Archive for September, 2017
Marriage, Morality, and Righteousness; a poem by Dana Gioia; and the lessons for Sunday, October 1, 2017
SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There were two couples. The first couple never married, but remained faithful to each other throughout their lives. During the course of their shared life, they adopted several special needs children, provided for them a stable home and supported them as they sought to live independently in a society not particularly accepting of people labeled “disabled.” The second couple was legally married in a church ceremony. Over the course of their lives they had numerous extramarital affairs, fought continually, neglected and abused the children born to them and ultimately ended the marriage. Which of the two couples did the will of their heavenly Father?
I suspect that some of you might object that the question is not fair. You might argue that neither couple did what God requires, but they each disobeyed in different ways. On the surface, that appears to be a legitimate point. But Jesus’ parable in Sunday’s gospel about the two sons challenges us to look deeper into the matter. At the end of the day, neither the first son’s refusal to work nor the second son’s insincere promise to work amounts to anything. What matters is what each son finally did. The first son did his father’s bidding. The second did not. By the same token, the first couple in my above example did not enter into a binding legal covenant requiring faithfulness to one another until death as did the first couple. Nonetheless, the first couple was, in fact, faithful. They were in fact good and compassionate parents to their children. They did everything the first couple promised to do in the presence of God and God’s people-but did not.
I am no more attempting to undermine the institution of marriage here than Jesus was promoting tax fraud and prostitution when he pointed out that the harlots and tax gatherers responded faithfully to John the Baptist’s message, whereas his opponents, the religious authorities, did not. The point is that righteousness is not measured by the cannons of respectability, whether they be the religious standards of first century Palestine or the cultural expectations of twenty-first century white middle class America. Righteousness is not achieved by keeping all the rules. Righteousness is measured by one’s response to the gracious call of Jesus and takes the shape of love for God and for one’s neighbor in concrete action. Such love does not necessarily negate religious, social and legal norms, but it surely transcends them.
Much of the debate these days over the “institution of marriage” centers around arguments over its definition. My evangelical friends often insist that marriage is by biblical definition the life-long monogamous union between one man and one woman. But that, quite frankly, is not the exclusive biblical model. Polygamy was widely accepted in the biblical world-as was sexual slavery. In much of the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage was practiced as a commercial transaction between men rather than a courtship ritual between a man and a woman. Because women were deemed the legal property of some man, adultery was not considered an offense committed against a person’s spouse, but an offense by one man against another. The New Testament is not inclined toward a single definition of marriage either. In I Timothy we are told that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife.” I Timothy 3:2. Does that mean that the bishop must be married only once or does it mean that he must be monogamous-suggesting that there might have been bigamists accepted as members of the church, though not qualified to be bishops? Church weddings are foreign to the New Testament. Marriage, whatever shape it took, was considered a civil affair. Though believers were urged to honor it, the early church seems to have taken no interest in regulating or defining marriage.
That isn’t to say that anything goes. I believe that the Bible does inform our view of marriage, but in a far more nuanced way. For example, Paul likens it to the relationship between Christ and his church-an analogy that would seem to rule out hierarchy and polygamy/polyandry. And by the way, for those who might find this analogy patriarchal, I believe you can switch the roles such that Ephesians 5 reads: “Husbands, be subject to your wives; wives, love your husbands” rather than the other way around (as it is in the text) without changing the sense of the text one wit. That is because Christ reigns through serving and pouring out his life for the disciples who are, in turn, called to pour out their lives in service to him. The theological implications of this imagery thus undermine Paul’s patriarchal instincts. Marriage must also be seen through the lens of what Paul declares concerning unity in Christ that recognizes no gender distinctions. Galatians 3:28. The gospel frees us from strictures of cultural, political and societal expectations to become the unique and wonderful persons we truly are.
In the final analysis, the formal definition of marriage is less important than the narrative it creates for two persons finding in one another the mystery of love, the jewel of faithfulness and the sometimes joyous and often tragic beauty of a shared life. The miracle of two lives, ever unique and separate, discovering that together they are even more as they become one tells us whether, in the end, a marriage has been a reflection of the eternal dance between Christ and his Church. That miracle is as likely to be found among gay and lesbian couples as among the straight. It is no less common among those married in courthouses as among those married in churches-or never legally married at all. As in Jesus’ parable, the truth about a marriage is seldom revealed in how it starts out, but only in how it finishes.
Here’s a poem by Dana Gioia about a marriage finishing well.
Marriage of Many Years
Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin—
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.
This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.
Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press). Dana Gioia (b. 1950) claims to be the only person in history ever to have gone to business school to become a poet. He was, in fact, a graduate of Stanford Business School and became a vice president of General Foods. He committed himself to writing full time in 1993. Gioia served as chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008 where he led Operation Homecoming which provides writing workshops to U.S. soldiers and their spouses. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For my general comments on Ezekiel, see the post from September 10th.
The prophet’s dialogical oracle is incited by what appears to have become a popular proverb among the Babylonian exiles: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Vs. 2. By this saying, the exiles are placing the blame for their predicament upon the sins of their ancestors. They are not altogether mistaken about that. There is no question that the economic exploitation, nationalistic policies and foolish decisions of Judah and her leaders put the nation on the trajectory of her disastrous clash with Babylon. Much of this pre-dated the births of people living in the present community. In the same way, exploitation of the African continent, the slave trade and legislatively imposed segregation pre-dates the lifetimes of most people now living in the United States. Nevertheless, the sad legacy of that history still haunts us and racism continues to infect the very structures of our society. We are all born into a world we did not make.
But that is not the end of it. The problem with the exiles’ proverb is that it purports to place full blame for their predicament on the shoulders of their ancestors, thus making the exiles themselves innocent victims. That, according to Ezekiel, amounts to self-deception. It allows the exiles the luxury of despair and inaction. The prophet would have his people know that they are still in the game. Though they may have been dealt a bad hand, they are not excused from playing it. That is where the proverb breaks down. While we cannot change the historical realities that made American cities like Charlottesvile, South Carolina flash points of racial violence, we can, if we have the courage and determination, shape what that history will mean for us today and how that understanding will, in turn, shape the future. We can refuse to be shackled by the chains of our past and open ourselves up to God’s future. In biblical terms, we can repent.
Ezekiel’s message is an important one for an increasingly cynical culture obsessed with movies of apocalyptic doom and dystopian scenarios for the future. This prophet is no shallow optimist. I have no doubt he would agree that global warming, militarization and nationalism are genuine threats placing our planet in dire peril. A lot of damage has been done that our best efforts will not be able to repair anytime soon. Nevertheless, the God of Israel is the one who breathes life into dead bones. Ezekiel 37:1-14. For that reason, despair, inertia and inaction are not options. God has not given up on the world, but is still very much at work redeeming it. Neither has God given up on his people. Though acts of mercy, compassion and healing so often seem ineffective in a world so torn by violence, cruelty and death, God assures us that the future is God’s new heaven and new earth. God’s people are privileged to take part in its birthing.
This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-9, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
It strikes me that the psalmist’s understanding of forgiveness is in some respects complementary to Ezekiel’s message. Both the prophet and the psalmist insist that sin and punishment are not the last words spoken. Even when one stands amidst the ashes of a ruined past, one nevertheless stands. Because the future is God’s future, it has power to redeem the past.
Once again, to reprise what I said last week, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
As was the case last week, Sunday’s lesson is from Paul’s Letter of Friendship. Paul encourages the Philippian church to be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” Vs. 2. There is something repugnant about a group of people having “the same mind” or “one mind.” Our culture treasures the right of every individual to his or her own opinion. But the church is not made up of individuals endowed with a bundle of rights. It is the living Body of the Resurrected Christ of which all disciples of Jesus are members. Clearly, a body cannot function where each member has its own self-interested mind and will. As I have often said, the language of rights is not one that can articulate well the polity of the church.
