THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Teach us, good Lord God, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, except that of knowing that we do your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“For nothing is covered that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26
For many years now I have counseled my children, my clients, my parishioners and anyone else who will listen that there is no such thing as privacy on the internet. Whatever you post, tweet, e-mail or publish on the net leaves your control the moment you hit the send button. It is my understanding that even private e-mails are permanently preserved somehow and that anyone with enough determination and know how can probably resurrect them. Takeaway: Don’t put anything out on the worldwide web that you would regret having the whole wide world see.
Jesus takes this beyond the internet. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as confidentiality, no such thing as privacy, no such thing as secrecy. Everything anyone has tried to hide, cover up and delete eventually will be exposed to the light of day. That is a sobering thought. Even if my secret sins are forgiven, I still don’t relish the idea of having them universally known. This all sounds rather ominous and threatening. Nevertheless, Jesus intends for it to be a word of comfort, preceded as it is by the words “Do not fear.” In what sense, then, is full ultimate disclosure “good news”? How can I ever be at peace knowing that the day will come when my darkest secrets will be revealed for all to see?
It strikes me that the solution to this existential dilemma is quite simple, if not easy. I only need to confess my sins in order to break their power over me. Once I have acknowledged my wrongdoing and accept full responsibility, I no longer fear exposure. I don’t need to worry about “leaks” once everything is out in the open. There are, of course, consequences that flow from confession, such as an obligation to make restitution to anyone I may have wronged and seek reconciliation. But addressing all of this now while there is still time to amend my life and make things as right as I am able is far preferable to living a life of secret guilt, fear of exposure and regret. Knowing that I am loved and forgiven by a God who numbers the heirs on my head sets me free to be open about my sins and failures, honest to the people with whom I live and work, and unafraid of the future. I may have my share of skeletons, but they are no longer menacing me from some dark closet. They are properly buried with marked graves-in the past.
What is true for us individually also applies collectively to us as a people. When our government consistently lies to us and truth comes trickling down to us only through occasional “leaks,” we are in deep trouble. We are desperately in need of voices to shout from the rooftops what is being whispered in dark rooms by the powerful. That is why we need a free press, fearless artists and faithful preachers. Based on my reading of the times, I am convinced that a good dose of self disclosure from our government, from our leaders and, most importantly, among ourselves would do us all a world of good and put us all on the path to healing. Nothing is more critical than to name the demons of racism, nationalistic hubris, corruption and raw corporate greed lurking under our skin. We need to open the closet and let the bones come clattering out into the light of day where they can be dealt with.
Here is a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko who boldly confronted his nation with its own unacknowledged skeletons.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
Source: Commentary compiled by Dr. S.D. Stein & translated by Ben Okopnik. Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1931-1917) was a Russian poet, novelist, actor, and director who achieved great fame in the Soviet Union. This most famous of his poems was inspired by the Nazi massacre of Jewish citizens in Kiev and the Soviet Union’s refusal to acknowledge it. Yevtushenko lived in both Russia and the United States before his recent death and taught English and Russian poetry both at the University of Tulsa and at Queens College, CUNY. You can find out more about Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the Poetry Foundation website.
The Book of Jeremiah stands out from the other prophetic books in this respect, namely, that it presents us with a rough chronology of the prophet’s career and a deep look into his soul. In brief outline, Jeremiah received his call at the beginning of what turned out to be the twilight years of the Davidic kingdom in Judah. He was most likely born at some point during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E. Josiah presided over Judah’s brief return to independence and power. This revival took place shortly after the dominant Assyrian Empire experienced military setbacks causing it to lose its hold over Palestine. Under Josiah’s leadership, Judah seized this window of opportunity to reassert her power, not only over her original territory, but also throughout what had been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Josiah, then, was presiding over a kingdom comparable to that of David and Solomon.
