Tag Archives: Forgiveness

Forgiveness, Forgiving, being forgiven; a poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyay and the Lessons for Sunday, September 17th

Image result for showing forgivenessFIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103: 1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

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.

Forgiveness

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 50:15-21

“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!

Psalm 103: 1-13

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 103New Advent.

Romans 14:1-12

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.

Matthew 18:21-35

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.

Sunday, July 24th

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 18:20–32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6–19
Luke 11:1–13

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” That is the simple request Jesus’ disciples made of him. Praying rightly does not come naturally. It must be learned. Based on much of what passes for prayer these days, I am not convinced the church has done a particularly good job of teaching or that we children of the church have learned our lessons well. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer are we instructed to pray for the self-interested welfare of our own particular nation state. Nowhere are we instructed to pray for victory in war. Nowhere are we instructed to seek special miracles of healing for ourselves or loved ones, professional success or financial security. Prayer is not a means of gaining God’s favor, support or intervention to further our own personal interests. That, however, is the focus of many prayers I have heard over the years.

How different is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray! Jesus’ prayer begins not with his own needs, but with a plea that God’s name be regarded as holy. Prayer is not all about us, our needs, our hopes, our desires and longings. It is about glorifying God. Many of the Psalms illustrate that very point. including, for example, Psalm 150. In his/her prayer, the psalmist asks nothing of God, seeks nothing from God and does not attempt to influence God in any way. The psalm is pure praise to God from beginning to end. What we are commanded to pray for, above all else, is the coming of God’s reign on earth. That is not to say the coming of God’s reign depends on our prayer. As Martin Luther rightly points out, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” We are that for which we yearn. We are shaped by what we desire, what we long for and that for which we hope. If the primary focus of our prayer is something less than the reign of God, then we become less than all God would have us be.

So what hopes and longings are shaping our souls? Our culture of late stage capitalism instills in us a thirst for acquisition and consumption. The American Dream is often cast in terms of home ownership, financial security and increasing wealth. By contrast, Jesus teaches us to pray for no more than today’s sustenance, leaving tomorrow to be concerned for itself. This “daily bread” is the only material thing for which Jesus teaches us to pray.

Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done-not our own agendas for personal well-being. In praying for God’s will to be done, I might be praying for poverty, persecution or even death. The kingdom is revealed through the suffering witness of a church that lives as though the kingdom were fully present in a world that does not yet recognize or accept it. It is only with this understanding that we can pray rightly to be delivered from evil and temptation. Deliverance from evil is not protection from suffering, but faith that endures suffering without succumbing to unbelief and despair. This petition is essential precisely because loyalty to the reign of God brings a disciple into conflict with the values and priorities of the dominant culture. The “evil” to be avoided is not suffering or persecution, but the danger of yielding to the ways of the world under the threat of these necessary consequences of faithfulness.

Ultimately, prayer is less about altering the external environment to our own liking than being altered in heart and mind so that we learn to yearn for God’s kingdom, seek God’s will and hallow God’s name through faithful discipleship.

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian of the 19th Century, was well schooled in the art of faithful prayer. Here is one of his.

Move in Infinite Love

You who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! You who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare, not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Your unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Your unchangeableness. You are not like us; if we are to preserve only some degree of constancy, we must not permit ourselves too much to be moved, nor by too many things. You on the contrary are moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we humans beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moved You; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves You, You who are unchangeable! You who in infinite love do submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move You to add Your blessing, in order that there may be brought about such a change in us who pray as to bring us into conformity with Your unchangeable will, You who are unchangeable!

Source: Christian Classics, c. The Words Group, 700 Sleater-Kinney Road, Suite 303-B, Lacey, Washington 98503.  Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. Kierkegaard’s life and works presented a serious challenge to the institutional church of his day, which he felt had replaced faithful discipleship with mere cultural and ethical convention. Rightly or wrongly, he is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and was one of the first thinkers to take a modern, analytical and psychological approach to religion. You can find out more about Soren Kierkegaard at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Genesis 18:20–32

The common lectionary’s hatchet strikes again! One cannot possibly appreciate what is going on between Abraham and the Lord in this passage without reading from verse 16. Recall that Abraham last week received three mysterious visitors who, it turns out, were the Lord and two angelic agents. They inform Abraham and Sarah that by the coming Spring, Sarah will be a mother. Now the two angels depart toward Sodom and we get a very rare look into the mind of Israel’s God:

“The Lord said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’” Genesis 18:17-19

This is important. God’s deliberations go to whether God will act unilaterally or whether God will draw Abraham into the process of judging Sodom. God finally decides to reveal to Abraham his intent to investigate the outcries against Sodom’s wickedness. Why? Because Abraham is to become a nation by which all other nations shall bless themselves. Abraham’s job is to bless and that is what he attempts to do. He pleads with God to show compassion on Sodom for the sake of the few righteous that might live therein. That is what it means for Israel to “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Vs. 19. The outcome is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is rescued along with his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot, it turns out, will become the father of two other near eastern nations, Moab and Amon. That these two nations became enemies of Israel only serves to underline the point: Israel’s job is to spread blessing in a world cursed by sin. She is to intercede on behalf of the peoples of the world-even if those people are her enemies; even when these people are Sodomites; even when intercession must be made against the very judgment of God. Punishment and retribution are God’s business. Israel’s job is blessing and intercession.

