Archive for July, 2016
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Benevolent God, you are the source, the guide, and the goal of our lives. Teach us to love what is worth loving, to reject what is offensive to you, and to treasure what is precious in your sight, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Last week Senator Ted Cruz was booed off the stage of the Republican national convention for urging its delegates to vote their consciences in the upcoming election. I find it hard to imagine what moral grounds anyone could find for objecting to an appeal to conscience. Of course, I understand that the real objection was not to the Senator’s words in particular, but to his refusal to endorse the party’s nominee, Donald Trump. Nevertheless, that he felt conscience bound to withhold such endorsement and found the courage to say so constituted a refreshing contrast to the parade of leaders who, despite their earlier expressed convictions, have dutifully fallen into line and done the party’s bidding. Some commentators have suggested that Cruz’ speech was nothing more than a calculated bid for support in the next election season that backfired. That might well be so. But I don’t have to like the Senator’s motives any more than his politics to appreciate his giving conscience a fleeting moment on the stage.
Returning home to Texas after delivering his unwelcome speech, Cruz was greeted with criticism for his failure to endorse the Republican nominee as he and all the other primary contenders had promised to do. Cruz replied that no pledge could bind him to ignore libelous attacks against his family and flat out lies told during the course of the primary campaign. Someone in the audience sneered, “That’s politics. Get over it.”
Just to be clear on what we are talking about, the Trump campaign claimed, without an iota of factual support, that Cruz’ father had conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President John F. Kennedy. It is no small matter to accuse someone of conspiring to assassinate the president of the United States. If there is even an ounce of credibility to this allegation, shouldn’t somebody be looking into it? If not, shouldn’t Mr. Trump be censored for making such a wildly implausible (to say nothing of slanderous) claim? I have to wonder, does the truth no longer matter? Is it really the case that lies, slander, insults and name calling are all “just politics”? Is all of that fair game in defeating a political opponent? Should a candidate for public office have to accept that his or her family will be savaged with violations of privacy, insults and false accusations?
More disheartening even than the downward spiral of our political discourse is the seeming lack of concern about it on the part of the prominent religious leaders who have been visibly involved and outspoken in support of the Trump campaign. Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Franklyn Graham, both endorsers of the Republican nominee, have been strangely silent about the convention’s response to Cruz’ call to conscience. They seem to be swimming neck and neck with the political establishment in its mad race to the bottom of the moral cesspool. However you might feel about Senator Ted Cruz, we should all at least be grateful to him for giving conscience a brief moment on the floor of the Republican national convention. Let us hope that someone performs the same service at the upcoming convention of the Democratic Party-whose leadership and presumptive nominee have credibility issues of their own.
“Do not lie to one another,” says Saint Paul in our second lesson for this coming Sunday. That should be a no-brainer. Yet in a culture that has so devalued honesty and the role of conscience, it is hard to live as a truthful community. That, however, is precisely what Paul calls for in the church of Christ. According to Paul, we are to be a community that speaks truthfully-even when it undermines our most important ministries, threatens our internal harmony and re-opens old wounds. The truth must never be suppressed-even for the sake of some greater good. However noble, humane and just a cause may be, it cannot stand on a foundation built of falsehoods.
The truth is sometimes bitter medicine, but it is finally the only balm we can trust to heal us. We simply cannot be the people of God without honest friendships that are regularly cleansed of falsehood and restored through confession, forgiveness and absolution. We cannot be effective ambassadors of God’s reconciling work for the world in Jesus Christ if we refuse to heal the un-reconciled divisions lying beneath the surface of our own communities. Only through practicing truthfulness among ourselves can we find the voice to address a world no longer able to recognize the truth, much less speak it.
The church does not have solutions to the urgent problems of unemployment, immigration, institutional racism, gun violence and the effects of globalization. We should not pretend that we do. That would only make us another lying tongue contributing to the cacophony of falsehood. What we can do is model for the world an alternative way of talking about these issues with speech that is honest, humble, reflective and respectful. We can become a community of conscience giving the Truth space to reveal himself.
Here is a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar giving us a picture of what life looks like when conscience dies and we become imprisoned in our lies.
We wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Source: The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, (pub. by Echo Library) p. 94. 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.
According to most scholars, the book of Ecclesiastes was composed in post-exilic Jerusalem late in the Old Testament period, most likely between 350-250 B.C.E. It stands in the biblical cannon as a direct antithesis to the preceding Book of Proverbs. Proverbial wisdom maintained that there exists a moral underpinning to the universe discernible to the wise and virtuous. “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:6-8. The “teacher” of Ecclesiastes casts serious doubt upon this assumption. He declares, “I said to myself, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18.
