Archive for October, 2013
All Saints Day
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Years ago now I was listening to an interview on the radio of a young man in his twenties who had converted to Islam. It might have been on NPR but I can’t swear to that. I was only half paying attention until I heard the young man say that he had been raised a Lutheran. Suddenly I was all ears. When asked why he turned away from the faith in which he had been raised, there was a noticeable pause. I was beginning to think that the station was having technical difficulties. Finally, the young man spoke out a little tentatively. “Well, you know, the church I grew up in was full of nice folks. I have nothing against them. But ever since I was a teenager I was always looking for something more, something I could give my life to. I just figured there had to be more to faith in God than playing Twister and eating pizza in the church basement.” I don’t doubt that there were people of faith worshiping and serving in the congregation where that young man grew up, but somehow they failed to share that faith with him. He didn’t hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in that church’s preaching, teaching or ministry. He never caught a vision of the reign of God worthy of his dedication and commitment. What a tragedy. Here was a young man looking for the Bread which comes down from heaven and all his church had to offer him was Twister and pizza.
I don’t know what actually happened at that church, but I am willing to bet a week’s wages that its youth program worked on a consumer marketing basis. The strategy is simple: find out what the kids want and give it to them. Once we get them in the door, we’ll spring a little gospel on them-not too much and not too fast. Let’s not “turn them off.” A short prayer (very short) before the festivities begin should do the trick. They will pick up faith through osmosis. That’s how you get new members. Sounds like a good plan. There is just one problem with it. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. Trust me on this. I have seen that strategy employed for thirty-two years of ministry and I have yet to see it work. And it should not surprise us that it doesn’t work. Why should it? Anybody can serve pizza and, though it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, I can still think of about a thousand activities more exciting than Twister. The church cannot compete with the mall or the video arcade and it shouldn’t try. Moreover, while I am in a betting mood, I am willing to wager another week’s wages that most of those Twister playing kids in the interviewee’s youth group are no longer involved with the church either. When a church employs consumer marketing instead of making disciples to grow its membership, it gains neither members nor disciples.
As I read the gospels, I don’t find Jesus marketing himself to consumers. He doesn’t promise sightseeing trips for seniors, entertaining worship for adults or lots of fun activities for young people. Jesus promises the reign of God and tells anyone that follows him that the way into it is difficult and dangerous. Coming after him requires nothing less than taking up the cross-and that is no mere metaphor! The way of discipleship is not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But the joy of following Jesus, getting to know him and experiencing the reign of God breaking into our world is worth any price. I have a feeling that a church offering Jesus rather than junk food; challenge rather than entertainment; the call of discipleship rather than fun and games would have appealed to that young man in the interview. Had he encountered such a church in his youth, he might be training for ministry in one of our seminaries today.
All Saints Day affords us an opportunity to revisit the many shapes discipleship has taken over the church’s pilgrimage through time. The stories of the martyrs remind us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “A man that has nothing he’s prepared to die for has nothing to live for.” Generations of testimony from believers of all times and places can help us rediscover our mission and calling. The saints remind us that we belong to a communion of remarkable disciples from every age whose lives demonstrate the trustworthiness of Jesus’ promises and challenge us to put our own trust in Jesus. Because “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” who will not let us forget who we are and why we have been called together, there is hope for renewal and the potential for our churches to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship in our own time and place. The saints can teach us how to be the Body of Christ so that no one will ever again come into our midst without hearing Jesus’ invitation and challenge to surrender all for the sake of that kingdom worth more than life itself.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctively Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. Stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar and later under the Persian rulers are retold in the new context in order to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.” The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the very beginning of the apocalyptic section of the book. Daniel is visited by “visions in the night” during which he observes four great beasts coming up out of the sea. At this juncture, the lectionary takes a flying leap over the graphic descriptions of each of the beasts. That is unfortunate because we need to meet them in order to understand the promises made to Daniel at the end of our reading. I therefore invite you to read verses 4-14 before proceeding any further. The first beast is described as a lion with eagles’ wings and is identified by most Hebrew Scripture scholars with the Babylonian Empire which destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the Jews into exile in 587 B.C.E. Vs. 4 The second beast, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, is identified with the empire of the Medes. Vs. 5 The third beast is a winged leopard corresponding to the Persian Empire under Cyrus who, as you may recall, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. Vs. 6 The fourth beast is nothing like any living animal. More vicious and destructive than the beasts before it, this animal has iron teeth and ten horns. Vs. 7. It represents the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The ten horns represent ten rulers who succeeded Alexander, ruling various parts of his empire. The little horn speaking “great things” is our friend Antiochus.
Also omitted from our reading are the “planting of thrones” and the descent of the “Ancient of Days” and his host of thousands. Before him “books” are opened and judgment is passed upon the nations. The fourth beast is destroyed and consigned to flames, but the remaining kingdoms are merely deprived of their jurisdiction. At this point “one like a son of man” is given dominion over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom, we are told, will not pass away. Now we are finally in a position to understand the full import of the words spoken to Daniel by one of the heavenly host: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Vss 17-18. It might now appear that the “saints” or faithful Jews are helpless pawns in the struggle between these great empires. But appearances can be deceiving. In the end, it is not any one of the kingdoms asserting power over the earth that will prevail. The kingdom of the Most High will finally rule the peoples of all nations and tongues through the agency of his messiah.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: Who determines the outcome of history? From a modernist point of view, history is the confluence of innumerable currents that can be influenced for better or worse by human activity. The Book of Daniel offers us a radically different outlook. According to Daniel, history is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom of God comes in its own good time without any help from us, thanks just the same. The people of God can live an anticipatory counter-cultural existence of humble obedience under that reign even now and so bear witness to it. But they cannot hasten its coming anymore than the kingdom’s adversaries can prevent it.
That said, witness is important and faithfulness invariably leads to conflict with the surrounding culture. The fiery ordeal faced by the people addressed in the Book of Daniel is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. Even in a society where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross. The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile gestures of faithfulness in a wicked and ruthless world. So too, our gospel lesson points out that lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted.
Most biblical scholars date this psalm on the later side, most likely during the period of Greek dominance over Palestine discussed under the reading from Daniel. The psalm is distinct from most other psalms in one important respect. Although many psalms cry out to God for vengeance against enemies, the psalmists do not undertake vengeance on their own or seek to execute retributive justice on God’s behalf. Psalm 149, however, prays concerning the faithful, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisement on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written decreed.” Vss. 6-9. There is no question here that the people of Israel are being called to take part in executing God’s judgment against the nations of the world that do not acknowledge him. More troubling still is the interpretive history of this psalm. It was used as a battle cry by Roman Catholic princes during the Thirty-Years War and also by the radical Anabaptist, Thomas Munzer, in his violent crusades.
