Archive for June, 2016
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, you are the city that shelters us, the mother who comforts us. With your Spirit accompany us on our life’s journey, that we may spread your peace in all the world, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The makers of the common lectionary try to make the Bible easy for us by blunting its sharp edges, silencing its discordant voices and omitting its embarrassingly frank talk of vengeance, wrath and eternal punishment. Nowhere is the heavy hand of modernist editorial butchery more evident than in this Sunday’s gospel lesson where Jesus’ warning about the consequences of ignoring the good news of the kingdom is excised in its entirety. If you read only the lectionary’s edited version of this text, you might imagine that there are no such consequences, that it is a matter of indifference whether you believe the kingdom has drawn near or not, that Jesus’ preaching is but one of many interesting side dishes on the buffet table we call life. Take as much or little as you like-or none at all.
Not so, says Jesus. “I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town [which will not receive the disciples and their preaching of the kingdom].” Of those towns that have already rejected him, Jesus says: “ Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.” So read the omitted verses 12-15.
In some respects, I sympathize with the lectionary makers and, like most preachers these days, secretly wish I could thank them for steering me away from having to talk about “hell.” That term carries so much faulty metaphysical baggage. For many of my parishioners, it denotes a place created by God for the punishment of people who break his rules. In truth, God cares far less about rules than about the people rules are intended to protect. Furthermore, to the extent hell can even be deemed a work of God, it is a place for the imprisonment of the devil and all the forces of evil that destroy humanity. It was never designed for human habitation. It is the will of God that all people be redeemed-if we are to take St. Peter seriously. Nevertheless, God’s saving will notwithstanding, Jesus warns us that there are eternal consequences for turning away from God’s good and gracious will. He warns of the day when the Lord will no longer recognize his own image in the work of his hands and remark, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”
So how can we speak of this reality in a meaningful way? What exactly is “hell?” If I had to choose one word to sum it up, it would probably be the word “regret.” Nothing is quite so painful as having to live with a past you can’t change. Things I have said and done inflict pain on those I love. As much as I would like to take them all back, I cannot. Some of my sins have ended friendships, alienated family members and destroyed opportunities. Even in those many cases in which I have been forgiven by the ones I have wronged, the scar tissue remains-as does my guilt. Things are never quite what they were before and perhaps never will be. That is one way I have experienced hell.
How much more hellish does life become when one turns away the one and only person with power to re-write our stories, bring our hurtful histories into his own healing narrative and give even our sins a redemptive meaning and significance? Where would we be without the God of the second chance who seeks out the very disciples who denied, betrayed and deserted him to his death and calls them to a new beginning? Who but the one who has all eternity to work with can heal the wounds we have inflicted upon each other in the universe of time? No torment I can imagine could be worse than staring back for eternity at a fixed past of irreparable wrongs, missed opportunities and wasted living. That is the fate from which Jesus came to save us-the hell of regret.
Here’s a brief poem about regret by Paul Laurence Dunbar
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.
Pay it I will to the end-
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release-
Gives me the clasp of peace.
Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best-
God! but the interest!
Source: Johnson, James Weldon, The Book of American Negro Poetry (c. 1922 by Harcourt Brace & Company). Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) was one of America’s first influential African American poets. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio where he lived with his widowed mother. His poetic skill became evident already in high school. The only black student in his class, he was elected class president and class poet. Though he was never able to obtain a college education, he read voraciously. His early poetry gained the admiration and respect of influential poets such as James Whitcomb Riley. With the support of Orville Wright, then in the publishing business, Dunbar was able to publish his first book of poetry. His popularity continued to grow and in 1896 he was invited for a six month reading tour in England to present his poetry. He returned in 1897, married fellow writer Alice Ruth Moore and took a clerkship position in the U.S. Library of Congress, a job that left him time to continue his writing career. In 1902, Dunbar’s physical and psychological health began to deteriorate, leading to his eventual divorce. He became fatally ill in 1905 and died in February of the following year.
You can find out more about Paul Laurence Dunbar and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The 66th chapter of Isaiah is a complicated section of scripture possibly constructed from several sources including passages from psalms, utterances from prior prophets and material original to the prophet him/herself. The prophet of which I am speaking is Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile, but before the second temple was completed. (Isaiah 56-66) The temple project was very much on the peoples’ mind at this point. The prophet Haggai was a contemporary of Third Isaiah. In his preaching Haggai urged prompt rebuilding of the temple suggesting that its completion was essential to initiating the messianic age. Haggai 2:18-23. It is but a small step from here to the false conclusion that completion of the temple by the work of Israel’s own hands could bring about this age of blessing. Against this notion, Third Isaiah makes the following remarks:
Heaven is my throne
and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
and what is my resting-place?
All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things are mine, says the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look,
to the humble and contrite in spirit,
who trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:1-2.
God does not need a temple in order to save Israel. At most, the temple is a symbol of God’s presence given as a reminder to Israel that the Lord is always in her midst. Moreover, as the prophets throughout the Hebrew Scriptures point out repeatedly, properly performed worship is an abomination when practiced without an obedient and faithful heart. E.g., Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 6:20.
Whoever slaughters an ox is like one who kills a human being;
whoever sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain-offering, like one who offers swine’s blood;*
whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
The prophet is making the point that neither the rebuilding of the temple nor proper temple worship will move God to save Israel. But then the prophet changes his/her tone and addresses those who “tremble at [God’s] word.” Isaiah 66:5. It is possible that the people to whom the prophet is speaking are a persecuted minority among the exiles, perhaps a sect of believers within the post-exilic community similar to the Rechabites who lived in Judah prior to the exile (See Jeremiah 35). It is also possible that the prophet is speaking more generally to the faithful core of believers among the exiles who hold a proper understanding of faithfulness and obedience. In either case, the prophet goes on to deliver a startling oracle of salvation:
Listen, an uproar from the city!
A voice from the temple!
The voice of the Lord,
dealing retribution to his enemies!
Before she was in labour
she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
she delivered a son.
Who has heard of such a thing?
Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
Shall a nation be delivered in one moment?
Yet as soon as Zion was in labor
she delivered her children.
Shall I open the womb and not deliver?
says the Lord;
shall I, the one who delivers, shut the womb?
says your God.
Isaiah 66:6-9. The voice sounds “from the temple,” leading some scholars to conclude that this section of the oracle refers to a later time when the temple had already been completed and worship resumed. But that is not necessarily the case. It would be quite in character with the prophecy for God to speak from an as yet unfinished temple to make the point that its completion is not necessary to enable God to speak, act or save. God works independently of the temple. If we assume that the prophet is speaking to a group within the larger exilic community, then the birth analogy suggests that this community is the “womb” from which God will deliver his new and redeemed people. That sets the context for Sunday’s lesson, an exclamation of praise calling upon the hearers to “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her.”
Remarkable here is the feminine imagery used to describe God’s care for Israel, which is likened to infants sucking at God’s breast. “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Vs. 13. Such a word of comfort was no doubt very much needed by this community within a community sharing not only the brunt of persecution from hostile inhabitants of the land against the Jewish population generally, but persecution from their fellow Jews as well. The hope sustaining them, though ridiculed now, will ultimately be vindicated when God acts to restore Jerusalem. Be patient, Oh people. Hang onto your hope. It will not be disappointed.
This is a psalm of praise containing two distinct parts. Verses 1-12 constitute a liturgy of praise offered by the worshiping assembly extolling the majesty of God made manifest in his “terrible deeds” and his “great…power.” Among these deeds is the Exodus from Egypt and God’s salvation of his people from the armies of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. The worshipers affirm God’s faithfulness by testifying that God “has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.” The reading for Sunday comes from this section of the psalm.
