldom identify with specificity the individual personal events giving rise to the psalmist’s prayer.
However one might resolve the authorship question, it is clear that the last two verses, 18-19, constitute a post-exilic addition to the psalm. Whereas in verse 16 the psalmist declares that God “has no delight in sacrifice,” verse 19 declares that when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, “then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings…” This seeming contradiction is resolved if in the earlier passage the psalmist is understood not to be disparaging sacrifice generally, but merely stating that ritual sacrifice cannot take the place of heartfelt repentance from sin. Nevertheless, these verses shift away from the personal prayer of the psalmist for individual forgiveness to a corporate prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In so doing, they make this personal plea for forgiveness and restoration suitable as a prayer for national forgiveness and restoration. Whatever its origins and despite its various contextual settings, the psalm has a timeless appeal for all who experience genuine guilt and regret over sin. That accounts for its frequent use in our prayers, hymns and liturgy.
The two Letters of Paul to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus, constitute the “pastoral epistles.” They are so called because they are addressed by the Apostle Paul to leaders with pastoral oversight. In the last issue of the Voice of Trinity I stated that the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars is that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of his in his name. This conclusion is based largely on theological differences between the pastorals and those letters indisputably attributed to Paul. (Romans, I &II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon) Additionally, it is thought that the high degree of church organization reflected in the pastorals could not have developed during Paul’s life time and ministry. The false teaching against which the pastoral epistles argue is believed to be post-Pauline. Finally, there are substantial differences in style and vocabulary between the pastorals and the letters of uncontested Pauline authorship. As pseudomonas authorship was commonplace in antiquity, it would not have been unusual nor would it have been deemed dishonest or deceptive for a disciple of Paul to write a letter under the name of his master.
While these arguments are formidable, it appears that scholarly consensus against Pauline authorship is not quite as uniform as I thought. My remarks in the Voice were based on the majority view at the time I was in seminary. (For the record, the dinosaurs were long gone by then-though there might have been a wooly mammoth or two still trundling about.) Since then two very prominent scholars have taken issue with that majority view advancing some formidable arguments favoring Pauline authorship for all three of the pastorals. Gordon D. Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia recently published a commentary on the pastorals arguing forcefully for Pauline authorship. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament at Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has published a commentary reaching many of the same conclusions. Without digesting their arguments in detail, they maintain that in arguing against newer heretical movements toward the end of his ministry, Paul invoked quotations from other apostolic and doctrinal sources to bolster his positions. That would account for the supposed theological differences between the pastorals and his other works. The advanced state of church hierarchy reflected in the pastorals appears only when one imbues terms such as “bishop,” “elder” and “deacon” with attributes of these offices as they existed much later in the development of the church. From the context of the pastorals alone, one cannot make a convincing case for the existence of any “advanced hierarchy.” It is evident that Paul utilized a recording secretary for his letters, even those unequivocally attributed to him. Perhaps in his later years Paul used a different secretary or gave his secretary more freedom in conveying his message. If so, that could account for the differences in language and vocabulary. In sum, the arguments against Pauline authorship are not as formidable as they appear at first blush.
In support of Pauline authorship, Fee and Johnson point out that with only two exceptions, the early church leaders all assume that the pastorals were written by Paul. Though these folks lived one or two centuries after Paul’s death, they were nevertheless eighteen centuries closer to the New Testament church than we are. More significantly, for all of the differences between the uncontested Pauline letters and the pastorals, the similarities in thinking and expression are also substantial and cannot be dismissed. While I still lean toward pseudomonas authorship, I am definitely taking another look at the issue. In the end, it may well be an argument over degree. Pseudomonas authorship defenders readily admit that there are sections of the epistles that could well have come right from the mouth of Paul. Pauline authorship contenders recognize that, whether through the liberality of his secretary, quotation of other authorities or subsequent editing, there clearly is material in the pastorals that is linguistically, stylistically and theologically different from Paul. In either case, I believe that the pastorals are sufficiently stamped with Paul’s influence for me to refer to them as “Paul’s” without committing myself on the question of authorship.
This week’s brief lesson encapsulates Paul’s self understanding and the significance of his ministry. His appointment by Jesus to the ministry of the gospel is founded in grace. As foremost of sinners, Paul was a prime candidate for apostleship. If his fanatical opposition to Jesus and his church can be forgiven; if even Paul the persecutor can be transformed so as to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ, what limit can there be to God’s mercy and capacity for redeeming sinners?