What then can we say about this psalm? First, the psalm is entirely consistent with Israel’s conviction (and that of the church as well) that God is one and admits of no rival. Judgment is always the flip side of salvation, but only God is competent to judge. With this the psalmist is in agreement. Although Israel is called upon to execute judgment, the judgment to be enforced is that which is “decreed.” Vs. 9. Until such time as God makes clear to his people precisely what is just and how his justice is to be implemented, Israel must refrain from taking action against those “judged.”
Second, as the First Letter of Peter reminds us, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…” I Peter 4:17. Just as the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, so every heart must undergo judgment. No one can claim to be entirely on the side of God such that there need be no reckoning with sin. It appears, then, that the execution of judgment to which Israel is summoned in Psalm 149 is an eschatological event, that is to say, it points to a time when righteousness, wickedness and justice are made to stand out in unmistakable clarity. For disciples of Jesus, such a time cannot come until the revealing of the Son of Man.
Third, disciples of Jesus read this psalm the way they read all of Scripture: through the lens of Jesus. After all, we are not baptized into the name of Joshua son of Nun but into the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was never shy about telling his disciples when to go beyond the written word in obedience to God. Thus, the Scriptures limit retribution to exacting from the wrongdoer only the price of his wrong. If someone knocks out your tooth, you don’t chop off his heard or burn down his house or murder his family. You get the value of a tooth, no more and no less. But Jesus tells his disciples that they must go further than the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not to seek retribution of any kind. They are to turn the other cheek when stricken and forgive up to seventy times seventy in any given day.
Finally, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s judgment comes chiefly through God’s word. When the prophet describes the reign of God’s messianic king, he declares that he “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:4. When John of Patmos describes how Christ appears to exercise his reign at the close of the age, he tells us that “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations…” Revelation 19:15. In short, God does not employ violence to implement his reign. He speaks his Incarnate Word and sends fourth his Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. Thus, however Israel may have once interpreted the injunctions in Psalm 149, disciples of Jesus must interpret them consistent with Jesus’ call to confront an evil and unbelieving world with God’s offer of compassion, forgiveness and the promise of a new creation. The two edge sword we wield must be the sword of the Spirit.
The problematic sections of this psalm should not obscure the overall theme which is a call to praise God with melody, musical instruments and even dancing. Worship is supposed to be joyful, exuberant and strenuous. We Lutherans could use more than a little of that in our worship practices!
For an excellent summary of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, see the article of Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org.
Verses 15-23 constitute one very long sentence in the original Greek text. The old RSV preserves that sentence structure in its translation to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to unpack these important passages. Thankfully for this Sunday’s readers, the New RSV has broken the reading down into several sentences. For all who have the patience to work through them, these verses provide a beautiful articulation of the Christian hope encompassing life here and now in the Body of Christ and life as it is folded into the “glorious inheritance of the saints” with Christ in the “heavenly places.”
There are more sermons in these verses than any preacher could exhaust in a lifetime. The particular verses that caught my eye this time around are the last two, vss. 22-23, pointing out that the church, Christ’s Body, is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is mindboggling, albeit true, that each little congregation gathered around the Word and Sacrament is the fullness of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer that his hearers will come to understand the hope to which they have been called and the wealth of their inheritance. Though it does not appear that Paul himself was the author of this epistle* and we know little about the congregation or congregations to which it is addressed, it seems evident that the audience is predominantly gentile. Thus, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers the deep and profound treasures of the covenant into which they have been brought by invitation through Christ Jesus.
Although Paul makes only scant use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Ephesians (another reason why most scholars tend to think the target audience was principally gentile), there are many echoes of Old Testament texts throughout the letter and in Sunday’s reading in particular. Verse 22, where Paul remarks that God has “put all things under his [Christ’s) feet,” reflects the language of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6. Thielman, Frank S., Ephesians published in Beale, G.K. & Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (c. 2007 G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Baker Press) p 815. Psalm 110 is likely a coronation hymn for Judean kings and so it is not surprising that Paul should allude to it in speaking of Jesus’ elevation to God’s right hand. That Jews in the first century gave the psalm a messianic interpretation is suggested by the use Jesus made of it in his disputation with his adversaries. See, e.g., Mark 12:35-37. Clearly, early Christians interpreted the psalm in this way. Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (c. 1989 Yale Press) 163-66. Similarly, Psalm 8 speaks in poetic terms of human domination over creation. Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple period believed that Adam’s right to rule the world had been transferred to Israel and that God would one day give to the righteous remnant of his people the glory of Adam. Thielman, supra, p 816. Paul also spoke of Christ as a “new” Adam in his letter to the Romans. Romans 5:12-21. As such, Christ is entitled to reign not merely over the earth, but may properly be placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Vs. 21.
*I will nevertheless continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” Though perhaps not the actual author, his thought pervades the letter. Besides, it is a lot less awkward than referring repeatedly to “the author.”
This excerpt from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” has some striking similarities to the “Sermon on the Mount” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. See Matthew 5-7. It is generally accepted that both sermons are drawn from the same basic written tradition commonly called “Q.” But there are also significant differences and it is not clear whether these differences stem from variations in the source material or the editing of the gospel writers. In my own opinion, it is likely a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Clearly, some editing on the part of the gospel writers is at work. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from the mountain top evoking the image of Moses while going beyond Moses in many of his teachings. Luke’s Sermon is spoken on level ground. There appear to be three groups present: The twelve apostles Jesus selected just previously in vss. 12-16; “a great crowd of his disciples;” and “a great multitude of people.” In both cases, Jesus’ teachings are directed specifically at his disciples-not to the general public. Whereas Matthew contains more “beatitudes” than does Luke (Matthew 5:3-11), Luke includes four “Woes” not found in Matthew. Vss. 24-26.
It is important to emphasize that Jesus is speaking chiefly to his disciples here. Jesus does not make a virtue of poverty. There is no blessing in starvation. But for all who become impoverished for the sake of following Jesus and living for God’s reign, there are blessings that outweigh the woes of poverty. Similarly, weeping induced by suffering for the sake of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will likewise be outshone by the joy of experiencing God’s reign. So too, all who prefer wealth, comfort and security over Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God will someday understand the opportunity they threw away. They will have good reason to weep and hunger for that precious lost chance.
New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias argues forcefully that the Sermon on the Plain/Mount was the body of an early catechism for Christian ethical training. Jeremias, J., The Sermon on the Mount, (c. London, 1961) pp 30-35 cited in Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 111. The commands given in the sermon presuppose an understanding of the gospel and merely spell out the shape obedience to that gospel must take. The kingdom’s coming is God’s doing and, as such, an act of sheer grace. The challenge for the children of the kingdom is to live now under that gentle reign. By so doing, they ensure that when the kingdom comes it will be welcomed joyfully as salvation rather than met with fear as judgment. As another commentator puts it:
“The sermon [on the Plain] is a description of the life of the new Israel, which is also life in the kingdom of God. In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God’s purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the future. But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin to enter into ultimate blessedness. Thus the Beatitudes were not merely a promise but an invitation.” Caird, G.B. Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird 1963 pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 102.