The conclusion of this saga in the 19th chapter of Genesis probably will never find its way into the lectionary. Read it at your own risk. It is a sordid tale of attempted gang rape, cowardice, stupidity, violence, incest and drunkenness that I am sure the American Family Association would be quick to censor-except that it happens to be in the Bible. You might well conclude that if Lot was deemed sufficiently righteous to be snatched from the destruction of Sodom, God must be setting the bar extremely low. Be that as it may, Lot did offer the visiting angels hospitality and sanctuary. This hospitable conduct toward the visitors marks a striking contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites who sought to abuse them. Kindness to strangers, aliens and sojourners goes a long way with Israel’s God and might have induced the Lord to overlook what we see as Lot’s character flaws.

Psalm 138

Though it begins as a psalm of pure praise, verses 3 and 7 reveal that the psalmist is giving thanks for deliverance from enemies. Some commentators claim that the psalmist’s declaration of praise “before the gods” dates this psalm somewhere in Israel’s pre-exilic history in which the reality of gods other than Yahweh was assumed, though their power and status was inferior to that of Israel’s God. But in the post exile work of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) , the prophet calls these foreign gods to account before Yahweh only to show that they are in fact not gods at all. Isaiah 41:21-24. The psalmist’s assertion that “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O Lord, for they have heard the words of thy mouth; and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord” echo the same theme found throughout Second Isaiah. See, e.g.Isaiah 49:7, 22Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.

I am particularly struck by the final verse: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” Vs. 8. This prayer that God will establish God’s purpose for one’s life is the very soul of humility. At my first parish where I served some thirty years ago, a crusty old Irishman in my congregation named “Jack” posed the following question. “Pastor, how do you know that God isn’t using you to keep this little church going so that the Alcoholic Anonymous group will have a place to meet?” The question infuriated me at the time. I fumed over it for the rest of the day and well into the week. Since then I have asked myself many times why Jack’s quarry upset me so. Was I insulted because he was suggesting that I and my ministry might not be at the center of God’s work? Was my pride hurt because I might be the nail holding the shoe on the horse rather than the general sitting in the saddle? Should that matter? Shouldn’t it be enough to know that God promises to weave my life into the rich fabric of his redemptive drama? Am I miffed because I didn’t get to play the lead role?

I think Jack was onto something important. Far too much of life is spent trying to prove to ourselves and to everybody else that we count for something. It is unbearable to think that we might only be a pawn on the chessboard of life, the understudy for a minor character in an off, off Broadway play who never makes it to the stage, or the pastor of a church kept alive only for the sake of a bunch of recovering alcoholics. Unbearable, that is, until you finally realize that “though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.” Vs. 6. God does not measure accomplishments (which often turn out to be less impressive than we imagine them to be), but faithfulness. When we are finally able to recognize that our marriages, our children, our careers and everything else is God’s project to be employed solely for God’s purposes, life becomes fun again. We are no longer under pressure to “make it come out right.” We don’t need to fret about whether we are accomplishing anything “significant” or “important.” Instead, it is possible to enjoy and take a measure of satisfaction in doing what is given us well, resting in the knowledge that however insignificant, unimportant or unsuccessful our tasks may seem, they are precisely what God needs for God’s own purposes.

Colossians 2:6–19

Perhaps you can still recall how nearly a decade ago, on October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten little girls execution style, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. Though certainly tragic, school shootings are hardly unusual in our violent and firearm saturated culture. What was remarkable in this story was the Amish response. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness and support to the family of the one who had slain their children. How different that is from the usual cries for vengeance, the death penalty, law and order, eye for eye and tooth for tooth-all those visceral responses that come so naturally through the media, over the internet and talk radio when our own children or loved ones are the victims of senseless violence like this. How do you account for such radical forgiveness, such unorthodox compassion?

I don’t want to idolize the Amish. I have been around them enough to know that their marriages have problems; their kids misbehave and neighbors within their communities quarrel. The Amish are no less human than we are, but they do have one advantage. They are in every sense of the word “rooted and built up in [Christ] and established in the faith.” Colossians 2:7. Their daily lives revolve around worship and prayer. Scripture informs their dealings with each other and the outside world. Moreover, the Amish are not as exposed as we are to “philosophy and empty deceit” or as possessed as we are by “the elemental spirits of the universe.” Colossians 2:8. They are not bombarded day in and day out with Kenny Rogers and his like singing “Sometimes you have to fight to be a man.” Their brains are not programmed from near infancy by westerns and crime dramas propagating the myth that justice and peace can be established through violence. They do not live in a culture where faith is cordoned off to one morning each week while television, the internet and entertainment from a thousand digital duhinkies reign supreme for the remaining six and one half days. Consequently, when their children were murdered, the Amish responded in the only way they could possibly imagine, having had their imaginations formed by the image of Jesus. They forgave their enemies because, well, what else would a disciple of Jesus do?

