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When now is the only time there is; a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh; and the lessons for Sunday, January 21, 2018

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15.

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers)

Within the measurable units of time between our beginning and our demise, there are moments that define us. There are events that collide with us and project our lives onto new trajectories. These are “kairos” moments in New Testament terminology. They don’t flow chronologically and so you can’t anticipate them, plan for them or prepare yourself to meet them. They catch you unawares when you are least expecting it. Suddenly, you find yourself in a situation that forces you to reveal the kind of person you are. In kairos time, now is the only time there is.

Several congressional leaders had their kairos moment this week when the president referred to Haiti and unspecified African nations in vulgar and profane language that I choose not to repeat. Senators Tom Cotton and David Purdue, two of the congressmen present when these disparaging comments were made, initially claimed that they simply had no memory of the president making any such offensive statements (though two other senators, one a Republican, and a number of White House staffers heard them loud and clear). A day or two later, when it became clear that the president intended to deny saying what everyone in the room heard him say, both men backtracked on their story, insisting that their recollection had so miraculously improved that they could now not only deny with certainty that Trump’s disparaging statements had not been made, but that they were fabricated by their fellow congressmen. (Really, you can’t make this stuff up.) I am not going to debate whether Senators Purdue, Cotton or everyone who continues to support the president’s denials are liars, cowards or racists. What they have done and said (or not) speaks volumes to who and what they are. Put on it whatever label you choose. I believe that President Trump has brought us as a nation to the brink of a kairos moment. We must decide whether we will be a nation of race, blood and soil or a nation of laws, equality and justice. I pray that the moral fiber of our nation is stronger than that of its congressional leaders, particularly that of Senators Purdue and Cotton.

That said, I am not altogether unsympathetic to the senators. I had my own Kairos moment almost half a century ago. What follows is a fictionalized account based on that true experience.

I met Danny Frank in my fifth period math class. It was my second to the last class for the day. I was just two hours away from surviving my first day as a freshman. I took a seat at the back of the classroom. Across from me was a kid I had never seen before. I could tell, though, by his freshly pressed shirt, brand new corduroy slacks and recently shined shoes that he was a Star of the Sea kid. Star of the Sea Roman Catholic School was located in West Bremerton, but drew kids from all over town. They all marched to school in uniform under the strict watch of the ruling Sisters. Order and discipline were imposed on the classroom, the cafeteria and even the playground with ruthless efficiency. Getting along was thus relatively easy form most kids. Take care to obey the nuns, and the nuns take care of you. Bullying was not tolerated at Star of the Sea, not so much because it constituted a threat to the well being of the student body, but rather because it constituted a trespass on the sole prerogative of the Sisters.

Star of the Sea only went up to the eight grade. Consequently, its hapless graduates were cast out of their controlled environment at the tender age of fourteen into East and West High School where the law of the jungle prevailed. There they had to sink or swim in a radically different, unfamiliar and often hostile new social environment. The first few weeks of every school year was open season on freshman boys who were, according to well settled tradition, subject to heckling and humiliation. Upperclassmen in Letterman’s jackets wandered the halls in groups of a half dozen or more selecting their victims at random, cornering them and forcing them to perform humiliating tricks-such as playing catch with a raw egg or pushing pennies down the hall with their noses. If they were feeling particularly mean, they might drag a terrified freshman into the lavatory for especially degrading treatment. Nothing lowers a guy’s reputation in the eyes of his peers quite like having his head dunked in a toilet with a busted flusher. Though hazing was not encouraged by the East High administration, little was done to curb it. “It’s part of growing up,” Principal Shuman was known to say. “Learning to fight your own battles is part of becoming a man.” Danny was decidedly uncomfortable with his spanking new wardrobe, having spent the last eight years in uniform looking just like everyone else. He had curly red hair and laughing blue eyes that looked over at me, a little nervously, as he said “Hi”

“Hi” I replied in a disinterested monotone. The teacher, Mr. Gordon, took his stand at the front of the room. He cleared his throat a few times hoping that we would all quiet down and turn our attention in his direction. When we did not, he called out,

“Ok, Ok, pipe down now. We’ve got to get started here. Can everyone take out a pencil…”

I had started out the day with two pencils. I am quite sure I left the first one on the desk in my first period geography classroom. I don’t know where the second one went. I only know that I couldn’t find it. I turned to the red haired kid and said, “Hey, you got an extra pencil I can borrow?”

“Sure,” he said. “My name’s Danny. Danny Frank.

“Mine’s Peter.” I replied taking his pencil and turning my attention to Mr. Gordon, who had begun to write multiplication and long division exercises on the board.

“Now don’t worry too much about this little quiz,” he said in a reassuring tone. “It isn’t going to be graded. I just want to get an idea of where we need to start and where you need the most help.”

“Where do you live?” asked Danny.

“23rd Street. Just off Nipsic Avenue,” I replied. I really didn’t care to get involved in a conversation. I needed to concentrate on the quiz. But, after all, I had taken the guy’s pencil. I should at least avoid being rude.

“I live right on Nipsic!” Danny exclaimed, as though he had discovered a long lost relative. “Hey, we could walk home together-if you want.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“I’ll meet you by that Knight out in the hall after class.”

“OK,” I replied. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I wanted to get off the campus as soon as possible and back home. I didn’t spend much time at my locker after the final bell. I dumped my books, grabbed my coat, slammed the door and closed the lock within a matter of seconds. Then I headed down the hallway toward the cafeteria where the Knight stood guard in front of the Principal’s office. I was told that the suit of armor displayed in a glass case the size of a phone booth was an authentic specimen worn by a real knight in the middle ages. I never quite swallowed that one. You wouldn’t think that anything that old would be given to a gang of teenagers to play with. I had not had much chance to examine the Knight. Although he stood directly in front of the office, he seemed to attract upper class thugs like a magnet. Seniors would congregate in front of him and scan the cafeteria for scared looking freshmen who were frequently forced to kneel before the knight and kiss the floor in front of his feet. If the principal was aware of these goings on, he never bothered to intervene. Perhaps he felt that this, too, was simply a part of “growing up.”