The call to love enemies, throw blessings at curses and forswear all resort to violence and coercion form the radical core of discipleship. These words are not meant to apply only to folks with nothing between them but white picket fences. These are not ethics only for church picnics and potluck suppers. The enemies Jesus calls us to love are not simply obnoxious neighbors, rude checkout clerks or inconsiderate drivers. Enemies are people that hate us and would kill us if they could. Jesus’ enemies tortured him to death. He died praying for their forgiveness-just as he teaches us to do here. Never does Jesus act violently, teach violence or condone violence under any circumstance. Over the last several years I have become convinced that non-violence is at the core of the gospel and that Christian support for state sponsored killing (euphemistically called “military action”) and the mainline church’s reluctance to condemn it constitutes a stark betrayal of the gospel. I think it is high time that my own denomination in particular take a serious look at the faithful and courageous Anabaptist witness to peace throughout the ages. It is time to re-evaluate our centuries old adherence to “just war” doctrines.
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I don’t plan to say much about Reformation here or on Reformation Sunday. If you want some reflection on that subject, I did say a few things about it in my monthly article in the Voice of Trinity. For those of you who are not on the mailing list, you can access the article at this link. I must confess that I have never understood what the lectionary people were thinking when they selected these texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday. The connections I have tried to make every single year (because the readings never change) always seem forced and tenuous. So for now, let’s put Reformation to one side.
What I found most striking in my reading of the lessons this time around is Jeremiah’s oracle about Judah’s restoration. I am particularly struck by the promise that God will write his Torah into the hearts of his people such that they no longer need instruction, but know the Lord almost instinctively. It reminds me of Paul’s admonition to the Philippian Church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the likeness of a servant.” Philippians 2:5-7.
That is an appealing image. I don’t know about you, but I got more than a belly full of arrogance, pride, grasping for power and contempt these last few weeks watching our national leaders behave in ways our nursery teachers would never tolerate in their classrooms. And don’t bother to point out to me who did what first to whom or who started it. I am not interested in who was right and who was wrong. Like an exasperated school teacher, I don’t care. I only wish there were an adult somewhere up on Capital Hill to make all the spoiled little kids play nice. But to be fair, the conduct of our leaders is no worse than what I often see at sporting events, traffic jams and, sadly, in some of our churches. It is a reflection of a depraved and inwardly directed heart that beats in my own chest no less than in anyone else’s. We all need to have the words of God inscribed upon our hearts. But how could such a thing possibly happen? What would it look like if it did happen?
Let me say first off that I don’t believe there are any shortcuts to sanctification, which is perhaps just a fancy name for what Jeremiah calls the inscribing of God’s words upon our hearts. Loving God above all else and loving my neighbor (who may also be my enemy) goes against the grain of my being. Taking up the cross is the last thing I choose. It will take a lot of work to chisel love into this selfish, willful and rebellious old heart.
Second, I know I cannot do this on my own. Martin Luther said it best of all: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” Small Catechism, Explanation of the Creed, Article 3. I need God’s Spirit to overcome my willfulness and teach me obedience, faithfulness and compassion. No, I cannot control the Holy Spirit, but I know where the Holy Spirit is, where the Holy Spirit works and where the Holy Spirit promises to meet me. Where the Word of God is proclaimed; where the waters of baptism flow; where the Eucharistic table is spread-that is where the Spirit is found. That is where I need to be if I expect the Spirit to transform me.
That brings me to the final point. I need the people of God. I suppose that, in theory, the Spirit of God could transform me without the help of any other human agent. But that isn’t how the Spirit has chosen to work. The Word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness-both giving and receiving it. Sanctification happens as I am forced to work with, support and care for people I did not choose as friends; people who may not like me; people who I might not like either. The word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as God makes of a diverse and fractious group of individuals One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That is a long and difficult task. I often doubt that there is enough time left in my life to complete it. Yet though I may lack time, God is prepared to take all the time necessary to complete what he started at my baptism. I don’t see it yet. But Jeremiah assures me that “the days are surely coming.” For now, that has got to be enough.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.
I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.
The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendents and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of our membership loss in the Lutheran Church may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what discipleship is about. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.
There! I did get around to talking about Reformation after all.
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Few biblical stories are as mystifying as that of Jacob’s wrestling match at the Jabbok. A nocturnal being unable to overcome Jacob’s superior strength is hard to reconcile with the God of Israel whose almighty power is set over all other forces of nature throughout the psalms. Resorting to “source criticism,” commentators point out that this passage comes to us from the “Yahwist,” the oldest of the four literary sources constituting the first five books of the Bible known as the “Pentateuch.” They further suggest that elements of this story are drawn from even more ancient Canaanite myths about human encounters with spirits inhabiting rivers and lakes. These spirits, though powerful and dangerous at night, are driven back into their watery abode by the light of day. That would explain Jacob’s victory over his supernatural opponent as well as the opponent’s request that Jacob release him as dawn drew near.
I am not sure what to do with all of these helpful little noetic perjinkerties. I suppose we could use them to dismiss this text as an unhelpful throwback to Israel’s more primitive and unenlightened past and turn our attention instead to the clear expressions of monotheism found in other parts of the Pentateuch. That would surely comport with our 19th Century progressivist prejudices. But our prejudices are just that. Unless one accepts uncritically the doubtful proposition that “later” equates with “more advanced” and that each successive generation is necessarily wiser than the last, there is no basis for supposing that an older and more “primitive” expression of faith is any less true, profound or insightful than later expressions. Indeed, judged from the standpoint of John’s gospel in which the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” this gripping tale of an intense, sweaty, bone crunching wrestling match between Jacob and his God comes closer than anything else in the Hebrew Scriptures to the miracle of Incarnation lying at the heart of our faith.
The difficulty surrounding the story has little to do with its composition and everything to do with the narrative itself which is complex and layered. At this point in his life, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He had to flee from his father Isaac’s home in Canaan because he earned the mortal wrath of his brother Esau whose birthright and blessing he stole by subterfuge and deceit. Then he alienated his uncle and father-in-law to whom he fled for refuge. Now Jacob has finally painted himself into a corner. He cannot go back to his father-in-law and he faces the wrath of Esau if he tries to go home. Jacob cannot move.
The circumstances that define us usually are not those of our choosing. While it might be said that Jacob’s dilemma is largely one of his own making, that might be said of any one of us. None of us imagined when we got married that what began with such high hopes for happiness could ever end in bitterness and estrangement. Nobody expects to be unemployed in her fifties. We don’t raise our children to hurt and disappoint us. Yet when these things occur, there frequently is no shortage of people around singing that old familiar chorus: “I told you so.” “I knew from the beginning you two weren’t right for each other;” “I could have told you that job was never going to lead anywhere;” “You always were too indulgent with that kid.” So let’s go easy on Jacob. Sure, he made some bad choices. Haven’t we all? All this advice about what you should have done is not all that helpful in dealing with the consequences flowing from what you did. You don’t need a consultant to tell you where you went wrong. What you need is a way forward. It is precisely at this point of no return on the way down a dead end street that God intervenes.