I am no more ready to become Amish than I am to join a monastery. (I would starve without my microwave and I am afraid of horses.) But I believe that, whatever shortcomings there may be to the Amish way of life and their communities, they are right to allow their imaginations to be shaped by Jesus. So the question is: how does that happen for communities of disciples living in the midst of a culture like ours? I am not so naïve as to suppose that I can convince anyone to give up watching CSI or Hawaii Five O. But is it too much to ask that you start watching these shows more critically? Why not ask after each show you watch: what does this story say about the world? About human beings? About God? Is that what I believe? Is it consistent with what the scriptures proclaim about Jesus? How about trying to imagine how Jesus would meet the violent encounters you see on the screen? How about examining your own feelings about what is taking place and whether that squares with Jesus’ teaching and example? As Paul charges us in his Letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

Luke 11:1–13

Today’s gospel contains what I typically call “the other Lord’s Prayer.” It is significantly different from the form of that prayer found in Matthew 6:9-13 that we routinely pray in our liturgies. Close examination of the prayer reveals that both Matthew’s and Luke’s version were likely based on an original composed in a Semitic language, such as Hebrew or Aramaic which was then translated into Greek. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) p. 455. There is some dispute over whether Matthew and Luke used a common Greek form of the prayer from the material labeled “Q” employed by both of them, each editing it for his own purposes, or whether they each supplied a form of the prayer used in their respective communities. Most scholars tend to agree that the Semitic original gave rise to at least two Greek translations of the prayer and that Matthew and Luke each used a different translation. It is noteworthy that Jesus substitutes the more formal and strictly religious word for “father,”abinu, with the informal abba used by children to address their fathers. Thus, Jesus transformed the fatherhood of God into an intensely personal form of address and instructed his disciples to pray with precisely such familiarity. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963, Penguin Books) pp. 151-52.

Jesus’ instructions on prayer are remarkably brief. First and foremost, God’s name is to be hallowed and praised. The disciples are to desire and pray for the reign of God above all else. Because God is a loving father, the disciples may confidently pray for their daily bodily needs. Forgiveness also can be confidently expected, though reciprocal mercy is to be shown to everyone indebted to the petitioner. Prayer is also made for guidance that the disciple might not fall into temptation/the time of trial.

Jesus does not instruct his disciples on methods for prayer, but he is clear about three things: audacity, persistence and faith. Like restless children, disciples are to keep pressing their demands to the point of being annoying. They are to keep knocking on the door until the weary householder cannot endure the pounding anymore and is forced to get out of bed. Above all, they are to trust their Heavenly Father to give them what they need (not necessarily what they want). What the disciples need (whether they know it yet or not) is the Holy Spirit. This prayer will always be answered with a resounding “yes.”

 

Sunday, July 10th

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1–10
Colossians 1:1–14
Luke 10:25–37

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, your mercy delights us, and the world longs for your loving care. Hear the cries of everyone in need, and turn our hearts to love our neighbors with the love of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.

Fulfillment of the law is humanly possible. The covenant obligations imposed upon Israel are not hopelessly unachievable ideals. God has far better ways to spend time than devising rules nobody can keep and then punishing everyone’s failed efforts to attain the impossible. The law was made to be kept. Lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus did not come to replace the Torah with some simpler, easier, more enlightened and less demanding moral teaching. To the contrary, he stated that not a single stroke of the law will pass away as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17.

Fulfillment of the law is not merely a human possibility. It is an accomplished human fact. The law, we are told, was fulfilled in the obedient human life and faithful human death of Jesus. So let us forever dismiss lame excuses like, “Nobody is perfect,” “I’m only human” and “I can only do my best.” There is nothing in the law that you cannot do. You can worship the Lord your God; you can both rest from your labors and give rest to your laborers; you can respect your neighbor’s life, property, marriage and livelihood; you can be a good steward of creation living gently on the land and contributing more than you consume. This “word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. Deuteronomy 30:14. Neither Saint Paul nor Martin Luther ever said anything different.

