Posts Tagged Isaiah
Skepticism-the healthy and unhealthy kinds; a poem by Howard Nemerov; and the Lessons for Sunday, August 27th
TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with all your faithful followers of every age, we praise you, the rock of our life. Be our strong foundation and form us into the body of your Son, that we may gladly minister to all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It seems that we are living in an era of skepticism. Don’t misunderstand me; a degree of healthy skepticism is not such a bad thing. Learning requires a critical approach to all truth claims, even those we are invited to take on faith. Attempts to “protect” faith from the challenge of learning are misguided. The deeply conservative Lutheran Church Missouri Synod congregation in which I was raised harbored deep suspicion toward secular colleges and universities, fearing that the teaching of evolutionary biology, astronomy and comparative religion would undermine the faith of its young people. For that reason, our pastor did his best to steer us toward one of the many Missouri Synod schools where he imagined our faith would be shielded from these corrosive influences. That, however, is a losing strategy. Sooner or later, a young person will be forced to confront the challenge of responding faithfully to a growing body of knowledge forcing one always to re-think and reformulate his/her faith. Good Christian education does not seek to protect “childlike” faith by surrounding it with a solid wall of unquestioned dogma against the rising tide of knowledge. Instead, it attempts to provide the believer with conceptual tools required to engage that tide in lively and transformative conversation which, in turn, will grow a mature and robust faith.
Skepticism, however, also has a dark side to it. Taken to extremes, skepticism degenerates into a cynical denial of truth’s very existence. The Greek philosopher, Pyrrho of Elis, maintained that neither our sense-perceptions nor our views, theories and beliefs tell us the truth. He insisted that a person should be without views and unwavering in his/her refusal to choose between truth and falsehood, maintaining about every single assertion that “it no more is than it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.” Beckwith, Christopher I, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia (c. 2015, Princeton University Press) pp. 22–23. Such skepticism paves the way to indifference toward moral, philosophical and religious truth claims. Ultimately, it produces contempt even for simple factual claims. Who can forget how, in the face of clear photographic evidence to the contrary, President Trump stubbornly maintained that the crowd gathered for his inauguration was the largest ever for any inauguration. When confronted with the president’s claim and the facts belying it, Counselor to the President, Kelly Anne Conway blithely replied that the president’s inaccurate assertion about the size of his inauguration audience was an “alternative fact.” You have your facts. I have mine. Because there is no such thing as “truth,” it doesn’t really matter whose facts are accurate. Believe whatever suits you.
Saint Augustine maintained against his own skeptic antagonists that truth both exists and is knowable. In this he was thoroughly consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Because our bodies and their senses are the product of a good Creator God, our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell can be relied upon to convey accurately and truthfully the world we experience through them. Because our human ability to think and reason reflects the Creator’s own inventive mind, we can trust our minds to arrive at reliable (if not infallible!) conclusions. Conversely, our refusal to believe what our senses tell us, or our rejection of reasonable arguments from undisputed facts merely because they are upsetting or disagreeable, is worse than ignorance. Such cynical skepticism renders us subhuman and incapable of learning, reasoning and communicating. It leads invariably to public indifference toward a government that lies regularly, repeatedly and with absolute impunity. Where there is no belief in truth or the independent existence of facts, how can you call anything a lie?
Of course, our capacity to learn and the knowledge we acquire is limited, fallible and always subject to growth, revision and obsolescence. Moreover, as Augustine points out, there are matters beyond human understanding that only faith can comprehend. Thirty-four years ago I stood before a congregation of family and friends promising Sesle that I would love her, be faithful to her and join with her in all that was to come. She promised to do the same for me. We both believed and trusted in those mutual promises, though it seems a little preposterous to make or believe promises like these with someone you have known for little over a year. How well can you really know someone in so short a time? How can you make such bold promises when you have no idea what the years ahead hold for you? Truth is, neither of us really understood what we were doing at that point. We could not be certain whether this love we thought we had for each other was durable enough for the long haul (if long it was to be). We had no idea how our resolve to keep our wedding vows would be tested. Now, thirty-four years later, I am a good deal more confident about our marriage and thankful for our having resolved to enter into it. I am confident that our marriage is solid. Still, my confidence does not equate with certitude. We are not yet at the end of this journey. Our lives are all the more vulnerable to tragedy and pain, being now parents, grandparents and a good deal closer to the last frontier. It’s not over until it’s over. Nonetheless, I am more convinced now than ever before that this ship is seaworthy and equal to the storms that lie ahead. I would not have that knowledge, however, had I not initially trusted Sesle’s untested promises. Some things you have to believe and live into before you can know they are true.
I don’t know what was going through Simon Peter’s head when Jesus first called him and brother Andrew to leave their fishing nets to follow him. Peter is credited with having “little faith” according to Matthew’s gospel. Yet his faith was enough to enable him to answer Jesus’ call to follow. It was strong enough to get him out of the boat and onto the surface of the sea, if not strong enough to sustain him there for long. Peter has the insight to recognize in Jesus the promised Messiah, though the true meaning of Jesus’ messianic mission is beyond his grasp. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, will fail Jesus at his time of greatest need. Yet he will learn that, even in the shadow of his greatest failure, the one he abandoned to death appears to him alive and ready to extend yet another opportunity for discipleship. Over time, Peter’s fear, doubt and skepticism will be overcome by repeated expressions of Jesus’ faithfulness. He will learn, step by step, that a life surrendered to Jesus’ call is a life saved from bondage to fear and pointless selfishness. Because Peter believed and trusted Jesus’ promises-gingerly at first, but with growing confidence-he came to know that they were trustworthy and reliable.
Each day presents new challenges, growth in knowledge and understanding that force one to question one’s faith, test one’s understanding of the scriptures, embrace fresh understandings and abandon long held beliefs that no longer seem credible. Yet over time and experience, the voice of Jesus becomes more familiar and reassuring. Having weathered any number of storms with Jesus, the waves don’t seem as dangerous and threatening anymore. Having survived a few devastating losses with Jesus at our side, it becomes easier to believe that the ultimate loss we most fear, the loss of our very being, is something that Jesus can get us through. We began by believing the witness of the saints that have gone before us. Now we are on the way to knowing.
Here is a poem about learning, knowing and the limits of both by Howard Nemerov.
Learning the Trees
Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.
The words themselves are a delight to learn,
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.
But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.
Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.
Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”
Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;
Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.
Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world
Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.
Think finally about the secret will
Pretending obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,
And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.
Source: The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (c. 1977 by Howard Nemerov, pub. by The University of Chicago Press). Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet. He was twice Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1988 to 1990. He also won the National Book Award for Poetry, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bollingen Prize. Nemerov was raised in New York City where he attended the Society for Ethical Culture’s Fieldston School. He later commenced studies at Harvard University where he earned his BA. During World War II he served as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as the United State Air Force. He was honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant and thereafter returned to New York to resume his writing career. Nemerov began teaching, first at Hamilton College and subsequently at Bennington College and Brandeis University. He ended his teaching career at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was elevated to Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of English and Distinguished Poet in Residence from 1969 until his death in 1991. Nemerov’s poems demonstrated a consistent emphasis on thought, the process of thinking and on ideas themselves. Nonetheless, his work always displayed the full range of human emotion and experience. You can find out more about Howard Nemerov and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Following several other commentators, Professor Claus Westermann holds that this section of the text has become disordered in the course of transmission. He would reconstruct it, working the verses from our reading into various surrounding sections of text. The finished product reads as follows:
[Isaiah 51:1a] Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord.[Isaiah 50:10-11] Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant, who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord and relies upon his God? But all of you are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands. Walk in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that you have kindled! This is what you shall have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.
[Isaiah 51:4-6] Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will bring near my deliverance swiftly, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the peoples; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
[Isaiah 51:7a] Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; [Isaiah 51:1] Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. [Isaiah 51:7b-8] do not fear the reproach of others, and do not be dismayed when they revile you. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.
Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) pp 232-234. This arrangement has the virtue of solving several other perceived problems with other sections of the Isaiah text, forging them, along with fragments of our lesson, into a nicely balanced three strophe poem. With all due respect to Professor Westermann, I am suspicious of employing any interpretive tool, including form criticism, for no better purpose than to make the text more “intelligible.” Just because something is difficult to understand does not mean that it is void of meaning. Perhaps the language is obscure because the matter at hand lies at the border of mystery. If that is the case, deconstructing the language is probably the last thing you want to do. Furthermore, it is to my thinking entirely unjustifiable to break up a passage that makes perfectly good sense standing alone in order to solve problems elsewhere in the text. Accordingly, I will take the lesson as we have it.
“You who pursue deliverance” in verse 1 refers to the Babylonian exiles. Just as the Israelite slaves cried out for deliverance in Egypt, so now the exiles seek deliverance from their captivity. The prophet chooses his words carefully to evoke precisely this parallel. Throughout his/her oracles, Second Isaiah likens the return from exile to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. E.g. Isaiah 43:1-7; Isaiah 43:15-17. But in the next verse, the prophet reaches back even further in Israel’s history to the age of the matriarchs and patriarchs. “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him, and blessed him and made him many.” Vs. 2. This is the only verse in the Hebrew Scriptures outside of Genesis referencing Sarah. Second Isaiah is filled with feminine metaphors for God’s faithfulness to Israel. Isaiah 42:14; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 49:1, 5, 15; Isaiah 54:1. Thus, it is not surprising that s/he should include Sarah along with Abraham in this instance.
The prophet is addressing the group of exiles that have been receptive to his/her call to make the journey back to Palestine from Babylon. In all probability, this was a small congregation. Yet the prophet is not dismayed by the meager response of the people to his/her challenge. After all, when God called Abraham and Sarah, they were but two individuals. Moreover, we also know that they were childless and past child bearing age. The prospects for fulfilment of the promise that their descendants would outnumber the stars seemed remote, to put it mildly. Yet just as God raised up the people of Israel from this unpromising beginning, so God will make of this little band of exiles a new people in that ancient land promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago. With God, size doesn’t matter, but only faithfulness.
In verses 4-5 the prophet promises that God’s “deliverance draws near speedily.” Significantly, however, that salvation is described as “a law” going forth from God. The word for law here is “Torah,” a term that means so much more than our word “law.” Torah is “teaching,” a constellation of faithful disciplines and precepts, the study and practice of which leads to wisdom, understanding and communion with the God of Israel. See Psalm 119. It is through the faithful obedience of Israel to Torah in the land of promise that God’s salvation will be made known to the ends of the earth. Simply by being God’s people, Israel will forward God’s salvation.
I believe that the church in America is only beginning to discover (or re-discover?) the insight revealed in Second Isaiah and more specifically throughout the new Testament, namely, that the proper mission of the church is first and foremost being the church. We are moving away from a 1950s and 1960s vision of the church as a union of faithful congregations supporting mission and ministry done by professionals and specialized agencies. No one is looking anymore for a church that will give them spiritual resources to cope with the demands of 21st Century life. Churches still selling this useless snake oil are in decline-and deservedly so. The new model of church where I see most energy, creativity and enthusiasm for ministry is among intentional communities of faith that embody an alternative to life under late stage capitalism dictated by the schedules of public school activities, the demands of the work place/profession and that illusive nirvana, “financial security.”
For example, Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, California seeks to respond to Christ’s call by living together family-style, sharing their homes, resources and friendship. Though not maintaining that their lifestyle is absolutely required for committed discipleship, the Sojourners find that such common living provides them with numerous daily opportunities for forgiveness, humility, service, gratitude, worship, prayer, and other practicalities of sainthood, thereby helping them to grow into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.” So too, Reba Place Fellowship began in 1957 as three people sharing life and possessions in one house just north of Chicago. Since then, it has grown into several communities. Today members of Reba live in an urban “village” in Evanston, and in its communal offshoot in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Both branches have a mix of apartment buildings, single family houses, and commercial buildings sheltering a variety of cooperative ventures. Perhaps the most fascinating and exciting example of this model is Koinonia Farm. Established in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England, Koininia is a Christian community located in Americus, Georgia. Sharing a life of prayer, work, study, service and fellowship, residents seek to embody peacemaking, sustainability, and radical sharing.
The above communities are few and far between, but they are growing and inspiring the development of other such communities. Hewn as they are from the rock of faithful patriarchs, matriarchs, prophets and apostles, I have no doubt that God will use them mightily to carry on the church’s mission into the future. As for the rest of us, “the kingdom of God will come without our prayers” or anything else we have to offer. So says our Catechism. But I pray that it may come also among us mainliners; that we will rediscover our radical roots in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; that we will find ourselves “in that number when the saints go marching in” rather than sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.
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, 22; Isaiah 55:4-5. Consequently, I do not believe that any conclusions about dating can be drawn from this phrase.
The psalmist boldly declares that, though s/he walks “in the midst of trouble, thou dost preserve my life.” Vs. 7. Taken alone, this verse might be understood to mean that God will shield the psalmist from all adversity giving him or her a charmed life. But God promises nothing of the kind and the psalmist is well aware of that. The psalmist knows that his/her life is wholly God’s possession. As such, it finds fulfillment in God’s purposes, not the hopes, dreams and expectations of the psalmist. Hence, the declaration of faith in 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. 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 be only 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. 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.
Verses 3-8 deserve special attention because they distill in concrete practice what Paul has been speaking about for the last eleven chapters. Because all are under the sway of sin and all are liberated by God’s gracious act of mercy in Jesus Christ, no one is in any position to boast over against any other fellow disciple. In light of this reality, “sober judgment” leads to but one conclusion: we are no longer individuals with conflicting rights to be carefully balanced and adjudicated to maintain justice and peace within our community. We are members of one body belonging to Jesus and existing to serve him as head. Accordingly, whatever our gifts may be, they are precisely what the Body needs and are to be exercised in his service.
This vision of community is seldom reflected in our churches which, both on the congregational and denominational levels, operate under corporate, hierarchical models. I used to follow (at a distance) a Facebook page for Lutheran clergy and have discovered that issues of “power” and “who is in charge” come up with depressing regularity. Resort to the congregational constitution seems to be the default strategy for resolving conflict. I am so weary of congregations complaining that their rights have been violated and denominational leaders complaining that their authority is not sufficiently respected. I can hear the exasperated and unheeded voice of St. Paul in the distance: “Do not be conformed to the world…” vs. 2.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Vs. 2. One reason we fear terrorists so much is that we know they have no fear of death. How do you fight an enemy that is not afraid to die? A man willing to sacrifice his body by strapping on a bomb and blowing himself up to take out the enemy is not likely to be detoured by the death penalty! That, too, is why the Roman Empire was so fearful of the church. Disciples of Jesus didn’t cower when threatened with death. They could not be intimidated by torture. They turned the cross, Rome’s chief symbol of terror, into a sign of victory! The more forcefully Rome employed its imperial might against the church, the more obvious its impotence became. The shock and awe strategy failed spectacularly as the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church. If only Christians had the faith of terrorists! If only disciples of Jesus were as ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of the poor, in reconciliation of enemies and in practicing radical hospitality to the homeless as terrorists are ready to die in battle!
