Tag Archives: Torah

Sunday, February 22nd

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Psalm 119:33–40
1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23
Matthew 5:38–48

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God of compassion, you invite us into your way of forgiveness and peace. Lead us to love our enemies, and transform our words and deeds to be like his through whom we pray, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44.

I once did that very thing in my first congregation. It was in 1986 immediately following the United States’ bombing of Libya. I prayed for our nation and God’s guidance for its leaders; I prayed for the military personnel involved in the operation; then I prayed for Libyan soldiers and citizens killed or injured in the raid. It was, as you might expect, the last petition that drew the ire of certain members of my then congregation. They felt I was being disloyal to my country and disrespectful of American soldiers, particularly veterans. They expressed the view that it was my patriotic duty to support my country’s military, not undermine it (though I expressed no view pro or con with respect to the propriety of the bombing mission itself). “But what about Jesus’ command to pray for our enemies,” I asked. “Pray for them in the privacy of your own room if you must,” snapped one particularly agitated member. “But don’t betray my country in this church!” I was stunned at the time and totally unprepared for the hostile response I got to this prayer that seemed entirely in line with what Jesus commands.

Since that time, however, I have come to understand a basic truth about American Christianity-and the so-called “white evangelical” varieties in particular: Much of American Christianity is to a large extent liturgical window dressing for the religion of American nationalism. How else can you explain rejecting a very specific command of Jesus so as not to offend patriotic sensibilities? It seems as though a lot of what passes for Christianity these days is long on nationalism and short (short to the point of non-existent) on Jesus.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, love for enemies is not optional for disciples of Jesus. Love for the enemy is, in fact, the only expression of love guaranteed to be genuine. Such love, Bonhoeffer tells us, is the very definition of love. Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd) p. 162.

“Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ or we are not Christians at all. Am I asked how this love is to behave? Jesus gives the answer; bless, do good, and pray for your enemies without reserve and without respect of persons.” Ibid. p. 165.

It is important to delineate exactly what this love is as well as what it is not. Love is not uncritical devotion. It is not slavish submission to abuse. It is not “going along to get along.” Precisely because disciples of Jesus understand that they are objects of God’s undeserved love, because they understand that the enemy is no less precious in God’s sight, because they believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate every human life, disciples must confront their enemies with the truth about God and the truth about themselves. Love speaks truth to power; judgment to sin; and resistance to abuse. But the object of such truthful speech is never to overpower, defeat or shame the enemy. That would only deepen the canyon of animosity between us. Repentance, reconciliation and faith are the only legitimate objectives for speaking the hard words of reproof. The enemy (as far as we can ever know) is an indispensable piece of God’s new creation. Our efforts to build the kingdom of heaven without him are doomed to failure. We therefore have a direct stake in reconciliation to the enemy.

Finally, let us not be sentimental about love for our enemies or naïve about what it entails. My church’s ministry to and advocacy for refugees in the current climate of paranoia has met repeatedly with the objection, “but if we let these people in, some of them might be dangerous.” As anyone who follows me knows, I think the facts have demonstrated that the xenophobia generated by the present U.S. administration is factually vacuous. Nonetheless, even if the danger were real, so what? Jesus both preached and lived by example a love that embraces the enemy who nails you to the cross. He is not at all shy about telling his disciples they should gladly embrace the same. If your excuse for turning away refugees at your border is national security, well and good, but do not flatter yourself with the delusion that you are a disciple of Jesus. You are, at best, a distant admirer.

Here’s a poem about enemies by Wendell Berry

Enemies

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source:  Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. 2013 by Wendell Berry, pub. by Norwood House Press). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18

Leviticus is probably the least popular book of the Bible for us Christian folk. For the millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to read the Bible cover to cover, the Book of Leviticus is likely the point at which most of them threw in the towel. Like the second half of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Numbers, Leviticus consists of instructions for sacrificial worship, ritual cleansing from contact with unclean animals, lepers, menstruating women and corpses. It spells out in excruciating detail the animals which may and may not be eaten and sets forth numerous ethical injunctions. Many of these laws appear altogether senseless to modern readers. Why is eating lobster an abomination? What is immoral about wearing two different kinds of fabric? What could be objectionable in ordering a hamburger with a milkshake?

Some literary/historical background is warranted here: Modern Hebrew scriptural scholars are in general agreement that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) constitute a compilation of four originally independent written sources. These sources were brought together over a five century period of time (950 to 500 B.C.E.) into what we now know as the “Pentateuch,” which translated means “Five Books.” The sources are known as the Jahwist source or simply “J,” the Elohist source or “E”, the Deuteronomist source or “D” and the Priestly source known as “P.” For a very thorough discussion of this theory of interpretation, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis. For our purposes, it will suffice to note that virtually all of the book of Leviticus comes to us from the P source, the latest contributor(s) to the Pentateuch and likely its final editor(s).

It is helpful also to know that P was compiled during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile beginning at 587 B.C.E. Though much of the material this source contains is very ancient, it was edited and arranged in such a way as to speak to the then present needs of the exiled Jews living in a foreign land. As a minority community, the exiles were naturally under pressure to conform and even meld into the pagan culture of Babylon. The books of Daniel and Esther reflect the difficulties faced by Jews attempting to make their living under foreign domination while remaining faithful to their God and their unique identity.

This week’s reading is part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-26) which most scholars regard as a distinct unit consisting of an earlier text edited and imbedded within P. Many of its laws are expressed in brief, closely packed clusters. Its style and vocabulary distinguishes the code from the main body of Leviticus. The Priestly source’s frequent reminder that “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” must be understood in the exile context. V. 2. The term “holy” does not mean “morally pure” as we have become accustomed to understand that term. To be “holy” in the biblical sense is to “be set aside for a special purpose.” Consequently, the unique worship practices and ritual behaviors that were part of Israel’s daily life in Palestine took on a new urgency in the land of exile. These practices defined Israel over against the dominant culture and preserved her identity.

In the larger canonical narrative, the P source spells out the shape faithfulness must take for Israel in the land of Canaan to which Moses is leading her. Israel is not to become another imperial Egypt, oppressing her poor and enslaving the sojourners in her land. The people are instructed not to “reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after the harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” Vss. 9-10. The lectionary people have excluded vss. 3-8 which, in addition to reiterating the commandment to honor parents, gives explicit instructions on how to consume meat offered as a peace offering. This omission is unfortunate as these verses illustrate that Israel did not make distinctions between ethical and ritual requirements. Worship, economics, politics and social intercourse were intended to be all of one piece in Israel. As the prophets frequently point out, worship divorced from the imperative to love the neighbor is an abomination in God’s sight. See, e.g., Amos 5:21-24.

Though it does not make for exciting reading, I believe that the Priestly author(s) contribution to the Hebrew Scriptures has a peculiar relevance for the church today. But we should not be focusing on the particular demands of these rules and statutes, the rationale and meaning of which is lost to us in many instances. Instead, we should look to their function and how they created opportunities for the faith community in exile to define itself against the dominant culture and remind itself of its own unique identity. In my own Lutheran protestant tradition there is very little that distinguishes our daily lives from those of our neighbors. In a supposedly “Christian culture,” you would not expect any such difference. And given that our particular tradition was born into the heart of Christendom and grew out of the state church tradition, it is not surprising that most of us are OK with that. In a Christian nation, why would one expect there to be any difference between faithful discipleship and good citizenship? How could the two ever conflict?

Whether or not you agree with me that the notion of “Christendom” was misbegotten from the get go, you can hardly deny that the society that was Christendom is now all but dead. The towering church buildings still dominating the Americana landscape testify more to a bygone era of socio-political influence than to any present significance. Gone are the days when everyone (or a substantial majority) assumed that church going was an essential part of life. The upcoming generation needs to be convinced that worship in general and Christ in particular merit even a cursory look. You can be a decent person and a good citizen these days without belonging to any faith community. So why belong?

I must confess that when I drive through a Jewish neighborhood on a Friday night and witness families walking together to synagogue, I feel a bit envious. Here is a community whose life is shaped by the biblical narrative. This peculiar people will not be conformed to our cultural norms. Their Sabbath will not be invaded by soccer leagues, karate lessons and after school programs. This is clearly a “holy” people, a people dedicated to its God. Their faith is not just another piece of a well-rounded American life on a par with school, sports and patriotism. Their faith is their life and everything else must find its place in subjection to that faith. I could wish that disciples of Jesus were as diligent in observance of the Lord’s Day; that prayer, fasting and almsgiving were as deeply imbedded in our lives as Sabbath observance is for my Jewish neighbors. I believe that the church needs very much to hear the Priestly writers’ call “to be holy.”

Psalm 119:33–40

For my observations on Psalm 119 generally, see my post for February 12th. Just as last week’s reading consisting of the first section of this psalm began with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph,” so each line of these eight verses making up the fifth section of the psalm begin with the fifth Hebrew letter, “He.”

This particular section of the psalm reminds us that God’s Torah is not something that can be learned by rote, such as the atomic chart or an algebraic equation. Torah must be “taught” by God. It goes hand in hand with prayer, study and ever faithful efforts to live into it. Just as Torah shapes the faithful believer’s life and conduct, so the believer’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of the Torah. So the psalmist implores God, “Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart.” Vs. 34. Torah obedience does not come naturally. Thus, the psalmist prays that God will “incline my heart to thy testimonies…” vs. 36. For the psalmist, Torah is not a collection of rules and statutes. Its provisions are the handles that prayer grasps in engaging God. Thus, the psalmist “long[s] for thy precepts…” for they lead to a vision of God’s righteousness that gives the psalmist life.” Vs. 40. Again, the Torah is not an end in itself. It points the faithful to the heart of Israel’s God where true righteousness and wisdom are found.

1 Corinthians 3:10–11, 16–23

Paul has been contrasting the “mind of Christ” that binds the church together as one Body to the divisiveness of the Corinthian congregation that threatens to tear it apart. Now Paul uses the image of a building to emphasize how the apostolic ministry, and his own ministry in particular, is for the purpose of building up. The church is God’s building. Though Paul’s evangelization laid the foundation and the work of Cephas and Apollos built upon that foundation, the foundation itself is Christ Jesus.

Once again, I marvel at the gall of the “lexicutioners” whose exegetical meat cleavers exercise no restraint. Verses 12-15 are critical to understanding Paul’s argument. For having pointed out how the apostles have each worked in concert to erect the building which is God’s church, Paul notes that the project is still under construction. The Corinthian disciples are also called to the task of this ministry of building up the church. Clearly, their divisiveness illustrates that they are failing in this important calling. Hence, Paul warns the members of the Corinthian congregation to exercise care in their building ministry. For their work will be tested on the last day when the church is delivered to Christ. What does not build up the church will be destroyed. Yet it is significant that Paul adds that the builder himself will be saved. The wrath of God is directed not against the negligent builder, but at his shoddy work.

