Archive for July, 2017
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is nothing quite so basic to well-being in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament than eating. Biblical justice demands that all be filled. One should not have to earn the right to eat. Nor should one have to explain why s/he is hungry, demonstrate whether s/he qualifies for benefits, prove that s/he is unable to work, demonstrate his/her citizenship, convince anyone that s/he does not have a drinking problem, a drug problem or a criminal conviction in order to be fed. It is enough that a hungry person is created in the image of God, loved by God and ransomed by God at the cost of God’s Son for a disciple of Jesus to recognize in him/her the appeal of Jesus himself. Whoever denies bread to the hungry inflicts hunger upon Jesus and blasphemes his heavenly Father. Toleration of hunger is apostasy.
It is important to note that Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is told against “the nations of the world.” The command to feed the hungry, as well as the commands to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and liberate the prisoner, is a command by which all the nations of the world are to be judged. And it is against the backdrop of this command that we must judge a government that, having narrowly failed in its zealous efforts to deprive between 16 and 22 million people of their health insurance, now turns to consider a proposed budget that will cut nutritional aid over ten years by over $200 billion dollars. That includes $11 billion from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known as “WIC” and another $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as “SNAP” (formerly Food Stamps). This same budget would, over ten years, cut international humanitarian aid by a whopping 51% or $160 billion dollars. Justify any or all of this under whatever economic theory or political ideology you wish. But don’t embarrass yourself by appealing to the Scriptures, much less to Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing could be a clearer expression of indifference or, more accurately, outright contempt for everything Jesus than this proposed budget plan. So for all of you so called “conservative evangelicals” out there following the likes of Rev. Franklyn Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Duck Dynasty crowd who see in Donald Trump everything from an “unlikely champion” of all things Christian to “God’s anointed” (Oh, yes, there are some folks out there actually saying that), I just have once piece of free legal advice. Whatever you’re smoking, don’t do it in public. I’m betting that anything powerful enough to bend your mind that far out of shape is still illegal in all fifty states.
The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Except for the “again” part, I can get on board with that. Only let’s be clear about what we mean by “great.” In biblical terms, a nation’s greatness is judged not by the size of its army, the strength of its economy or the glory of its cultural accomplishments, but by how well or poorly it treats the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable people (citizens or not) in its midst. As of 2015, 42.2 million Americans were living in food-insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. As of 2014, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 9% of all seniors, were estimated to be food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA breaks this definition down further into categories of “low food security” and “very low food security.” 
- Low food security(old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The long and short of it is that some folks suffer malnutrition because they live in places that have limited access to grocery stores, markets and other sources of nutritious food. Consequently, they wind up consuming calories available to them-processed and fast food items-that are neither nutritious nor cost effective. Others are unable to obtain sufficient caloric content of any kind. That such conditions exist to the degree they do in a country that surpasses all others in the production of food is nothing short of scandalous. Such a nation is hardly “great” by biblical standards. The proposed budget, that cuts severely what insufficient support exists for the hungry in our midst, moves us in precisely the opposite direction of greatness. Hungrier, poorer and sicker is not greater.
Of course, we can blame poverty on the poor, just as we blame police brutality against African Americans on African Americans for “having an attitude”, violence against women on women because they dress too provocatively, and attacks on LBGTQ folks on LBGTQ folks because…well, heck, attacking them really needs no justification. Again, cite whatever cockamamie conspiracy theory you want to rationalize this malarkey, but don’t bother appealing to the scriptures. The Bible I read doesn’t say anything about the disciples setting up a screening process to ensure that all of those five thousand people Jesus fed in this Sunday’s gospel were deserving of food assistance. That is because food, like medicine, shelter, clothing and all other essentials are what disciples of Jesus owe their neighbor-whether they are deemed “worthy” or not. It is also the standard of conduct by which God will judge “all the nations.” At least that is what Jesus tells us at Matthew 25:32.
Food is gospel. Its abundance is the theme of the prophet’s song in our first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the free gift of God to all God’s creatures as our psalm proclaims and celebrates. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a joyful banquet. A gospel message that leaves behind an empty stomach is an abominable gnostic heresy.