It seems to me that in spite of our fierce dedication to preserving our individual rights, our preference for personal “spirituality” (whatever that is) over “organized religion,” and the value we place on making up our own mind, we are a good deal less independent than we think we are when it comes to thinking. “Movements” often tend to break out without any prior organization or structure. Groups of people are seized by images on the internet to take action of one kind or another. Crowds are whipped into a frenzy by news of some injustice, real or imagined. Celebs, political leaders and talk radio hosts collect followings of people who are infatuated with them or their views. Perhaps Paul understood better than we do the inevitability of some mind greater than our own dominating or at least influencing us powerfully. That being the case, says Paul, let it be the mind of Christ. Let your outlook, your words and your actions be shaped by your relationship to Jesus.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah. See, e.g., Isaiah 53. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Vs. 12. That phrase taken alone is troubling-as well it should be. Salvation, to be sure, is God’s free gift. Yet, like the gift of a fine musical instrument, much time, hard work and dedication are required to make proper use of it. If the recipient simply thanks the giver and packs the gift away on a closet shelf, it loses its transformative power. It becomes, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, “cheap grace.” Nonetheless, lest anyone should conclude that salvation is less than sheer gift, Paul goes on to remind us that “God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Vs. 13. Salvation is God’s work from start to finish.
By this point in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph (Matthew 21:1-11) and cleansed the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). He has now re-entered the temple on this, the following day, to take up teaching the people. It would seem quite natural for the chief priests and elders of the people to question Jesus about his credentials. What is your authorization to do these things, Jesus, and where did you get it? Vs. 23. At first blush, it would seem a little unfair for Jesus to demand from his opponents an answer to a subsequent question of his own without first answering theirs. But in reality, Jesus’ question is his answer. The source of Jesus’ authority is also the source of John’s authority. It is obvious, though, that the chief priests and the elders have been dodging the issue of John’s authority. As John was put to death by Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, these leaders whose seat of authority was in the jurisdiction of Judah might well have managed publically to dissociate themselves from John’s execution. But in Matthew’s gospel, the ministry of John is intimately linked to that of the Messiah. John is the figure of Elijah who heralds the coming of the Lord. Matthew 11:7-15 cf. Malachi 4:5-6. The leaders are thus caught in a double bind. They cannot acknowledge John without acknowledging Jesus. Neither will they denounce John in the presence of the people. By confronting the chief priests and the elders with the ministry of John, Jesus has answered their question, though not in the way they had hoped. Rather than gaining an admission they could have used to prosecute Jesus before Pilate, the religious leaders receive a question they cannot answer but which leaves little doubt as to the source Jesus’ claims for his authority.
By this time, the chief priests and the elders are no doubt beating a hasty retreat. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “What do you think?” He calls to them as they seek to disappear into the crowd. “A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today,’ And he answered, ‘I will not;’ but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered ‘I go sir,’ but did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?” Vss. 28-31. It is significant here that Jesus asks specifically which of the two children did what the father asked rather than which of the two was properly obedient or respectful. There could be only one response and that is the one the leaders were compelled to give, namely, that the first child who showed profound disrespect and disobedience to his father was nevertheless the one who did as he was commanded. Jesus then returns to the uncomfortable issue of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes, people clearly outside any definition of righteousness, nevertheless did what righteousness required by heeding John’s call to repentance. By contrast, the chief priests and the elders, with all of their righteous credentials, refused to recognize the one who came to them in the way of righteousness. Vs. 32. Now the religious authorities are clearly on the defensive, where they will remain until the end of chapter 23.
Once again, Matthew redefines righteousness for us. Righteousness is not, as the chief priests and elders maintain, adherence to any written code, even the Torah. Right conduct grows out of a faithful response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. It is neither definitional nor behavioral, but relational. As observed by Professor Stanley Hauerwas,
“The chief priests’ and elders’ question has been repeated through the centuries of Christian history. Attempts to answer the question as posed inevitably result in diverse forms of Christian heresy, for the attempt to establish grounds more determinative than Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for why we should believe in him results in idolatry. If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus. There is no place one might go to know with certainty that Jesus is who he says he is. To know that Jesus is the Son of God requires that we take up his cross and follow him. Having taken up the cross, Christians discover they have no fear of the truth, no matter from where it might come.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 185.
Jonah, Jesus and white male privilege; a poem by Emma Lazarus; and the Lessons for Sunday, September 24th
I inadvertently published this post two weeks ago prior to the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am now re-posting it as it addresses the texts for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24th
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The concept of fairness seems to be built into our human DNA. Small children are acutely sensitive to what’s fair and what isn’t. They notice when there happens to be a tad more orange juice in a sibling’s glass than their own. Everyone knows that when you visit a three child household, you bring three gifts or none at all. Kids have a low tolerance for disparate treatment. So do adults. Everyone knows it is not wise to share the amount of your bonus with co-workers. Unless you are the sort…
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Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The lessons for this Sunday all dwell on forgiveness and forbearance in some fashion. In our lesson from Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery recognizing that, what they did to him out of malice, God used to bring about salvation. Our psalm echoes the familiar refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, namely, that God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Paul urges us to treat with gentleness and respect those whose path of discipleship differs from our own. In our gospel, Jesus reminds Peter by way of a challenging parable that our readiness to forgive one another must match God’s willingness to forgive us.
We need to have a clear understanding, though, about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness does not absolve one of responsibility. Precisely because God forgives us, we are now set free to make right what we have done wrong-so far as is humanly possible. Being forgiven for our sins makes us more, not less responsible for their consequences. Forgiveness is not premised on anyone’s request to be forgiven. As Jesus’ parable in this Sunday’s gospel demonstrates, forgiveness might not be appreciated. It might not result in a changed life for the one forgiven. Nonetheless, just as God sends the sun and the rain upon the righteous and the wicked and showers both with his love and forgiveness, so disciples of Jesus are to forgive without regard to its effects. Finally, forgiveness is not a grant of permission for abuse. I might forgive my abuser and forego any thoughts of retaliation. But I will not simply permit him/her to continue injuring me without resistance. Quite apart from the issue of forgiveness, I have a moral responsibility to myself, to my abuser and to the community to break the cycle of abuse.
What, then, does forgiveness mean? From God’s side, it is a determination not to let sin define God’s relationship to God’s creation and God’s creatures. God will continue to work with our world, broken and misdirected as it is, to bring about a new creation. Even our acts of evil, selfishness and destruction can become God’s instruments for good-as was the case in the story of Joseph and his brothers. God refuses to give up on our world, and that means we can’t give up on it either. To forgive is to recognize God’s holy image in all people, even when they have names like David Duke and Richard Spencer. To forgive is to continue worshiping, serving and praying with a church full of people that continue to let you down. To forgive is to take a deep breath when someone cuts you off on the interstate-because you don’t know what kind of hell they might be going through. To forgive is to find something true, something beautiful and something good in each day, because it is, after all, the day the Lord has made. Forgiveness is seeing with a clear and unsentimental eye the world as it is, while at the same time holding tight God’s promise of all that it will be.
Here’s a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay with a unique take on forgiveness. It gives us a tantalizing hint about how deeply hurtful we can be in our everyday lives and the breadth of forgiveness required to cover us.
Each moment things forgive you. All your hours
Are crowded with rich penitence unknown
Even to you. Shot birds and trampled flowers,
And worms that you have murdered with a stone
In idle sport-yea, and the well whose deep,
Translucent, green and solitary sleep
You stirred into harsh wrinkles with a stick.
Red mud that you have bound into brick,
Old wood that you have wrought into bark,
Flame in the street-lamp held to light the dark,
And fierce red rubies chiseled for a ring…
You are forgiven each hour by everything!
Source: Poetry Magazine May, 1931. Harindranath Chattopadhyay was an Indian English poet, dramatist, actor and musician. He founded and administered the Hyderabad College in India, which later became the Nizam’s College in Hyderabad. You can find out more about Harindranath Chattopadhyay and sample more of his poetry at the Scroll.in website.
“Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention. Furthermore, “[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.
This should give us some context for understanding Sunday’s lesson which brings us to the conclusion of the patriarchal saga. As you may recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to a band of traders in a fit of jealousy. They then told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild beasts. Joseph, through a series of misadventures finally winds up in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh where he engineers a food rationing program that saved Egypt from starvation over the course of a seven year famine. Canaan, by contrast, is caught off guard and Joseph’s father, Jacob, and his brothers are facing starvation. Knowing that there is food to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends Joseph’s brothers there with money to buy food. To abbreviate the account, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers and assures them that they need not fear retaliation. Then he sends them back with instructions to bring their father with them to the land of Egypt where they can ride out the famine.