The double irony here is that both of these works are attributed to King Solomon. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon formed treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms transacting commerce and military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
However the question of Solomon’s connection to Ecclesiastes might be resolved, the teacher clearly has a literary incentive for attributing his work to the king. If ever there was a man whose wisdom could have answered the mystery of suffering, injustice and the emptiness of material success, it was the proverbially wise King Solomon. Yet not even Solomon can unravel these deep and terrifying mysteries. Most people sweat their lives away toiling under the sun and have nothing to show for it in the end. Even in rare cases, such as that of Solomon, where wisdom and hard work produce an abundance of wealth, such success brings neither joy nor satisfaction. Death will erase whatever a person manages to accomplish. Sensual pleasure finally becomes empty and boring. “So,” says the teacher, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:17.
The message of the teacher is not one that a positive, anything-is-possible, can-do culture like ours likes to hear. We believe fervently in the value of hard work and the blessings of prosperity it promises to bring. But I cannot tell you how many people I know who hate their jobs and are counting down the days until retirement. I have known more than a few individuals over the years whose hard work and dedication to the company earned them only the jealousy of their co-workers and termination at the hands of supervisors worried that they might get “shown up.” The world of work as we know it is often a heartless environment where the bottom line reigns and workers are little more than replaceable cogs in the machine. This reflects the experience not merely of unskilled, minimum wage employees, but also that of more highly compensated professionals.
“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.
The teacher could well understand the rage of the proverbial 99%, against the 1% holding the vast majority of the nation’s wealth. But I think he would have had little enthusiasm for the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and similar cries for a bigger piece of the financial pie. That is because a bigger slice of the pie will not bring about the better life for which such folks seemed to hunger. Life is no better for the 1% at the top of the heap. They will learn soon enough that their acquisitions and achievements amount to “vanity and chasing after wind.” So King Solomon discovered:
“I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad’, and of pleasure, ‘What use is it? I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:1-11.
Perhaps the teacher can help those of us in the church begin changing the conversation about wealth and poverty which too often mirrors the partisan divide in our country. We need to focus our discussion on what makes life good rather than accepting uncritically the American Dream of middle class “upward mobility” as the good life and then arguing about how to get there. The teacher can help us deflate the notion that the good life depends on satisfying an endless thirst for accumulation that finally will exhaust the planet and leave us empty and despondent.
This psalm is a wisdom psalm in the same tradition and genre as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. For this reason, most scholars tend to date it after the Babylonian Exile. Again, while I think this is probably correct, I also believe that the psalmist might very well be working with material reaching back to the Davidic monarchy. Thus, when we speak about the age of this psalm we need to be very precise about what we mean. The material utilized might very well be ancient indeed, even though the composition took place at a later date and subsequent editing was done more recently still.
The theme here is consistent with what we have seen in Ecclesiastes. Death is the great equalizer before which the wise and the foolish, rich and poor come to the same end. The jubilant refrain appears twice in the psalm: “Man cannot abide in his pomp, he is like the beasts that perish.” Vss. 12 & 20. The psalmist is particularly scornful of people who “trust in their wealth and boast in the abundance of their riches.” Vs. 6 Their wealth cannot ransom them from the grim reaper. If you were to read on to verse 15 (not in our reading), you would discover that the psalmist is more optimistic than the teacher. Of him/herself, s/he says, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” Most likely, this is an expression of confidence in God’s power and readiness to rescue the psalmist from the power of his/her wealthy enemies rather than an expectation for immortality or resurrection. Still, the psalmist maintains confidence in the moral underpinnings of human existence that the teacher has long abandoned.
It is interesting that this psalm (like many wisdom psalms) is addressed not to God but to the psalmist’s fellow Israelites. See also, Psalm 37; Psalm 52; Psalm 53. Biblical prayer is never an entirely personal matter. The psalmist’s expression of confidence in God encourages other worshipers to place their trust in God as well and call upon God’s saving power in their own circumstances. Even those psalms which appear to be intensely personal have been preserved and included in Israel’s public worship book for use by the whole people of God.
To refresh your recollection concerning the background of the Letter to the Colossians, see the synopsis by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament. For my thoughts about its authorship and why I continue to refer to the writer as “Paul,” see my post of Sunday, July 10th.
The first four verses summarize Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of the future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and head of the church which is his body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler, that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.
“Do not lie to one another.” Vs. 9. This admonition seems almost trivial and superfluous in its simplicity. Yet truthfulness is the most critical ethical demand for the community of disciples. Without complete honesty and transparency, it is impossible for the “love which binds everything together in perfect harmony” to exist. Vs. 14. When you think about it, so much of day to day life is sustained by an elaborate network of lies. There are the lies we tell ourselves to make it possible to live with the actions in our past we cannot help but know are wrong. There are the lies we tell each other to cover the imperfections in our marriages, the failures we experience in raising our children and the lack of success and recognition we feel in the work place. Of course, there are the lies that our society tells itself in order to continue believing in its goodness and the rightness of its causes. Too often, church is the place where we put on our “Sunday best.” There seems to be a tacit agreement that we will not probe too deeply into each other’s lives. There is an unwritten rule against shaking each other’s façade of well-being. Yet while that might keep us from getting hurt, it will also finally prevent our being healed.
