Archive for March, 2016
SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER
Prayer of the Day: O God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit’s breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Sometimes a single word, act or decision comes to define us. Benedict Arnold’s act of betrayal rendered his name synonymous with treason. So, too, the once noble name of Judas has been forever tainted by its owner’s single act of treachery. Thomas’ name did not fare quite so poorly, though it cannot seem to shake the prefix “doubting” in common parlance. That is unfortunate because Thomas was not a doubter. He was not sitting on the fence with respect to the resurrection. He was an unbeliever. He flat out rejected the testimony of the rest of the disciples. “Not buying it,” he says. “Not until I see it myself.”
I have heard more sermons than I can count misinterpreting poor Thomas as well as Jesus’ response to him. We tend to project into this story our own 21st Century difficulties of reconciling Jesus’ resurrection with modern biological science. We assume that Thomas shared the same incredulity we do when we hear that Jesus died and was raised from death. How could such a thing happen? That, however, was not Thomas’ problem. Few people in the 1st Century doubted that God or the gods could raise a person from death. The question for Thomas was not “How?” but “Why?” In ancient myths, legends and religious lore immortality was earned through acts of heroism or works of power. For example, the emperor Augustus Caesar was said to have been taken up into heaven and deified upon his death. And why not? He was responsible for establishing Rome’s rule over the Mediterranean world, the pax romana. But why would the God of Israel-or any god for that matter-raise Jesus? After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, things rapidly went south. He alienated the religious leadership, failed to liberate Jerusalem from oppression or even establish a sustainable movement. His life ended in a shameful and humiliating execution. His followers, who never more than half understood him, fled and left him to his fate. Jesus’ life was, by any reasonable measure, a failure.
Thomas’ unbelief arises not from his inability to entertain the possibility of a miracle, but from his failure to comprehend the depth of the Father’s love for the Son and the Son’s love for the world. Very tellingly, Thomas insists that he must see the very wounds of the cross on Jesus’ Body. More tellingly still, Jesus invites Thomas to touch these very wounds. Therein lies the key to understanding this encounter. Thomas is confronted by a God with a Body-a Body that suffers, bleeds and feels pain. Though risen and glorified, Jesus nevertheless bears the wounds of the world. God is very much in, with and under our creaturely existence experiencing at every level of creation its death and passing away. The Incarnation was not a temporary state. God’s becoming human, the Word’s becoming flesh was a decisive one way transaction. God is and always will remain human. God’s voice will forever be heard in the cries of the oppressed, the hunger of the poor and the loneliness of the outcast. God’s grief-and joy-will forever be found in the fragile bursts of life on this planet that flare up, burn brightly for an instant and fade.
The miracle that is Jesus’ resurrection does not consist chiefly in the fact that God raised Jesus from death. It consists rather in the fact that God raised Jesus from death, the man who lived obediently to God, passionately loving to the end the world God sent him to save. God raised not the warrior, but the one who would not invoke God’s power to defeat his enemies or allow his friends to raise the sword in his defense. God raised the one who trusted God, even when it seemed to all the world and even to him that God had abandoned him. This is the one Thomas finally acknowledges as “My Lord and my God.”
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter much whether there is a God or whether God is able to raise the dead if that God resides somewhere beyond the blue managing the universe by remote control. Only a God so invested in the world he made that he suffers with it, bleeds into it and dies for it can make a difference. Only a God whose love throbs in every molecule, holding the world together against the destructive forces that threaten to rip it apart can save us. Here is a poem by Pattiann Rogers that seems to know something of this God Thomas discovered in Jesus.
where god’s grief appears
in the bobbing of the waterthrush, in the trotting
of the wild boar, in the stiff-legged jogging
of the nine-banded armadillo, the sideways
darting of the desert cottontail
and the drumming
hind feet of kangaroo rats, in flight
of the blue throat across the Bering Sea,
the floating of the purples sea snail in its raft
of mucous bubbles, the pouncing of coyote, the springing
leap of springbok and springtail,
the green gangly ascending of treefrog, the burrowing
of the two-gilled bloodworm and the scrambling of the flightless
tiger beetle, present in the scarlet blooming forth
of claret cup cacti,
in the creeping morning glory and the winding
of kinnickinnick, present
in the gripping of coon oysters to sea whips and to each other,
in the wind drifting the seed of cotton grass, carrying
the keys of white ash, the rolling
of tumbleweed, the sailing of white-tailed kite,
the gliding of crystal spider on its glassy strand, found
in the falling of golden persimmons,
the dropping of butternuts, pecans, the rooting
of the fragrant roseroot, in the changing colors of the luring
sargassum fish, the balancing upside down
of the trumpet fish among sea feathers, in the water-skating
of the stilt spider, the soaring of flying fish,
in the climbing, the tumbling, the swinging,
the pirouetting, the vaulting…in light in living
motion everywhere it appears, as offering, as evidence,
Source: generations by Pattian Rogers (c. 2004 by Pattian Rogers, pub. by Penguin Books). Pattiann Rogers was born in Joplin, Missouri. She attended the University of Missouri and earned her master’s degree from the University of Houston. She has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Poetry Fellowship. She also won Poetry’s Tietjens and Bess Hokin Prizes, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest and the Strousse Award. You can read more of Pattiann Rogers’ poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
Peter and his fellow apostles are in trouble again. At their last hearing, they were warned not to teach, preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Note well that the prohibition is not against teaching, preaching or healing generally. Some years ago a colleague of mine told me about how the churches in her city were hosting a statewide breakfast program for low income children. To qualify for participation in the program, churches were compelled to cover up or remove all religious images such as icons, crosses and statues. This was necessary, she explained, to avoid running afoul of the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of religion. My colleague did not seem to have any problem with the conditions for her church’s involvement in the program. From her perspective, the important thing was that the kids were getting breakfast. If covering or removing images of Jesus was the price to be paid for cooperation in a venture that was surely in the spirit of Jesus, it was well worth the cost.