Biblical commentators are not alone in puzzling over the identity of the strange visitor to Jacob’s encampment on the Jabbok. Jacob himself seems unsure about what he is wrestling with. At first blush, it appears “a person” was wrestling with him. At dawn it becomes clear that Jacob’s opponent is something other than mere human-perhaps a demigod from whom blessings can be extracted. Not until the match is over and the strange visitor is gone does the terrifying truth dawn on Jacob: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. From a purely human standpoint, nothing has changed. Jacob is still estranged from his father-in-law and Esau is still approaching with four hundred armed men. But Jacob is no longer Jacob. He is no longer the “con-man” his name suggests. Rather, he is “Israel.” Whatever the etiological origins of that name may actually be, the narrative gives us the meaning as far as this story is concerned. Jacob is the one who strives with God and with human beings and prevails.
The God we worship is always nearest to us when it appears there is no way forward and no going back: between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army; between crucifixion and death; in the flesh and blood of dying bodies. The Word became flesh and entered into the messiness of our disordered lives where we so often feel trapped and imprisoned. Where that happens, faith is born. Change and decay is still around in everything we see, but that is not all there is. The God who raised Jesus from death has also entered into the mix. So in our wrestling with life, we find ourselves wrestling with God as well. Like Jacob, we can expect to get a little bent out of shape in the conflict. But that is a small price to pay for the blessing of transformation taking place in our lives. Though wounded and limping, the new day into which we hobble after a good wrestling match with God holds new opportunities we never dreamed possible; new directions we were never able to see before.
In addition to my introductory observations, the following is noteworthy. The name “Jacob” means “supplanter.” It was appropriate given Jacob’s conduct toward his brother Esau whose blessing and birthright he stole. Genesis 25:27-34; Genesis 27:1-40. The meaning of “Israel” is a matter of some dispute. Most likely, the name means “God rules.” The basis of the interpretation “He who strives with God and humans and prevails” is etiologically uncertain but seems to have been a well established attribution for Jacob. See, e.g., Hosea 12:3.
Jacob asks his opponent to reveal his name. vs. 29. But the opponent (who Jacob will soon discover to be the Lord) will not give up his name. In the ancient Middle East, possessing the name of a deity gave the worshiper a degree of influence over it. The Lord will not give Jacob any such power. God’s blessing is a gift to be received; not a favor to be extorted. One can take hold of God, wrestle with God and prevail upon God; but God will never be subject to human control. Similarly, God would not give to Moses any such name as would yield control. Instead, God gives Moses a name that asserts God’s freedom to “be what I will be.” Exodus 3:13-14.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period. Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance. Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” This is a possible translation, though not favored by most English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. It should be noted that, like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.
Once again, the lectionary folks have stopped short-or picked up after-one of the most provocative verses in the New Testament where Paul warns Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” II Timothy 3:12. I don’t know about you, but I have not been persecuted since middle school and I can assure you that my persecution then had little to do with any desire on my part to be godly. Furthermore, let me say for the record that being denied permission to put up a crèche on the town square at Christmas time does not constitute persecution. Nor do I think denying to employers the right to police their employees’ health care decisions on birth control amounts to a “war against Christianity.” Please! If you want to see what a war on Christianity looks like, take a trip to Egypt, Syria or Nigeria where churches are being burned and Christians are regularly victims of mob violence. Let us not insult these true martyrs with such silly, moronic blabber about our own imagined persecution. Instead, let’s focus on becoming faithful disciples and putting Jesus and his kingdom ahead of all else. Of course, in addition to the joy that comes with following Jesus, such faithfulness might actually give us a taste of what real persecution is like.
I think the backdrop of persecution is essential to understanding what Paul is saying to Timothy here. Timothy is urged to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…” II Timothy 4:2. The assumption here is that such faithful preaching will meet with resistance and even incite persecution. It is futile to wait for an opportune time to proclaim the gospel because that time will never come. Repentance is never convenient; the call to discipleship is always an intrusion into our settled existence. The old order will never welcome the new creation. So the time to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ is always now. Although this advice is directed to a pastoral leader, it is generally applicable to all the baptized.
Verse 16 has been central to our discussions within the church over the nature, inspiration and authority of the Bible. “All Scripture is inspired by God,” or literally, “God breathed.” For many of my friends taking a literalist approach to the scriptures, this is a proof text demonstrating that God literally dictated each and every word of the Bible such that it must be deemed “inerrant and infallible.” The obvious corollary is that if any statement in the Bible is found to be less than absolutely accurate in every respect, God’s veracity and trustworthiness is called into question. Consequently, these folks find themselves in a running battle with the findings of astronomers, geologists and biologists concerning our origins which they feel cannot be reconciled with the creation accounts in Genesis. Their feverish efforts to discredit the theory of evolution have given birth to, among other things, the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, California. The museum is dedicated to the “biblical account of science and history.” The facilities include a 10,000 square foot showcase demonstrating a “literal six-day creation.” Though the supporters of the museum claim to be furthering the interests of science, it is clear that the true agenda is defense of the Bible’s integrity against the onslaught of mounting evidence supporting a four and one half billion year old earth, the origin of life from inorganic matter and the evolution of humans by natural selection through a shared ancestry with the great apes.
A careful reading of our lesson demonstrates just how far off the mark and how needless these efforts are. First, understand that when Paul speaks of the scriptures, he is referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures. If we assume that this letter was actually penned by Paul, then no other New Testament writings are yet in existence and it is highly doubtful that Paul would refer to his own letters as scripture. Assuming that II Timothy was written by a disciple of Paul after his death, the gospels could have been in existence for no more than a couple of decades and would not have established themselves as scripture by this time. Application of this text, strictly speaking, does not go to the New Testament.
Second, note well the purposes for which scripture is useful: “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Vss. 16-17. Nowhere does Paul suggest that scripture is useful for answering questions about history, geology, biology and astronomy, none of which anyone in his day was even asking. So it is not enough to say that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. One has to go a step further and ask for what purpose the Bible is inerrant and infallible. If the claim is that the Bible is an inerrant and infallible witness to Jesus, then I have no problem with this assertion (though I prefer the words “faithful and reliable” to “inerrant and infallible”). On the other hand, when it comes to determining the age of a rock or finding the nearest pizza place, there are obviously other texts that can speak more authoritatively to these issues than the Bible.