The focus on Jesus’ Messianic identity, which began at Matthew 13:54 where Jesus is rejected in his home country, comes to its climax in our lesson for Sunday where Peter makes his confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Vs. 16. Jesus asks his disciples who they believe “the Son of man” to be. The disciples’ response indicates that they must understand Jesus to be speaking of himself in the use of this term. They note that some think Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. Herod has already expressed this belief. Matthew 14:2. They also point out that others believe Jesus to be Elijah, whose possible return was left open by his assumption into the heavens. II Kings 2:9-12. By the time of the prophet Malachi, the return of the prophet Elijah was a standard expectation. Malachi 4:5-6. Jeremiah is mentioned, principally as a representative of the latter prophets believed to have returned under Jesus’ identity. Perhaps this is because Jeremiah, more than any other Hebrew prophet, experienced consistent persecution and rejection. In any event, these persons all serve in a negative manner to specify for the reader who Jesus is not.
Unlike the response given by Peter in Mark, Matthew has Peter confessing Jesus not merely as Israel’s long awaited Messiah, but as the Son of the living God. Vs. 16. This statement is not the fruit of Peter’s own deductive reasoning. It comes to him by revelation. Vs. 17. Peter’s confession answers the question of Jesus’ fellow countrymen in Matthew 13:54 (“Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”).
The Greek word “Christos” is used for the Hebrew term “Meshioch” transliterated “Messiah.” It means “anointed one,” frequently referring to a king, though it was also used to designate the patriarchs, a prophet or a priest. (See Psalm 105:15; I Kings 19:16; Psalm 133:2). By the 1st Century, the term was commonly used to denote a successor of King David who was expected to restore the fortunes of Israel, though this was by no means the exclusive expression of messianic hope. Thus, while Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah is correct, the nature of Jesus’ messiahship will not become clear until after his suffering, death and resurrection.
“Son of God” is a term used for Israel’s kings as evidenced by the enthronement hymn, Psalm 2. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. As will become evident in Matthew’s Transfiguration account, the term means much more than this as applied to Jesus. Matthew 17:1-8. Here, too, Matthew will unpack the full meaning of this title in the action to come.
Many trees have been felled and much ink spilt over the interpretation of verses 18-21. Just as the Roman church has insisted that Jesus’ declaration: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” establishes the primacy of Peter and the doctrine of apostolic succession, so protestants have for the most part maintained that the “rock” upon which the church is built is Peter’s confession of Jesus, not Peter himself. The passage does not fully support either position. It is clear from the word play at work “Petros” (Peter) and “petra” (rock) that Jesus is referring to Peter himself as in some way foundational for the church. Yet Matthew, like Mark, employs Peter as the spokesperson for the rest of the disciples. So, just as his remarks to Jesus represent the questions of the twelve, Jesus’ response must also be seen as directed to all of them. The church, then, is founded upon the witness of the Apostles; however, the case for the primacy of Peter among them is wanting in my opinion. This passage is silent about matters of apostolic succession. That is not to say a biblical case cannot be made in its favor, but only that one who would make it must look elsewhere in the scriptures for support. I think that commentator John Nolland sums it up best:
“The attempt to draw form Mt. 16:18 conclusions as to whether Peter has successors is doomed to failure. It is to press the imagery too hard to assign an exclusive foundational role to Peter. Peter has the privilege of being named in this role, but others participated with him in all that he did and was. In addition, in every new situation there will be those who play a foundational role for Jesus’ building of his church. But sharing the role produces too many partners and successors. On the other hand, the apostles are clearly called upon to play an unrepeatable role, and Peter clearly has some kind of primacy among them. Here there is a genuine claim to exclusivity, but not one that allows any specific place for a successor. But this is not to say that this tradition about Peter should not have inspired the church to focus on its fidelity to the foundations of the faith in terms of a Peter figure from generation to generation.”Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 670.
Matthew is the only gospel that uses the term “ekklasia,” the Greek word our English Bibles translate as “church.” The word means “gathered group” or “assembly.” Matthew’s understanding of the church is fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount as well as Matthew 23:1-12. Thus, whatever leadership role is given to the twelve in this passage must be exercised in a way consistent with this vision. One of Jesus’ chief criticisms of the religious leaders in his day is set forth in Matthew 23:13: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men…” The keys to the kingdom are given to Peter precisely so that the kingdom may be opened to all people. Thus, however one might interpret the power to “bind” and “lose” given to Peter in verse 19, it cannot be understood as license to blockade the kingdom. Even when the church finds it necessary to excommunicate and treat a former member as a “gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17), one must keep in mind the manner in which Jesus consistently reached out to gentiles and tax collectors. To excommunicate a member is therefore to assume enhanced responsibility and concern for that member.
Appeal to my Christian Friends who voted for Donald Trump; a poem by Langston Hughes and the Lessons for Sunday, August 20th
ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of all peoples, your arms reach out to embrace all those who call upon you. Teach us as disciples of your Son to love the world with compassion and constancy, that your name may be known throughout the earth, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Isaiah 56:7
The open and inclusive invitation extended by the prophet Isaiah to all peoples of every nation to enter into the temple and participate in Israel’s covenant with her God was on display this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia as a group of clergy from different faith backgrounds and varied racial and cultural origins walked through the city, arms linked, while silently offering prayers. All of this stands in stark contrast to the shouts of “blood and soil” chanted in those same streets at what was supposed to be a rally by white supremacists. The quiet, but forceful witness of the church testifies to the world and reminds us fellow Christians that ours is not a faith of blood and soil. For disciples of Jesus, water is thicker than blood. What defines us is our baptismal covenant in Jesus Christ that cuts across racial, national and tribal boundaries. Disciples of Jesus have no permanent “soil” on earth to call their own. Their lifeblood is that of the Son of God poured out for the sake of the world. As Paul points out in his letter to the Philippians and the author of Hebrews makes very clear, “our commonwealth is in heaven.” While we wait for and witness to the advent of a new heaven and a new earth, we live as resident aliens in and among the nations.
All of this is so obvious that it should not have to be said. But unfortunately, saying it loud and clear is now more important than ever before. The events in Charlottesville should be a wakeup call for us all. If anyone still harbored doubt that the ugly specter of white supremacy is far from dead, the horrific and violent bloodletting unleashed by “Unite the Right” over the weekend should put that doubt to rest once and for all. Of course, the slumbering demon of racism has been ever present throughout American history making itself felt systemically in our government, schools and work places. Over the last year, however, it has been roused and whipped into a frenzy that has not been seen for a generation. We don’t have to look any further than the 2016 election to find the source of this growing malignancy. Right wing persons, publications and entities, once considered fringe elements, have wormed their way into the political mainstream. These include The Daily Stormer, a leading neo-Nazi news site; Richard Spencer, director of the National Policy Institute, which aims to promote the “heritage, identity, and future of European people”; Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, a Virginia-based white nationalist magazine; Michael Hill, head of the League of the South, an Alabama-based white supremacist secessionist group; and Brad Griffin, a member of Hill’s League of the South and author of the popular white supremacist blog Hunter Wallace. Their uniform support of Donald Trump is undisputed and I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that his campaign and his presidency have lent legitimacy to white supremacy that, in turn, has made it “cool” once again to be racist.
After the events of last week, it is no longer possible to dismiss white supremacy groups as political freak show curiosities. They clearly have a significant following and are capable of dangerous acts of terrorism. And now I am going to say something a lot of you will find difficult to hear. Those of you, my fellow Christians, who cast your ballot last November for Donald Trump are responsible for the carnage in Charlottesville. Yes, I know that most of you are decent people who want nothing to do with white supremacists and roundly condemn their hateful ideology. I know that you probably supported Donald Trump for a lot of legitimate reasons that have nothing to do with racism. I understand that many of you felt you had no reasonable alternative to Trump. But I cannot ignore the facts. Before the November election:
You knew that in the 1970s Donald Trump’s real estate companies in New York systematically discriminated against people of color in their rentals and that, after a lengthy court battle, Trump was compelled to bring his practices into compliance with laws against discrimination under regulatory supervision. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump propagated the “birther” conspiracy theory that Barak Obama was not born in the United States and therefore unqualified to be president. You knew that he continued to make this baseless assertion years after it had been thoroughly debunked. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump painted Mexican immigrants in broad strokes as drug dealers and rapists. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump stated publicly and has never withdrawn his assertion that an American born federal judge was incapable of deciding a case involving a white man because he was of Mexican heritage. And though even most Republicans found the remark to be racist, you voted for him anyway.
During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump savagely attacked the Muslim family of an American soldier who gave his life serving the nation in Iraq. And you voted for him anyway.
You knew that Donald Trump refused to distance himself from the support of avowed white supremacist and former KKK grand wizard David Duke for days and finally issued the most tepid of disclaimers against him much later. Nevertheless, Duke continued and still does support Donald Trump. And you voted for him anyway.
Spin them anyway you wish, these are facts well known before the November 2016 election. Aware of these facts, you voted for Donald Trump. And now, my friends, you share responsibility for Charlottesville. If you believe that your vote matters, if you believe that the people you elect to public office are an extension of the will of the people, then you have to acknowledge that the blood of young Heather Heyer, mowed down along with several other people and killed by a white supremacist over the weekend, is on your hands. You are, in part, answerable to the numerous victims of hate crimes that have been increasing at an alarming rate since the election of 2016. As harsh as that may sound, it is true and you need to own it. With the right to vote comes the duty to exercise that vote responsibly and to respond responsibly to all of the consequences.
Again, let me repeat that voting for Donald Trump does not make you a racist or a bad person. Maybe you didn’t think his remarks on race mattered. Maybe you thought his racial slurs were just empty rhetoric and that they would not affect his presidency or his policies. Maybe you assumed the talk of banning Muslims, delegitimizing the first African American president, calling Mexicans rapists and claiming that they are unfit to serve in government was all a lot of harmless campaign puffery that would evaporate after the inauguration. But now you know better. Now you have no excuse for failing to recognize the demon of racial hatred and violence let loose in our country by the overtly racist and violent rhetoric of the Trump campaign and presidency. Now you know that you have helped to elect a government and a president who, at the very least, have created an environment friendly to overt, terroristic white supremacy. So the question is, now that you know, what are you going to do about it?
Understand that I am not writing this because I am angry with you. I am not writing these words to alienate you. I am writing these words because I need you. Your church needs you. The victims of racism need your voice. Folks, we can disagree about national security, healthcare, tax reform and a whole host of political issues without imperiling our unity in Christ. But there should be no issue when it comes to naming and expelling the demon of white supremacy. You need to do just that-in your church, on the job, at the barbershop, in correspondence with your elected representatives. Together we need to create an environment in our country where racist rhetoric, racist humor and racist practices are unable to take root and grow. By standing together, arm and arm, we can shame the likes of Richard Spencer and David Duke into silence and drive them and their kind back under the rock out from under which they slithered. Please. I’m counting on you.
Here’s a poem by Langston Hughes-or perhaps a prayer-particularly fitting for these times.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!
Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66) come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight through listening to a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
It is not clear to me why the lectionary omits verses 2-5 as they seem to make up an integral part of the reading. “Happy is the mortal…” (Vs. 2) echoes the form of Psalm 1 which sets forth the two paths a human life may take: righteousness or wickedness. Righteousness is not simply general goodness or ethical behavior. It is a life of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. Sabbath observation is a critical sign of such faithfulness. According to Genesis 2:1-3, Sabbath rest is woven into the very fabric of creation. Though ever a central commandment, Sabbath observance became even more important during the Babylonian Exile where it served as a line of demarcation between Israel’s covenant life and the surrounding pagan culture. The Sabbath was a visible sign of Jewish solidarity and identity.
It appears that Sabbath observance might have gone a bit lax within the community of the returned exiles. That would explain why the prophet urges his people to keep it. Vs. 2. Verses 3-5 are remarkable in that they offer full membership and participation in the covenant community to eunuchs and foreigners, both of which were excluded from the assembly of Israel under some provisions of the Pentateuch. Eg., Deuteronomy 23:1-8. Only decades later, Ezra the scribe would take a more severe and exclusive stance toward outsiders. Ezra 9-10. As far as Third Isaiah is concerned, however, Sabbath observance and adherence to the commandments are what determine membership in the community of Israel, not blood. Foreigners are not merely tolerated but welcomed and encouraged to flock to the Lord’s mountain that the sanctuary there might become “a house of prayer for all peoples.” Vs. 7. Such is the generous invitation from the God who “gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 8.
This openness to foreigners runs contrary to the current mood in our country, which is now more consistent with that of Ezra. Presented with these two words of scripture (Isaiah and Ezra) each carrying a very different message, we must determine which one of the two is God’s word to us at this time. The temptation is to select the one that comports with our own view of what is right and just. That can be hazardous as human nature always bends the scriptures to favor its own self-centered needs and desires. In the end, the polestar of our hermeneutic is Jesus. This Sunday’s gospel tips the scale decisively in the direction of openness and inclusion.
Based on verse 6, most commentators agree that this psalm is a harvest hymn giving thanks for a bountiful year. The song has a recognizable structure. It opens and closes with prayers for blessing that ultimately will lead to worldwide recognition and praise of Israel’s God. The middle section falls into two parts calling for universal praise: verses 3-4 call the nations to praise God for God’s just judgment and guidance. Verses 5-6 invite praise for God’s generous bounty in the form of a fruitful yield. Rogerson, J.W. and McKray, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 81.
“The Lord Bless us and keep us; the Lord make his face to shine upon us.” Vs. 1. These ancient lines are similar to and might be taken from the “Aaronic Benediction” (Numbers 6:24-26). Use of the word “Elohim” for “God” as opposed to “Yahweh” has suggested to some scholars that the psalm may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. More likely, however, this is a very ancient form that has its roots in the period of the Judges. There is no mention of monarchy (either North or South) or Jerusalem.
“Let all peoples praise you, Oh God (Elohim).” Again, God’s works on behalf of Israel are to result in the praise of all people. This hymn affirms the belief that God is the God not only of Israel, but of all the earth. He is therefore exalted as a righteous judge and guide for all peoples. This echo of themes found in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) has led a few commentators to date it after the Babylonian Exile. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. Israel always viewed her God as supreme over all the nations. Moreover, the similarities to Second Isaiah could be the result of editing at a later time.