It is important to be aware of the second section in order to appreciate what may be going on here. Verses 13 to 20 constitute a hymn of thanksgiving offered up by an individual who has experienced God’s salvation in his or her own life. It is possible that verses 1-12 served as a liturgical invocation offered up by the assembly as a preface to individual prayers of thanksgiving for specific saving acts toward particular worshipers accompanied by a sacrifice in the temple. So says at least one commentator. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p.468. Other commentators maintain that it is just as likely that the psalm is a unitary prayer offered by a single individual who prefaces his own thanksgiving with a more general hymn of praise for God’s saving works on behalf of all Israel. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c. 1977, Cambridge University Press), p. 76-77. Either interpretation would be consistent with Israel’s understanding of prayer as grounded in God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Indeed, God can be relied upon even in the absence of any saving act on the personal level because God has proven faithful to Israel throughout her history. See, e.g, Psalm 74:12-17; Psalm 77:11-15. For this reason, the petitioner can be confident that his/her prayers have been heard by a God who is both willing and able to save.
This hymn is a reminder that we live in the narrative of God’s mighty acts of salvation. The believer is strengthened by the conviction that his or her individual life is a microcosm of the greater story of God’s saving work in biblical history that ends with liberation from sin, death and the devil. That, too, is why I recommend without fail: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.
This lesson constitutes Paul’s final summation of his argument against his opponents. For more background on them, see my post from Sunday, June 2nd. Paul suggests here that the motives of his opponents in seeking to compel the Galatian believers, who were gentiles, to be circumcised was to avoid criticism and escape “persecution for the cross of Christ.” This may well be so, but there might have been more to it than that. Perhaps Paul is not giving his opponents a fair break. Maybe they were not merely trying to avoid persecution but also were genuinely concerned about keeping the bridge between the Jesus movement and the rest of Judaism open. It may be that they saw their work in terms of preserving the unity of the church and its vital connection to its Jewish roots. I suspect something like that was Peter’s motivation in the conflict with Paul at Antioch. See Galatians 2:11-21. Is that so very wrong?
There is no question that the church is called to express the unity of Jesus with the Father as John’s gospel teaches and to live as a single body as Paul maintained. Division within the church diminishes its witness to the world and undermines our belief in “One Lord, One Faith, One Spirit and One Baptism.” Ephesians 4:4-6. Yet although Paul was a strong proponent of unity within the Body of Christ, he understood that true unity in the Spirit cannot be built upon anything less than Jesus Christ. If the foundation is flawed, the building will not stand.
The question addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is very much alive in the church today. Our church’s decision to begin ordaining women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the 1970s clearly raised another barrier to reconciliation with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It has been argued that our more recent decision to welcome gay and lesbian people into that ministry has divided not only our own church body but may further complicate ecumenical relations with other churches. That may very well be so. But if the price of unity is shutting the door to people the Holy Spirit is calling to minister among us, then the price is too high. We cannot afford to sacrifice the good and liberating news Jesus brings to anyone on the altar of a false and ill founded unity.
Last week Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem where we know he will accomplish his saving “exodus” for his people through his suffering and death. That determination has already cost him the loyalty of the Samaritans and has sharpened the demands of discipleship. Now he sends out seventy of his disciples to go before him on his itinerary to Jerusalem proclaiming that “the reign of God has drawn near.” This reign of God is not a future promise/threat. It is a present reality. The number of seventy (seventy-two in some New Testament manuscripts) signifies completion. It might also be an allusion to Moses’ selecting seventy elders to share his burden of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. Numbers 11:16-30 (Again, seventy-two elders according to the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint). Some scholars see an allusion to the list of nations in Genesis 10-11 numbering seventy, thereby foreshadowing the mission to the gentiles that will come to fruition in the Book of Acts.
The time of harvest has arrived. This is an image heavy with eschatological or “end times” significance. Nothing remains but to reap the fruits. There is a sense of urgency here echoing Moses’ injunction to the children of Israel to eat the first Passover meal with haste (Exodus 12:11) and Elisha’s command in sending his servant Gehazi to the home of his patron, the Shunammite woman whose son had just died: “If you meet anyone, do not salute him; and if anyone salutes you, do not reply.” II Kings 4:29.
Jesus is sending the disciples out as lambs among wolves. There is some irony here in that the reign of God is characterized as an age of peace in which the wolf and the lamb dwell together in harmony. Isaiah 65:17-25. The disciples are to share this peace with the towns to which they are sent. Yet although the peaceful reign of God is a present reality, because it is present in the midst of a sinful and violent world, that reign of God takes the shape of the cross. The disciples can anticipate hostility and rejection.
The disciples are sent out with no provisions for their journey. They are to depend solely upon the hospitality of the towns and villages to which they preach. It should be noted that the practice of hospitality toward traveling apostles and prophets was widely practiced in the early church-and was sometimes abused as noted in theDidache, an ancient teaching document from the second century.
“3 But concerning the apostles and prophets, so do ye according to the ordinance of the Gospel. 4 Let every apostle, when he cometh to you, be received as the Lord; 5 but he shall not abide more than a single day, or if there be need, a second likewise; but if he abide three days, he is a false prophet. 6 And when he departeth let the apostle receive nothing save bread, until he findeth shelter; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet.” Didache 11:3-6, Translated and edited by J. B. Lightfoot.
Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to remain in one house rather than going “from house to house” might be an injunction against exploiting hospitality.
That the mission of the seventy depends upon hospitality goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus warns that, for those refusing to show such hospitality to the disciples and rejecting their message, the result will be judgment more severe than Sodom’s. Vs. 12. The ancient city of Sodom was destroyed largely for its hostility to strangers and failure to show hospitality to God’s angels. How much more shall the towns and villages rejecting God’s messiah incur the wrath of God! This wrath of God is simply the flip side of God’s passionate love. Is it not the case that the people with the greatest capacity to hurt us, wound our hearts and incite us to anger are those we love most deeply? God’s love for his covenant people is not an emotionless philosophical abstraction void of all feeling. God’s love is fierce, passionate, jealous and relentless.
This lesson brings into sharp focus what is at stake here. For all who accept it, the reign of God is “peace.” For all who reject it, the dawn of this reign is judgment. But the message is the same for the receptive and the recalcitrant: “The reign of God has drawn near to you.” The “peace” the disciples are called to share is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the reconciliation of all things and all peoples with their God. It is well being for all of creation, the equivalent of the Hebrew word, “shalom.” The only alternative to such peace is enmity, hostility, division and finally self destruction. You are either with the reign of God or against it. There is no middle ground upon which to stand. The disciple’s mission is therefore a matter of life and death.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The prophet Elijah has had a rough month. After hiding for three years in the wilderness to escape the wrath of King Ahab who blames him for a devastating drought in the land of Israel, Elijah comes back into the presence of the king at God’s command with a message: “You want an end to the drought? Call the prophets of the gods you have led Israel to worship. I, in turn, will call upon the name of the Lord. We’ll meet at the top of Mt Carmel. Let your prophets build an altar to their gods. I will build an altar to the Lord. The God who answers by fire is God indeed.” (highly paraphrased). You know the rest of the story. The Lord sent fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice on Elijah’s altar and ended the drought with a rain storm. Ahab’s gods were no shows. That should have settled once and for all the question of who is Lord in Israel.
Except that it didn’t. No sooner did word of Elijah’s victory reach the royal palace than Queen Jezebel, the true power behind the throne, launched a fresh campaign to rid the world of Elijah and the faith he proclaimed. The prophet finds himself right back where he started: a homeless refugee with a price on his head. No wonder Elijah just wanted to curl up at the back of a cave and die. No wonder he was ready to throw in the towel. His work seems to have accomplished nothing. He has not moved the needle of history a single centimeter.