When sometime later father Jacob dies, a disturbing thought occurs to Joseph’s brothers. What if Joseph was not as forgiving as he let on? What if he refrained from taking revenge only out of respect for his father? Now that Jacob is dead, what is to stop Joseph from doing to his brothers what he had done to them-or worse. Wishing to be proactive, Joseph’s brothers seek an audience with Joseph in which they plead their father’s dying request that he, Joseph, forgive them for the evil they have done. Whether this final testament of Jacob was real or manufactured, Joseph understands well enough that it reflects what his father would have desired. More significantly, Joseph recognizes that there is something bigger at stake here than whatever quarrel he might have with his brothers. Though the brothers acted out of petty jealousy, God was acting at the same time for the purpose of salvation for the family and for many other people. Joseph understands that he is not “in the place of God” who clearly was determined to save the lives of his brothers and their families and has accomplished that very purpose through Joseph’s ordeal.
It would be easy to trivialize this story by summing it up with the maxim: “All things work together for good.” While that is true, it must be born in mind that the good toward which all things work is not necessarily one’s own good. There was nothing good about Joseph’s years of slavery, his separation from his father and the malice of his brothers against him. Joseph’s good fortune later in the game does not erase the scares of what he had to endure. Yet God was able through these harrowing events to further God’s saving purposes and accomplish the good intended.
We should not fail to recognize the ambiguity inherent in this apparent “good.” Though saved from starvation, Israel is brought into Egypt, the house of bondage, as a result of Joseph’s influence. Note well that Joseph had, for all intents and purposes, forsaken his family, culture and faith in his meteoric rise from prisoner to prince of Egypt. We read that after appointing him to his new office, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, an Egyptian name. The new clothing he received was an Egyptian brand. The woman he married was an Egyptian woman-and not the common suburban type either. She was the daughter of a priest of Egypt’s gods. Genesis 41:50. Joseph did what all good immigrants are expected to do. He assimilated. He learned to dress and speak like an Egyptian. He married into a prominent Egyptian family. He adopted the religion of Egypt and even accepted an Egyptian name. If there is anything left of his Hebrew roots, Joseph has had the good sense to keep it out of sight. Joseph had no intention of returning home. The name Joseph gives to his second son says it all: “God has made me forget my suffering and my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51.
Though Joseph was sitting in the cat bird’s seat, the covenant was in grave danger of disappearing into the cultural soup of Egypt. It was salvaged only because God brought Joseph’s family back to him. Joseph’s reconciliation with is brothers was therefore not just a family affair. It was a turning from idolatry to covenant faithfulness on the part of a man who nearly forgot who he was. All of this prefigures the struggle Israel will undergo when she returns to the Promised Land and will be compelled to find ways of living faithfully within the context of a very enticing Canaanite culture.
There is also a note of irony in the story. Joseph’s rationing program became an instrument whereby the Empire was able to purchase the very bodies of his subjects rendering them slaves. Genesis 47:13-22. Little did Joseph know how suddenly the institution of imperial slavery he constructed would be turned ruthlessly against his descendants!
I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.
This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.” If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:
“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.
Last week Paul made the point that disciples of Jesus ought to have no debt beyond that of love toward one another. In this Sunday’s lesson he puts shoe leather on that concept. Friendships, marriages and intentional religious communities so frequently fail because they assume that, deep down under, we are really all the same. That is a lie. The deeper you go into the heart of a person, the more you discover how complex, unique and different s/he is from you. The more you get to know another person, the more obvious it becomes that there are some things about him/her that are beyond your understanding and that you will probably never comprehend. You cannot genuinely love another person as long as you insist on viewing him/her as just a variation of yourself. Love accepts the fact that there is a vast gulf between each of us. Love can do that because, as St. Paul reminds us, “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13:8. Because we have all eternity to grow in our knowledge and understanding of one another, there is no rush. We can afford to be patient.
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Vs. 1. According to one commentator, the “weak in faith” are those with “an inadequate grasp of the great principle of salvation by faith in Christ; the consequence of which will be an anxious desire to make this salvation more certain by the scrupulous fulfilment of formal rules.” Sandy, William and Headlam, Arthur C., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary, c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark, Ltd.) p. 384. I believe this to be an oversimplification. Paul seems principally to be addressing the “strong” here who likely characterize their scrupulous opponents as “weak.” It is unlikely that these scrupulous folks would so characterize themselves! For the sake of argument, Paul utilizes these patronizing terms, but only to stand them on their heads. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 834. There is a degree of sarcasm here as Paul admonishes the seemingly “strong” to exercise control over their urge to disabuse the “weak” of their misconceptions and so find genuine inner strength to love the “weak” without having to make them over into their own likeness. So also Paul assures us that the “weak” one will stand strong in the day of judgment because “the master is able to make him stand.” Vs. 4. In short, Paul is undermining the phony distinction between those who fancy themselves “strong” and the ones they contemptuously view as “weak.” No one is strong enough stand on his/her own strength and no one is too weak to be upheld by the strength of the Lord.
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what calendar of holy days or dietary restrictions are involved here. While it is tempting to assume that this dispute is between gentile believers not steeped in Jewish tradition and Jewish believers still deeply attached to their religious practices, the assumption might well be misguided. Anders Nygren points out that the weak were probably not Jewish believers because there is no blanket commandment in the Torah against eating meat or drinking wine. Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans (c. 1949 by Fortress Press) p. 442. Vs. 2. Again, however, Paul might well be employing hyperbole in order to make his point. Just as there probably exists no person or group that “believes he may eat anything,” so also it would be unusual for a 1st Century resident of Rome to eat “only vegetables.” Vs. 2. “The rhetorical effect of placing these parameters so far beyond the likely, actual behavior of groups in Rome is to enable each group to smile and feel included in the subsequent argument.” Jewett, supra at 838. At the end of the day, Paul’s stance toward both groups, the so called “strong” and the so called “weak,” is unmistakably evenhanded. Both weak and strong are present in the Body of Christ by Jesus’ gracious invitation. In that sense, all are “weak.” Both weak and strong are enabled to stand before God on the day of judgment in the strength of their faith in Jesus. In that sense, all are “strong.”
We need not dwell overly much on framing the issues Paul is addressing in this lesson. They are almost certainly moot by now. Nonetheless, Paul’s instructions to the church are insightful and instructive. Without even recognizing it, churches frequently seek people “who fit in,” who “share our sense of mission,” who “are like us.” The departure of large numbers in my own Lutheran Church over their inability to live in community with gay, lesbian and transgendered persons testifies to the ongoing relevance of Paul’s argument here. As one who has remained in the church precisely because I support its inclusive posture, it is tempting to posture myself as one of the “strong” and excoriate those who left as the “weak.” But I believe that in so doing I would be falling into the same flawed outlook held by the disputing groups in the Roman church. This schism must be seen as our church’s failure to accept one another, be patient with one another and allow the Spirit to complete in her own good time the mind of Christ in all of us.
How much and how often am I expected to forgive? That is Peter’s question and it is a reasonable one. We hear it all the time. How many times do I have to remind you to put down the seat! I can’t believe you forgot to pay the credit card bill again! Can you please stop doing that! You know how it annoys me. I don’t believe that Peter is speaking about actions that, in themselves, press the limits of forgiveness. He isn’t speaking of murder, robbery, arson or anything along those lines. Instead, he is speaking about the sorts of offenses people commit on a regular basis, often without even knowing it. Some people can’t help but offer you their advice, regardless whether you want or need it. Other people have odd mannerisms that can be extremely annoying. There are people who seem to have a natural gift for saying hurtful and insensitive things when you are most vulnerable. Often these people wind up in the church because we are probably the only community of people willing to put up with them. So am I supposed to be a bottomless reservoir of forgiveness?
