Archive for October, 2016
All Saints Day
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
All Saints Day is the church’s Veteran’s Day, a time for honoring the memory of all whose lives have illuminated for us the way of the cross and the shape of faithful discipleship in every age. Special attention is given to the martyrs, those whose witness to Jesus required the loss of their lives. The first of these known to us was the deacon, Stephen, who died at the hands of an angry mob. His story is recounted in the Book of Acts. Acts 6-7. One thing always puzzled me about that story. Stephen was one of seven disciples elected to oversee food assistance to destitute widows. How did he go from running a soup kitchen to being at the epicenter of a violent controversy?
I don’t think becoming the first Christian martyr was Stephen’s goal in life. I suspect he would have been perfectly happy to spend his life in anonymity caring for the poor. But caring for the poor can get you into deep trouble. St. Lawrence of Rome, another deacon charged with care of the poor in his city, caught the attention of a Roman prefect. Having witnessed the very generous giving by the church to the poor in Rome, the prefect imagined that the church must have in its possession a huge store of wealth. He ordered Lawrence to turn over to him the treasures of the church. Lawrence promised to do just that within three days. He gathered together a large crowd of the poor, crippled and destitute people under the church’s care and presented them to the prefect three days later declaring, “Behold the treasure of the church!” The prefect was not amused. He had Lawrence burned alive.
This is no coincidence. Hatred of the poor is endemic to most cultures. In our own country we try to pretend that the poor don’t exist. We shut them out of our gated communities, we put impassible distances between them and our suburbs and we employ vagrancy laws enabling the police to clear them out of places where their presence might disturb shoppers, theater patrons and tourists. The poor are unwelcome reminders of our nation’s failures, a challenge to the “American Dream” in which we want so desperately to believe. Because the presence of the poor challenges all that we would like to believe about ourselves, we react to them with hostility. We blame them for their predicament. They are lazy, shiftless, dishonest and unmotivated. The benefits that keep them alive are a burden on the rest of us honest, hardworking citizens. That’s not fair! Besides, helping the poor only destroys what little incentive they might still have to better themselves. Charity is “toxic.” The kindest thing you can do for the poor is to take them off the dole and force them to fend for themselves.
There is some truth to that notion of “toxic charity” as I noted in my post for Sunday, February 21, 2016. My concern there, however, had less to do with destroying the incentive of poor people to better themselves and more with how misguided efforts to help them reinforce our stereotypes of poor people and cause those we help to feel judged rather than loved and valued. Such charity is indeed toxic, both for the church and those we seek to help. Yet when I hear the well-heeled beneficiaries of white privilege complain about toxic charity, it sounds a lot more like a rationale for selfishness, self-righteousness and greed than a serious response to poverty. It also demonstrates a glaring ignorance of poverty and its causes. Though I have worked all my adult life and put in far more than a forty-hour week more than half that time, I have never worked as hard as the homeless people I have met over the years in their struggle to survive day by day. I have thankfully never suffered from addiction, depression or chronic illness. If I had, however, I would have been surrounded by family and friends who would have been there to see that I got the treatment I needed and the care I required. Without that network, you are always just one stroke, one drink, one bad decision, one accident away from poverty and perhaps homelessness.
Are there poor people who game the system? Sure. But are they gamming the system any more than corporations that get huge tax breaks, ostensibly to invest in American production and generate American jobs, but invest their savings in foreign stocks instead? Are the poor gamming the system any more than real estate tycoons who repeatedly use bankruptcy laws to escape their contractual obligations, avoid their just debts and stiff their workers? Are the poor gamming the system any more than the vast majority of us who are willing to let a sub-class of warriors die fighting wars we have nearly forgotten about? If we cannot see these great logs of selfish exploitation in our own eyes, how dare we presume to take the speck out of the eye of one who is merely trying to get through another day?
In our gospel lesson Jesus proclaims that the poor are blessed. He is speaking, of course, to his disciples. Jesus presumes that his followers, if they are not poor themselves, are nevertheless solidly aligned with the poor. Jesus does not glorify poverty. The poor are not blessed because they are poor, but because the kingdom of God belongs to them. To be on the side of the poor is to be on the side of God. To oppose the poor is to war against God. It’s as simple as that. The saints of God know that the poor are on the winning side of history. We ignore their cries for justice at our peril
Here’s a poem by Robert Southey reflecting those plaintive cries to a society that has nearly lost its ability to hear.
The Complaints of the Poor
And wherefore do the Poor complain?
The rich man asked of me,—
Come walk abroad with me, I said
And I will answer thee.
Twas evening and the frozen streets
Were cheerless to behold,
And we were wrapt and coated well,
And yet we were a-cold.
We met an old bare-headed man,
His locks were few and white,
I ask’d him what he did abroad
In that cold winter’s night:
‘Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,
But at home no fire had he,
And therefore, he had come abroad
To ask for charity.
We met a young bare-footed child,
And she begg’d loud and bold,
I ask’d her what she did abroad
When the wind it blew so cold;
She said her father was at home
And he lay sick a-bed,
And therefore was it she was sent
Abroad to beg for bread.
We saw a woman sitting down
Upon a stone to rest,
She had a baby at her back
And another at her breast;
I ask’d her why she loiter’d there
When the wind it was so chill;
She turn’d her head and bade the child
That scream’d behind be still.
She told us that her husband served
A soldier, far away,
And therefore to her parish she
Was begging back her way.
We met a girl; her dress was loose
And sunken was her eye,
Who with the wanton’s hollow voice
Address’d the passers by;
I ask’d her what there was in guilt
That could her heart allure
To shame, disease, and late remorse?
She answer’d, she was poor.
I turn’d me to the rich man then
For silently stood he,
You ask’d me why the Poor complain,
And these have answer’d thee.
Source: this poem is in the public domain. Robert Southey (1774–1843) was born in Bristol, England. He spent much of his childhood living under the watchful discipline of a stern aunt and in boarding schools that were hardly less vigorous in their enforcement of discipline. He was an avid reader of classic poets like Shakespeare and Milton. While at Westminster public school he wrote a satirical article on corporal punishment. The administration was not amused. He was promptly expelled. This anti-authoritarian streak continued into his adult life as he became an avid supporter of the French Revolution. In addition to his many poems, Southey produced plays, essays and historical sagas. You can find out more about Robert Southey and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctively Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. Stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar and later under the Persian rulers are retold in the new context in order to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.” The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the very beginning of the apocalyptic section of the book. Daniel is visited by “visions in the night” during which he observes four great beasts coming up out of the sea. At this juncture, the lectionary takes a flying leap over the graphic descriptions of each of the beasts. That is unfortunate because we need to meet them in order to understand the promises made to Daniel at the end of our reading. I therefore invite you to read verses 4-14 before proceeding any further. The first beast is described as a lion with eagles’ wings and is identified by most Hebrew Scripture scholars with the Babylonian Empire which destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the Jews into exile in 587 B.C.E. Vs. 4 The second beast, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, is identified with the empire of the Medes. Vs. 5 The third beast is a winged leopard corresponding to the Persian Empire under Cyrus who, as you may recall, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. Vs. 6 The fourth beast is nothing like any living animal. More vicious and destructive than the beasts before it, this animal has iron teeth and ten horns. Vs. 7. It represents the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The ten horns represent ten rulers who succeeded Alexander, ruling various parts of his empire. The little horn speaking “great things” is our friend Antiochus.
Also omitted from our reading are the “planting of thrones” and the descent of the “Ancient of Days” and his host of thousands. Before him “books” are opened and judgment is passed upon the nations. The fourth beast is destroyed and consigned to flames, but the remaining kingdoms are merely deprived of their jurisdiction. At this point “one like a son of man” is given dominion over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom, we are told, will not pass away. Now we are finally in a position to understand the full import of the words spoken to Daniel by one of the heavenly host: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Vss 17-18. It might now appear that the “saints” or faithful Jews are helpless pawns in the struggle between these great empires. But appearances can be deceiving. In the end, it is not any one of the kingdoms asserting power over the earth that will prevail. The kingdom of the Most High will finally rule the peoples of all nations and tongues through the agency of his messiah.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: Who determines the outcome of history? From a modernist point of view, history is the confluence of innumerable currents that can be influenced for better or worse by human activity. The Book of Daniel offers us a radically different outlook. According to Daniel, history is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom of God comes in its own good time without any help from us, thanks just the same. The people of God can live an anticipatory counter-cultural existence of humble obedience under that reign even now and so bear witness to it. But they cannot hasten its coming anymore than the kingdom’s adversaries can prevent it.