God’s response to Elijah is anything but encouraging. Among other things, God directs Elijah to anoint a successor to carry on his work, the clear implication being that Elijah will not live to see that work completed. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for Elijah. He must soldier on through the darkness putting one foot in front of the other until his dying day. He must become acquainted with the night.
Seems the same is true for disciples of Jesus. Discipleship is not a job for the faint of heart. If the hardships and stigma of homelessness frighten you; if losing the love and support of your family is too great a price to pay; if your life is too dear to lose; then discipleship is not the profession for you. That’s a hard word for mainline churches such as mine that market to the masses. I cannot imagine ours or any other mainline congregation putting out an ad like that of the Marine Corps, namely, that we are looking for a few good people. To the contrary, my own church’s website proclaims with absolute assurance that “there is a place for you here.”
To be fair, I think the intent is to let the world know that we are an inclusive fellowship open to persons of all cultural and racial backgrounds. That is important, of course. Jesus’ ministry was nothing if not inclusive. Jesus shared his meals with religious leaders and outcasts alike. He never turned away anyone who needed his help; never failed to speak a word of grace and forgiveness when it was needed; never judged anyone unworthy of God’s love and attention. But when it came to selecting his disciples, Jesus seems to have been very intentional and more than a little particular. Only after a full night of prayer did he chose the Twelve. He told all who wanted to follow him that they would need to take up the cross. He warned his disciples that they could expect the same treatment he himself received at the hands of a world in rebellion against its Creator. Jesus loves all, forgives all and heals all, but only a select few are chosen as disciples. That is the witness of the gospels in any event.
Though the theology of the cross is deeply imbedded in my church’s Lutheran theology, our American genetic predisposition toward triumphalism often proves dominant. We are a people addicted to happy endings. Too often, our Easter preaching resembles just that. Jesus died, but then he was raised from death. All’s well that ends well. Preached in that simplistic way, the Easter proclamation fits nicely into our Disney mythology of good always triumphing over evil. Yet, in truth, the resurrection only destroys the last excuse we have for avoiding the cross. It is God’s “yes” to the way of the cross. It is God’s promise to bring to fruition in God’s good time (which likely will not be our own) God’s reign of justice and peace. Eternal life is not the promise of some distant future state, but life lived under the reign of God in a world that does not yet know its God. As such, it takes the shape of the cross. Suffering consequential to eternal life is embraced, not because suffering is good or edifying, but because it is the price of living eternally under the transient reign of the powers that be. This life of discipleship is one of profound joy, but it is joy that cannot be known apart from a deep acquaintance with the night.
Jesus’ call to take up the cross is hard to market to the masses. But maybe discipleship was never intended for the masses. Perhaps it was intended only for those ready to become acquainted with the night. Here’s a poem by Robert Frost about just such an acquaintance.
Acquainted with the Night
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 255. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The legends of Elijah and Elisha probably pre-existed the composition of I and II Kings which was completed after the Babylonian Exile in 587 B.C.E. They reflect a fierce cultural struggle in the Northern Kingdom of Israel between the religion of Ba’al and the covenant faith of Israel in her God, Yahweh. At the beginning of Elijah’s career, Israel was ruled by Ahab, son of Omri. He was a formidable ruler whose exploits are recorded in other non-biblical texts. Ahab entered into a political marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon. This union provided much needed military support for Ahab in his ongoing struggle with Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram). It also facilitated trade between the two nations leading to the rise of a wealthy merchant class having significant political clout with the throne. Along with Jezebel came her religion, worship of the Tyrian Ba’al. Though used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures, the term “Ba’al” was an honorific title given to a range of deities. According to the scriptural witness, Jezebel was a fierce proponent of her god and an equally fierce enemy of the worshipers of Israel’s God. Ahab seems to have been ambivalent about the Tyrian Ba’al. Though he built a temple to the deity in Israel’s capital Samaria, probably at the insistence of his wife, he seems to have remained a devotee of Yahweh. All three of his sons have names derived from that divine name. Nevertheless, when it came to matters of state religion, it seems that Jezebel was the power behind the throne. During Ahab’s reign, the priesthood of Ba’al under Jezebel’s patronage increased its hold upon the population as the worship of Yahweh declined as a result of neglect and outright persecution.
Elijah first appears in I Kings 17:1 where he announces a drought that will befall Israel as a result of her apostasy and which does in fact occur. Ahab evidently blames Elijah for this natural disaster and seeks to kill him. The Lord directs Elijah to flee from Ahab and Elijah spends the next three years of the drought as a fugitive, taking refuge first in a wadi and then across the border from Israel at the home of an impoverished widow in the land of Sidon. Finally, Elijah is directed to show himself to Ahab and he does. Elijah then challenges Ahab to assemble the prophets of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel for what will turn out to be a showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al. Two altars are erected, one to Yahweh and the other to Ba’al. It is agreed that the god who answers the prayers of his devotees by sending down fire from heaven to consume the offerings on his altar shall be deemed God of Israel. Yahweh answers with fire. Ba’al is a no show. Elijah declares victory and proceeds to execute the prophets of Ba’al. He then invokes Yahweh praying for rain to end the devastating drought. Yahweh provides the rain that Ba’al, the rain god, has been unable to produce for the last three years. If Elijah thought the matter was now settled, he was sorely mistaken. When Jezebel learns of Elijah’s doings, she swears that she will do to him what he has done to the prophets of Ba’al. Elijah is again a fugitive.
Broken and discouraged, Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb. According to the traditions of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, this mountain was the one on which God revealed the law to Moses. There Elijah complains that his zeal for God has been unrewarded, that he alone is left among the faithful and that he wishes to die. God directs Elijah to “stand before him” on the mountain. At this point, the prophet witnesses a severe earthquake, a mighty wind and a fierce fire. These are the sort of phenomenon one would expect to encounter on the mountain of the Lord, but Elijah does not find a word from God in any of these events. Only in the sound of sheer silence does he hear God speaking. It is here that Elijah receives the instruction to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as his own successor.
This is but a thumbnail sketch of the colorful, entertaining and sometimes shocking tale of Elijah’s career up to this point. It hardly does the story justice. Nevertheless, I felt this cursory telling necessary for placing Sunday’s lesson in its narrative context. There is no substitute for reading the account in its entirety at I Kings 17:1-II Kings 2:18. The wonderful thing about the scriptures is that its characters are all too human. Despite all the miracles attributed to him, Elijah is no superhuman hero. He becomes discouraged, he loses his temper with God, he gives up in despair and throws a childish snit. In short, he acts exactly as we do when we are overworked, underappreciated and unsuccessful in what we see as our life’s calling.
The Elijah story (and that of Elisha which follows) is exceedingly violent. The lectionary people do their best to protect us from all that. I think these folks wish with all their hearts that the Bible had given us a “nice” God. Because it has not, they do their best to deliver one through their relentless butchery of the texts. Try as they may, though, the lectionary folks cannot conceal the obvious: God is not “nice.” God is good, however and loves us too deeply and too passionately to sit up in the heavens ringing his lily white hands over our beastliness while remaining righteously above the fray. God’s hands are soiled with the blood of history within which God is at work turning even our bloodiest deeds toward his own gracious purposes, making room here and there for epiphanies of the new creation. “God so loved the world…” not the ideal world, not the world as we might wish it to be, but the world as it is in all of its cussedness. That is the world God loved enough to get involved with and die for.
Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.) Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. As we have seen from our lesson in I Kings, this was an ongoing struggle particularly acute in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.
That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.
The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.
It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
Here Paul speaks of freedom. That word “freedom” is problematic because we use it so very differently than does Paul. In our modern context, freedom is all about doing what you want. It means fewer restrictions, more expansive rights and less restraint. Paul would have been altogether mystified by these notions. The greatest tyranny, according to Paul, comes not from governments, laws or moral restraints, but from domination by “the flesh.” Left to do anything we wish, we invariably fall prey to the “desires of the flesh,” namely, “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Vss. 19-21. Such conduct is not freedom, but slavery of the worst kind. It leads to our self destruction and robs us of our inheritance under God’s reign.
“Works of the law” cannot set us free from the flesh. Adherence to the rules only breeds resentment against their restrictions and makes the outlawed conduct all the more alluring and desirable. We all know how fanatical devotion to religious observances can lead to hateful and violent acts. According to Paul, that is inevitable where individuals use religious observances and charitable acts (even acts that are beneficial) in order to win favor with God. This kind of religion makes of God a stern disciplinarian. It also takes the focus off the entire purpose of the law-turning us toward service to our neighbors.
According to Paul, freedom resides in being led by the Spirit of God rather than driven by the flesh. Under such leading, we are thankfully free not to do just anything. Paul makes the remarkable statement that we are to use our freedom to be servants of one another! Vs. 13. Freedom through becoming a servant!!! That sounds strange to our ears, but Paul is absolutely serious. Freedom is never found in libertarian communities of self interested individuals. Freedom is found in covenant communities where each person is responsible for and dependent upon his or her neighbor. In such a community, everybody’s child is everybody’s business. Everybody’s marriage is worthy of protection and support. The security of everybody’s home is the concern of the whole community. The whole law is fulfilled in one saying, says Paul: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Vs. 14. That is the only way to be free.
Note well that this love manifested in the “fruits of the Spirit,” is not a product of adherence to any moral code. It is the heartfelt response of the believer whose sins have been freely forgiven by a God who loves without limit or restraint. It is spontaneous, never coerced. Life in the community of faith governed by the Holy Spirit is where we discover the freedom in which Paul would have us walk.
This is the pivotal point in the Gospel of Luke. Up to now, Luke has been roughly following the chronology of the Gospel of Mark, the chief source upon which he relies. If you have been reading Luke attentively, then you know something big is destined to take place in Jerusalem. In verses 28-36, Luke relates his version of the transfiguration story in which Jesus is found discussing with Moses and Elijah the “exodus” he will soon accomplish in Jerusalem. That Jesus should speak of this upcoming event as an occurrence on a par with Israel’s rescue from slavery in Egypt tells us that we must focus our attention in that direction as well. Now in verse 51 Luke gives us a sentence loaded with nuanced language telling us where the narrative is taking us next.
“When the days drew near” literally translated reads “when the days were fulfilled.” Similar phrases are used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to denote the coming of a decisive moment of judgment, salvation or both.See, e.g., Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 9:1; Jeremiah 23:5 . Commentators are divided over what is meant by Jesus’ being “received up.” It is highly unlikely that this refers to Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of God following his resurrection. Luke uses a different word to describe this event in both his gospel (Luke 24:51) and in Acts (Acts 1:9). As someone traveling to Jerusalem is said to be “going up” to the city regardless of which direction he is coming from, some commentators suggest that this verb only amplifies Jesus’ intention to journey there. I don’t find that interpretation persuasive. In the first place, it comes before Jesus’ express resolution to go to Jerusalem. Secondly, use of the passive voice to express this thought is syntactically clumsy. I believe that the most likely interpretation is that Jesus is to “be received up” by the religious authorities in Jerusalem who will ultimately deliver him to Pontius Pilate for judgment and execution. Jesus has already told his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men.” Luke 9:44. Now, we are told, this time is near.
Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Though Jesus is to be betrayed, delivered into the hands of the gentiles, judged and crucified, he is no mere passive victim. Jesus is making a conscious and deliberate choice to confront his enemies in the heart of the holy city. His expression of determination echoes that demanded of the prophets called upon to deliver hard words to the people of Israel. In calling Jeremiah, God declares, “I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land.” Jeremiah 1:18. So also the prophet Ezekiel was told, “I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads.” Ezekiel 3:8. Clearly, Luke is letting us know that we are about to follow Jesus into an epic confrontation with the powers of religious oppression, political domination, illness and demonic possession he has been battling from the inception of his ministry. From here on out, everything that transpires in this gospel will take place under the looming shadow of the cross.
Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem has immediate consequences. He is rejected by the Samaritans for that very reason. Recall that the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E., more than a century before Judah fell to the Babylonians. Though many Israelites were displaced as a result, a substantial number remained in the land. Recall also that at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E., only the upper classes in Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried away into exile. Thus, many and perhaps most of the people constituting the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah remained in Palestine and continued to worship there. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These folks claimed to be a remnant of the Northern Kingdom which had its capital in Samaria (hence, the name “Samaritan”). They had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. This mountain is sacred to the Samaritans who regard it, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as the location chosen by God for a holy temple. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Needless to say, Jesus’ decision to travel to Jerusalem was interpreted by the Samaritans as a rejection of them and their faith. That Jesus does not see it that way is evidenced by his rebuke to James and John who suggested “nuking” the Samaritans.
At this point, discipleship takes on a new urgency. We the readers know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. That is not public knowledge, however. Furthermore, though Jesus has revealed to the disciples his coming suffering and death, we will soon learn that they have no comprehension of this message yet. Thus, the three “would be” disciples of Jesus in verses 57-62 cannot possibly have any idea about what following Jesus actually entails. The first of the three volunteers to follow Jesus. This is highly unusual in the gospel narratives. In virtually every other case, it is Jesus who chooses his disciples. The disciples never take the initiative in choosing Jesus. Clearly, Jesus does not “take all comers.” Unlike the ads of so many churches that offer elaborate programs, air conditioned sanctuaries, good fellowship and free coffee, Jesus is brutally honest about what discipleship entails. He isn’t interested in wooing the masses or growing his following. Jesus is looking for a few good people.
The next candidate is actually called by Jesus and responds affirmatively, but requests a brief reprieve to “bury his father.” Was this fellow’s father already dead and awaiting burial? In that case, the delay would have been a matter of days. It is possible, however, that the man’s father was not dead, but infirm and dependent upon his son. In that case, the man would not be free to follow Jesus until after the death of his father. If that were the situation, the delay would be indefinite. In either case, delay is not an option. The dawn of God’s reign has arrived and will not accommodate our busy schedules. The Kingdom is now and must be proclaimed today.
The third candidate appears to be asking for no more than what Elisha requested of Elijah before following him: an opportunity to say farewell to his family. Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but Jesus will give no quarter to his newly called disciple. There is at least one important distinction. Elisha’s intent to follow through was made clear by his actions. Recall that he slaughtered his plow oxen and used the wood from their yolks to roast them in a farewell feast. In so doing, he destroyed his means of livelihood and so had nothing to which he could look back. This action on Elisha’s part did not delay his prophetic career. To the contrary, it was a powerful testimony to his new identity as God’s prophet and the successor to Elijah. One might say that Elisha’s farewell gesture was his first prophetic sign. That does not appear to be the case for the man Jesus called.
