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.