Disciples of Jesus are called to be a truthful people. We know that “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Luke 12:2. Consequently, there is nothing to be gained from lying. Our lies and the lies of all people will be exposed in the end. Therefore, we live our lives conscious of the fact that we have no secrets. The whole truth will come out in the end, so it is best to make peace with the truth now. It is best to start living in the truth today so that when it is finally revealed to the entire world, it will be our friend and not our enemy.
Confession of sin is the ultimate expression of truthfulness. It takes an enormous degree of humility to confess before God and one another that we are not the people we pretend to be; that our families are not the models of domestic tranquility we try to project to the world; that our marriages are struggling; that we work in an environment where we are not valued. In a culture that values independence, individuality and self-sufficiency, it is hard to confess that we need God’s healing forgiveness and that we need one another’s support to become whole. Yet such honesty is also liberating. It takes a lot of energy to keep in place a carefully orchestrated network of lies. Paul reminds us here that we don’t have to tire ourselves anymore with play acting. We can drop the mask and be assured of a welcome-just as we are.
This parable begins with a dispute between two sons over an inheritance. Presumably, the father has died (though that might not necessarily be the case as the parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates). This leads me to wonder whether the “rich fool” in Jesus’ parable that follows is not actually the father of these two sons. The parable concludes with the question: “and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 29. Could the answer be in the opening interchange between Jesus and the brothers? The man’s wealth will go to his two sons where it will create disharmony and animosity for his family-not feasting and merriment as he supposed. Obviously, for father and for sons, life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. Vs. 15.
Taken by itself, the parable is long on what “abundance” is not and short on what it is. I have to tell you that this fellow in Jesus’ parable has done nothing my own financial advisor has not urged me to do. He experienced a good year and wisely (as my advisor would no doubt agree), he put away a substantial amount of profit for the years to come. We call that smart retirement planning. Jesus calls it stupid. Why? Part of the answer may lie in the rich man’s soliloquy. Oddly enough, this man appears to be pathologically lonely. He has no one with whom to share the good news of his bountiful harvest or anyone to congratulate him. He must do that for himself. He also has no God to thank, so naturally he takes credit for his own good fortune. He has no one with whom to share his bounty and so he concludes: “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for yourself; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry.” Vs. 19. The future he paints for himself is hardly a life worth living. We are left with the image of a man sitting alone at his table, eating, drinking and trying very hard to be merry-all by himself.
Not until the end do we get a hint at where Jesus is going with this. “So is he who lays up treasures for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Vs. 21. A little later on in this same chapter Jesus spells out for us exactly what it means to be “rich toward God.” “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says. “For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Luke 12:32-34. Jesus’ call is to a life of abundance found not in accumulation but in generosity and relinquishment. What we possess we will surely lose and to suppose otherwise is, well, foolish. But when we are possessed by the One who promises us an eternal kingdom built not upon accumulated wealth, but on the bonds built through sharing, compassion and faithfulness, there is no place left for anxiety or loneliness.
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Lord, teach us to pray…” That is the simple request Jesus’ disciples made of him. Praying rightly does not come naturally. It must be learned. Based on much of what passes for prayer these days, I am not convinced the church has done a particularly good job of teaching or that we children of the church have learned our lessons well. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer are we instructed to pray for the self-interested welfare of our own particular nation state. Nowhere are we instructed to pray for victory in war. Nowhere are we instructed to seek special miracles of healing for ourselves or loved ones, professional success or financial security. Prayer is not a means of gaining God’s favor, support or intervention to further our own personal interests. That, however, is the focus of many prayers I have heard over the years.
How different is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray! Jesus’ prayer begins not with his own needs, but with a plea that God’s name be regarded as holy. Prayer is not all about us, our needs, our hopes, our desires and longings. It is about glorifying God. Many of the Psalms illustrate that very point. including, for example, Psalm 150. In his/her prayer, the psalmist asks nothing of God, seeks nothing from God and does not attempt to influence God in any way. The psalm is pure praise to God from beginning to end. What we are commanded to pray for, above all else, is the coming of God’s reign on earth. That is not to say the coming of God’s reign depends on our prayer. As Martin Luther rightly points out, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” We are that for which we yearn. We are shaped by what we desire, what we long for and that for which we hope. If the primary focus of our prayer is something less than the reign of God, then we become less than all God would have us be.
So what hopes and longings are shaping our souls? Our culture of late stage capitalism instills in us a thirst for acquisition and consumption. The American Dream is often cast in terms of home ownership, financial security and increasing wealth. By contrast, Jesus teaches us to pray for no more than today’s sustenance, leaving tomorrow to be concerned for itself. This “daily bread” is the only material thing for which Jesus teaches us to pray.
Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done-not our own agendas for personal well-being. In praying for God’s will to be done, I might be praying for poverty, persecution or even death. The kingdom is revealed through the suffering witness of a church that lives as though the kingdom were fully present in a world that does not yet recognize or accept it. It is only with this understanding that we can pray rightly to be delivered from evil and temptation. Deliverance from evil is not protection from suffering, but faith that endures suffering without succumbing to unbelief and despair. This petition is essential precisely because loyalty to the reign of God brings a disciple into conflict with the values and priorities of the dominant culture. The “evil” to be avoided is not suffering or persecution, but the danger of yielding to the ways of the world under the threat of these necessary consequences of faithfulness.