I suspect that with the last two “would be” disciples the problem boils down to just one word: “first.” “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” “first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus’ call must always come first. That call may or may not preclude the fulfillment of other obligations, but it cannot ever be deemed secondary to them.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Last Sunday a man gunned down forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in the United States to date. In December of 2015 fourteen people were killed and twenty-two seriously wounded in San Bernardino, California while attending a holiday party. In December of 2012 a twenty year old man fatally shot twenty children between the ages of six and seven, as well as six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In July of 2012, a young man opened fire on spectators in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing twelve people and wounding seventy others. The shooters all had different motives. The Orlando killer evidently committed his crime as an act of solidarity with ISIS. The San Bernardino massacre was similarly motivated. The Aurora shooter seems to have been plagued with severe mental illness. We will probably never know what motivated the Sandy Hook murders. But all these crimes have at least one common denominator: the AR 15 semi-automatic rifle-America’s gun of choice.
The AR 15 was first produced for the United States military in 1959. In 1963 the gun industry began marketing this weapon to civilians as a “semi-automatic.” The gun industry objects vehemently to use of the term “assault rifle” in describing this civilian version of the gun. Yet by whatever name one calls it, the AR 15 is designed specifically to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. While it may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” there is no doubt that a person with an A 15 can kill a lot more people than a person with a pitch fork.
To all of you gun enthusiasts out there, relax. I am not about to launch into an impassioned plea for gun control. It’s too late for that. The market for AR 15 semi-automatic rifles is already saturated with an estimated nine million such guns floating around in circulation. Because gun registration laws vary from state to state, there is no reliable way of knowing who has these weapons, where they are or who might be able to get their hands on them. The horses are out of the barn and closing the door at this point would be, at best, a symbolic gesture.
Of course, symbolic action is better than no action. I am not adverse to gun control legislation in principle. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that any legislation can cure the American fire arm fixation. Through generations of media entertainment from Bonanza to the current remake of Hawaii Five O, we have been brainwashed with the notion that conflicts between good and evil always come down to a good guy with a gun vanquishing a bad guy with a gun. That ideology was given precise articulation by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. Underlying his cynical philosophy is the conviction that nothing short of violence can check evil and that, in order for good to triumph over evil, it must necessarily act more violently than evil.
The NRA’s non sequitur does not comport with reality. In fact, the vast majority of law enforcement officers throughout our nation complete their careers without ever having shot anyone. On a day to day basis, police officers deal with all manner of conflicts, disputes and infractions without ever having to draw their weapons. The vast majority of disputes between nations are resolved daily without resort to military action. It should also be noted that most of what the United States military does is unrelated to actual combat. In the real world, “Bad guys with guns” are far more frequently talked down than shot down. Violence is the exception and not the rule. That is the dirty little secret the gun industry does not want us to know. Gun sellers thrive by fostering a culture of fear and suspicion. They would have us believe that we cannot trust our neighbors, we cannot trust our government, we cannot trust our God. When all is said and done, it’s everyone for himself. If you would live, you must be able and willing to kill-and to do it more effectively than anyone else.
What I find very telling is that each of the above mentioned gun massacres was followed by a spike in sales of the AR 15, evidently spurred by fear of legislation restricting or outlawing it. There is only one way to describe people who, when they hear of tragedies like Orlando, Sandy Hook, Aurora or San Bernardino, think first and foremost about preserving their guns: sick and twisted. There is only one name for an industry that encourages and exploits such sick and twisted people for profit: demonic.
In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus casts out a demon. Its name is “Legion.” I don’t believe the name refers simply to the fact that the man of Gerasene was possessed by many demons. Palestine was under Roman occupation and its “legions” were a regular part of the landscape. The “peace of Rome” was enforced by the cross-Rome’s ultimate symbol of terror. Augustus Caesar, the architect of Rome’s peace, would have agreed with LaPierre’s ideology. Peace and security depend on the ability and the willingness to kill. I suspect that the herd of swine into which Jesus sent the demons was being maintained to feed one of Rome’s legions. There wouldn’t have been much of a market for pork in Israel. That would also explain why the locals wanted Jesus out of their territory. You don’t want to be seen in the company of a man who just threw the legion’s supper into the lake.
Naming demons is a dangerous business. But Jesus knew, and his disciples should also know, that once a demon is named, once it is exposed for what it truly is, it begins to lose its power to enthrall and control. Exposure is the first step in exorcism. It is high time that we name America’s gun infatuation for what it is: demonic possession. Here is a poem about its exorcism.
The Arsenal at Springfield
This is the Arsenal. From floor to ceiling,
Like a huge organ, rise the burnished arms;
But from their silent pipes no anthem pealing
Startles the villages with strange alarms.
Ah! what a sound will rise, how wild and dreary,
When the death-angel touches those swift keys!
What loud lament and dismal Miserere
Will mingle with their awful symphonies!
I hear even now the infinite fierce chorus,
The cries of agony, the endless groan,
Which, through the ages that have gone before us,
In long reverberations reach our own.
On helm and harness rings the Saxon hammer,
Through Cimbric forest roars the Norseman’s song,
And loud, amid the universal clamor,
O’er distant deserts sounds the Tartar gong.
I hear the Florentine, who from his palace
Wheels out his battle-bell with dreadful din,
And Aztec priests upon their teocallis
Beat the wild war-drums made of serpent’s skin;
The tumult of each sacked and burning village;
The shout that every prayer for mercy drowns;
The soldiers’ revels in the midst of pillage;
The wail of famine in beleaguered towns;
The bursting shell, the gateway wrenched asunder,
The rattling musketry, the clashing blade;
And ever and anon, in tones of thunder
The diapason of the cannonade.
Is it, O man, with such discordant noises,
With such accursed instruments as these,
Thou drownest Nature’s sweet and kindly voices,
And jarrest the celestial harmonies?
Were half the power, that fills the world with terror,
Were half the wealth bestowed on camps and courts,
Given to redeem the human mind from error,
There were no need of arsenals or forts:
The warrior’s name would be a name abhorred!
And every nation, that should lift again
Its hand against a brother, on its forehead
Would wear forevermore the curse of Cain!
Down the dark future, through long generations,
The echoing sounds grow fainter and then cease;
And like a bell, with solemn, sweet vibrations,
I hear once more the voice of Christ say, “Peace!”
Peace! and no longer from its brazen portals
The blast of War’s great organ shakes the skies!
But beautiful as songs of the immortals,
The holy melodies of love arise.
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet who lived from 1807-1882. Longfellow grew up in Portland, Main (then still a part of Massachusetts). His father, Stephen Longfellow, was an attorney and a Harvard graduate. His mother, Zilpah (Wadsworth) Longfellow, was the daughter of General Peleg Wadsworth, who had served in the American Revolution. After distinguishing himself at Bowdoin College, he was offered a teaching post upon graduation. Longfellow traveled widely throughout southern Europe, becoming fluent in Italian, French, Spanish and German in addition to the classical languages of Latin and Greek. In 1831 he married Mary Potter with whom he had six children. In addition to many shorter poems, Longfellow perfected the art of narrative poetry, an example of which is his famous Hiawatha. You can find out more about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This passage comes to us form Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). For some background on Isaiah generally, see thesummary article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. For our purposes, it is enough to note that our lesson for Sunday was directed to the Babylonian captives who had returned to Palestine inspired by the prophetic utterances of an earlier prophet of the exile. That prophet’s sayings are collected atIsaiah 40-55 (Second Isaiah). Filled with hope and expectation, these pioneers soon discovered that their dream of rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple would not easily be realized. The land was inhabited with hostile peoples who claimed it as their own. Jerusalem was in ruins and the hoped for influx of additional returning exiles had not materialized. Broken and discouraged, the returning exiles were on the brink of extinction.