Is that really the case? Were the apostles being stubborn and pig headed? Why not continue the good work of teaching, healing and caring for the poor without bringing up Jesus? Does it matter whether the church is publically associated with Jesus in its work? Is the public proclamation of Jesus indispensable to doing God’s will in the world? Can you do works in Jesus’ name without mentioning that name? As long as you are doing what Jesus requires, why does it matter whose name is on the final product?
At the risk of sounding ruthlessly sectarian, I believe that the name of Jesus is indispensible to the church’s mission. Thus, were I in the place of my colleague, I would with great sorrow let the breakfast hosting opportunity go. To those who would fault me for my seeming lack of concern for hungry children, I would reply that children do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Words and actions are not as easily separable as we moderns imagine. In fact, if you take the Gospel of John at all seriously, Word and action are entirely inseparable. That is the reason why Peter and John could say last week that “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The proclamation of Jesus simply was not negotiable. The apostles’ actions were grounded in the Word they were preaching. We call that Incarnation.
As an attorney, I understand and respect the legitimate concern of the government to avoid entanglement between state services and the promotion of religion. I also understand that the circumstances in which my colleague found herself were vastly different from those of the apostles. In her case, she was working with a friendly government to achieve a common humanitarian objective. The apostles were struggling to be faithful under the weight of persecution by a hostile government. Yet whether the state employs threats of violence, entices us with promises or appeals to us on the basis of the common good to abandon Jesus, the net effect is the same. As church, we are not motivated by some vague notion of the common good (which is always less “common” and frequently less “good” than is claimed). The church lives and acts out of its relationship to Jesus and its call to bear witness to God’s salvation in his name. Apart from that relationship, we are no longer the church.
The psalm for this week is a continuation of the same one used for Easter Sunday. I therefore refer you to my comments from my post of Sunday, March 27, 2016.
These verses serve as an introduction to a series of messages addressed to the “seven churches that are in Asia.” The reference here is actually to Asia Minor, what is now modern day Turkey. The seven churches are later identified as those of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The number of “seven” is symbolic of completeness or perfection and therefore may be a literary device. Thus, it could well be that the letters were meant for general circulation as a group throughout Asia Minor rather than individually addressed to the seven specific churches mentioned and that the matters discussed with these congregations were actually issues common to most or all of the churches in the area.
Much speculation has been given to what the “seven spirits” of God represent. Again, the symbolic meaning suggested by use of the number “seven” implies that John is simply referring to the manifold energies of the one Spirit of God. It is also possible that the “spirits” are simply another designation of the “angels” of each of the seven churches referenced throughout the balance of chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Revelation. Some ancient commentators have identified the seven spirits with the seven aspects of the Spirit to be conferred upon the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” referenced in Isaiah 11:2. Frankly, I think this latter interpretation is a bit of a stretch.
The reference to the Son of Man coming in the clouds echoes Jesus’ testimony before the Sanhedrin. Mark 14:62; Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69. These passages, in turn, point back to Daniel 7:13. Also referenced in this verse is Zechariah 12:10. The alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet respectively; hence, the Lord God is the beginning and end of all things, “the one who is, who was and who is to come.” Vs. 4.
This introduction sets the stage for John of Patmos to deliver the message of his widely misunderstood and woefully misinterpreted book of Revelation. He seeks to impress upon the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to live faithfully are of cosmic importance and eternal significance. He accomplishes this objective by projecting those struggles upon the screen of apocalyptic drama in which good and evil engage each other as fantastic beasts, angels and spirits. These characters are pregnant with symbolic meanings, many of which are now lost to us. Still, the rich poetry of Revelation has always been and continues to be a rich fountain for inspired and hopeful preaching. The refrain of this book, sounded in so many different keys, is the promise that God’s gentle reign will be implemented not through the violent ways of human empire, but through the patient and persistent love of God manifest in the crucified Lamb of God.
Something is different about Jesus after his resurrection. He appears, disappears, and is able come into a room that has been locked up tight without breaking down the door. Yet he is no mere spirit. You can touch him. He still bears the wounds of the cross and this is important. As noted in my introductory comments, incarnation is irreversible. Jesus became human and remains so. God, having become flesh, will never shed his humanity. The body of Jesus was not just a clever disguise. Jesus’ body is Jesus. The resurrected Christ is still wounded and bleeding, still suffers the pain of a broken humanity and continues to struggle toward the promised reign of God. Now, however, it is clear that not even death can extinguish God’s incarnate love.
John’s Pentecost occurs on the day of resurrection. Jesus breathes on his disciples the Holy Spirit and commissions them to go forth even as he was sent forth from the Father. The life of the disciples is to be a continuation of Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus embodied the Word of God, so they are to embody that same Word now through the power of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus prayed for in Chapter 17 is now being implemented. Jesus will be in his disciples just as he is in the Father. By the agency of the Holy Spirit they will be made one and by their love for one another the love of God will be made known to the world.
“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? This verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” LSC, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?
I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:
“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.
Poor Thomas gets a regular drubbing whenever this lesson comes up. I say it is time to give Thomas a break. For the last two millennia he has had to live with the shameful moniker “Doubting Thomas” even though he sought nothing more in the way of proof for the resurrection than the other disciples had already received. I think that too much emphasis has been placed on Thomas’ faith or the lack thereof and too little upon the wounds in the Body of Christ that demonstrate God’s continued suffering love for a rebellious world. This will likely be the focus of my sermon if I wind up preaching on this text.
Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion
Prayer of the Day: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Last year, at the urging of one of my children, I watched the first of three movies based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, The Hunger Games. For those of you who might not have seen the movies or read the books, the story takes place in a future dystopia ruled by a repressive dictator. What used to be North America has been divided into twelve districts. Every year, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of the districts are selected by lottery to participate in the “Hunger Games.” The children are compelled to fight to the death in a vast arena for the entertainment of the masses, who see it televised in living color. There can be only one victor, namely, the last child standing. During the contest, alliances between the contestants are formed which are, of necessity, temporary. Stealth, dishonesty and deceit are as essential to victory as brute strength. The narrative traces the fortunes of Katniss Everdeen, a Hunger Games contestant from the poorest district of the empire. To be honest, I didn’t much care for the movie. The acting was only fair and the premise seemed somewhat less than credible.