Ultimately, prayer is less about altering the external environment to our own liking than being altered in heart and mind so that we learn to yearn for God’s kingdom, seek God’s will and hallow God’s name through faithful discipleship.
Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian of the 19th Century, was well schooled in the art of faithful prayer. Here is one of his.
Move in Infinite Love
You who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! You who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare, not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Your unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Your unchangeableness. You are not like us; if we are to preserve only some degree of constancy, we must not permit ourselves too much to be moved, nor by too many things. You on the contrary are moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we humans beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moved You; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves You, You who are unchangeable! You who in infinite love do submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move You to add Your blessing, in order that there may be brought about such a change in us who pray as to bring us into conformity with Your unchangeable will, You who are unchangeable!
Source: Christian Classics, c. The Words Group, 700 Sleater-Kinney Road, Suite 303-B, Lacey, Washington 98503. Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. Kierkegaard’s life and works presented a serious challenge to the institutional church of his day, which he felt had replaced faithful discipleship with mere cultural and ethical convention. Rightly or wrongly, he is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and was one of the first thinkers to take a modern, analytical and psychological approach to religion. You can find out more about Soren Kierkegaard at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:
“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19
This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.
The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we see as Lot’s character flaws.
Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 49:7, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?
I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might only be a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.
Perhaps you can still recall how nearly a decade ago, on October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?
I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?
I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CSI or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.
Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,”abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.
Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.
Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
One night as I was reading stories from the Bible to my children, one of my daughters asked me, “How come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” I probably said something along the lines of the Bible being God’s speech to us today. I might also have pointed out that God speaks to us through our interactions with others. While both answers are true as far as they go, they really don’t go far enough. My daughter was not looking for a theological explanation for God’s seeming silence. She was seeking a break in the silence. She was thirsting for the immediacy of God’s presence, the sense of awe and wonder that breaks into our lives and draws us away from our day to day busyness. She sought the miracle that fills us with awe and leaves us marveling at the mystery even as the phone rings, the cat pees on the carpet and supper catches fire on the stove.
I think something like that must have happened to Mary in our gospel lesson. She did not make a conscious choice to neglect her domestic duties. This story should not be read as a morality tale elevating the life of contemplation over the life of service. Jesus’ words to Martha should not be read as an admonition to get her priorities in order, but as an invitation to join Mary and the rest of the disciples who have “left everything” in order to follow him. Martha, too, needs to be caught up in the mystery of hearing God’s life-giving word.
Why doesn’t God talk to us anymore? I suspect that God is speaking, but that I am not listening. I do not hear God speaking for the same reason that I no longer hear the noise of the elevator in my apartment complex or the air conditioner at night or the traffic in the street. Of course, it is not that I do not “hear” these noises. Rather, my brain has convinced me that these sounds are irrelevant to my needs, desires and plans. I don’t have to listen to them. They can safely be ignored. They constitute “white noise,” that is, sounds I have subconsciously determined to filter out of my perceptions and thought processes.
Has God’s speech become for us “white noise”? Have we learned to relegate the signs and wonders of God’s presence all around us to the reservoir of perceptions unworthy of our focused attention? Are we confusing the urgent with the important, the immediate with the significant, the temporal with the eternal? What will it take to peel our minds away from the daily “to do” list, the frantic chiming of the smart phone, the endless parade of text messages and e-mails demanding our full attention right now? Is God speaking a life-giving word to me this minute, even as I work frantically to get this post up by the end of the day?
Here is a brief poem by “erin” expressing what Mary might have said of her experience in Sunday’s gospel.
Life went on in the background
like white noise
but I was too hung up on your words
to hear it.
This poem is copyrighted by erin and found on the site, Hello Poetry, where you can sample more of her work.
This is a delightful story whose significance unravels in the telling. It begins with the aging Abraham receiving three visitors. There is nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary here. Travelers in the early bronze age were a vulnerable lot, subject to abuse and exploitation-as can be seen from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah which follows. It was not unusual for them to seek food and shelter from nomadic tribesmen like Abraham. Nor was it unusual for these tribesmen to exercise hospitality. After all, one never knows when it might become necessary to travel for some reason. It would then help to be able to call in some favors and be assured of hospitality along the way. It is not until verse 9 that we learn the Lord is among these three visitors. There the promise is made to Sarah that she will have a son.
Where is your wife, Sarah?” asks one of the guests. “She is in the tent,” Abraham replies. Vs. 9. No doubt she is busy with the work of meal preparation. The visitor announces that Sarah will have a son. That is where the lectionary would leave it. But the best part is yet to come. If you read on, you discover that “Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’” Genesis 18:10b-15. Like Mary in our gospel lesson, Sarah was being attentive to a word of the Lord that seems to have been directed to her as much as to Abraham.
“Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That question is almost unintelligible to us moderns. We inhabit a wonderless world circumscribed by physical laws dictating to us what can and cannot be. We firmly believe that what we do not yet understand can be explained and demystified once we have gathered enough data and conducted a sufficiently rigorous investigation. “Wonder” belongs to an open universe that is too big to fit into anyone’s “theory of everything.” Wonder belongs to a people who worship a God that is mysterious, terrifying, unbridled and uncontrolled; a God that is “good,” but not by the measure of our preconceived notions of goodness. Wonder happens when we enter into the world of the Bible to be transformed instead of trying to domesticate the Bible to fit the confines of our own cramped, stuffy, limited and wonderless world.
Abraham and Sarah felt trapped in a world without wonder. This is not the first time they had received the promise of a child. As a youngster of eighty-six, Abraham was told that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan in which he was currently just an immigrant. When Abraham reminded God that he had no descendants and that the heir to all his property was a slave born in his company, God did something unprecedented. God swore an oath to Abraham that he and Sarah would indeed have a son who would become their heir.
Evidently, Abraham and Sarah felt that such wonders were beyond even the reach of God. So they tried to help God out. They turned to surrogate parenthood. Abraham impregnated Sarah’s slave girl who, as Sarah’s property, would produce a son that would likewise be hers. In so doing, they were trying to make sure that history came out right; that God’s promised word would come true. Instead, they created a host of lethal domestic problems for themselves. Now, thirteen years later with the biological clock at one minute to midnight, the promise is repeated and Sarah laughs. This is no joyful laugh. It is a bitter, cynical laugh. “Shall an old woman enjoy a roll in the hay with her ninety-nine year old husband?”
Bitterness is what remains when our sense of wonder is lost. Aging becomes a process that continues to narrow possibilities, limit activities and destroy capabilities of sight, hearing and memory. Time is a conveyer belt taking us to the grave. The future seems to offer nothing but more of the same. It is precisely here that God breaks into our closed universe and opens our eyes to the wonder of the possible. Sarah will laugh once again, but not with bitterness. She will laugh when she holds her newborn son Isaac in her arms. She will laugh at how small and hopeless her world once was. She will laugh at the absurdity of her unbelief. She will laugh with a holy wonder at the new possibilities God has opened up for the world even as he opened her womb. Sarah will laugh because she knows that along with Isaac, a flood of new wonders have come tumbling into the world. They will culminate in the wonder of a group of women centuries later as they meet the resurrected Lord they came to prepare for burial. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
The significance of the three visitors has sparked all manner of speculation. They seem at some points to speak as one person, prompting some early Christian commentators to see a Trinitarian presence. However, as we discover later on in the narrative, two of the visitors clearly are “angels” or messengers of God. We ought not to press this distinction too much, though. God frequently acts and speaks through “angels,” which in the biblical languages simply means “messengers.”
According to the Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world concerning the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. See Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, J.W. Rogerson & W. McKay, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in the community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.” Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Here Paul makes some incredible claims about Jesus of Nazareth. In short, Jesus is not one in a pantheon of great prophets, teachers, community organizers or moral examples. He is the “image of the invisible God,” the “firstborn of all creation” and the “first-born from the dead.” “All things were created through him and for him.” “He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Jesus is described both as Lord of all thrones, dominions and powers as well as the “head” of the Body of Christ, the church. The only difference, then, between the church and the rest of humanity is that the church recognizes its head. It is not that Jesus must struggle to become Lord of all. He is Lord of all even if all do not yet know that.
Paul sums up in succinct fashion what God accomplished in Jesus: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vss. 19-20. I suppose that my reading of this verse is colored by my participation in the 2013 Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago. Ekklesia, as you may already know, is a network of Christians who are discovering a uniting and empowering friendship rooted in our common love of God and the Church. This year’s theme for the gathering was “Practicing the Peace of Christ in Church, Neighborhood and Country.” What I have taken away from my years of association with Ekklesia and this last week in particular is the recognition that peace is not a tangential aspect of the gospel. It stands at the gospel’s very core. The willingness of Jesus to shed his blood rather than employ violence against his enemies and God’s raising of Jesus from death to offer him to us again rather than retaliating against us for the murder of his Son demonstrate God’s mercy triumphing over judgment. The cycle of retaliation has been broken within the heart of God and in the realm of human history as well. The peace of Christ reigns at God’s right hand. The resurrected Body of Christ lives that peace in the world as church.
What follows? Disciples of Jesus are called to live under God’s gentle reign, practicing the peace made by Jesus through love for enemies, forgiveness of wrongs and reconciliation of all things. The renunciation of violence is a direct corollary to accepting the peace of Christ. Hostility is to be met in the same way Jesus always responded to it throughout his ministry and at the very end. Because peace has been made through the blood of the cross, coercive force is no longer a weapon in the disciple’s arsenal. Our sole weapons are righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, prayer and the Holy Spirit. See Ephesians 6:13-20.