As noted above, verse 5 suggests that the psalm may have been composed for use as a hymn of thanksgiving for a fruitful harvest. Just as the Lord has brought about a successful growing year resulting in prosperity for Israel, so God’s life giving power will spread to the whole earth as Israel’s God is recognized as God of all peoples. The psalm concludes with a prayer for continued blessing that will have ripple effects to the ends of the earth. In the end, all the ends of the earth will revere the God of Israel who is, in reality, the God of all peoples. Vs. 6.
This chapter of Romans is critically important. It deals with a question very near to St. Paul’s heart, namely, the place of his own people, the Jews, in God’s redemptive purpose for creation. If there is one take away verse in this chapter it is verse 1: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” This verse is important because it puts the lie to nearly two millennia of Christian theology teaching precisely the view that Paul here rejects, namely, “supersessionism.” In short, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism. From this conclusion it follows that Jews who deny that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah fall short of their calling as God’s Chosen people. In its more extreme forms, the doctrine holds Jews solely responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and for that reason maintains that they are thoroughly rejected by God. This view has dominated the thinking of Christian theologians about Judaism until relatively recently and continues to enjoy support in many quarters.
It is important to remember that, in Paul’s time, there was no “Christianity” distinct from Judaism. The Jesus movement, sometimes called simply “the way,” was a reform movement within Judaism. Neither Paul nor Jesus ever dreamed of starting a new religion separate from Judaism. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and the conduit through which gentile believers were brought into God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Both Israel and the church were indispensable partners with God in the drama of redemption.
So how did we get to where we are today? The answer to that question is bigger than can be addressed on this post. But suffice to say that throughout the first century the line between church and synagogue had not been sharply drawn. It appears that Paul moved freely between the church and the synagogue in his ministry. Although some rupture occurred between the Jesus movement in Palestine and the Sanhedrin governing most of the Jewish community in the 90s C.E., there is documentation showing that disciples of Jesus worshiped in synagogues well into the 2nd Century C.E. If an event signifying the final break between church and synagogue could be identified, it would probably be the rise of emperor Constantine under whose influence Christianity became the dominant religion within the Roman Empire. In 380 C.E. Christianity was declared the official religion of the empire by emperor Theodosius. From that point forward, all other religion, Judaism included, was disfavored if not strictly illegal. The Jews found themselves increasingly alienated in an increasingly Christianized Europe. Suspicion and fear of these communities that would not be assimilated into the larger culture often erupted into violent pogroms. The carnage reached its climax during the middle ages when knights on their way to crusades against Muslims in the Holy Land routinely destroyed Jewish communities and murdered their inhabitants along the way. Although the Renaissance saw greater tolerance and acceptance of Jews that continued throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, anti-semitism lay close under the surface. A deadly mix of these fierce cultural undercurrents of fear and hatred against Jews with the pseudo-scientific theory of white supremacy bequeathed by Enlightenment rationalism run amok infected Germany and several other nations with genocidal madness never before seen on the planet. The slaughter of six million Jews in the heart of Christian Europe finally led to a much needed (and far too tardy) reconsideration of the doctrine of supersessionism.
Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a good place to start in reconsidering the relationship of the church to Israel. Paul’s assertion that God does not reject Israel is simply the natural outcome of the view he has been expressing from the beginning concerning salvation by grace. God does not go back on his promises. Therefore, Israel’s disobedience no more invalidates God’s covenant with her than does the church’s disobedience void the promises made in baptism. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Vs. 29. It is unfortunate that the lectionary omits Paul’s words to his gentile audience about the importance of Israel in the redemptive purpose of God and the fact that they, as outsiders to the covenant, have been graciously incorporated into the household of God just as wild olive branches grafted into a cultivated tree. Vss. 17-24. As such, the gentiles ought not to vaunt their status over Jews who as yet do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. The rejection of Jesus by some Jews does not amount to God’s rejection of them. All Israel is and remains God’s elect by grace. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are fulfilling the purpose for which God called them.
Paul goes on to explain that the hearts of many of the Jewish people have been hardened toward Jesus-not because God is rejecting them, but because this hardening will open the way for faith among the gentiles. The faith of the gentiles will, in turn, awaken jealousy among the Jews that will ultimately draw them to faith in Jesus. Vss. 11-12; 25-28. I must confess in all humility that this is where I fall off the caboose in Pauls’ train of thought. It is not clear to me how Israel’s rejection of Jesus facilitates the faith of the gentiles or how the faith of the gentiles will finally draw Israel to Jesus. Obviously, that is not how things worked out historically. Nevertheless, be that as it may, Paul is absolutely clear about two things: 1) Israel is God’s people by the grace of election every bit as much as the church; 2) Israel plays an indispensable role in the redemption God is working out for all of creation. The church must therefore never understand itself as “the new and improved Israel” or as Israel’s replacement.
Every so often, the lectionary gets things right. Here the juxtaposition of Jesus’ teaching on “cleanness” and “uncleanness” is further illuminated by the story of the Canaanite woman. Jesus makes the point that one does not become unclean by what s/he consumes or by what s/he handles. Nor does one avoid uncleanness by adhering strictly to ritual practices. One is polluted by those things that fester deep in the heart. From a heart infected by greed, lust, anger and folly proceed evil words and actions.
In the Gospel of Mark, the woman in our lesson is described as Syro-Phoenician. Mark 7:24-30. Matthew identifies her as a Canaanite. Throughout the Pentateuch Moses repeatedly warned the people of Israel to have no dealings of any kind with Canaanites. Canaanites were to be exterminated thoroughly without mercy: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breaths, but you shall utterly destroy them…” Deuteronomy 20:16-17. Canaanites were repeatedly blamed throughout the Book of Judges for leading Israel into idolatry and betrayal of her covenant with God. That there probably were no persons living at the time of Jesus whose linage could have been traced to the Canaanite peoples of the Bronze Age is beside the point. Matthew wishes to make clear that this woman is the epitome of “unclean” in terms of Hebrew sensibilities. Yet she recognizes Jesus as “Lord,” and addresses him as “Son of David.” Her persistent plea for Jesus’ salvation for her daughter comes from a heartfelt confidence in Jesus’ ability and willingness to save. She, unlike Jesus’ ritually sensitive critics, is “clean.”
It is important that we avoid “dumbing down” this story. It is tempting to treat it as a morality play praising the heartfelt devotion of this woman while deriding the superficial ritualism of the Pharisees. Let us give the Pharisees their due. Faithful practices are essential to the development of character shaped by virtue. The ritual provisions of the Torah were designed to remind Israel in each of the most mundane and routine tasks of daily living that she belonged to her God. Prayer was woven into the fabric of work and play. Each meal was an act of worship and a celebration of community. There was no artificial division in Hebrew thought between secular and sacred such as we more or less take for granted today.
Jesus had no objection to ritual observances, but he would have us know that all such observances presuppose a covenant relationship of grace between God and the community of faith. To those on the outside, these observances must witness to the generosity of God and serve as an invitation to participate in that generosity. A community formed by the virtues of Torah and which practices Torah accordingly appeals to persons experiencing a hunger they didn’t know they had for a God they do not yet know. It is precisely for this reason that Judaism has in fact drawn proselytes from all the surrounding cultures in which it has made its home. That Jews have not historically sought such converts only further serves to illustrate the point.
Nonetheless, when religious practices become ends in themselves their meaning is distorted no matter how deeply scriptural they may be. That goes for Christian as well as Jewish practices. When prayer, the sacraments, preaching, fasting, tithing and Bible Study are used to manipulate, control and maintain power rather than to strengthen the covenant and nourish the community of faith, they become demonic. When observance becomes a measure of one’s worthiness to be part of the community of faith rather than means for inviting participation and strengthening membership, it conceals an unclean devotion to self-promotion and control of others. Under these circumstances, the joyous invitation to repent and believe in the good news is obscured.
NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is nothing quite so basic to well-being in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament than eating. Biblical justice demands that all be filled. One should not have to earn the right to eat. Nor should one have to explain why s/he is hungry, demonstrate whether s/he qualifies for benefits, prove that s/he is unable to work, demonstrate his/her citizenship, convince anyone that s/he does not have a drinking problem, a drug problem or a criminal conviction in order to be fed. It is enough that a hungry person is created in the image of God, loved by God and ransomed by God at the cost of God’s Son for a disciple of Jesus to recognize in him/her the appeal of Jesus himself. Whoever denies bread to the hungry inflicts hunger upon Jesus and blasphemes his heavenly Father. Toleration of hunger is apostasy.
It is important to note that Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 is told against “the nations of the world.” The command to feed the hungry, as well as the commands to welcome the stranger, care for the sick and liberate the prisoner, is a command by which all the nations of the world are to be judged. And it is against the backdrop of this command that we must judge a government that, having narrowly failed in its zealous efforts to deprive between 16 and 22 million people of their health insurance, now turns to consider a proposed budget that will cut nutritional aid over ten years by over $200 billion dollars. That includes $11 billion from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children known as “WIC” and another $193 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program known as “SNAP” (formerly Food Stamps). This same budget would, over ten years, cut international humanitarian aid by a whopping 51% or $160 billion dollars. Justify any or all of this under whatever economic theory or political ideology you wish. But don’t embarrass yourself by appealing to the Scriptures, much less to Jesus of Nazareth. Nothing could be a clearer expression of indifference or, more accurately, outright contempt for everything Jesus than this proposed budget plan. So for all of you so called “conservative evangelicals” out there following the likes of Rev. Franklyn Graham, Dr. James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the Duck Dynasty crowd who see in Donald Trump everything from an “unlikely champion” of all things Christian to “God’s anointed” (Oh, yes, there are some folks out there actually saying that), I just have once piece of free legal advice. Whatever you’re smoking, don’t do it in public. I’m betting that anything powerful enough to bend your mind that far out of shape is still illegal in all fifty states.
The current administration’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Except for the “again” part, I can get on board with that. Only let’s be clear about what we mean by “great.” In biblical terms, a nation’s greatness is judged not by the size of its army, the strength of its economy or the glory of its cultural accomplishments, but by how well or poorly it treats the orphan, the widow and the most vulnerable people (citizens or not) in its midst. As of 2015, 42.2 million Americans were living in food-insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. As of 2014, 5.4 million seniors (over age 60), or 9% of all seniors, were estimated to be food insecure. Food insecurity is defined as “an economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” The USDA breaks this definition down further into categories of “low food security” and “very low food security.” 
- Low food security(old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
- Very low food security(old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
The long and short of it is that some folks suffer malnutrition because they live in places that have limited access to grocery stores, markets and other sources of nutritious food. Consequently, they wind up consuming calories available to them-processed and fast food items-that are neither nutritious nor cost effective. Others are unable to obtain sufficient caloric content of any kind. That such conditions exist to the degree they do in a country that surpasses all others in the production of food is nothing short of scandalous. Such a nation is hardly “great” by biblical standards. The proposed budget, that cuts severely what insufficient support exists for the hungry in our midst, moves us in precisely the opposite direction of greatness. Hungrier, poorer and sicker is not greater.
Of course, we can blame poverty on the poor, just as we blame police brutality against African Americans on African Americans for “having an attitude”, violence against women on women because they dress too provocatively, and attacks on LBGTQ folks on LBGTQ folks because…well, heck, attacking them really needs no justification. Again, cite whatever cockamamie conspiracy theory you want to rationalize this malarkey, but don’t bother appealing to the scriptures. The Bible I read doesn’t say anything about the disciples setting up a screening process to ensure that all of those five thousand people Jesus fed in this Sunday’s gospel were deserving of food assistance. That is because food, like medicine, shelter, clothing and all other essentials are what disciples of Jesus owe their neighbor-whether they are deemed “worthy” or not. It is also the standard of conduct by which God will judge “all the nations.” At least that is what Jesus tells us at Matthew 25:32.
Food is gospel. Its abundance is the theme of the prophet’s song in our first lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the free gift of God to all God’s creatures as our psalm proclaims and celebrates. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as a joyful banquet. A gospel message that leaves behind an empty stomach is an abominable gnostic heresy.
Here is a poem by Pablo Neruda, an atheist who understands the gospel better than many Christians. It’s about the “justice of eating.”
The Great Tablecloth
When they were called to the table,
the tyrants came rushing
with their temporary ladies;
it was fine to watch the women pass
like wasps with big bosoms
followed by those pale
and unfortunate public tigers.
The peasant in the field ate
his poor quota of bread,
he was alone, it was late,
he was surrounded by wheat,
but he had no more bread;
he ate it with grim teeth,
looking at it with hard eyes.
In the blue hour of eating,
the infinite hour of the roast,
the poet abandons his lyre,
takes up his knife and fork,
puts his glass on the table,
and the fishermen attend
the little sea of the soup bowl.
Burning potatoes protest
among the tongues of oil.
The lamb is gold on its coals
and the onion undresses.
It is sad to eat in dinner clothes,
like eating in a coffin,
but eating in convents
is like eating underground.
Eating alone is a disappointment,
but not eating matters more,
is hollow and green, has thorns
like a chain of fish hooks
trailing from the heart,
clawing at your insides.
Hunger feels like pincers,
like the bite of crabs,
it burns, burns and has no fire
Hunger is a cold fire.
Let us sit down soon to eat
with all those who haven’t eaten;
let us spread great tablecloths,
put salt in the lakes of the world,
set up planetary bakeries,
tables with strawberries in snow,
and a plate like the moon itself
from which we can all eat.
For now I ask no more
than the justice of eating.
Source: PeacemealProject. Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto in Parral, Chile. He adopted the pseudonym, Pablo Neruda under which he became famous while still in his early teens. A devout communist, Neruda was politically active throughout his lifetime in his native Chile running for president as the nominee of the nation’s communist party in 1971. He withdrew his nomination, however, when he reached an accord with Socialist nominee Salvador Allende. After Allende won the election he reactivated Neruda’s diplomatic credentials, appointing the poet ambassador to France. While living in Paris Neruda was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. You can read more about Pablo Neruda and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This lesson comes to us from the final chapter of Second Isaiah, the prophet who preached to the Jewish exiles carried away into Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. We had verses 10-13 as our reading for July 16th. These were discussed in my post for that date.
This final chapter of Second Isaiah begins with an invitation to eat and drink well at absolutely no cost! The exiled people of Judah are invited to “delight yourselves in fatness.” Vs. 2. That might not go down so well in a culture like ours where we are being killed by overeating rather than starvation. But in a culture where starvation was always just one bad harvest away, the prophet’s delivery of God’s invitation sounded a note of incredibly good news. It also constituted an astounding reversal of Israel’s religious practices. Typically, the fat of an animal sacrifice was set aside as an offering by fire to the Lord. The rest of the animal might be consumed by the priests, by the one offering the sacrifice or both. See, e.g., Leviticus 3-4. In this passage, however, God is the one making the invitation and offering the choice portions of the feast to the exiles.