This week, however, I happened to catch an episode of Survivor that made the premise of Hunger Games a good deal more credible. For those of you who, like me, watch television only rarely, Survivor is a “reality” show in which contestants are divided into “tribes” and placed in a wilderness setting. They compete with one another in grueling athletic type contests. The losing tribe must vote one of its members off the show. As with Hunger Games, there can be only one winner. Thus, alliances between the contestants are, of necessity, temporary. Stealth, dishonesty and deceit are as essential to victory as brute strength. Like Hunger Games, the contest is broadcast on television for our entertainment.
The correlation is not perfect. Unlike Hunger Games, the contestants in Survivor are not selected randomly or against their will. I have no doubt they worked hard to land a coveted spot in this reality series that probably will reward them all in some way, even if they do not manage to win the game. Still, I am not sure that reflects any more positively on a people entertained by such sport. In this week’s episode, the tribes competed in a grueling contest under extreme heat. Three of the contestants were overtaken with sun stroke, one so severely that he had to be evacuated by helicopter and removed from the show. Is this the sort of blood sport we find entertaining? Are we really so titillated by watching people lie, deceive, betray and trick one another with falsehoods? Perhaps the difference between Collins’ dystopia and our contemporary culture is only a matter of degree. Like the Roman audiences drawn to the Colosseum where gladiators fought to the death; like crowds who just a century ago gathered in our town squares for the spectacle of public executions; or mobs cheering at a lynching, we are perversely entertained by violence, cruelty and the suffering of others. If Survivor has no other socially redeeming value, it does at least force us to acknowledge that, beneath our civilized veneer, we are a violent people. Violence excites and stimulates us.
The Passion Narrative unmasks our pretentions about ourselves. If we are honest, we can find ourselves in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, which author and theologian James H. Cone aptly characterizes a communal act of savagery akin to lynching. Cone, James H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree, (c. 2011 by James H. Cone, pub. by Orbis Books). For those of us firmly entrenched in the cultural structures of white privilege, viewing the cross through the lens of this peculiarly American atrocity brings its hard word into sharp focus. We are the perpetrators seeking Jesus’ death to protect our interests in the status quo. We are Jesus’ fellow countrymen orchestrating his death to keep peace with the overlords of the dominant culture. We are the executioners carrying out the death sentence using the poor excuse that we are simply following orders. We are the spectators secretly relishing the victim’s suffering, snickering cruelly at the expression on his face as, thinking he is about to receive water for his fierce thirst, he gulps down a swallow of vinegar instead. We are the people of conscience who know that a travesty of justice is occurring under our noses, yet remain silent and do nothing for fear of the consequences. To the question posed by that old spiritual, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” the answer is a resounding “Yes.” We were-we are there.
I don’t preach on the Passion Narrative anymore. What is left to say about a story in which there are no heroes and we all find our place as perpetrators, enablers, cowards and not-so-innocent bystanders? Any response on our part likely would be just a vain effort to remove ourselves from the narrative and escape its judgment on our lives. So we listen to the story, accept its verdict upon us and leave the church in silence. The next word can only be spoken by the resurrected Lord.
Here is a poem by Claude McKay for which there is likewise no worthy spoken response.
His spirit is smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun:
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.
Source: Harlem Shadows: Poetry of Claude McKay, (c. 1922 by Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.) Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry celebrated peasant life in Jamaica, challenged white supremacy in America and lifted up the struggles of black men and women struggling to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
According to one commentator, it was common for animals to be kept in front of inns and places of lodging near Jerusalem during festivals such as Passover. Travelers lodging therein could use them for trips back and forth from the city. J.D.M. Derret, Law in the New Testament, London, 1970, p. 241-253. Though such use would naturally be restricted to guests, it would not be unusual for an exception to be made for a well known visiting rabbi. Neither would it have been unusual to observe a rabbi riding his donkey into Jerusalem at Passover followed by his disciples. They would have blended in naturally with the other pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and rejoicing to see the outline of the Temple in the distance. It was the specific song of praise from Jesus’ disciples that appears to have attracted the attention of the Pharisees in the multitude. The Pharisees could well have been as concerned about their own safety as they were affronted by the disciples’ claims about Jesus. The Roman occupation force in Jerusalem was always beefed up and on high alert during Passover season for any sign of anti-imperial sentiment. The spectacle of a man acclaimed as king riding into Jerusalem, if only on a borrowed donkey, could easily bring down the full punitive wrath of Rome.
The phrase, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (vs. 38) was a common greeting exchanged between pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem for Passover and other festivals. However, as used in the Psalm from which it appears to have been taken, the phrase is a greeting addressed by the priest to worshipers entering the temple in the Jerusalem of the Judean Davidic monarchy. Luke inserts the word “king” into the phrase giving to the song the flavor of a coronation liturgy. Of course, this begs the question: what sort of king will Jesus be? That question was posed in an oblique way to Jesus in the temptation narrative where the devil promised Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. The question will be brought into sharper focus when Jesus is brought before Pilate charged with claiming to be a king. Herod, after examining Jesus, sends him back to Pilate dressed in kingly apparel. Though intended as a joke, Herod unwittingly affirms what is in fact God’s verdict on Jesus. The matter of Jesus’ kingship and the nature of his reign will be illuminated further through the interchange between the criminals crucified with Jesus.
The praise of the disciples for Jesus as he enters Jerusalem echoes the angels’ song to the shepherds upon his entry into the world. Praise is always the response of the cosmos to Jesus and it is futile to try stifling it. Even if Jesus were to silence his disciples, “the very stones would cry out.” Vs. 40. Stones were frequently called upon in the Hebrew Scriptures to witness oaths, treaties and saving acts of God. See Genesis 31:43-50; Joshua 4:1-7. Here Jesus takes the image one step further and declares not merely that the stones shall witness what is happening but even testify to it.
We know from the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 that Jesus will bring about a salvation event on a scale equal to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. As we have seen since Luke 9:51, Jesus’ destiny has been sealed since he “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” His final conflict is at hand. Jesus will now engage Satan, whose power is inherent in the religious establishment and the empire to which it is enslaved. It is only natural that Jesus’ disciples should be rejoicing at this moment. But as we will soon see, their rejoicing is to be short lived. The salvation Jesus promises will turn out to be something entirely other than what they expect. His coronation will occur in a most unlikely manner.