Well, yes, says Jesus. Then he backs it up with the disturbing parable of the forgiven, but unforgiving servant. The parable is disturbing precisely because it suggests that forgiveness which does not inspire forgiveness in the one forgiven can be revoked. In other words, forgiveness is not unconditional. This isn’t the first time that Matthew’s gospel makes the point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15. Perhaps it is best to read this parable less as a threat, and more as a very pointed question directed to Peter: If God’s unlimited forgiveness of our sins does not evoke in us the same breadth of compassion and forgiveness toward our neighbor, what good is it? Have we really heard that gracious word of forgiveness from God? Are we fully aware of the degree to which we harm one another and so dishonor God’s image? If, in fact, we are fully aware of the depth of our sin and the corresponding depth of God’s full and free forgiveness, how can we fail to be as forgiving toward fellow human beings?
As commentator John Nolland points out, this parable is hyperbolic and thus exceeds the parameters of any commercial transaction that might have occurred between slave and master in First Century Palestine. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 760. We should take care, then, not to interpret the parable literally or overly allegorically. From the context it is clear that Jesus is reinforcing for Peter what he has earlier said, namely, that his forgiveness for his fellow disciples must be as limitless as God’s forgiveness for him.
Jonah, Jesus and white male privilege; a poem by Emma Lazarus; and the Lessons for Sunday, September 24th
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The concept of fairness seems to be built into our human DNA. Small children are acutely sensitive to what’s fair and what isn’t. They notice when there happens to be a tad more orange juice in a sibling’s glass than their own. Everyone knows that when you visit a three child household, you bring three gifts or none at all. Kids have a low tolerance for disparate treatment. So do adults. Everyone knows it is not wise to share the amount of your bonus with co-workers. Unless you are the sort of person who likes to flaunt your wealth or bemoan your poverty, you don’t disclose your financial affairs or inquire into those of other people. Envy and resentment are likely to rear their ugly heads when it comes to who makes how much. For that reason, financial matters, like politics and religion, are routinely avoided in polite company.
Nothing riles us more than to see people get more than we think they deserve. Though I have never run the numbers, I have a sneaking suspicion that the government would save a ton of money if it just provided food assistance to everyone who seeks it without qualifications and without financing an elaborate system of verification and enforcement to prevent fraud and abuse. Again, I don’t know whether that is actually the case. Even if it were, however, I doubt the public would ever approve such a measure-no matter how much money it might save us. The idea that somebody else might get an undeserved share of our tax dollars is just too hard on our moral sensibilities. We all had to work for what we have. So should everyone else-or at least those who can.
The same kind of righteous outrage seems to be at work in the hearts of the prophet Jonah and the day laborers in Jesus’ parable. Jonah cannot fathom why God should pardon Assyria, a nation so brutal and heartless it makes ISIS look like a church choir by comparison. This is especially galling when one considers that Israel’s transgressions were punished with national defeat and exile. The first hired laborers in Sunday’s gospel are fit to be tied when they discover that the slackers who showed up an hour before sundown take home the same full day’s pay they received for actually doing a full day’s work. What gives here? Is there no fairness at all?
Actually, no. Life isn’t fair and most of us wouldn’t want it to be if we took the time to think it through. I know I wouldn’t want absolute fairness. I have been the recipient of too many undeserved advantages. First off, I had the good fortune to be born in the 1950s when the economy was a good deal kinder to working class men without college degrees like my Dad. Because Dad was able to find a job that paid a living wage, provided health benefits and gave him an adequate pension, he was able to give a stable home to his kids and provide us with the college education he never had. Second, I was born “white.” That means I had little to fear from the police beyond the annoyance of a traffic ticket. I never had to worry about how my ethnicity, skin color or accent was affecting my job interview or whether a client of my firm might have “demographic concerns” about my representing their company. Third, I was born male, which means that there were many more educational and vocational opportunities open to me with no “glass ceilings” to worry about. I never had to worry either about bosses, prestigious clients or white celebrity males touching my breasts, grabbing me by the genitals or propositioning me for sex as a condition for keeping my job. Finally, quite apart from any effort, initiative or skill on my part, I managed to avoid all of the genetic factors that predispose some people to childhood diseases, cancers and chronic conditions that render them incapable of self-care. I did absolutely nothing to earn or deserve any of those advantages. Did I work hard for everything I now have? You bet. But I know that, absent the head start with which I was born, I would have been working a lot harder for a lot less.
Saint Paul states the matter quite plainly with his usual bluntness. “What have you that you did not receive?” he asks rhetorically, “If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” I Corinthians 4:7. We are not self-made people. We didn’t all start at the same place in this race we call life. Those of us who got a head start must recognize that we were, in many respects, just lucky. In many respects, we benefited from the effects of systemic racism and entrenched patriarchy in education, politics and the work place. None of that makes us bad people, but it certainly ought to put a damper on our boasting and kill our obsession with “fairness,” especially as it pertains to ourselves. We should not resent efforts to enable those who have been historically disadvantaged to catch up-though for those of us who have grown accustomed to having a head start in life that might feel as though we are losing ground. It is hard to be told, no, you didn’t hit a triple. In fact, you were born on third base.
I believe it is precisely this irrational resentment and misplaced self-pity that is feeding the resurgence of white supremacy groups throughout the country. When we hear “black lives matter,” we jump to the conclusion that ours don’t. When we see the increasing presence and influence of African Americans in politics, entertainment, sports and professions that formerly were overwhelmingly white, we feel that something of ours is being taken away from us. When languages that are unfamiliar appear on our ballots, signs and official documents, we feel as though we are being pushed aside by strangers. As more and more Americans look less and less like us, it seems as though we are losing the country we thought we knew. Consequently, when someone comes along who vilifies these folks who are destroying our America, assures us that our feelings are justified and promises “to make America great (read, “white”) again,” his voice resonates. “He says what we feel,” one Trump supporter recently told me. So too, the extreme expressions of white supremacy legitimize the blind rage felt by those of us who resent the loss of our privilege, privilege we have mistaken for a natural right.
The lessons for this Sunday speak a salutary word to those of us fuming over the loss of privilege and feeling unjustly deprived. The Book of Jonah reminds us that God loves us too much to treat us fairly. God treats us-all of us-mercifully. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard lets us know in no uncertain terms that God’s good gifts to us are just that: gifts. We are no more worthy of them if we have been toiling throughout the heat of the day and no less entitled to them if we arrive only at the eleventh hour. In fact, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Psalm 24:1. Only when we are ready to release our own claim of ownership on the piece we think is “ours” can we hope to receive it as gift. The following poem by Emma Lazarus expresses gratitude for this land we call home by those for whom it is not yet home. It is the song of immigrants newly discovering America with gratitude and generosity we established Americans too often lack.
“Since that day till now our life is one unbroken paradise. We live a true brotherly life. Every evening after supper we take a seat under the mighty oak and sing our songs.”—Extract from a letter of a Russian refugee in Texas.
Twilight is here, soft breezes bow the grass,
Day’s sounds of various toil break slowly off.
The yoke-freed oxen low, the patient ass
Dips his dry nostril in the cool, deep trough.
Up from the prairie the tanned herdsmen pass
With frothy pails, guiding with voices rough
Their udder-lightened kine. Fresh smells of earth,
The rich, black furrows of the glebe send forth.
After the Southern day of heavy toil,
How good to lie, with limbs relaxed, brows bare
To evening’s fan, and watch the smoke-wreaths coil
Up from one’s pipe-stem through the rayless air.
So deem these unused tillers of the soil,
Who stretched beneath the shadowing oak tree, stare
Peacefully on the star-unfolding skies,
And name their life unbroken paradise.
The hounded stag that has escaped the pack,
And pants at ease within a thick-leaved dell;
The unimprisoned bird that finds the track
Through sun-bathed space, to where his fellows dwell;
The martyr, granted respite from the rack,
The death-doomed victim pardoned from his cell,—
Such only know the joy these exiles gain,—
Life’s sharpest rapture is surcease of pain.
Strange faces theirs, wherethrough the Orient sun
Gleams from the eyes and glows athwart the skin.
Grave lines of studious thought and purpose run
From curl-crowned forehead to dark-bearded chin.