In order to fully appreciate this Sunday’s reading, you need to back up a chapter to Isaiah 64 which begins with the cry, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” The anguished prophet recites God’s doing of “terrible things” alluding to prior acts of salvation for Israel. Though Israel has sinned against her God, the prophet reminds God, “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter.” S/he then asks why God remains silent when the people cry out for salvation.
Our lesson for Sunday is a response to this question. In a nut shell, God replies: I am not silent; you are deaf. God has been reaching out to Israel, trying to get her attention but Israel is a rebellious people who will not listen. They have fallen back into idolatrous ways, “sacrificing in gardens and burning incense upon bricks.” vs. 3. Commentators are divided over what this means. Old Testament scholar, Claus Westermann believes that this is a reference to “sacrifices in the high places,” a problem referenced throughout I & II Kings. Westermann, Claus Isaiah 40-66, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press) p. 401. Though most likely intended for worship of Israel’s God, these shrines and the priests that oversaw them absorbed Canaanite practices into their cultic worship. While the biblical authors and the prophets understood worship of Israel’s God to be wholly incompatible with Canaanite religion, the Israelite people did not always view it that way. Worship at these “high places” was never thoroughly eliminated at any time throughout Israel’s history as an independent kingdom. Thus, it is not surprising that it springs up again as the Jews begin to return from Babylon to resettle what once was Canaan.
It is alleged that the people “sit in tombs, and spend the night in secret places.” vs. 4. Again, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on here. Westermann believes that the reference here is to rites designed to obtain oracles from the dead. Id at 402. Such rites are not unknown in Israel, see, e.g., Saul’s appeal to the witch of Endor, I Samuel 28:3-25. Whatever is happening, it constitutes resort to someone or something other than Israel’s God whose word alone is worthy of trust. One cannot expect to hear a word from God when seeking other words from other sources.
The people are castigated for eating “swine flesh” contrary to specific biblical injunctions, e.g. Leviticus 11:7;Deuteronomy 14:8. This practice might have been dictated more by hard times and scarcity of food than by willful disobedience. Nevertheless, it reflects a lack of faith in the God who promises to provide for the needs of his people. Dietary restrictions and other cultic rules might sound petty and nonsensical to us, but for Israel they were part and parcel of a holistic covenant existence where every moment of life is filled with reminders of God’s faithfulness and opportunities for thankful obedience. Because the presence of God is known within the framework of the covenant relationship, rejection of the covenant naturally creates a sense of God’s absence.
“As the wine is found in the cluster, and they say, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it,’ so I will do for my servants’ sake, and not destroy them all.” vs. 8. Though Israel’s faithlessness will be punished, God will not make an end of Israel. To the contrary, God will “bring forth descendants from Jacob, and from Judah inheritors of my mountains.” vs. 9. Judgment is a necessary word, but never the final word from God. There is a future for this harried people and a promise-if only they have ears to hear it.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. Our reading begins at vs. 19 where the psalmist makes a plaintive cry for salvation. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
This passage spells out the consequences of faith in Jesus Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” vs. 28. Yet I find myself asking in good Lutheran fashion: “What does this mean?” Surely it cannot mean that we lose our distinctiveness through unity in Christ. It cannot mean that there is some spiritual essence that is truly “me” and that my maleness, my American identity, my love of J.S. Bach and Ella Fitzgerald is merely accidental. So what, then, can oneness in Christ mean?
I believe we need to expand our literary scope to I Corinthians to answer this question. Paul does not envision oneness coming about through the shedding of our differences. To the contrary, unity in Christ is achieved through harmonizing these differences in a community bound together by love. This is not a sentimental sort of love. It is a love that is practiced between people who might not like each other very much. It is the kind of love Paul speaks about in I Corinthians 13. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. Becoming one in Christ is a slow, painful and difficult process built through ongoing repentance and forgiveness.
One might conclude from all of this that Paul is replacing the requirements of circumcision and dietary rules with the far more onerous burden of loving each other by our own strength of character. Nothing could be further from Paul’s intent. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1. The life to which Paul calls us is one of joy and thankfulness. Note well that Paul distinguishes between “works of the flesh” which, however well meaning produce sin of one kind or another, and “fruits of the Spirit” that bring life. Galatians 5:16-25 The fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control are not achieved by following any rule. Instead, they grow spontaneously from a forgiven heart that knows the generosity and love of God through faith in Jesus. Knowing God’s limitless generosity toward us enables us to be equally generous and accepting of our sisters and brothers in Christ-with all of their differences. The Body of Christ is enriched and strengthened as the one Lord Jesus is reflected in many and diverse ways through its individual members.
Just prior to this story of the demoniac and the pigs, Jesus calmed a threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee leaving his terrified disciples asking, “Who then is this, that he commands even the wind and the water, and they obey him?” Luke 8:25. In last week’s gospel lesson the guests at the party of Simon the Pharisee were asking each other, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Luke 7:49. Ironically, the answer is given by the legion of demons who recognize Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” The evil one knows his enemy.
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, I think it is no mere coincidence that the demon answers to the name of “legion.” Matthew and Mark agree with Luke on this point, (Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20) but Luke seems to take the story to a heightened level of confrontation with the Rome Empire which has been lurking in the background since the first chapter in his gospel. A “legion” was a Roman infantry division of 6,000 troops. Four such legions were holding the province of Syria, which included the principalities of Palestine. While the Decapolis was predominantly gentile territory, it had a substantial Jewish population as well. The quartering of hogs in what Jews considered to be part of the ancestral holy land could not have been welcome. In all likelihood, the hogs were being raised to feed the Roman legions and their servants. That would explain why the inhabitants were so eager to get rid of Jesus. The Roman commanders would not be pleased to learn that their dinner had been chucked into the lake and less pleased still if they were to discover that this had been the work of a Jewish exorcist. This would also explain why Jesus wished for the man who had been healed to remain in the Decapolis and proclaim all that God had done for him rather than accompany him with his disciples. The people need to know that there is a new sheriff in town. God, not Caesar, is Lord; God, not legion is in command.
The demons beg Jesus not to command them to depart into the “abyss.” This is a broad term. In Hebrew cosmology it constituted the watery deep over which the Spirit of God was blowing at the dawn of creation. See Genesis 1:1-2. In later Hebrew thought this “deep” or “abyss” became associated with the place of subterranean confinement for evil spirits. Jubilees 5:6; I Enoch 10. It figures heavily in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 9:1-11; 17:8 and 20:1-3) and is mentioned also at other points in the New Testament. See, e.g., Jude 6; II Peter 2:4. The confinement of all evil spirits in the abyss is an apocalyptic event signaling the end triumph of God over all the forces of evil. Jesus appears to spare the demons at least temporarily from this fate, but their entry into the swine which, in turn, perish in the sea suggests that maybe the demons found their own way to the “watery deep.” Perhaps we ought not to read too much into the fate of the demons. The point seems to be that “legion” no longer occupies the man he once possessed and cannot long maintain his hold on the people God calls his own.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, throughout the ages you judge your people with mercy, and you inspire us to speak your truth. By your Spirit, anoint us for lives of faith and service, and bring all people into your forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Uriah the Hittite died bravely, making the ultimate sacrifice for his nation. No doubt he was buried with full military honors. Perhaps King David himself honored the war hero’s act of courage with his presence at the funeral. Maybe he even gave a speech extolling Uriah’s selfless act of bravery and calling upon all Israel, not merely to praise this great man, but to emulate his devotion to his country. Then, in a magnanimous show of generosity and compassion to the family of the fallen warrior, King David takes Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba, who is with child, into his harem. What a fine example of support for the families of slain veterans who have given so much! No doubt the whole affair inspired the public with patriotic pride and determination to support David’s war effort against Ammonites.