Here is a poem by Pablo Neruda, an atheist who understands the gospel better than many Christians. It’s about the “justice of eating.”
The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.
The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.
In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Source: PeacemealProject. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile. He adopted the pseudonym, Pablo Neruda under which he became famous while still in his early teens. A devout communist, Neruda was politically active throughout his lifetime in his native Chile running for president as the nominee of the nation’s communist party in 1971. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. While living in Paris Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read more about Pablo Neruda and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 16th. These were discussed in my post for that date.
This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.
This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!
Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.
In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.
There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.
Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.
The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.
The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfills the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.
The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”
Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.
Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.
So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.
Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.
Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.
Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.
Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.
 “How Trump’s Budget Would Affect Every Part of Government” New York Times, 5/23/17
EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It is hardly surprising that young Solomon should pray for wisdom at this point in his life. He describes himself as “but a little child” who has inherited his father’s throne and must now reign over “a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude.” The geopolitical landscape of the ancient near east was no less dangerous and complex than the global landscape is today. Peace and prosperity were maintained by strategic military alliances, trade agreements and treaties governing the use of land passages and waterways. Each nation had its own vital interests and ambitions. Israel’s wellbeing, indeed, her very existence as a nation state, required a leader capable of navigating these dangerous waters, avoiding reefs and shoals. Such a leader must recognize the benefits and dangers of international cooperation. He must possess a clear understanding of Israel’s vital interests and know when it is essential to be firm, when it is wise to be flexible, when the exercise military force is essential, when the wiser course is to refrain from military involvement. A strong leader must be a good judge of human character. He must know those he can trust to have his back, those on whom he must never turn his back and those who must be removed from positions of power altogether. A good ruler never promises his people more than he can deliver and he never delivers less than what the people need to thrive. It seems that young Solomon has a lot to learn in a very short time!
The wisdom for which Solomon prays, however, is not the wisdom of politics and statecraft. Instead, he prays for wisdom to discern “between good and evil.” That is precisely the wisdom God promises Solomon. Significantly, however, God does not simply open up Solomon’s brain in order to pour this wisdom into his head. Instead, God points Solomon to the place where wisdom can be found. You will obtain wisdom, God tells Solomon, if only you “walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments.” That way of wisdom is spelled out more specifically in our Psalm reading for this Sunday, wherein the psalmist declares that the “unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” S/he tells us, “with open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” S/he pleads with God, “teach me thy statutes.” S/he prays, “keep steady my steps according to thy promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.” Wisdom consists not in mastering the art of diplomacy, learning the protocols of the royal court, becoming proficient in navigating the politics of office and boardroom, but in having one’s character shaped and molded by living faithfully within the community of God’s covenant people. The people of Israel were not liberated from slavery in Egypt merely to become another nation like Egypt, oppressing its own people, enslaving foreigners and making gods of its emperors and kings. Israel’s life under her covenant with her liberating God was to be a light to the nations, the sign of a different way of being human, a testimony to the gracious will of the one true God for all of creation.
The narrative of Solomon’s reign unfortunately reflects precisely the wrong kind of wisdom. Solomon brought wealth, geopolitical dominance and cultural advances to Israel-but at a cost. The Temple built under Solomon’s direction in Jerusalem was constructed with slave labor. National security was maintained by brutally occupying and dominating smaller surrounding nations. Solomon’s elaborate building and military projects in Judah were financed by taxation that impoverished the common people, particularly those in Northern Israel which seceded from the house of David shortly after Solomon’s death. The international treaties into which Solomon entered involved his taking as wives the daughters of foreign kings and building for them shrines in which to worship their gods. The Israelite kingdom under Solomon was long on political success, but woefully short on covenant faithfulness.
From a practical perspective, one might argue that Solomon’s reign was comparatively less oppressive than those of other near eastern nations. Politics, being the art of the possible, does not pretend to create ideal societies. At its best, it builds the best society possible from the materials at hand. When it comes to affairs of state, good and evil are relative terms. Solomon inherited Israel’s disastrous decision to appoint a king to rule over her that she might “be like all the other nations.” He inherited a contentious and divided court simmering with blood feuds between his own brothers and ambitious military leaders left over from the prior administration. Solomon was not responsible for the violent state of the world in which his kingdom existed. Arguably, he did the best he could with what he had.