And over all the seal is stamped thereon
Of anguish branded by a world of sin,
In fire and blood through ages on their name,
Their seal of glory and the Gentiles’ shame.
Freedom to love the law that Moses brought,
To sing the songs of David, and to think
The thoughts Gabirol to Spinoza taught,
Freedom to dig the common earth, to drink
The universal air—for this they sought
Refuge o’er wave and continent, to link
Egypt with Texas in their mystic chain,
And truth’s perpetual lamp forbid to wane.
Hark! through the quiet evening air, their song
Floats forth with wild sweet rhythm and glad refrain.
They sing the conquest of the spirit strong,
The soul that wrests the victory from pain;
The noble joys of manhood that belong
To comrades and to brothers. In their strain
Rustle of palms and Eastern streams one hears,
And the broad prairie melts in mist of tears.
Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002). Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty from her poem, The New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus was one of the first successful and publically recognized Jewish American authors. She was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.
The book of Jonah differs from all the other prophetic books. Rather than containing the oracles of a prophet, this book tells the story of a prophet. It reads very much like a short story. It is also different in that the prophetic focus is not upon Israel, but upon Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, Assyria. That is where the problem lies as far as the prophet is concerned. Jonah would far rather be declaring gleefully Assyria’s doom to his fellow Israelites than bringing a warning to the doomed nation. Assyria, after all, was responsible for the downfall and destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom of Judah only narrowly escaped the same fate. Jonah, like the rest of Israel, wanted nothing more than to see God’s judgment fall with full force on this cruel empire. So Jonah does everything in his power to ensure the failure of his mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
First, Jonah tries to run away from his commission. Rather than traveling to Nineveh, he gets on a boat heading in the opposite direction. God catches up with Jonah, however and sends a storm that threatens to swamp the ship. Everyone on the boat begins praying frantically to his god, except Jonah who is fast asleep in the hold. Jonah is not on speaking terms with his God. The sailors wake Jonah and implore him to pray to his God for rescue, but instead Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard. He would rather drown than prophesy to Nineveh. But Jonah’s attempt at suicide fails. God is not letting him off the hook that easily. God sends a great fish to swallow Jonah and there he remains, in the belly of the fish, for three days. After giving Jonah adequate time to reflect, the fish vomits Jonah up on shore. God repeats the original command: Go at once to Nineveh.
Knowing that he can never escape from God, Jonah goes reluctantly to Nineveh and preaches the shortest and most uninformative sermon ever given by a prophet. The message? “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:4. That’s it. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are being overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can do to prevent the overthrow. Yet this half-hearted and incomplete sermon brings about a remarkable effect. “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone great and small put on sackcloth.” Jonah 3:5. Not only that, but “when the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” Jonah 3:6. Even the animals repented with fasting! Jonah 3:7-8. “Who knows?” remarked the king. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3:9. God does indeed hear the penitent cries from the people of Nineveh and God changes his mind. God spares the city from destruction.
This is just what Jonah had feared and what he had done everything possible to prevent. “I knew it!” cries the exasperated prophet. “Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning: for I knew that you were a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2. Jonah knows his Torah well. This confession of God as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 145:8 and Psalm 103:8. Indeed, it is with these very words that God reveals to Moses his innermost being. Exodus 34:6-7. But Jonah does not seem to want a God who is merciful and slow to anger. He wants a God that is fair. Assyria is guilty of unspeakable acts of war, oppression and cruelty. It is only fair that God visit upon Assyria what the empire has inflicted on Israel. An eleventh hour show of repentance should not be enough to win Nineveh a reprieve from justice.
God proves to be as patient and forgiving toward his stubborn prophet as he is toward the wicked city of Nineveh. God employs an object lesson. He causes a plant to grow up giving the sulking prophet shade. Then, a day later, God sends a worm causing the plant to wither and die. Now Jonah is livid. Bad enough that God should make a fool of him by calling off the judgment he had predicted. Now it appears that God means to give him sunstroke as well. Then God makes his point: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11. That is how the book ends-with God’s question. We never hear Jonah’s answer and perhaps that is intentional. The question is really directed at us. What sort of God do we worship? Is God chiefly concerned with abstract notions of justice, with punishing sin and rewarding good behavior? Or is God more concerned with the well-being of people? Does God hate sin because it offends against his precious laws? Or does God hate sin because it harms his creatures?
For numerous reasons, most scholars date this book in the post exilic period following 539 B.C.E. While the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by Assyria was a more distant memory, Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians was a fresh and painful recollection. To be sure, Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained these catastrophes as consequences of Israel’s breach of covenant faithfulness to God. But even so, Israel’s less than perfect obedience was surely light years closer to righteousness than the brutal and oppressive ways of Assyria and Babylonia. If Israel was justly punished for her sin, is it too much to expect that these empires also should face judgment?
The Book of Jonah shifts the focus of this discussion from fairness to mercy. God does not inflict judgment merely settle scores or maintain some sort of moral balance. God punishes in order to heal. Thus, whether God punishes sin or decides to refrain from punishment has nothing to do with fairness. It is finally a question of what will bring about a change of heart, healing and ways that are life giving. If repentance can be achieved without punishment, God abstains from exercising the rod-even if that seems unfair. Likewise, God will inflict whatever hardships are necessary to bring his people to the point of recognizing their self-destructive ways and their need for him-whether the punishment is commensurate with the crime or not. But God’s concern is always for the well-being of his people both within and outside of his covenant with Israel.
“All of this points in the direction of the fact that God’s will for his world is salvation and not destruction. He will do all within his power to see that salvation comes rather than destruction. God’s love and mercy always have priority over his anger (see Psalm 30:3). He wishes life for his creatures rather than death (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Fretheim, Terence E., The Message of Jonah, (c. 1977 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 130.
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.
Formally, 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. Professor Walter Brueggemann classifies this psalm as a “song of creation,” a subcategory of his “psalms of orientation,” namely, psalms that “express a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 25. Psalm 145 expresses Israel’s “joyous and grateful confidence in the Creator.” Id. at 28. There is no thematic development in this psalm. It is, as Brueggeman points out, “static in form, articulating what is enduringly true of the world.” Id. at 28-29. The range of praise stretches from the first person to the intergenerational “we” of the worshiping community.
“The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8.This refrain is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as pointed out in my observations concerning our first lesson, where we encounter it in the context of irony. Jonah 4:2 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. Placed as it is in contrast to Jonah’s citation of this ancient confession, the psalm invites us to ponder what it means to have a God whose principle attributes are graciousness, mercy, and steadfast love. Such a divine disposition is comforting when applied to ourselves but, as the lesson from Jonah illustrates, not quite so palatable when applied to our enemies. Are we prepared to accept God’s graciousness and mercy extended toward Al Qaeda or to ISIS? Or does the very idea throw us into a Jonah snit?
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the Letter of Friendship Paul wrote while imprisoned. Paul is mindful that his imprisonment might well end with his being sentenced to death. Though hopeful that he will finally be released and allowed to continue his ministry, Paul does not fear death. For whether through his future ministry or through his faithful acceptance of death for the sake of the gospel, whether short or long, Paul’s life will bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:19-20. Paul prefers deliverance from prison to martyrdom, but this is not because he fears death. Indeed, he views death in Christ as “gain.” Vs. 21. Paul wishes to live that he may continue his ministry to the church in Philippi and to his other congregations. Vs. 25-26.
Paul urges the Philippian believers to let their manner of life “be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Vs. 27. To give content to this admonition, we need to read further both in Philippians and in the other letters of Paul. The church, as the Body of Christ, is to live a counter-cultural existence in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. In the midst of the hierarchical and stratified culture of Rome, such a community constituted a subversive challenge. The church was, as Paul aptly pointed out, an “omen to them of their destruction.” Vs. 28. The church can therefore expect opposition. Faith in Jesus naturally entails “suffering” for his sake and participation with Paul in his own conflict with the empire. Vss. 29-30.