Of course, this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say to the sciences and what they reveal. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding about our planet is implicitly blessed in the commission given to human beings in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28. As pointed out previously, this commission must be interpreted in light of the second creation account in Genesis 2:4-17 demonstrating that our dominion over the earth consists in serving as God’s gardeners. Because “the earth is the Lord’s,” we are not free to exploit it in ways that diminish its life forms and destroy its ecology. Psalm 24:1. Like all knowledge, scientific knowledge must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In the service of sinful and self serving humanity, science can easily become a tool of greed, exploitation, war and tyranny. Knowledge must be tempered with wisdom and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
This parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge is unique to the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately on the heels of Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Son of man in Luke 17:22-37. “The days are coming,” says Jesus, “when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it.” Luke 17:22. Jesus goes on to warn the disciples that many will come seeking a following and declaring that the day of the Son of man is at hand. The disciples must not be carried away by any such claims. They must wait patiently for this day and the waiting will continue for an indefinite period of time. But when that day comes, it will arrive suddenly and without warning, just as the flood overtook the generation of Noah and destruction came suddenly upon Sodom. Luke 17:26-30. Moreover, when the Son of man returns, no one will have to wonder whether the time has actually arrived. For “as the lightning lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day.” Luke 17:24.
This parable, then, is for the disciples as they live in the anxious time between Jesus’ resurrection and the “revealing of the Son of man.” During this time they are to pray. Prayer plays a significant role in Luke’s gospel. The Lord’s Prayer is introduced specifically in response to Jesus’ disciples’ request that he teach them to pray. Luke 11:1-4. In the Book of Acts, the disciples are gathered in prayer as the Holy Spirit descends upon them at Pentecost. Acts 1:12-14. The prayer Jesus speaks of is not a passive activity and it does not consist of asking God for personal favors. Prayer is a cry to God for the coming of the kingdom promised to us. The kingdom of God, not our own individual concerns, is to be the focus of our praying. For the coming of this Kingdom we are “to cry out day and night.” Luke 18:7. It is by such prayer that the kingdom comes: 1) through the transformation of our minds and hearts such that we will be able to live peaceably in this kingdom and, 2) through God’s agency in our lives made possible as we open ourselves to the influence of his Holy Spirit. The following observation by philosopher James K. A. Smith says it all:
“The “desiring” model of the human person begins from our nature as intentional beings who first and foremost (and ultimately) intend the world in the mode of love. We are primordially and essentially agents of love, which takes the structure of desire or longing. We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” Smith, James K. A, Desiring the Kingdom, (c. 2009 James K.A. Smith, pub. Baker Academic) pp. 50-51 (emphasis supplied).
To desire the kingdom is to love the kingdom. To love the kingdom is to pray for the kingdom. To pray for the kingdom is to be transformed by the kingdom such that the anticipated reign of God becomes a present reality; a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds; “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
Thus far, the issue has been addressed from the human side: when will the kingdom come? When will the Son of Man be revealed? When will we see God’s justice? In verse 8, Jesus turns the tables on us and asks us to consider whether we will be prepared when God does act. Will God’s mighty act of salvation be recognized as such by a faithful band of disciples who have been waiting for it? Or will salvation look like mere judgment to a people who have lost their desire for the kingdom?
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Who are today’s lepers? Who are the people for whom no one has any sympathy? The people none of us want living in our neighborhoods? The folks whose suffering we deem just and well deserved? While it is true (and unfortunate) that many people regard illegal residents, sexual minorities or particular racial groups as unwelcome and unwanted, thankfully these groups today have their advocates and supporters. We are a long way from full equality on all these fronts, but there is at the very least a struggle going on to achieve that goal. Nobody supported lepers in the first century or advocated for their well being. No one in that age (except Jesus) would so much as touch a leper. It didn’t matter that leprosy is not highly contagious or that most of the people classified and shunned as lepers actually had benign skin diseases that were altogether harmless. Once that dreaded label attached, your life in the community was over-until a priest declared you officially cured.
I think that the closest thing to a leper we have in our society today is the registered sex offender. You might object that, unlike the sex offender, lepers did nothing evil to merit their disease or the social isolation it earned them. But that is not how leprosy was viewed in the first century. Like blindness, paralysis and other debilitating diseases, leprosy was commonly understood as a punishment for sin. So pervasive was this notion that Jesus’ disciples presumptively asked him whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. John 9:2. It has to be somebody’s sin, right? Jesus rejected that notion altogether. Though he does not explain where the man’s blindness came from, he does let his disciples know that human suffering is for them an opportunity to manifest the glory of God through the exercise of compassion. John 9:3 Such compassion extends to all people-even lepers.
Our feelings about sex offenders are in many ways similar to the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt about lepers. Lepers were believed to pose a serious danger to the rest of the community. They were therefore feared and kept at a distance. It was assumed that such a terrible disease could only have come about as punishment for an equally terrible sin. Ignorance and fear coupled with a lack of compassion led to branding and ostracism. The same can be said of those folks on the registry of sexual offenders. We find their violent and exploitive acts repulsive. We see them as a threat to our communities and we regard their placement on the registry as both just and necessary. Pity is out of place.
While there is much that we don’t know about the perverse twists that surface in some individuals driving them to acts of sexual violence, a few things are clear. Violence is pervasive in our culture. The fact that nearly half the population of the United States believes that we need guns to preserve our freedom testifies to our acceptance of violence as a normal and necessary component of our lives. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but what little I have seen is enough to convince me that the portrayal of violence against women and children is becoming ever more common and increasingly graphic. The plot line from so many of these shows reinforces our societal creed: the only way to fight violence is with more violence. I don’t know whether shows like Hawaii Five O, Criminal Intent and CSI make us more violent, but they certainly demonstrate that we find violence enormously entertaining. Our civil discourse, whether in the halls of congress or in the barbershop, has degenerated into name calling, character assassination and accusation. Is it at all surprising that this tidal wave of anger and ill will infecting our common life spills over into our sexual expression as well? Maybe we hate and abhor the sexual predator so much because he reflects the beast within us all and the vortex into which it is sucking us.
Another thing we know about sexual predators: they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. No, that does not justify their acts, but it does help us understand the source of their deep seated anger and violent tendencies. It also forces us to ask ourselves whether the entire responsibility for their crimes rests with them. Is their evil not also the responsibility of the neighbors who heard the terrified cries of an abused child, but turned up the television set to drown them out figuring that it was none of their business? What about the pastors, teachers and coaches who noticed odd bruises and welts on a child but didn’t bother to investigate or inquire about them? Is there not a sense in which all of us share responsibility for the abuse such abused children ultimately commit?
It is not my purpose here to criticize the statute creating the sexual offender registry or suggest an alternative law. Clearly, the criminal justice system is in dire need of an overhaul. That issue is addressed in the ELCA’s recent statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. But my concern here goes beyond legislation and social policy. While we might debate what society ought to do about sexual violence, there can be no question about what Jesus requires of his church. Let us be perfectly clear that sexual predators are dangerous people and the crimes they commit wreak unspeakable sorrow and pain upon their victims. Laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens from sexual violence and harassment need to be enforced scrupulously and with rigor. But disciples of Jesus, and especially those of us who claim Martin Luther as our spiritual mentor, know that laws and penalties are not enough. Beneath the most heinous of labels society places on convicted criminals there are human beings. However marred and disfigured, these people bear the image of their Creator. I might not want to touch them, but Jesus does. That leaves me no choice.