Such arguments, however, begin at the wrong place. Wisdom is not measured by the yardstick of pragmatism. “The fear of the Lord,” we are told, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon’s reign, however successful it might seem on a geopolitical scale, did not satisfy God’s standard for wise leadership under the terms of the covenant. That covenant, as spelled out in the Torah, calls for protection, not enslavement of resident aliens. It requires a community in which no one goes hungry, no one is subject to foreclosure, no widow is left destitute and no orphan abandoned. The covenant requires that all worship and devotion be directed toward the one God who frees slaves. No practical objection can be raised to justify neglect of these or any other terms of God’s covenant designed to ensure justice for all. Consequently, sacrifices of practical safety, security and success are required by the wisdom that puts God and God’s priorities first. In order to be a light for the nations, Israel had to cease being a nation in her own right. It was only after she lost her royal line, her land and her temple, all the marks of nationhood, that Israel was able to start anew as a people whose sole identity derived from faithfulness to God’s covenant promises. Out of this new beginning the community of Israel that we know as Judaism was born.
The psalmist’s quest for wisdom begins at exactly the right place: prayer. The course of wisdom is not easily discernable. All of us are born into families with rivalries, conflicts and scars we didn’t create. We all have jobs that invite us to sacrifice more of ourselves than we or our families can afford. We live in a country whose democratic institutions are falling apart even as racist, misogynist and homophobic ideologies are on the rise. The temptation is great to negotiate this dangerous environment on its own terms. It is easy to remain silent when we ought to speak up. It is easy to speak before we have listened. It is easy to make compromises that help us get along to go along. It is easy to hunker down in a defensive position hurling insult for insult, blow for blow and tit for tat. But Jesus calls us to learn his way of dealing with a sinful world. He invites us to the table where all are welcome and everyone is fed; he invites us to sit together as one in order to hear his words; he invites us to let our characters be shaped and our actions flow from our friendship with him. Wisdom is learned by example. It is acquired by living faithfully and honestly in covenant community with other frail, foolish and struggling mortals. It is learned from being raised and mentored by wise and loving people.
Here is some godly wisdom poet Julia Kasdorf learned from her mother.
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.
In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.
In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him, Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.
There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.
Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.
It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.
“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.
“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.
Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.
When Paul tells us that “all things work for good,” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”
As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.
It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.
Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.
The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.
The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.
The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.
The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Once again, the gospel reading for Sunday has become a victim of lexicographic malpractice. Verses 10-17 have been excised. Here they are for your reference:
“Then the disciples came and asked [Jesus], ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult saying. It appears as though Jesus’ audience is destined to misunderstand him. The hearts of his hearers are hopelessly ossified and hardened in their opposition to the kingdom he proclaims. So why parables? And why parables that are so difficult that even Jesus’ disciples, whose “eyes see” and whose “ears hear,” fail to understand them? If even the disciples fail to grasp the parables, how can Jesus expect the crowds to get anything from them?
Perhaps our difficulty arises from failure to understand Jesus generally and his parables in particular. I have never been comfortable with the slogan, “Jesus is the answer,” the reason being that Jesus does not seem particularly interested in being or giving answers. For the most part, Jesus avoids answering the questions posed to him by his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. In so doing, Jesus is not being evasive. He is simply refusing to accept the terms in which questions are framed. He will not be cross examined.
As an attorney, I am familiar with the art of cross-examination. In a nut shell, it consists of posing your question in such a way as to get the answer you want. You don’t ever learn anything by cross-examining a witness. In fact, learning something you didn’t already know from a witness on the stand is the worst thing that can happen to a lawyer. Long before trial, a good attorney has read every transcript of all the testimony a witness has ever given, every letter, tweet or e-mail the witness has ever authored and every document the witness has ever signed. S/he knows exactly what the witness must say to avoid perjury and how to frame his/her questions to get exactly the answers s/he needs. If the lawyer is skilled and has done his/her homework, there will be no surprises on the day of trial.