When I arrived at the cafeteria, the hall was empty. I saw no sign of Danny anywhere. This made me all the more annoyed with him. Bad enough he had drawn me to the most dangerous spot on campus. Now, in addition, he makes me wait there. I might just as well have a neon sign flashing the words “freshman chump” over my head. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. “Hey, Pete!” Danny called from the back of the cafeteria. I wanted to tell him to shut his trap and let’s get the hell out of here. Before I could answer, another voice came booming out from the depths of the cafeteria.

“Hey, Carrot Top! Who told you that you could go wandering around here?” It was Lenny Straug. Lenny was nearly 200 lbs of muscle and bone standing six feet five inches tall. He was mean on the football field and brutal on the basketball court. It was thanks to Lenny that East High had made one of its rare forays into the basketball state championships last year. He was a junior then and even greater things were expected of him as a senior. He was flanked by several other seniors and juniors in letterman’s jackets. They surrounded Danny in the midst of the cafeteria. I slid behind the Knight’s case and held as still as I could.

“You gonna give me an answer there, Red? Or are you just gonna stand there with your mouth open like a dumb ass!” Danny was nonplussed. Coming fresh from Star of the Sea, he had never learned about the East High cast system we had all known about since elementary school. He had no idea why these kids were so hostile. He was beginning to sense, though, that he was in danger and that he had best choose his words carefully. “Who were you talking to anyway?” Lenny continued. I drew myself up into the corner behind the Knight and held my breath. It looked as though my luck had just run dry. “Are you deaf?” said Lenny, “I said, ‘WHO WERE YOU TALKING TO?’”

“Ah, well, nobody, really.” For the second time that day Danny had saved my skin.

“So what the hell are you doing here? Think you own the damn place?”

“Sorry!” He said, and then smiled. “I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be here. I’m new here, you see…”

“Says he’s new!” Bellowed Lenny

“Well I guess we got to educate him about how freshman punks are supposed to behave!” added another.

“What’s you’re name, punk?” asked Lenny.

“It’s Danny, Danny Frank.”

“Did you say Fanny?

“Danny.”

“No,” Lenny contradicted him in a low, half threatening tone, “I think you said Fanny. Now guys,” he went on addressing the rest of the group. “What kind of a guy has a name like ‘Fanny?’”

“Fag” yelled one of the kids.

“Yep, gotta be a fagot,” the others agreed.

“Hey, Fanny Fagot,” said Lenny, “I think it’s time you met a friend of ours, Mr. Toilet!”

“Yah!” shouted a half dozen voices in reply. “Let’s introduce Fanny Fagot to Mr. Toilet!” Danny was pale with fright. It was obvious he had no idea what he was in for, but he could tell it wasn’t going to be any picnic.

“I gotta go,” stammered Danny. Lenny grabbed him by the front of his shirt ripping the fabric and slammed him roughly against one of the beams in the cafeteria.

“Going so soon?” he sneered. “Not before you meet the toilet! Come on guys, let’s go!” Lenny gabbed Danny under the left arm and another of the Letterman grabbed him on the right. Danny made no effort to resist. He knew it was hopeless. He probably figured that his only choice at that point was to let them do what they were going to do, try and be a good sport about it and hope they didn’t hurt him too much. They disappeared into the boy’s lavatory and the door closed behind them. It was my chance to make for the door, get out of the building and run for home. That’s what I would have done if I had had a lick of sense. Something kept me from running, though. Something drew me out from behind the Knight and down the hall toward the lavatory door. I could hear laughter and tinkling into the toilet. Then I heard Lenny’s voice from within. “On your knees, queer!”

“I, I, I, don’t…”

“Don’t what? Don’t want to do what I tell you to do? Think it matters what you want?  Know who you’re messing with queer?”

“I, It’s… I can’t…” suddenly I heard a blood curdling scream, followed by terrified sobs.

“Listen to him cry-just like a little girl”

“I’m gonna make a girl out of you unless you get down on your knees like I told you.” Lenny’s tone was vicious now. The sobbing continued. “That’s a good little fag.” It was Lenny’s voice, quieter now. “Now, head down.

“Please! Don’t!” Danny pleaded. I heard some scuffling and grunting. A wild whoop of laughter burst forth from behind the door.  I heard gurgling, coughing and what sounded like violent retching. The toilet flushed. “Here’s something fresh to gargle with!” Lenny’s voice boomed over the cruel laughter of the Lettermen.

I managed to slip down the hall and around the corner before the Letterman came out of the lavatory. They were all laughing and ridiculing Danny in mock ferry voices. “Oh, please don’t hurt my sweet white Fanny!” cried Lenny in a sharp falsetto. Their voices faded as they headed out of the building. I crept out from around the corner and tiptoed towards the lavatory. I could hear more coughing, gagging and retching from within. I didn’t want to think too much about all that must have gone on behind that door. I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to see Danny either. I retreated back down the hall and around the corner where I had been hiding as the Lettermen departed. I kept waiting for Danny to come out and go home so I could slip out behind him and avoid meeting him. I waited for what seemed like eternity. All the while I heard Danny sobbing. I wondered whether perhaps I should check on him-just to make sure he was OK. I finally decided against that idea, however. It was possible the Letterman might return and I figured I had more than used up my share of luck for the day.

Finally, the lavatory door opened-just a crack at first-and then a little further. Slowly, Danny stuck his head out the door, looked both ways up and down the hall and then stepped out. His hair was wet and disheveled. It looked as though he had thrown up on the front of his crisp blue shirt that had matched his laughing eyes less than an hour before. Of course, his eyes were no longer laughing. They were filled with terror. He was shaking as he limped painfully down the hall, grasping his crotch and trying to suppress his sobs. He was a sight more horrifying to me than the Lettermen. I turned and ran down the hall and out the door at the rear of the building-not the side I wanted to be on. Still, I much preferred the dangers of the hallway and a longer route home to the prospect of meeting Danny.

