FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Today the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In this case three closely held corporations, Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Mardel Publishing Co. sued the Department of Health and Human Services claiming that regulations promulgated under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (popularly or unpopularly known as “Obamacare”) violate their religious freedoms. The regulations require specified employers’ group health plans to furnish preventive care and screenings for women. Coverage includes twenty contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including four that may have the effect of preventing an already fertilized egg from developing any further by inhibiting its attachment to the uterus. The owners of these three companies claimed to hold a sincere religious conviction that life begins at conception. They further maintained that regulations compelling them to facilitate access to contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after conception would violate this conviction.
Of greater interest to me than these regulations, however, is the statute under which the corporate plaintiffs brought their lawsuit, namely, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). That law prohibits the “Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the Government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The law was amended in 2000 to specify that it was applicable to any exercise of religion, “whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The Supreme Court agreed that the requirement for provision of preventative care and screenings for woman was a compelling government interest; thus, the regulations satisfy the first condition of the law. The Court held, however, that requiring the corporations to supply such coverage contrary to the religious convictions of their owners was not the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The Court pointed out that there were other means less restrictive by which the government could have provided the required coverage for women in this particular instance. Accordingly, it struck down the regulations. The issues addressed in this ninety-five page opinion are a good deal more numerous and complex than this brief summary might lead you to believe. Anyone interested in reading the entire opinion may do so by clicking on this link.
Coincidentally, this decision comes down to us on the eve of Independence Day, a holiday on which it is customary to celebrate individual liberties. One such liberty is the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice without governmental interference guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It was supposedly in furtherance of this very freedom that RFRA was enacted, though I am unclear as to why. The Supreme Court cases interpreting the Frist Amendment already provide essentially the same liberties enshrined in the statute. Moreover, I question the wisdom of granting individuals (to say nothing of corporations!) the right to opt out of any law of general applicability on the basis of their idiosyncratic religious beliefs. Given the many profound and complex ethical issues related to modern medical care, this case could well open the floodgates to a host of demands for religious exemptions. Given the ever rising cost of medical care, it would be all too tempting for a company’s owners to manufacture religious objections for exempting the most expensive treatments in order to keep premiums down and protect the bottom line. As the Court is strictly prohibited from probing the sincerity or reasonableness of religious objections, it would be hard put to reject even the zaniest argument.
The Supreme Court seems to have sensed this danger. It limited its ruling to the matter of contraceptives and warned that its decision should not be deemed applicable to any other medical treatment such as vaccinations and blood transfusions. Yet I cannot understand how the Court could deny the request of a company owned by a sincere Jehovah’s Witness to exempt blood transfusions from its employer provided health coverage after having granting the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs the right to exempt contraceptives. Are the religious convictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses any less worthy of protection than those of Conservative Evangelicals or Roman Catholics? I don’t think it is insignificant either that all five Justices making up the majority favoring the opinion are members of the Roman Catholic Church which takes a dim view of contraception. In view of that, the limitation of the opinion’s reach to exemptions for coverage of contraception alone should raise our eyebrows just a bit. I fear that in our efforts to defend religious liberty we might be laying the groundwork for religious favoritism-the very thing the First Amendment was intended to prevent.
Religious liberty is important-but it is not all important. Like it or not, we live in a pluralistic society that may or may not share our individual religious convictions. If we are going to live together in any semblance of peace, we cannot allow any individual the right nor impose upon him or her the obligation to police the ethical conduct of another. I may disapprove of my employee’s participation in gambling, porn and drinking. But at the end of the day, I still have to pay him or her. What s/he does with the paycheck is none of my business. Similarly, I may disapprove of my employee’s use of her health coverage for contraception. I might hope that she does not so use it and, for all I have a right to know, she might not. It seems to me, though, that I have neither the moral obligation nor the right to prevent her from doing what is perfectly legal even if I believe it to be altogether wrong. For the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone’s religious convictions are violated under these circumstances.
Often I think our debates over the scope of religious freedom revolve too much around freedom “from” restrictions we don’t like. The more productive question is, what have we been set free “for”? I believe that Saint Paul can give us some direction here. For Paul, freedom consists in union with Jesus lived out in his Body, the church. It is all well and good to exercise our citizenship to make government more responsive to the wellbeing of its people. But Paul had no interest in Christianizing the Roman Empire (that dreadful turn of events did not occur for another three centuries), nor should we in this age be consumed with trying to Christianize the United States. Churches transformed by Christ become united in Christ. Churches that seek to transform society into some ill begotten notion of a “Christian Nation” simply become a microcosm of that society, incorporating all of its fault lines. Empire and discipleship do not make for a good mix.
Paul would have us understand that legislation can bring about neither faith nor righteousness. Law can regulate, but it cannot re-create. Only the good news about Jesus can initiate the change we need to become new people. Discipleship is exercised in communities shaped not by laws, precepts and moral codes, but by the Holy Spirit forming in them the mind of Christ. Believers are called to live now under the gentle reign of God in the midst of this sinful world. We are challenged to become communities where the health and well-being of all people is sought, especially the most vulnerable among us. We are to be communities where children are welcomed and cared for, their families supported and their needs for education, nutrition and health care assured. Within such caring communities, many of the hot button issues revolving around sexuality, contraception and abortion become non-issues.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah , and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to protect us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder that the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.