This invitation to the feast echoes (or is echoed by?) Proverbs 9:1-6 where “wisdom” personified invites all who will hear her to a banquet. Perhaps this passage or one like it lies at the base of Jesus’ parables about the ungrateful and unresponsive persons invited to the marriage feast. See Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:16-24. The prophet chides the people with some rhetorical questions: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” vs. 2. So also, keeping in mind that meat was eaten only on very special occasions and the opportunity to have as much as you could eat was a once in a life time event, those listening to Jesus’ parable must have been wondering what kind of idiot would pass up such an opportunity for the sake of inspecting his oxen. Answer: the same kind of idiot who goes on with life as usual when the kingdom of heaven is at the doorstep. In other words, us!
Of course, meals are viewed as sacred throughout the Bible. Biblical characters never just “catch a bite.” Our casual eating practices would surely be viewed by our biblical ancestors as expressing an attitude of thanklessness and contempt for God’s gracious provision as well as for the gift of family, friendship and community. Eating was sacramental. A meal represented both the generosity of God toward human beings and the hospitality of human beings toward one another. First Century Israelites did not break bread with just anyone. Who you ate with defined who you were. That is why Jesus created so much outrage by eating with “sinners,” that is, people deemed beyond the scope of proper Israelite society. But for Jesus, these meals demonstrated the radical hospitality of God that reaches out to embrace the outcast. Indeed, outcasts are not merely included. They are exalted to the place of highest honor. “The last shall be first and the first last.” Matthew 20:16.
In verses 3-6 God promises to make a new Davidic covenant with Israel. This is the only time David is even mentioned in Second Isaiah. That is hardly surprising. Israel’s experience with the line of David was not always a happy one. The descendants of David were largely responsible for the foolhardy foreign policies resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile. Only too well had Israel learned not to put her trust in human monarchs. Psalm 146:2-4. Thus, Second Isaiah specifically avoids laying any messianic overtones on David or any of his descendants. The new Davidic covenant will not be with any specific descendant of David’s line, but with all Israel. Just as David and his descendants were instruments of justice in Israel, so now Israel will be God’s instrument of justice in the world.
There is a striking contrast, however, between the old Davidic covenant and the new. In the psalms celebrating the old Davidic covenant, the king is given “the nations” as his heritage and instructed to “break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Psalm 2:8-9. In our lesson for today, however, the exiles are told, “you shall call nations that you know not, and nations that knew you not shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy one of Israel, for he has glorified you.” Vs. 6. God will reign over the nations through the glory revealed among his faithful servant people, not through any show of violent force. There is an echo of this vision in the Gospel of John where Jesus prays: “I do not pray for these [disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may be one; even as thou Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” John 17:20-23. It is through God’s covenantal love toward and among his people that the world comes to understand that God’s glory is God’s deep, passionate and patient love.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety.
This is a psalm of praise, probably from the period after the Babylonian Exile. God alone is acknowledged as “king” rather than any ruler of the Davidic line. Vs. 1. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. It is because God is so gracious and merciful that Israel felt free to address God in prayer, even-indeed, especially-when she knew that she had fallen short of her covenant obligations.
Verses 15-16 are commonly and appropriately used as grace for meal times.
The eyes of all look to you,
and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.
It is always good to be reminded from whence comes our daily bread. Our American culture of individualism and self-initiative would lead us to believe that our bread is won by our own hard work and achievements. Wealth or “capital” is created by individuals whose genius creates products and services stimulating new markets and growing the economy. As long as we continue making more stuff and people keep on buying it, the economy keeps on generating jobs, opening up new investment opportunities and making life better for everyone. Of course, this all works better in theory than in practice as the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country demonstrates. Whether the system would work better with more government regulation or less is an ongoing debate. It is also a sterile one in my humble opinion.
The problem with economic liberalism is a theological one. It rests on the proposition that we are the generators of our own wealth. It constitutes a denial of what our psalm insists to be a basic truth: that all living things, from humans to microbes, receive their food in due season from the hand of the Lord. When that perspective is lost, life becomes a struggle of all against all. Instead of reflecting the glorious generosity of its Creator, the world becomes a ball of ever diminishing resources. Each nation, each household, each individual must jealously guard his or her share. There is no room for generosity, compassion or sharing in such a tight fisted world. Its people all too easily degenerate into an angry mob of fist shaking, hate filled, fear mongering bullies who threaten starving and abused children seeking refuge with the National Guard.
The psalm teaches us that the Lord “fulfills the desire of all who fear him.” Vs. 19. Yes, I know. We liberal, slightly left-of-center, ever polite and ever white protestant types get all antsy in the pantsy whenever “fear” and “God” get mentioned within one hundred words of each other. It seems we are practically tripping over each other in pained efforts to explain that “fear” does not really mean “fear,” but “awe” or “respect” or some other such malarkey. I don’t buy it. If God doesn’t scare the socks off you, then you have mistaken the God of the Scriptures for Mr. Rogers. Furthermore, it seems to me that we inevitably wind up fearing something. Whether it is communists, cancer or monsters under the bed, everybody is afraid of something. People driven by fear do foolish and destructive things, particularly when the object of their fears is mostly imaginary. Fear driven people wind up burning witches, running away from black cats and sending the National Guard out against sick and starving children. That being the case, I think we would be in a better place if our fears were directed toward things that really are fearful. Our gospels teach us that God is real and God is to be feared. This God is the one whose Son calls little children to come to him and tells us that the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for them. If the God of the Bible is real, then rather than fearing the consequences of welcoming needy children in our land, we ought to fear what this God might do to us if we do not welcome them. Perhaps the fear of the Lord really is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
The psalm ends with a declaration on the part of the psalmist that s/he will “speak the praise of the Lord, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.” Vs. 21. That declaration sums up the tone of the entire psalm. This prayer is one of sheer praise. It seeks nothing from God, asks nothing of God and expects nothing more than what God has already so richly supplied. There are many such prayers in the Book of Psalms and that ought to teach us something about prayer in general. Prayer is not all about us, our needs and our predicaments. It is first and foremost about this God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Vs. 8. On the worst days of my life (and I have had some horrible ones lately), there is never any shortage of reasons for giving thanks. It is with thanks, I believe, that all prayer ought to begin and end.
The original New Testament texts did not have chapter and verse numbers, paragraph separations or subject headings. These artifacts were added long after the Bible had been copied, re-copied and re-copied again, translated, re-translated and re-translated again from the Greek into Coptic, Latin and subsequently into other languages. It is important to keep that in mind, because determining where to end a chapter, begin a paragraph or place a subject heading is an interpretive decision. It shapes how the text is understood. Our English Bibles all seem to follow the chapter divisions between Romans 8 and 9, ending Paul’s discussion begun in Romans chapter 1 at the close of Romans chapter 8. At first blush, that feels right. Paul sums up everything he has been saying about the liberating grace of God with the following words: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is all I can do to refrain from adding “amen.”
Yet refrain I must, because there is no “amen.” The “amen” does not come until the end of our reading for this Sunday. Verses 1-5 of Romans 9 are part and parcel of Romans 8:31-39. The impossibility of anything separating us from the love of God in Christ is the premise for what Paul has been arguing from the beginning of Romans, namely, that just as sin imprisons both Jews and Gentiles under the power of death, so the grace of God in Christ Jesus frees both Jews and Gentiles from the power of sin and the law. Throughout chapters 9-11 Paul will proceed to discuss the role of Israel and the church in God’s redemptive plan. Paul wishes to make clear, however, that both these communions are essential and complement each other.
Understand that at this point in history, there was no decisive break between Christianity and Judaism. Neither Jesus nor Paul understood the movement referred to as “the way” in Acts as constituting a new religion. The Jesus movement was a reform movement within Judaism. Paul would be shocked and saddened to learn that today Jewish and Christian communities live largely separate and independent existences. For Paul, the good news of Jesus Christ was the conduit through which the covenant promises given to Israel are now shared with the gentiles. This same good news challenged Israel to understand its role in a much bigger and more profound way, much as did the prophet of Second Isaiah. Just as Paul insisted that it was not necessary to convert gentiles to Judaism before welcoming them into the Body of Christ, so Paul was not interested in drawing Jews away from their ancestral faith. It was Paul’s hope that in Christ Jesus the gentiles would come to trust in the God of Israel and that Israel would discover a broader vision of all that was promised in the law and the prophets.
So Paul concludes his discussion of God’s grace in Christ by affirming his own Jewish faith and that of his fellow Jews. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.” Vss. 4-5. Notice the present tense. Paul does not suggest that Israel has lost its status as God’s chosen people or that what once belonged to Israel is now the property of the church. What God has given with one hand, God does not take back with the other. Paul will make this point further on. Rather than taking away Israel’s covenant relationship, God is broadening it to include those formerly outside that covenant. We gentiles, who had no legal claim or right to the blessings given Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who did not pass through the Red Sea, travel through the wilderness or enter into the promised land; who have none of the blood of the patriarchs pulsing through our veins; we have nevertheless been invited to take part in this marvelous story.
Over the centuries, we gentile believers have forgotten that we are invited guests. Instead of receiving thankfully the undeserved hospitality that has been extended to us in Jesus Christ, we have begun to imagine that we are masters of the house. Worse than that, we have attempted to expel the Jewish inhabitants, put our feet up on the furniture and redecorated the place to suit our own tastes. Over the centuries, our theology has treated Judaism not as the mother she is, but the wicked step mother whose presence cannot be tolerated. Christianity divorced from its Jewish roots cannot help but lose touch with its Jewish savior and the promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that cannot be fulfilled apart from the participation of the Hebrew people. When Paul’s letter to the Romans is read in the way I have just suggested, as I believe it was intended, we are compelled to look critically and with great sadness on the centuries of Christian hostility toward Judaism and the current gulf dividing church and synagogue.
Upon learning of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod Antipas, Jesus withdrew in a boat with his disciples to a “lonely place apart.” Vs. 13. But Jesus cannot remain hidden. The crowds seek him out with their illnesses, fears and hopes. Jesus, moved by compassion, remains to heal their sick. Now it is late and the disciples are concerned. The crowd is hungry and hungry crowds are dangerous. These people have heard the whisperings about Jesus, that he is John the Baptist raised from death, Elijah the miracle working prophet or perhaps even Israel’s longed for messiah. They have high expectations. Their hunger for greater miracles is as great as the hunger in their bellies. Now is the time to send the crowd away. Their sick have been healed; it is still light; they can still perhaps find their way to someplace where there is food. The disciples recognize the potential danger and the need to act promptly to avoid a riot.
Jesus, however, seems unconcerned. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Vs. 16. Evidently, Jesus cannot do math. Five loaves of bread and two fish will not go far among five thousand men and their families. But the math of the kingdom is far different from our math. We tend to approach the needs of our world with an eye toward our own resources. We ask, “How much can we do with what we have? How far can we stretch our dollars? What can we expect to accomplish, given that we are a small, aging and poor congregation?” By contrast, Jesus meets the needs of the world on the strength of God’s promises. It is never a question of what we can do with what we have. It is always a question of what God can do when we place our all into his hands, relying on his promises. No, we cannot solve the world’s problems with what little we have, but Jesus does not ask us to do that. Instead, he invites us to become part of and share in what God is doing to redeem creation.
Verses 20-21 echo the concluding words to the story of Elisha’s feeding one hundred of the sons of the prophets with twenty loaves of bread. II Kings 4:42-44. In both cases, the amount of food was insufficient. As did Jesus in our gospel lesson, so Elisha instructs his disciple to distribute this clearly inadequate food supply to a needy community. Both stories conclude with God’s provision of abundance through what appeared to be scarcity. This message dovetails nicely with the theme of our psalm reminding us that God is a God of abundance and generosity. Only when our trust strays from God’s gracious promise to provide for all of our needs do we see scarcity and want. I think that the comments of Rev. Dr. George Hermanson on this reading sums it all up very nicely: “What follows invites us to remember our own wildernesses, our own places of chaos, when our own insufficiencies may have been blessed, broken, and given away. And yet it was precisely in risking that impossible insufficiency that there was enough. Indeed, more than enough.” Holy Textures, Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21.
 “How Trump’s Budget Would Affect Every Part of Government” New York Times, 5/23/17
SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is not god.” Isaiah 44:6.
From May 29th-31st 1934 the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church met in Barmen, Germany to address false teachings propagated by the “German Christians” appointed by the Nazis to administer the protestant churches under the Reich. Organized in 1932, the German Christian movement was driven by nationalistic ideology permeated with Nazi anti-Semitism. The movement affirmed Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform, which read:
“We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good.”
The German Christians saw in this statement an affirmation of “Christian values” which they saw as being under attack by modernistic thought and scientific inquiry. Therefore, they supported the Nazis and advocated the racist principles embodied in the Nürnberg Laws of 1935.
In response to this attack on the sovereignty of Jesus over his church, the subordination of the church’s teaching to the political agenda and policies of the Reich and the idolatrous exaltation of the state’s reign over the reign of God, the Confessional Synod had this to say:
- Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
- We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
I invite you to read the Barmen Confession in its entirety.
The Barmen Confession has been rightfully criticized for its failure to address specifically the Reich’s anti-Semitic violence and violence against religious dissenters, racial minorities and political dissidents. Our Jewish sisters and brothers point out that the confessional church, for the most part, took the shape of an internecine ecclesiastical protest rather than a frontal assault on the evils of the Nazi government. Notwithstanding their shortcomings, however, the courage expressed by Barmen’s signatories under the threat of Nazi reprisal stands in stark contrast to the appalling silence of the American Church and its leaders in the face of flagrant conflation of Christian symbols and rhetoric with the ugliest manifestations of American nationalism by white Christians and the overwhelming support of such white Christians for the racist, homophobic, misogynist and xenophobic policies of the Trump administration in accord therewith.
The nationalistic ideology of “American exceptionalism” enshrined in the very first sentence of the 2016 GOP platform states specifically: “We believe that American exceptionalism — the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world — requires the United States to retake its natural position as leader of the free world. Tyranny and injustice thrive when America is weakened. The oppressed have no greater ally than a confident and determined United States, backed by the strongest military on the planet.” This dangerous notion that America, as the savior and rightful defender of the free world, justifiably wields its influence carrying a huge thermonuclear stick, meshes well with the rhetoric of religious organizations such as Christian Nationalist Alliance which asserts (among other things) that “These United States of America were founded by Christian men upon Christian tenets” and that “Islam is a heretical perversion of the Judeo-Christian doctrine and must be recognized and treated as a threat to America and Western Civilization as a whole.” Defense of “Christian civilization” has regularly been invoked to justify harassment of and attacks against Muslim Americans and to uphold an irrational and inhumane ban against refugees fleeing to our country to escape oppression and violence. Exceptionalism is wholly consistent with ideology promoted by Focus on the Family whose “Truth Project” teaches that “America is unique in the history of the world. On these shores a people holding to a biblical worldview have had an opportunity to set up a system of government designed to keep the state within its divinely ordained boundaries.” It provides the perfect conceptual framework supporting the claim of Rev. Franklin Graham that Donald Trump is in the Whitehouse “because God put him there.”