By morning of the following day, word had gotten out that Danny was a fagot and that he had been dunked. His new nickname, Fanny Fagot, stuck to him like a leach. He now had not only the upperclassmen, but also his fellow freshman to fear. There was no safe refuge for Danny anywhere. He was shoved, tripped and spit on in the hallways. Whispers of “ferry,” “fagot” “queer” surrounded him in every class. He was roughed up and chased home every day after school. The dunking of Danny became a regular lunchtime ritual that fall. After a while though, Danny no longer struggled, cried, begged or vomited. He submitted to all the indignities the Lettermen inflicted upon him putting up no resistance. That, of course, spoiled the whole game for the Letterman and made the spectacle a good deal less entertaining for the usual lunchroom crowd. Gradually, the Letterman lost interest in Danny-as did everyone else.

I didn’t see much of Danny after that. That isn’t surprising. I was doing my best to avoid him. I lived in fear of his coming up and trying to talk to me. Like Hester Prim, Danny bore the stigma of a scarlet letter-the big letter Q for queer. There wasn’t a single guy in all of East High School that didn’t fear being stuck with that label. My fears were unfounded, however. Danny never again tried to talk to me-or to anyone else for that matter. He shuffled through the halls with his gaze on the floor in front of him. On those rare occasions that he did look up, his eyes were no longer laughing as when we first met. Neither were they filled with terror as on the occasion of is first dunking. Danny’s eyes were dead, expressionless-more gray than blue. He sat alone in the most inconspicuous corner of the cafeteria hunched over his lunch. His hair was greasy and matted-as though it had never been washed. His cloths were worn, ill fitting and smelly. Acne ravaged his once fair face. One would hardly have recognized in that smiling, read headed kid with laughing eyes pictured over his obituary, the wretched little gnome that was Danny by the end of his freshman year at East High School.

Although the local newspaper called it a tragic accident out of deference to Danny’s large extended Roman Catholic family, we all knew Danny had killed himself. Even so, Father McMillan presided at his funeral mass and saw to his burial on sacred ground. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Father could not believe that Danny, fine Catholic lad that he had been at Star of the Sea, would ever take his own life. In a way, Father was right. Danny’s life was taken away from him well before he died. It was stolen by the Letterman who broke his spirit and robbed him of his last shred of dignity. It was sucked out of him by the laughter, ridicule and cruelty of his classmates. It was devoured by that dreaded label “queer” which, whether true or not, rendered Danny as untouchable as a leper.

Was Danny’s life also taken in some measure by the cowardice of that one boy at East High he considered his friend? I have told this story to many people over the years. They usually try to comfort me with the assurance that there was nothing I could have done that first day of my freshman year to save Danny from the Lettermen. The outcome for Dany would have been no different had I tried to stop Lenny Straug and his friends. I would surely have made my own situation worse, but in all probability, Danny’s fate would not have been altered. So why do I find myself returning again and again to that hallway in East High School on that sunny September afternoon? Because that was a Kairos moment for me. I know in my heart that making or not making a difference is not really the issue. I know now and knew instinctively then that Disciples of Jesus know they are not judged by their accomplishments, but by their faithfulness. We are never closer to Jesus than when we encounter him in the most vulnerable, the most despised, the “least” among us. The day I remained silent and hidden when Danny was savaged by the Lettermen, I denied Jesus. I chose to save my life rather than place it at the disposal of my Lord. I had shown myself a coward. For that reason, I am hardly in a position to condemn the cowardice and dishonesty of senators Purdue and Cotton.

Fortunately for us, we worship the God of the second chance. When Jesus calls us to repent, he liberates us from having to be defined by our past decisions. Wherever Jesus meets us, we experience a Kairos moment, an opportunity to be re-defined. We can continue making excuses for the past, spinning the past and telling ourselves comforting lies about the past. Or we can decide we’re sick of the guilt we carry for what we know was evil, cowardly and despicable behavior. We can decide we are tired of hiding behind a mask of excuses, rationalizations and falsehoods. We can accept forgiveness of sin and newness of life along with the pain of sanctification that comes with it. Repentance is, quite simply, liberation from the past enabling one to live into God’s future.

I can’t change the horrible consequences of my sins of omission against Danny. But I can determine what they will mean for the way I live my life today and the kind of person I want to become. My sins can be that from which I have turned away rather than that which defines me. Confession and forgiveness allows me to leave my sins in the past rather than having them constantly before me where I must forever be trying in vain to defend and justify them.  Like my New Testament namesake, I denied Jesus in his time of greatest need. Yet, like him, I have been forgiven and given a new opportunity to feed Jesus’ sheep. For that reason, I will no longer remain silent when our government rewards sexual predators with the highest office in the land, refers to Africans and Haitians with vulgar and profane adjectives, ridicules persons with physical handicaps and praises Nazis and KKK loyalists as “very fine people.” I’m through remaining politely silent in the face of jokes ridiculing people of color, LGBT folk and persons with physical and mental disabilities. I am through worrying about how divisive I might be to the church for being “too political.” I’m not walking on egg shells anymore. I am taking sides. I am on the side of Danny. I am on the side of LGBT folk. I am on the side of the people our president describes as coming from excrement. I am on the side of the women he and other sexual predators have victimized. In short, I am on the side of Jesus and the gentle reign of God he proclaims. And may God give me and all of us the courage to repent and live up to that calling.

Here’s a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh that, in a strange way, speaks to something of what genuine repentance involves.

Farewell to False Love

Farewell, false love, the oracle of lies,
A mortal foe and enemy to rest,
An envious boy, from whom all cares arise,
A bastard vile, a beast with rage possessed,
A way of error, a temple full of treason,
In all effects contrary unto reason.

A poisoned serpent covered all with flowers,
Mother of sighs, and murderer of repose,
A sea of sorrows whence are drawn such showers
As moisture lend to every grief that grows;
A school of guile, a net of deep deceit,
A gilded hook that holds a poisoned bait.

A fortress foiled, which reason did defend,
A siren song, a fever of the mind,
A maze wherein affection finds no end,
A raging cloud that runs before the wind,
A substance like the shadow of the sun,
A goal of grief for which the wisest run.

A quenchless fire, a nurse of trembling fear,
A path that leads to peril and mishap,
A true retreat of sorrow and despair,
An idle boy that sleeps in pleasure’s lap,
A deep mistrust of that which certain seems,
A hope of that which reason doubtful deems.