I am not sure how one reaches out to touch the lepers on the sex offender registry. That is clearly a daunting challenge for church communities desiring to create a safe space for children and persons recovering from the trauma of past abuse. Obviously, we need to keep the safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities foremost in our minds as we minister to these folks. To borrow a phrase from the little known and seldom quoted New Testament Book of Jude: “on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 23. Despite the obvious dangers involved, I think we need to show mercy, even if tempered by fear. It seems to me that we who follow Jesus have a particular obligation towards these people so hated and ostracized by the rest of society. If we don’t touch them, who will? And if no one touches them; if they remain hated and feared outsiders; if they are never offered forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption, then their hatred and loneliness will only increase making them more violent and more dangerous than ever.
This is one of the most engaging stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes to us from a collection of episodes in the lives of Elijah and Elisha whose prophetic ministries were directed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The story begins in the home of Naaman, a highly respected general and war hero in the army of Israel’s arch enemy, Syria (also known as Aram). Yet mighty and powerful as he is, Naaman cannot protect himself from disease, specifically leprosy. It should be noted that the biblical word for leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases, not all of which were lethal or contagious. Nonetheless, they were treated as such in Israel and probably also in Syria. So the mighty Naaman is brought down not by the sword of his enemies but by a disease that likely renders him a social outcast.
It seems that something got lost in translation between the Israelite slave girl who spoke of Israel’s amazing prophet to Naaman’s wife; Naaman’s wife who then relayed this information to Naaman; Naaman’s request to his master the King of Syria for a letter of introduction to Israel’s king and the letter from Syria’s King to the King of Israel. Reading the letter from Syria, the King of Israel believes that he himself is being asked to heal Naaman’s leprosy. He knows, of course, that miracles are far above his pay grade and assumes that Syria is seeking a pretext for aggression. This whole misunderstanding nearly precipitates an international crisis. It strikes me that all of this could have been avoided if only Naaman had spoken to the slave girl himself and gotten his facts straight, but it does not appear that he did. Perhaps he felt that it was beneath the dignity of an officer and national hero to speak with “the help.”
Fortunately, Elisha hears of the looming threat of war and intercedes. He instructs the King of Israel to send Naaman to him. No doubt relieved, the King does just that. Now if Naaman was expecting a hero’s welcome, he was to be sorely disappointed. Elsha does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant to deliver the instructions for healing: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan.” This insult is too much for Naaman to bear. What sort of prophet sends a servant to greet a decorated war hero? What possible good can it possibly do to wallow in the muddy waters of the Jordan River? Naaman leaves in a huff, but once again, the slaves save the day. They point out to their master that nothing is to be lost in heeding the prophet’s words. Certainly, if the prophet had demanded some exorbitant fee he would gladly have paid it to be rid of his leprosy. How much more when the price is only a bath! Their sound reasoning prevails. Naaman bathes in the Jordan seven times as instructed and his skin is as healthy and fresh as a child’s. Naaman returns to Elisha with thanksgiving and declares: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” II Kings 5:15.
Naaman has learned a few things about this God of Israel. First, God heals the whole person. Naaman would have preferred to receive his healing without any further contact with the God of Israel. But the prophet makes clear to him that miracles are not magic. God acts through the dynamic of his word that engages the hearer, calling him or her into relationship with God’s self. Healing comes through faith active in obedience to that word. Second, Naaman learns that God’s wisdom and healing is not necessarily imparted through Kings and court prophets. Throughout this story God has used slaves to educate the mighty Naaman. One has to wonder whether that will make a difference in the way Naaman relates to his Israelite slave girl upon his return. Finally, Naaman learns humility. Bathing in the muddy Jordan, like conversing with servants, constituted a large piece of humble pie for a man accustomed to having his bathwater drawn from the pristine waters of Syria by slaves. Indeed, depending upon the time of year this story took place, Naaman might have been required to stoop or perhaps even lie down on the mucky river bottom to immerse himself. Yet that was precisely what he needed to cure the sickness he didn’t even know that he had: arrogance. If you read on in the story you will learn that Naaman specifically requested a load of dirt to take home from the land of Israel to remind him of the God he had learned to worship. Now he is only too glad for the muck he once spurned!
As was the case for last week’s psalm, this psalm is an acrostic poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Given the acrostic form, most scholars date this psalm on the later side, after the Babylonian Exile.
The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to a white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.
Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capital Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the current standoff would end in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done by failing to teach them that what they do and the decisions they make matter-eternally so.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.
The Apostle has been encouraging Timothy “to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” employing the images of a soldier serving his superiors faithfully and that of an athlete competing for a prize. II Timothy 2:1-7. Now he urges him to focus on the good news of Jesus and to “avoid disputing about words.” Vs. 14. In support of his encouragement, Paul cites a “sure saying” in verses 12-13 that might well be part of an early Christian hymn or creedal statement. The lack of parallelism in verses 12 and 13 is puzzling. In the prior verse, we are warned that if we deny Christ, he will deny us. Then in 13 we are told that if we are faithless, Christ nevertheless remains faithful. Though poetically inept, the sense is nevertheless coherent. Our denial of Christ before the watching world leaves Christ little choice but to deny us publically as well. Nevertheless, even though our faithless conduct results in destroying our witness to Jesus and Jesus’ opportunity to support us in that witness, such faithlessness does extinguish Christ’s faithfulness to us. God remains true to God’s promises even when we are less than faithful to promises we have made to God. As Paul points out in Romans, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29.
Again, we get a sense of Paul’s concern that the gospel he has spent his life proclaiming be rightly understood and preserved for the next generation. He knows, of course, that it is not enough merely to transmit verbatim his own preaching. The word of truth must be “rightly handl[ed]” vs. 15. Timothy will confront new challenges that are impossible for his mentor to anticipate and so provide advice. He must therefore rely upon Timothy to speak the gospel in fresh and compelling ways that nevertheless preserve its integrity. As argued in last week’s post, this is a challenge for the church in every generation.
The thankful leper in our gospel lesson suffers from a double whammy. Not only is he a leper, but he is also a hated Samaritan. (For background on the Samaritans, see my post from Sunday, July 14th.) Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem-a fact that previously alienated him from the Samaritan population. Luke 9:51-56. Consequently, this Samaritan’s willingness to approach Jesus was already an act of faith. Jesus commanded the ten lepers seeking his aid to “show themselves to the priest” who alone had the authority to declare them clean. Vs. 14. Upon receiving this declaration, they would presumably have presented the appropriate offering for their healing. Leviticus 14:1-20 The Samaritan, however, had no priest to whom he could go, unless we assume that he was headed for the Samaritan place of worship at Mt. Gerizim. It is unlikely that a priest of the Jewish temple establishment would have examined a Samaritan, much less declared him clean. Thus, once cleansed, he had nowhere to go in order to give thanks but to Jesus. That was also true for the nine presumably Jewish lepers, but they failed to recognize the one to whom thanks is due.