Like nature, geopolitics abhors a vacuum. Beginning in 609 B.C.E. events moved quickly for the nation of Judah. Josiah was killed when he attempted to block the Egyptian army from joining up with the remnant of Assyrian forces struggling against Babylonia, the new rising imperial star of the Near East. Evidently, he feared a resurgence of Judah’s old foe, Assyria, more than any threat Babylon might pose. Josiah’s son Jehoahaz succeeded him, but ruled only three months. The victorious Egyptians took Jehoahaz captive, brought him back to Egypt and placed his brother Jehoiakim on the throne as their vassal. As it turned out, Babylon, not Egypt or Assyria, would prove the greater danger for Judah. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar ultimately defeated the joint Egyptian and Assyrian forces at Carchemish ending Egyptian sovereignty over Palestine. Recognizing that discretion is the better part of valor (initially at least), Jehoiakim surrendered to the Babylonian force and became a puppet of that empire.
After three years of Babylonian vassalage, Jehoiakim (or his advisors) decided that Judah had had enough. He rebelled against the Babylonian empire. Perhaps he thought that his overlords were preoccupied with weightier matters and could not spare the military resources required to subjugate his small kingdom. He was wrong. The Babylonian response was quick and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and was on the point of crushing it when Jehoiakim died. His son, Jehoiachin, took the throne immediately thereafter and promptly surrendered himself to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar took the king and his family as prisoners back to Babylon along with the king’s military leaders, his advisors and all the smiths and craftspeople in the land. He also removed everything of value from the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Nebuchadnezzar spared the city of Jerusalem and placed on the throne of David Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, to govern the kingdom as Babylon’s vassal.
One might think that Zedekiah would have learned a thing or two from observing the rash actions of his brother and their dire consequences. But there was no learning curve for the house of David. Almost immediately Zedekiah began to plot with Egypt and other Palestinian nations against the reign of Babylon. His ill-fated rebellion ended in 587 B.C.E. during the eleventh year of his reign. The Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. The king was captured when attempting to escape the city and flee to Egypt. After being forced to witness the execution of his sons, Zedekiah was blinded and taken prisoner to Babylon where he died. Jerusalem was sacked, the city walls broken down and the temple destroyed. Another substantial number of persons were taken prisoner and deported to Babylon.
It was during these tumultuous times that Jeremiah prophesied to his people. He had the unenviable job of proclaiming the end of Judah’s existence as the kingdom of David in the land of Canaan. Babylon was God’s agent of judgment and would prevail over Judah and Jerusalem. Resistance was not only futile, but constituted rebellion against the Lord. There would be no miraculous rescue this time. Like all prophets, Jeremiah carried a message of salvation and the promise of a new beginning. But salvation lay on the other side of judgment. There would be no way around exile. Jeremiah knew, though, that faith could find a way through it.
Scholars have debated the dating of Jeremiah’s call to prophesy, the timing of his oracles and utterances as well as the approximate date of his birth. Generally speaking, there remains a scholarly tradition that regards the early part of the Book of Jeremiah as coming from him and credits the narrative sections with being historically reliable-though commentators differ on the history they reflect! More recent biblical study pays more attention to the process of the book’s formation and assumes that the person of Jeremiah set forth therein is a literary product of post-exilic scribes piecing together preserved oracles, narrative traditions and anecdotes in ways meaningful to the post-exilic community. I am no more interested in the historical Jeremiah than I am in the so called “historical Jesus.” I tend to agree, however, with the observation of Walter Brueggemann that it is “probable that the person, memory, and impact of Jeremiah were so powerful and enduring that personal reality presided over and shaped the imaginative reconstruction.” Brueggemann, Walter, “The Book of Jeremiah,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, pp. 131-132.