That being said, it is easier to understand Paul’s warning that “you are God’s Temple.” Vs. 16. Creating divisions within the church amounts to destroying God’s temple. As the church is the means through which Christ’s salvation is present, destroying the church is self-destruction as well. Vs. 17. You can see where Paul is going with all of this. How absurd it is for the building so carefully constructed by the work of the apostles to assert its loyalty to these same apostles as a pretext for its own self demolition! If the members of the Corinthian church truly wish to honor the apostles, they should build upon the foundation the apostles have laid rather than destabilize it.

Matthew 5:38–48

The dictum “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is cited at Exodus 21:24Leviticus 24:20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Though some commentators on this text argue that this principle was intended to limit retaliation to a proportionate punishment, there is nothing to support this view in the context of Hebrew Scripture. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 256. The concern was that the guilty party bear the consequence of sin such that justice is maintained within the community. See, e.g.Leviticus 24:13-23 (discussion of punishment/compensation commensurate with injury in the context of punishment for blasphemy). Such texts are addressed to the community and its leadership structures, not to the victim or the victim’s family. Nevertheless, over the course of time they came to be used in support of personal claims for compensation. In 1st Century Palestine monetary damages had largely replaced retributive vengeance, though some rabbinical authorities questioned the propriety of this. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 129.

Jesus renders these disputes moot, however, in forbidding retaliation of any sort. Lest there be any doubt about the absolute nature of this command, Jesus goes on to say that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your left.” Vs. 39. In his fine book, Walter Wink argues that a blow to the right cheek would come as a back handed slap. Turning the left cheek would make another blow awkward and perhaps ineffective for a right handed opponent. Thus, Jesus is not really speaking of non-resistance to evil, but rather of non-violent resistance. Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, (c. 1988 Augsburg Fortress) p. 101-102.  As much as I respect Professor Wink, I think he is trying too hard to read Gandhi into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus does not see non-violence as a strategy to achieve a larger goal or to “make a statement.” He is simply calling upon his disciples to respond to hatred and violence the way he will soon confront it himself-by loving his enemies and leaving defense of his life and retributive justice in the hands of his heavenly Father. I also do not place much significance on the fact that a blow to the face with one’s fist (if that is all Jesus is talking about) is less serious than the permanent damage contemplated by the Hebrew Scriptural sayings. In the first place, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he is referring merely to a slap in the face with the back hand. Moreover, I have visited enough ERs to know that a blow to the face with one’s fist can do some serious damage to eyes and teeth. Jesus would have us know that refusing to resist evil can result in our getting pretty banged up, perhaps even nailed to a cross. But whether it is effective, ineffective or counter-productive, non-violence is always the way of Jesus and his disciples. Violence is never an arrow in their quiver. Indeed, Jesus’ teachings about lawsuits, forced conscription and response to beggars demonstrate that coercive force of all kinds is off limits. This is not to say that non-violence is incapable of bringing about substantial social and political changes for the better. The lives of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King demonstrate that it sometimes does. Nevertheless, disciples of Jesus do not practice peace for the sake of beneficial change. They practice peace because that is the way of Jesus, period.

In verse 43 Matthew cites Leviticus 19:18 which states in part, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the verse does not sanction hatred against enemies, it is clear that the term “neighbor” applies to “the sons of your own people” which would exclude gentiles as well as these “cut off” from among the people of Israel. Jesus clearly means to extend the command to love one’s neighbor to the enemy. To be clear, the enemy is not simply an unpleasant relative or a bothersome neighbor. The enemy is the one who violently attacks you and takes your property. To be sure, there were plenty of figures in antiquity who urged kindness toward enemies as a stratagem for neutralizing their malevolent intent. But Jesus does not command his disciples to love their enemies for any strategic reason. They are to love because they are, like their Master, children of their heavenly Father who loves all people, good and bad, wildly, freely and indiscriminately. This intense love that cannot be blunted by hatred and rejection is the perfection of God that soon will be manifest in the destiny of Jesus. Perfect love exercised in an imperfect world takes the shape of the cross. It winds up dead, but it doesn’t stay that way.

In sum, The Sermon on the Mount makes no rational sense apart from Jesus Christ. It does not fit into any ethical system; it does not support any coherent platform for social change; it does not fit within the confines of any ideological framework. Without Jesus, the Sermon is nothing more than a smorgasbord of disjointed sayings from which one may pick and choose, providing whatever context will give it the desired meaning. Interpreted through the “weakness” and “foolishness” of the cross, however, it illuminates the new life to which Jesus invites us. See I Corinthians 1:20-25.

Perhaps John Howard Yoder says it best of all: “This conception of participation in the character of God’s struggle with a rebellious world, which early Quakerism referred to as ‘the war of the lamb,’ has the peculiar disadvantage-or advantage, depending upon one’s point of view-of being meaningful only if Christ be he who Christians claim him to be, the Master. Almost every other kind of ethical approach espoused by Christians, pacifist or otherwise, will continue to make sense to the non-Christian as well. Whether Jesus be the Christ or not, whether Jesus Christ be Lord or not, whether this kind of religious language be meaningful or not, most types of ethical approach will keep on functioning just the same. For their true foundation is in some reading of the human situation or some ethical insight which is claimed to be generally accessible to men of good will. The same is not true for this vision of “completing in our bodies that which was lacking in the suffering of Christ.” If Jesus was not who historic Christianity confesses he was, the revelation in man of the character of God himself, then this one argument for pacifism collapses. Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus (c. 1994, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 244.

 

Sunday, July 10th

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stricken

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

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

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

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

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

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

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

Psalm 25:1–10

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

Awesome is our God and Creator.

Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.

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

And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests.

Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50,The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer filled with all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. By virtue of our baptism into Jesus, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Colossians 1:1–14

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

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

Luke 10:25–37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 27

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day: Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Our lessons have a lot to say about leadership and how it is exercised by the people of God. That is a timely concern as our country awaits the visit of Pope Francis while trying to make sense out of that reality show we call the presidential primaries. What do we look for in a leader? How does one lead effectively? What is this thing we call “authority”? Who has it?

Judging by the polling data, we seem to respect a leader who is decisive, knows what s/he believes and is not afraid to express it-as long as we like what we hear. So a candidate running for elected office needs to walk a fine line avoiding a kind of soft-spokenness that might suggest weakness or indecision on the one hand and an outspokenness that is perceived as rude and offensive on the other. The trouble with the electoral process is that it often gives us leaders shaped by us into what we want rather than leaders capable of taking us where we need to be. How effective can one be as a leader after obtaining his/her office through following the very ones s/he is supposed to lead?

A key constituent of leadership is authority-not to be confused with power. The former makes a great leader, the latter, standing alone, makes only a dictator. Authority is frequently found among the powerless. Though Jesus had no official teaching status (as far as we know) and held no political office, his hearers recognized that he taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29. What was it, then, about Jesus that made his word authoritative? I believe it boils down to one word: integrity. Jesus’ actions were so thoroughly in harmony with his words that, as Saint John would say, Jesus was his Word. John 1:1.

Being a leader sometimes means you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear-and not just the people you know will never vote for you anyway. Truth has to be spoken to your strongest supporters, your most committed followers, your most trusted friends. You have to keep reminding the people of your vision and what is required of them to achieve it long after its novelty and freshness has worn thin. As Moses is beginning to learn in our first lesson, it is hard to lead when the Promised Land is forty years away and your constituents want results yesterday. In our gospel lesson Jesus is finding that leading his fractious, power hungry and self-centered disciples is a little like herding cats. James urges us to lead those who are wandering from the community of faith back home again. Leadership is not an easy task. It calls for more than sound judgment, careful discernment and prudent action. People will finally be lead only by those they trust. That is why leadership begins with “followership.” Unless and until we are prepared to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it is unlikely anyone will heed our call to take that difficult road.

Pope Francis offers a welcome contrast to the noisy clamor for votes we have been forced to endure the last several months. Here is a man who has consistently refused the luxuries that typically come with his office. Francis’ determination to be among the people (much to the consternation of our security forces) demonstrates the same willingness to be vulnerable that he calls upon the nations of the world to exercise in receiving refugees fleeing war and starvation in the Middle East. His frank talk about our country’s consumerism, inequality and violence will no doubt make us uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. But the Pope does not need or seek our votes. He seeks instead our hearts for Jesus. Now that’s what I call authority!

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Modern biblical research has reached a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a thorough discussion of this theory, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis. The title, “Numbers” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. It was no doubt inspired by the census of the Hebrew tribes narrated in the early part of the book. The Hebrew Bible uses the title “bemidar” which means “In the wilderness.” In fact, the book as a whole narrates the journey of Israel through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For a more thorough outline of Numbers, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

This lesson brings back family memories-not of a good sort. Make no mistake about it, I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seat into rolling entertainment center. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. There were no seat belts and they probably would not have been much help anyway if we had been rear ended. Before we had gotten halfway through Washington State my sister and I were already whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.

The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”

Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Vss. 11-13.

I think everyone who has ever served as a church leader knows how Moses feels. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory? Why does everyone always call me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Moses should know that this liberation project is God’s, not his own. God is the one responsible for getting Israel to the Promised Land. Moses’ job is simply to lead the people in taking the next step.

Part of Moses’ problem, too, is that he has come to believe he is indispensable. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.

Moses discovers that the people, who he has been seeing as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensable, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his authority. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take the risk of sharing his authority. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures. Vss. 26-29.

This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having his or her own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.

Psalm 19:7-14

The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self-revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self-revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.”  Vs. 11. This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” Vs. 14. These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongues and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.

James 5:13-20

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Vs. 16. Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.

Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Vs. 15. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.

Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.

Mark 9:38-50

The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.”  Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.

Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.

What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Vss. 42-48. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no nobler task than receiving a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.

Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.

The term “salted with fire” is obscure and the subject of debate by many commentators. Vs. 49. Though it is possible that purification by persecution is intended, that hardly fits the context. To have salt is to be at peace. Vs. 50. It would therefore seem that the countercultural existence to which the disciples are called works like salt-an agent of seasoning and preservation. It is so very basic that, if it loses its essence, nothing exists that can restore it. The little group of disciples, preoccupied as it is with greatness and preserving its position of privilege to the neglect of the “little ones” for whom Jesus is chiefly concerned, is sorely in need of “salting with fire.” Only to the extent that there is among the disciples peace born of mutual service to the least can the nature of God’s reign be made known.

Sunday, May 24th

DAY OF PENTECOST

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13.

Not long ago I ran into a friend from a congregation to which I once belonged and served. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, she unloaded upon me her frustrations with the “new” direction taken by our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Of particular concern was our 2009 churchwide decision to permit the blessing of same sex relationships and to accept for ordination persons living faithfully in such relationships. “The Bible has taught us that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman from the beginning of time,” she remarked. “Why change it now?”