Jesus’ parables are designed to surprise his hearers and get them out of cross-examination mode. He is not so much interested in providing answers as getting his disciples and opponents to ask better questions. When the lawyer in Luke’s gospel tries to pin Jesus down on who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, thereby forcing him to consider rather how to be a neighbor. When Jesus’ opponents question him about healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus invites them to consider whether leaving persons in pain and illness that deprives them of Sabbath rest is really honoring the Sabbath as God intended. When asked whether the kingdom of God would arrive sooner rather than later, Jesus asks his disciples instead to consider whether they have the faithful stamina to persist in prayer for that kingdom however long it might take in coming. Many of Jesus’ parables are open ended, leaving us with more questions than answers. How is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? Did the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son ever accept his father’s invitation to join the feast celebrating his brother’s return? What happened with that family going forward? Did the unfruitful fig tree, spared from the ax for one more year by its owner at the request of a servant, use this gracious reprieve to bear fruit? These are questions worth pondering and from which we might actually learn something-or learn to ask even better questions!
Unfortunately, our lust for definitive answers often gets in the way of our hearing Jesus. We find that tendency in both civil and religious discourse. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Are you for or against the death penalty?” “Is homosexuality a sin or not?” “Do you believe in evolution or creation?” And don’t give me any qualifiers, ifs ands or buts. Just give me a straight answer: “yes” or “no.” Although Jesus never addressed any of the above issues, they seem to be litmus tests of genuine Christianity in a lot of circles. I get these “gun to the head” questions all the time. I don’t even try to answer them anymore. They are coercive and unfair. In order to answer, I have to accept the all of the underlying assumptions, prejudices and misinformation these questions often imply. I am learning not to take the bait.
I have no doubt that if we addressed these questions directly to Jesus, his answers would not prove anymore definitive than his response to questions posed to him in the gospels. I think Jesus would give us parables, pose questions and force us to think differently. I believe Jesus would bring into sharp focus the deeply human aspects of real people caught up in morally, socially and religiously ambiguous circumstances. He would tell stories that put faces on the ones we judge as “the least” among us and the people we are most prone to label “sinners.” I doubt Jesus would give us the clear moral black and white answers we seek. But I am confident he would leave us asking much better questions.
Parables are for the hard of heart. They are designed to penetrate to a depth rational argument can never reach. They shatter our understandings of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, good and evil. When our convictions are too strong to be argued away through any amount of reasoned discourse, parables come in through the back door of our consciences to undermine all of which we are certain, to soften our hearts and make room for the work of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s a poem by Robert Pinsky that speaks to the way Jesus’ parables dive “deep into [the] brain to word [us] back.” As in the lessons that follow, we are left to ponder the efficacy of these words tenderly and compassionately spoken.
In the Coma
My friend was in a coma, so I dove
Deep into his brain to word him back. I tried
To sing Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So in
Ray Charles’s voice. Of course the silence grew.
I couldn’t sing the alphabet song. My voice
Couldn’t say words I knew: Because I Could
Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me.
I couldn’t remember the Dodgers and the Giants.
I tried to tell the stories that he and I
Studied when we were young. It was confused,
The Invisible Man was laughing at how a man
Felt History jump out of his thick fair head
And beat him half to death, as being the nightmare
Out of which Isaac Babel tried to awake.
The quiet. Next time won’t you sing with me.
Those great diminished chords: A girl I know.
The cold of the coma, lightless. The ocean floor.
I struggled to tell things back from decades gone.
The mournful American soldier testifying
About My Lai: I shot the older lady.
Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones.
And by the time I count from one to four
I hear her knocking. Quiet of the deep,
Our mouths are open but we cannot sing.
Source: Poetry Magazine (February 2016). Born in 1940, Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poets and critics. He was elected and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000. He produced a highly acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno and has produced several books of poetry and works of poetic criticism. During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Pinsky initiated and promoted the Favorite Poem Project under which Americans were invited to submit and record their favorite poems for archiving with the Library of Congress. The program generated a greater than expected public response. You can read more about Robert Pinsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org
Our lesson is part of the closing chapter of Second Isaiah’s work. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start, declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return to her homeland and assuring the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.