The prayer of Jeremiah found in our reading for Sunday has been labeled one of his many “confessions,” the others being Jeremiah 11:18-12:6; Jeremiah 15:10-21; and Jeremiah 17:12-18. This literary characterization is inaccurate and needlessly confusing. What we actually have here is a classic lament. Prayers of this type are found throughout the Psalms, e.g., Psalm 3; Psalm 4; Psalm 5; Psalm 22. The lament, as I have noted before, is not just a lot of “bitching and moaning.” It is a complaint made to God by God’s covenant partner, Israel. The Psalms are altogether unintelligible unless that covenant relationship is presupposed. It is precisely because God has made promises to Israel that Israel may be so bold as to demand that God keep those promises and even challenge God when it seems as though God has failed to live up to the terms of the covenant. This has nothing to do with the general and woefully tiresome whine, “How come God let’s bad things happen to good people?” To that puerile inquiry one could easily respond, “What obligation does God have to get involved with anyone’s individual woes?” But Israel is not just “anyone,” and God is not simply “the supreme being.” God is the one who liberated Israel from slavery and promised her a land, a people and a blessing. The lament arises not out of any foggy notion that God is somehow ethically obliged to reward good behavior and punish bad. It springs from the terms of a covenant under which God has agreed to be bound to this people Israel.
That said, we need to focus on Jeremiah’s call in which God promises, “I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah 1:8. In obedience to that call and in reliance upon God’s promise to deliver him, Jeremiah preached in the courts of Jerusalem’s temple the message of judgment he had been given. Jeremiah 19:14-15. If you were to read the verses immediately preceding our lesson, you would discover that Jeremiah received for his trouble a severe beating and a night in the stocks. Jeremiah 20:1-6. So now Jeremiah understandably wants to know where God’s promised deliverance was when he needed it! Like most of the laments found in the psalms, Jeremiah’s complaint is accompanied by affirmations of God’s faithfulness. In a strange way, the prophet’s complaint of abandonment and even betrayal reflect his confidence in God’s faithfulness. Jeremiah is convinced that his status as a covenant partner entitles him not only to a hearing, but ultimately to vindication. “In response to Yahweh’s questionable reliability, both the confessions and the biography show Jeremiah enacting a Joban steadfastness in which doubt and patience define one another and in which even the momentary wish for non-existence is but the dark coloration of the light of faith and unquenchable vocation.” Janzen, Gerald J., “Jeremiah 20:7-18,” Interpretation, Vol 37, #2, April 1983, p. 180.
This is the second most frequently quoted psalm in the New Testament (the first being Psalm 22). Like the prayer of Jeremiah in our first lesson, this psalm is a lament in which the individual pours out his/her complaint and plea for deliverance to the Lord. It bears repeating that the context for such prayer is the intimate covenant relationship between Israel and her God which makes prayer possible.
It is impossible to determine the date and historical context of the psalm. Given that “zeal for [God’s] house” has consumed the psalmist (vs. 9), we might infer that it was composed prior to the temple’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. or after its reconstruction which began in 520 B.C.E. and was completed in 515 B.C.E. It seems just as likely to me, however, that composition took place during the period before construction began. We know that the first returning exiles faced opposition from the local peoples to their plans for reconstruction of the temple, that reconstruction was a long time in coming and that prophetic encouragement was required to get the job done. A person zealous in promoting the temple project might well have met with opposition from folks less committed to the task or merely preoccupied with survival. In any event, the hostility experienced by the psalmist appears to arise from his or her faithfulness to the temple as the place where God’s name dwells. This verse is quoted at John 2:17 to explain Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.
The opposition faced by the psalmist is intense. “I am the talk of those who sit in the gate.” Vs. 12. This individual is the subject of cruel gossip and public ridicule. Even the drunks make fun of him/her. Hostility cuts deep into the psalmist’s immediate family relationships. Vs. 8. In a culture where one’s identity is bound up with family and clan, such abandonment amounts to an existential crisis. Who is a person when s/he is no longer part of the family that bore him/her, named him/her and serves to identify him/her to the community at large? Such a person has only the God who regards with tender care the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Only in Israel, where the most fragile and vulnerable are of special concern to the God of the covenant, could a prayer such as this be made with confidence.