This is a difficult message to proclaim in a culture so thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult of violence that it cannot imagine life without it. Seldom does anyone question the proposition that “a strong military is essential to our security.” The right of self-defense is written into our law and presumes the necessity of force or the threat of force to keep one’s self safe from harm. From police dramas to westerns, the entertainment industry reinforces our belief that the only sure way to deal with violent evil is by employing a violent response. In our creed we may be confessing the Prince of Peace, but in practice our lives are more often shaped by Kenny Rogers’ lyric: “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Coward of the County, Kenny Rogers. Disciples of Jesus do not accept the proposition that “sometimes you have to fight.” Sometimes you have to suffer. Sometimes you have to forgive as many as seventy times seventy. Sometimes you have to die. But fighting violence with violence is not an option.
This brief story has been cited numerous times for the proposition that the contemplative life of prayer, meditation and worship is superior to the active life of work and service. Both the proposition and the use of the text to support it are off the mark. There are a couple of things going on here. Jesus is a guest in the home of Mary and Martha. As such, protocol demands that he be shown hospitality in the tradition illustrated by Abraham in our Genesis reading. But Jesus is not simply a guest. He is a teacher or rabbi and is in the process of instructing his disciples. Mary is among those disciples “sitting at his feet” and listening to his instruction. While women in the first century were not forbidden to learn Torah, it would be highly unusual for a rabbi to accept one as a disciple. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 163. It would also have been considered extremely poor etiquette at the very least for a woman to neglect her duty of hospitality toward a visiting rabbi in order to sit listening with his disciples. It is hardly surprising, then, that Martha is not pleased with Mary.
By taking Mary’s part, Jesus is recognizing her as one of his disciples invited to hear and obey his word. So far from denigrating Martha’s service, Jesus is actually elevating Martha. By implication, he is telling her also that she is far too important to be tied to domestic chores when the word of life is being spoken. Mary has chosen the “better” part and that choice is now open to Martha also. If the reign of God calls one to leave behind home, family and livelihood, how much more whatever is cooking on the stove! Let the beans burn.
As he does throughout his gospel, Luke is once again elevating the role and status of women in Jesus’ ministry. Consistent with the tone of urgency that has taken hold since the turning point of the gospel toward Jerusalem, Luke is here pointing out that the good news about the reign of God disrupts the conventions of proper hospitality just as it does funeral preparations, Sabbath observance and class distinctions.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.
Fulfillment of the law is humanly possible. The covenant obligations imposed upon Israel are not hopelessly unachievable ideals. God has far better ways to spend time than devising rules nobody can keep and then punishing everyone’s failed efforts to attain the impossible. The law was made to be kept. Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus did not come to replace the Torah with some simpler, easier, more enlightened and less demanding moral teaching. To the contrary, he stated that not a single stroke of the law will pass away as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17.
Fulfillment of the law is not merely a human possibility. It is an accomplished human fact. The law, we are told, was fulfilled in the obedient human life and faithful human death of Jesus. So let us forever dismiss lame excuses like, “Nobody is perfect,” “I’m only human” and “I can only do my best.” There is nothing in the law that you cannot do. You can worship the Lord your God; you can both rest from your labors and give rest to your laborers; you can respect your neighbor’s life, property, marriage and livelihood; you can be a good steward of creation living gently on the land and contributing more than you consume. This “word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Deuteronomy 30:14. Neither Saint Paul nor Martin Luther ever said anything different.
Our problem with the law is not our inability to keep it. Our problem arises from believing that our success in keeping the law wins us God’s favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even perfect obedience to Torah could not win God’s favor. That is because obedience is not necessary for that purpose. God cares for and redeems us because God loves us as a parent loves a child. Good parents love their children the minute they come forth from the womb, before they have had a chance either to make them proud or break their hearts. So, too, God loves the good world God made and the creatures made in God’s image because that’s the way God is. God’s heart breaks when we transgress the law-not because God is a stickler for the rules-but because God cares so deeply about the pain we inflict on ourselves and the rest of creation as a result of those transgressions. People were not created for the sake of the law. The law was given for the protection of God’s people. That is why the two great commandments call us to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The entire law must be interpreted and put into practice toward these ends only-not in order to placate, please or impress God.
It is for that reason Jesus asks the lawyer in our gospel lesson, “What is written in the law” and “how do you read?” Luke 10:20. It is critical that the law be read and interpreted as God’s gift to be used in the service of worshiping God and loving the neighbor. To his credit, lawyer gets the answer right: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27. You’ve got it, says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28. But the lawyer is not interested in doing the law. As lawyers are wont to do, he is trying to find a loophole by which to escape the law’s demands. So he asks Jesus a question designed to demonstrate that the law is ambiguous, unclear and subject to multiple interpretations. Who, after all, is my neighbor? Surely it is not the gentile altogether outside of the covenant promises made to Israel. Surely it is not the Israelite who, through his or her sinful acts has separated himself or herself from the community of Israel. Surely it is not those Israelites whose teachings are contrary to the traditions handed down to us by the elders. Where does one draw the line when it comes to the scope of my duty to my neighbors? If the line cannot be drawn with legal clarity, then how can I be expected to keep the law?