That said, witness is important and faithfulness invariably leads to conflict with the surrounding culture. The fiery ordeal faced by the people addressed in the Book of Daniel is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. Even in a society where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross. The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile gestures of faithfulness in a wicked and ruthless world. So too, our gospel lesson points out that lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted.
Most biblical scholars date this psalm on the later side, most likely during the period of Greek dominance over Palestine discussed under the reading from Daniel. The psalm is distinct from most other psalms in one important respect. Although many psalms cry out to God for vengeance against enemies, the psalmists do not undertake vengeance on their own or seek to execute retributive justice on God’s behalf. Psalm 149, however, prays concerning the faithful, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisement on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written decreed.” Vss. 6-9. There is no question here that the people of Israel are being called to take part in executing God’s judgment against the nations of the world that do not acknowledge him. More troubling still is the interpretive history of this psalm. It was used as a battle cry by Roman Catholic princes during the Thirty-Years War and also by the radical Anabaptist, Thomas Munzer, in his violent crusades.
What then can we say about this psalm? First, the psalm is entirely consistent with Israel’s conviction (and that of the church as well) that God is one and admits of no rival. Judgment is always the flip side of salvation, but only God is competent to judge. With this the psalmist is in agreement. Although Israel is called upon to execute judgment, the judgment to be enforced is that which is “decreed.” Vs. 9. Until such time as God makes clear to his people precisely what is just and how his justice is to be implemented, Israel must refrain from taking action against those “judged.”
Second, as the First Letter of Peter reminds us, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…” I Peter 4:17. Just as the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, so every heart must undergo judgment. No one can claim to be entirely on the side of God such that there need be no reckoning with sin. It appears, then, that the execution of judgment to which Israel is summoned in Psalm 149is an eschatological event, that is to say, it points to a time when righteousness, wickedness and justice are made to stand out in unmistakable clarity. For disciples of Jesus, such a time cannot come until the revealing of the Son of Man.
Third, disciples of Jesus read this psalm the way they read all of Scripture: through the lens of Jesus. After all, we are not baptized into the name of Joshua son of Nun but into the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was never shy about telling his disciples when to go beyond the written word in obedience to God. Thus, the Scriptures limit retribution to exacting from the wrongdoer only the price of his wrong. If someone knocks out your tooth, you don’t chop off his heard or burn down his house or murder his family. You get the value of a tooth, no more and no less. But Jesus tells his disciples that they must go further than the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not to seek retribution of any kind. They are to turn the other cheek when stricken and forgive up to seventy times seventy in any given day.
Finally, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s judgment comes chiefly through God’s word. When the prophet describes the reign of God’s messianic king, he declares that he “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:4. When John of Patmos describes how Christ appears to exercise his reign at the close of the age, he tells us that “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations…” Revelation 19:15. In short, God does not employ violence to implement his reign. He speaks his Incarnate Word and sends fourth his Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. Thus, however Israel may have once interpreted the injunctions in Psalm 149, disciples of Jesus must interpret them consistent with Jesus’ call to confront an evil and unbelieving world with God’s offer of compassion, forgiveness and the promise of a new creation. The two edge sword we wield must be the sword of the Spirit.
The problematic sections of this psalm should not obscure the overall theme which is a call to praise God with melody, musical instruments and even dancing. Worship is supposed to be joyful, exuberant and strenuous. We Lutherans could use more than a little of that in our worship practices!
For an excellent summary of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, see the article of Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org.
Verses 15-23 constitute one very long sentence in the original Greek text. The old RSV preserves that sentence structure in its translation to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to unpack these important passages. Thankfully for this Sunday’s readers, the New RSV has broken the reading down into several sentences. For all who have the patience to work through them, these verses provide a beautiful articulation of the Christian hope encompassing life here and now in the Body of Christ and life as it is folded into the “glorious inheritance of the saints” with Christ in the “heavenly places.”
There are more sermons in these verses than any preacher could exhaust in a lifetime. The particular verses that caught my eye this time around are the last two, vss. 22-23, pointing out that the church, Christ’s Body, is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is mindboggling, albeit true, that each little congregation gathered around the Word and Sacrament is the fullness of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer that his hearers will come to understand the hope to which they have been called and the wealth of their inheritance. Though it does not appear that Paul himself was the author of this epistle* and we know little about the congregation or congregations to which it is addressed, it seems evident that the audience is predominantly gentile. Thus, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers the deep and profound treasures of the covenant into which they have been brought by invitation through Christ Jesus.
Although Paul makes only scant use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Ephesians (another reason why most scholars tend to think the target audience was principally gentile), there are many echoes of Old Testament texts throughout the letter and in Sunday’s reading in particular. Verse 22, where Paul remarks that God has “put all things under his [Christ’s) feet,” reflects the language of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6. Thielman, Frank S., Ephesians published in Beale, G.K. & Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (c. 2007 G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Baker Press) p 815. Psalm 110 is likely a coronation hymn for Judean kings and so it is not surprising that Paul should allude to it in speaking of Jesus’ elevation to God’s right hand. That Jews in the first century gave the psalm a messianic interpretation is suggested by the use Jesus made of it in his disputation with his adversaries. See, e.g., Mark 12:35-37. Clearly, early Christians interpreted the psalm in this way. Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (c. 1989 Yale Press) 163-66. Similarly, Psalm 8 speaks in poetic terms of human domination over creation. Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple period believed that Adam’s right to rule the world had been transferred to Israel and that God would one day give to the righteous remnant of his people the glory of Adam. Thielman, supra, p 816. Paul also spoke of Christ as a “new” Adam in his letter to the Romans. Romans 5:12-21. As such, Christ is entitled to reign not merely over the earth, but may properly be placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Vs. 21.
*I will nevertheless continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” Though perhaps not the actual author, his thought pervades the letter. Besides, it is a lot less awkward than referring repeatedly to “the author.”
This excerpt from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” has some striking similarities to the “Sermon on the Mount” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. See Matthew 5-7. It is generally accepted that both sermons are drawn from the same basic written tradition commonly called “Q.” But there are also significant differences and it is not clear whether these differences stem from variations in the source material or the editing of the gospel writers. In my own opinion, it is likely a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Clearly, some editing on the part of the gospel writers is at work. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from the mountain top evoking the image of Moses while going beyond Moses in many of his teachings. Luke’s Sermon is spoken on level ground. There appear to be three groups present: The twelve apostles Jesus selected just previously in vss. 12-16; “a great crowd of his disciples;” and “a great multitude of people.” In both cases, Jesus’ teachings are directed specifically at his disciples-not to the general public. Whereas Matthew contains more “beatitudes” than does Luke (Matthew 5:3-11), Luke includes four “Woes” not found in Matthew. Vss. 24-26.
It is important to emphasize that Jesus is speaking chiefly to his disciples here. Jesus does not make a virtue of poverty. There is no blessing in starvation. But for all who become impoverished for the sake of following Jesus and living for God’s reign, there are blessings that outweigh the woes of poverty. Similarly, weeping induced by suffering for the sake of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will likewise be outshone by the joy of experiencing God’s reign. So too, all who prefer wealth, comfort and security over Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God will someday understand the opportunity they threw away. They will have good reason to weep and hunger for that precious lost chance.
New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias argues forcefully that the Sermon on the Plain/Mount was the body of an early catechism for Christian ethical training. Jeremias, J., The Sermon on the Mount, (c. London, 1961) pp 30-35 cited in Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 111. The commands given in the sermon presuppose an understanding of the gospel and merely spell out the shape obedience to that gospel must take. The kingdom’s coming is God’s doing and, as such, an act of sheer grace. The challenge for the children of the kingdom is to live now under that gentle reign. By so doing, they ensure that when the kingdom comes it will be welcomed joyfully as salvation rather than met with fear as judgment. As another commentator puts it:
“The sermon [on the Plain] is a description of the life of the new Israel, which is also life in the kingdom of God. In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God’s purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the future. But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin to enter into ultimate blessedness. Thus the Beatitudes were not merely a promise but an invitation.” Caird, G.B. Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird 1963 pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 102.