The prophet begins with a call for the people to “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Vs. 6. As Hebrew Scripture commentator Claus Westermann observes, this phrase is a liturgical cultic formula calling upon worshipers at the temple to approach God with sacrifices and offerings. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 287. In the prophetic era beginning in the 8th Century B.C.E., it lost its connection with the Temple and began to be employed more broadly as a call for the whole people to repent and turn towards God. Ibid. Verse 7 makes more specific the content of this call:
7 …let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Westermann and others are convinced that this verse is an interpolation from another source, the work of a later editor of Second Isaiah’s writings. Ibid at 288. However that might be, the verse nevertheless fits neatly into the call. Turning away from sin is merely the flip side of returning to the Lord. Moreover, there is a neat balance between the “wicked…way” and “unrighteous…thoughts” referenced in verse 7 above and God’s “ways” and God’s “thoughts” which are higher than those of the people. Vss. 8-9.
Verses 10-11 serve to emphasize with certainty that the prophet’s word will be fulfilled. That is a bold assertion, given that the return from exile is at this point merely an aspiration. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks is as sure to come to fruition as is new growth from the soil nurtured by the rain.
Second Isaiah brings his prophecies to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. From a literary standpoint, one might balk at these crude anthropomorphic projections into the realm of nature. Nonetheless, the point is that Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.
We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Second Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, the return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. Upon return, life was difficult and precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.
In short, when asked whether the prophetic words of Second Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to take up the call to seize an opportunity for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the hope that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even this visionary prophet could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.
This is one of my favorite psalms. It is a song of pure praise. It asks nothing of God and expresses no desire for anything other than what God in God’s immeasurable generosity has already provided. One cannot help but be impressed with the psalmist’s confidence in God’s willingness to provide all that is needful in life. This worshiper knows nothing of the “ideology of scarcity” referenced by Walter Bruegemann cited in last week’s post. S/he knows only the god who “crownest the year with thy bounty” vs. 11. This psalm strikes a joyfully discordant note to the fearful and hateful rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees lately codified into law by executive order that perfectly embodies this ideology. To a sick and twisted world view shaped by the perception of the world as a shrinking pie, our psalm holds up the bold confession of a God whose giving knows no limit.
“Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion.” Walter Brueggemaan suggests that this line is a direct polemic against any suggestion that praise is due any other deity or human ruler. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 135. The first four verses are sandwiched between “Zion” at vs. 1 and “temple” at vs. 4 indicating that this psalm originated as a liturgy for use in the temple of Jerusalem during the period of the Judean monarchy. The people as a whole, including the king, concede guilt and celebrate God’s forgiveness. Such a public right is hardly conceivable in our culture which seems incapable of introspection, reflection upon national calamity and admission of failure. Perhaps that is why our nation has never quite come to terms with the debacle in Vietnam. It was simply impossible to concede the loss of fifty thousand American lives to a mistake. We could not bear the sight of Vietnam veterans because they were a constant reminder of the first war America ever lost. Consequently, they were virtually ignored and even stigmatized for decades. Much as the Nazis blamed Germany’s loss of World War I on betrayal within their ranks and the influence of highly placed Jews, so through the myth of Johnny Rambo and similar cinematic dramas we have placed blame for our defeat in Vietnam on weak kneed politicians, corrupt military leadership and the anti-patriotic influence of the press.
Israel’s response to military reversals was entirely different. In the first place, Israel did not glorify its warriors or credit their valor for her victories. “For not by their own sword did [our ancestors] win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and they arm, and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3. Victory belonged to God and Israel knew well that she could not presume upon God’s favor. Accordingly, when her fortunes fell on the battlefield, Israel turned to God in lament, soul searching and repentance. See, e.g., Psalm 74. This finally led Israel to conclude that “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” Psalm 33:16-17. Would that Vietnam had taught us the limits of military power and the need to develop more constructive methods of dealing with conflicts rather than driving us into the dead end of self-deception and tragic repetitions of our past.