This text is used routinely at Thanksgiving worship to emphasize the need to give thanks; however, there is no indication that the nine lepers were unthankful. They may well have made an offering of thanksgiving at the Temple in Jerusalem. Their failure was thus not a lack of thankfulness, but a lack of perception. They were going to the wrong place to give thanks.
There is an obvious parallel between this text and our lesson from II Kings. Like the Samaritan, Naaman was both a leper and a foreigner hostile to Israel. Both men experienced the salvation of Israel’s God and became worshipers. Thus, God’s call and salvation extend beyond Israel to all peoples. Jesus made this very same point in his sermon at the synagogue of Nazareth in the initial chapters of Luke’s gospel. See Luke 4:16-30. This story therefore prefigures the mission to the gentiles Luke will take up more fully in the Book of Acts.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There are times when I wish I had faith strong enough not to believe in Jesus. Sometimes I think that if I could just convince myself that Christ did not rise from death, that it all ended at the cross and that compassion, kindness and mercy died there too, I would have an easier time digesting the news. I would probably still find it difficult to live in a world where children are slaughtered with poison gas and assault rifles. But I would know better than to be shocked or to hope for anything better. It would not be my problem. I could shrug my shoulders, assure myself that there is nothing I can do about it, pour myself a drink and switch the channel to Comedy Central. I cannot do that, however, because I do believe that God raised Jesus from death. My heart and mind have been so thoroughly shaped by the narrative of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection that I am compelled to challenge the darkness and seek in the most tragic events the redeeming presence of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
The prophet Habakkuk seems to be having a similar problem. His heart and mind have been shaped by the narrative of the Exodus and the many stories, hymns and teachings about this marvelous God who, transcendent and almighty as he is, stoops to save the poor, oppressed and despairing. Living as he did during the twilight years of David’s kingdom and at the height of Babylonian power, the prophet saw precious little evidence of salvation. The events taking place all around him were at variance with the Exodus narrative and the prophet cannot understand why. “Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?” “The law is slacked and justice never goes forth.” Habakkuk 1:3-4.
These are not the words of a doubter or an unbeliever expressing his personal disillusionment with religion to whoever might be listening. Understand that Habakkuk is not wrestling with that tired old whine, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” He is not so simple minded as all that. Habakkuk knows well enough that human life has its limits; that it is a gift we hold only for a little while and we don’t get to complain that the life we have is shorter, harder or more difficult than what seems to us the case for someone else. He also knows that he and his people are not innocent bystanders. They have been sinful and unfaithful to the covenants God made with them. He is aware that his people’s suffering has been in no small part their own doing. But Habakkuk still believes that, however sinful he and his people might be, God must nevertheless be true to God’s self. So his are the protests of a believer addressed to God and calling God to account. It is because Habakkuk refuses to let go of his faith, refuses to give up on God’s promises and believes that his prayers are heard that he speaks so forcefully to his God.
In the most basic sense, God does not owe anybody anything. We would have no basis to call upon God or expect any help from God except for the fact that God entered into human history and made some very specific promises to Israel. Israel, then, has a unique claim upon God. Israel is in a position to call God to account, to insist that God honor his promises. So, too, believers in Jesus who come into that covenant relationship through the waters of baptism have grounds to cry out to this God and insist that he honor his promise to wipe out their sins, give them a clean heart and a new start. We have no choice but to believe that God is never closer to us than when we are ready to cry out, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We have no choice but to cry out to God against the atrocious suffering, injustice and violence we witness. Such forwardness is not disrespect, nor does it reflect doubt or unbelief. To the contrary, it demonstrates the boldest possible act of faith in the God who is at work in the darkest prison cell, the most violent neighborhood and the most deeply conflicted areas of the world making peace through the blood of his cross.
As I said in the opening remarks, the prophet Habakkuk lived and preached during the Babylonian period of domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We know very little about him. Though a prophet by the name of Habakkuk appears in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon, it is unlikely that there is any historical or even literary connection. Moreover, the prophet’s work appears to be a compilation of materials from different periods in Israel’s history, but which share a common theme. Thus, the prophet might be more an “editorial artist” than an original preacher.
Though the notes in my study Bible identify Habakkuk’s theme as “theodicy,” or “justifying the ways of God,” I don’t believe that is really the prophet’s concern here. This is not a dissertation on “the problem of human suffering.” It is, as I said before, a passionate plea from a person of faith calling upon his God to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. The common lectionary has again done a fine hack job on this text, omitting the sections that help us place the words of Habakkuk in context. In verses 5-11 we read of how the prophet attributes to God the raising up of the “Chaldeans,” another term for the Babylonians.
Look at the nations, and see!
Be astonished! Be astounded!
For a work is being done in your days
that you would not believe if you were told.
6 For I am rousing the Chaldeans,
that fierce and impetuous nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 Dread and fearsome are they;
their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more menacing than wolves at dusk;
their horses charge.
Their horsemen come from far away;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
with faces pressing* forward;
they gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and of rulers they make sport.
They laugh at every fortress,
and heap up earth to take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind;
they transgress and become guilty;
their own might is their god!
Habakkuk 1:5-11. After describing the violence, cruelty and injustice of the Babylonian invaders, Habakkuk appeals to the Lord:
Are you not from of old,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
You* shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgement;
and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
and are silent when the wicked swallow
those more righteous than they?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
God’s answer finally comes in the second chapter. “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. Contrary to Habakkuk’s hopes, this time of trouble, violence and injustice is to continue for an indefinite though surely finite period. Until relief in the form of God’s salvation comes-and it will come-the just must live by faith. That is, they must continue to live justly in an unjust world whether their justice and righteousness bear fruit or not. Faithfulness, not tangible success, is required.
This is a hard word for our culture which is used to seeing conflicts resolved within the space of an hour, less the commercials. But life is not like TV. It plods from one unresolved conflict to the next. Most likely, we will not see the fulfillment of all our hopes within our lifetimes. We will likely die without ever seeing the fruits of our acts of mercy and kindness. But that does not matter. “For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” Habakkuk 2:3.
This psalm is one of the acrostic psalms, meaning that the first word of the first strophe begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second strophe begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.
The psalm reads more like a collection of wisdom proverbs, such as found in the Book of Proverbs, than a hymn or a prayer. The unifying theme is trust in God and in God’s providential rule. Throughout the psalm we find assurances that God ultimately rewards faithful behavior and punishes wickedness though, as Habakkuk also had to learn, such justice is not always executed as swiftly and clearly as we might hope. So the psalmist warns his hearers: “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers…” Psalm 37:1. Given the style and content of the psalm, most scholars date its composition as having taken place relatively later in Israel’s history, probably after the Babylonian Exile.