Our problem with the law is not our inability to keep it. Our problem arises from believing that our success in keeping the law wins us God’s favor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even perfect obedience to Torah could not win God’s favor. That is because obedience is not necessary for that purpose. God cares for and redeems us because God loves us as a parent loves a child. Good parents love their children the minute they come forth from the womb, before they have had a chance either to make them proud or break their hearts. So, too, God loves the good world God made and the creatures made in God’s image because that’s the way God is. God’s heart breaks when we transgress the law-not because God is a stickler for the rules-but because God cares so deeply about the pain we inflict on ourselves and the rest of creation as a result of those transgressions. People were not created for the sake of the law. The law was given for the protection of God’s people. That is why the two great commandments call us to love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The entire law must be interpreted and put into practice toward these ends only-not in order to placate, please or impress God.

It is for that reason Jesus asks the lawyer in our gospel lesson, “What is written in the law” and “how do you read?Luke 10:20. It is critical that the law be read and interpreted as God’s gift to be used in the service of worshiping God and loving the neighbor. To his credit, lawyer gets the answer right: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27. You’ve got it, says Jesus. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:28. But the lawyer is not interested in doing the law. As lawyers are wont to do, he is trying to find a loophole by which to escape the law’s demands. So he asks Jesus a question designed to demonstrate that the law is ambiguous, unclear and subject to multiple interpretations. Who, after all, is my neighbor? Surely it is not the gentile altogether outside of the covenant promises made to Israel. Surely it is not the Israelite who, through his or her sinful acts has separated himself or herself from the community of Israel. Surely it is not those Israelites whose teachings are contrary to the traditions handed down to us by the elders. Where does one draw the line when it comes to the scope of my duty to my neighbors? If the line cannot be drawn with legal clarity, then how can I be expected to keep the law?

But Jesus will not debate the meaning of Torah on the lawyer’s terms. He responds with a story in which neighborliness is practiced between mortal enemies. A Samaritan acts with compassion one would never expect him to show toward a Jew. Why? Simply because when the Samaritan saw the broken man on the side of the road, he didn’t see a Jew. He saw only a wounded, vulnerable, dying man. And we are told that “he had compassion.” The Greek word used here for “compassion” goes beyond its English counterpart. It means a deep seated, heartfelt identification and solidarity with the victim. It’s being able to get inside his or her skin and see the world through his or her eyes. It is the kind of identification God expresses toward God’s wounded creation by sending his only begotten Son. We are never more genuinely human nor are we more reflective of the divine image than when we exercise compassion toward one another. Neighborliness is not a legal obligation whose scope can be measured by statutory prescription. It is a miracle that occurs when, through God’s Spirit, God is recognized as our loving Father and the person standing in need of our compassion is recognized as a sister or brother made in God’s image. This miracle in the depths of the human heart, says Jesus, propels us into action that fulfills the Torah.

Fulfillment of the law is not a task far beyond the reach of human effort. It is as close as your nearest neighbor and it is as clear as your neighbor’s need. It is in your mouth. It is in your heart. To be sure, it is not easy. But it is humanly possible. You can do it.

Here’s a poem by Jan Beatty about exercising the kind of compassion I believe Jesus is talking about.

Stricken

We’re sitting in Uncle Sam’s Subs, splitting
a cheesesteak, when Shelley says:
I think I should buy a gun.
I look up at her puffy face, and she’s staring,
her hands shaking. On medication for
schizophrenia, she’s serious.
I say, Tell me why you need a gun.
Her voice getting louder: You know why.
No, no I don’t, I say.
In case I need it. I might need it to shoot somebody.
I give her a hard look — You don’t need a gun.
No one is after you.
She stares back: You might be after me.
I don’t know what to say — I never know what to say.
I know it’s not her speaking, but it’s my friend,
far away in some other stricken mind.
What’s it like to know you’re right/
you’re in danger —
and the world says no?
Every woman I know has lived that.
I say: I would never hurt you. I’m not a threat to you.
She laughs, says, Well, you might be.
The laughing scares me.
I want out of this place,
this sub shop, to walk away,
knowing she can’t walk out of her mind, leave
the illness behind. The long minutes,
the long, long minutes. She says, What do you think?
I think we should eat our sandwiches, then
take a walk, I say.
What about the gun?
Let’s talk about it later, I say,
not knowing a thing.
Not knowing a goddamn thing.

Source: Poetry Magazine (April 2016). Jan Beatty is the author of The Switching/Yard (c. 2013 University of Pittsburgh Press). She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

The language of this lesson naturally grates on my Lutheran ears. Since I was knee high to cricket I have been taught that it is impossible for human beings to keep the law; that the law always and only accuses us and shows up our sinfulness. I was always taught that the purpose of the law is to drive me to seek God’s forgiveness. So what does God mean by telling Israel: “this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you…”? vs. 11. I think we need to make an important distinction here. As I said above, the law was not given to Israel so that she could earn God’s favor. She already had God’s favor. God demonstrated God’s unconditional love for Israel when God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to Israel so that she might remain free, so that she would not become yet another Egypt. God calls Israel to obedience in Torah, not because God is a neurotic rule maker who cannot abide violations. God calls Israel to obedience because obedience is the only way for Israel to prosper and live well in the land.