The call to love enemies, throw blessings at curses and forswear all resort to violence and coercion form the radical core of discipleship. These words are not meant to apply only to folks with nothing between them but white picket fences. These are not ethics only for church picnics and potluck suppers. The enemies Jesus calls us to love are not simply obnoxious neighbors, rude checkout clerks or inconsiderate drivers. Enemies are people that hate us and would kill us if they could. Jesus’ enemies tortured him to death. He died praying for their forgiveness-just as he teaches us to do here. Never does Jesus act violently, teach violence or condone violence under any circumstance. Over the last several years I have become convinced that non-violence is at the core of the gospel and that Christian support for state sponsored killing (euphemistically called “military action”) and the mainline church’s reluctance to condemn it constitutes a stark betrayal of the gospel. I think it is high time that my own denomination in particular take a serious look at the faithful and courageous Anabaptist witness to peace throughout the ages. It is time to re-evaluate our centuries old adherence to “just war” doctrines.
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, gracious and benevolent, through your Son you invite all the world to a meal of mercy. Grant that we may eagerly follow his call, and bring us with all your saints into your life of justice and joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In William Saroyan’s play, The Time of Your Life, protagonist “Joe” tells Tom, his young assistant and admirer, that he prefers to keep his wealth out of his own sight and management so that he doesn’t have to see the way it is hurting people. Perhaps Zacchaeus felt the same way. After all, he was a chief tax collector which meant that the dirty work of extorting from his own people the tax required by Rome, his own premium and that of his underlings was the job of his subordinates. He told them what he needed to get out of each individual and they got it for him. Zacchaeus didn’t have to see the arm twisting and the knee capping. He didn’t have to hear the desperate pleas of destitute farmers asking only to be left with enough to feed their families for one more day. No doubt he knew that the money coming into him was tainted with fraud, extortion and violence. But he also knew that life isn’t fair and only a fool expects it to be that way. Zacchaeus knew that, if he were to step out of his lucrative position, there would be plenty of others glad to step in. He knew he could not make the world one wit better by standing on principle, but in so doing, he obviously would make things a great deal worse for himself. So it made good sense simply to enjoy his wealth and not think too much about where it came from.
I don’t know that my own situation is much different. I don’t directly exploit, injure or discriminate against anyone else. But the lifestyle to which I have grown accustomed is clearly a burden on the planet. I know that the colonial ambitions of my ancestors produced a world order that perpetuates systemic poverty and injustice from which, as a white American male, I have benefited greatly. The funds held in my retirement account are invested in hundreds of companies. I hope they produce valuable goods and services, I hope they pay their employees a living wage and I hope they provide reasonable benefits for all their workers. I hope they do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or nationality. I hope they deal fairly and honestly with their contractors. I hope they do not pollute the rivers, lakes and oceans or deplete the forests. But I don’t know if all this is true, nor do I know how to find out. Yes, I have heard of socially responsible investment funds and have even invested in a few of these, but my review does not give me the assurances my conscience really needs.
The most troubling aspect of this story from our gospel is that we really don’t know how it ends. I would love to know how Zacchaeus lived his life going forward. How much did he have left after giving half his wealth to the poor and then paying back all the people he had defrauded over the years? How could he continue in his profession after encountering Jesus and hearing the good news of God’s reign? We don’t get answers to those questions and I suppose that is because the answers cannot be found in any book. They must be lived out in our lives. That is what makes the Bible such a difficult book to read. You start out reading what you think will be a story about a man who lived over two-thousand years ago, only to discover that the story is actually about you.
Here’s a poem by Peter Balakian giving us a glimpse into the other half of our world that those of us who live in peace, security and comfort would rather forget.
Slum Drummers, Nairobi
What were we watching on the tube under mildewed ceilings in Eastlands?
A Kenyan guy shaking a rattle made from a can
while another guy in the band was talking to the queen
about making sound out of anything? The queen smiled.
The Jubilee receiving line filed through.
We shimmied past tin shacks selling wigs and bananas, coke and goat lungs;
the tine of a kalimba kissed my face. My face kissed the blue plastic of
a soda bottle sliding down a hill of glass.
I paid the gang leaders for protection
and we walked into the hills of airplane garbage,
black and blue plastic bags glowing in the sun spray over the heads
of the marabou stalking the mounds with their knife-blade beaks.
Stevie Wonder and Elton John moved through the Jubilee line.
Prince Charles thanked God for the weather as the camera cut
to fireworks spewing over Hyde Park and then to an image of Nairobi
and the Slum Drummers picking metal out of the collages of garbage.
My jeans were charred from the tin-can fires,
and the grilling pig guts when some men looked up from scraps of wire—
and you went back and forth with them in Swahili before they offered us
some sizzling fat, before we thanked them with our coy smiles and moved on
with Michael who took us
down a maze of alleyways where tin shacks were floating
on polymers and nitrogen and a dozen pigs from nowhere snouted the garbage.
You were saying “Dad”—when a marabou-hacked bag shot some shit
on our shoes—“Dad, kinship roles are always changing”—
when a woman asked us for a few shillings and salt
for her soup. Salt? Did I hear her right? Or was it Swahili
for something else? And through the sooty wind of charcoal fires
and creaking rusty tin you were saying, “Hannah Arendt called Swahili
a degraded language of former slave holders.”
In the soot of my head—I was listening—
and Michael was asking for more shillings for the gang guys
who were “a little fucked up,” he said, “but needed help”—
and when I turned around the heads of chickens
were twitching, the feathers fluttering down on oozing sludge;
“Arendt called it a nineteenth century kind of no language,”
you were saying, “spoken”—as we were jolted
by a marabou eating a shoe—“spoken—by the Arab ivory and slave caravans.”
Out of bottles, cans, pipes, mangled wire—the Slum Drummers
twisted and hacked, joined and seamed their heaven
into the black plastic ghost of a mashed pot.
Pure tones blew from the vibrato holes
like wind through Makadara
where the breath of God flew through sewage pipes.
I heard in a tubophone the resurrection
of ten men rising out of coal and pig snouts
into the blue Kenyan sky where a marabou
swallowed a purse—and a woman’s conga
was parting at the seams above boiling soup cans.
Down a slope of stinking plastic you kept on about Arendt—
“a hybrid mixture of Bantu with enormous Arab borrowings”
I could say poa poa sawa sawa karibu.
We could make a kalimba out of a smashed pot
and pour beans into a can and shake it for the queen.
Yesterday in the soundless savannah the wildebeests and zebras
seemed to float through the green-gold grass toward Tanzania.
We could hear a lion breathe; we could hear wind through tusks.
On TV the guys were grinning into metal go-go drums;
hammering twisted sewage pipes and cut wire like sailors from Mombasa—
harder nailed than da Gama’s voyage down the Arab trade coast—
So, where are we—in a slum of no language?
Walking through steam shovels of light, breaking over
mounds of metal as if the sky were just blue plastic?
Isn’t English just a compost heap of devouring grammar,
joined, hacked, bruised words, rotting on themselves?
I keep following you, daughter of scrutiny, into plastic fields of carrion
between sight and site, vision not visionary, pig guts on the grill,
trying to keep balance
between streams of sewage and the sky,
as you keep hacking, Sophia, at the de-centered,
the burning text, anthropology’s shakedown.
A marabou just knifed the arm of a woman picking
bottles out of plastic bags.
A rooster crows from under a pile
of galvanized tin as if it were morning on a farm.
Source: Balakian, Peter, Ozone Journal (c. 2015 by The University of Chicago Press). Peter Balakian was born in 1951. He is the author of several collections of poetry and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey. Much of his poetry and prose reflect his deep interest in his Armenian ancestry and, in particular, his family’s experiences during the Armenian Genocide at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. You can find out more about Peter Balakian and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century B.C.E. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. It is nearly undisputed, however, that the verses from Sunday’s lesson are the work of the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E.