How to answer? There was so much wrong with the question itself that I hardly knew where to begin answering. My friend’s assertion about the Bible’s teaching on marriage is dead wrong. In addition to monogamy, the Bible recognizes polygamy, concubinage and sexual slavery as legitimate arrangements. When it comes to the sheer number of Bible passages available on the subject of marriage, there are far more verses one could use to undermine the monogamous relationships we have now come to call “traditional” than there are to be used against same sex marriages. The church adopted the rule of monogamy largely because it was the dominant trend both in 1st Century Judaism and throughout Mediterranean culture generally. Of course, there were theological reasons as well. Paul’s assertion that there is in Christ neither male nor female undermined the cultural assumption of patriarchy and the treatment of women as property. The comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church in the letter to the Ephesians leaves no more room for polygamy than does the First Commandment for polytheism. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that societal trends played a large part in driving the church’s recognition of monogamy as normative for marriage. It was not that way from the beginning of time or throughout the scriptures.

If the church had all the truth, it would not need the Holy Spirit to guide it. I don’t believe the church has ever claimed that it possessed all the truth even in its worst moments of triumphalistic arrogance. I do believe, however, that we frequently claim possession of more truth than we actually have. The church has also been flat out wrong about some things-and we usually don’t take kindly to folks who point that out to us. It took us centuries to get over Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei informing us that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The rich irony here is that, even as the Vatican was bringing Galileo up on charges of heresy, its ships were using navigational maps based on his heretical theory because maps based on the orthodox, Bible based Ptolemaic understanding of the universe reliably ran them into the rocks. At some point, denying the obvious in order to preserve “what we have always believed and taught” is just silly.

Even as the church is not always right; so too, societal trends are not always wrong. Clearly, Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. The church would have done well to take their work seriously and think more deeply about what the Bible actually has to say about creation and our abilities to understand it. Had we done that, it is entirely possible that we would have spared ourselves the embarrassment of Galileo’s heresy trial, the Scopes Monkey trial centuries later and the present day humiliating spectacle of multi-million dollar museums featuring T-rex’s cavorting with Adam and Eve.

So, too, it has long been the scientific consensus (since at least the early 1970s) that homosexual orientation is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a psychiatric disorder. It has also become painfully and tragically evident that pseudo-scientific methods employed to “cure” people of their sexual orientations are not only ineffectual, but harmful. I am not suggesting that one cannot assert good faith arguments against the blessing/marriage of same sex couples or that theological concerns about so doing should be dismissed out of hand. But let me say emphatically that no argument should be entertained based on junk science, literalistic readings of cherry picked scripture passages or irrational fear and hatred toward gay and lesbian people.

Thankfully, the church’s long history demonstrates that it is capable of adaptation. Marriage has evolved within the church from an arrangement between men by which women were transferred as property to a relationship of mutuality mirroring that of Christ to the church. That, in my view, is a much bigger leap than merely opening up our current understanding of mutual covenant love and faithfulness to same sex couples. We cannot pretend that the church is guided strictly by doctrines, morals and practices that remain unaltered in their pristine form dating from biblical times. That is not what the Bible tells us.

The church has changed throughout the ages and will no doubt change in ways we cannot predict throughout the coming century. But that should not trouble us. Jesus promises to be present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit can be trusted to correct our missteps and guide us into all truth. I only pray that my friend and all others who share her concerns find comfort and peace in that promise.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, see my post of September 7, 2014. For my reflections on this text in particular, see my post of April 6, 2014.

This familiar story of the prophet and the valley of dead bones takes on a new meaning when played in the major key of Pentecost rather than the minor key of Lent. The focus now is less on the hopeless circumstances of the people and more on the life giving power of the “the breath,” or “ruach” as the Hebrew has it. As I have mentioned before, ruach may be translated either as “spirit” or as “breath.” As our psalm points out, it is the breath of God that gives life to inanimate clay. Psalm 104: 29-30; Genesis 2:7. It is this same breath that is summoned by the words of the prophet to inspire hope among an exiled people on the verge of extinction. Vss. 11-14. The interplay between God’s word that goes forth from God finding expression in the words of the prophet and God’s Spirit/Breath that gives life is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of the prophets. Torah is not dead letter. It is the place where God seizes the heart and imagination even as the believer wrestles with Torah in prayer and reflection. Psalm 119 in particular testifies to this lively and dynamic relationship between word and spirit, hearing and prayer, meditation and daily life.

So, too, Spirit is not an ethereal inwardness. The Spirit of God is always tied in some way to God’s word. The Hebrew God is the one who speaks. God speaks creation into being, speaks through the gift of Torah and speaks through the mouths of the prophets. God’s Spirit is given through speech. The God of the Bible is not the deity of philosophers whose nature and identity is discovered through reflection upon his necessary attributes. The God of the Bible reveals God’s self through acts of salvation on behalf of a particular people. God’s Spirit is given through the narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through the story of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings, Settling of Canaan, the Davidic Monarchy, Exile and Return from Exile. To receive the Spirit is to locate yourself in these grand narratives.

It is easy enough to find ourselves in this narrative. We are the dead bones, a people in decline. We inhabit a landscape of museums, office buildings and theaters that once were thriving places of worship. For those sanctuaries that still function as such, there is often a huge disconnect between the small, aging and fragile band of worshipers and the triumphal architecture housing them. We are the dead bones, but can we recognize ourselves as the bones upon which the breath of God’ blows? Are we able to recognize those places where God’s Spirit is creating life in our midst? Where is the Spirit moving in the church today?

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

For my extensive comments on this psalm, I invite you to revisit last year’s Pentecost post of June 8, 2014. I am struck this time around by the dependence of our earth upon the animating word and Spirit of God. The cosmology of Genesis places the habitable world under a great dome creating a bubble within the chaotic waters that were before time. Should the windows of heaven crack allowing the waters above the earth to cascade down and the waters beneath the earth erupt over the land, the creation would soon degenerate into chaos. Indeed, this is precisely what almost occurred during the great flood in Noah’s time. Genesis 7:11. Obviously, our 21st Century cosmology is a good deal more sophisticated than the biblical understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, whether one is reading this psalm or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one cannot help but be impressed with how vulnerable our little planet is. When you stop and think about how our earth runs its course around the sun through a gauntlet of asteroids that could inflict (and in the past have inflicted) catastrophic destruction on our planet, it is amazing that we all have the presence of mind to go about our daily business. The psalmist reminds us that we are, after all, a frail and vulnerable island of relative peace within a violent universe every bit as terrifying as the monster infested waters of creation. Yet the psalmist goes on to assure us that the universe is not a billiard table. It is not merely cosmos. It is creation, a creation that was made by a God who loves it, watches tenderly over it and animates it with God’s own Spirit.

The good news here is that even the sea monsters and seemingly destructive forces are God’s creatures in which God takes delight. The world is neither a haunted house animated by warring demons as the ancient near eastern religions often asserted, nor is it a dead and soulless chamber of ricocheting rocks subject only to randomness. The Spirit of God is at work, as I have said, bending each subatomic particle toward the creation of a new heaven and earth. That is an affirmation of faith that cannot finally be verified empirically. It is discovered by a people living in covenant with their gracious and merciful God. Finally, thanks again to the makers of the lectionary for sparing us poor, simple minded sheep from scriptural expressions not strictly in accord with American middleclass protestant, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite sensitivities. I refer, of course, to verse 35a which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”

A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, this is a payer expressed to God. It is one thing to ask God to rid the world of the wickedness we perceive. It is quite another to take that task on oneself whether it be through the more direct means of genocide or the softer methods of punitive legislation against perceived vice. Jesus did not commission his disciples to create a moral society, much less to “take back America” for him. Judgment there surely will be, but that’s God’s business.

Second, we do ourselves no favors by “softening” the scriptures. Of course it would be nice if the kingdom could come on earth as in heaven without changing anything (at least the things I don’t want changed). But in reality, the greatest impediment to the kingdom is sin, not merely or even primarily personal vices, but the systemic violence, oppression and abuse inherent in the powers that be. As much as it goes against the grain, we need to pray for sinners to be consumed from the earth and for the wicked to be no more. Of course, we must also recognize that we are praying against ourselves. We are, after all, complicit in systemic evil in ways that we do not even recognize. So we need to be mindful of what we are asking God to do. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Thus, if God were to execute judgment in military fashion, most of us would end up casualties of war. The earth and its creatures would be collateral damage. Obviously, that is not the outcome God seeks. Eradicating evil from creation is a slow, painful and exacting operation. As we will learn in the next reading from Romans, it is a process under which not only humanity, but all of creation groans. Liberation from evil comes about only through repentance-a radical reorientation of the heart. Hearts seldom turn on a dime. Generally speaking, they turn more like aircraft carriers. They move in increments so small that they are hardly visible. Only after traveling a great distance is it possible to see just how profound that fraction of a degree change actually was.

Romans 8:22-27

“The expression… ‘the whole creation’ includes the entire range of animate and inanimate objects on earth and in the heavens.” Jewett, Robert, Romans: a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 516. The groaning of creation as it awaits liberation stands in stark relief to the Roman hymns and poems declaring the rejoicing of creation at the rise of Augustus Caesar and his successors. Ibid. The Pax Romana imposed by Rome was no true peace according to St. Paul. He sees right though Rome’s nationalist propaganda. Rome’s “peace” was nothing other than institutionalized war against the masses of humanity at the bottom of the societal pyramid. The consequences of nation state institutionalized violence and enslavement on the non-human world are even clearer in our own time as we witness the mass extinction of animal species, destruction of forests and pollution of our rivers, lakes and oceans. Yet Paul points out that the creation is subjected to futility “in hope.” Vs. 20-21. Its endurance is not for the sake of pointless misery. The creation longs for the liberation it already recognizes in the children of God. Vs. 21. For Paul, the church is not merely the future of humanity, but the destiny of all creation. The agony experienced by creation and shared by the children of God is not raw, pointless suffering. It is the birth pangs of the new creation. It can therefore be borne in “hope.” Again, like the psalmist, Paul asserts that the universe is “creation” and not merely cosmos. It has a beginning in the creative act of God and an end toward which God is bringing it-an end not simply in terms of completion but as goal or purpose.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Vs. 26) or, as one commentator puts it, “Nor are we alone in our struggles. The Holy Spirit supports us in our helplessness.” The Epistle to the Romans, Sanday, W., Headlam, A.C., (c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark Ltd.) p. 212. God shares the agony of a creation in bondage to human exploitation and cruelty. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God can offer prayer for what we most need but cannot yet fully comprehend. The Spirit alone knows what it truly means for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Spirit alone is able to transform us into persons capable of living in God’s kingdom, a people who will recognize the coming of that kingdom with joy rather than with dread. Our own prayers are often bent toward our selfish interests and distorted by our myopic perspectives. But the “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Vs. 27. This lesson gives us the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of transformative hope.