This psalm calls for patience in the face of wrongdoing and confidence in God to accomplish justice. The psalmist warns against “stewing” over the seeming success of the wicked and becoming cynical about life. Rather than obsessing over whether the wicked are properly punished, the righteous person should focus upon his own conduct, committing his way to the Lord. Vs. 5. The righteous person need not take matters of justice into his or her own hands. God, who sees all hearts and knows all circumstances, is in a much better position to determine what is actually just and how justice should be carried out.
Of course, this confidence in divine justice is easier to maintain in times of relative peace and stability where a semblance of justice has a chance of prevailing. Habakkuk, who lived in the shadow of war and societal breakdown, found it far more difficult to take the confident view expressed by the psalmist. Once again, we do well to remember that wisdom sayings such as those found in the psalm offer us a porthole view into reality which may well be true and insightful as far as it goes. Still, a porthole’s view is limited and there are other portholes through which the world must be examined if we are to arrive at a balanced understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to glimpse the world through as many portholes as possible.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.
This second letter addressed to Timothy from the Apostle Paul, now imprisoned at Rome, is an admonition for Timothy to stand firm against a number of false teachings that have crept into the church. The primary purpose of the letter, however, appears to be that of summoning Timothy to come and assist Paul in his imprisonment. II Timothy 4:9-13. At first blush, it appears that Timothy was a third generation Christian whose grandmother and mother were also believers. It is just as likely, though, that both mother and grandmother were converted at the same time through missionaries at Lystra. Perhaps Timothy was also baptized at that time or shortly thereafter. In any case, the letter reflects a level of intimacy between the Apostle and his fellow worker.
There is a reference here to the “laying on of hands” conferring a “gift” which Timothy is encouraged to “rekindle.” Vs. 6. Is this a reference to ordination? Or is it an aspect of the baptismal rite? There is support for either proposition, but not enough evidence to make decisive assertions. Like the other pastorals, this letter affirms the good news of salvation through grace in Jesus Christ apart from works. Vs. 9.
Timothy is encouraged to guard the good treasure that has been entrusted to him. That good treasure is “the sound teaching” Timothy has received from Paul. Clearly, the Apostle is concerned that the gospel is in danger of distortion or loss. We can see here a challenge that will confront the church in every age: How to preserve the integrity of the good news from generation to generation while at the same time addressing it to the ever changing circumstances of the world for which it is sent. Obviously, there is a risk involved whenever we seek to make Jesus known to an ever changing cultural context. The temptation is to make Jesus attractive, appealing and likable. The consequence is a portrait of Jesus created in our own image and likeness, a Jesus that fits nicely into our societal routine, but never gets in the way, never challenges us or calls us to repentance. In short, we run the risk of idolatry.
But there is also danger in trying to preserve the proclamation of Jesus by enshrining him in unbending theological orthodoxy or “timeless” liturgical practices. Sometimes heresy takes the form of correct expressions of the truth that have been held onto for too long. The words may not change, but their meanings do. The language of our faith can easily get hijacked, twisted around and used to express all manner of false and misleading notions if we are not vigilant about reexamining and reinterpreting it faithfully to each age. For example, scholars have noted that the word “faith” as used in this letter to Timothy often refers to a body of teaching rather than simple trust in God’s promises as used by Paul in letters such as Romans and Galatians. Whether Paul in his later years saw the need to expand his working definition of the term “faith” to meet the needs and concerns of the church or whether a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name expanded on the term, the same point is illustrated. The church’s teaching must be as flexible as the culture to which it speaks while remaining faithfully anchored in the apostolic witness to Jesus.
The disciples got it half right. When you need faith, Jesus is where you go. Their problem is that they did not understand faith. They assumed that faith is like a muscle; something you are born with and need to develop. They were looking for a spiritual exercise regimen (or more likely a shot of faith enhancing steroids) to improve their inborn faith. But faith is not a virtue or a human quality with which we are born or can produce in ourselves. It is a gift. As such, it is never a matter of “more or less.” It is like being pregnant. You are or are not. The same is true for faith. You have it or you don’t. Furthermore, if you have it, that is only because the Holy Spirit has given birth to it and brought it to fruition in your heart. The disciples do not need more faith. They need faith, period.
Faith is no longer faith when it becomes a work, a condition we need to satisfy before God will accept us. The worst advice you can give someone plagued by doubt is to say, “Just have faith.” That is like telling a starving child in Somalia, “You really should eat more!” The good news about Jesus is not that our faith saves us, but that God’s faithfulness saves faithless people like us. When that word is proclaimed in its fullness, faith follows. Strange as it may seem, faith begins at just the point where we realize we don’t have it and cannot ever hope to generate it on our own.
The parable about the servants is simply the flip side of faith. Recognizing that faith is a gift and that whatever is done from faith is finally God’s own work removes all grounds for “boasting,” as Saint Paul would say. Romans 3:27-29. For Luke, faith is never merely conceptual. John the Baptist made clear in his preaching that repentance involved bread and butter compassion, such as sharing food and clothing with neighbors in need, dealing honestly and fairly in a culture of greed and exploitation. Luke 3:10-14. Discipleship described in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is the shape of faith. Yet precisely because faith is a gift, the “fruits” of repentance and the “works” of faith are not the works of the disciple. They are solely the works of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they do not earn the disciple any right to praise or recognition. The most that can ever be said of a disciple is that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, s/he has become what God the Father created him or her to be from the beginning.
This lesson is a needed corrective for a culture obsessed with self esteem. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that we ought to be self haters or become obsessed with our unworthiness. I do believe, nonetheless, that there is just as great a danger in becoming overly obsessed with having our accomplishments valued and recognized. I wonder, when did it become mandatory that everyone be “special”? When did we decide that “average” is not good enough? When did we get this idea that we are supposed to “amount to something,” and that the something to which we must amount is necessarily a cut above everyone else: a high GPA, prestigious college, six figure salary, seven figure home and children who achieve even higher in these categories? When did it become necessary to celebrate graduation from middle school, grade school and even kindergarten? This need to succeed and, more than that, have our success recognized starts to smell a lot like the religion of salvation by good works against which Paul and Martin Luther preached. It is a secularized version of “works righteousness” focused on proving my self worth to myself alone. Whether religious or secular, a life turned in upon itself leads just as surely to emptiness and despair.
Luke’s gospel would have us know that there is no reward in seeking self esteem through recognition-whether it be through rigorous religious observance or social/financial success. God does not value either sort of achievement. Instead, God values trust in his promises, faithful obedience to his reign and love for the neighbor. These practices might not win you any recognition, but that does not matter. Disciples know that they are not entitled to recognition anyway. They discover instead the joy and freedom of living life without the need for recognition from any quarter.