The occasion for this psalm is likely a festival or some other event when the people assembled at the temple to make thank offerings in fulfillment of vows made during the year. Given the repeated reference to fruitful harvests and healthy breading of sheep and cattle, it is possible that the occasion for this psalm was the end of a period of drought. But it is just as likely that the festival was an annual event in which prayers of thanks were offered for all blessings. A successful harvest would certainly be a common focus for thanks. Prayers for the same (accompanied by vows) would probably have been made in any given year.
In verse 7, God is said to “still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.” The “sea” and the “waves” are symbols of turbulence and disorder. Psalm 93:3-4. These forces are sometimes personified in the creation stories of the ancient world. We can hear echoes of such personification in Psalm 74:13-15. In this psalm, however, the tumult is chiefly that of the peoples or nations for which the tumultuous sea is but a metaphor. God’s subduing of the waters is not a violent response to any threat against God. Rather, it is a merciful act done to make the earth safe for human existence and bring the worship of Israel’s God to “earth’s farthest bounds.” Vs. 8. The remainder of the psalm speaks eloquently of God’s lavish provision through the gift of rain, productivity and fertility-all of which were regarded by the indigenous population as the province of the Canaanite Ba’als. The psalmist would have all know with certainty who is to be thanked for this successful harvest!
For the last couple of Sundays, St. Paul has been making clear to us that the law is ineffectual both in reconciling ourselves to God and in trying to live a God pleasing life. As long as we are in the grip of sin we use the law, like everything else, as an instrument of sin. Only God can free us from sin and that is precisely what God does in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed from slavery to sin and made slaves of righteousness through our union with Jesus Christ. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do as we wish. That, according to Paul, is the worst kind of slavery. It is like a ship without a rudder, blown to wherever the prevailing wind takes it. True freedom is the opportunity and the liberty to do what is right. This freedom we find living by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to understand what Paul means when he contrasts living “in the flesh” with living “in the spirit.” Paul does not mean to say that there is some immaterial part of us called “spirit” which is good and pure as opposed to the “body” which, being material, is evil. Paul does not denigrate the human body. In fact, he thinks highly enough of the body to use it in describing the nature of the church. The Church is Christ’s Body. See Corinthians 12. When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” he uses the Greek word, “sarx” rather than the word “soma,” meaning “body.” The flesh denotes an orientation of the self toward itself and its own interests. Such an outlook might lead one to indulge in the so-called “sins of the flesh,” i.e., sexual sins of one kind or another. More insidious, however, is what we might well label, “religious sin.” This is the sin of justifying oneself by resort to the law whether that be religious practices, adherence to morals or achieving some standard of success to prove our worth. Life in the flesh degenerates into moral anarchy or comes under the tyranny of some hierarchical system that pits the strong against the weak. Such communities of the flesh make up “the body of death” to which Paul refers in Romans 7:24.
By contrast, life in the spirit is life grounded in an intimate relationship with Jesus. To help us understand what Paul is talking about, let’s borrow a verse from John’s gospel: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” John 15:14-15. I believe that John is saying in a different way what Paul is articulating in our reading. Life in the Spirit is characterized by friendship. Friendship does not operate on the basis of rules. In all my eighteen years of practicing law I never once came across a friendship contract! Friendship is built on mutual affection, shared interests, common priorities, loyalty and trust. The binding obligations that hold it together grow organically out of love.
We are transformed by our friendships and this is why it does not follow that, because we are no longer under the bondage of law, we are now set at liberty to sin. Such an assertion makes sense only if you believe that there are but two alternatives: law or anarchy. Paul insists that there is a better way than either of these two false alternatives. That way is friendship with Jesus. The Body of Christ is not a place where everyone is free to do what s/he wants. It is a place in which, through worship, prayer, study, mutual sharing, admonition, repentance and forgiveness we sinners are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place where we discover the freedom to be truly human.