This is the third of four “servant songs” found in what has come to be called “Second Isaiah.” See article by Professor Fred Gaiser at enterthebible.org. The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. Who is the “servant”? What is the cause of his suffering and how does that suffering benefit the servant? Israel? The world? Is the servant the exiled remnant of Israel? The prophet? Some other individual? Old Testament scholars have debated these questions for over a century. I am not sure the answer to these questions has to be a strict either/or. The prophet’s rejection and suffering at the hands of his/her fellow Israelites could well be a reflection of Israel’s rejection and suffering among the nations of the world. The prophet’s life may be a parabolic symbol of what Israel’s life as a people was intended to be and still might be.
The verse that strikes me this time around is vs. 4: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary.” That is truly a gift! I wish I had it. I see a lot of weariness around these days. Every week I meet people weary of looking for work; people who are weary with the work they have; people weary of maintaining a home that requires more strength and energy than they can give; people weary of being the shoulder everyone cries on; people weary of being the only one who volunteers for the jobs that have to get done so that worship can happen each Sunday or the school play will come together or the July 4th celebration can take place. I see too many good people carrying too many burdens with too little thanks. How I wish I could find words to strengthen their weary limbs and lift their weary spirits! How I wish I could preach life into dead bones like the prophet Ezekiel!
The prophet of Second Isaiah does just that. If you are ever down and out and ready to give up, read Isaiah 40-55. If that doesn’t lift your spirit, I don’t know what will. You don’t have to understand the historical context or the intricacies of Hebrew poetry to be carried away by the lyrical waves of joy and hope in these ancient songs composed for a people with seemingly nothing left to hope for. Yet people can be resistant even to good news. In fact, good news sometimes meets the stiffest resistance of all. Let’s face it, self-pity feels kind of good. There is a part of us that loves to wallow in our hurt and lick our unjustly inflicted wounds. It takes an effort to stop brooding over the good times that are past and reach out for “the new thing” God is doing. Many of the Jews living in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem wanted the old days back again and, because they could not have that wish granted, they were not interested in anything new. How many churches don’t we know that take just that attitude! There is nothing quite so annoying when you are enjoying a good wallow in your sorrows as a prophet who comes around, kicks you in the pants and tells you to grow up, take some responsibility for yourself and open your eyes to the new thing God is doing right under your nose. It makes you want to slap his face and pull out his beard!
The prophetic writings in Second Isaiah provide just the right combination of carrot and stick. The prophet alternately paints vivid and compelling lyrical images of God’s faithfulness and acts of salvation on the one hand while all the time prodding us to abandon our silly wallowing in self-pity. Next to the psalms, Second Isaiah is about my favorite book in the Hebrew Scriptures.
I cannot find a better description of this psalm than the one given by Arthur Weiser:
“The psalm does not exhibit a logically constructed thought-sequence; on the contrary, the development of its thoughts is determined by the psychology and logic of the life of prayer and, in a manner that is true to life, reflects the vivid movement of the emotions, moods and thoughts of a soul which in its distress seeks and finds its support in God. Here we gain an insight into the extent of God’s love-by the fact that the worshipper in spite of all the stereotyped forms to which he is tied can plainly and frankly confess the spontaneous emotions that stir his heart in his distress, the constant change of his fluctuating feelings; by the fact that the worshipper is allowed to come into the presence of God without hiding anything from him, and, guided in his prayer by an invisible hand, may gradually proceed from fear and trembling, as reflected in his urgent petitions, to comfort and strength, which are granted him in abundance as a result of his surrender to God’s hidden goodness.”
Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962, pp 275-276.
“Stereotypical forms” might seem antithetical to spontaneity in prayer. Yet I know from experience that when “my strength fails because of my misery,” spontaneity and creativity are not close to the surface of my thinking. That is why we need to be schooled in the language of prayer. It is also why we need to accumulate an arsenal of prayer petitions in the depths of our souls so that when life hits you so hard that you cannot pray, the Holy Spirit has a good supply of prayer formulas to work with. So once again, my standard advice to people of all ages:Two psalms each day, one in the morning and one at night.
In addition to life-long suffering, the nature of which we can only guess at, the psalmist is surrounded by hostile people. Vss 11 & 13. His or her adversaries take a perverse delight in the psalmist’s pain. The psalmist’s acquaintances avoid him or her. That might not be due to malice, but merely because many people simply feel awkward and at a loss for words when confronted by someone obviously in the throes of grief and suffering. Still, avoidance adds to the psalmist’s sense of isolation.
The psalmist nevertheless finds comfort in the assurance that, though human companionship has failed him or her, God has nevertheless been faithful. Vs 14. The remarkable thing here is that there appears to be no evidence of deliverance from suffering. The psalmist is still in need of protection from enemies and healing from whatever ails him or her. Yet the psalmist is confident in placing his or her life in God’s hands.
This is a psalm for the aging who face the loss of hearing, memory and mobility. It is a psalm for people with chronic illness for which there is not yet any cure. It is a psalm for those struggling under financial burdens to which there seem to be no end. Even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, there is the presence of a merciful God. For the psalmist, that is enough to get through the day.
For a general outline of Paul’s letter (or letters) to the Philippians, see my post of Sunday, March 13th.
Many New Testament scholars believe that these verses constitute stanzas from an ancient Christian hymn based on the “servant song” motifs in Second Isaiah. Silvs, Moises, “Philippians,” published in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Edited by G.K. Beale and D.A Carson (c. 2007) p. 837. While the dependence on Isaiah is debatable, it is clear that the fragment is a hymn or liturgy of Christian origin that Paul is quoting to make his point. The passage therefore confirms that, from very early on in the life of the church (50-60 C.E.), disciples of Jesus understood their Lord to be “in the form of God” (vs.6) and that he took “the form of a servant.” Vs. 7. If not worked out in dogmatic detail, the seeds of the doctrine of incarnation are clearly present here. Paul urges the Philippian church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Vs. 5. This is more than simply having knowledge “about” Jesus. As we have seen in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, his denotation of the Church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. According to Paul, the church is literally the Body of the resurrected Christ. It is the organism through which Jesus lives and breathes and embraces the world. In order for a community to be the Body of Christ, it must be guided by the mind of Christ.