This toxic mix of nationalism and aberrant Christianity has created an environment favorable to the expression of racist, sexist and anti-Islamic sentiments and acts of hatred against people of color. It has mainstreamed white supremacy to the point where formerly fringe characters like white supremacist Richard Spencer are able to secure interviews on NPR and alt.right extremists like Steve Bannon have become fixtures in the Whitehouse. We should be concerned about this new American nationalism injected with the steroid of religious fervor. As observed by Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Let me be clear in stating that there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the unique history and character of the United States. Nor is there anything wrong with recognizing and affirming the democratic, egalitarian ideals of freedom reflected in its constitution. The notion, however, that the United States is somehow superior to other nations, that the United States is divinely favored to dominate all other nations, that there is some fixed American culture that must be defended against “foreign” (non-western, non-white, non-Christian) influences or that the interests and ambitions of the United States and its citizens should be given “first” priority over all other peoples is entirely incompatible with the Biblical confession of Israel’s God, the God and Father of Jesus Christ who reigns over all the nations and who has given his people Israel as a light to all the nations and the church as a witness to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ for all the nations.
Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, warned Roman Catholics over a century ago against “some who conceive and would have the Church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” Though spoken in a very different context, these words nevertheless serve as a salutary reminder that the life of the Church is to be ruled first and foremost by its Lord and not by the cultural and ideological currents of nations in which it resides as a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Jesus we confess was born to a homeless couple fleeing as refugees from genocide in their homeland of Judea across the border into Egypt. Jesus was a dark-skinned non-person living under the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire. He practiced unconditional hospitality, welcoming to his table beggar and soldier, priest and prostitute, Jew and Samaritan. Jesus taught us that the two greatest commandments that norm all others are the commands to love the one true God who chooses and liberates slaves and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. His life of sacrificial love ending in his crucifixion was vindicated by God who raised him from death. It is impossible, consistent with allegiance to Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims, for one to elevate one’s own nation, its culture and its ambitions above the well-being of one’s neighbors throughout the rest of the world.
The question, then, is: can we continue to remain silent while the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is employed to support a ban on refugees fleeing oppression to our shores, legitimize and normalize racist rhetoric, demonize gay, lesbian and transgendered persons, promote a godless ideology of American exceptionalism that puts devotion to the nation state over God’s expressed concern for the salvation of the whole world? Yes, I am aware that all of the mainline churches have issued statements condemning specific actions of the current administration such as the discriminatory ban against refugees, restrictive and family-hostile immigration policies and environmentally destructive regulations. But that only scratches the surface of our country’s sickness, a sickness that has infected the church to the depths of its soul. What we need is to name the demon of idolatry. What we need is for the American church to come together around a Barmen like confession naming and rejecting the false god of American nationalism and the America first agenda to which no one believing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can possibly subscribe. The American church needs to unite in affirming Jesus Christ as the “one Word of God…which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” to the exclusion of all “other events and powers, figures and truths,” purporting to be “God’s revelation.”
Here is a poem by Rev. Martin Niemöller, a leader in the confessing church, who was imprisoned under the Nazis. His warning is one all American church leaders should take to heart.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Quotation from Martin Niemöller is on display in the Permanent Exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. You can find out more about Martin Niemöller by visiting the site for the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Like last week’s reading, this lesson is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Our passage is part of a single pericope containing vss. 21-22 also. Vss. 9-20 constitute a prose interpolation mocking the worship of idols. I would recommend reading the piece in its entirety. Isaiah 44:6-8, 21-22. This is one of many “trial speeches” from Second Isaiah in which the God of Israel, as plaintiff, calls the so called gods of the nations to appear and give testimony before him. The people of Israel, as jury, must decide the case. God challenges these deities to demonstrate whether they have ever spoken a prophetic word that came to fruition. The implication is that, so far from responding to the challenge, these gods fail even to make an appearance. Thus, the Lord declares rhetorically, “Is there a God besides me?” Then, in response to silence from the absent gods, God replies, “There is no Rock; I know not any.” Vs. 8. Turning, then to the jury, God calls upon Israel to remember “these things.” “These things,” might refer to God’s saving history narrated in the Exodus story, Wilderness Wanderings or the Conquest of Canaan. More likely, however, the reference is to the courtroom proceedings in which God has decisively demonstrated that there is no other God, no other Rock than God’s self. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 142. Israel must now similarly testify that God alone is God and there is no rock beside God.
Westermann rightly points out that this is not an assertion of abstract monotheism, but a response to an urgent concern on the minds of the prophet’s audience. The holy city of Jerusalem had been conquered by Babylon. The temple of the Lord had been profaned and destroyed. Did this not demonstrate unequivocally that the gods of Babylon had bested the God of Israel? How could the people ever again trust the God who failed to protect them when they cried out to him in his sanctuary? Moreover, if the prophet Jeremiah was correct, if God had indeed brought the Babylonian army upon Jerusalem as judgment for her sin, did this not mean that God was finished with Israel? Whether God was unable or unwilling to defend Israel, it amounted to the same thing. There could be no expectation of salvation from this God. So it is that the prophet begins with an assertion of God’s power to save and ends with the assurance that God has “swept away your transgressions like a cloud, and your sins like mist.” Israel therefore can return confidently to her God with the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Vs. 22.
These bold assertions are as stirring as they are pastorally problematic. In truth, I cannot assure that my cancer stricken friend will experience a remission or cure. What, then, must be said about this God whose will and power to save is unhindered by any other “god” or obstacle? It is worth noting that the situation for Israel was not much different than that of my friend. The prospects for a successful return to Jerusalem and restoration of the promised land were at least as bleak as prospects of recovery from terminal cancer. It is also worth noting that the actual return, as we have said, was not accomplished in the miraculous and glorious manner envisioned by Isaiah. That may only go to show that prophets often don’t know what they are talking about. Their words are fulfilled in ways that they could never have foreseen and take on meanings generations hence that would surprise them. So perhaps we ought not to be so timid in speaking these words in the face of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Ours is only the duty to speak the word. Fulfilment is in the hands of the One whose word we speak.
This is a psalm of lament, though interwoven with the psalmist’s complaints are confessions of God’s greatness, expressions of faith in God’s steadfast love and prayers for guidance and understanding. As always, I urge you to read Psalm 86 in its entirety. Apropos to our lesson from Isaiah, this is precisely the sort of prayer in which God’s limitless power and willingness to save are brought into circumstances of seeming godforsakenness. The psalmist pelts God relentlessly with his promises, his attributes of steadfastness and compassion in an effort to persuade God to act on his/her behalf. It is as if the psalmist were crying out, “How can you not help me?”
In vs. 11 the psalmist prays that God may teach him/her his ways and to walk in God’s truth. The psalmist recognizes that his/her troubles come, at least in part, as a result of failure to discern the way in which God would have him/her walk. So the psalmist prays, “unite my heart to fear thy name.” This might also be translated, “let my heart rejoice to fear thy name.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 180. In any case, the psalmist is praying for more than mere knowledge. S/he seeks transformative wisdom that will enable him/her to live faithfully and obediently.
The psalmist refers to himself/herself as God’s “servant,” “slave,” the son of “God’s handmaid.” Vs. 16. That the terms are masculine do not preclude feminine authorship or usage. Such terms are stereotypical poetic phrases found throughout Hebrew verse and utilized in prayer by all Israelites. Just as a slave has no rights of his/her own and must depend on his/her master for vindication and protection, so the psalmist must rely solely on God for his/her defense. Precisely because the psalmist is helpless before his/her adversaries, God is obliged to intervene on his/her behalf.
This is a fine example of lament: prayer that reaches up on the strength of God’s promises from what is to what ought to be. It is exactly the sort of prayer uttered by creation as it awaits liberation from death and decay. Paul will have much to say about this in the following lesson.
Paul begins by restating his argument from last week. Having been baptized into Jesus Christ, we live no longer “in the flesh” or for our own selfish ends. Instead, we live “in the spirit,” that is, as friends of Jesus. To be friends or siblings of Jesus is to be children of God and thus God’s heirs. Note the stark contrast to life in the flesh that is characterized by bondage to sin and slavery under the law. Such a life is characterized by the “master slave” relationship. Life in the Spirit, however, is characterized by familial relationships. Jesus as brother, God as Father, fellow believers as siblings. That we can address God as “Abba,” the word young children use to address their fathers, testifies to the presence of God’s Spirit within us. The change brought about for us by Jesus is therefore relational. We are no longer slaves who view God through the prism of law, but sons and daughters who view God through the prism of Jesus.
So far, so good. But then comes the disturbing word: We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified in him.” Vs. 17. Commenting on this verse, Karl Barth remarks that “The action of God is the Cross, the Passion: not the quantity of suffering, large or small, which must be borne with greater or with lesser fortitude and courage, as though the quantity of our pains and sufferings would in itself occasion our participation in the glory of God. Participation in suffering means to suffer with Christ, to encounter God, as Jeremiah and Job encountered Him; to see Him in the tempest, to apprehend Him as Light in the darkness, to love Him when we are aware only of the roughness of His hand.” Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, (c. 1933 Oxford University Press) p. 301. Or, as observed by John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Suffering, then, is the consequence of being fully human, as only Jesus was, in an inhuman and inhumane world.
Paul goes on to say, however, that he considers “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Vs. 18. This is not to be taken as an appeal to put up with the status quo today in hopes of seeing a brighter tomorrow. Paul insists that God’s future has broken into our present. In that respect, Commentator Anders Nygren’s reading of Paul is correct. The church lives simultaneously in two eons, the old age that is passing away and the new age whose birth pangs are even now being felt in the course of the old’s dissolution. See Nygren, Anders, Commentary on Romans, (c. 1949 Fortress Press). The joy of partaking even now in the new age dwarfs the suffering to be endured at the hands of the vanishing old order. The people of God who have been set free from sin and death to live “in the spirit” are the first fruits of what is in store for all creation. The whole creation, says Paul, “will be set free from its bondage to decay” and will “obtain the glorious liberty” now enjoyed by the children of God. Vs. 21.
Paul sums up the posture of the church in one word: “hope.” This hope is not to be construed as some groundless desire for favorable conditions in the future, i.e., “I hope the weather will be dry and sunny for the picnic next month.” The hope of which Paul speaks is grounded in the resurrection of Christ-an event that has already occurred and in which believers participate. Consequently, even our suffering is a reminder of the work of resurrection being completed in us. What the rest of the world fears as death throes believers welcome as birth pangs. Needless to say, this hope shines an entirely new light on aging bodies, dying churches, fading empires and diminishing expectations for wealth and prosperity. Things are not what they seem. If the sky is falling, it is to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
The parable of the wheat and the weeds is coupled with its explanation quite sensibly omitting (for purposes of the lectionary) the intervening parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven. Taken by itself, the parable of vss. 24-30 might appear to refer to the problem of false disciples within the church. The prior parable of the sower and the different types of soil in last week’s lesson ended with the “good soil” producing a fruitful yield. Sunday’s lesson, which immediately follows, therefore appears to focus on what is planted in that good soil. Jesus’ explanation of that parable in vss. 36-43, however, suggests a much broader application. The field is not the church, but the world; the good seed is the “sons of the kingdom; and the weeds are “sons of the evil one.” Vs. 38. Historical critical analysis suggests that the explanation of the parable is a later interpretation of the early church imposed over the parable giving it a cosmic flavor it lacked on the lips of Jesus or an earlier disciple. As you know by now, I have no interest in the so called “historical Jesus” or in anybody’s fanciful reconstruction of the “Matthean community.” The only context we have for the parable is the gospel of Matthew in which we find it. That is the context upon which I rely for interpretation.
That said, it seems to me that whether we are speaking of persons within the church whose hearts are not fixed upon Jesus or persons in the world openly hostile to the kingdom of heaven, the principle is the same. It is not for disciples of Jesus to purify either the church or the world. Judgment, sanctification and the punishment of evil must be left in the hands of God who alone sees all ends and knows what is just. Disciples of Jesus must exercise mercy, compassion, patience and forgiveness against wrongdoing, whether it arises from within the church or from the world. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The parable of the wheat and the tares, like all the parables, is an apocalyptic parable, but apocalyptic names the necessity of the church to be patient even with the devil. Just as Jesus was patient with Judas, so we must be patient with those who we think we must force the realization of the kingdom. Jesus’ parables tell us what the kingdom is like, which means that the kingdom has come. It is not, therefore, necessary for disciples of Jesus to use violence to rid the church or the world of enemies of the gospel. Rather, the church can wait, patiently confident that, as Augustine says, the church exists among the nations.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 133.
The church of the New Testament was understood to be a communion that transcended racial, national, social and cultural barriers. In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. That the church often fell short of this vision is evident from the pages of the New Testament itself. Nonetheless, for all of their quarrelsomeness and instability, Paul’s congregations appear to have reflected the diversity found within the Mediterranean population of the 1st Century. The same can hardly be said of American Protestantism in which the red state/blue state divide breaks down neatly along denominational lines. Too often our legislative gatherings turn out to be microcosms of the increasingly tiresome “culture wars” being fought in the larger society. Sadly, religion of the protestant sort has more frequently inflamed, polarized and oversimplified discussion of contentious issues than modeled a community of thoughtful reflection, truthful speech and patient listening. All of this tends to reflect impatience: impatience with a world that won’t conform to our chosen ideologies; impatience with a church that fails to live up to our romantic notions of what it should be; impatience with a God who works too damn slowly in rooting out evil. Jesus would have us meet evil with truthful speech, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. Retribution, assuming there is a need for it, can be left in God’s hands and to God’s good timing.
SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Once again, the gospel reading for Sunday has become a victim of lexicographic malpractice. Verses 10-17 have been excised. Here they are for your reference:
“Then the disciples came and asked [Jesus], ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Admittedly, this is a difficult saying. It appears as though Jesus’ audience is destined to misunderstand him. The hearts of his hearers are hopelessly ossified and hardened in their opposition to the kingdom he proclaims. So why parables? And why parables that are so difficult that even Jesus’ disciples, whose “eyes see” and whose “ears hear,” fail to understand them? If even the disciples fail to grasp the parables, how can Jesus expect the crowds to get anything from them?
Perhaps our difficulty arises from failure to understand Jesus generally and his parables in particular. I have never been comfortable with the slogan, “Jesus is the answer,” the reason being that Jesus does not seem particularly interested in being or giving answers. For the most part, Jesus avoids answering the questions posed to him by his disciples, the crowds and his opponents. In so doing, Jesus is not being evasive. He is simply refusing to accept the terms in which questions are framed. He will not be cross examined.