There is another aspect of this passage, too, that needs some clarification. Too often we have understood being “in Christ” or “possessing the Spirit” as an individual experience. Though it is in part that, Paul understands life in the spirit primarily in corporate terms. That is to say, it is within the church that the mind of Christ is formed. “’By the Spirit Christ seizes power in us, just as conversely by the Spirit we are incorporated into Christ.’ Although many exegetes remain uncomfortable with this dimension, Paul’s language throughout this passage is charismatic and ‘mystical;’ it reflects a collective type of charismatic mysticism in which God’s Spirit was thought to enter and energize the community as well as each member.” Jewett, Robert, Romans, Hermenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 Fortress Press) pp. 490-491 citing Kasemann, Ernst, Commentary on Romans (c. 1980 Eerdmans) p. 222. In sum, life in the Spirit is not a life without accountability. Rather, it is life accountable to the covenant of friendship formed with the church by God in Jesus Christ.
“You can quote the Bible to me all day and say whatever you want, but I’ve been raised to believe……..and I am not about to change my mind now!” Fill in the blank with whatever issue you please. We have all heard something like this at one time in our lives. Parents say it to their children; people in the church say it to each other and we hear plenty of that attitude in our not-so-civil discourse these days about any number of issues. My mother used to say, “There was never a mind so weak as that which is made up too strongly to change.” She was right, I am afraid, and so was Jesus when he cited the words of the prophet Isaiah in that part of the reading which the lectionary makers deemed unfit for your tender ears. Check it out at Matthew 13:10-17.
Turns out parables are uniquely designed to break through ears that will not hear and hearts that will not bend. They catch you off guard, pull you into the story, make you identify with the characters. Then, just when you think you have figured out what the parable is about, who the good and bad guys are and how the story will end-you discover you were altogether wrong. Nathan’s parable of the old man and his little lamb is a classic example. See II Samuel 12:1-15. David is feeling pretty good about himself. He stole the wife of one of his generals and had the general conveniently placed in the line of fire where he died a hero’s death. Then, in a romantic gesture of patriotic compassion for the fallen hero’s widow, he takes her into his harem. Nobody is the wiser.
But then his court prophet, Nathan, approaches him with some disturbing news. There was a poor old man with no family but a little lamb he kept as a pet. It was as a child to him. His rich neighbor, needing to feed an unexpected guest and being too stingy to slaughter one of his own many sheep, took the poor man’s lamb and served it up for dinner. David thinks he knows what this story is about and where he stands in it. This is a story about injustice in his kingdom and he is the just and righteous king that will make it right. “By God!” says David. “This beast deserves death! I’ll see that he pays back the old man fourfold. Who is this scoundrel anyway?” David has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. When Nathan replies, “you are the man,” it’s too late. David is hung by his own rope. Too late for excuses, too late for rationalizations. David has nowhere left to hide. That’s how parables work.
So too, I think the Parable of the Sower is deceptively simple. We all tend to think of ourselves as soil of one kind or another and begin reflecting on whether we are foot path, rocky ground, weedy dirt-or perhaps good soil. But maybe we are looking in the wrong direction. What about the sower? What sort of lame brain farmer would toss his precious seed in places where it had no chance of growing? Is this really about our receptivity? Or is it rather about the generosity of the sower and the confidence that, in the words of our reading from Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11. If the latter is the case, who are we to decide what soil is fertile and what is barren waste? Who are we to know whether the word we hear today or the one we share with another will be snatched away, withered by adversity or choked out by other distractions? Was not some of the richest soil in the world today once rocky terrain pelted over millennia by seeds that germinated, dug with their roots into rocky crevices, died and mixed with the stone fragments they displaced? Are not seeds spread to different regions by the birds that devour them? Is it inevitable that wheat must parish in the midst of tares? Perhaps this gospel parable reflects in one more way the profound generosity of our God who, like Isaiah, the psalmist and St. Paul would have us live joyfully, thankfully and abundantly.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Zechariah 9:12
Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensible element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.
In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse. So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost her land, her temple and the royal line of David. Such are the consequences of misplaced hope.