Sith then thy trains my younger years betrayed,
And for my faith ingratitude I find;
And sith repentance hath my wrongs bewrayed,
Whose course was ever contrary to kind:
False love, desire, and beauty frail, adieu!
Dead is the root whence all these fancies grew.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) was a politically powerful member of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He was born at Hayes Barton, Devonshire to a prominent family long associated with maritime enterprises. In his mid-teens, Raleigh left home to fight with Huguenot forces in France. He returned to England in 1572 where he attended Oxford University for two years. He then went on to study law in London.  Raleigh was involved with several notorious exploits, including a failed attempt to find a northwest passage across the American continent and a term of military service during the English suppression of Ireland in the 1580s where he led a massacre of unarmed Spanish and Italian troops. He was knighted in 1585 and, in 1587, was named captain of the Queen’s personal guard. You can learn more about Sir Walter Raleigh and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. Instead of a collection of oracles and speeches sometimes framed with narrative, Jonah is narrative from beginning to end with a psalm of praise thrown into the center of the book. It is the story of a prophet who, unlike the God he serves, values justice over mercy. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he values his own truncated view of justice over God’s more expansive view. Make no mistake about it, the God of the Bible (Old Testament as well as New) is no indulgent grandfather who cannot bring himself to discipline the kids as they merrily trash the house. God’s judgments have teeth, as the Babylonian exiles can attest. Nonetheless, God’s punishment is never an end in itself. If God wounds, God wounds in order to bring about healing. That insight is lost on poor Jonah.

The majority consensus of most Hebrew Scripture commentators is that the Book of Jonah was composed in the Post-Exilic period during the latter half of the 4th Century B.C.E. Neil, W. “The book of Jonah published in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II ed. By George Arthur Buttrick (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 966. It has long been suggested that this book was written to challenge the exclusivist policies expressed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which went so far as to require the dissolution of marriages between Jews and persons of less than pure Jewish lineage. Ibid. But as Professor Terrence Fretheim points out, there are problems with this view. “None of the specific issues dealt with by Ezra and Nehemiah are even alluded to in the book (such as mixed marriages and mixed languages, see Nehemiah 9, 10; Ezra 9, 10).” Fretheim, Terrence, The Message of Jonah (c. 1977 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 35. For this and other reasons, recent commentators suggest an earlier date somewhere between 475  B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. E.g., Burrows, M., “The Literary Category of the Book of Jonah” published in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament, ed. By H. Frank & W. Reed (c. 1971 by Abingdon) p. 105. The issue appears to be more one of God’s treatment of Israel among the nations than Israel’s treatment of non-Jews within its midst, though I would add that the two issues are not entirely unrelated.

The author of this prophetic book selected the name “Jonah son of Amittai” for his protagonist. This is no random choice. In II Kings, Jonah is credited with prophesying the salvation of Israel from foreign oppression by the hand of Jeroboam II. Though Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “made Israel to sin,” God nonetheless “saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter…” and that “there was none to help Israel.” II Kings 14:23-26. Out of compassion God “saved [Israel] by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” II Kings 14:27. One would think that a prophet who foretold and witnessed God’s salvation of his own sinful people by the hand of their sinful king could find it in his heart to welcome the extension of that mercy to the rest of creation. But Jonah turns out to be more than a little tightfisted with God’s grace.

It is also noteworthy that no mention is made of repentance on the part of Israel in II Kings. Jonah’s preaching does not seem to have had much effect on the hearts of his own people. By contrast, the people of Nineveh are moved by Jonah’s preaching to acts of repentance never before seen in Israel or anywhere else. This is remarkable as Jonah has done everything possible so far to avoid success in Nineveh. First he tries to run away from the job. Then he preaches a sermon that is all but unintelligible. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. The whole sermon. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are going to be overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can possibly do to avoid being overthrown. Nevertheless, the word of the Lord somehow breaks through the prophet’s few and feeble words. Somehow, the people discover the depth of their sin and, more marvelously still, they begin to suspect that the God under whose judgment they stand has a merciful heart. Jonah is a wildly successful prophet in spite of himself!

The reading tells us that God “repented” of all that God intended to do at Nineveh. Does God change God’s mind? Yes and no. God will never cease loving God’s creation; God will never give up on God’s people; God will never abandon God’s plan to redeem creation. In that sense, it is quite proper to say that God’s will is eternally predestined and not subject to change. It is also true that God’s creation is in constant flux requiring God’s love for it to change shape, adapt to new circumstances and express itself in different ways. To that extent, it is fair to say that God changes, adapts and even “repents.”

Psalm 62:5-12

This psalm is classified as a “Psalm of Trust,” though I think it has elements of lament as well. The psalmist is clearly in a difficult situation with former friends having turned against him. Indeed, they press him so hard that he feels like “a leaning wall, a tottering fence.” Vs. 3 (not in the reading). These “friends” are perfidious, flattering him with their speech while inwardly cursing him and plotting to “cast him down.” Vs. 4 (not in the reading). This is the context in which we need to view the verses making up our lesson.

The psalmist does not respond in kind to his foes. S/he does not respond to them at all. Instead, s/he waits in silence for God who is his/her true hope. Vs. 5. God is the psalmist’s “rock.” Vs. 6. In order to understand the full impact of this assertion, we need to back up to verse 4 which is not in our reading. There the psalmist accuses his foes of planning to “bring down a person of eminence.” This translation does not do justice to the Hebrew which states that these enemies are seeking to bring the psalmist down from his “height,” meaning a “rock” or defensive “tower.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 62. Thus, verse 6 replies that the psalmist’s “rock” and “fortress” is God. Though the psalmist may be a “leaning wall” and a “tottering fence,” the “rock” upon which s/he takes his/her stand is sure. The psalmist’s deliverance comes not from outwitting his enemies at their own game or in employing against them the same venomous and hateful stratagems they use on him/her, but in God’s anticipated salvation. vs. 7.