Paul’s sentiments and the struggles of his Philippian congregation are hard to grasp in a culture where the church fits neatly into the Americana landscape. Even as Christianity fades from popular culture and the church’s influence recedes, we do not face anything like persecution. Yes, I know about Fox’s reporting on the so-called “war on Christianity.” But if you really think that barring a crèche from the town square during the holiday season amounts to persecution, you need to talk to Christians in Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq. They will tell you what real persecution looks like. What we actually are experiencing is the beginning of marginalization. Given our substantial loss of membership, participation and support, we mainliners no longer represent a significant demographic group. We are fast becoming a minority. But then again, perhaps we always were a minority. Maybe the cultural support churches received in the past and the social expectation for church membership and participation characteristic of earlier times falsely inflated our numbers. It could be that, despite the loss of members, the church has more disciples today than ever before. I have no idea whether that is so or how one would go about finding out one way or the other. But I digress.
I believe that a careful reading of Paul’s letters in our present context compels a change of subject. Rather than trying to reverse membership loss to save our institutions, we need to be talking about becoming and making disciples. Rather than wracking our brains trying to figure out how to get people to go to church, we need to start talking about how we can better be the church. It’s high time that we become an “omen” once again.
The parable reflects the gritty realities of life in Palestine and, sadly, many places in our own country. Labor is cheap and it’s a buyer’s market. Men and women stand in groups at the market place in Galilean towns or in front of the Shoprite in Union City hoping to get work for the day. The work day in Palestine lasted from sunrise to sunset. The daily wage, a denarius, was set by rabbinic custom and tradition. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) P. 392. The requirement that payment be made at the end of the day is rooted in Torah. Deuteronomy 24:15. “Vineyard” is a frequent metaphor for Israel throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-9.
It is important to understand that this parable follows Jesus’ teaching concerning lifelong fidelity in marriage (Matthew 19:1-9); the call of some to forego marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:10-12); Jesus’ declaration that children, who the disciples found to be a distraction, are the proper heirs of the kingdom (Matthew 19:13-15); the story about the man whose riches prevented him from following Jesus in the way of the kingdom (Matthew 19:16-22); and Jesus’ words on the cost and rewards of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-30). Matthew’s use of the vineyard here suggests that he is giving us a snapshot of what life in the kingdom looks like-if only we have eyes to see it.
The hiring of the first laborers at dawn for a day’s wage is hardly unusual. It would not be unusual either to hire additional laborers later in the day if, for example, the rainy season were drawing near with its potential for cooler weather and even frost. Hiring workers an hour before sunset simply is not credible. Yet that appears to be the point. The owner of the vineyard is not looking at this venture from a purely business like, self-interested perspective. He is looking to the needs of the laborers. At an hour from quitting time, he discovers that there are still laborers standing idle in the marketplace. It seems odd that the owner of the vineyard would ask these unemployed laborers why they are idle. Isn’t that like asking an unemployed factory worker why he isn’t at work? The answer seems obvious, yet the owner seeks an answer from these unfortunate individuals just the same. When the would-be laborers tell him that they are idle because they have not been hired, the owner promptly hires them and sends them out.
While it might seem strange that the owner of the vineyard should pay the last workers before the first, this order of events is critical to the parable. Had the first hired been the first paid, they would each have taken their denarius and gone home contented. As the owner later points out, they received the benefit of their bargain. They are taking home a living wage for a day’s work. Their wages seem disagreeable to them only because they have witnessed payment of the same amount made to those hired last. For this reason only their wages look small and miserly. In reality, the first hired are offended not so much by their own pay as by the owner’s generous treatment of those workers that, in their view, had not earned it. This is the “Jonah” complaint in an economic context.
The owner’s strange management of labor in his vineyard is in fact how the kingdom of heaven operates. Fruitful labor for a living wage is available for all who seek it. To put it into the language of the Lord’s Prayer, daily bread is provided for all. The problem is that people want more than daily bread. That is why it is so hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:23-26. They want and expect more than daily bread. For the rich, a heavenly kingdom where all have enough to see them through each day-and no more-would be a hellish existence. So who is included among these “rich”? Who are the laborers who feel cheated? All of us, I suppose, who have more than what we need to live on today and remain unsatisfied. I believe one reason that the specter of socialism is bandied about to such great effect by political leaders has to do with our deep sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. I am entitled to the value of my labor (which always seems undervalued by my employer!) and nobody is entitled to anything that has not been earned. Though public assistance is hardly a significant piece of our tax burden, we still seem hell bent on cutting it because there is something deep inside us that cannot abide a person getting what they have not “earned.”
We are also uncomfortable with this parable because it challenges the gospel of wealth that permeates our culture. America is the land of opportunity, we believe, where anyone with enough determination and grit can get rich. In fact, the gap between rich and poor is growing in our land as it is globally. Those folks who are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet would find it hard to believe that they are not working hard enough. But the problem is not merely that the American dream isn’t working. The larger problem is that, even if it did work, our lives would still be running amuck. Pursuit of wealth is a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. It selfishly demands more than God promises and winds up settling for much less. It rests on the false assumption that the world is a shrinking pie and my well-being depends on grabbing the biggest piece and guarding it jealously.
The parable of the vineyard, in addition to exposing our selfish, thankless and proud imaginings, also points to an alternative economics. It testifies to the possibility of an economy that maximizes human well-being rather than financial gain; gives priority to the needs of all rather than the luxuries of the few; harvests the fruits of the earth rather than exploiting and poisoning them.
Before leaving this parable, I want to share an additional take on it from Professor Stanley Hauerwas: “It is particularly important for Gentile Christians to remember that as heirs of the promise to Israel we are the last hired. The decisive commentary on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard is Paul’s understanding of God’s faithfulness to Israel developed in Romans 9-11. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians to insist that God’s promise to Israel remains in effect. Israel has stumbled on the stumbling block that is Jesus, but it has done so that salvation may come to the Gentiles (11:11-12). Accordingly, no account of the church, of those last hired, can ever be intelligible without the story of Israel, and those who are the inheritors of that story, the Jews.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brozos Press) p. 176.
Hard words and the cost of not speaking them; a poem by Emily Dickinson; and the lessons for Sunday, September 10th
FOURTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die’, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” Ezekiel 33:8
The Lord makes clear to his prophet that silence is not an option. A person who possesses a truth that ought to be spoken and remains silent is as guilty as those who act contrary to that truth. Moreover, it is no excuse that the truth is likely to be resisted, rejected and ignored. It is not for the prophet to determine whether the word given him/her to speak is likely to be effective. The prophet cannot presume to know God’s intended purpose for God’s word. God’s word might as easily harden hearts as melt them. It is, after all, God’s word. God will use it in whatever manner, in whatever time and for whatever purpose God desires. The prophet’s responsibility is simply to ensure that the word is spoken and released into the world of its hearers.
It falls to God’s prophets to speak hard words. Hard words make for angry outbursts, awkward silences and divided communities. Telling the truth disrupts the lying narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves, about our country, about our acts of selfish meanness and about the people we call enemies. Truthfulness frequently breaches the peace. But God knows that the truth is the only antidote for what ails us. It’s the only medicine that can make us free. So Ezekiel is commissioned to tell his exiled people the truth of their predicament. The Promised Land, the line of David and the temple in Jerusalem have all been taken away from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The people need to hear, understand and own this hard truth before they can hear God’s word of forgiveness and promise for Israel’s future. Ezekiel’s silence would have contributed to the painful breach between God and God’s people. It would have made healing and reconciliation impossible.
Hard words should be hard to speak. I worry about preachers who, under the rubric of being “prophetic,” take a perverse delight in shocking, angering and dividing the church. Make no mistake about it, I believe that the Word of God discomforts the comfortable, that he Holy Spirit disrupts our expectations and that the object of our worship is, as Professor Walter Brueggemann is fond of saying, an “unsettling God.” But unless a word is as unsettling to the prophet as to his/her audience, it is unlikely a word of God. A true prophet never speaks down in anger toward the people from some platform above the people. The genuine prophet stands with the people under the same judgment s/he proclaims to the community. Amos pleaded with God to soften the judgment on Israel he was told to announce. When Isaiah encountered the Lord in the temple he acknowledged that he was a sinful man among sinful people. Jeremiah lamented bitterly the task of pronouncing Judah’s doom. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures knew that their fate was bound to that of their people. Like the God for whom they spoke, they took “no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Ezekiel 33:11.