As an attorney, I am familiar with the art of cross-examination. In a nut shell, it consists of posing your question in such a way as to get the answer you want. You don’t ever learn anything by cross-examining a witness. In fact, learning something you didn’t already know from a witness on the stand is the worst thing that can happen to a lawyer. Long before trial, a good attorney has read every transcript of all the testimony a witness has ever given, every letter, tweet or e-mail the witness has ever authored and every document the witness has ever signed. S/he knows exactly what the witness must say to avoid perjury and how to frame his/her questions to get exactly the answers s/he needs. If the lawyer is skilled and has done his/her homework, there will be no surprises on the day of trial.
Jesus’ parables are designed to surprise his hearers and get them out of cross-examination mode. He is not so much interested in providing answers as getting his disciples and opponents to ask better questions. When the lawyer in Luke’s gospel tries to pin Jesus down on who should be considered a neighbor, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, thereby forcing him to consider rather how to be a neighbor. When Jesus’ opponents question him about healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus invites them to consider whether leaving persons in pain and illness that deprives them of Sabbath rest is really honoring the Sabbath as God intended. When asked whether the kingdom of God would arrive sooner rather than later, Jesus asks his disciples instead to consider whether they have the faithful stamina to persist in prayer for that kingdom however long it might take in coming. Many of Jesus’ parables are open ended, leaving us with more questions than answers. How is the kingdom of heaven like a mustard seed? Did the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son ever accept his father’s invitation to join the feast celebrating his brother’s return? What happened with that family going forward? Did the unfruitful fig tree, spared from the ax for one more year by its owner at the request of a servant, use this gracious reprieve to bear fruit? These are questions worth pondering and from which we might actually learn something-or learn to ask even better questions!
Unfortunately, our lust for definitive answers often gets in the way of our hearing Jesus. We find that tendency in both civil and religious discourse. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Are you for or against the death penalty?” “Is homosexuality a sin or not?” “Do you believe in evolution or creation?” And don’t give me any qualifiers, ifs ands or buts. Just give me a straight answer: “yes” or “no.” Although Jesus never addressed any of the above issues, they seem to be litmus tests of genuine Christianity in a lot of circles. I get these “gun to the head” questions all the time. I don’t even try to answer them anymore. They are coercive and unfair. In order to answer, I have to accept the all of the underlying assumptions, prejudices and misinformation these questions often imply. I am learning not to take the bait.
I have no doubt that if we addressed these questions directly to Jesus, his answers would not prove anymore definitive than his response to questions posed to him in the gospels. I think Jesus would give us parables, pose questions and force us to think differently. I believe Jesus would bring into sharp focus the deeply human aspects of real people caught up in morally, socially and religiously ambiguous circumstances. He would tell stories that put faces on the ones we judge as “the least” among us and the people we are most prone to label “sinners.” I doubt Jesus would give us the clear moral black and white answers we seek. But I am confident he would leave us asking much better questions.
Parables are for the hard of heart. They are designed to penetrate to a depth rational argument can never reach. They shatter our understandings of right and wrong, sin and righteousness, good and evil. When our convictions are too strong to be argued away through any amount of reasoned discourse, parables come in through the back door of our consciences to undermine all of which we are certain, to soften our hearts and make room for the work of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s a poem by Robert Pinsky that speaks to the way Jesus’ parables dive “deep into [the] brain to word [us] back.” As in the lessons that follow, we are left to ponder the efficacy of these words tenderly and compassionately spoken.
In the Coma
My friend was in a coma, so I dove
Deep into his brain to word him back. I tried
To sing Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So in
Ray Charles’s voice. Of course the silence grew.
I couldn’t sing the alphabet song. My voice
Couldn’t say words I knew: Because I Could
Not Stop for Death, He Kindly Stopped for Me.
I couldn’t remember the Dodgers and the Giants.
I tried to tell the stories that he and I
Studied when we were young. It was confused,
The Invisible Man was laughing at how a man
Felt History jump out of his thick fair head
And beat him half to death, as being the nightmare
Out of which Isaac Babel tried to awake.
The quiet. Next time won’t you sing with me.
Those great diminished chords: A girl I know.
The cold of the coma, lightless. The ocean floor.
I struggled to tell things back from decades gone.
The mournful American soldier testifying
About My Lai: I shot the older lady.
Viola Liuzzo, Spiro Agnew, Jim Jones.
And by the time I count from one to four
I hear her knocking. Quiet of the deep,
Our mouths are open but we cannot sing.
Source: Poetry Magazine (February 2016). Born in 1940, Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poets and critics. He was elected and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000. He produced a highly acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno and has produced several books of poetry and works of poetic criticism. During his tenure as Poet Laureate, Pinsky initiated and promoted the Favorite Poem Project under which Americans were invited to submit and record their favorite poems for archiving with the Library of Congress. The program generated a greater than expected public response. You can read more about Robert Pinsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org
Our lesson is part of the closing chapter of Second Isaiah’s work. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start, declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return to her homeland and assuring the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.
The prophet begins with a call for the people to “Seek the Lord while he may be found.” Vs. 6. As Hebrew Scripture commentator Claus Westermann observes, this phrase is a liturgical cultic formula calling upon worshipers at the temple to approach God with sacrifices and offerings. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 287. In the prophetic era beginning in the 8th Century B.C.E., it lost its connection with the Temple and began to be employed more broadly as a call for the whole people to repent and turn towards God. Ibid. Verse 7 makes more specific the content of this call:
7 …let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Westermann and others are convinced that this verse is an interpolation from another source, the work of a later editor of Second Isaiah’s writings. Ibid at 288. However that might be, the verse nevertheless fits neatly into the call. Turning away from sin is merely the flip side of returning to the Lord. Moreover, there is a neat balance between the “wicked…way” and “unrighteous…thoughts” referenced in verse 7 above and God’s “ways” and God’s “thoughts” which are higher than those of the people. Vss. 8-9.
Verses 10-11 serve to emphasize with certainty that the prophet’s word will be fulfilled. That is a bold assertion, given that the return from exile is at this point merely an aspiration. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks is as sure to come to fruition as is new growth from the soil nurtured by the rain.
Second Isaiah brings his prophecies to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. From a literary standpoint, one might balk at these crude anthropomorphic projections into the realm of nature. Nonetheless, the point is that Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.
We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Second Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, the return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. Upon return, life was difficult and precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.
In short, when asked whether the prophetic words of Second Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to take up the call to seize an opportunity for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the hope that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even this visionary prophet could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.
This is one of my favorite psalms. It is a song of pure praise. It asks nothing of God and expresses no desire for anything other than what God in God’s immeasurable generosity has already provided. One cannot help but be impressed with the psalmist’s confidence in God’s willingness to provide all that is needful in life. This worshiper knows nothing of the “ideology of scarcity” referenced by Walter Bruegemann cited in last week’s post. S/he knows only the god who “crownest the year with thy bounty” vs. 11. This psalm strikes a joyfully discordant note to the fearful and hateful rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees lately codified into law by executive order that perfectly embodies this ideology. To a sick and twisted world view shaped by the perception of the world as a shrinking pie, our psalm holds up the bold confession of a God whose giving knows no limit.
“Praise is due to thee, O God, in Zion.” Walter Brueggemaan suggests that this line is a direct polemic against any suggestion that praise is due any other deity or human ruler. Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 135. The first four verses are sandwiched between “Zion” at vs. 1 and “temple” at vs. 4 indicating that this psalm originated as a liturgy for use in the temple of Jerusalem during the period of the Judean monarchy. The people as a whole, including the king, concede guilt and celebrate God’s forgiveness. Such a public right is hardly conceivable in our culture which seems incapable of introspection, reflection upon national calamity and admission of failure. Perhaps that is why our nation has never quite come to terms with the debacle in Vietnam. It was simply impossible to concede the loss of fifty thousand American lives to a mistake. We could not bear the sight of Vietnam veterans because they were a constant reminder of the first war America ever lost. Consequently, they were virtually ignored and even stigmatized for decades. Much as the Nazis blamed Germany’s loss of World War I on betrayal within their ranks and the influence of highly placed Jews, so through the myth of Johnny Rambo and similar cinematic dramas we have placed blame for our defeat in Vietnam on weak kneed politicians, corrupt military leadership and the anti-patriotic influence of the press.
Israel’s response to military reversals was entirely different. In the first place, Israel did not glorify its warriors or credit their valor for her victories. “For not by their own sword did [our ancestors] win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and they arm, and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3. Victory belonged to God and Israel knew well that she could not presume upon God’s favor. Accordingly, when her fortunes fell on the battlefield, Israel turned to God in lament, soul searching and repentance. See, e.g., Psalm 74. This finally led Israel to conclude that “a king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” Psalm 33:16-17. Would that Vietnam had taught us the limits of military power and the need to develop more constructive methods of dealing with conflicts rather than driving us into the dead end of self-deception and tragic repetitions of our past.
The occasion for this psalm is likely a festival or some other event when the people assembled at the temple to make thank offerings in fulfillment of vows made during the year. Given the repeated reference to fruitful harvests and healthy breading of sheep and cattle, it is possible that the occasion for this psalm was the end of a period of drought. But it is just as likely that the festival was an annual event in which prayers of thanks were offered for all blessings. A successful harvest would certainly be a common focus for thanks. Prayers for the same (accompanied by vows) would probably have been made in any given year.
In verse 7, God is said to “still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.” The “sea” and the “waves” are symbols of turbulence and disorder. Psalm 93:3-4. These forces are sometimes personified in the creation stories of the ancient world. We can hear echoes of such personification in Psalm 74:13-15. In this psalm, however, the tumult is chiefly that of the peoples or nations for which the tumultuous sea is but a metaphor. God’s subduing of the waters is not a violent response to any threat against God. Rather, it is a merciful act done to make the earth safe for human existence and bring the worship of Israel’s God to “earth’s farthest bounds.” Vs. 8. The remainder of the psalm speaks eloquently of God’s lavish provision through the gift of rain, productivity and fertility-all of which were regarded by the indigenous population as the province of the Canaanite Ba’als. The psalmist would have all know with certainty who is to be thanked for this successful harvest!
For the last couple of Sundays, St. Paul has been making clear to us that the law is ineffectual both in reconciling ourselves to God and in trying to live a God pleasing life. As long as we are in the grip of sin we use the law, like everything else, as an instrument of sin. Only God can free us from sin and that is precisely what God does in Jesus. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are freed from slavery to sin and made slaves of righteousness through our union with Jesus Christ. Freedom, then, is not the liberty to do as we wish. That, according to Paul, is the worst kind of slavery. It is like a ship without a rudder, blown to wherever the prevailing wind takes it. True freedom is the opportunity and the liberty to do what is right. This freedom we find living by faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to understand what Paul means when he contrasts living “in the flesh” with living “in the spirit.” Paul does not mean to say that there is some immaterial part of us called “spirit” which is good and pure as opposed to the “body” which, being material, is evil. Paul does not denigrate the human body. In fact, he thinks highly enough of the body to use it in describing the nature of the church. The Church is Christ’s Body. See Corinthians 12. When Paul speaks of the “flesh,” he uses the Greek word, “sarx” rather than the word “soma,” meaning “body.” The flesh denotes an orientation of the self toward itself and its own interests. Such an outlook might lead one to indulge in the so-called “sins of the flesh,” i.e., sexual sins of one kind or another. More insidious, however, is what we might well label, “religious sin.” This is the sin of justifying oneself by resort to the law whether that be religious practices, adherence to morals or achieving some standard of success to prove our worth. Life in the flesh degenerates into moral anarchy or comes under the tyranny of some hierarchical system that pits the strong against the weak. Such communities of the flesh make up “the body of death” to which Paul refers in Romans 7:24.
By contrast, life in the spirit is life grounded in an intimate relationship with Jesus. To help us understand what Paul is talking about, let’s borrow a verse from John’s gospel: You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” John 15:14-15. I believe that John is saying in a different way what Paul is articulating in our reading. Life in the Spirit is characterized by friendship. Friendship does not operate on the basis of rules. In all my eighteen years of practicing law I never once came across a friendship contract! Friendship is built on mutual affection, shared interests, common priorities, loyalty and trust. The binding obligations that hold it together grow organically out of love.
We are transformed by our friendships and this is why it does not follow that, because we are no longer under the bondage of law, we are now set at liberty to sin. Such an assertion makes sense only if you believe that there are but two alternatives: law or anarchy. Paul insists that there is a better way than either of these two false alternatives. That way is friendship with Jesus. The Body of Christ is not a place where everyone is free to do what s/he wants. It is a place in which, through worship, prayer, study, mutual sharing, admonition, repentance and forgiveness we sinners are transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place where we discover the freedom to be truly human.
There is another aspect of this passage, too, that needs some clarification. Too often we have understood being “in Christ” or “possessing the Spirit” as an individual experience. Though it is in part that, Paul understands life in the spirit primarily in corporate terms. That is to say, it is within the church that the mind of Christ is formed. “’By the Spirit Christ seizes power in us, just as conversely by the Spirit we are incorporated into Christ.’ Although many exegetes remain uncomfortable with this dimension, Paul’s language throughout this passage is charismatic and ‘mystical;’ it reflects a collective type of charismatic mysticism in which God’s Spirit was thought to enter and energize the community as well as each member.” Jewett, Robert, Romans, Hermenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2007 Fortress Press) pp. 490-491 citing Kasemann, Ernst, Commentary on Romans (c. 1980 Eerdmans) p. 222. In sum, life in the Spirit is not a life without accountability. Rather, it is life accountable to the covenant of friendship formed with the church by God in Jesus Christ.
“You can quote the Bible to me all day and say whatever you want, but I’ve been raised to believe……..and I am not about to change my mind now!” Fill in the blank with whatever issue you please. We have all heard something like this at one time in our lives. Parents say it to their children; people in the church say it to each other and we hear plenty of that attitude in our not-so-civil discourse these days about any number of issues. My mother used to say, “There was never a mind so weak as that which is made up too strongly to change.” She was right, I am afraid, and so was Jesus when he cited the words of the prophet Isaiah in that part of the reading which the lectionary makers deemed unfit for your tender ears. Check it out at Matthew 13:10-17.
Turns out parables are uniquely designed to break through ears that will not hear and hearts that will not bend. They catch you off guard, pull you into the story, make you identify with the characters. Then, just when you think you have figured out what the parable is about, who the good and bad guys are and how the story will end-you discover you were altogether wrong. Nathan’s parable of the old man and his little lamb is a classic example. See II Samuel 12:1-15. David is feeling pretty good about himself. He stole the wife of one of his generals and had the general conveniently placed in the line of fire where he died a hero’s death. Then, in a romantic gesture of patriotic compassion for the fallen hero’s widow, he takes her into his harem. Nobody is the wiser.