In verse 8 the psalmist turns to admonish his fellow worshipers to likewise place their faith in God and to pour out their hearts before him. Vs. 8. Human power and wealth is illusory. Vs. 9. Extortion and robbery do not lead to any true and lasting security. Wealth may be enjoyed, but never trusted to provide security. Vs. 10. Verse 11 continues the admonition with a numerical formula found frequently throughout biblical “wisdom literature:” “One thing God has spoken, twice have I heard this…” So also in the Book of Proverbs, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” Proverbs 6:16-19. A similar construction is used by Amos in his prophetic oracles: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing-sledges of iron. So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate-bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir, says the Lord.” Amos 1:3-5. See also Amos 1:6-2:8. Here the construction serves to emphasize the two inseparable truths: All true power belongs to God and, equally important, so does “steadfast love.” Vs. 11-12.

The psalm complements our lesson from Jonah in emphasizing how God’s steadfast love drives and shapes the expression of God’s power. The saving power of God is contrasted here with the malicious exercise of raw power against the psalmist by his/her enemies. Love is finally the only power worth having and the only power worthy of trust.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

This is a rather gloomy chunk of scripture. Paul seems to be giving advice to young unmarried people, the sum and substance of which is “married is good, but single is better.” Significantly, Paul begins this discussion with a disclaimer: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Vs. 25. I am not sure what Paul means when he speaks of the “present distress.” Vs. 26. I don’t get the impression that the church in Corinth is experiencing the kind of hostility and persecution we hear about in Philippi, Thessalonica and Ephesus. I get the impression that Paul is alluding not to any local source of distress, but rather to the general distress growing out of the fact that “the form of this world is passing away.” Vs. 31.

One simple explanation for this reading lies in attributing to Paul the mistaken notion that the end of the world was imminent. Of course, if the world is ending tomorrow it makes little sense to marry, bear children and build a home. Time would be better spent preparing for the end and getting the word of the gospel out while there is still time. Marriage and other family attachments only hinder one’s effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I do not believe Jesus, Paul or any of the other New Testament authors held any such view. I don’t believe there ever was a “crisis” in the church precipitated by the “delay of Christ’s return.”

I believe that the “present distress” arises from what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as “the whole creation…groaning in travail together until now…” as “we who have the fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-23. The pains of dissolution for the old order are the birth pangs for the new. God is at work in the world’s turmoil bringing the new creation to birth. In much the same way, God’s Spirit is at work in our dying to self and rising to Christ as we live out our discipleship within the Body of Christ. Marriage is an exclusive relationship of intimacy that is, at least potentially, at odds with the disciple’s relationship of intimate love between members of the whole Body of Christ described in I Corinthians 13. It is very telling that this “love chapter” is a favorite for weddings, though it has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with the church! While Paul clearly believes that marriage is both legitimate and capable of integration into the larger community of love within Christ’s Body, he nevertheless believes that life in Christ will be a good deal simpler and easier for the single than for the married-at least for those who can handle being single.

Once again this is, by Paul’s own admission, his own personal view colored by his experience as a single person. I choose to treat it as just that. Great for Paul and others like him, but not so much for the rest of us. For all of us, though, the text is a reminder that nothing of the world as we know it is permanent. Neither marriage, nor one’s profession, nor one’s accomplishments are eternal. When we treat them as if they were, we cross over into the sin of idolatry.

Mark 1:14-20

There are three important imperatives introduced in verses 14-15: 1) The time is fulfilled; 2) repent; and 3) believe the good news. The New Testament uses two Greek words for what the English versions translate as “time.” “Kronos” means chronological time measureable in days, weeks and years. “Kairos” means time in the sense of “the time has come” or “it’s about time.” A kairos moment is a defining one, such as Pearl Harbor for my parent’s generation; the assassination of President Kennedy in my own; and the 9/11 attack for that of my children. Kairos time changes the trajectory of history, propelling us into new directions. Mark uses the word “kairos” indicating that this moment within chronological time proclaimed by Jesus is special. It is a time such as the Exodus-a time in which God exercises saving power propelling the world in the direction of God’s redemptive intent for it. This time is “at hand” (“eggizo” in Greek). The verb means to approach, or draw near. Mark uses it in the “aorist” tense which is like our past tense only stronger in that it denotes completed action.

This Kairos moment of Jesus’ in-breaking upon the society of Israel coincides with John the Baptist’s arrest. The relationship between the ministry of John and that of Jesus is not worked out in Mark to the extent that it is in the other gospels, though Mark does intimate that John’s role is similar if not identical to Elijah’s eschatological task of “restoring all things.” Mark 9:11-13. See also Malachi 4:5-6. The identification of Jesus’ rising with John’s arrest might also emphasizes the newness of all that Jesus represents. As we will see in the story of the Transfiguration, the focus now is neither upon Moses (the law) nor Elijah (the prophets), but upon God’s beloved Son. Mark 9:2-8.

The term “kingdom of God” is not an apt translation of Mark’s meaning in verse 15. Just as we have come to identify “church” as a building with a steeple, so we have come to view the kingdom of God as a place. Too often the kingdom is equated with some very unbiblical conceptions of “heaven.” The better translation might be “the reign of God” or the “sovereignty of God.” Thus, when Jesus declares that God’s reign has drawn near, he means that God’s sovereignty is pressing in and making itself felt. The only appropriate response to this new reality is repentance and faith.

Repent (metanoeo in Greek) is not all about feeling remorse or guilt. Literally, the word means simply “to turn around.” It refers to a radical change of heart; a turning toward God’s call away from one’s old way of living. The word Mark uses for “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo,” meaning “to trust,” or “have confidence in” someone or something. “Good news” (“euggelion” in the Greek) means just that. Sometimes translated “gospel,” it refers to a royal proclamation with kingly authority behind it. In this case, of course, the authority behind the good news is God. Mark makes clear that Jesus’ appearance on the stage of history inaugurates the reign of God.

While there is never any mention of the church in Mark’s gospel, it is powerfully present throughout in the community of disciples called into existence by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. The church is less an institution than a gathering that springs into existence wherever Jesus speaks and acts. It is hardly coincidental that the calling of the first disciples comes as Jesus embarks upon his mission.

The renowned New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann believes that this story about the call of the four disciples is a “biographical apothegm,” that is, an idealized story of faith inspired by the early Christian metaphor, “fishers of men.” Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Blackwell, Oxford, pub. by Harper & Row) p. 56. By contrast, commentator Vincent Taylor views this story as an actual historical reminiscence of the disciples preserved in the preaching of the New Testament church. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 168. Naturally, there are all shades of opinion in between.