“Answer me, O Lord.” Vs. 16. The most intolerable aspect of the psalmist’s suffering is that s/he has cried out incessantly to God, but God has not yet responded with deliverance. In desperation, the psalmist pleads, “Turn to me.” Vs. 16. This is reminiscent of days long ago when my son, then only two or three, used to grab my head and turn my face toward his when I was on the phone or otherwise engaged in conversation and he needed my immediate attention. So the psalmist pleads: “hide not thy face from thy servant.” Vs. 17. S/he desperately needs face time with God and s/he is not afraid to demand it!
“Redemption” is a technical word in Hebrew referring to one who redeems or restores property for another by payment of a debt or satisfaction of a lien. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 97. The plea “redeem me” might therefore be translated, “Do your duty by me.” Ibid. Again, the psalmist can make this bold demand only because of the intimate covenant relationship binding Israel to her God.
We will be encountering several readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the weeks ahead. Thus, a few introductory remarks are in order. Unlike Paul’s other letters, this one is not directed to a church that Paul founded or with which he had developed a pastoral relationship. From all we know, it seems clear that Paul has never visited the church in Rome. He does, however, appear to known many of the apostles, leaders and missionaries currently in Rome. What purpose, then, does Paul have for writing this letter? Some commentators suggest that he was simply writing the letter to introduce himself before coming in person. That, however, would hardly be unnecessary given the number of people well known to him already who are present and active in the Roman church. Others maintain that Paul’s intent was to generate support for his intended mission to Spain. There is some support for this view in Romans 15:24 and Romans 15:28. However, these two verses appear to me a slim reed upon which to divine Paul’s motives. Paul knew very well how to ask for money for his missions and he was not afraid to be blunt. E.g., I Corinthians 16:1-4. If this were a stewardship letter, I think it would be impossible to miss the point!
As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. I believe that Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was written to make that very point to a church in danger of splitting apart along a Jewish/gentile fault line.
Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his real audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”
Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people. That, I believe is the theological core of Paul’s letter.
In chapters 3-5 Paul argued that the believer in Jesus lives by faith rather than by human accomplishment through obedience to the law. Now Paul begins to speak of how the believer lives by faith. As he so often does, Paul begins with a rhetorical question: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Vs. 1. The question is a serious one as Lutherans like myself know well. Nothing has bedeviled us more than trying to explain how and why good works still matter even though they bring us no closer to God, cannot atone for sin and are so thoroughly contaminated by our selfish motives that they frequently bring about more evil than good. We have attempted to address this question under the rubric of “the priesthood of all believers.” In our tradition, all believers have a “calling” or “vocation.” For some of us, that calling is an ecclesiastical one. We are pastors, associates in ministry, church musicians, bishops, etc. For most of us, however, our callings are lived out in the secular world, though because the world is the arena of God’s action, we ought not to call it “secular.” God has two hands, the right hand being the church through which God brings sinners to saving faith in Jesus Christ. God’s left had works in the world through the orders of government, family and trade to ensure a semblance of order so that human life can thrive and the church can do its work. Therefore, if I am a pastor I must exercise my calling through attendance to preaching, the administration of the sacraments and pastoral care. If I am a lawyer, my calling is to represent my clients to the best of my ability so that the system of justice will function as effectively as it can be expected to do in a sinful world. If I am an engineer, I must use my skills to ensure that airplanes, elevators and ski lifts are well constructed and maintained for the good of all who use them. If I am an executioner, I must practice my craft with skill so that I do not botch things and wind up causing excessive pain for the people I kill.
In addition to ensuring that the reader is still awake, that last example was intended to bring into sharp relief a problem I have with our Lutheran view of the “vocation.” It rests on the assumption that human institutions as we find them are ordained by God to achieve justice, ensure peace and provide for human well-being. To be sure, we do not claim that these institutions are perfect, but that is all the more reason for disciples of Jesus to engage with them. By our faithful participation in government, work and family, we become the leaven that raises the loaf. So goes the argument, but I am not convinced. As observed by Robert Brimlow:
“Of course, many of us believe the myth the churches help perpetuate that the common good will be advanced by our work as teachers, physicians, lawyers and managers. But the reality is that physicians need to spend more time answering to HMO’s and guarding costs than to patients’ needs. And lawyers need to increase their billable hours to 100 or 150 per week to cover office expenses and partners’ profits, leaving less time for family and community. And managers either worry about being downsized themselves or need to downsize others in a vicious game of productivity and survival. And teachers must adapt to increased class size, standardized curricula and standardized tests as a means of assessing their students and their own teaching effectiveness. And at the college and university level, more classes need to be taught to enable others to enter the professional ranks, as though the world really needs more plastic surgeons, corporate lawyers and professors of philosophy.” Brimlow, Robert, Paganism and the Professions, (c. 2002, The Ekklesia Project), p. 8.