Verses 10-18 are part of a collection of separate and distinct prophetic oracles making up the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah. They probably were spoken on different occasions. Each of these oracles follows the outline of a legal proceeding containing a summons, an indictment and a final word of comfort or hope. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 SCM Press, Ltd) p. 44. According to Mauchline, supra, Verses 10-17 make up a distinct section criticizing Israel for her immorality, castigating her for the emptiness and hypocrisy of her worship and calling her to cleanse herself from unfaithfulness. Id. at 45. Verse 18 opens with yet another summons directed more specifically to Jerusalem. Id. See also Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 13. Taken together, this first chapter of Isaiah is a fitting introduction to the heart of the prophet’s message, namely, that covenant faithfulness requires zeal for doing justice. Without that, worship, sacrifices and holy day observances are worse than hollow and meaningless. They are rituals that God “hates.” Vs. 14.
These oracles probably relate to the early part of Isaiah’s ministry during the relatively peaceful reign of Jotham, son of Uzziah. Riding the legacy of wealth and power built under the leadership of Uzziah, the people and their leaders were enjoying a false sense of security. The rise of Assyria to the north would soon destabilize the region and shake up the matrix of alliances that had sheltered Judah from fierce international conflicts thus far. Isaiah saw the threat coming and recognized it as God’s long overdue judgment on a people who had failed to live up to their obligations under the covenant. Nevertheless, there is still time: “Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Vs. 18.
Sodom and Gomorrah are, of course, the epitome of evil in Hebrew Scriptural tradition. According to the prophet Ezekiel, these evil cities “had pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Ezekiel 16:49. Their people also displayed a shocking lack of hospitality and aggression toward helpless sojourners passing through their territory. Genesis 19:1-29. Like them, the aristocracy of Judah in Isaiah’s day was “crushing” the people and “grinding the face of the poor.” Isaiah 3:15. The covenant clearly required better of Israel. Concerning the poor, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor in the land.” Deuteronomy 15:11. As for the resident alien, “when a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Failure to observe these commands to establish justice for the poor and the stranger cannot be cured by fastidious attention to worship and liturgy. Indeed, such worship is deemed an “abomination.” Vs. 13.
Isaiah does not reject temple worship as such. When properly grounded in the Exodus narrative, in which God liberates slaves of the Egyptian Empire to make of them an entirely different kind of community based on justice and compassion, the sacrifices, holy day observances and liturgical rites serve to call Israel back to her identity and mission. But when worship becomes detached from its moorings in salvation history and appropriated for the purpose of legitimating an oppressive hierarchical status quo, it becomes worse than empty and hypocritical. It is not an overstatement to call such worship idolatrous-even when performed with perfect liturgical precision.
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.
In our modern culture 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.” Eating habits, lack of exercise, smoking and many other unwise life choices can also contribute to illness.
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.
Aside from all questions arising from the psalmist’s views on the causal relationship between his/her sickness and his/her sin, the psalm makes the very important point that honesty, integrity and transparency lead us to a healthy and life-giving existence. The narratives we believe about ourselves invariably cast us as heroes or innocent victims. This stories we tell on ourselves can blind us to faults that undermine relationships, blind us to opportunities and lead us into self-destructive behavior. It takes personal courage and honest friendships strong enough to bear truthful speech in order to maintain spiritual health which, in turn, is often key to one’s overall well-being.
The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN., for additional background.
As it appears in the lectionary, this short reading has Paul expressing his thankfulness for and pride in the church at Thessalonica while praying that the congregation will become what in Christ it already is: a people set aside to glorify the name of Jesus. Vs. 12. Once again, the lectionary people have insulted our intelligence (to say nothing of having perverted the scripture!) by excising from the reading material offensive to mainline, slightly left of center, white and ever polite protestants. Am I being a little too hard on these good folks? I invite you to read the censored material at II Thessalonians 1:5-10 and make your own judgment. If you think Hillary’s deleted e-mails are a big deal, this will really make you flip. I am sometimes tempted to spend a year of the liturgical cycle preaching on all the sections of scripture that have been deleted from the common lectionary. Perhaps I will call it the year of the Wiki Leak’s dump.
Paul’s actual message here is a good deal less benign. He tells us that “indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” and “that when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus…they shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” Vss. 6-9. Is this language consistent with the declaration of a church that insists that there is a place here for everyone? Actually, I think it is. Perhaps the kingdom Christ proclaims is the only community in which there is a place for everyone. But it isn’t clear that everyone is eager to take their place in that kingdom. In fact, I suspect that a kingdom in which you are promised only your bread for today and where the greatest of all are the least of all does not appeal to a good many folks. I think there are a lot of people who might recoil from a world in which their medals of honor no longer hold any significance, where nobody remembers all the fine buildings with their names on them; where no one has ever heard of their school or cares about their class rank. World renowned artists, theologians, musicians, business people and political leaders might find it distasteful to be ranked beneath a nursery school teacher who receives and cares for children to make ends meet. I suspect that for many such people, the kingdom of God might be pure hell!
I have often questioned the line in one of our liturgical offertory pieces in which we pray that God would “gather the hopes and dreams of all and unite them with the prayers we offer.” I think there are a lot of our hopes and dreams that have no place under the gentle reign of God. Hope for the continuance of white male privilege is one that needs to die. Dreams for unlimited accumulation of wealth and power for one’s nation or for oneself are incompatible with God’s reign. Indeed, I venture to say that most of our hopes and dreams, even (perhaps especially) the ones we deem holy, selfless and pure, probably need to be crucified before the kingdom can come in its fullness. Salvation for us is not God’s giving us all that we long for. That would be a little like giving a gift certificate from Total Wine to an alcoholic. We must be taught to long for that which is true, beautiful and good. We need to become the sort of people who will recognize the reign of God when it comes as heaven rather than experiencing it as hell.
Zacchaeus, we are told, was a chief tax collector and rich. He was not the sort of tax collector with whom Jesus frequently socialized. Tax collection in Palestine was accomplished by way of a pyramid scheme of extortion. The Roman overlords informed their Jewish agents what needed to be collected and left them to extort whatever profits they could as their compensation. Bamberger, B.J. “Tax Collector,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 4 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 522. As a chief tax collector, we may presume that Zacchaeus had a ground crew of agents who actually did the dirty work of squeezing money out of merchants and farmers. Marshall, Howard, I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 696. They also had to extract their own fee over and above what Zacchaeus directed them to collect. That may explain why Zacchaeus is not in a position to say by how much he defrauded anyone. Vs. 8.
The name “Zacchaeus” is an abbreviated form of Zachariah meaning “righteous one.” Id. Not much significance should be attached to this in my opinion. There is no obvious literary pairing with Zachariah the father of John the Baptist or the prophet by that name in the Hebrew Scriptures. If there is any symbolic meaning here it might simply be Luke’s effort at irony. Zacchaeus would have been deemed among the least righteous in the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, yet by his response to Jesus he is shown to be an example of the compassionate righteousness preached both by Jesus and John the Baptist.
Given what we know about tax collectors and the way they operate, it is hardly surprising that the people should hate Zacchaeus and resent the wealth he has obtained at their expense by collaborating with their Roman oppressors. As we have seen numerous times before, Jesus’ practice of sharing meal fellowship with tax collectors draws the ire of his critics. This, however, is a particularly grievous circumstance. One might find a degree of pity for the ground level tax collector whose earnings were likely modest-just as we might understand the addict who, in desperation, turns to dealing in order to support his habit. Zacchaeus, however, stands near the top of the food chain. He does not merely make his living by exploiting his own people. He gets rich from it!
Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ self-invitation with lavish hospitality and astounding generosity. Not only does he give half of his wealth to the poor, but he dedicates the remaining half to compensating all whom he may have defrauded. Vs. 8. That raises all kinds of questions for us. How do you measure the amount of compensation due victims of a profession that is by its nature little more than extortion? Moreover, what will Zacchaeus do with his life going forward? Will he remain in his position but collect no premium for himself? It is hard to understand how he could do that while continuing to pay his bills and keeping his agents happy. Will he abandon his unclean profession altogether and get an honest job? In his usual irritating way, Jesus leaves us to struggle with these difficult questions.