It seems that we are transformed by that for which we hope and long for. Hope for success, recognition and wealth are powerful motivators. They drive our capitalist economy, but are they worthy of hope? Success is an elusive goal, always one step ahead of us. Recognition is often not worth the envy and ill will that frequently comes with it. As for wealth, it is an addictive substance. The more one has, the more one wants and the less it satisfies. Much energy and talk (mostly talk) has gone into increasing economic opportunities for more people in our society. While there is nothing wrong with that, opportunities do nothing for people incapable of using them wisely and well. For those whose hopes are misdirected, more opportunity means only more rope with which to hang oneself. The hope for a new heaven and a new earth is cosmic in scope. It is a hope for the wellbeing of all creation transcending personal interests. Because sin turns us in upon ourselves, we are incapable of hoping for and naturally will not pray “that God’s will” rather than our own “be done.” The Spirit is needed to draw us out of ourselves, raise our gaze beyond our own selfish interests and focus us on the higher vision of God’s glorious intent for all creation.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This reading is hard to follow without having read the entire Farewell Discourse at John 13-17. You might want to do that before proceeding further. Comprehension is made all the more difficult by the lectionary peoples’ decision to excise the first four verses of chapter 16. You should read John 16:1-4 at the very least. There you will learn that the whole point of this discussion about the coming of the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” is to prepare the disciples for the hostility and violence they will encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion. As pointed out in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015, this warning might well reflect the rejection of the Jesus movement by the reconstituted Sanhedrin at the close of the 1st Century. Yet I think that it reflects as much the general hostility toward Jesus throughout the world at large of which the Jewish community was merely a microcosm.

Of particular importance are verses 8-11 which describe the role of the Spirit. The Spirit convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Vs. 8. It is important to recall that for John, sin is not the transgression of any particular law, rule or statute. Sin is revealed through the way in which the Son who was sent by the Father is received. Sin is revealed in the desertion of Jesus by disciples who can not endure his “hard” teachings. John 6:60-65. Sin is revealed in the cowardice of those who believe Jesus, but will not confess him for fear of persecution. John 12:42-43. Sin is revealed in the blindness of the religious rulers who refuse to acknowledge Jesus even in the face of irrefutable testimony to his marvelous works. John 9:13-34. Sin is revealed in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30); Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18:15-27); and Pilate’s placing his loyalty to Caesar over his recognition of Jesus’ innocence. John 19:12-16. We may have all kinds of notions about right and wrong. But it is impossible to identify, recognize and acknowledge sin apart from knowing Jesus.

Similarly, righteousness cannot rightly be understood apart from God’s verdict on Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel, various people render their own judgments on Jesus. But the final judgment, the court of last appeal belongs to God. God raises Jesus from death thereby rendering all other judgments null and void. Jesus is the Son sent by God for the life of the world. All who believe this and put their trust in the Son are righteous. So, too, the final judgment upon Jesus illuminates God’s verdict against the world. In crucifying Jesus, the world shows its true colors. It is the rebel creation that murders the most precious gift its Creator has to give-the gift of the Creator’s self. The world’s religious institutions, the world’s governmental structures and the world’s people all conspire in the murder of the Son. That is the truth about who and what we are. God sent the Son and, when he was murdered and rejected, raised the Son up and continues to offer the Son to the very world that murdered him. That is who and what God is.

Again, I will be accused of reading Augustinian Trinitarian thought into verses 12-15. Perhaps, but I truly believe Augustine got this right. So if I am guilty of anything it is plagiarism or at least I would be guilty if I claimed this reading as my own. Just as the Father has given “all” that he has to Jesus, so the Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to the disciples. Vss. 14-15. The Spirit glorifies Jesus as does the Father. Vs. 14; John 12:28. This describes the internal workings of the Trinity whose differentiation in three persons exists only in their relations to each other. The Trinity’s external works are necessarily the work of the whole Trinity in perfect unity. The Spirit, then, is the presence of the resurrected Christ among his disciples communicating to them “all” that is God the Father.

Sunday, April 26th

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord Christ, good shepherd of the sheep, you seek the lost and guide us into your fold. Feed us, and we shall be satisfied; heal us, and we shall be whole. Make us one with you, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

To be honest, I dread Good Shepherd Sunday. After more than thirty years of preaching on shepherds and sheep, I feel as though I have exhausted the metaphor. I’m all wrung out. I find myself asking, is there anything new to be said here? Is there any other angle? After reading and re-reading the lessons for this week, particularly the 10th Chapter of Saint John, I think there just may be a way of reading these texts that I have never noticed before. Typically, my preoccupation has been with individual sheep. But I get the idea that Jesus is chiefly concerned with the flock-at least in this Sunday’s gospel. He is concerned with leading the sheep, keeping them together in the fold and bringing into the fold sheep that do not yet know they belong to him. Our lesson from the First Letter of John also focuses on the flock and how sheep within that flock are to treat each other. Maybe that should be my focus too.

It is hard for me to imagine myself as part of a flock. We 21st Century moderns are not herd animals. This is increasingly so when it comes to religion. The increase in “nones,” “spiritual but not religious,” “unaffiliated” and so forth testifies to our strong American independent streak. I have noticed that even within mainline churches, individuals often tend to take a smorgasbord approach to the faith, selecting what they like and ignoring what does not appeal. We are more like cats than sheep. We come to worship when convenient, take part in whatever activities meet our personal needs and disappear for weeks on end, often without notice. The voice of a shepherd speaking with clarion authority is often missing. In fact, I think we would probably resent having a shepherd pursue us into the wilderness of our preoccupations and carry us back into the midst of the sheepfold. We are fiercely possessive of our freedom to come and go as we please, to believe whatever we like and to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. To such a modern people, Creeds, Scriptures and preaching seem out of place. Such relics of the past might have served simple peasant folk unable to think for themselves. But we are educated and enlightened. Surely we can think for ourselves.

But do we think for ourselves? Are the choices we make truly free? Is there really such a thing as an individual “self” that exists independently of all other selves? Are we stronger when we think and act independently? Or are we diminished by severing ourselves from the rest of the human race? Are truth, beauty and goodness qualities that we discover independently? Or do we find them in communion with one another, in the wisdom of our ancestors and by the aid of discipline learned through shared sacred practices? Are the Creeds we confess collections of propositions subject to debate, evaluation, acceptance or rejection? Or are they portholes into a mystery, sacred music to which we must be willing to submit and by which we must be taught? Are we anymore “free thinking” when we allow ourselves to be shaped by MSNBC, Fox News or PBS?

I am beginning to think that it takes a flock of sheep to recognize and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. I am coming around to the conviction that maturity is less about becoming individual selves and more about becoming “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” I Peter 2:5. I am starting to think that growing up is less about learning to stand on one’s own and more about learning to use one’s unique gifts and abilities to slide seamlessly and anonymously into the Body of Christ. More and more I am learning that it is within the flock and in the heart of the fold that the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd is heard.

Acts 4:5-12

Last week Peter and John managed to attract a great deal of attention in front of the temple when, in the name of Jesus, they brought healing to a known cripple. Seizing the opportunity, Peter uses the occasion to preach a powerful sermon proclaiming as Israel’s messiah and God’s Son Jesus, the crucified one raised from death. Not by the power of the apostles, says Peter, but through the name of Jesus the man they once knew as lame now walks and experiences perfect health.

But the apostles have also attracted the attention of the temple authorities chiefly responsible for handing Jesus over to Pilate. Annoyed that these men are teaching in the name of Jesus, they arrest Peter and John, holding them in prison overnight. Acts 4:1-4. On the following day, the apostles are brought out before the high priest and the high priestly family to answer for their actions. It is noteworthy that the first question out of the accusers’ mouth is: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” vs. 7. We can see immediately what is at stake here. The authorities seem to have no objection in principle to the disciples teaching the people or even with the fact that they performed a miracle of healing. Sects within Judaism abounded in the 1st Century. For the most part, they were of little concern to the temple authorities. But the name of Jesus obviously set off some alarm bells and raised red flags.

It is not surprising that the authorities should be concerned about this Jesus movement. Throughout his ministry Jesus upset the social and political norms by sharing table fellowship with outcasts. Parables such as that of Lazarus and the Rich Man foretold an upending of the existing order, the dissolution of boundaries, the disintegration of family and a radical reorientation of the Torah in the service of “the least” of all peoples. How much more disturbing was the growth of this movement into a community living out the kingdom Jesus proclaimed! The man they thought they had killed has risen up and come back to them in spades. The authorities know that they are face to face with the Spirit of the risen Christ and have not the slightest clue what to do about it. If you were to read further, you would learn that the leaders find themselves powerless. Their dear old friend and ally, violence, is of no use in suppressing the name of Jesus. Peter brazenly ignores the threats of the authorities and announces his intent to continue preaching Jesus and his kingdom regardless what they tell him. Acts 4:13-22.

It is the name of Jesus that gets the disciples into trouble. Like most governments, the Jerusalem establishment had no problem with religious people doing socially useful work. Jesus would probably not been put to death if he had been content merely to feed the poor and hungry. Our own government applauds such work on behalf of the less fortunate as long as the boundary between “helpers” and “helped” is maintained. We have no objection to helping the poverty stricken to strive for the American Dream. But Jesus did more than that. He gave the poor a better dream. Jesus did not merely feed the poor. He invited the poor to the messianic banquet. He told them they were blessed, that they were rightful heirs to the earth, the primary recipients of God’s richest blessing. Jesus invited the poor into a new way of being human, a new way of living together under God’s reign. He rejected the domination system of the Jerusalem establishment and its Roman overlords in favor of the gentle reign of God. That reign is now unfolding in the very precincts of the temple and the high priest with his cronies can only watch and be afraid-very afraid.

Again, the call of Luke-Acts is for disciples of Jesus to be a community that is a demonstration plot for the reign of God. The church is an alternative way of being human. One might well say it is the genuine way of being human as God intends. That is, of course, a tall order. Even the Book of Acts, frequently said (erroneously I think) to be an “idealized” portrait of the church, demonstrates that the disciples frequently fell short of their high calling. Nonetheless, in spite of its faults and shortcomings, through the power of the Spirit within it “the word of God increased.” Acts 6:7.

Psalm 23

I think that I have probably said about everything I have to say about the Twenty Third Psalm at my posts for Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 and Sunday, July 22, 2012. That, of course, does not mean that there is no more to be said. I encourage you to read the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University Atlanta, Georgia on workingpreacher.org. I would also recommend The Shepherd Who Feeds Us by Debra Dean Murphy at ekklesiaproject.org. This article discusses the “shepherd” metaphor employed in the 23rd Psalm and elsewhere. Finally, Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary is well worth rereading.

I will only add that the recent release of a video purporting to show the killing of Ethiopian Christians by Islamic State-affiliated militants in Libya brings into sharper focus verse 5 of the psalm which reads, “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” What happens when we read the psalm against the backdrop of the horrific violence against Christians in Libya, the rising opposition to the church reflected in our reading from Acts and the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sake of his sheep articulated in the gospel? Should we be hearing this psalm less as a palliative treatment for agitated minds and more as a call to live the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of a violent and hostile world? Have we allowed Hallmark to hijack this psalm?

1 John 3:16-24

This lesson needs to be read against the gospel. As does the shepherd, so should the sheep do. We know love through what Jesus has done for us. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep. This love shown toward us must be reflected among and between the sheep. The sheep must be prepared to lay down their lives for each other and, that being so, how much more their worldly possessions. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” vs. 17.