It is difficult to see your job as a divine calling when deep inside you wonder whether that job is even necessary, whether it is not actually inflicting harm on people and whether the cost of advancing or even just hanging onto your job requires conduct altogether inconsistent with following Jesus. So far from being a transformative presence, disciples of Jesus are typically transformed by their work environments and their societal roles. The job, the school, the community dictate how time, money and attention are focused. Anyone involved in the church knows how hard we must struggle to extract time for worship, corporate prayer and instruction in discipleship from these competing interests. The understanding of the church as a community that empowers disciples to carry out their vocations in the world is another one of those ecclesiastical dogmas that sounds better in theory than it has ever worked out in practice.
Paul suggests a different answer to his question about how we should live by faith. He points out that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and so united with him. It is important that we do not lose sight of Paul’s understanding of the church as Christ’s Body. Baptism and incorporation into the church are one and the same thing. This text must be read with I Corinthians 12 in mind. To be united with Christ is to be grafted into a new community whose loyalty to Jesus transcends the ties of race, soil and blood. Even the sacred bonds of family are superseded by the unity of Christ’s Body. So far from being the cheerleader for individuals trying to live out their Christian faith by participation in a dehumanizing culture, the church constitutes an alternative culture, a radically different way of being human. The church is a community of persons of diverse backgrounds and formerly conflicting loyalties that have been renounced for the sake of loyalty to Christ. Paul will spell out specifically what this alternative lifestyle looks like in Romans 12-15. For our purposes today, it is enough to point out that Paul understands the church to be both the Body of Christ through which God is reconciling the world and the furnace in which sinners are transformed into saints by the work of the Holy Spirit. Church is not some place you go to be rejuvenated for the more important tasks that lie ahead on Monday. The church is what you are 24/7. That assertion raises questions too numerous and complex to tackle on a single post!
These uncompromising words of Jesus complement the reading from Romans by spelling out the consequences likely to occur for those united in Christ’s death by baptism. The context is Jesus’ commissioning of the Twelve Disciples to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 10:5-15. A disciple is not above his Master and so the Twelve can anticipate rejection, opposition and persecution. Their activity will generate hostility within their own families such that the disciple’s most ardent foes will be members of his/her own household. Loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims must take precedence over the closest and most intimate national, social and family ties. In the Kingdom of Heaven, water is thicker than blood. Baptism is what finally defines who we are and who is our family.
“A disciple is not above his teacher.” Vs. 24. Literally translated, a disciple (mathatas) is “one who learns.” But merely hearing Jesus’ teach as he did in the synagogues would not in itself amount to discipleship as understood by Matthew. The word generally points to an allegiance to a particular teacher and involves following, living with and sharing the pattern of life practiced by the teacher. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 191. Thus, the disciple must be prepared to share the adversities and hardships that accompany the teacher’s way of life. For disciples of Jesus, this means embracing the cross. So too, because Jesus is the church’s only “teacher” (Matthew 23:8) and because that teacher is with the church “to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), discipleship remains a matter of following Jesus. It is never a simply a matter of absorbing knowledge, but rather a lifetime of practicing the art of obedience to Jesus in communities where “little faith” becomes mature faith through mutual accountability and mutual forgiveness.