Nevertheless, the hard words must be spoken. It is better that the church be divided by the truth than united under something less. To be sure, it is not easy to speak plainly about white privilege and how it continues to hamper people of color from achieving genuine freedom and equality. It is hard to be confronted with the reality of sexual discrimination, intimidation and harassment that is the everyday experience of women and girls in our schools, workplaces and, sadly, the church. Overcoming two millennia of bad science and bad theology that have bred contempt for sexual minorities is proving to be a painful and difficult task for our churches. None of us who have spent our lives working to achieve financial security like being reminded that we have reached this coveted goal at the expense of billions living in poverty.
In the face of all this discomfort, we are strongly tempted to avoid hard words. Isn’t the church a place of communal love? Does bringing the divisiveness of our culture into the church make that love grow? Are we not simply making the church into a microcosm of our polarized society? Doesn’t all of this controversial stuff just offend our people and undermine our ability minister compassionately and be present to them when they desperately need our care in times of personal distress? There is some validity to these concerns. Again, speech that places the prophet on a higher moral plane than the rest of the community, speech that only lectures, judges and condemns is not genuinely prophetic. A prophet must be one whose life demonstrates genuine compassion for his/her people and their everyday concerns. S/he must be fully transparent about his/her own complicity in the evils s/he identifies and honest about his/her own faults, blind spots and failures. Only so will his/her prophetic speech be received as credible and reveal not only the depths of the community’s sin, but also the passionate love of a God who wounds only in order to heal and who breaks down only to build back better and stronger.
Sometimes truth needs to be slipped in through the back door. A frontal assault on one’s deeply held opinion is likely to arouse defensiveness and cause one to cling all the more tenaciously to that opinion. That is why Jesus employed parables. That is why the prophets often used poetic imagery to make their point. When King David committed murder and adultery, the prophet Nathan did not begin by confronting him with irrefutable facts proving his guilt or moral lectures aimed at changing his behavior. Instead, he told a story that drew the king into it so deeply that he did not realize until too late that he himself was the villain and not the hero he imagined himself to be. So, too, Jesus’ parables re-frame issues in ways that force us to challenge old assumptions about sinfulness, righteousness, faith and unbelief. Rather than bludgeoning us into submission, the truth seduces us.
Here are some wise words from Emily Dickinson on truth telling.
Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
The image of the prophet as “watchman” or “sentinel” is a common one. Vs. 7. Cf. Isaiah 21:6; Jeremiah 6:17. For a walled city located near a hostile frontier, the sentinel served as an early warning system. The fate of the city might well depend on the sentinel’s ability to detect and warn the city’s defenders of an approaching enemy. His failure to sound the alarm might seal the city’s doom. So also the prophet bears a heavy responsibility for warning the people about the consequences of their sinful and self-destructive behavior. As grave as the people’s sin would be the prophet’s failure to denounce it in their hearing.
Verses 10-11 indicate that the people have gotten the message loud and clear. “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” vs. 10. This is no vain question. We all know there are sins that leave lasting scars upon us and others. Sometimes a relationship is so deeply wounded by unfaithfulness and betrayal that it can never be healed. Yet that is not the case for Israel and her covenant relationship with her God. The door is open for Israel’s return. This section of Ezekiel, then, prepares the way for the promises and visions that will be the burden of the last part of the book. Jenson, Robert, W., Ezekiel, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert W. Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 254.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Vs. 11. Yet so much of our cinematic entertainment is grounded in just such pleasure. That is so, I believe, because cinematic art is capable of flattening and simplifying our universe in such a way as to eliminate moral ambiguity. On the screen, evil people are so thoroughly evil and devoid of humanity that their destruction hardly counts even as justifiable homicide. Conflicts lack the historical baggage, cultural subtleties and ethical conundrums plaguing non-virtual, flesh and blood confrontations between individuals, groups and nations. One might argue that, while this is all true, we are dealing here with entertainment. Of course the real world is too varied and complex to fit into a two hour movie. The stage can never replicate life, but only show us a glimmer of it. Yet, be that as it may, when a popular genre generates repeatedly and consistently stories of conflict that admit of no other solution than violence, it can easily start to color the way we process the real world. Worse still, it can distort our view of the scriptures and the character of our God.
John Correia, preacher at an Arizona church, said in a recent article: “What fuels my passion for guns and self defense? First and foremost my Christian faith.” Read the entire article if you wish. Believe me, you can’t make this stuff up. He goes on to say, “I wish everyone got along, I wish that everybody was nice, but they’re not. And until we get into that perfect world where Jesus comes again, we need to be able to protect ourselves and in Luke 22:36 I believe Jesus said ‘let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.’” Though Jesus did say that, he went on to rebuke his disciples when they took him literally as did Pastor Correia. Luke 22:38. Moreover, rather than allow his disciples to use their swords in self defense or in his own defense, Jesus told them to cease fighting immediately and even healed the man they had injured. Luke 22:49-51. If that passage is the best defense the good pastor can put up in support of righteous gun violence, he is firing blanks. It would appear that his Bible is missing a few key chapters-such as the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor Correia is said to have remarked that the only way he would ever willingly give up his firearms was if Jesus personally told him to do so. Well, Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:52. Seems clear enough to me.
But I digress. The point here is that, once we adopt a world view in which good and evil are neatly divided and the only possible resolution to conflict is violence, we are likely to ignore or simply lose our ability to hear the voice of Jesus in the scriptures. Instead of conforming our lives to the scriptures as interpreted by the cross, we trivialize the cross, treat it as a special case that applied only once and only to Jesus and order our lives by the lights of John Wayne, Chuck Norris or some more moderate philosophy of “realism.” The God of Israel would have us know that this is not how he does business, nor is it the way he would have his people behave. God would have us deal as patiently and forgivingly with our enemies as God dealt with us “while we were enemies” of God. See Romans 5:10.
Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.
I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40.
Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”
This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.
The term “owe no one anything” is a conventional expression for freedom from both monetary and social obligation. Jewett, Robert, Romans, a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 Fortress Press) p. 805. This admonition, deeply rooted as it is in Paul’s concept of the Church as Christ’s Body, is more than mere practical advice. As noted in my post for Sunday, September 3rd, the Roman Empire was a hierarchical society held together by networks of patronage and social obligation with the emperor seated at the apex. Caesar was Lord. The church, however, recognized not Caesar but Jesus as Lord. The social order dictating the terms under which the disciple lived was not that of the empire, but that of the church. Discipleship, then, was radically counter-cultural and deeply subversive.
Again, some commentators have criticized Paul for being too parochial here in focusing the love command upon the church community rather than all humankind. Such criticism, however, presupposes a Constantinian ecclsiology in which an institutional church serves as the moral conscience of a largely Christian society. That same outlook still serves as the unquestioned underpinning both for liberal Protestantism’s social advocacy and right wing Evangelical social conservative initiatives. Each in their own way are attempting to “Christianize” America. Only their platforms differ. Paul, by contrast, understood the church not as an instrument to bring about a kinder, gentler empire, but as a radical alternative to Rome.
It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog with any consistently that I favor serious rethinking of our ecclesiology and mission as we find ourselves in the post-modern, post-Constantinian context. The conversations we need to be having revolve not over which legislative initiatives to support, but how we live together as church in a way that mirrors the kingdom of heaven. Religion that does no more than help people cope with the dehumanizing conditions of life under late stage capitalism is not worth spit. A church richly deserves extinction if does no more than issue preachy-screechy social statements, mobilize its membership to support legislative tweaks to a brutally oppressive and unsustainable economic system while asking/offering no more to its members than an hour on Sunday with a tithe.
Will churches modeling the counter-cultural example of Paul’s congregations or the community described in the Book of Acts “change the world?” Well, they will not bring in the kingdom of heaven. At best, they can only witness to it. But if we can simply plant the idea in peoples’ heads that there is an alternative to a life of wage slavery so soul numbing and stressful that you need four weeks of vacation just to cope with it, if we demonstrate that medical care need not be controlled by profit driven corporations and administered by strangers in an alien environment, if we can build communities where security is not dependent upon the dubious integrity of insurers and investment bankers, but grounded in networks of caring relationships, who knows? The church might once again turn the world upside down.