One needs look no further than the field of medicine to find examples of misplaced hope. Of course, I am no enemy of medicine or medical progress. Some members of my family and many of my friends would likely have died in childhood if they had lived just a century ago. Thanks to modern medical advances, they are living full and active lives today. I am glad that medical science is pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge to find cures for various diseases, particularly those that strike during childhood. But medicine has limits that hope sometimes refuses to acknowledge. It is easy to forget that medicine is as much art as science, and that the human body is enormously complex. In spite of its impressive advances, medicine does not have close to all the answers for what ails us. When I was practicing law, a significant portion of my practice involved defending doctors, nurses and hospitals against malpractice claims. While medical malpractice does in fact occur with disturbing frequency, I can say that many such claims arise from unrealistic expectations of modern medicine and the caregivers who practice it. At the end of the day, doctors are only human. Medical knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes people are beyond medical help and cannot be “fixed.” Human beings are mortal-and that is perhaps the greatest sticking point of all. Medicine can’t save us from death; but obvious as this raw fact surely is, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
In a recent article of the Daily Express, Jon Austin reports on the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a physician who has dedicated his work to the quest for eternal life. Dr. De Grey believes people who have already been born could live for ten centuries as beneficiaries of ongoing research into “repairing the effects of ageing.” He hopes ultimately to create preventative treatments enabling humans to re-repair themselves on a regular basis and so live as long as 1,000 years or possibly even forever. I hasten to add that Mr. Austin has made a name for himself covering all manner of conspiracy theories and alleged government cover-ups of UFO landings and sightings. So I am inclined to take this article with a very large grain of salt. Nonetheless, that it finds its way into public media at all suggests to me that it speaks to a longing we find hard to suppress. The notion that medical science might possibly lead us to that illusive fountain of youth makes us absolutely giddy.
Can genetic engineering extend our lives indefinitely? I rather doubt it. But not being a scientist myself, I can’t speak authoritatively on that question. What I can say with certainty is that the desire to extend one’s life indefinitely is a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical quest. It reflects a stubborn refusal to accept with gratitude the time one has been given on this planet and to graciously step aside and make room for the next generation. The utter selfishness of pursuing human immortality becomes clear when one considers that it would be entirely unsustainable unless we all decided to stop reproducing or restricted life extending treatments to an elite few. This perverse preoccupation also goes a long way toward explaining why our country’s health care system is grotesquely skewed toward providing life extending care for us oldsters while neglecting large sections of our population consisting of children and young families. The drive for immortality represents an arrogant promethean effort to put the brakes on history/evolution and elevate the status quo to a level of eternal significance. It is a refusal to let the universe progress beyond the eternal “me.”
The promise that “you shall not die, but become as God, knowing good and evil” is as old as human existence. We should not forget where it came from. Whether attainable or not, extending human life indefinitely is a false hope. Immortality can offer us only selfish misery and loneliness if it is an end in itself. St. Paul understood that well. That is why he insists that, in order to share in Christ’s eternal life, we must of necessity die. That is why Jesus tells us that only by losing our lives can we hope to gain them. Repentance is a kind of death that requires us to let go daily of past sins and false hopes. We are to practice repentance with such regularity that, when the day of death actually comes, it will be “just another day.” Rather than clinging tenaciously and futilely to life at all costs, we are invited to let our lives fall back into the hands of the One who gave them to us in the first place and who has the power to give them back to us once again, made new and reconciled.
Zechariah encourages Israel to “return to your stronghold.” That stronghold is the Lord, Israel’s covenant partner. God is where all genuine hope is finally anchored. It is within the covenant of baptism, within the community of saints under construction and within the disciplines of discipleship that we are formed through daily repentance and faith into genuinely human creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our creaturely existence. Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy that speaks of a transformative life of repentance grounded in sober hope.
The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.
 Ne’ilah is a special Jewish prayer service that is held on Yom Kippur. It is the time when final prayers of repentance are recited at the closing of this most solemn of Jewish observances.
Source: The Crooked Inheritance, (c. 2006 by Marge Piercy, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan and received her MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She was also heavily involved in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Piercy is a prolific writer having published seventeen books of poetry and several novels. You can learn more about Marge Piercy and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So, too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to defend us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.