This lesson is a reminder that there is no such thing as an individual believer. Whoever says, “I am a Christian but I don’t belong to any particular church” is making about as much sense as a man who says “I’m married but I don’t have any particular wife.” If you are not a member of a worshiping community nourished by the Word of God and fed with the Body and Blood of the Lord, you might still be a swell person, but you are not a disciple of Jesus. If you find that offensive, take it up with Jesus and Paul. I am just the messenger.
The mind of Christ is formed in communities of people who must learn again and again to forgive one another, accept one another’s shortcomings and discover through trial and error where the Spirit of God is leading them. That is how you become a new creation. You can’t do it alone. You need the Spirit of God and the Spirit of God is not blowing in the wind. The Spirit of God dwells within the Body of Christ-with all its warts and imperfections. That is where you need to be if you would follow Jesus.
The passage concludes with the affirmation that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Vs. 11. Taken out of its context, one might draw the conclusion that this verse implies force or the threat of force to compel obedience to Jesus. But Paul (or the hymn he cites) makes clear that Jesus wins obedience not through a demonstration of “shock and awe,” but by emptying himself, that is, pouring out his life in winning our hearts for his kingdom. This is the “weakness of God,” to which Paul refers in I Corinthians 1:18-31 that is mightier than any human strength.
As I said in my introductory remarks, I never preach on the Passion Narrative. It preaches itself. What can you add once Jesus has breathed his last? Still, there are some fascinating things about Luke’s passion narrative that are worth noting. Luke alone relates a conversation in which Jesus warns his disciples that conditions are about to change for them. Whereas before they could travel with only the essentials and lack nothing, now the disciples must travel with purse and bag. Luke 22:35-38. Because, as the prophet Isaiah predicted, Jesus will be “reckoned with transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12), the disciples must be prepared to live as criminals. Jesus goes on to say, “let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” Luke 22:36. The disciples respond by pointing out that they have two swords to which Jesus replies cryptically, “It is enough.” Luke 22:38. New Testament scholars argue about what all this means. Some scholars maintain that this interchange is a remembered conversation between Jesus and his disciples that has been repressed in the other gospels. They further suggest that Jesus believed the new age would break through at his arrest initiating the final eschatological battle. Obviously, Jesus was mistaken; hence, the absence of this conversation in the other gospels. Luke, it is argued, tries to smooth over this embarrassing remark by Jesus through turning it into a metaphor that the disciples fail to understand.
Though the passage is a difficult one, I find it hard to believe that Jesus ever counseled his disciples to take up arms. Such a statement would fly in the face of all Jesus’ teachings throughout the gospels, including Luke. See Luke 6:27-31. Moreover, it would be contrary to the church’s uniform teaching of pacifism that remained unchallenged for the first three centuries of its life. Furthermore, the recommendation to take up arms is sharply contrary to the passage from Isaiah 53 to which Jesus refers. There, the prophet says of the servant of the Lord that in response to persecution, “he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7. The servant went obediently to suffering and, though treated as a criminal, he clearly did not act like one. Because this passage is cited by Jesus to reflect the trajectory of his own ministry, it is unlikely that Jesus would ask his disciples to arm themselves for his or their own protection.
Only Luke relates Jesus’ interaction with the criminals who were crucified with him. The mockery of the one criminal is consistent with Mark and Matthew, but Luke alone tells us about the repentant criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus. Jesus promises that “this very day you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43. This is one of only three uses of the word “paradise” in the New Testament.
“Paradise is a Persian word, meaning park or garden, which was taken over, first into Greek, then into Hebrew. In the Septuagint it was used to translate ‘the Garden of Eden.” Then, because of the belief that the day of God would bring a restoration of primeval bliss, Paradise became the name of the future home of the righteous. Finally, this earthly Paradise was distinguished from the heavenly one, of which the Garden of Eden was only an earthly copy. Jewish beliefs about the afterlife were too multifarious to be reduced to a single consistent pattern. At first it was held that the dead waited in the sleep of death in Sheol, the universal graveyard, until the general resurrection and judgment. But later, alongside of this earlier hope, and never quite replacing it, there grew up another belief that the souls of the righteous went at death immediately to heaven.” Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 252.
The other two uses of this word are by Paul in II Corinthians 12:4 and John of Patmos in Revelation 2:7. The rare use of this term led to much speculation in the early church over whether “paradise” was a synonym for “heaven” or something altogether different. Irenaeus, a bishop of the Second Century, wrote about degrees of eternal bliss in which distinctions are made between “heaven” and earthly paradise. Against the Heresies, Book 5, Ch. 36, para. 1 The former was for those deemed worthy of higher recognition, such as martyrs. The latter was for all the other believers. Similarly, Origen, a Second Century Christian scholar and teacher of Alexandria, taught that paradise was a place for the souls of the righteous to train for entry into heaven. De Principiis (Book II), Ch.1 Most scholars today view Jesus’ remark as affirming his solidarity with the condemned man and promising that he will share in the new age Jesus has come to proclaim. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 870-873; Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 361; Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 269. Some, however, maintain that Jesus’ promise reflects the commonly held belief that the saints and martyrs entered paradise immediately upon death. Caird, supra. In either case, such a promise made to a man dying the death of a condemned criminal is remarkable.
Other material unique to Luke is Jesus’ prayer for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 23:34); Jesus’ warning to the women weeping for him that they ought rather to weep for themselves (Luke 23:26-31); and Jesus’ final words: “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.” Luke 23:46.
FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 127:6
Planting is an inherently hopeful task. A fruitful harvest requires the back breaking work of sowing, but no amount of such work guarantees it. Any number of natural occurrences beyond a farmer’s control can thwart a successful crop. As Jesus points out, at the end of the day, a farmer can only plant in hope and wait with anticipation for the miracle of growth beyond human control or comprehension. Mark 4:26-29. Perhaps that is why planting and harvesting are such apt metaphors for the Kingdom of God. Disciples of Jesus are invited to proclaim the kingdom, live the virtues of the kingdom and perhaps die for the kingdom. But as Martin Luther reminds us, the kingdom comes without our prayers-or anything else we can do. We cannot hasten or impede it.
Subsistence farmers who live just one bad harvest away from starvation understand only too well how dependent we are on the biosphere around us. Those of us who get our food packaged, processed and neatly cut from the shelves of retailers lose sight of our connection to the land. We are too full of 19th Century hubris, imagining that the natural world is a soulless ball of resources that can be managed as easily as a warehouse full of merchandise. I believe that this sense of detachment is largely responsible for numbing us to the threat of global warming, the increase of toxins in our food and the alarming rate of worldwide deforestation. We cannot help but believe there will be some sort of technological fix to all of this that will save us from the consequences of our fanatical consumption.
I find the same kind of denial within the church-or at least my American protestant section of it. From the national denominational level down to individual congregations, we are turning to consultants, adopting the failed transformational techniques of the corporate world and grasping every straw that promises to turn around our decade’s long slide into membership decline. We keep telling ourselves that there must be some technique out there that will work for us, some way to reach these millennials, some marketing strategy that will appeal to young families and draw them into the church. So we sharpen up our websites, redesign our sanctuaries and pep up our worship services in hopes that this will make us more attractive to contemporary culture. Now I am not adverse to new ideas, innovative programming or new worship styles. I am just not convinced any of that gets to the root of our dilemma. The issue may not be between the church and the rest of the world at all. It may very well be and issue between God and the church. Perhaps we are in the midst of what the prophet Amos calls a “famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” Amos 8:11-12. Maybe we are in a season of drought during which nothing will grow-and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.
Last week I learned that Youth Encounter (formerly Lutheran Youth Encounter) is closing its doors bringing to an end half century of ministry. The news hit me on a visceral level. Throughout my high school years I attended Youth Congresses sponsored by Youth Encounter where my faith was formed and deepened. I met some of the best friends I have ever had through its programs, young people who, like me, were hungry for more than a Sunday morning religion. Youth Encounter enabled me to experience full participation in the church’s ministry in a way that my denomination’s programs did not. I am not sure whether I would be in ministry today if I had not had not come under the influence of Youth Encounter. It’s demise is a great loss to the church.
It is tempting to respond with anger and frustration. I could retire if I got a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone say, “What’s wrong with kids these days?” Or, “People just don’t care anymore” or “our country has abandoned religion,” or (my favorite) “there is a war being waged on Christianity.” Such anger is unproductive for two reasons. In the first place, it is hard to attract people with whom you are angry. You don’t sell more lemonade by insulting everyone who walks away from your stand without buying any. Moreover, if what I am suggesting is true, such anger is misplaced. God, not our godless culture, is to blame for this drought. If we want to see things change, we need to stop complaining about the world into which we have been sent and get right with the God who sends us there.
There is more than a silver lining in all of this. The people of God have seen such times of spiritual famine before. I have already cited the words of the prophet Amos as an example. We read also that in the years of Samuel’s childhood “the word of the Lord was rare.” I Samuel 3:1. The prayer of the Psalmist might very well be the prayer of the American protestant churches today:
“We do not see our signs;
there is no longer any prophet,
and there is none among us who
knows how long.” Psalm 74:9
Such prayers can be made only by a people convinced that the answer to “how long?” is not “forever.” If the church really is going through a collective “dark night of the soul,” we can take comfort in the knowledge that numerous prophets, saints and martyrs have passed through that darkness before us. So also have the people of God as a whole. The key to getting through all this is recognizing it for what it is. This is nighttime and we cannot make the sun come up. We need to master the art of being at home in the darkness. We must get used to the idea that faithful attention to the work of worship, witness and service might not yield visible results. We must resist the siren song of false prophets promising us short cuts through the woods, easy solutions and painless growth. We must come to grips with Jesus’ warning that trying to save ourselves is the surest way to lose everything. By contrast, a willingness to die is the only way to resurrection. We must endure the drought with weeping and faithful planting, knowing that in God’s time (not that of our own choosing) the harvest will come and we will “come home with shouts of joy, bringing [our] sheaves with [us.]”
Here is a poem about planting in the holy anticipation of resurrection.
By Linda M. Hasselstrom
It’s not spring yet, but I can’t
wait anymore. I get the hoe,
pull back the snow from the old
furrows, expose the rich dark earth.
I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,
one by one.
I see my grandmother’s hand,
doing just this, dropping peas
into gray gumbo that clings like clay.
This moist earth is rich and dark
as chocolate cake.
Her hands cradle
baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft
and hands them down to me, safe beside
the ladder leading up to darkness.
her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,
but mostly her hands.
I push a pea into the earth,
feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,
she says, in long straight rows,
dancing in light green dresses.
©1984 by Linda M. Hasselstrom; Hasselstrom lives in South Dakota. Her thirteen books reflect more than fifty years of ranching and her concern for the wildlife and plants sharing the grasslands with cattle. Her most recent book of poems, written with Twyla Hansen, is Dirt Songs, (The Backwaters Press, 2011). You can learn more about Linda M. Hasselstrom and read more of her poetry at her website.
These words of the prophet are addressed to the Jews living in exile at Babylon. For a fuller account of this prophet’s work and its relationship to the rest of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see my post of Sunday, December 13, 2015. The prophet sees in the conquest of Babylon by Persia an act of God creating an opportunity for the exiles to return home to Palestine. Though the prophet admonishes the people “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old” (vs. 18), he or she is not suggesting that Israel forget her history. Rather, s/he is challenging Israel to understand her history in a new way. The Exodus, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, is not just an inspiring tale from Israel’s distant past. It is a prism though which Israel is challenged to look toward the future. If only the imagination of this people can grasp it, God is enacting another exodus for Israel. This time God is liberating Israel from Babylon. Just as God led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, so now God will lead Israel through what is now the Iraqi desert by a miraculous path of well watered garden. Vs. 19. Israel, the people God formed for himself, will give praise to their God as they make their triumphal journey home. Vs. 21. Even the animals will find shade and nourishment in this marvelous highway through the wilderness and will honor Israel’s God. Vs. 20.