But then his court prophet, Nathan, approaches him with some disturbing news. There was a poor old man with no family but a little lamb he kept as a pet. It was as a child to him. His rich neighbor, needing to feed an unexpected guest and being too stingy to slaughter one of his own many sheep, took the poor man’s lamb and served it up for dinner. David thinks he knows what this story is about and where he stands in it. This is a story about injustice in his kingdom and he is the just and righteous king that will make it right. “By God!” says David. “This beast deserves death! I’ll see that he pays back the old man fourfold. Who is this scoundrel anyway?” David has swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. When Nathan replies, “you are the man,” it’s too late. David is hung by his own rope. Too late for excuses, too late for rationalizations. David has nowhere left to hide. That’s how parables work.
So too, I think the Parable of the Sower is deceptively simple. We all tend to think of ourselves as soil of one kind or another and begin reflecting on whether we are foot path, rocky ground, weedy dirt-or perhaps good soil. But maybe we are looking in the wrong direction. What about the sower? What sort of lame brain farmer would toss his precious seed in places where it had no chance of growing? Is this really about our receptivity? Or is it rather about the generosity of the sower and the confidence that, in the words of our reading from Isaiah: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11. If the latter is the case, who are we to decide what soil is fertile and what is barren waste? Who are we to know whether the word we hear today or the one we share with another will be snatched away, withered by adversity or choked out by other distractions? Was not some of the richest soil in the world today once rocky terrain pelted over millennia by seeds that germinated, dug with their roots into rocky crevices, died and mixed with the stone fragments they displaced? Are not seeds spread to different regions by the birds that devour them? Is it inevitable that wheat must parish in the midst of tares? Perhaps this gospel parable reflects in one more way the profound generosity of our God who, like Isaiah, the psalmist and St. Paul would have us live joyfully, thankfully and abundantly.
SUNDAY OF THE PASSION/PALM SUNDAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Shortly before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of “Hosanna,” there had been another procession-that of Pontius Pilate with his army into that same city. Passover was known to be a volatile season in Jerusalem. After all, it was a feast celebrating God’s liberation of slaves from their imperial master. Rome was understandably uncomfortable with such narratives. Stories like these did not sit well with the emperor who considered himself solely entitled to designations like “Lord” and “King,” and whose raw military power maintained the social, economic and political stability dubbed “Pax Romana.” Keeping the peace in Palestine meant demonstrating to the Jewish population that there was just one king and one Lord. Pilate no doubt found it more than a little convenient that Jesus should arrive on the scene just in time to become an object lesson. A man hanging on a cross in full view of all pilgrims coming to the Passover feast would serve as a salutary reminder of who is really in charge. The inscription over the cross, “this is the King of the Jews,” would make it clear to everyone what happens to people who claim to be Lord and King.
As much as the Jewish people resented Roman domination, I suspect that Pilate’s military parade gave them a measure of relief as well. For all their brutality, had not the Romans maintained law and order? As onerous as their taxation system might be, is it any less onerous than living in fear of crime, lawlessness and revolution? To be sure, the occasional crucifixion of an innocent man is lamentable. But perhaps such imperial ruthless is the price we must all pay for peace and security. As Caiaphas so aptly observed in John’s gospel, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. Anything for national security.
I can recall the Armed Forces Day parades we had when I was a kid in my home town of Bremerton, Washington. Like Pilate’s parade, the endless columns of marching soldiers with freshly polished shoes and bayonets, the tanks rumbling down the street and warplanes flying overhead were all there to assure us at the height of the cold war that we were well protected. Our military was prepared for anything the Soviets might throw at us. We all clapped and cheered, though the festive mood was actually a little hollow. Deep down, we all knew that there would be no victors following a military confrontation with the Soviet Union. Living as we did at “ground zero,” next door to the largest navel facility on the west coast and only fifteen miles from a critical submarine base, we were well aware that no desk under which we might hide during drills nor any shelter in which we might take cover would protect us. We knew that national security was a national delusion, that the parade was a promotional opiate and that the security promised by force of arms was a fraud. A peace imposed by the threat of annihilation is no peace at all.
Professor of biblical studies, John Dominic Crossan suggests that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem might have been a parody of Pilate’s earlier parade. Crossan, John Dominik & Reed, Jonathan L., Excavating Jesus, (c. 2001 by Crossan & Reed, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 262. In short, Jesus was lampooning Pilate in much the same way as Alec Baldwin has been spoofing President Trump on Saturday Night Live. That makes some sense. After all, nothing is more threatening to tyranny than humor. For good reason women protesting the activities of anti-immigrant “watch groups” in Finland dressed up as clowns. It is hard to project a fierce and intimidating persona when you are chasing a clown. Whatever the merits of Crossan’s suggested reading, there is no question that the Jesus parade of harlots, tax collectors and outcasts along with his honor guard of singing children constituted a stark contrast to Pilate’s procession of heavily armed troops into the city days before. It is likely that Jesus’ act of impudence in the face of Rome contributed to Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify him. Such was Rome’s verdict in the Jesus affair.
Nevertheless, in the resurrection to which we look forward, God reverses Rome’s judgment. The “Peace of Rome” is unmasked for the fraud it really is and Jesus is revealed as the one who truly is Lord. The cross was the symbol of Rome’s power to kill. But Jesus made of it God’s instrument for breathing life into the world and a symbol of hope. The empire employed violence and threats to impose its peace. Jesus used divine power, but only to bring healing, forgiveness and life. Pilate can kill, but only God can raise the dead.
Two parades: one threatening death; the other promising life. The question you need to keep asking yourself is this: in whose parade am I marching? Am I secretly cheering the might of the principalities and powers that maintain law and order at the expense of justice, truth and freedom? Am I frightened by what might happen in their absence? Or am I marching with the one who upends the hierarchy of domination? Am I marching with the friend of those deported, discriminated against and vilified-all in the name of national security? Or am I cheering for the oppressive machinery that protects my position of privilege? Am I a disciple of the fearless clown who exposes and mocks the impotence and empty promises of raw power? Or am I a willing subject of the governor who wields it? It seems to me the importance of these questions intensifies with each passing day.
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver about where the imperial parade invariably leads.
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.
Source: Red Bird, Oliver, Mary (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. Beacon Press) p. 46. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity, created for them by Persia’s conquest of Babylon, to return home to Palestine. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.
Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.
Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.
I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.
These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.
This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:
- Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
- Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
- Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
- 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. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Matthew’s.
Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.
That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.
In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfils all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.
There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.
In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.
There is far more material in Matthew’s passion narrative than I can hope to consider in this post. Furthermore, I am not sure scrutinizing the text is at all helpful here. I do not believe I have ever attempted to preach on the passion itself. After hearing it read, silence seems to be the only natural and appropriate response. Instead of reading commentaries, I believe the best preparation for the Sunday of the Passion is to set aside a few hours and listen to J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. That said, a few things about Matthew’s passion narrative are noteworthy. Of particular interest are those episodes unique to Matthew’s version of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.
Matthew alone tells us that Judas, after realizing that his betrayal of Jesus will end in Jesus’ crucifixion, regrets his treachery. Matthew alone tells us that Judas returned his ill-gotten silver and subsequently committed suicide. Matthew 27:3-10. Mark and John tell us nothing of Judas after his act of betrayal. Luke refers to Judas’ death only in an obscure passage from Acts. Acts 1:18-19. Wherever Matthew obtained this information, it fits nicely into the “fulfillment of prophesy” theme running through his gospel. Matthew has referred to Judas on several occasions as a “paradidous” or “one who hands over” or “betrayer” according to the RSV. See Matthew 10:4; Matthew 26:25; Matthew 26:46 and Matthew 26:48. Now Judas takes that name upon his own lips and so labels himself. “I have sinned in ‘betraying’ innocent blood.” Matthew 27:4.
The chief priests initially refuse to accept the money but obviously cannot return it to Judas once he is dead. Because the funds constitute “blood money,” they are unfit for the temple’s general treasury. Scholars debate the scriptural origin of this supposed prohibition. Some believe it to have been a rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 23:18 forbidding payment of a vow by any Israelite from the wages of a prostitute. This seems a stretch to me. Judas was not seeking to pay any religious obligation when he returned the thirty pieces of silver, nor were the priests who received it. Moreover, the wages of a prostitute do not involve the shedding of blood. Finally, there is no actual rabbinic interpretation of this text that comes close to a specific prohibition against the receipt of blood monies. Others have focused on I Chronicles 22:8-9 in which the Lord forbids David from constructing the temple in Jerusalem because he has “shed much blood and…waged great wars.” While a rabbinic gloss on this text extending the prohibition against David’s construction of the temple to the deposit of blood money into the treasury is logical, it likewise lacks support in any known rabbinic literature.
Whatever may be the case with respect to laws governing deposits into the temple treasury, Matthew employs this episode to demonstrate once again that what happens to Jesus fulfills the scriptures. His citation to Jeremiah appears to be a conflation of three texts: Zechariah 11:12-13; Jeremiah 18:1-3; Jeremiah 32:6-13. Perhaps the more significant of these is the third. Jeremiah relates how God instructed him to purchase a field from his uncle at the height of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army. This was obviously a foolish short term investment, given that all the land would soon be under the control of Babylon and the people deported. But the prophet is not thinking short term. He looks to the day when the land will again be re-inhabited by his people and at peace. This seemingly senseless business transaction reflects the prophet’s faith in God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile and restore to her the land of promise. In reverse literary symmetry, the chief priests conduct what seems to them an imminently practical transaction that turns out to be the prophetic fulfillment of Jesus’ messianic destiny.
The other episode unique to Matthew’s passion narrative occurs in Matthew 27:51-52. Immediately following Jesus’ death on the cross, the curtain of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom. Vs. 51. In this much, Matthew is consistent with Mark (Mark 15:38) and Luke (Luke 23:45). But Matthew goes on to describe a great earthquake that opened up the tombs housing many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep, but were raised and entered Jerusalem following Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 27:51-53. Eduard Schweizer believes that a textual corruption or inept editing is responsible for the testimony that the resurrected saints were not seen in Jerusalem until after Jesus’ resurrection. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 516. He maintains that the narrative makes sense only if we understand the appearance of the saints to have taken place on the day of Jesus’ death.
I will admit that the text as it stands makes for an awkward sequence of events in the passion story. Moreover, if the appearance of the saints did take place after Jesus’ resurrection, it would fit more naturally into the resurrection account in Matthew 28. Still and all, I am not thoroughly convinced. Jewish belief in the resurrection (among those who did so believe) understood that resurrection to be a general one. All the dead would be raised and judged together. See Daniel 12:1-3. There was no understanding, so far as I know, of individuals being resurrected (as opposed to simply being raised like Lazarus in last week’s gospel). Consequently, Jesus’ resurrection could only be understood in Jewish thought as the first fruits of the general resurrection. That is clearly how Saint Paul understands the resurrection. (See I Corinthians 15). The appearance of the departed saints (“righteous ones” or “Zadiq” in Hebrew) at the time of Jesus’ rising therefore substantiates Jesus’ resurrection as the resurrection.
If you are hell bent on preaching the passion, these are two sections you might consider focusing on. Still, my advice remains: Don’t do it. The passion preaches itself. Let the story be told. Let the mysteries, the imponderables and the questions hang in the air. The Son of God has uttered his last words. What can we possibly add?
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, with endless mercy you receive the prayers of all who call upon you. By your Spirit show us the things we ought to do, and give us the grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom and rationale for an ancient saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” His lyrical musings run contrary to logic, and particularly the prevailing logic of our current administration that believes firmly, not merely in good fences, but in twenty foot walls between neighbors. I am captive to that same kind of thinking myself. I insisted that the boundaries of the property I recently purchased on Cape Cod be meticulously defined with permanent markers at each corner. There are practical reasons for doing that. It strains neighborliness to the breaking point when one must point out that the fence for the house next door is beyond the property line and must eventually come down. Yet there is more than practicality at work in establishing borders-whether between neighbors or between nations. The limits of my lot determine the limits of my jurisdiction, my right to do as I please with what is mine. Stepping across the line uninvited poses a challenge. It is inherently threatening.
The Bible reminds us, however, that “the earth is the Lord’s.” Even the land of Canaan given to the people of Israel was to be held in trust for its true owner. The land was to be a demonstration plot for God’s gentle reign under the terms of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Israel’s ownership was never absolute. When Israel forgot the terms of the covenant and began to treat the land as hers, she lost it. It is sobering to recall that every nation, including the United States, occupies land that once belonged to someone else. Nation states are ephemeral. Ours is less than three hundred years old-a fraction of the years dominated by Rome, Persia, Greece, Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. The borders of our empire will one day be occupied by a people who walk across them without knowing or caring. The lines along which wars were fought, deals were negotiated and walls built will be forgotten. That should give us pause and force us to ask ourselves why we so jealously guard the borders to our nation, the boundaries of our property and the personal space around ourselves.
Frost tells us that “spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder if I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do [good fences] make good neighbors?’” Perhaps that mischief is induced by the Spirit of God, a kind of gentle undertow against waves of wall building and isolation. Perhaps the disciple’s calling is to “be the mischief” putting notions in the heads of all people questioning the need for walls? Anyway, here is Robert Frost’s poem.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Source: The Poetry of Robert Frost, (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.) p. 33-34. Born in 1874, Robert Frost held various jobs throughout his college years. He was a worker at a Massachusetts mill, a cobbler, an editor of a small town newspaper, a schoolteacher and a farmer. By 1915, Frost’s literary acclaim was firmly established. On his seventy-fifth birthday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution in his honor. The State of Vermont named a mountain after him and he was given the unprecedented honor of being asked to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Through the lens of rural life in New England, Frost’s poetry ponders the metaphysical depths. His poems paint lyrical portraits of natural beauty, though ever haunted by shadow and decay. You can learn more about Robert Frost and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Some historical background might be helpful in understanding this reading. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was decisively defeated by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. who then sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and carried off a substantial number of the leading citizens of Judah into exile. In 538 B.C.E., Babylonia fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Cyrus issued an edict allowing for the return of exiled peoples such as the Jews to their land of origin and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. The following year, a small group of Jews returned from Babylon and began laying the foundations for the new temple. Due to political and economic uncertainty arising from instability within the Persian Empire, this work came to a stop. So far from the glorious future forecast by the prophecies of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), life for the returning exiles proved to be harsh and difficult leading many to cynicism and despair. This is the context for the preaching attributed to Third Isaiah, Isaiah 56-66.