That, in any event, was the narrative David had composed for the public. Perhaps he half believed it himself. We all have a tendency to lie to ourselves about ourselves. When uncomfortable with what we have said, done or experienced, we concoct soothing narratives that justify ourselves, alternative realities in which we are the innocent victims and the wrongs we have done are really the responsibility of someone else-often the one we have harmed. “If he weren’t so damned arrogant…If she had just minded her own business…If my wife had respected and appreciated me half as much as my co-worker…If the company had treated me fairly….” So also I suspect that David was up to the same sort of psychic gymnastics. Perhaps he blamed Bathsheba. What did she think would happen when she went out on her roof buck naked to bathe? Or perhaps he blamed Uriah. Didn’t he understand how lonely a woman gets when her husband is away on a lengthy deployment? To be fair, Uriah did have a tendency to put devotion to his military service above all else, including his wife-and that turned out to be his undoing. See II Samuel 11:6-15.
In any other near eastern nation, David would not have had to go to such lengths to cover his tracks. A Canaanite king was considered a deity. If he fancied a woman, it mattered not whether she was married to someone else. His wish was her command. Not so in Israel. In this peculiar nation, there was a covenant that governed both king and people. No one was above the commandments of Israel’s God-not even the king. That is why David had to know from the get go that his deeds were inimical to his role as God’s anointed, the defender of the covenant. It is practically impossible to live peacefully with these two very dissonant selves: the man of God you are expected to be and the adulterous and murderous man you are. So David climbed into the fabricated story he had fashioned thinking that life would go on for him exactly as before. God’s favor would continue to be with him and success would meet him at every turn.
But the prophet Nathan knew things were not what they seemed. Somehow, Nathan saw through the false narrative. That is what prophets do. They penetrate the fantasies in which we try so hard to live. They tell us the ugly truth we so desperately try to conceal. The task of a prophet is not an easy one. People don’t appreciate being unmasked and exposed. They don’t like having the mirror of truth held up in front of their eyes. David had become so wedded to his web of lies that he could no longer recognize himself in Nathan’s parable of the old man and his ewe lamb. Instead, he made up a new role for himself as the old man’s avenger, the white knight coming into the story from the outside to set things right. Nathan has to show David that he is already a player in the drama-and not the hero he fancies himself. The parable, once interpreted for David in a four word sentience, does its work. David can no longer hide from the truth. He knows himself now to be the very man he would have sentenced to death.
The other prophet we meet in our lessons is none other than Jesus. He, too, sees beneath the fabric of lies through which Simon, his dinner host, views the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears. For Simon, the woman is a “sinner” and Jesus, as a prophet, ought to be aware of that. Just exactly what made this woman a sinner in Simon’s eyes is unclear. We tend to think of sin strictly in moral categories. But that is not always the way it is used in the scriptures. This woman could have been sinful merely by association. Perhaps she was married to a man whose job (such as working with leather) made him perpetually ritually unclean. Or she might have been the wife of a gentile. Whatever her transgression may have been, Simon cannot see past the convenient label, “sinner.” Jesus seems entirely unconcerned with this woman’s sins, whatever they might have been. He focuses rather on her kindness, hospitality and compassion. The truth about this woman is that she is one who loves and believes in Jesus.
Like Nathan, prophets deconstruct the myths we believe about ourselves and which conceal from our consciences the harm we inflict upon each other. Like Jesus, prophets help us to see beyond the lenses of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, legal status, religion and political party affiliation that distort our perception of the neighbor Jesus calls us to love. God give us prophets and ears with which to hear them!
Here’s a poem by Adrienne Rich that talks about our struggle to maintain the illusion of “innocence.”
A white woman dreaming of innocence,
of a country childhood, apple-blossom driftings,
is held in a DC-10 above the purity
of a thick cloud ceiling in a vault of purest blue.
She feels safe. Here, no one can reach her.
Neither men nor women have her in their power.
Because I have sometimes been her, because I am of her,
I watch her with eyes that blink away like a flash
cruelly, when she does what I don’t want to see.
I am tired of innocence and its uselessness,
sometimes the dream of innocence beguiles me.
Nothing has told me how to think of her power.
Blurredly, apple-blossom drifts
across rough earth, small trees contort and twist
making their own shapes, wild. Why should we love purity?
Can the woman in the DC-10 see this
and would she call this innocence? If no one can reach her
she is drawing on unnamed, unaccountable power.
This woman I have been and recognize
must know that beneath the quilt of whiteness lies
a hated nation, hers,
earth whose wet places call to mind
still-open wounds: her country.
Do we love purity? Where do we turn for power?
Knowing us as I do I cringe when she says
But I was not culpable,
I was the victim, the girl, the youngest,
the susceptible one, I was sick,
the one who simply had to get out, and did
: I am still trying how to think of her power.
And if she was forced, this woman, by the same
white Dixie boy who took for granted as prey
her ignored dark sisters? What if at five years old
she was old to his fingers splaying her vulva open
what if forever after, in every record
she wants her name inscribed as innocent
and will not speak, refuses to know, can say
I have been numb for years
does not want to hear of any violation
like or unlike her own, as if the victim
can be innocent only in isolation
as if the victim dare not be intelligent
(I have been numb for years): and if this woman
longs for an intact soul,
longs for what we all long for, yet denies us all?
What has she smelled of power without once
tasting it in the mouth? For what protections
has she traded her wildness and the lives of others?
There is a porch in Salem, Virginia
that I have never seen, that may no longer stand,
honeysuckle vines twisting above the talk,
a driveway full of wheeltracks, paths going down
to the orchard, apple and peach,
divisions so deep a wild child lost her way.
A child climbing an apple-tree in Virginia
refuses to come down, at last comes down
for a neighbor’s lying bribe. Now, if that child, grown old
feels safe in a DC-10 above thick white clouds
and no one can reach her
and if that woman’s child, another woman
chooses another way, yet finds the old vines
twisting across her path, the old wheeltracks
how does she stop dreaming the dream
of protection, how does she follow her own wildness
shedding the innocence, the childish power?
How does she keep from dreaming the old dreams?
Source: Your Native Land (c. 1986 by Adrienne Rich, pub. by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Adrienne Rich was born 1929 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a renowned pathologist and her mother a concert pianist. She excelled academically and graduated Radcliff University in 1953. A thoroughgoing feminist, Rich wrote extensively on sexism and the ideologies that perpetuate it. She argues that gender relationships are informed and distorted by violent mythologies of male dominance. What we need, she maintains, are “new myths [that] create new definitions of humanity which will not glorify this angry chasm [between the sexes] but heal it.” You can find out more about Adrienne Rich and read more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation Website (from which the above quote is taken).
The Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with David through the parable of the stolen sheep is one of the most masterful tales in the Hebrew Scriptures. It does to David precisely what parables are intended to do: draw the hearer into the story, induce him to choose sides between the characters in the story and then expose the hypocrisy reflected in that choice. Jesus will employ the very same strategy against Simon the Pharisee in our gospel lesson for this Sunday. By appealing to David’s sense of justice and arousing his compassion for the poor man in the story, Nathan is now able to place Uriah in the shoes of this poor man David was so ready to defend. There is now only one other pair of shoes left in the parable and David cannot help but recognize that he is standing in them.