While slightly more interesting than most cocktail chat, the conversation does not strike me as particularly important. The issue is not whether and to what extent the gospels can be relied upon to provide the so called “objective historical data” we imagine to be so critical. The real question is whether or not the New Testament “got Jesus right.” If it did, it matters not one wit how the gospel narrative is weighed by our rather antiquated 19thCentury notions of what constitutes “history.” If the New Testament got Jesus wrong, then we shall have to embark upon that seemingly endless quest for the “historical Jesus.” For all who wish to undertake this journey, I wish you the best of luck. While you are out there, see if you can find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Barak Obama’s Kenyon birth certificate and the bodies of those three aliens whose spaceship crashed at Roswell.

The compelling lure of Jesus’ call to discipleship and the repentance and faith it elicits find concrete expression in the response of the four fishermen. Hooker, Morna, D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 59, pp. 60-61. Andrew and Peter leave their nets, valuable income producing property, on the lake shore to follow Jesus. James and John leave their father and his business, their own future livelihood, to answer Jesus’ call. While the fishermen were hardly wealthy, they were not poverty stricken either. They were men who had established themselves in a life sustaining craft. It cannot be said that they flocked to Jesus out of sheer desperation. They left behind a reasonably secure existence for the sake of God’s reign. As Hooker points out, Peter’s boast in Mark 10:28 is not an idle one. Ibid at p. 61.

This story has always proven to be problematic for the post-Constantine church whose role has been to provide ideological support for commerce, the family and all of the other critical institutions of the empire. Our Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” epitomizes the schizophrenic consequences of trying to pour the new wine of God’s reign into the old skins of Caesar’s empire. In theory, God has two hands. With one, God offers salvation by grace through faith by the work of the church. With the other hand, God ordains civil governments to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful world so that the work of the church can flourish unhindered by violence, chaos and oppression. Sounds good on paper, but when you raise a young person for eighteen years to love enemies, forgive wrongs and to view all people as persons created in God’s image and then turn him over to the armed forces to be made into a killing machine-what you get is PTSD. To a lesser degree, we have highly conflicted individuals in professions like law, business and medicine designed to generate profit whatever else their guiding principles might say. Sending young people into this jungle with instructions to practice their professions for Jesus may help boost sales for valium, but does little to promote discipleship or proclaim the reign of God.

In this day and age, the empire has figured out that it can get along famously without the church. Individuals over the last several decades have been making the same discovery and leaving us in droves. Instead of inducing institutional panic, this development ought to be greeted with thanksgiving. Now that we are finally free from having to prop up Caesar’s kingdom, we can hear anew the call of Jesus to live under God’s gentle and peaceful reign.

Sunday, October 23rd

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-7
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last week the long-standing tradition of electing a homecoming King and Queen at Rumson-Fair Haven High School was cancelled. The reason? The tradition was being used by the student body for “mass bullying.” It appears that that the students were planning to elect a couple of their classmates whose selection would be so unlikely that it would elicit mocking when they were announced. This is bullying on a grand scale! I have never seen anything like it and I have seen a lot of bullying. As a matter of fact, I was on the receiving end of it throughout my childhood and during my middle school years.

Most of the bullies I encountered were not the popular kids-athletes, cheerleaders, etc. They were usually pretty far down on the food chain of that carnivorous jungle called middle school. Bullying was the means these kids used to lift themselves a shade above the bottom. If they couldn’t win respect, they would settle for fear. If they couldn’t make it into the circle of popularity, they could win some attention and recognition from that coveted inner circle by providing a little entertainment. And what is more entertaining than mocking and humiliating someone else? Most kids in my school would never force a kid to push a penny across the floor with his nose or play catch with another unfortunate using a balloon filled with urine. But they were delighted to watch someone else do the dirty work.

Our teachers and administrators were not blind to the problem of bullying. They tried to help. I was part of a counseling group, a small class made up of kids who were bullied. Mr. Carlson, the boy’s adviser, tried to build self-esteem in us, tried to help us think of ways to stand up for ourselves. Though well meaning, this counseling only reinforced our belief that there was something wrong with us, that there was something that made kids want to pick on us, that our being bullied was in some way our own fault. In reality, of course, it was not our fault. Being over-weight, having acne, wearing braces, or lacking athletic skill should not be looked upon as an invitation to aggression putting one on the defensive. Victims of bullying do not need coping skills. What we needed-what everyone needed to be a healthy community-was an overhaul of our school culture, a culture that tolerated and even applauded aggression against the vulnerable.

Jesus understood the need for such a cultural overhaul. Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus proclaims a “great reversal.” John spoke of the mountains being leveled and the valleys lifted up. Mary sang of a day when the mighty would be brought low and the poor exalted. At the conclusion of his parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus repeats that refrain, warning us that all who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Pharisee in this parable is a kind of spiritual bully. He lifted himself up at the expense of the hated tax collector. He felt he was righteous because he was “not like other people,” particularly, “this tax collector.” Nobody wants to be at the bottom of the social/political/religious ladder. And the one sure fire way to prove you are not at the bottom is to demonstrate that there is someone beneath you.

Racism is the ultimate and most ugly expression of bullying. The few hardcore racists I have met in life (thankfully, few) are generally folks for whom life has not gone particularly well. They have gone through bitter divorces, lost their jobs, and watched as the America they once knew disintegrated in front of them. Their “whiteness” was their only claim to superiority-the one fact they could point to in order to show that they were not at the absolute bottom. At least that’s how it was until African Americans began to appear in jobs that paid even higher than the ones they lost, started showing up on TV more frequently in lead roles and then, of all things, occupied the White House! These folks feel cheated, as though their last shred of dignity has been stripped away. They shout the “N” word without much provocation, blame African Americans for ruining America and find them somehow responsible for all their personal woes and unhappiness.