When Moses declares that the law can be kept, he does not mean that it can be kept perfectly or flawlessly. Indeed, Moses knows otherwise. That is why the law makes provision for sacrificial offerings and rites through which God’s forgiveness is declared and reconciliation is facilitated. It should be noted that in the larger context of today’s reading, Moses assumes that the people will be disobedient to God’s commands, that they will suffer the consequences and that they will be carried into exile. Nevertheless, Moses goes on to say that God is merciful and forgiving; that God will always hear Israel’s prayers and will always respond to her expressions of repentance with forgiveness. God may punish Israel, but he will never reject her. God is always there for Israel to help her begin anew.

Again, as I said before, when Saint Paul and Martin Luther declare that people are incapable of keeping the law, they are simply saying that the law cannot be used to curry favor with God. When the law is employed to please God rather than to serve the neighbor, it becomes a curse instead of the blessing it was intended to be. Where law becomes the measure of righteousness before God, then we find ourselves embroiled in those endless “where do you draw the line?” discussions. What constitutes “work” in violation of the Sabbath? What constitutes “good cause” for divorcing my spouse? Who exactly is my neighbor? All of these questions suggest that if only we can figure out where to draw the line between obedience and disobedience to the law and stay on the right side of the line, we will be OK in God’s sight. That was precisely the outlook of the young lawyer in our gospel lesson. He was appealing to the law “to justify himself.” He wanted Jesus to clarify for him his duty of neighborliness so that he could be sure he was meeting all of its requirements.

But as Paul and Luther point out, that is not how law works. Sin is not a matter of keeping or breaking the rules. It is a matter of the heart. It all boils down to whether we love God with all the heart, with all the soul, with all the mind and with all the strength and our neighbor as ourselves. You can keep all the rules but still lack faith and compassion. Indeed, there is no clearer evidence for lack of faith than a false dependence on and pride in keeping the rules. Israel has not been called to a slavish compliance with nit picking demands. Rightly understood as pure gift, Torah is the shape human life takes when drawn into covenant with a gracious, merciful and forgiving God.

Psalm 25:1–10

This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 34Psalm 37;Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. In these psalms, each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.

And so on down to letter Z. 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. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50,The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. 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 1-10, 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.

Colossians 1:1–14

Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See   Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.

At this point it is clear that the church is beginning to spread throughout the Roman Empire and is “bearing fruit.”  Paul opens his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the faith of the church at Colossae of which he has heard. It seems that Paul has never actually visited this church because much of what he seems to know has come through what he has heard or been told by others, specifically, “Epaphras.” Vs. 7. Paul then moves into a prayer for the Colossian church, that it may be strengthened, filled with wisdom and understanding so that it may “lead a life worthy of the Lord.” Vss. 9-10. As we will see in the weeks to come, Paul makes a sweeping argument for the cosmic impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in whom “the fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” Colossians 2:9.

Luke 10:25–37

In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from Judah and the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem, eventually establishing their own capital city in Samaria. This break up took place after the death of Solomon, David’s son around 922 B.C.E. The Samaritans asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel that existed prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith.

The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendents born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.

According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the vacinity of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.

As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. That the conflict was very much alive in the first century is evident from Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. The first question she asked upon learning that Jesus was a prophet involved the proper place of worship: the temple in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim?  John 4:19-26. This background  information important as it makes clear that the neighbor to be loved includes not merely the stranger on the side of the road with a flat tire, but the mortal enemy that would kill you given half a chance.

The antagonist in this story is a lawyer. While we need to take care that we do not read too much of what we know and understand about lawyers today into what the New Testament means by the term, there are some parallels worth noting. Lawyers typically focus on the outer limits of the law. Modern lawyers advise their clients concerning the extent to which certain conduct might violate the law. Thus, a corporate client might want to know whether its newly designed logo is sufficiently different form a similar one belonging to another company to ensure safety from liability for trademark infringement. A company might consult a lawyer to determine whether it can safely designate certain income as non-taxable without incurring the scrutiny of the IRS. Similarly, lawyers in Jesus’ day were responsible for determining what conduct lay within or outside the parameters of the Torah. The Rabbis spoke of erecting a “hedge” around the Torah consisting of prohibitions and requirements that went beyond Torah. The thinking was that if you observed these “hedge” provisions, you would never get close enough to the Torah to violate it. The problem was, however, that these provisions sometimes prevented people from getting close enough to Torah to obey it. The case of the lawyer in this story is an illustration of that very thing.