Just as Jesus’ works are attributed to “Beelzeboul,” so also the mission of the disciples will be discredited. The word “Beelzeboul” is a transliteration into Greek of the name for a Canaanite god, meaning “Baal, the Prince.” Over time the term became synonymous with “Satan.” Identification of your adversary with a symbol of evil is a cheap and easy way to discredit him or her without having to deal seriously with the adversary’s arguments. How often haven’t we heard politicians of all persuasions compare their opponents to Hitler? The inflammatory power unleashed by invocation of what we all know to be sheer evil is intended to distract the audience from the weakness and incoherence of the speaker’s own position. At least that is the theory. I suspect Jesus’ opponents had similar intentions when they asserted that “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.” Matthew 9:34.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Vs. 28. The word “soul” is the English word used for the Greek word “psyche.” While there probably is no better word than “soul” available in our language, it is nevertheless misleading given all the baggage that comes along with it. Judaism in Jesus’ day knew nothing of a disembodied soul. The soul is more the essence of the whole person than an ontologically separable component of that person. Ibid, p. 436. Thus, the point is not that the soul somehow survives death, but that God has control of the whole person, body and soul, even beyond the grave. The message is one of comfort, not threat. For Jesus goes on to assure his disciples that the God who knows the fate of each sparrow also knows and values each of them intimately. Vs. 31.
‘Geehnna” is the Greek word translated as “hell” or “hades” in our English bibles. It is actually a transliteration into Greek from the Hebrew proper name, “Geh Hin·nom” or “Valley of Hinnom,” This was a ravine located south west of Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Judean Kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, offered human sacrifices there. II Chronicles 28:1-3; II Chronicles 33:1-6. The prophet Jeremiah warned that this valley would become a burial place for corpses left from the catastrophic judgment God was soon to bring upon Jerusalem and Judah. Jeremiah 7:31-35. The term is therefore more properly understood as a figure of speech than reference to an actual place.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Vs. 34. This is a verse no Sunday School kid was ever forced to memorize. I doubt you will ever see it embroidered on any wall hanging. I have never seen it on a bumper sticker or refrigerator magnet. What follows is even more problematic, particularly for those who look to Jesus as the defender of “family values.” “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Vs. 35. So much for “family values.” Once again, family is defined not by ties of blood but through union with Jesus, a union that might well fragment all other ties.
This is a difficult text for us mainline churches who have always assumed that our job is to fortify societal bonds, strengthen the community and shore up social institutions like marriage, the so called traditional family and the PTA. Subconsciously or consciously, we are still trying to play that role. But our problem is that the world has now figured out that it can stand up just fine without our support. We have been downsized, laid off, pink slipped, informed that our services are no longer required. Yet like the fired middle manager in a state of denial, we continue leaving the house each day, briefcase in hand, only to be repeatedly bewildered when we arrive at the office and discover that we no longer have a cubicle, or assignments waiting for us or a parking space in the garage. We mainliners have been sidelined.
We can react to this crisis by continuing to show up at the office, hanging around the water cooler attempting to fit in, trying to look useful, hoping against hope that the boss will find some reason to re-hire us. That often appears to be the mainline strategy-if you can call it that. Or we can recognize that getting fired was probably the best thing that could have happened to the church. The old job of propping up civilization’s moral underpinnings stank and we were never good at it anyway. So let’s re-think what it means to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” I Peter 2:9. If we allowed our baptism to shape our vocations rather than attempting vainly to fit our baptismal identity into the functions defined for us by society, I suspect that there might soon be a lot of unemployed believers. I anticipate that this might well generate a good deal of strife and tension within families as the resulting impact on accustomed lifestyles begins to make itself felt. When we begin to make known in concrete ways to our neighbors that loyalty to our baptized sisters and brothers in nations hostile to the U.S. takes precedence over the loyalty of American citizenship, I don’t doubt that the persecution of which Jesus speaks will cease to be figment only of our past heritage. Martyrdom might once again become the norm rather than the exception for believers and so also the joy and excitement that come with being a witness to the dawn of a new age. Being church is a lot harder than merely going to church, but it’s also a lot more fun.