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:8
About eight years ago I was leading a Bible Study on Isaiah 39-55 attributed to the prophet of the return from Babylonian Exile whose ministry took place late in the 6th Century B.C.E. A constant refrain throughout these remarkable verses is “Do not fear.” Isaiah 41:10; Isaiah 41:14; Isaiah 43:1; Isaiah 43:5; Isaiah 44:2; Isaiah 44:8; Isaiah 51:7; Isaiah 54:4. In the course of our study I asked the group of about seven members what they thought it was we feared most as a church. Many expressed their fear that our little church might someday soon have to close its doors and cease operating as a congregation. That did not surprise me. Lutheran churches are not faring well in my little corner of Bergen County, New Jersey. During the last thirty-five years I have witnessed the closure of six congregations within my mission cluster. There are at least four I know of within my immediate area that are struggling to survive on a week to week basis and can no longer support a pastor. Though we talk endlessly among ourselves about the need for transformation, the need to become welcoming toward the new members of our diverse neighborhoods and become more mission oriented in our outlook, nobody seems to have figured out just how to do all of that. Consequently, the dialogue in my Bible Study group was gravitating in the direction of yet another discussion boiling down to the tiresome old question: “how do we get new members?”
But then Doug Campbell spoke up. That was unusual. Doug, who passed away almost five years ago, was a quiet and thoughtful man. He was chief of our lay ministers, a senior chaplain at Hackensack University Medical Center and a generous giver whose tithe to our congregation far exceeded the 10% benchmark. You wouldn’t necessarily know all that about Doug-even if you met him on numerous occasions. He didn’t talk much about himself or his accomplishments. He was by nature a listener, taking in all the heartbreaks, doubts and fears of everyone who needed a compassionate ear. Doug exercised leadership by quiet example and that is why, on those rare occasions when Doug spoke, we all listened. “I’m not so worried that we won’t survive,” said Doug. “Dying isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a church. I think the worst thing that could happen to us is that we will survive, but not as a church; that we might live on, but not as disciples of Jesus.”
Jesus seems to be expressing a similar concern in this Sunday’s gospel. Rest assured, Jesus tells us, God will vindicate the hope of all who cry out to God for justice, salvation and peace. God will remain faithful to God’s promises. But will God’s people continue to cry out to God? Will God’s people continue to long for God’s kingdom? Or will we become tired of waiting? Impatient with the seeming lack of progress toward the new creation God promises? Will we begin to settle into the status quo and decide in the depths of our hearts that “this is as good as it gets.”? Will we adapt ourselves so thoroughly to the values, goals and pursuits of our surrounding culture that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom will come as an unwelcome intrusion, a threat to our existence, something we resist as hostile and foreign? Is the kingdom in fact here and we just are not recognizing it? Is our preoccupation with the survival of our congregations and their respective denominational structures actually a form of resistance to the new heaven and the new earth God is initiating in our midst? Have we unwittingly become an instrument of the old order, an old wineskin struggling futilely to hold in the new wine of God’s reign bursting in upon the world? Perhaps it is time to stop obsessing over our prospects for survival and begin focusing on the health of our faith, the intensity of our longing for God’s gentle reign and our readiness to embrace that reign.
I must confess that my reading of this and other texts is colored by my efforts to change the culture of a “membership” congregation for whom church is a place you go into a the culture of a “mission” church for whom church is a people we are becoming. I am more than ever before convinced that churches offering nothing more than socialization, bland preaching, denominational brand names and a panoply of good causes to support has no future-nor should it. Our churches are in desperate need of a “flaming center,” to borrow a phrase from Prof. Carl Braaten. Commitment to social causes, a feeling of togetherness, theatrical worship services and the fading appeal of denominational labels cannot take the place of a longing for the reign of God and a burning conviction that it is even now in our midst. The fact that our synods are employing paid consultants to assist them in formulating their mission statements and articulating their core values is a stinging indictment of our cluelessness and an illustration of how thoroughly we have lost our way. Not to put too fine a point on it, a church that needs a consultant to tell it what its mission is and what its core values are is a church in deep, deep do do. It’s fair to ask, then, as does Jesus, when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith among us?
In sum, I think Doug Campbell got it right. Obsessing about declining membership, loss of financial support and the increasing inability of congregations to support their ministerial staff and aging buildings only obscure the larger issue. Unless we can explain why it is important that the church continue, it is pointless to agonize over how to assure its survival. I don’t have any solutions for my church or any grand plans for turning it around. I am doubtful that there is any strategy than can “turn things around” and if there were, I would not be inclined to trust it. I believe, however, there are tested and true practices that have sustained the church throughout periods of doubt and uncertainly and that make room for the Spirit to work the miracle of renewal in our midst. Immediately following the ascension of Jesus, the disciples did not strategize, collect demographic data or employ consultants to advise them. They strived to center their community; they waited for the inspiration of the Spirit; and they prayed. They understood, as did my friend Doug, that only God can be trusted to grow the church.
Here is a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter about just such striving, waiting and praying.
Strive, Wait, and Pray
Strive: yet I do not promise
The prize you dream of to-day
Will not fade when you think to grasp it,
And melt in your had away;
But another and holier treasure,
You would now perchance disdain,
Will come when your toil is over,
And pay you for all your pain.
Wait: yet I do not tell you
The hour you long for now
Will not come with its radiance vanished,
And a shadow upon its brow;
Yet, far through the misty future,
With a crown of starry light,
An hour of joy you know not
Is winging her silent flight.
Pray: though the gift you ask for
May never comfort your fears-
May never repay your pleading-
Yet pray, and with hopeful tears;
An answer, not that you long for,
But diviner will come one day;
Your eyes are too dim to see it,
Yet strive, and wait, and pray.
Source: This poem is in the public domain. Adelaide Anne Procter (1825–1864) was an English poet and philanthropist. She worked prominently on behalf of unemployed women and the homeless, and was actively involved with feminist groups and journals. Procter never married. She contracted tuberculosis, possibly through exposure in the course of her relief work, and died at the age of 38.
Few biblical stories are as mystifying as that of Jacob’s wrestling match at the Jabbok. A nocturnal being unable to overcome Jacob’s superior strength is hard to reconcile with the God of Israel whose almighty power is set over all other forces of nature throughout the psalms. Resorting to “source criticism,” commentators point out that this passage comes to us from the “Yahwist,” the oldest of the four literary sources constituting the first five books of the Bible known as the “Pentateuch.” They further suggest that elements of this story are drawn from even more ancient Canaanite myths about human encounters with spirits inhabiting rivers and lakes. These spirits, though powerful and dangerous at night, are driven back into their watery abode by the light of day. That would explain Jacob’s victory over his supernatural opponent as well as the opponent’s request that Jacob release him as dawn drew near.
I am not sure what to do with all of these helpful little noetic perjinkerties. I suppose we could use them to dismiss this text as an unhelpful throwback to Israel’s more primitive and unenlightened past and turn our attention instead to the clear expressions of monotheism found in other parts of the Pentateuch. That would surely comport with our 19th Century progressivist prejudices. But our prejudices are just that. Unless one accepts uncritically the doubtful proposition that “later” equates with “more advanced” and that each successive generation is necessarily wiser than the last, there is no basis for supposing that an older and more “primitive” expression of faith is any less true, profound or insightful than later expressions. Indeed, judged from the standpoint of John’s gospel in which the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” this gripping tale of an intense, sweaty, bone crunching wrestling match between Jacob and his God comes closer than anything else in the Hebrew Scriptures to the miracle of Incarnation lying at the heart of our faith.
The difficulty surrounding the story has little to do with its composition and everything to do with the narrative itself which is complex and layered. At this point in his life, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He had to flee from his father Isaac’s home in Canaan because he earned the mortal wrath of his brother Esau whose birthright and blessing he stole by subterfuge and deceit. Then he alienated his uncle and father-in-law to whom he fled for refuge. Now Jacob has finally painted himself into a corner. He cannot go back to his father-in-law and he faces the wrath of Esau if he tries to go home. Jacob cannot move.
The circumstances that define us usually are not those of our choosing. While it might be said that Jacob’s dilemma is largely one of his own making, the same could be said of any one of us. None of us imagined when we got married that what began with such high hopes for happiness could ever end in bitterness and estrangement. Nobody expects to be unemployed in her fifties. We don’t raise our children to hurt and disappoint us. Yet when these things occur, there frequently is no shortage of people around singing that old familiar chorus: “I told you so.” “I knew from the beginning you two weren’t right for each other;” “I could have told you that job was never going to lead anywhere;” “You always were too indulgent with that kid.” So let’s go easy on Jacob. Sure, he made some bad choices. Haven’t we all? All this advice about what you should have done is not all that helpful in dealing with the consequences flowing from what you did. You don’t need a consultant to tell you where you went wrong. What you need is a way forward. It is precisely at this point of no return on the way down a dead end street that God intervenes.