Love fulfills the law. Vs. 10. As indicated in the previous paragraph, “love” is not an abstract principle for Paul. “No, the appropriate social context of the love ethic in this section is the small Christian congregations in Rome, and, more concretely, the love feasts and sacramental celebrations in which members shared their resources. Pervo, Richard I, “Panta Koina: the Feeding Stories in the Light of Economic Data and Social Practice” published in Religious Propaganda and Missionary Competition in the New Testament Word: Essays Honoring Dieter Georgi (c. 1994 Nov/TSup 74 Leiden: Brill) p. 192, cited in Jewett, supra, at 807. It is with this understanding in mind that we interpret Paul’s admonition to the church in Corinth concerning its failure to “discern the Body” in its Eucharistic celebrations. Where each person “goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another drunk” (I Corinthians 11:21), the community is not living as a Body in which the needs of each part are honored and provided for. See I Corinthians 12:12-31. There is no distinction between Eucharistic sharing and “social ministry.” Sharing of resources to ensure the well-being of all is no more an act of “charity” than is the heart’s pumping of blood to the rest of the body. Love is the concrete act of having all things in common. That does not necessarily imply communal living or “common purse” communities. Conventions governing property ownership vary from age to age and culture to culture. At a bare minimum, however, the church must see to it that the basic needs for food, shelter and healing are met for all its members. To do less than this is to fail to discern the Body.
This passage is cited in just about every congregational constitution I have ever read, usually under the rubrics of “church discipline.” A similar procedure is alluded to by Paul in II Corinthians 13:1. Unfortunately, the passage has frequently been interpreted as a provision to protect the purity of the church. Nothing could be further from Matthew’s intent. In fact, the concern here is for the erring sister or brother. Precisely because Jesus declares “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:14) that every effort must be made to prevent conduct rupturing the community and alienating its members. For this reason, sin must first be addressed individually by the one perceiving it with an eye toward reconciliation/repentance. Only when this step fails is it permissible to bring other individuals into the matter. Where reconciliation cannot be achieved with the assistance of two or three additional persons, the matter must then be brought before the church for resolution. Severance of ties between the sinner and the community is a measure of last resort. Moreover, even this drastic step of treating the sinner as a tax collector has in view the objective of winning the estranged member back to the community. Outcasts and tax collectors are not lost causes, but special objects of Jesus’ mercy and compassion. See also, I Corinthians 5:5; II Corinthians 2:5-7.
A further practical caution is in order here. Not every annoying habit, inconsiderate act or careless utterance by someone in the congregation merits this disciplinary procedure. Unless sin rises to the level at which it threatens to rupture the unity of the church or alienate one of its members, it should be borne with patience, understanding and forgiveness. The church was never intended to be a community of the perfect, but rather a congregation of sinners being perfected by the faithful practice of living together under a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7.
By now, everyone is painfully aware of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in Huston, Texas and surrounding areas. I invite anyone reading this article to join me in supporting relief efforts to aid the victims of this catastrophic storm. While there are many worthy organizations working faithfully to provide sustenance, comfort and shelter to the many persons left homeless and displaced in the wake of this disaster, I can personally vouch for Lutheran Disaster Response, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As a denominational organization, it has very low overhead and pledges that 100% of every donation designated for Hurricane Harvey victims will be so disbursed. You can donate online, by phone (800-638-3522) Monday through Friday 8 am – 5 p.m. or by making your check out to “Hurricane Response – United States” and sending it to: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, P.O. Box 1809, Merrifield, VA 22116-8009.
The degree to which Huston churches, synagogues, mosques along with so many businesses and individuals are responding by opening their doors to shelter the displaced, donating food, water and other necessities and supporting rescue operations is inspiring. Times like these force us to recognize the importance of community, the bonds of friendship and trust that hold us together and how much we really do need one another. In the face of a hurricane, differences don’t count for much. I doubt that anyone rescued from the top of his or her roof or freed from entrapment in his or her car cares much whether the person performing the rescue was Republican, Democrat, Christian, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, transgendered or bisexual. Nor, do I believe, does God. As I have said many times before, in Matthew’s parable of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus does not ask anyone who they loved, to whom they were married, how many times they were married, to which church they belonged or what doctrine they hold. According to the gospel, the only thing that concerns Jesus is how we treated our neighbors, particularly our poor, sick, imprisoned, hungry and estranged neighbors. Furthermore, Jesus’ parable has a lot more to do with what God’s priorities for us are today than with who gets into heaven and who doesn’t in the sweet by and by. That’s why I believe God is passionately focused on what is happening this week in Huston and doesn’t give a rat’s petunia for that blast of hot air called the “Nashville Manifesto on Sexuality” put out by a bunch of “evangelical” leaders who, it should be noted, speak only for one limited strand of American Christianity-not the church at large.
Though purporting to be about “sexuality,” the manifesto does nothing to illuminate the rich and nuanced biblical narratives and insights that might lead us into a deeper understanding of this mystery of our existence. In fact, it does little more than reiterate the signatories’ ideological basis for excluding, condemning and judging gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. I don’t intend to waste my breath refuting point by point the manifesto’s assertions. I’ve been there and done that too many times. I’m tired of being that clown in the parade dutifully following the horses, shovel in hand. If you are interested in such a refutation, I recommend the Denver Statement authored in the main by Rev. Nadia Boltz Weber. Pastor Boltz Weber far surpasses me in eloquence, patience and olfactory endurance. For my part, I will only say that Jesus nowhere, under any circumstances ever said anything at all about same sex attraction or expression. I will also say that nowhere in the scriptures do we find any prohibition against same sex marriage or mutually loving and committed relationships between persons of the same sex. Nowhere do the scriptures speak at all concerning transgendered persons. And yes, I have read the “seven passages” in the scripture that come up repeatedly in our predictably sterile debates over sexual morality. Suffice to say that they don’t say what our “evangelical” friends want them to say. Jesus does say clearly, unequivocally and with no ambiguity, however, that God’s priority and standard of judgment for every nation, faith community and individual is the measure of how the most vulnerable in their midst are treated. The deafening silence of the Nashville gang on this single most important commandment in the shadow of a devastating hurricane that has left thousands threatened, displaced and homeless speaks volumes to their priorities and standards. They are obviously not those of Jesus.
Now, getting back to what God cares about, many people from all walks of life are responding bravely and generously to the crisis in Huston. One business owner, who opened his facility to accommodate displaced persons and provided out of his own inventory bottles of water, food and other necessities remarked, “Today is not about making money or the bottom line. It’s about neighbor looking after neighbor.” So true, and yet, it isn’t just “today.” Every day is about neighbor looking after neighbor-at least that is what Jesus tells us. Our neighbors are dying in Huston as I write these lines. The media images of persons terrified, grieving and homeless make it hard for us to forget that brutal fact. But forget we surely will. When the dramatic work of rescuing trapped puppies and the touching images of movie stars and politicians comforting homeless children fade from media attention, we will once again be back to tax reform, North Korea and the Russia investigation. Huston will become less a heart rending tragedy and more just another blotch of red ink adding to the federal deficit and damned if we taxpayers should be saddled with it!
The true test of neighborliness comes when there is no hurricane howling overhead and no flood waters crashing over the levies. Neighborliness does not come as naturally when the poor remain largely invisible, the victims of disaster are on the other side of the world and human suffering is not the focus of the evening news. I suspect that neighborliness will not come quite as spontaneously a year from now when the waters have receded, the cameras have moved on, but the hard work of rebuilding devastated communities is only beginning. That is when our faithfulness and generosity will be put to the test, that is when we will hear the voice of Jesus appealing to us through those persons the news media will have forgotten, that is when our genuine priorities will be exposed. As disciples of Jesus, we should not need a hurricane to remind us that “it’s all about neighbors looking out for neighbors.” My hope and prayer is that, a year from now, we will still be looking out for our neighbors in Huston and wherever else they may be.