All of this sounds simple enough. So why do we have in the same county believers in Jesus (like me) who have more than adequate housing, clothing, access to health care and employment alongside believers who are homeless? Yes, I know that we are advocating for legislation to change all of that. I hope it all comes to fruition. I really do. But in the meantime, our sisters and brothers continue to be in need and, instead of opening our homes, our hearts and our faith communities to them, we offer them social services. Instead of being the alternative to the old order, we produce reams of preachy screechy social statements lecturing the old order in hopes of making it a little less oppressive. Again, I can hear dear old Mark Twain reminding us with a twinkle in his eye, “To be good is noble; to teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” As I have said elsewhere, I believe that the more vibrant and promising models of church in this 21st century are those seeking to embody Jesus rather than implement some politicized abstraction of his teachings. See, e.g. post of Sunday, November 23, 2014.

“God is greater than our hearts” vs. 20. While it is never wise to disregard one’s conscience, conscience does not reflect God’s judgment upon our lives and conduct. The voice of conscience is not the voice of God. Conscience can be misguided, misdirected and grounded in false standards. God’s verdict on our lives is dictated by God’s love for us expressed in Jesus. So, too, our conduct with respect to our neighbors is shaped by that same love. Therefore, John can boil Jesus’ commandments down to the two “great” commandments identified in the synoptic gospels: “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ and love one another.” Vs. 23. This love is not an abstraction, as in “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” (Good Lord, have I ever dated myself!). Nor is love an expression of my own personal sentiments. The love of which John speaks is quite unintelligible apart from the gospel narratives and the larger context of the Hebrew scriptural narrative about God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. It is also unintelligible apart from the community living out of those narratives. Love, then, is the miracle the Spirit imparts to a people that understands itself as heir of the promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and offered to the world through the gracious invitation of Jesus. It is forged in the furnace of a community that strives to follow its Lord.

John 10:11-18

In Chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.

In verses 7-15, Jesus lays down the acid test determining the genuineness of a true shepherd. When the wolf shows up, the fake shepherd flees. He is but a “hireling.” Vs. 13. Because the sheep do not actually belong to him, he has nothing to lose beyond a day’s wage by running away. The shepherd who owns the sheep actually has “skin” in the game. Unlike the hired hand, this shepherd will put himself between the sheep and the jaws of the wolf. The Greek word used for “good” is not the more common “agathos,” but the word “kalos,” meaning “fine,” “beautiful” or “precious.” Unlike the leaders in Jerusalem who, under threat of Roman violence, are prepared to throw Jesus to the wolves in order to save their own skins, Jesus willingly lays down his own life to save the people. There are several levels of irony here. Caiaphas insists that “it is expedient…that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” John 11:50. What he means, of course, is that Jesus must be sacrificed to preserve the status quo which is treating Caiaphas and his cronies quite well. But Caiaphas has unwittingly articulated Jesus’ mission and all that makes him a “fine, beautiful and precious” Shepherd. The sheep given Jesus by his Father recognize his voice. Vs. 14. Such faithful recognition has already been illustrated in the prior chapter by the blind man who could not be persuaded by the authorities (false shepherds) to deny Jesus, but, when confronted with Jesus, worships him.

As pointed out by Professor Raymond Brown, the Hebrew Scriptures are rich in shepherd imagery. God is frequently spoken of as the Shepherd of Israel. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 397. Genesis 49:2; Psalm 23; Psalm 78:52-53; Psalm 80:1. Kings also, particularly David, were referred to as shepherds. Psalm 78:70-72. This title carries with it profound responsibilities for Israel’s rulers and withering judgment for kings failing in their role as “shepherds.” See I Kings 23:17; Jeremiah 10:21; Jeremiah 23:1-2; and Ezekiel 34. It is against the backdrop of these Hebrew texts that we must understand Jesus’ use of this powerful shepherd metaphor. John would have us understand that Jesus is the genuine Shepherd who alone puts the well-being of the sheep first and foremost.

 

Sunday, March 22nd

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, with steadfast love you draw us to yourself, and in mercy you receive our prayers. Strengthen us to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit, that through life and death we may live in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Some years ago I was listening to an interview on the radio of an elderly Polish Catholic woman, one of the “righteous gentiles,” who had given refuge to Jewish families during the Second World War. The interviewer asked her point blank: “Why would you put your life and the lives of your own family members in jeopardy to help people who are strangers to you?” There was a long and uncomfortable pause before the woman finally responded, “Well, what else would one do?” For this woman, there was simply no moral issue at stake, no ethical dilemma to stew over, no choice between greater and lesser evils. When your neighbor is in danger, you offer protection. To borrow a phrase from Geico Insurance Company, “It’s what you do.” She couldn’t imagine any other course of action.

I think that must have been something like what the prophet Jeremiah had in mind when he spoke about a new covenant under which the Torah of God would be inscribed on the hearts of his people. I believe that is why the psalmist has “laid up [God’s] word in [his/her] heart, that [s/he] might not sin against [God].” A heart that is so thoroughly shaped by praying the psalms, hearing the gospels and studying the epistles finally internalizes them. They become the tools with which the Holy Spirit builds in us the mind of Christ. We finally cannot imagine turning away a neighbor in need, resorting to violence in order to resolve a dispute or bending the truth to gain an economic advantage.

Of course, it is not the scriptures alone that transforms our hearts. The words of both prophet and psalmist presuppose a covenant community formed around the scriptural witness and for which the scriptures are a normative authority. I have often said, much to the consternation many, that I believe the scriptures to be meaningless apart from their interpretation by and through such faith communities. The Ten Commandments don’t work as law for a secular society. The Sermon on the Mount makes no coherent sense apart from the life and work of the Lord who preached and lived that sermon. Apart from communities formed by the narratives of the patriarchs, the Exodus and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Bible is just an historical curiosity with no more relevance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

I have heard again and again that the church’s preaching is not reaching our contemporary audience. We tend to blame that on preachers. Now I am willing to admit that there are more poorly prepared sermons and more lazy, burnt out and apathetic pastors out in the church than there should be. But I believe that the primary problem with preaching is that, like the Bible, it presupposes an intentional community of faith for which the preaching of Jesus is central. It is hard to proclaim Christ as the true vine that keeps us all alive to a group of individuals that understands itself as a voluntary organization and where “church” is understood as a place you go weekly (or about a dozen times per year statistically for most Lutherans). Our preaching does not make a great deal of sense among folks for whom being a Republican/Democrat, being a supporter/opponent of gun rights, being an American is more constitutive of who one is than being a baptized child of God. When church becomes tangential, the Bible becomes at best a trite collection of edifying nuggets and at worst a source of ammunition for culture warriors. The Bible has nothing to say to a collection of individuals that is no longer a community centered on the Bible and no longer worships as Lord the one to whom the Bible testifies.

More than ever I long for the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. More than ever I long for the day when the scriptures will cease to collect dust on coffee tables, sit idle on church bookshelves and will once again become the instrument of the Holy Spirit forming communities of faith. I long for the day when the scriptures will be so thoroughly ingrained in our hearts that we no longer need to argue about whether we ought to open our homes to destitute children fleeing into our country, welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered folk with all their gifts into our congregations, renounce the use of violence in all contexts and tithe our income for God’s good use. I long for the day when, like that dear old Polish saint, our hearts are so thoroughly ruled by the Holy Spirit that we are unable to imagine doing less than what Jesus would have us do.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Israel understood God and her relationship to God not on the basis of theological assertions about God or philosophical ideas about God, but through a series of historical covenants with God. God’s heart, mind and will for Israel were discerned through the living out of those covenants in obedience to Torah, a body of law that shaped Israel’s worship, commerce, community life and her relationship with other nations. According to the Deuteronomist, the glory of Israel was the wisdom and understanding gained through her obedience to Torah. Deuteronomy 4:6. Jeremiah was on the same page with the Deuteronomist on this score. He was probably a young man when, under King Josiah, Judah undertook significant reforms, purging the land of idolatry, restoring the temple in Jerusalem that had fallen into disrepair and strengthening the institutions of worship. See II Kings 23.

While Jeremiah likely approved of these reforms, he learned through bitter experience that, in themselves, they were insufficient for restoring Israel’s heartfelt obedience to her God. “The heart” he observed, “is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9. In the hands of a perverse and godless people, even the Torah becomes an instrument of injustice. “How can you say, ‘We are wise and the [Torah] of the Lord is with us?’” Jeremiah asks. “[b]ehold, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” Jeremiah 8:8. For this reason, Jeremiah believed that a new covenant was required. Understand, however, that a new covenant is not synonymous with a new law. The Ten Commandments and the rest of the body of law given through Moses needs neither replacement nor supplementation. It is the heart of Israel, not the Torah that must be changed.

A covenant is not a legal contract, though it does stipulate terms for living within it. It is best to think of a covenant as a relationship. Jeremiah compares it to a marriage. Vs. 32. The core of every marriage is fidelity. Whatever rules and statutes govern that marriage, they are not the essence of the marriage. They exist to protect, strengthen and enhance the marriage. If there exists no bond of fidelity, there is nothing for the laws to protect. When God enacts a covenant, it never begins with rules. First comes the promise. In the case of Abraham and Sarah, it was the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. In the case of Sinai, the giving of the law was preceded by God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The law was given to protect Israel’s new gift of freedom and to keep her from becoming another Egypt. Thus, Jeremiah looked forward to some new saving act of God that, like the two aforementioned covenants, would melt Israel’s stubborn unbelief. Through this new saving event, God would once more give Torah to the people of Israel, not on tablets of stone, but engraved upon their hearts.

It is important to appreciate both the continuity and discontinuity between this anticipated “new” covenant and the “old” covenants of Sinai and the patriarchs/matriarchs. As in the past, this new covenant would be initiated by the free act of Israel’s God. Some saving intervention of God in the human story would prove to be as compelling as was the call to Abraham and the deliverance from Egypt. The only conceivable response to such gracious acts of salvation is thankfulness from which genuine obedience flows. Torah will no longer be a means of establishing obedience. Its role will be to channel that outpouring of newfound thankfulness inspired by what God will shortly do. Rather than being an objective authority imposed from outside, Torah will be internalized and written upon the heart. Vs. 33. This covenant is consistent with God’s merciful intent for Israel expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. It will be “new” in the sense that Israel will have another wonderful experience of that merciful intent renewing her ancient faith and enriching her narrative.

A new covenant was sorely needed. The promised land, the temple, the line of David and many other hallmarks of the prior covenants would soon be lost with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent exile. What would it mean to be Israel without all of these things? Was such an existence even possible? Jeremiah’s answer is a resounding “yes.” God is far from finished with Israel. The exile, to be sure, was God’s just punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness. But it is not only that. God is laying the groundwork for a new salvific act through which God’s faithfulness will be manifested and Israel’s faith restored. This is a good word for individual believers and churches experiencing loss and facing an uncertain future. God never makes an end of things except to make a new beginning.