Biblical commentators are not alone in puzzling over the identity of the strange visitor to Jacob’s encampment on the Jabbok. Jacob himself seems unsure about what he is wrestling with. At first blush, it appears “a person” was wrestling with him. At dawn it becomes clear that Jacob’s opponent is something other than mere human-perhaps a demigod from whom blessings can be extracted. Not until the match is over and the strange visitor is gone does the terrifying truth dawn on Jacob: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. From a purely human standpoint, nothing has changed. Jacob is still estranged from his father-in-law and Esau is still approaching with four hundred armed men. But Jacob is no longer Jacob. He is no longer the “con-man” his name suggests. Rather, he is “Israel.” Whatever the etiological origins of that name may actually be, the narrative gives us the meaning as far as this story is concerned. Jacob is the one who strives with God and with human beings and prevails.
The God we worship is always nearest to us when it appears there is no way forward and no going back: between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army; between crucifixion and death; in the flesh and blood of dying bodies. The Word became flesh and entered into the messiness of our disordered lives where we so often feel trapped and imprisoned. Where that happens, faith is born. Change and decay is still around in everything we see, but that is not all there is. The God who raised Jesus from death has also entered into the mix. So in our wrestling with life, we find ourselves wrestling with God as well. Like Jacob, we can expect to get a little bent out of shape in the conflict. But that is a small price to pay for the blessing of transformation taking place in our lives. Though wounded and limping, the new day into which we hobble after a good wrestling match with God holds new opportunities we never dreamed possible; new directions we were never able to see before.
Jacob asks his opponent to reveal his name. vs. 29. But the opponent (who Jacob will soon discover to be the Lord) will not give up his name. In the ancient Middle East, possessing the name of a deity gave the worshiper a degree of influence over it. The Lord will not give Jacob any such power. God’s blessing is a gift to be received; not a favor to be extorted. One can take hold of God, wrestle with God and prevail upon God; but God will never be subject to human control. Similarly, God would not give to Moses any such name as would yield control. Instead, God gives Moses a name that asserts God’s freedom to “be what I will be.” Exodus 3:13-14.
In addition to my introductory observations, the following is noteworthy. The name “Jacob” means “supplanter.” It was appropriate given Jacob’s conduct toward his brother Esau whose blessing and birthright he stole. Genesis 25:27-34; Genesis 27:1-40. The meaning of “Israel” is a matter of some dispute. Most likely, the name means “God rules.” The basis of the interpretation “He who strives with God and humans and prevails” is etiologically uncertain but seems to have been a well-established attribution for Jacob. See, e.g., Hosea 12:3.
The Jabbok is the second largest tributary of the Jordan River into which it flows about half way between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It formed the border between what became the land of Israel and the land of the Ammonites. As Israel’s borders expanded, it became the boundary between the tribe of Ruben and the half-tribe of Manasseh. Today this river is called the Zarka or blue river.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 114. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period. Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Id. at 115. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance. Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. Id. at 115. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” This is a possible translation, though not favored by most English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures. Id.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. It should be noted that, like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” vs. 8. That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 11th.
Once again, the lectionary folks have stopped short-or picked up after-one of the most provocative verses in the New Testament where Paul warns Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” II Timothy 3:12. I don’t know about you, but I have not been persecuted since middle school and I can assure you that my persecution then had little to do with any desire on my part to be godly. Furthermore, let me say for the record that being denied permission to put up a crèche on the town square at Christmas time does not constitute persecution. Nor do I think denying to employers the right to police their employees’ health care decisions on birth control amounts to a “war against Christianity.” Please! If you want to see what a war on Christianity looks like, take a trip to Egypt, Syria or Nigeria where churches are being burned and Christians are regularly victims of mob violence. Let us not insult these true martyrs with such silly, moronic blabber about our own imagined persecution. Instead, let’s focus on becoming faithful disciples and putting Jesus and his kingdom ahead of all else. Of course, in addition to the joy that comes with following Jesus, such faithfulness might actually give us a taste of what real persecution is like.
I think the backdrop of persecution is essential to understanding what Paul is saying to Timothy here. Timothy is urged to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…” II Timothy 4:2. The assumption here is that such faithful preaching will meet with resistance and even incite persecution. It is futile to wait for an opportune time to proclaim the gospel because that time will never come. Repentance is never convenient; the call to discipleship is always an intrusion into our settled existence. The old order will never welcome the new creation. So the time to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ is always now. Although this advice is directed to a pastoral leader, it is generally applicable to all the baptized.
Verse 16 has been central to our discussions within the church over the nature, inspiration and authority of the Bible. “All Scripture is inspired by God,” or literally, “God breathed.” For many of my friends taking a literalist approach to the scriptures, this is a proof text demonstrating that God literally dictated each and every word of the Bible such that it must be deemed “inerrant and infallible.” The obvious corollary is that if any statement in the Bible is found to be less than absolutely accurate in every respect, God’s veracity and trustworthiness is called into question. Consequently, these folks find themselves in a running battle with the findings of astronomers, geologists and biologists concerning our origins which they feel cannot be reconciled with the creation accounts in Genesis. Their feverish efforts to discredit the theory of evolution have given birth to, among other things, the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, California. The museum is dedicated to the “biblical account of science and history.” The facilities include a 10,000 square foot showcase demonstrating a “literal six-day creation.” Though the supporters of the museum claim to be furthering the interests of science, it is clear that the true agenda is defense of the Bible’s integrity against the onslaught of mounting evidence supporting a four and one half billion year old earth, the origin of life from inorganic matter and the evolution of humans by natural selection through a shared ancestry with the great apes.
A careful reading of our lesson demonstrates just how far off the mark and how needless these efforts are. First, understand that when Paul speaks of the scriptures, he is referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures. If we assume that this letter was actually penned by Paul, then no other New Testament writings are yet in existence and it is highly doubtful that Paul would refer to his own letters as scripture. Assuming that II Timothy was written by a disciple of Paul after his death, the gospels could have been in existence for no more than a couple of decades and would not have established themselves as scripture by this time. Application of this text, strictly speaking, does not go to the New Testament.
Second, note well the purposes for which scripture is useful: “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Vss. 16-17. Nowhere does Paul suggest that scripture is useful for answering questions about history, geology, biology and astronomy, none of which anyone in his day was even asking. So it is not enough to say that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. One has to go a step further and ask for what purpose the Bible is inerrant and infallible. If the claim is that the Bible is an inerrant and infallible witness to Jesus, then I have no problem with this assertion (though I prefer the words “faithful and reliable” to “inerrant and infallible”). On the other hand, when it comes to determining the age of a rock or finding the nearest pizza place, there are obviously other texts that can speak more authoritatively to these issues than the Bible.
Of course, this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say to the sciences and what they reveal. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding about our planet is implicitly blessed in the commission given to human beings in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28. As pointed out previously, this commission must be interpreted in light of the second creation account in Genesis 2:4-17 demonstrating that our dominion over the earth consists in serving as God’s gardeners. Because “the earth is the Lord’s,” we are not free to exploit it in ways that diminish its life forms and destroy its ecology. Psalm 24:1. Like all knowledge, scientific knowledge must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In the service of sinful and self-serving humanity, science can easily become a tool of greed, exploitation, war and tyranny. Knowledge must be tempered with wisdom and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
This parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge is unique to the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately on the heels of Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Son of man in Luke 17:22-37. “The days are coming,” says Jesus, “when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it.” Luke 17:22. Jesus goes on to warn the disciples that many will come seeking a following and declaring that the day of the Son of man is at hand. The disciples must not be carried away by any such claims. They must wait patiently for this day and the waiting will continue for an indefinite period of time. But when that day comes, it will arrive suddenly and without warning, just as the flood overtook the generation of Noah and destruction came suddenly upon Sodom. Luke 17:26-30. Moreover, when the Son of man returns, no one will have to wonder whether the time has actually arrived. For “as the lightning lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day.” Luke 17:24.