The formula “the saying is sure,” is characteristic of all three pastorals. See vs. 15. See also, I Timothy 3:1; I Timothy 4:9; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 3.8. It may well be a stylistic preface for introducing creedal material-early statements of church doctrine that are (or should be) recognized as beyond dispute, e.g. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Vs. 15. If this is the case, we may be looking at the earliest strands of DNA for the Apostles Creed in these fragments from the pastorals.
Once again, the occasion for the parables Jesus speaks here is a meal. Unlike last week, the meal is not taking place in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, we don’t really know where this meal is taking place. Obviously, it must be somewhere public because the Pharisees and the scribes can observe that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Vs. 1. We know that Jesus must be at a meal because they complain that he not only receives such folks, “but eats with them.” Vs. 2. That was deeply offensive because meals in first century Judaism were not simply about “grabbing a bite” as so often is the case today. They had a deeply spiritual dimension making them acts of worship. The sacrificial rites in ancient Israel were meals for the most part in which reconciliation with God and among the people was effectuated. “Sinners” in this context are not necessarily those whose sinful acts were more notorious than others. They were people cut off from Israel because their profession put them in contact with gentiles, unclean animals, corpses or foreign money. Or they might be excluded for having had a disease rendering them unclean such as leprosy. Then too, they might well be people whose sins were deemed beyond forgiveness. Nonetheless, Jesus welcomes them to his table and that is what gets him into trouble.
The two parables are perplexing-at least the one about the sheep. Jesus asks his hearers, “What man of you, having a hundered sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” vs. 4. Well, I for one. I may be a city kid, but I know that sheep don’t do well left alone in the wilderness. I expect that this shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep would evaporate pretty quickly if upon his return he discovered that the rest of his flock had been attacked and scattered by a pack of wolves. But perhaps that is the point. God will never be satisfied with 99%. Even if the rest of the flock is put in jeopardy, even if rescuing the lost sheep means that the shepherd must now go in search of 99 lost sheep, so be it. The shepherd will keep on searching, keep on gathering and go on herding until he has all 100 safe and accounted for.
By contrast, I think most sensible people would say that getting 99 out of 100 sheep safely through the wilderness is a pretty good day’s work. There is always loss when it comes to shipping goods from point A to point B. So consider it a cost of doing business and write it off on your income tax return. Jesus would have us know, however, that none of his sheep are expendable. What Jesus’ opponents do not understand is that the reign of God cannot come until all the sheep are brought into the fold. By hindering Jesus’ ministry to sinners, they are hindering the coming of the kingdom of God. By shutting sinners out of the community of Israel, they are shutting the door of kingdom in their own faces as well. Perhaps we err in assuming that the tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and the lost coin in Jesus’ parables. After all, the sinners are drawing near to Jesus and entering into table fellowship with him. They are not lost. It is only those who turn up their nose at this messianic banquet that are lost.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I was one of the many students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to have been under the instruction of Professor Sheldon Tostengard. Professor Tostengard taught “homiletics” which is a fancy theological term for preaching. He took the task of preaching seriously and had very little patience for anyone who didn’t. Professor Tostengard never tired of reminding us that preaching should proclaim the biblical text-good, bad or ugly. “Never apologize for the Bible,” he used to tell us. “You didn’t write it. It isn’t your job to edit it, soften it or protect people from it. Your job is to say it and let the chips fall where they will.” Nothing made Professor Tostengard more livid than efforts to “domesticate” Jesus. “Don’t you dare ever preach a sermon in this class about what Jesus really meant,” he used to tell us. “Jesus meant what Jesus said. If you don’t have the stomach for it, then get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who does!”
I wish Professor Tostengard were still among the quick, because I would love to know how he would have handled this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus tells us that no one who does not “hate” parents, spouse and children can follow after him. That is mighty hard to stomach. I could deal with being told that I must love God above all other loves-though that is no small feat either. But does discipleship entail hating the people nearest and dearest to you? I consulted the Greek text of the New Testament and my lexicon in hopes of finding a loophole. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?
As Professor Tostengard is no longer around to be consulted, I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Yes, he is dead too, but he left behind a treasure trove of his theological reflections. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.
The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.
Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.
Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.
So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”
That injunction to “choose life” is loaded with many political overtones. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I cannot help but notice, however, their roaring silence when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor. I guess that for these social conservatives, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.
In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text, however, as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gives shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. It is precisely for this reason that Israel is commanded to ensure that there are no poor in her midst, that the orphan, widow and resident alien are treated with justice and compassion. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.
Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life.”
The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.
Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the new bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” would be for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.
Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.
Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.
By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.
This brief letter from St. Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.
In the pre-Civil War south this letter was invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this we conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.
First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.
Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.
As indicated in my opening remarks, this is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. For my take on that, see the introductory remarks.
The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.). Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.
“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.