Don’t think that these miserable creatures are harmless. As I said, they are few, but unfortunately, those of us who tolerate them, encourage them and exploit their dissatisfaction for political gain are far, far too many. Left unchecked, racist bullying by fringe individuals infects larger populations. When it suddenly becomes OK to propagate racist propaganda, use racial epitaphs and to subtly employ mass media to reinforce racial stereotypes, you can be sure that racist violence will not be far behind. Like a weed, it only takes a little neglect for bullying to thrive and take over an entire culture. Rumson High School is living proof of that and, sadly, so is the spike in racist rhetoric spurred on by the current state of our political discourse.

Jesus knows that bullying-all kinds of bullying-is a systemic disease inherent in our hierarchical culture. For as long as we need to derive our sense of self and self-worth by the level assigned to us based on our earning potential, body type, race, gender, sexual orientation or identity, we will always be looking down with contempt at those we deem below us and up with envy at those we think superior. Nothing short of the great reversal Jesus proclaims can free us from the hierarchical culture in which we have imprisoned ourselves and the systemic oppression infecting it.

On this link you will find a poem written by a teenager that will break your heart.

Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, see my post of Sunday, August 14th. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Terence E. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota posted on enterthebible.org.

The lectionary has wisely omitted verses 11-18 as this section of prose seems to have been interpolated from another set of writings that pertain more to current political and military conditions than to the drought prompting Jeremiah’s message reflected in the balance of the lesson. Less than wisely, it has omitted verses 1-14 providing us with the lesson’s context.

The occasion for these words of the prophet Jeremiah appears to have been a catastrophic drought. Jeremiah 14:1. In verses 2-6, the prophet describes the effects of the drought on everyone from wealthy nobles down to the wild animals in the wilderness. Our lesson begins with a lament of the people in response to the calamity. The people confess their guilt, yet call upon God to act “for thy name’s sake.” Vs. 7. They argue that, sinful as Israel might be, Israel’s God is nevertheless faithful. That is the basis of their plea for help. God’s role as Israel’s savior is God’s very essence-at least insofar as God has ever made himself known. Vs. 8. It is therefore unseemly for God to act as a “stranger” toward Israel and as one unable or unwilling to save. Vss. 8-9.

God responds in verse 10. God has not abandoned Israel. To the contrary, God is visiting Israel with punishment for its inclination to “wander” from the terms of the covenant. While this response is probably not the one for which the people were hoping, it nevertheless makes clear that God has not given up or abandoned Israel. God’s judgment is given in hope of turning Israel from its wandering ways and back to covenant faithfulness. You wouldn’t bother disciplining a child upon whom you had given up. Thus, the proclamation of judgment is actually good news, though here as in many other instances, the good news has to be experienced as bad news before it can be heard as good.

In verses 19-22 the people offer a re-joinder lament assailing God with rhetorical questions: Has God utterly rejected Judah? Does God loath Zion? The failure of God to supply relief seems to indicate that this might well be so. Again, the people confess their wickedness and appeal to God’s faithfulness which, in their view, should not be diminished by their sin.

Verse 22 suggests an echo of the rivalry between YAHWEH the God of Israel and the Canaanite deity, Ba’al in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ba’al was a nature deity credited with bringing the spring rains. As Israel transitioned from a nomadic existence into an agricultural society, the temptation to worship Ba’al was strong. After all, religious ritual was inextricable from agricultural techniques in the ancient world. It was difficult to download the Canaanite agricultural app without infecting the covenant people with a lot of religious malware. Here the people confess that the God of Israel and not that of any other nation is the bringer of rain and the only God capable of ending the drought, a lesson learned two centuries under the ministry of Elijah at Mt. Carmel. I Kings 18:17-46.

Interestingly, the people get the last word in this dialogical prayer. We are left with a God who has said in no uncertain terms that judgment has been entered and the appropriate sentence passed. There is no avenue of appeal. Nevertheless, the people do appeal the judgment and continue to cry out for God’s mercy-not because they believe the verdict to be unfair or the punishment too harsh-but because they know that God is merciful. A death sentence for Israel would mean that God has given up on the ancient covenant with Israel. It is precisely because they know God is incapable of breaking faith with them that the people of Israel continue to believe that God will even now be merciful and bring them the relief they seek.

Psalm 84:1-7

This psalm is likely a song composed by or for Jews making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem on high feast days similar to the “songs of ascent” found at Psalms 120-134. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (c. 1962 b S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 565-566. The vivid description of the pilgrims’ travels through the wilderness on their approach to Mt. Zion suggests to me a post-exhilic time when many Jews continued to live in lands far removed from Palestine. Vs. 5-7. Though separated from the holy city by miles, foreign borders and dangerous terrain, still “the highways to Zion” are indelibly etched into the hearts of these Jews from distant lands. Vs. 5.

Particularly moving is the physicality of the psalmist’s expression of longing for the temple. S/he “faints,” his/her “heart and flesh sing for joy.” Vs. 1. The psalmist expresses envy for the lowly sparrow privileged to nest within the sanctuary and raise her young within sight of the very holy of holies. Vs. 3. How much more blessed are the priests, singers and temple officials whose lives are dedicated to temple worship and who dwell perpetually within the temple courts! Vs. 4.

The location of the valley of Baca referenced in verse 6 is unknown. Earlier versions render it “the valley of weeping” based on the Latin Vulgate. It has been argued in favor of this translation that the name is associated with the Hebrew word “bakah,” meaning “to weep.” Other commentators suggest that the word Baca is derived from a word meaning “balsam tree.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 171. Evidently, the balsam tree grows in arid places where rain is infrequent or seasonal. In addition to the speculative nature of the grammatical connection, it does not appear that these trees were found in the geographical area of Palestine. Ibid. Nevertheless, the context tells us that the Baca Valley is obviously a place through which pilgrims passed on their way to Jerusalem. The rainy season frequently filled natural crevices in the Palestinian wilderness with water and gave life to otherwise dry stream beds. Such “pools” were a godsend for travelers and their animals.

“They go from strength to strength” (vs. 7) or, as the New English Bible translates it, “from the outer wall to inner.” If this latter translation is given credence, then the reference might be to the pilgrim’s passage through the fortifications of Jerusalem or through the successive courts of the temple. If the NRSV version is accepted, the reference might be to the strength drawn by the pilgrims from the refreshing pools of water referenced in verse 6 or merely from the growing anticipation of worship at the temple increasing with each step toward Jerusalem.