The lawyer first seeks to “test” Jesus by asking him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus will not take the bait. “You know the answer to that question well enough.” Jesus replies. “What does the law require?” The lawyer correctly responds with the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” “Right,” says Jesus. “Do it and you will live.” Here Jesus is on the same page with Moses. This command is doable and understandable. Of course, that does not mean that it is easy, but that is another question and perhaps the very one the lawyer seeks to avoid. In true lawyer fashion, the lawyer manufactures a hurdle to obedience by seeking to render the statute ambiguous. “All well and good to say, ‘love your neighbor,’” he says, “but who is my neighbor?” Obviously, the lawyer is trying to drag Jesus into one of those hopeless “where do you draw the line” arguments. You know what I am talking about: “If your enemy strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Yes, but what if he does it again? How many times do I have to let him hit me? What if I am an abused spouse? Do I just stand there and take it? What do I do with an armed maniac who points a gun at my dear old grandma…” On and on it goes.

Jesus will not be drawn into this silliness. He simply does not answer the lawyer’s question because he knows it will only lead to more stupid questions. He will not get into an argument over who should be classified as “neighbor,” but instead tells a story about neighborliness. Now if Jesus had told a story about a Jew who happened upon a wounded Samaritan and helped him, the lawyer might have nodded with approval. “Yes, we Jews certainly know how to act like neighbors-even to Samaritans. But tell me Jesus, how far do we have to go with that? What if the Samaritan is threatening me? What if he is trying to rob me?” That would bring us right back to the “where do you draw the line” argument.

But Jesus tells a story about a neighborly Samaritan. This takes the whole matter of neighborliness outside the realm of law, regulation and custom-the very ocean in which the lawyer swims. The Samaritan, to the lawyer’s way of thinking, was a man without any true law. The lawyer is now completely out of his element-like a fish out of water. There are suddenly no longer any points between which lines might be drawn and therefore no more lines to argue about. There is simply the Samaritan feeling compassion, a word Luke uses in Zechariah’s song of praise to describe “the tender mercy of our God.” Luke 1:78. The question now is no longer “what legally constitutes a neighbor,” but who is acting the neighbor. At its root, this is a grammatical problem. For the lawyer, neighbor is a noun to be defined. For Jesus, it is a verb to be acted upon. So Jesus tells the lawyer who asks him “who is my neighbor,” to stop obfuscating and be a neighbor. “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you.” Deuteronomy 30:11.

Sunday, April 6th

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Ezekiel 37:1–14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6–11
John 11:1–45

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I frequently hear stories about how God has answered prayer. I am thankful for these testimonies of faith. I am glad for people who recognize Jesus’ gracious presence in their lives, meeting their deepest needs and giving them guidance. But there are other stories as well that need to be told. These are the stories of unanswered prayers. Sometimes God leaves us in the lurch. At least many of the psalmists seemed to think so. Mary and Martha felt much the same way when Jesus arrived too late to heal their brother Lazarus of his fatal disease. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Read under that, “Where the hell were you, Jesus?” Jesus doesn’t seem to have much of an answer. For reasons he never quite explains, Jesus remained a full two days where he was after hearing that Lazarus was deathly ill. That turned out to be two days too late. Of course, we need not dwell overly long on this. We know the ending, after all. Lazarus is raised from death and they all live happily ever after.

Except that they don’t. The way John tells it, the raising of Lazarus turned out to be the last nail in Jesus’ coffin. Alarmed by the following Jesus has gotten through news of this remarkable sign, the religious authorities decide that Jesus must be put to death. It’s a matter of national security. If the leaders of Israel don’t deal with the “Jesus problem,” the Romans will-and it won’t be pretty. Moreover, it turns out that Lazarus will likely be part of the collateral damage. The people are unlikely to forget what Jesus has done as long as Lazarus is walking around. So the authorities decide to take him out as well.

Clearly, there is no happy ending for anyone in this story, but the good news of Jesus Christ is about more than happy endings. It is about the Son sent into the world that the world might be saved. The world must know how deeply the Father loves the Son. Only so will the world come to understand how deeply the Father loves it-enough to send that beloved Son into the heart of its hostility. Jesus deals in life-giving signs-wine to gladden a wedding celebration; health to a crippled body, bread to a hungry crowd, sight to a man born blind and now life to a man in the grip of death. Yet Jesus is met at every turn by death threats and violence. His signs are ignored, resisted and crushed. The cross is just the end result of his obedience to the life giving ways of the Father.

But God will not let death have the last word. God raises Jesus up and the life giving signs just keep coming fast and furious. The Gospel of John concludes by telling us that “there were also many other things that Jesus did; where every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John 21:25. Like Mary, Martha and Lazarus we are all caught up in this drama of the Son who is sent. We have our parts to play, but we don’t get to write the script. We cannot expect that Jesus will arrive at the most convenient time from our own self-interested perspective. But whenever he comes on the scene, it is the right time, God’s time, time for the unfolding of salvation as the Father’s love for the Son spills over into our lives making of them signs of the glory that is the Father’s passionate love for the world.