The prophet faces a tough audience. Consider that most of the exiled Jews elected to remain in Babylon where they had managed to build new lives for themselves. The returning exiles were the faithful few inspired by the preaching of Second Isaiah to stake everything on the prophet’s assurance that God would do a “new thing” for them. They fully expected their return to the Promised Land to be a triumphal homecoming accompanied by miraculous acts of salvation rivaling the Exodus from Egypt. Upon arrival, they found a ruined land occupied by hostile peoples. It appeared as though they had been cruelly deceived. One can hear the bitterness in their exasperated cries to the God who so disappointed them: “Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?” Vs. 3. As the people see it, they have demonstrated the ultimate act of faith in returning to Palestine. On top of that, they are fasting and humbling themselves in an expression of repentance for all of Israel’s past sins. Can God ask any more than this?
Apparently, God does expect more. We are back to the familiar confusion between ritual and liturgical compliance aimed at pleasing God and obedience to God’s command to care for the neighbor. Evidently, their pious fasting does not prevent the rich from pursuing their unjust and oppressive economic practices. Nor does it prevent the people from quarreling to the point of violence. God is not impressed with shows of humility that do not reflect a true change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, responds to the complaint of the people by instructing them in what true fasting looks like: “to loose the bonds of wickedness:” “let the oppressed go free;” “share your bread with the hungry;” “bring the homeless poor into your house;” “cover” the naked; and “not to hide yourself from your own flesh.” Vss. 6-7.
Of all these examples of proper fasting, the call to “bring the homeless poor into your house” is by far the most jarring. I will cheerfully contribute items of food and donate cash to feed and house the homeless. I have even spent nights at homeless shelters assisting in this good work and spending time with the homeless poor. But taking these people into my home? That is a bridge too far. Sharing my private family space demands too much. I don’t want to share my bathroom with these people I hardly know. I don’t want their laundry mixed up with mine. I must confess that I probably would not sleep very soundly under the same roof with the homeless people I have encountered at shelters. I have to admit that the prophet has rattled my cage with this utterance!
Yet the prophet’s words have taken some faithful disciples beyond mere discomfort. Ten years ago, a group of Christians in Durham, North Carolina, launched a community of hospitality in a historic neighborhood called Walltown. Since then, the Rutba House has welcomed folks who are homeless, returning home from prison and others who just need a safe place to land. Now In his new book, Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests (c. 2013 Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, pub. Convergent), Rutba co-founder Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove shares everyday stories of the people he has encountered. To learn about some of these remarkable accounts of transformation taking place through the exercise of hospitality, I invite you to read a comprehensive interview with Wilson-Hartgrove at this link. It always shakes me up when I hear about someone who actually takes Jesus and the prophets seriously. It makes me wonder whether I do!
Here we have another psalm in the wisdom tradition of Proverbs, instructing all who hear to live long and well by conforming their lives to God’s righteous commands that underlie the framework of the universe. As I have said many times before, I believe one must regard the wisdom sayings as “portholes” through which the wisdom teachers invite us to view the world. They offer some unique insights into the nature of reality that can help us make sense of our experiences. As portholes, however, the view they offer us is limited. The reader must always keep in mind the fact that there are other portholes offering views from different perspectives. No one (save God) stands on such lofty ground as to be able to see all things from all angles. Thus, wisdom literature places a high value on humility and openness to continual learning.
With that caveat, Psalm 112 affirms the operation of God’s righteousness in human life rewarding all who trust in God and practice generosity, compassion and integrity. As such, it is characterized, rightly I think, by Walter Brueggemann as a psalm of “orientation.” It expresses “a confident, serene settlement of faith issues.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984) p. 25. The Lord blesses the person “who greatly delights in his commandments.” Vs. 1. Such a person is endowed with wealth, protection from evil and God’s constant presence. Vss. 3-4. It is well with the person “who deals generously and lends, who conducts his/her affairs with justice.” Vs. 5. There is much truth in this bold testimony of the psalmist. In communities where these righteous virtues are held in high esteem, people whose lives exemplify them earn the love and respect of their neighbors. Their businesses flourish because everyone knows that they are honest people who honor their commitments and practice patience and leniency with their debtors.
But that is not the whole story. In cultures that value shrewdness over integrity, profit over fairness and productivity over compassion, the same righteous behavior described by the psalmist can lead to failure, suffering and persecution. Again, it all depends upon which porthole you happen to be looking through. The psalmist appears to be aware that, however blest the righteous person may be, s/he is not immune from trouble. Nevertheless, the righteous person does not live in fear of bad news because s/he is confident that God’s saving help will be there to see him/her through whatever the future might hold. Vs 7. I rather like this verse. I must say that I have spent too much of my life worrying about what might happen, i.e., what if I cannot pay for my children’s education? What if I lose my job? My health insurance? That not a single event in this parade of horrors ever materialized emphasizes the futility and wastefulness of worry. Moreover, even if one or more of these things had occurred, it would not have been any less burdensome for my having worried about it in advance! I recall someone defining worry as our taking on responsibility God never intended for us to have. That is what breeds fearful living.
It is impossible to date this psalm with any certainty. Though most scholars are prone to regard it as having been composed after the Babylonian Exile given its wisdom emphasis, I am skeptical of such reasoning. I think it altogether likely that the wisdom material, which was common in the royal courts of 8th and 9th Century B.C.E. nations throughout the near east, may well have found its way into the courts of the Judean and Israelite kings of that period also. Consequently, it is entirely plausible that this psalm has roots in traditions dating back to the Judean/Israelite monarchies.
Whatever conclusions one might reach concerning the age of the psalm, it seems clear that it is related to the previous psalm, Psalm 111. Whereas Psalm 111 praises the goodness of God, Psalm 112 testifies to the blessedness of people who trust this good God. The two psalms share a number of parallel phrases as well. Whether they were composed by the same psalmist or edited by a later hand to complement each other, it seems likely that they were used together liturgically in some fashion. The formal similarities between the two psalms are also striking. Both are semi acrostic with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet starting off the half strophes. So rendered in English, the first verse of our psalm might read:
A song of praise to the Lord is seemly;
Blessed is the one who fears the Lord
Commandments of the Lord are greatly delighted in by such a person.
I know. The paraphrase is poor and the syntax stinks. But you get the idea.
As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. Vs. 16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.
It is for this reason that Paul “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” when he first preached to the Corinthians. He could easily foresee that, in a church made up of Jews and gentiles of multiple persuasions, there were bound to be endless disputes over moral and religious matters. We all know that when the Bible is invoked as a rule book to settle disputes, the result is usually a shouting match between entrenched ideological positions whose partisans each claim that “the Bible speaks clearly on this matter!” Paul will have none of that! He starts with the presupposition that the Corinthian church with all of its problems is nevertheless the Body of Christ and every person in that congregation is a member of that Body. I Corinthians 12:27. Thus, there can be no question of amputating limbs and cutting out organs that seem not to be functioning in an optimal fashion. There is no alternative other than for all members of the congregation to accept one another and live together with one another as one Body. Such an existence can only be maintained by love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:7. That is a tall order, but Paul will have it no other way.
According to Paul, true wisdom is imparted by the Spirit. This Spirit is not some abstract, faceless new age force. It is the Spirit of Jesus whose faithful obedience to God and love for his church led to crucifixion by “the rulers of this age.” Vs. 8. Thus, contrary to some rather inept criticisms of Paul by a few commentators who feel that he had little or no concern for anything outside of the church, Paul knows full well that Jesus was crucified for the life he lived and that the church continues to bear his cross as it continues his life in the world. As the mind of Christ is formed in the church, the Body of Christ will continue to suffer until the oppressive tyranny of evil is swallowed up in love. That love which conquers all is revealed in Christ and made present to the community of faith even now. Vss. 9-10.
There is surely too much in these verses for any one sermon. There is a risk that any preacher trying to do justice to the text might well lose sight of the forest for the trees. Again, it is critical to recall that these words gain their force and significance precisely because they are spoken by Jesus who declares in both word and deed that the kingdom of heaven has drawn near. This kingdom makes claims on its subjects that are contrary to the claims made by Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem for loyalty and obedience. The kingdom of heaven and these existing kingdoms are rivals from the get go. The difference between life under the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of heaven is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus makes clear to his disciples that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Vs. 20.
It is hard to hear that word “righteousness” without the prefix “self” attached to it. The word brings to mid images of the Pharisees or, rather, our stereotypical thinking about the Pharisees. On the whole, the Pharisees were generally pretty decent folk. They are the kind of people I would prefer to have for neighbors. They bring their garbage out to the curb on the right day; keep their lawns mowed and their gardens free of weeds. You don’t have to worry about rowdy parties in the middle of the night, or teenage hard metal bands practicing in the garage on Sunday afternoon or errant baseballs careening through you thermo-pane window when you live next door to a Pharisee. On the whole, I would take the Pharisee as my neighbor any day over many of the characters Jesus was known to associate with. So what is lacking in their righteousness?
In order to answer the above question, we need to skip ahead to the end of the chapter where Jesus tells his disciples that they must “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Perfection, however, is not measured by obedience to the rules. Jesus has already pointed out that we violate the commandment against murder when we hate; we commit adultery when we lust; if we need oaths to substantiate our words, then we are demonstrating that our word is ordinarily less than true and reliable. Perfection is measured by love for enemies. Matthew 5:43-48. That is a tall order. And to be clear, by enemies Jesus does not mean people who rub you the wrong way, people who get on your nerves or people who hold opinions that you find noxious. He is talking about enemies that strike you on the cheek; enemies that threaten you with violence; enemies that would kill you given half a chance. Those are the ones Jesus calls us to love and to pray for. I don’t have enemies like that-at least not up close and personal. Of course, there are people in the world who might kill me because I am an American, because I am a Christian or because they think killing people in general somehow makes a larger ideological point. But these enemies are abstractions to me. I don’t know them apart from media images of masked men with guns in their hands and fists in the air. I don’t really know who they are, what makes them tick or why they are bent on violence.
Yet perhaps that is the point of loving them and praying for them. I have found that praying for people with whom I have conflicts forces me to examine my anger and fear. Without half trying, I start to see the world through their eyes when I pray. The more I understand about my enemy, the easier it is to understand the source of his/her anger and his/her animus toward me. I also find that the more I understand people, the less threatening they become. I discover new ways to approach them, communicate with them and negotiate with them that I never thought existed. I have toyed with the idea of holding a prayer service to pray for members of ISIS and other terrorist groups. I fear that such an activity might initially be seen as disrespectful to our troops, disloyal to our country and insulting to victims of terror. Yet if we, who follow Jesus, do not pray for reconciliation with our enemies, who will? If the Body of Christ is not prepared to place itself on the front lines of peacemaking, who else will?
In verses 13-16 Jesus declares that his disciples are to be “light” and “salt.” The purpose of a lamp is to illuminate the room in which it is placed. It is not there to call attention to itself. So also, nobody I know has ever come back from dinning out raving about the wonderful salt on a steak. Salt is there to enhance the flavor of the meat. You are not supposed to notice it. If you do, it means that the cook has over seasoned the meat. While the disciples’ works are to be seen by the world, they are to glorify the Father rather than call attention to the disciples. Vs. 16. Keep in mind, though, that these admonitions follow immediately upon Jesus’ promise that, like the prophets before them, his disciples will experience persecution, rejection and hatred from the rival kingdoms still asserting jurisdiction over a world Jesus has now claimed for the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet it is precisely in this militant loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven that elicits so much opposition that creation is “seasoned” and the nature of God’s reign is “illuminated.”
In addition to flavoring and preserving, salt was used in the ancient world as a cleansing agent, to brighten the light of oil lamps and to increase the efficiency of baking ovens. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 212. It was recognized in antiquity as a fundamental human necessity. See, e.g., Sirach, 39:26. Matthew goes on to make the point that, while salt is used to flavor, purify and cleanse other items, there is nothing with which salt itself can be restored once its seasoning capacity has been lost. It is difficult to understand how this could occur unless the salt were somehow diluted with some other substance. But perhaps that is the point. Salt is so basic that it cannot be “unsalted” no matter what anyone does to it.
Jesus points out that a city set on a hill cannot be hid any more than a lamp can be concealed by placing it under a bushel basket. Note well that any lamp used anywhere in the First Century would have required a flame. Placing such a lamp under a bushel basket to conceal it would only result in the basket catching fire generating further illumination. Consequently, persecution of the disciples will not quench the light of God’s reign, but only enhance it. I should add that some commentators render the term translated “bushel basket” in the NRSV as “bowl,” pointing out that the reference is most likely to a tightly woven, air tight basket used for extinguishing household lamps without making excessive smoke. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975, John Knox Press) p. 102. I don’t find much support for that in the text. The word at issue, “modios,” means simply “a grain measure containing about 8.75 liters or almost one peck.” This according to my trusty Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, W. Bower, edited by W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich (c. 1957, University of Chicago Press). Nevertheless, if Schweizer and likeminded folk are correct, then I have read too much into the text. Either way, though, the point remains. It would be absurd to go to the trouble of lighting a lamp only to extinguish it again. It is something that simply would not be done. So also the light of God’s reign will not be suppressed.
Verse 17 shifts focus to the place of the law and the prophets. Matthew is emphatic that Jesus has no intention of abolishing the Torah. Every last provision remains valid and the disciples are not to disregard any of it. Yet as we shall see when the Sermon progresses, Jesus radically re-orientates the law and the prophets. It is not enough merely to follow the letter of the law. This is the righteousness of Jesus’ opponents which makes the law an end in itself. The better righteousness to which Jesus calls his disciples is grounded in love so deep and profound that it embraces even the enemy. Such indiscriminant love is the perfection of God to which Jesus calls his disciples. Matthew 5:43-48. “For Matthew, the love-commandment became the principle of interpretation for the law.” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” published in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. 1963 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 104.
The practical effect of this is that Matthew interprets the law always in the service of love for God and love for the neighbor. The law is the servant, never the master of love. Consequently, this love commandment can “be critically directed against individual commandments of the Old Testament itself.” Ibid. 103-104. Matthew is no antinomian. The law and the prophets remain valid, though of course, they must be interpreted. Blind obedience to the letter of the law leads only to arrogance and obscures the spirit of God’s commandments. (Literalists who insist “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” take note!) Interpretation is essential and it is only a question of what guides it. For Matthew, the loadstar of biblical interpretation is love. In his view, an interpretation of the law which leads to contempt for the neighbor or places a stumbling block in front of a person responding to God’s gracious invitation to come under his blessed reign is always going to be wrong, not matter how rationally, thoroughly and scripturally supported.
It seems to me that anyone preaching on this text must choose whether to focus on the “salt and light” theme or the role of the law and the prophets. Fitting both into one sermon will likely do justice to neither. The latter theme discussing the place of the law and the prophets fits nicely with the reading from Isaiah, making the point Jesus will be explaining further on, namely, that obedience to God’s commands is accomplished through love for one’s neighbor. Matthew 22:34-40.