Sadly, the lectionary amputates the concluding strophes of this wonderful hymn that declares the blessedness of being in God’s presence at the temple for worship and living one’s life with a profound sense of that presence wherever one might be. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 84 in its entirety.

For disciples of Jesus, the temple is Jesus himself. What, then, are the highways to our Zion? I would suggest that the scriptures are the means of approaching Jesus. We read them, we preach on them, but have the scriptures become engraved in our hearts? Do we long for the Lord’s Table and the communion of saints in the same way those ancient pilgrims longed for the temple of the Lord and braved difficult and dangerous journeys to get there?

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 11th.

Probably in an effort to abbreviate the reading, the lectionary omits verses 9-15. That is unfortunate because we learn in verse 9 the chief reason for Paul’s writing this letter. Paul is urging Timothy to come to him. All his companions have left him during his time of imprisonment except Luke. Even commentators convinced that II Timothy was not in the main authored by Paul concede that these intensely personal verses with all of their vivid details have the ring of Pauline authenticity. Interestingly, Paul requests that Timothy bring with him a disciple named “Mark.” Was this the same person as “John Mark” mentioned in Acts 15:36-41? According to the Book of Acts, the mission partnership between Paul and Barnabas broke up due to a dispute over whether John Mark should accompany them on their next mission trip. Paul was adamantly opposed to bringing John Mark as he appears to have abandoned them during the prior journey. Did Paul have a change of heart toward Mark? Or did Mark distinguish himself in some way that caused Paul to see him in a different light? Or is the Mark of II Timothy an altogether different person? Paul also asks Timothy to bring with him “the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas” along with “the books and above all the parchments.” Again, it is difficult to believe that such mundane details are the product of any literary design.

“At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me.” Vs. 16. It is hard to know when this “defense” took place. Was it when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem? Acts 21:17-40. Or does this refer to a hearing in Rome at which Paul was condemned to death? It is difficult to determine the author’s chronology here, but Paul’s generous response to those who abandoned him reflects the same attitude expressed in Philippians toward those who exploited Paul’s imprisonment to further their own agendas. Philippians 1:15-18.

Paul concludes with a firm expression of his confident faith in God’s ability to rescue him from every evil and preserve him for God’s heavily kingdom. Vs. 18. This cannot be taken as assurance that Paul will come through his current imprisonment unscathed. To the contrary, Paul has already expressed his view that he was “on the point of being sacrificed” and that the time for his “departure” had come. Vs. 6. His hope of salvation lies in the resurrection, life that God will bestow upon him beyond his upcoming execution. This same life, says Paul, belongs to all “who have loved [Jesus’] appearing.” Vs. 8. Accordingly, life in Jesus is eternal not merely because it does not end with death, but because it is invested in those things which are eternal: Faith, hope and, the greatest of all, love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Luke 18:9-14

“God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” Thus far, the Pharisee’s prayer is not far different than what we find in the Psalms. For example, the psalmist prays in the 101st Psalm:

I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is base.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
it shall not cling to me.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
I will know nothing of evil.
One who secretly slanders a neighbour
I will destroy.
A haughty look and an arrogant heart
I will not tolerate.

It is good to live righteously and to be thankful for the opportunity to be righteous. I am thankful that I don’t have a criminal record. Nevertheless, I am mindful of the fact that my blameless reputation (relatively speaking!) is due in no small part to the fact that I have never been tempted to rob or steal to keep my family from starving to death. I have never been tempted to employ violence to save my life. All of this is the result of having lived a blessed life surrounded by caring family, friends and church. Frankly, I cannot say what sort of person I would have become had I not lived in such a blessed state.

There is something very wrong, however, with the Pharisee’s prayer. Jesus tells us right off the bat that the Pharisee “prayed with himself.” Vs. 11. Whether he knew it or not, this man was addressing not God, but his own need for self-affirmation. His prayer has no thankfulness in it. Instead, there is smugness and self-satisfaction. He does not leave the temple justified because he did not seek to be so in the eyes of God. Rather, he sought justification by comparison with others. The only way he could raise himself up, was by bringing the tax collector down.

Human communities tend toward hierarchy. It is important that we all know our place. The place society assigns to us is generally a measure of our worth. We can all probably recall the seating arrangements in the high school lunch room. Tables ranged from the “cool table,” athletes, cheerleaders and the generally good looking, down to the “nerd table” where yours truly sat with the other kids who had bad acne, braces on their teeth, fat rather than muscle and a lack of athletic prowess. And, as I indicated above, there were bullies. As I recall, bullies typically did not come from the “cool” table. They were much closer to us nerds on the social hierarchy. They just had a harder time accepting it. So by terrifying, intimidating and bullying the rest of us, they felt they were lifting themselves a bit closer to the top of the social ladder. It was all about self-justification. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was a spiritual bully attempting to exalt himself by denigrating the tax collector.

The language Jesus uses in introducing this parable is reflected in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die.” Ezekiel 33:13. See  Fitzmyer, J.A., The Gospel According to Luke, (c. 1985 by Doubleday) p. 1185 cited in Beale, G.K. and  Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal & D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Publishing Group) p. 349. The point here is that good deeds today cannot be banked against iniquity the next. Each moment presents the choice between good and evil and true righteousness chooses the good consistently. So, too, fasting, prayer and tithing, commendable as these practices are, count for nothing when one neglects the great commandment to love God with all the heart and the neighbor as oneself.

The prayer posture of the tax collector, who would not even raise his head, echoes that of Ezra the scribe who, when he learned of the many mixed marriages between the returning Jewish exiles and foreign women, cried out, “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to heaven.” Ezra 9:6. There is rich irony in that the notorious sinner prays in the manner of Ezra, second only to Moses in renown as a teacher and interpreter of the Torah!

The exaltation of the lowly and the humiliation of the proud and powerful is a recurring refrain throughout the gospel of Luke. It is sounded first in the song of Mary. Luke 1:51-53 and is repeated here to make clear the meaning of the parable. The great reversal is coming. Whether one welcomes this event as salvation or fears it as judgment depends on one’s posture toward Jesus and his proclamation of God’s impending reign. Of course, the same theme is repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well. See, e.g., Psalm 107:39-43.