Ezekiel 37:1–14

This engaging story has helped to inspire hymns, spirituals, folk songs and at least one rip roaring fun camp song I recall from my youth. It begins with the prophet Ezekiel being “brought by the Spirit of the Lord” to a valley (or plain according to some manuscripts) that is full of bones. Vss. 1-2. The bones are dry and, as we will see, disconnected. They are in such a state of scatter that it would have been impossible to recognize any individual form among them. Though described as a vision, the field of dismembered bones could well describe the conditions of any place around Jerusalem a decade after the Babylonian destruction of that city. The battle raged fiercely around the city for some time and the Babylonian troops showed little mercy for the hapless citizens of this troublesome and rebellious little kingdom when its last defenses failed. The scene calls to mind discovery of mass graves throughout the former Yugoslavia following the genocidal wars of the 1990s. Though the significance of the vision is not explained to the prophet until after it is complete, Ezekiel must have known that these were not the bones of strangers.

The Lord addresses the question to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Vs. 3. From a purely human standpoint (the only standpoint Ezekiel can possibly have), the answer is “no.” Death is final. Ezekiel can have no basis for any other response. But the question is not posed by another mortal. This is not a conversation between peers. God is the questioner and Ezekiel knows that God possesses knowledge, power and wisdom far beyond the limits of his own understanding. Thus, while Ezekiel cannot conceive of how the dead bones might live again, he cannot rightly deny this possibility either. So he responds in the only possible way: “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Vs. 3

The prophet is instructed to prophesy to the bones, a seemingly futile task. Yet perhaps it seemed no more daunting to Ezekiel than his original call to preach “to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this day.” Ezekiel 2:3. Speaking to a people unwilling to listen (Ezekiel 3:7) is just about as fruitless as speaking to dead bones. But perhaps that is the point. As we shall see, these “dead bones” are the “whole house of Israel.” Vs. 11. It will be Ezekiel’s job to preach hope into the broken and demoralized Babylonian exiles eking out an existence in the midst of a hostile culture. Compared to this task, preaching to bones might have seemed a welcome diversion.

The Lord makes a remarkable promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Vs. 5. There is a playfulness in this message that gets lost in translation. As I have noted before, the Hebrew word for “breath” (ruach) is also the word for “spirit.” This confluence of the speaker, the word and the life giving spirit cannot help but call to mind the opening of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-5 and the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. With this allusion, the Lord answers implicitly his own question. “Yes, the bones can live because I speak them into existence and breathe into them my life giving spirit.” It is significant, I think, that God places this life giving word into the mouth of his prophet to speak. Vss. 4-5. The prophet then literally preaches the bones back to life again.

In verses 11-14 the Lord explains the vision to Ezekiel. The “bones” are the exiled people of Judah living in Babylon. They are lamenting their fate saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Vs. 11. But the Lord says otherwise: “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” Vs. 12. Clearly, the “bones” are a metaphor for the exiles and the “grave” is a metaphor for Babylon, the land of captivity. But does Ezekiel mean to say more than this? In verse 13 the prophet goes on to say in the voice of the Lord: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” This might only be a common case of Hebrew parallelism, repeating in a different word sequence substantially the same thought expressed in a previous sentence. Then again, the prophet might be intimating more. The final chapters of Ezekiel paint a portrait of restoration for Jerusalem, the temple and the land of Israel that clearly stretches the parameters of existence as we know it. See Ezekiel 40-48. The river flowing from the restored temple passes through the land of Israel, turns the oceans from salt water to fresh and brings to life the arid places. Ezekiel 47:1-12. Is it too much of a stretch to expect that people of Israel who have died prior to this glorious new age will be raised up to share in it also?

Of course there is no way of settling this question decisively. I am not convinced that there is enough here to state unequivocally that Ezekiel foresaw a resurrection of the dead. Nonetheless, he believed that Israel’s return to Palestine would inaugurate a sweeping transformation of the land into an Eden like state where God is rightly worshiped. Where creation ceases to rebel against its Creator and allows God to be God, can there be any limitation on God’s power to breathe life into it? Obviously, this profound renewal of the land did not occur upon the Jews’ return from exile. We are therefore forced to conclude either that the prophet’s vision failed, or that it awaits fulfilment at a time and in a manor Ezekiel could not yet see. Naturally, I stand on the latter conclusion. Whatever limits there might have been on Ezekiel’s understanding of the word he proclaimed, it is after all the Lord’s word. Ezekiel would be the first to admit that one’s own necessarily limited understanding of that word cannot contain or limit the word.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 51; Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

Romans 8:6–11

I am not sure what can be done with this randomly selected section of Paul’s extended argument ripped out of its context and sandwiched in between some very substantial readings for this Sunday. It is worth pointing out, however, that when Paul is speaking of “the flesh” (“sarkos” in the Greek), he is not talking about bodily appetites (i.e., sexual attraction). He is instead speaking of life as lived under bondage to sin. Sin, as I noted in my post of March 9th, is failure to trust God to be God and placing ourselves in the center of existence. Thus, where the self remains center stage, a life of severe asceticism is no less fleshly than a life of hedonistic abandon. In the case of the former, the objective is “self” purification; in the latter, “self” indulgence. Either way, it is all about “self” and that makes it sin.