Psalm 119:9-16

For my general observations on the form and content of Psalm 119, see my Post for September 7, 2014.  This psalm is the longest of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the second section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Bath.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would have evaluated what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

Our section of the psalm begins with a question: “How can a young person keep his/her way pure?” The answer comes in the very next sentence: “by guarding it according to thy word.” Vs. 9. This is precisely what the prophet Jeremiah told us must happen and it is significant that this psalm was composed long after the prophet’s time. We might see this psalm as something of a fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “I have laid up thy word in my heart,” says the psalmist. Vs. 11. The people of Judah not only survived the Babylonian conquest and exile, but learned through that and subsequent experience to internalize Torah.

The psalmist understands, as did Jeremiah, that Torah cannot be learned. It must be taught and taught chiefly by the God who gives it. Thus, s/he prays, “teach me thy statutes!” vs. 12. Because the psalmist trusts God to teach, s/he is diligent in “declaring,” “meditating” and “fixing [his/her] eyes” on Torah. This is no burdensome and onerous task. To the contrary, the psalmist “delights” in Torah and vows not to “forget thy word.” Vss. 13-16. The psalm is a testimony both to the transformative power of Torah and the blessedness of the life by which it is shaped.

In order to make sense out of this psalm (the entire Bible for that matter), we need to see the covenant community that formed the prayer and which, in turn, is formed by it. The statutes about which the psalmist sings are those given by the God who promises an aged, barren, childless nomadic couple a land, a people and a blessing. They are given to slaves, a people that was no people, but who have now been liberated and called to freedom. They are laws given by the God who sets rulers over his people, not to reign as gods, but to be God’s representatives of justice for the widow and the orphan. Psalm 119 is the payer of individuals, families and communities struggling to live as the people of this marvelous God. Seen in that light, the study of Torah is an invitation to enter into the marvelous narrative of Israel’s history with her God, not the dry and onerous study of mind numbing rules we might otherwise imagine it to be.

Hebrews 5:5-10

To recap what I have written before, I do not view the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews as an assertion of Christianity’s superiority over Judaism as some commentators do. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the consummation of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to both Jews and Jewish disciples of Jesus who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For disciples of Jesus it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews, both those who accepted Jesus as messiah and those who did not. For the most part, the Jews dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah and the synagogue as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands” (John 2:19-22) and in the community of faith called church Christ’s bodily presence. I Corinthians 12:27. So the writer’s objective is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the mission of Jesus and his continuing presence with the church fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Our lesson for Sunday speaks of Jesus as the new “High Priest.” Vs. 5. “The essential concept underlying priesthood in the ancient world, among both Jews and Gentiles, was that of mediatorship between the divine and human, by virtue of the priest’s superior knowledge of, or power of communication with, the supernatural.” Shepherd, M.H., Jr., “Priests in the New Testament,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 889. Though likely in existence in some form from ancient times, the office of high priest came into prominence following the return from exile in Babylon and the reconstruction of the second temple around 520 B.C.E. In the writings of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the high priest, Joshua, appears to hold power comparable to Zerubbabel the Persian appointed Jewish governor of Judah. Haggai 1:1; Haggai 1:12-14; Haggai 2:2; Zechariah 6:9-13; Zechariah 3-4. “With the disappearance of the Davidic line, it was inevitable that the postexilic high priest should acquire much of the power and prestige which formerly belonged to the king.” Abba, R., “Priests and Levites,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 887. The priesthood was hereditary, being tied exclusively to the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “one does not take the honor [of priesthood] upon himself, but he is called by God just as Aaron was.” Hebrews 5:4. With the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the decimation of the priesthood and the termination of sacrificial worship, the question becomes: How does one properly worship the God of Israel?

As noted previously, the answer lay in Torah and the synagogue for most Jews. The Pharisaic tradition, which had championed this perspective all along, became the definitive shape of Judaism going forward. The priesthood had no further relevance. For disciples of Jesus, the priesthood was understood to have been assumed by Jesus whose offering of his life atoned for sin and created a new and better avenue of approach to God. Jesus was understood among his disciples as God’s true high priest from an entirely different lineage than that of Aaron, namely, the line of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek is an obscure figure who makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram’s (later Abraham) cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abram formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abram as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abram and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abram with the words:

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave [Melchizedek] one-tenth of all the spoils of his victory.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek and his lack of genealogy or history that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice.

In my former life as an attorney, I knew a judge who, when confronted with a trial adjournment request for a case that had already been sitting on the docket for years would blurt out, “and when did the accident take place? Back when Christ was a corporal in the Marine Corps?” What interests me about this profane remark is its rather poor theology. It implies that Jesus started out at the lower echelons of human existence and worked his way up through the ranks to become God’s Son-a sort of spiritual Horatio Alger myth. Actually, one could get that impression from an over hasty reading of verses 7-10 in our lesson. It is important to note, however, that Jesus was at all times God’s Son. “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” Vs. 8. What he “became” was not God’s Son (which he already was) but “the source of eternal salvation.” Vs. 9. His “perfection” was the life he lived in the “flesh,” the only life that ever was genuinely human. And being human in the way God desires and in the way that God is human when God is incarnated in human flesh entails an obedience which, in a sinful world, leads inevitably to suffering.

The other psalm citation by the writer of Hebrews is found in Psalm 2. Like Psalm 110, this is also a coronation hymn likely used for the crowning of a Judean king in the Davidic line. “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” Psalm 2:7. Like the priesthood, so also the royal line of Judah came through God’s anointing. In the case of the psalm, the term “begotten” is clearly figurative. For the New Testament writers, the term took on a more profound meaning in the description of Jesus’ person and ministry. One might wonder why the writer chose a coronation hymn like this when his/her focus was clearly on Jesus’ priestly function. As Psalm 110:4 and the duel offices of Melchizedek illustrate, however, the royal and priestly functions were blurred from ancient times. The objective is to show that the priestly functions of the temple ministry and priesthood have passed to Jesus and his active presence in the life of the church. Like the lesson from Jeremiah dealing with the destruction of the first temple, so this reading from Hebrews helping disciples of Jesus to come to terms with the destruction of the second temple speaks words of comfort and hope to a church that has come to believe its best days are behind it.

John 12:20-33

Sunday’s lesson is taken from the closing chapter of Jesus’ ministry in John’s gospel. We are in the midst of John’s Palm Sunday narrative. Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from a predominantly Greek speaking region is approached by “Greeks” who wish to see Jesus. Scholars wishing to delve into the so called historical basis for this encounter suggest that these Greeks were actually Greek speaking Jews from the diaspora coming to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. However that might be, John wishes to emphasize their “Greekness” and identify them with gentiles. These are “the other sheep that are not of this fold” who must be brought in so as to heed Jesus’ voice. John 10:16.

This episode marks a significant turning point. Jesus has said repeatedly throughout the prior chapters that his “hour had not yet come.” John 2:4; John 7:30; John 8:20. But the coming of the Greeks signals that now “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Vs. 23. How is the glorification of the Son of Man to take place? Jesus leaves little doubt: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Vs. 24. Jesus’ death will be his glorification. We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus’ death glorifies Jesus precisely because it is the natural, legally anticipated consequence of his life of perfect obedience to the Father. Jesus is what genuine humanity looks like. He is also what the heart of the Father looks like. For this incarnate life there can be only one end in a world that shuns the light and chooses darkness.

“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Vs. 25. These are difficult words for a culture that values enjoyment of life, that believes the pursuit of happiness to be a fundamental human right and that strives for comfort above all. But the truth from which we hide is that our comfort in this society comes at a terrible cost to the rest of humanity, to the earth’s biosphere and to our capacity for empathy and compassion. It seems to me that there is much to hate about the way we live. As noted last week, the term “eternal life” as used by John refers not chiefly to life’s duration but to its orientation. Life that is lived in relationship to Jesus is shaped by the love binding the Trinity as illustrated in Jesus’ prayer at John 17. Such love is directed toward the world to which the Son was sent to give life. John 3:16. We are compelled to ask how much of our living is “eternal,” that is, grounded in the love of the Father for the Son, love of God for the world and love for one another. If we cannot take a look at our lives in the light of truth and hate what we see, how can we ever arrive at life that is eternal? “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also.” Vs. 26. These words should dispel once and for all the notion that “Jesus bore the cross so that we would not have to.” In reality, bearing the cross is a privilege. It is our opportunity to escape from a selfish, consumer driven and destructive existence that we should have learned by now to hate. It is sheer grace for those who have eyes to see it.

John’s gospel does not have a Transfiguration story as do Matthew, Mark and Luke. Verses 27-33 serve many of the same literary purposes, however. The voice from heaven both glorifies Jesus and declares that his name will be further glorified. The voice is directed to the disciples and, in John’s gospel, to the Palm Sunday crowd as well. There are echoes also of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane in vs. 27 where Jesus resists the temptation to ask the Father to save him from the hour of suffering. As in the three other gospels, so also in the gospel of John, Jesus is a fully human person no more eager to suffer and die than anyone else.

“Now is the judgment of this world.” Vs. 31. This will in fact be a double judgment. The world will judge Jesus and Jesus’ condemnation and death will be God’s judgment on the world. The cross will bring to full light the world’s hostility toward the Father in all of its ugliness. More importantly, though, it will bring to light the Father’s love for his fallen world. The world will be exposed for what it is and God will be exposed for who God is. In this the “ruler of this world” is cast out. In the cross, the devil had his best shot at rupturing the love that holds the Trinity in unity and the love of the Triune God for creation. He took it and scored a bull’s eye. But the devil’s strongest punch could not take Jesus out. It could not induce Jesus to abandon his mission. It could not induce God to retaliate for the murder of his Son. The love of the Father for the Son remains intact as does the obedience of the Son to the Father. God’s love for the world is still as strong as ever despite the cross. The devil couldn’t crack the Trinity.

Sunday, February 1st

 

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Do you believe in the devil?” I was asked by a young woman I met at a wedding reception I attended some years ago. “No,” I replied. “I believe in Jesus.” She was nothing if not persistent, however, and continued to press the issue. “But do you believe there is a devil?” I was tempted to say that it depends on what you mean by is, but former President Clinton had taken that line away from me just a month or so before as I recall. Too bad, really, because it would have been the correct response.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about the devil. Most of what we think we know about him comes from extra-biblical literature. For example, there is scant evidence outside of an oblique section of Revelation for the assertion that the devil is a fallen angel. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible suggesting that the devil is or ever was God’s creature. So we are left with the question, what is devil and where did he come from?

We often identify the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Adam and Eve with the devil, but that is saying more than the story itself. Because the serpent was God’s creature, we must assume that it was among the many “creeping things” God made and pronounced good. Concerning the serpent, the Bible says only that it was the most “cunning” of all God’s creatures. Cunning does not necessarily equate with evil. Yet somehow, Adam, Eve and the serpent were caught up in a web of transactions that led to their undoing, their loss of primal trust in the goodness of their Creator. Once that wholehearted trust in God was gone, a vacuum was created where the demonic sprang to life.