But Jesus will not debate the meaning of Torah on the lawyer’s terms. He responds with a story in which neighborliness is practiced between mortal enemies. A Samaritan acts with compassion one would never expect him to show toward a Jew. Why? Simply because when the Samaritan saw the broken man on the side of the road, he didn’t see a Jew. He saw only a wounded, vulnerable, dying man. And we are told that “he had compassion.” The Greek word used here for “compassion” goes beyond its English counterpart. It means a deep seated, heartfelt identification and solidarity with the victim. It’s being able to get inside his or her skin and see the world through his or her eyes. It is the kind of identification God expresses toward God’s wounded creation by sending his only begotten Son. We are never more genuinely human nor are we more reflective of the divine image than when we exercise compassion toward one another. Neighborliness is not a legal obligation whose scope can be measured by statutory prescription. It is a miracle that occurs when, through God’s Spirit, God is recognized as our loving Father and the person standing in need of our compassion is recognized as a sister or brother made in God’s image. This miracle in the depths of the human heart, says Jesus, propels us into action that fulfills the Torah.
Fulfillment of the law is not a task far beyond the reach of human effort. It is as close as your nearest neighbor and it is as clear as your neighbor’s need. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart. To be sure, it is not easy. But it is humanly possible. You can do it.
Here’s a poem by Jan Beatty about exercising the kind of compassion I believe Jesus is talking about.
We’re sitting in Uncle Sam’s Subs, splitting
a cheesesteak, when Shelley says:
I think I should buy a gun.
I look up at her puffy face, and she’s staring,
her hands shaking. On medication for
schizophrenia, she’s serious.
I say, Tell me why you need a gun.
Her voice getting louder: You know why.
No, no I don’t, I say.
In case I need it. I might need it to shoot somebody.
I give her a hard look — You don’t need a gun.
No one is after you.
She stares back: You might be after me.
I don’t know what to say — I never know what to say.
I know it’s not her speaking, but it’s my friend,
far away in some other stricken mind.
What’s it like to know you’re right/
you’re in danger —
and the world says no?
Every woman I know has lived that.
I say: I would never hurt you. I’m not a threat to you.
She laughs, says, Well, you might be.
The laughing scares me.
I want out of this place,
this sub shop, to walk away,
knowing she can’t walk out of her mind, leave
the illness behind. The long minutes,
the long, long minutes. She says, What do you think?
I think we should eat our sandwiches, then
take a walk, I say.
What about the gun?
Let’s talk about it later, I say,
not knowing a thing.
Not knowing a goddamn thing.
Source: Poetry Magazine (April 2016). Jan Beatty is the author of The Switching/Yard (c. 2013 University of Pittsburgh Press). She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The language of this lesson naturally grates on my Lutheran ears. Since I was knee high to cricket I have been taught that it is impossible for human beings to keep the law; that the law always and only accuses us and shows up our sinfulness. I was always taught that the purpose of the law is to drive me to seek God’s forgiveness. So what does God mean by telling Israel: “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you…”? vs. 11. I think we need to make an important distinction here. As I said above, the law was not given to Israel so that she could earn God’s favor. She already had God’s favor. God demonstrated God’s unconditional love for Israel when God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to Israel so that she might remain free, so that she would not become yet another Egypt. God calls Israel to obedience in Torah, not because God is a neurotic rule maker who cannot abide violations. God calls Israel to obedience because obedience is the only way for Israel to prosper and live well in the land.
When Moses declares that the law can be kept, he does not mean that it can be kept perfectly or flawlessly. Indeed, Moses knows otherwise. That is why the law makes provision for sacrificial offerings and rites through which God’s forgiveness is declared and reconciliation is facilitated. It should be noted that in the larger context of today’s reading, Moses assumes that the people will be disobedient to God’s commands, that they will suffer the consequences and that they will be carried into exile. Nevertheless, Moses goes on to say that God is merciful and forgiving; that God will always hear Israel’s prayers and will always respond to her expressions of repentance with forgiveness. God may punish Israel, but he will never reject her. God is always there for Israel to help her begin anew.
Again, as I said before, when Saint Paul and Martin Luther declare that people are incapable of keeping the law, they are simply saying that the law cannot be used to curry favor with God. When the law is employed to please God rather than to serve the neighbor, it becomes a curse instead of the blessing it was intended to be. Where law becomes the measure of righteousness before God, then we find ourselves embroiled in those endless “where do you draw the line?” discussions. What constitutes “work” in violation of the Sabbath? What constitutes “good cause” for divorcing my spouse? Who exactly is my neighbor? All of these questions suggest that if only we can figure out where to draw the line between obedience and disobedience to the law and stay on the right side of the line, we will be OK in God’s sight. That was precisely the outlook of the young lawyer in our gospel lesson. He was appealing to the law “to justify himself.” He wanted Jesus to clarify for him his duty of neighborliness so that he could be sure he was meeting all of its requirements.