So, too, life in the Spirit is not to be understood as an escape from bodily existence. Again, “flesh” is not synonymous with “body.” Rather, life in the Spirit is one of knowing the heart of God through one’s relationship with Jesus. When God is known as the one who does not withhold from us the life of his own Son, it is possible to trust God to be God and live joyfully, hopefully and obediently within our creaturely limits.

More could be said here, but not without resort to the context of Paul’s larger argument. That will have to await another day.

John 11:1–45

This incredible story begins in Galilee where Jesus has gone to escape hostility in Judea. There he receives word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is ill. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Vss. 5-6. These two sentences strike the reader as a non sequitur. The New Revised Standard Version attempts to soften these sentences a bit by translating them as follows: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I don’t see any basis for this “softening” in the Greek text. Furthermore, I am convinced that the “harder” reading should stand because it alerts us to the very point to be made through the story, namely, that everything occurring in the gospel happens in order that Jesus might be glorified. So says R. H. Lightfoot and I agree. Lightfoot, R. H., St. John’s Gospel-A Commentary (c. 1956 by Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) p. 215-220.

From the standpoint of our twenty-first century, ego centric, narcissistic mentality that cannot see any good beyond individual self-fulfillment, it appears inexplicable that Jesus would refrain from taking a short trip to Bethany to save the life of one whom he loved. But Jesus points out that the illness is “not unto death,” but “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Vs. 4. If one accepts the proposition (as John would have us do) that the greatest good for all the world (Mary, Martha and Lazarus included) is the glorification of the Son, then love compels Jesus to remain where he is if that will further such glorification. Whether this decision on Jesus’ part was to allow nature to take its course with Lazarus or whether Jesus’ presence in Galilee was required for some other undisclosed reason is beside the point. Salvation for the whole world is revealed through the unfolding of the Son’s life lived in obedience to the will of his Father. Lazarus is part of all this drama as are Mary and Martha. But the story revolves around Jesus and their stories find meaning and fulfilment only as they are incorporated into his.

After an interval of two days, Jesus’ announces his intention to return to Judea and his disciples are incredulous. Had not Jesus only recently and narrowly escaped death at the hands of his enemies there? Why should he want to return? Jesus points out that he wishes to go to Lazarus who “has fallen asleep.” Vs. 11. The disciples, taking Jesus literally, interpret this to mean that Lazarus is on the way to recovery. In fact, he has died. Vs. 14.

Upon his approach to Bethany, Jesus first encounters Martha who greets Jesus with a seeming reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Vs. 21. But she follows up with a confession of faith: “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Vs. 22. She further confesses, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Vs. 27. Martha does not need the sign of Lazarus’ rising.

Mary is another story. She also reproaches Jesus for his absence in their time of need, but she makes no confession of faith. She and the people who are consoling her simply weep. It is at this point that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Vs. 33. The Greek word translated as “deeply moved in spirit” can mean either deep grief or anger. Commentators go wild attempting to get into the head of Jesus here. Was Jesus irked or grieved at the obvious failure of Mary and her supporters to grasp, as did Martha, that he is the resurrection and the life? Is this grief or anger directed against death and bereavement generally? Was Jesus simply sharing the sorrow of Mary at this point? On the whole, I believe that the first explanation fits best with the narrative. Jesus is grieved/angered that Mary and her friends do not recognize that he is the resurrection and the life. The sorrow inflicted upon them by this blindness is what induces his weeping, not simply the death of Lazarus. It is for their sake, the sake of these “people standing by” that Jesus performs the “sign” of Lazarus’ raising. Vs. 42. Many of those bystanders did, in fact, believe. Vs. 45.

But the story does not end with the reading. When we read further, we learn that some of the bystanders reported this sign to the religious authorities. Fearing that Jesus’ rising popularity and the expectations surrounding him might provoke aggression from Rome, the authorities determine to kill Jesus. John 11: 46-53. Thus, this life giving sign comes at a great cost to Jesus. Lazarus’ raising from the tomb places Jesus on his trajectory toward the tomb. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus continues to give life through increasingly profound and decisive signs even as he draws ever closer to death. Moreover, plans are made to do away with Lazarus as well. John 12:9-11. The sign, therefore, is not to be taken as a “happy ending.” It is anything but. It further emphasizes the observation made in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Though Jesus’ sign cannot deter the gathering darkness nor even benefit Lazarus more than briefly, it nevertheless demonstrates that even death must retreat in the face of Jesus. Though surely not a “resurrection,” Lazarus’ raising points beyond itself to the final triumph over the power of death that Jesus will accomplish.