This parable, then, is for the disciples as they live in the anxious time between Jesus’ resurrection and the “revealing of the Son of man.” During this time they are to pray. Prayer plays a significant role in Luke’s gospel. The Lord’s Prayer is introduced specifically in response to Jesus’ disciples’ request that he teach them to pray.Luke 11:1-4. In the Book of Acts, the disciples are gathered in prayer as the Holy Spirit descends upon them at Pentecost. Acts 1:12-14. The prayer Jesus speaks of is not a passive activity and it does not consist of asking God for personal favors. Prayer is a cry to God for the coming of the kingdom promised to us. The kingdom of God, not our own individual concerns, is to be the focus of our praying. For the coming of this Kingdom we are “to cry out day and night.” Luke 18:7. It is by such prayer that the kingdom comes: 1) through the transformation of our minds and hearts such that we will be able to live peaceably in this kingdom and, 2) through God’s agency in our lives made possible as we open ourselves to the influence of his Holy Spirit. The following observation by philosopher James K. A. Smith says it all:
“The “desiring” model of the human person begins from our nature as intentional beings who first and foremost (and ultimately) intend the world in the mode of love. We are primordially and essentially agents of love, which takes the structure of desire or longing. We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” Smith, James K. A, Desiring the Kingdom, (c. 2009 James K.A. Smith, pub. Baker Academic) pp. 50-51 (emphasis supplied).
To desire the kingdom is to love the kingdom. To love the kingdom is to pray for the kingdom. To pray for the kingdom is to be transformed by the kingdom such that the anticipated reign of God becomes a present reality; a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds; “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
Thus far, the issue has been addressed from the human side: when will the kingdom come? When will the Son of Man be revealed? When will we see God’s justice? In verse 8, Jesus turns the tables on us and asks us to consider whether we will be prepared when God does act. Will God’s mighty act of salvation be recognized as such by a faithful band of disciples who have been waiting for it? Or will salvation look like mere judgment to a people who have lost their desire for the kingdom?
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
You wouldn’t expect to find a Samaritan in the company nine Jews in 1st Century Palestine. As pointed out in my remarks on the gospel, there was little love between these peoples who had been fighting a one thousand year old feud over which of them was the true Israel. There is no war quite as bloody, barbaric and long lasting as those fought between brothers. The horrific brutality of Christians to Jews in Europe; the years of bloodshed between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants and the ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims all serve to illustrate the point.
There are events in the lives of people, however, that can eclipse even the most deep seated prejudices. Leprosy is one of them. Biblical scholars, historians and endocrinologists all agree that, in most cases, the skin diseases diagnosed as leprosy in the ancient world most likely were not the dreaded “Hanson’s Disease” we have come to know by that name. Still, perception is everything. If the community deems you a leper, a danger to the community, a person whose presence is intolerable, then your life in that community is over. Like a convicted sexual predator, you are banned to the outskirts of civil society, branded with a name that makes you an object of loathing and dread. You are forced to live a marginal existence. When life as you know it is threatened with extinction or radically altered, all the things you once thought of as important lose their significance. The label “Jew” or “Samaritan” no longer has any meaning once you have been thoroughly excluded from participation in either society. And if the man or woman living in the hovel next to you can offer some comfort and companionship, then who cares whether s/he once was a member of a group that your group hated-before it started hating you?
Fifteen years ago the vacation I was taking with my family in Washington State took an unexpected turn when my wife lost consciousness and was taken by helicopter to the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. I can remember as if it were yesterday the second morning into my wife’s coma. I recall how I sat at her bedside not knowing whether she would awake and, if she ever did, whether she would ever see, speak or even be able to perceive my presence. At that time, I understood with a clarity I never had before just how trivial were all the worries, cares, concerns and ambitions that drove me. I would gladly have thrown away every dime I ever made to have just one more minute with my beloved-if only to say a proper good-by. I could see so clearly how much of my life had been wasted and how much I stood to lose.
At that moment, the social, political and theological issues that always got me so worked up were revealed as trivial. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that the one person who had the time to sit with me and pray happened to be a Mormon. He took the time to be with me when no other chaplain or local minister of any faith (including my own Lutheran denomination) could be bothered. So also, I doubt the lepers in our gospel cared one wit that Jesus was being pursued by the civil authorities, that he had been branded a false teacher by the religious establishment or that he had a reputation for associating with the wrong sort of people. Nor do I believe it mattered much to the Samaritan that Jesus happened to be a Jew. Jesus was someone they all instinctively knew would receive them. That was enough.
All ten lepers were the recipients of Jesus’ miraculous healing. We know that the Samaritan returned to Jesus to give thanks. I can understand that. I can remember with equal clarity the morning my wife came out of her coma, the elation I felt at hearing her voice and seeing the light back in her eyes. I remember the walk I took outside UWMC after she had drifted off to sleep. I strolled along the canal between Lakes Washington and Union. A rain shower had just passed and there was a spectacular rainbow over Husky Stadium. I didn’t need the rainbow to tell me that I had been the recipient of a miracle, but it was a nice touch.
I don’t want to take anything away from the fine medical care my wife received from the doctors and nurses at UWMC to whom I give credit for my wife’s recovery. Miracles do not equate with magic. It is not as though God intervenes to suspend the workings of the natural world in order to produce an otherwise inexplicable outcome. It is more the case that, because God is always working in, with and under the processes of the natural world, events occur that are unexpected, surprising and life-giving. I don’t know, nor do I need to know where human agency ends and divine agency begins. I suspect that there probably is no neat line of demarcation. In any event, I know that I was the recipient of a miracle, an undeserved gift that has lasted longer than I ever dared hope. I have resolved to live in the thankfulness of that moment, to recognize that each new day of my marriage is another undeserved extension of a life that might well have ended. I have resolved to keep in view the things that matter, and that has made these latter years of my life the sweetest.
Then, too, I can also relate to the nine lepers who did not return to give thanks. It is hard to maintain indefinitely the wonder, awe and gratitude one experiences in the presence of a miracle. It doesn’t take long for all the old anxieties, hostilities and doubts to worm their way back into your brain. If anyone ever had reason to trust God, it has to be me, but I still find myself worrying about all the things I once learned do not matter. I still catch myself worrying about money, health, work, the future-all those things that I know are in the hands of a God who loves me with an everlasting love. Furthermore, once the threat of death or loss has been removed, it is easy to forget how fragile you are, how deeply dependent you are on God’s grace and how precious is every single moment that you go on living. It is easy simply to slip back into the old ways of thinking, planning and acting-as though no miracle had ever occurred.
I have no doubt that the nine lepers who went on their merry way were already stressing about how they would re-establish themselves in society and how they would explain their healing to the priest. I expect they probably decided it would not be a good idea to mention Jesus’ role in the affair. After all, wasn’t Jesus being watched by the Roman authorities? Hadn’t the religious leaders declared him to be a false teacher? Wasn’t it common knowledge that Jesus kept unsavory company and that one of his disciples was actually a known terrorist? Best to keep quiet about him! Moreover, if the nine even noticed that their Samaritan companion was no longer with them, I am guessing they were relieved. If you want to get a certification of cleansing from a Jewish priest, the last thing you want is to have a filthy Samaritan trailing along behind you.
So with whom do I truly identify? The thankful Samaritan or the nine? If I am honest, I have to say that I identify with both. I struggle to live in gratitude, but often find myself slipping back into anxiety, resentment and envy. I don’t know whether my soul is reflected more in the one than in the nine. Maybe that is what we are supposed to be struggling with. Jesus’ parables typically do not answer the questions we ask. Instead, they prompt us to ask better questions. We are all recipients of the miracle of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. We have been given a life we had no right to expect and don’t deserve. So what are we going to do with it?
The movie Saving Private Ryan tells the story of a group of soldiers sent to save paratrooper Private James Ryan, the last son of a widowed mother. Ryan’s brothers were all killed in action during the Normandy invasion and Ryan was lost and missing in action. Through the efforts of these soldiers, all of whom die in the course of carrying out their mission, Ryan’s life is saved. The movie ends at some point in the future when Ryan returns to Normandy and visits the graves of his rescuers. As he stands before the headstones, he asks, “Was I worth it?” I think perhaps that is the only appropriate response there can be to a miracle, particularly the miracle of our baptism into Jesus Christ. Clearly, God has determined that we are worth the life of his Son. There is no need to earn such a miracle and no way whatsoever to repay it. We can only live such life as we are given, however long or short it may be, in holy gratitude, striving to make out of every minute something worth preserving for eternity.