“Thus says the Lord.” Vs. 16. This is a stereotypical formula for the making of a proclamation. Middle Eastern monarchs would make their decrees known by sending a messenger on their behalf who would proclaim in a public place: “Thus says the king!” The decree, order or declaration of the king would follow. Israel’s prophets often used the same formula when introducing a word from God.
“…who makes a path through the mighty waters, who brings forth the chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” Vss. 16-17. While evoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, this sentence also reflects the overwhelming victories of Persia against Babylon. The prophet is intentionally using language that draws parallels between these two events in order to help his people “perceive” the new thing that God is doing for them.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” vs. 19. Evidently, the people do not perceive. Israel has been dominated by Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Now Persia is getting the upper hand. But so what? This only means that we have a new master oppressing us. Unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes. But this is not just a change of administration. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, is promoting a different agenda. In 1878 a clay cylinder typically used for the inscription of royal decrees was discovered at the site of ancient Babylon. Now housed in the British Museum, the cylinder describes in Akkadian cuneiform, in Cyrus’ own words, his conquest of Babylon in 539 BCE and his subsequent humane treatment of his conquered subjects. the Cyrus Cylinder, alongside the Biblical and other historical statements, seems to substantiate the idea that Cyrus not only allowed many of the nations he conquered to practice their various religious beliefs, but even assisted captive peoples, including the Jews, to return to their lands of origin. This support was not only political but even financial – as he gave grants both from the Imperial treasury and also from his own personal fortune. The prophet recognizes in this development a golden opportunity for the exiles to return to Jerusalem and renew their commitment to living the covenant with Yahweh. The question is, will the exiles perceive this new thing God’s doing? To be sure, Cyrus had his own self-interested reasons for promoting this policy. But the prophet knows that God, not Cyrus, is the driving force behind history. God is using Cyrus to open a way of return for Israel to the land promised to her ancestors. “Can’t you see the opportunity here?” says the prophet. “Don’t you see God’s hand in this? We are experiencing a new Exodus miracle!”
This lesson challenges us to read the Bible, not as a book of ancient tales from long ago, but to understand it as the lens thorough which we are to see and interpret our present circumstances and our future hope. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that, for the advancement of science, imagination is more important than knowledge. That is also the case for interpreting the Bible. Faithful imagination is the reason why a store front preacher with a seventh grade education can inspire a congregation of desperately poor people with vivid images of salvation, hope and liberation while a learned Reverend Doctor with an Ivy League degree can put you to sleep. Don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful for the theological education I received from seminary and find it enormously valuable in understanding the sense of the biblical texts. Yet I must also say that too often in my seminary career we tended to treat the Bible as a dead relic from the past that we needed somehow to “make relevant” to the modern world. The idea that we needed to learn from the Bible what is relevant and how to understand the world seldom occurred to us. But that is precisely how believers approach the Bible-with reverent imagination. Not until we can imagine ourselves as the people of the Exodus can we begin to see God creating new opportunities in our lives for faithful witness and service. Not until we enter imaginatively into the gospel narratives can we hear God calling us away from what holds us captive. Jesus has promised to be with us to the close of the age, but it takes a faithful imagination to perceive him in our midst. The preaching of the prophet in this Sunday’s lesson gives us a vivid example of the power of imagination.
This psalm served as inspiration for the revered hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The lyrics for the hymn, printed below, were composed in 1874 by Knowles Shaw.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
I bring this piece of trivia to your attention because it provides us with a splendid illustration of biblical imagination discussed under the heading of our lesson from Isaiah. Through his identification with the struggles of the returning exiles striving against numerous difficulties to rebuild their ruined land, Shaw gives meaning to the lives of Christian believers striving, sometimes with little evidence of progress, to live out their discipleship.
The psalm begins with the words “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” vs. 1. An alternative reading is “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream.” If the latter reading is adopted, then “those who returned to Zion” are almost certainly the Babylonian exiles. As noted above, this return was made possible by the edict of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon. Cyrus decreed that all peoples taken into exile by Babylon, including the Jews, would be permitted to return to their homelands. Such an opportunity would indeed seem like a dream come true. Yet there were also serious obstacles in the way of returning to Palestine. The journey home through what is now the Iraqi desert was itself a perilous trip. Upon return, the Jews found a ruined city and hostile peoples who had come to inhabit the homeland. Rebuilding would be a long and difficult task. Hence, the psalmist prays “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!” vs. 4. The “Negeb” is a hilly desert region of southern Israel. Water courses there are seasonal, being dry for most of the year but brought to life in the rainy season to revive dormant vegetation. So the psalmist hopes that God will likewise restore and nurture the community of Israel in the land to which she returns. The final verses of the psalm reflect the hope that, just as a bountiful harvest follows the toil of planting, so the sacrifice, hard work and risks taken by the returning exiles will be rewarded with the rebirth of a thriving community.
The psalm concludes with this promise: “He who goes fourth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in his sheaves with him.” Vs. 6. This could well be a proverb similar to the many found in the Book of Proverbs or it could be an oracle spoken by a priest in response to the congregation’s prayer for restoration. In either case, the image of planting what appears to be a lifeless seed just as one would bury the dead in the hope of new life at harvest is a powerful exercise of imaginative preaching! It calls to mind Jesus’ parable employing the same idea. See Mark 4:26-29.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Understand that there is more going on here than a fight over circumcision. In fact, circumcision is not the real issue here. The problem for Paul is that his opponents measure their worth in the eyes of God on the basis of their religious accomplishments. Paul maintains that “righteousness” depends on faith, more specifically, faith in Jesus. In this secular age where “organized religion” (so called) is in steep decline, it is hard to find many people who are striving to be righteous in the sight of God. But there is no shortage of people who are striving to achieve some measure of self worth. I am not talking only about folks striving for the American dream of a six figure income, home ownership and a comfortable retirement. I am also speaking of many of my colleagues over the years that have entered the service of the church under the mistaken notion that they are choosing a “higher calling.” There is no higher calling than baptism into Jesus Christ. From there on out, it’s all downhill. I have likewise known a good many folks who have told me that they are serving the church because “I want to make a difference,” presumably for good. At first blush, this sounds quite admirable. Yet the “I” in that claim is a little troubling. Could the translation be, “I want to be important?” or “I want to count for something?”