But as Paul and Luther point out, that is not how law works. Sin is not a matter of keeping or breaking the rules. It is a matter of the heart. It all boils down to whether we love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and our neighbor as ourselves. You can keep all the rules but still lack faith and compassion. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence for lack of faith than a false dependence on and pride in keeping the rules. Israel has not been called to a slavish compliance with nit picking demands. Rightly understood as pure gift, Torah is the shape human life takes when drawn into covenant with a gracious, merciful and forgiving God.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37;Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. In these psalms, each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.
Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50,The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.
At this point it is clear that the church is beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire and is “bearing fruit.” Paul opens his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the faith of the church at Colossae of which he has heard. It seems that Paul has never actually visited this church because much of what he seems to know has come through what he has heard or been told by others, specifically, “Epaphras.” Vs. 7. Paul then moves into a prayer for the Colossian church, that it may be strengthened, filled with wisdom and understanding so that it may “lead a life worthy of the Lord.” Vss. 9-10. As we will see in the weeks to come, Paul makes a sweeping argument for the cosmic impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in whom “the fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” Colossians 2:9.
In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah and the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem, eventually establishing their own capital city in Samaria. This break up took place after the death of Solomon, David’s son around 922 B.C.E. The Samaritans asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel that existed prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith.
The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendents born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.
According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the vacinity of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.
As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. That the conflict was very much alive in the first century is evident from Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. The first question she asked upon learning that Jesus was a prophet involved the proper place of worship: the temple in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim? John 4:19-26. This background information important as it makes clear that the neighbor to be loved includes not merely the stranger on the side of the road with a flat tire, but the mortal enemy that would kill you given half a chance.
The antagonist in this story is a lawyer. While we need to take care that we do not read too much of what we know and understand about lawyers today into what the New Testament means by the term, there are some parallels worth noting. Lawyers typically focus on the outer limits of the law. Modern lawyers advise their clients concerning the extent to which certain conduct might violate the law. Thus, a corporate client might want to know whether its newly designed logo is sufficiently different form a similar one belonging to another company to ensure safety from liability for trademark infringement. A company might consult a lawyer to determine whether it can safely designate certain income as non-taxable without incurring the scrutiny of the IRS. Similarly, lawyers in Jesus’ day were responsible for determining what conduct lay within or outside the parameters of the Torah. The Rabbis spoke of erecting a “hedge” around the Torah consisting of prohibitions and requirements that went beyond Torah. The thinking was that if you observed these “hedge” provisions, you would never get close enough to the Torah to violate it. The problem was, however, that these provisions sometimes prevented people from getting close enough to Torah to obey it. The case of the lawyer in this story is an illustration of that very thing.
The lawyer first seeks to “test” Jesus by asking him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus will not take the bait. “You know the answer to that question well enough.” Jesus replies. “What does the law require?” The lawyer correctly responds with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Right,” says Jesus. “Do it and you will live.” Here Jesus is on the same page with Moses. This command is doable and understandable. Of course, that does not mean that it is easy, but that is another question and perhaps the very one the lawyer seeks to avoid. In true lawyer fashion, the lawyer manufactures a hurdle to obedience by seeking to render the statute ambiguous. “All well and good to say, ‘love your neighbor,’” he says, “but who is my neighbor?” Obviously, the lawyer is trying to drag Jesus into one of those hopeless “where do you draw the line” arguments. You know what I am talking about: “If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Yes, but what if he does it again? How many times do I have to let him hit me? What if I am an abused spouse? Do I just stand there and take it? What do I do with an armed maniac who points a gun at my dear old grandma…” On and on it goes.
Jesus will not be drawn into this silliness. He simply does not answer the lawyer’s question because he knows it will only lead to more stupid questions. He will not get into an argument over who should be classified as “neighbor,” but instead tells a story about neighborliness. Now if Jesus had told a story about a Jew who happened upon a wounded Samaritan and helped him, the lawyer might have nodded with approval. “Yes, we Jews certainly know how to act like neighbors-even to Samaritans. But tell me Jesus, how far do we have to go with that? What if the Samaritan is threatening me? What if he is trying to rob me?” That would bring us right back to the “where do you draw the line” argument.
But Jesus tells a story about a neighborly Samaritan. This takes the whole matter of neighborliness outside the realm of law, regulation and custom-the very ocean in which the lawyer swims. The Samaritan, to the lawyer’s way of thinking, was a man without any true law. The lawyer is now completely out of his element-like a fish out of water. There are suddenly no longer any points between which lines might be drawn and therefore no more lines to argue about. There is simply the Samaritan feeling compassion, a word Luke uses in Zechariah’s song of praise to describe “the tender mercy of our God.” Luke 1:78. The question now is no longer “what legally constitutes a neighbor,” but who is acting the neighbor. At its root, this is a grammatical problem. For the lawyer, neighbor is a noun to be defined. For Jesus, it is a verb to be acted upon. So Jesus tells the lawyer who asks him “who is my neighbor,” to stop obfuscating and be a neighbor. “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.