If humanity did not actually create the devil, it certainly made room for him to exist. The devil lives in the space we make between each other through prejudice, distrust and fear. The devil haunts the empty corners of ignorant minds, the cracks in broken hearts and that vast and growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. The devil gains a foothold in the fractures of broken homes, divided congregations and warring nations. Is the devil real? I guess we have to say that he is as real as we make him, as big as the space we give him and as powerful as the weapons with which we arm him.

It is clear from Sunday’s gospel that Jesus has come to put the squeeze on the devil. The very minute that Jesus opens his mouth, the devil feels pinched, crowded and driven out. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the demon cries. “Have you come to destroy us?” The devil knows by now what he is up against. He has already tried every temptation he knows to make Jesus doubt the voice from heaven assuring him that he is indeed God’s beloved Son. There is no room for the devil to exist between Jesus and his heavenly Father. As God’s reign presses in, calling all people to return once again to the embrace of their Creator, their heavenly Father, the devil’s living space shrinks. On that day when, to use Paul’s words, God is “everything to everyone,” there will be no place left for the devil to exist. He will return once again to what he always was-a big nothing.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 11th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Sunday’s lesson deals with the nettlesome issue of prophetic authority plaguing nearly every religious movement. Who speaks for the Lord to the community of faith after that community’s founding prophet dies? That is the question addressed by our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes Moses’ final address to Israel. He knows that he will not be with them as they enter into the Promised Land. Accordingly, Moses speaks “Torah” to the people. This “Torah,” so much more than is conveyed by the word “law” used to translate it in most English Bibles, will serve as the normative guide for Israel’s corporate existence in Canaan. As such, it is a sort of surrogate for Moses himself.

Yet no written scripture, however exhaustive and profound, can take the place of a spiritual leader. Circumstances will be different for Israel in Canaan than they were for her in Egypt and in her journey through the wilderness. Some of the dangers Moses can foresee and address. Most of them are not even imaginable. Such is also the case for the Christian community. Paul could never have foreseen, much less addressed, the important ethical issues Christians face today. You won’t find many references in your biblical concordance to human cloning, biological warfare, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, global warming or fracking. That isn’t to say that the scriptures cannot enlighten us on these matters. It is obvious, however, that we will need someone to interpret them. We will need people who understand fully how Moses, the prophets and the apostles thought about issues in their own time and who are capable of applying that wisdom to our thinking about the challenges we face today. In other words, we need prophets.

Moses was well aware of that need and he speaks to it in our lesson. He promises that God will raise up prophets like himself to speak the word of the Lord to Israel as she takes up her new life in Canaan. Vs. 15. That is a gracious word. God does not intend simply to leave Israel with a user manual for the new life God has given her. The scriptures are living documents. Not only were they inspired by the Holy Spirit, but their continued power for subsequent generations depends on that Spirit working in the hearts of all who preach and teach them. Thus, the well-loved Lutheran dictum “Sola Scriptura” cannot be taken to mean that the scriptures alone are sufficient to govern the church. From very early on, the church has formulated creeds to articulate the heart of the scriptural witness. We can see the seeds of such creedal authority in the scriptures themselves. For example, in I Timothy Paul remarks: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I Timothy 3:16.

Yet while creeds can keep our focus on what is central to the scriptural witness and help us avoid “wander[ing] away into vain discussion,” they cannot by themselves produce “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” I Timothy 1:3-7. For that, “teaching” and “prophetic utterance” are essential. I Timothy 4:14. Here I differ with a number of theologians who have said over the years that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” That we clearly are not. We are a people of the resurrected Jesus. That is not to denigrate the scriptures. They constitute the normative witness to Jesus. All other witnesses, including the ecumenical creeds, stand under their judgment. Yet they point beyond themselves to the one we confess to be God’s only beloved Son incarnate, crucified and raised for the life of the world. Faith is not subscription to scriptural doctrines or principles. It is trust in a living person. The authority of the Bible is therefore inseparably linked to the living community of disciples through whom faith is mediated by teaching, preaching and the example of holy living.

In one sense, the prophetic task belongs to the whole community. Thus, we encourage all believers to share their faith in Jesus and to speak out on behalf of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in public forums and to their elected representatives. We expect all believers to be involved in the ministry of teaching. A little appreciated fact about Luther’s Small Catechism is that it was written as a guide for parents to introduce their children to the Christian faith, not as a model curriculum for pastors to teach confirmation classes. Yet it seems inevitable that prophetic authority for the community must be invested in someone. I have gotten to know several groups within the Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions that have strong anti-clerical streaks. They place a special emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. I have observed, however, that even within these groups there is usually one or more persons who stand out as authorities on matters of faith and life. Thus, even though they lack formal designation as authorities, they are recognized as authoritative nonetheless. As our gospel lesson demonstrates, authority can make itself felt without credentials.

Be all of this as it may, I believe that the church is best served when we are intentional about who we invest with prophetic authority. There is something to be said for standards, requirements and systems of accountability for the ministry of public preaching and the Lutheran confessional requirement that this ministry be legitimated by a “call” formally recognized in the church. Preaching is too important a task to be left in the hands of whoever shows up on Sunday and has the inclination to do it. Would you want a layperson with only a deep appreciation for medicine and a desire to try practicing surgery operating on your spine? How much less your soul!

Of course, neither individual zeal nor official recognition can guaranty that prophetic speech will not go off the rails. That is one of the concerns addressed in the verses following our lesson: How can we be sure the preacher is giving us the word of the Lord and not something else? How do you distinguish a true prophet from a false one? The only way to make this determination is to discern whether the prophet’s words prove true. Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If we understand prophecy to be no more than predicting the future, this advice is practically worthless. But of course, prophecy is much more than astrology. Prophesy is not principally foretelling the future, but forthtelling God’s word to our present circumstances. Prophets do not speak in a vacuum. They speak from the scriptural witness; their scriptural interpretations are normed by the creedal statements and, most specifically, by Jesus. For the church, Jesus is our way into the scriptures, the light by which we read the scriptures and the Spirit by which we interpret the scriptures. Prophesy is therefore not to be accepted blindly or uncritically. Paul encouraged his hearers to examine the scriptures in order to validate his preaching. Acts 17:11. John warns us to “test the spirits” in order to avoid giving heed to false prophets. I John 4:1. Genuine prophetic ministry thrives where there exists a healthy tension between the scriptures, the prophetic voice of public preaching and the critical discernment of the whole people of God.

Psalm 111

This psalm is an “acrostic” poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. Other psalms of this family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Because the acrostic form is a relatively late development in Hebrew poetry, most scholars date this psalm during the period after the Babylonian Exile.

The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.

The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to the white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.

Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capitol Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the log jam over social legislation would disappear in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self-identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done teaching them what they should and should not fear. Healthy fear understands that the decisions we make matter-eternally so.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This section of Paul’s letter is not particularly “relevant” in terms of its subject matter. When I purchase meat, I don’t worry much about whether it was used in some pagan sacrificial rite. I am more concerned about the conditions under which the animal in question was raised, what it was fed and injected with, how it was butchered and processed. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be eating meat in the first place. These, however, are entirely different issues than those with which Paul is concerned. The question of consuming pagan sacrificial meat arises out of the larger context of Corinthian culture in which Paul’s congregation was situated:

“A glance at the plan of the excavated forum of Roman Corinth detects the numerous temples and shrines in it dedicated to various gods that non-Christian Corinthians reverenced. Civic and social life in such a city would have meant an obligation to join in festivals, celebrations, and public ceremonies on occasions when religion and politics were not clearly demarcated; there were also many guilds of tradesmen and other voluntary associations in which specific gods were honored with banquets and sacrificial meals. Feasts in honor of various deities were celebrated regularly in numerous temples, when food (cereals, cheese, honey) were offered and animals (goats, cows, bulls, horses) were sacrificed to them, according to the manuals of the pontifices. The meat of animals so slaughtered, when not fully consumed in sacrifice, was often eaten by the offerers and attending temple servants. The latter sold at times the surplus meat on the markets.” Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 32 (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 331.

In this cultural setting, a disciple’s faithfulness to Jesus as the Son of Israel’s God cut across loyalties of professional, social and legal obligations inherent in daily life. Your clients and business associates might well begin to wonder why you are routinely turning down their dinner invitations. Your community might question your patriotism when you avoid civil ceremonies that invariably involve pagan sacrificial rites. Your old friends might be deeply hurt when you refuse to accept gifts of food from sacrificial feasts. Furthermore, how can you be sure that the meat you buy in the market place has not been used in one of these feasts?

Some in the Corinthian church took a pragmatic view. They knew that there is no God but one. They knew that food is derived from God’s good creation and does not become any less good simply because some pagan priest mumbles a few words of devotion to a god that doesn’t even exist. So why not eat and enjoy? Whatever the pagans may think, we know that meat is meat and that it is meant to be enjoyed as God’s good gift.

Paul seems to agree with these “knowledgeable” folks in principle. But there is more to all of this than “knowledge.” For most people, the pagan rituals pervading social life in Corinth were pregnant with meaning and significance. It was practically impossible for them to separate the eating of sacrificial meat from participation in the sacrificial rite. They could no more eat sacrificial meat without being drawn into its religious significance than can an alcoholic indulge in “just one little drink.”

“So what?” say those “with knowledge.” “Why should the scruples of other people stand in the way of what we do with a clear conscience?” “Because,” Paul replies, “this ‘knowledge’ of yours is not the guiding principle.” As Paul pointed out to us last week, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Here the guiding principle is not ‘knowledge’ but love. Vs. 3. It is true that in Christ we are free to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation without worrying about all the other so-called ‘gods’ that pagans believe in. Nevertheless, we are obligated as members of Christ’s church to place the welfare of our sisters and brothers above our own desires. Everything a believer does must be done with the well-being of the whole church and all of its members in mind. Thus, although Paul shares the “knowledge” of his critics and the freedom they prize so highly, he will not exercise this freedom in any way that undermines the faith of any member of the church. If that means giving up meat altogether, so be it. Vs. 13.

Again, this issue is obviously a non-issue for us 21st Century believers. But Paul’s approach to it is still as timely as ever. A good dose of Paul’s advice would go a long way toward easing the tension that comes with changes in liturgy, remodeling of sacred space and discussion of controversial issues in the church. A lot of us feel that change comes far too slowly in the church. Many of us get frustrated with constant resistance to anything new. We are tempted to resort to the ways of the world in dealing with such resistance. We build alliances, stack committees, resort to political power, appeal to legal/constitutional provisions and settle matters by means of majority vote. All of that is a lot easier than the slow, cumbersome and painful work of building consensus. Yet consensus is the way of the cross and the only way to health for the whole Body of Christ.

Mark 1:21-28

Immediately following his call to the four fishermen, Jesus enters Capernaum and begins teaching in the synagogue there. Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee about two miles from the entrance of the Jordan River. Though scholarly opinion is not entirely unanimous, most commentators believe the precise location to be at the site of the ruins of a town that came to be known by the Arabic name, Tell Hum. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2nd Ed.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. Baker House Co.) p. 171. During the early part of the 1st Century C.E. the town had a population of about fifteen hundred. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A church near Capernaum is said to be the home of the Apostle Peter.