The fact of the matter is that Jesus does not call us to make a difference. It is not our job to change the world. As our Catechism tells us, “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” and I would add, without our hard work, sacrifice and dedication. We are witnesses to the Kingdom, not its architects and engineers. That means we might spend our lives doing work that doesn’t make a difference-at least not one we can see. We might die before the harvest and when it comes, nobody will remember that we did the planting. Indeed, the harvest itself might not be appreciated. Faithfulness does not always produce growing churches, successful programs and revenue for the home office. So to people who have told me they are considering service in the church (including my own daughter), I warn them that they might very well come to the end of their ministry with their congregations, their colleagues and the denominational authorities viewing them as having failed. If you have a problem with that, you belong in some other calling.
No one knew better than Paul how tenuous are achievements in ministry and how easily each hard won gain can be lost. Paul knew that in the end, regardless of who plants and who waters, God alone gives the growth. So his focus is not on the success of his work, but on knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Jesus, after all, was the quintessential failure. His ministry ended in a shameful death by public execution. His closest followers failed to understand him and they deserted him when he needed them most. But Jesus was faithful to God’s purpose for him and obedient to God’s reign-even when that obedience didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything. It is precisely that kind of faith in God’s promise to bring to completion what we cannot even properly begin that Paul is striving for. Such “striving” is nothing other than what should be happening whenever we take part in the order of confession and forgiveness. It involves letting go of what is past-both the painful memories of failure and the coveted memories of success. Failure, after all, might well prove to be a monumental triumph in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, the success in which we take such pride might prove over the long haul to have been negligible or even counter-productive. The only sure thing here is God’s promise and demonstrated determination to raise up from our shattered and imperfect lives something new and truly beautiful.
Matthew, Mark and Luke each have Jesus anointed by a woman although the timing and details differ. It is significant that John has Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointing Jesus. In John’s gospel, it was the raising of Lazarus from death that convinced the chief priest that Jesus would have to be killed to avoid trouble with Rome. John 11:45-53. It was arguably for Mary’s sake that Jesus raised Lazarus. Unlike her sister Martha, Mary cannot bring herself to confess belief in the resurrection from death. It was, again, arguably, her lack of faith that brought Jesus to tears at John 11:35. In any event, one cannot help but wonder whether Mary understood at some level that Jesus’ great act of love toward her and her sister would prove to be Jesus’ undoing.
So let’s start by acknowledging that Judas’ motives here were not as pure as the driven snow. Still and all, isn’t he right? In a society where malnourished children are surviving day to day on discarded scraps, how can you justify using ointment that would fetch three hundred denarii for a foot massage? Bear in mind that a denarius constituted about one day’s pay for a manual laborer. That is a lot of meals for a lot of hungry people. Judas could cite any number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures supporting his claim that the ointment should rightly have been sold for the support of the poor. For example, the prophet Amos castigates the aristocracy of Israel because they “anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.”Amos 6:6. There are many other such instances in which the prophets make clear God’s priority for care of the poor over opulent living and even proper worship. It seems that Judas is on pretty solid ground here.
So let me respond with a story that I once heard as a sermon illustration. I can’t remember anymore the preacher I got it from and have no idea whether it really happened. In any event, there was a parish in an impoverished neighborhood that decided to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to feed the hungry. So the social ministries committee appointed a young woman to oversee this work and she planned a Thanksgiving Day meal for the poor and homeless families in the community. Knowing how hard life is out on the street and in the grip of poverty, she decided to give her guests at least one night of fine dining in a family style setting. She bought white table linens, rented fine china with real silverware, catered a meal with one of the most renowned restaurants in the area and, to top it off, she hired a string quartet to provide music. The guests were overwhelmed. One fellow said, “I’ve been treated like a tramp for so long, I forgot what it was like to be treated like a man.” Another woman who came with two small children in tow remarked, “This is the first time in I don’t know how long that I felt like I was really welcome.”
On the Monday after Thanksgiving an emergency meeting of the church council was called and the young woman was summoned to appear. The council members were livid. “How could you so irresponsibly and thoughtlessly squander the resources of this church?” bellowed the president. “You could have fed all of those people for a fraction of the cost and still have had a substantial budget for the days ahead!” The good president had a point-as did Judas. It would have been cheaper and more efficient to serve the people processed turkey on paper plates with plastic silverware. They didn’t need table cloths. Music could have been provided via a boom box. But that really misses the point. Jesus does not simply feed the poor. He invites them to the messianic banquet. The poor are not a demographic. They are not faceless numbers on a spread sheet or social problems needing to be solved. They are people for whom Jesus has a special interest, people who are gifted and highly valued. You don’t feed God’s special children rubber turkey and you don’t anoint Jesus with cheap perfume.
Judas’ problem is that he fails to comprehend the economy of God. He is caught up in the belief that the world is a shrinking pie. There is only so much to go around. Generosity toward one cannot but impoverish another. Judas would do well to recall the abundance of wine at the Wedding in Cana and the five thousand fed with a few loaves and fishes. Where God is recognized as the One whose generosity is without limit, there can be no limit on the generosity of God’s people. Mary is anointing Jesus for burial. Her act is one of profound love and generosity beyond what she can fully appreciate. You cannot so honor Jesus without honoring the poor for whom he lived and died. Standing with Jesus is acknowledging the full humanity and value of the poor in the fullest possible measure. Judas did not grasp that because he could not see beyond his balance sheet. His chief crime here is neither greed nor theft. Judas’ worst crime is his lack of imagination. That brings us full circle to where we began with Isaiah. Commitment to mission is good. Bible knowledge is good. Theological education is good. But without imagination, all are worthless.