Here’s a poem by Thomas Randolph about living gratefully.
He Lives Long Who Lives Well.
Wouldest thou live long? The only means are
‘Bove Galen’s diet, or Hippocrates’
Strive to live well; tread in the upright ways,
And rather count thy actions than thy days;
Then thou hast lived enough amongst us here,
For every day well spent I count a year.
Live will, and then, how soon soe’er thou die,
Thou art of age to claim eternity.
But he that outlives Nestor, and appears
To have passed the date of gray Methuselah’s years,
If he his life to sloth and sin doth give,
I say he only was-he did not live.
Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 at Newnham, Northamptonshire, near Daventry, England. He was admitted in 1618 as a King’s Scholar to the College of St. Peter, better known as Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge in 1624 at the age of 18. He earned at both schools a reputation for English and Latin verse. He was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1628, then Master of Arts in 1631. Randolph died at 1635 at the age of just 29. You can find out more about Thomas Randolph at this link from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Unless you want everyone in the congregation wondering where the “letter” came from in this lesson and how the King of Israel got involved, you need to read the entire text rather than the gutted version given to us by the lectionary hacks. See II Kings 5:1-15.
This is one of the most engaging stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes to us from a collection of episodes in the lives of Elijah and Elisha whose prophetic ministries were directed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The story begins in the home of Naaman, a highly respected general and war hero in the army of Israel’s arch enemy, Syria (also known as Aram). Yet mighty and powerful as he is, Naaman cannot protect himself from disease, specifically leprosy. It should be noted that the biblical word for leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases, not all of which were lethal or contagious. Nonetheless, they were treated as such in Israel and probably also in Syria. So the mighty Naaman is brought down not by the sword of his enemies but by a disease that likely renders him a social outcast.
It seems that something got lost in translation between the Israelite slave girl who spoke of Israel’s amazing prophet to Naaman’s wife; Naaman’s wife who then relayed this information to Naaman; Naaman’s request to his master the King of Syria for a letter of introduction to Israel’s king and the letter from Syria’s King to the King of Israel. Reading the letter from Syria, the King of Israel believes that he himself is being asked to heal Naaman’s leprosy. He knows, of course, that miracles are far above his pay grade and assumes that Syria is seeking a pretext for aggression. This whole misunderstanding nearly precipitates an international crisis. It strikes me that all of this could have been avoided if only Naaman had spoken to the slave girl himself and gotten his facts straight, but it does not appear that he did. Perhaps he felt that it was beneath the dignity of an officer and national hero to speak with “the help.”
Fortunately, Elisha hears of the looming threat of war and intercedes. He instructs the King of Israel to send Naaman to him. No doubt relieved, the King does just that. Now if Naaman was expecting a hero’s welcome, he was to be sorely disappointed. Elsha does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant to deliver the instructions for healing: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan.” This insult is too much for Naaman to bear. What sort of prophet sends a servant to greet a decorated war hero? What possible good can it possibly do to wallow in the muddy waters of the Jordan River? Naaman leaves in a huff, but once again, the slaves save the day. They point out to their master that nothing is to be lost in heeding the prophet’s words. Certainly, if the prophet had demanded some exorbitant fee he would gladly have paid it to be rid of his leprosy. How much more when the price is only a bath! Their sound reasoning prevails. Naaman bathes in the Jordan seven times as instructed and his skin is as healthy and fresh as a child’s. Naaman returns to Elisha with thanksgiving and declares: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” II Kings 5:15.
Naaman has learned a few things about this God of Israel. First, God heals the whole person. Naaman would have preferred to receive his healing without any further contact with the God of Israel. But the prophet makes clear to him that miracles are not magic. God acts through the dynamic of his word that engages the hearer, calling him or her into relationship with God’s self. Healing comes through faith active in obedience to that word. Second, Naaman learns that God’s wisdom and healing is not necessarily imparted through Kings and court prophets. Throughout this story God has used slaves to educate the mighty Naaman. One has to wonder whether that will make a difference in the way Naaman relates to his Israelite slave girl upon his return. Finally, Naaman learns humility. Bathing in the muddy Jordan, like conversing with servants, constituted a large piece of humble pie for a man accustomed to having his bathwater drawn from the pristine waters of Syria by slaves. Indeed, depending upon the time of year this story took place, Naaman might have been required to stoop or perhaps even lie down on the mucky river bottom to immerse himself. Yet that was precisely what he needed to cure the sickness he didn’t even know that he had: arrogance. If you read on in the story you will learn that Naaman specifically requested a load of dirt to take home from the land of Israel to remind him of the God he had learned to worship. Now he is only too glad for the muck he once spurned!
As was the case for last week’s psalm, this psalm is an acrostic poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Given the acrostic form, most scholars date this psalm on the later side, after the Babylonian Exile.
The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to a white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.
Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capital Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the current standoff would end in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done by failing to teach them that what they do and the decisions they make matter-eternally so.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September, 11th.
The Apostle has been encouraging Timothy “to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” employing the images of a soldier serving his superiors faithfully and that of an athlete competing for a prize. II Timothy 2:1-7. Now he urges him to focus on the good news of Jesus and to “avoid disputing about words.” Vs. 14. In support of his encouragement, Paul cites a “sure saying” in verses 12-13 that might well be part of an early Christian hymn or creedal statement. The lack of parallelism in verses 12 and 13 is puzzling. In the prior verse, we are warned that if we deny Christ, he will deny us. Then in 13 we are told that if we are faithless, Christ nevertheless remains faithful. Though poetically inept, the sense is nevertheless coherent. Our denial of Christ before the watching world leaves Christ little choice but to deny us publicly as well. Nevertheless, even though our faithless conduct results in destroying our witness to Jesus and Jesus’ opportunity to support us in that witness, such faithlessness does extinguish Christ’s faithfulness to us. God remains true to God’s promises even when we are less than faithful to promises we have made to God. As Paul points out in Romans, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29.
Again, we get a sense of Paul’s concern that the gospel he has spent his life proclaiming be rightly understood and preserved for the next generation. He knows, of course, that it is not enough merely to transmit verbatim his own preaching. The word of truth must be “rightly handl[ed]” vs. 15. Timothy will confront new challenges that are impossible for his mentor to anticipate and so provide advice. He must therefore rely upon Timothy to speak the gospel in fresh and compelling ways that nevertheless preserve its integrity. As argued in last week’s post, this is a challenge for the church in every generation.
The thankful leper in our gospel lesson suffers from a double whammy. Not only is he a leper, but he is also a hated Samaritan. By the way, just who are the Samaritans? Where did they come from? Why were they so hated by the Jews? Those are all good questions. Let’s see if we can parse out some answers.
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. As we have seen, Jesus’ decision to visit Jerusalem previously alienated him from the Samaritan population. Luke 9:51-56. Consequently, this Samaritan’s willingness to approach Jesus was already an act of faith.
Jesus commanded the ten lepers seeking his aid to “show themselves to the priest” who alone had the authority to declare them clean. Vs. 14. Upon receiving this declaration, they would presumably have presented the appropriate offering for their healing. Leviticus 14:1-20. The Samaritan, however, had no priest to whom he could go, unless we assume that he was headed for the Samaritan place of worship at Mt. Gerizim. It is unlikely that a priest of the Jewish temple establishment would have examined a Samaritan, much less declared him clean. Thus, once cleansed, he had nowhere to go in order to give thanks but to Jesus. That was also true for the nine presumably Jewish lepers, but they failed to recognize the one to whom thanks was due.
This text is used routinely at Thanksgiving worship to emphasize the need to give thanks; however, there is no indication that the nine lepers were unthankful. They may well have made an offering of thanksgiving at the Temple in Jerusalem. Their failure was thus not a lack of thankfulness, but a lack of perception. They were going to the wrong place to give thanks.
There is an obvious parallel between this text and our lesson from II Kings. Like the Samaritan, Naaman was both a leper and a foreigner hostile to Israel. Both men experienced the salvation of Israel’s God and became worshipers. Thus, God’s call and salvation extend beyond Israel to all peoples. Jesus made this very same point in his sermon at the synagogue of Nazareth in the initial chapters of Luke’s gospel. See Luke 4:16-30. This story therefore prefigures the mission to the gentiles Luke will take up more fully in the Book of Acts.