David’s repentance is true and heartfelt. Nathan’s assurance of God’s forgiveness is therefore appropriate. Nonetheless, there will be consequences. The lectionary has done a hack job on the reading, omitting some unpleasant but critical information. In 2 Samuel 12:10-12 God declares in judgment against David that the sword he used to strike down Uriah will now strike his house. Just as David has taken Uriah’s wife, so David’s wives will be taken-not in secret as was David’s crime, but publicly to David’s great humiliation and shame. This pronouncement foreshadows the coming rebellion against David’s kingdom led by David’s son, Absalom. The House of David will henceforth be a fractious and divided family right up to the time of David’s death. Like David his father, Solomon will secure the throne only through a series of assassinations and executions. From inception, then, the Davidic monarchy has been founded as much on blood as covenant. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, the house of David is portrayed in the books of Samuel and Kings both as a symbol of promise and as an object of idolatrous infatuation.
The prophetic tradition is likewise ambivalent about David. Some prophetic voices see the monarchy as a rebellious departure from God’s intent for Israel. Other prophetic voices, though critical of the Davidic kings and their evil and unjust ways, nevertheless looked for a descendent of David that would exercise his power and authority with justice and in obedience to the covenant. Jeremiah and the earlier Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) are examples of this sentiment. The omitted material is therefore important for giving us a balanced view of David and the monarchy he founded. The New Testament takes care in pointing out that the one sometimes called “Son of David,” promises a very different sort of kingdom under the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. For good reason he warns his disciples that “all that take the sword perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52.
The most troubling aspect of this story from the perspective of us moderns is the death of David’s and Bathsheba’s child as a consequence of David’s sin. Even if we assume that Bathsheba was complicit in the affair-an assumption we cannot fairly make in view of David’s status as king and the subordinate position of women in near eastern society-it seems unnecessarily cruel to inflict death upon their child. After all, we don’t choose our parents. Yet it remains a sad fact of life that children do suffer the consequences of their parents’ selfishness, neglect and stupidity. Sinful acts have unpredictable and unintended consequences that sometimes harm the people we most love. The entire human family is inescapably bound together and linked in ways we cannot begin to see and understand. While from a modern scientific perspective the causal link between sickness and death of a child and the adulterous relationship in which it was conceived is problematic, the theological understanding of sin’s insidious propensity for sending destructive ripple effects into the larger human community is sound. We live among the ruinous effects of our ancestors’ sins and our descendants will have to cope with the destruction we have wrought in our own time.
This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self examination.
In this case, the psalmist’s self examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.
This psalm presents the same issue as our lesson from II Samuel. Just as we do not typically associate the death of an infant with the sin of its parents, so we do not ordinarily associate illness with transgression. Still, I would not be too dismissive of this insight. Sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” So the psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. As the case of Job illustrates, illness is not always the result of sin. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39.
If all you read were the verses set forth in the lectionary, you would never guess that what Paul has to say here is all about meal fellowship. Paul explains in Galatians 2:11-14 how Cephas (Simon Peter) came to the church at Antioch where Paul was working among the gentiles. Peter was quite content to eat with these gentile believers and share their table fellowship until the arrival of some Jewish believers from Jerusalem. When these folks came, Peter withdrew and separated himself from the gentiles eating only with the believers from Jerusalem. He probably had the best of intentions. He did not want to offend his fellow disciples from Jerusalem and so cause division within the church. (Similar reasons were given back in the 1960s by churches resisting integration.) We all get along better by keeping our distances.
Paul went ballistic. For him, this was not a matter of whether believers could eat meat from the market place that had been used in pagan sacrifice or whether disciples should or should not marry or whether and under what circumstances one should pray in tongues. In all of these matters Paul urged compromise, patience and acceptance for the sake of maintaining the unity of Christ’s Body. But meal fellowship was a cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus got himself into trouble precisely because he went about with sinners and even ate with them. Jesus’ most intimate expression of fellowship was the last supper he shared with his disciples. To exclude people from the table is to exclude them from the church and the presence of Jesus. To divide the table between Jews and gentiles amounts to a division of the Body of Christ and a denial of its reconciling power. Peter and his fellow disciples from Jerusalem were thus not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Vs. 14.
So now we can understand why Paul launches into his declaration that people are justified not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. It is faith in Jesus that constitutes table fellowship. Dividing the table between Jew and gentile therefore reflects not only prejudice. It amounts to a rank denial of the good news that all are made God’s children through faith in Jesus. This is not just a theological disagreement over “justification” in the heady realm of doctrinal abstractions. This is a critical matter of the church’s most central and constituting practice-a matter of life and death. Oneness in Christ is not an ideal. It is a concrete reality grounded in one table to which all are invited and welcomed.
Paul relates this dispute he had with Peter in order to illustrate the insidious effects of that “other gospel,” to which the Galatian church seems to have turned. The “truth of the gospel” is Jesus, not Jesus plus something else. There is room for cultural diversity in the church; there is room for theological disagreement in the church; there is room for differing liturgical practices in the church. But there can be only one savior in the church. When it comes to where faith rests, it is Jesus and Jesus alone. If Jesus is not all, then Jesus is nothing.
From the language he uses, you might get the impression that Paul hates the law and Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paul both loved and lived under the Torah throughout his life and ministry. It is rather “works of the law” that Paul hates or, more specifically, works of the law aimed at earning God’s love and salvation. Paul points out in many of his letters that Judaism at its best has always been grounded in the God whose generous, free and undeserved mercy sustains Israel. The church at its worst sometimes forgets this marvelous good news.
This is one of the many instances in the Gospel of Luke in which a Pharisee shows Jesus genuine hospitality and expresses a degree of openness to him. Simon invites Jesus to dinner and it is clear that he has not quite made up his mind what to think of his notorious guest. But he has clearly formed some very firm opinions about the woman who appears in this story to anoint Jesus’ feet. In all likelihood, the dinner took place in a sheltered, but open air setting where people from off the street might wander in. Even so, it would have been highly inappropriate for a woman to enter unaccompanied into a gathering of men. Most of the commentaries I have read assume that the woman was a prostitute, but none of them have given me any convincing reason to draw that conclusion myself. The gospel refers to her merely as a “sinner.” At least one commentator points out that this could mean merely that she was the wife of an impious or irreligious man. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott), p. 122. Thus, her being labeled a “sinner” might be a reflection on her social status rather than her character. In either case, Simon views her as unclean and untouchable.
Simon is at a loss to understand how Jesus, who is purported to be a prophet, fails to see that the woman touching him is a sinner-something that is obvious to him. He therefore concludes that Jesus could not possibly be a prophet. But it turns out that Jesus knows more than Simon supposes. Jesus is keenly aware of where sin is residing and so, in the tradition of Nathan, poses a parable to Simon. Two debtors owed their creditor a sum of money. The first owed a substantial amount, the second only a small sum. The creditor forgave both debts. “So,” Jesus asks Simon, “which of the two will love him more.” Like David, Simon is boxed into giving a response that will trap him. “I suppose,” he replies, “the debtor who was forgiven more.” Jesus has Simon where he wants him. Now he can contrast the woman’s lavish affection with Simon’s quite proper but strictly formal hospitality. Simon discovers that Jesus is in fact a prophet. Not only does he know the woman’s heart better than Simon, but he also knows Simon better than Simon knows himself.
And there is more. The guests and onlookers marvel when Jesus declares to this woman that her sins are forgiven. “Who is this that even forgives sins?” vs. 49. That is an understandable question. Forgiveness of sin is the prerogative of God alone. See, e.g., Mark 2:7. Luke is pressing the question of Jesus’ true identity here. Simon and his guests do not know the answer to that question, but the implication is that the woman does. Her faith, that is, her assurance that Jesus would receive her and accept her has been vindicated. Her confidence that Jesus can and does in fact offer her forgiveness of sin has inspired the love so evident in her lavish kindness toward him.