Synagogue worship consisted of prayers, benedictions, readings from the law and the prophets with translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the people. Expositions of the readings were conducted by the scribes who were the official interpreters of Torah. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. A&C Black (Publishers) Limited) p. 63. Most scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, though some were associated with the Sadducees. Ibid. In either case, these scribes would have grounded their teachings upon citations to Torah. It appears that Jesus speaks in the voice of prophesy without citation to any scriptural authority. His is a “new” teaching, not simply a recasting of the old. The people are therefore “astounded” because Jesus speaks “with authority” unlike the scribes. Vs. 22.

Somehow, a man with an unclean spirit appears among the worshipers. This “unholy spirit,” is the one and only one who recognizes Jesus as the “holy” one of God. The crowds don’t know quite what to make of this astonishing teacher. The disciples have not weighed in yet either. Of course, we have known from Mark 1:1 that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. Jesus knows this because God has called him the beloved Son at his baptism. Mark 1:11. As the story continues, however, we will discover that we do not know what we think we know. Jesus will turn out to be a very different sort of messiah than Israel was expecting and the Son of a very different sort of God than the one we think we know.

The demon asks “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Vs. 24. The former phrase might better be translated “What do we have in common?” or “Why are you interfering with us?” or simply “Mind your own business!” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press), p. 75. The demon’s use of the first person plural “us” suggests that it is speaking for demons as a class. Vs. 24. The demons know that Jesus will be their undoing. Their invocation of Jesus’ name is a vain effort to gain control over him. Ibid. 77. The common belief was that learning the name of a deity conferred a certain degree of power over that deity. Ibid. This demonic effort at getting a leg up on Jesus fails. Even in the mouth of a demoniac, the name of Jesus glorifies Jesus. Jesus silences the demon’s witness and casts it out. Vs. 25. This mighty act of power over the demonic further demonstrates Jesus’ authority which goes beyond mere speech. His authority flows as much through what he does as what he says. Jesus’ teaching is indeed both new and authoritative. Vs. 27.

This story emphasizes the radical “newness” of God’s reign pressing in upon the old order. The demonic opposition is a harbinger of the confrontation to come between Jesus and the powers that be. The cross and resurrection are foreshadowed in each episode of Mark’s gospel. Even as Jesus is gradually revealed, he is increasingly concealed as everything we think we know about him proves inadequate, incomplete or just plain wrong.

 

Sunday, July 27th

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 119:129–136
Romans 8:26–39
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Wisdom defies every attempt to define it. Surely wisdom is more than mere knowledge. Knowledge can teach us to clone the human frame, alter the human genetic code and perhaps even extend the duration of human life. But only wisdom can teach us whether we ought to do any of these things. So, too, intelligence does not equate with wisdom. It is precisely our intellects that make us human animals the most deadly on the face of the planet. Without wisdom, human creativity and imagination only amplify our most destructive tendencies. Neither should we identify wisdom with morality and good intentions. Some of the most hurtful and destructive things I have ever done grew out of my sincere desire to “do the right thing.”

I am not sure Solomon understood wisdom any more than the rest of us. But he knew that he needed it. Perhaps that is the first step to becoming wise, namely, realizing that you are not. Initially at least, that realization came easily to Solomon. When hardly more than a child, the kingdom his father David had built came into his hands. Not surprisingly, Solomon did not feel up to the challenge of administering the government, leading the armed forces or negotiating commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Yet if young Solomon lacked wisdom, he was at least aware of that deficit. He also knew from whence wisdom comes. God is finally the source of wisdom and the One from whom it must be sought.

The psalm for this Sunday echoes that sentiment. “The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple,” the psalmist prays. “With open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” This Psalm in its entirety is one long admonition to learn and do the Torah of God. This is not simply a matter of learning the commandments by rote or studying commentaries on the laws of Moses or following the letter of the law. The study to which the psalmist invites us calls for lifelong reflection situated in a context of corporate worship, attentiveness to preaching and the faithful practices of prayer, fasting, alms and service. Through a communal life of mutual repentance, forgiveness and compassion informed by the scriptural testimonies to God’s covenant faithfulness, we are made wise and transformed into a people made ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.

In our gospel lesson Jesus peppers us with a set of colorful parables about the kingdom of heaven. Parables are perhaps the most effective teachers of wisdom. They are not simply stories or metaphors that illustrate a point. If parables could be boiled down into morals, philosophical observations or anything else that can be rationally explained, they would hardly be necessary. There is no need to illustrate symbolically what can readily be reduced to bullets in a Power Point presentation. Parables point to that which eludes understanding. Jesus began a few weeks ago with the parable of the sower spreading seed over ground both fruitful and unfruitful. We might conclude from this story that Jesus is comparing the church to good and receptive soil. But in the very next parable he describes the “good seed” thriving in the midst of weeds-seed that seemingly was wasted in the last parable! Then we discover in the parable of the mustard that the “seed” we assumed was useful and productive wheat is actually mustard, a plant quite out of place in a cultivated field. The kingdom turns out not to be the leavened bread sanctified for Passover, but the yeast that is cast out of the house during the Passover season. With maddening disconnectedness Jesus changes images and mixes metaphors, forever throwing us off balance. The kingdom we first imagined as a fruitful harvest produced in a well-tended field turns out to be an unwelcome, unholy and disruptive presence in our orderly rows of wheat and our kosher households!

By this time, we might be wondering whether we really want the kingdom entering into our lives turning everything topsy turvy, backwards and upside down. But it is just then that Jesus introduces the parables of the priceless pearl and the treasure hidden in the field. You bet you want this kingdom in your life! Once you get an inkling of what it’s about, you will empty your hands of everything you own to get your hands on it. In this way, the parables lead us into the mystery of the kingdom, never defining it for us, never explaining it to us, but always drawing us further in. So I believe it is with wisdom. It is not something any of us will ever possess. But if we are attentive to Jesus’ call to discipleship, if we are prepared to follow him deeper and deeper into the mystery of the kingdom, perhaps wisdom will one day possess us.

1 Kings 3:5–12

For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.

In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.

In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.

There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.

Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Psalm 119:129–136

Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.

It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.

“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.

Romans 8:26–39

“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.

Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.

When Paul tells us that “all things work for good” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”

As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.

It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.

Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.

The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.

The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.

The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.

Sunday, March 2nd

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12–18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16–21
Matthew 17:1–9

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“It’s about the economy, stupid.” James Carville, a campaign strategist for Bill Clinton, coined that phrase during an in-house meeting with his advisers. Whether intentional or not, the remark leaked out to the public and became a slogan in Mr. Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush. Clinton’s campaign had a recession on its side. In March of 1991, days after the ground invasion of Iraq, President Bush had an approval rating of 90%. But when the price of milk, eggs and gas rise and jobs are in jeopardy, the American public isn’t likely to be dazzled by medals won in wars now past. National security fades into the background and few seem interested in the ever present “culture war” issues. That probably explains why, by the following year, 64% of Americans polled disapproved of Mr. Bush’s job performance. He probably didn’t deserve it any more than the current president deserves a bad grade for a bad economy. Most economists agree that the economy usually does what it does based on events over which nobody has much control. It doesn’t seem to make much difference who is in the White House. But in the world of politics, somebody is always to blame. As President Harry Truman so aptly put it, “the buck stops here,” meaning at the oval office. That’s not always fair, but who says life is fair?

Anyway, I digress. The whole point of the accidental slogan was to keep the Clinton presidential campaign focused on issues people care about. In our gospel lesson for Sunday, God lets us know in no uncertain terms what God cares about: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” In other words, “It’s about Jesus, stupid.” That’s not a bad slogan for winding up Epiphany, a season during which the Babe of Bethlehem grows into maturity and his identity comes into ever clearer focus. If Mary’s jubilant song of praise, the song of the angels, Simeon’s Benediction, Anna’s testimony, the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ call for us to drop everything and follow him and the Sermon on the Mount have not already made it clear enough, now God speaks with unmistakable clarity. It’s about Jesus. Keep your eye on him.

Discipleship is finally not about subscription to a set of doctrines, obedience to a set of spiritual disciplines or adherence to moral principles. Discipleship is about our relationship to a person, Jesus Christ. Professor Karl Barth was one of the most brilliant teachers and faithful pastors of the 20th Century.  His unfinished Christian Dogmatics consists of several massive volumes drawing deeply from biblical wisdom and centuries of western thought.  A reporter supposedly asked Professor Barth if he could summarize what he had said in all those volumes. Barth thought for a moment and then said: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” By way of disclaimer, I have to add that I have not been able to verify this anecdote independently. But it was relayed to me by a teacher who studied under Professor Barth and in whom I have a good deal of trust. None of this is to say that doctrine, spiritual discipline or morals are not important. They are important and we will have the opportunity during Lent to reflect upon them. Yet in so doing, we cannot lose the focus on our relationship with Jesus. If the Sermon on the Mount teaches us anything, it is that religion without relationship is dead.

The inscription for my Lutheran Church’s logo (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is “God’s work. Our hands.” It’s a good motto, properly understood. Though, as Martin Luther teaches us, “The kingdom of God comes without our prayers…” or anything else we do, nevertheless God graciously offers us the opportunity to take part in the kingdom’s coming. God does indeed work out God’s redemptive purposes for the world through our humble works (and often in spite of them as well!). Nevertheless, at the end of the day it is not our hands or any work, however good and necessary, that stands in the center. So with all due respect for the folks who developed the logo, I could wish for a slogan that magnifies Jesus (or at least mentions him!) a little more and ourselves a little less. It’s about Jesus.

Shine, Jesus, shine

Fill this land with the Father’s Glory;

Blaze Spirit blaze, set our hearts on fire.

Flow, river, flow,

Flood the nations with grace and mercy;

Send forth your Word,

Lord and let there be light!

Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 671.

Exodus 24:12–18

The Book of Exodus is the second of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) making up the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses.” It has long been understood that Moses was not the author of these works, at least not in the modern sense of that term. Most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These works were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist” or just “J,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source referred to simply as “E.” This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist or “D,” consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the “J” and “E” material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E.

That all sounds nice in theory. But our reading for Sunday illustrates the limitations of such literary analysis in many cases. Exodus 24 is filled with phrases and terminology that is foreign to all of the four known sources. This has led to a dispute over whether we are dealing with a possible fifth source or perhaps incorporation of such source material by J and E, the probable contributors for this section. Old Testament professor Brevard Childs wisely concludes that “the evidence is no longer such as to permit this detailed reconstruction” and that “the better part of wisdom consists in making clear those areas of general agreement.” Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 500. That being said, the one thing all scholars tend to agree upon is that verses 15-18 can be safely attributed to the “P” source.

By now you must be wondering why any of this crap matters. Usually, it doesn’t. Ordinarily, I would not waste time with such noetic perjinkerties, but I believe that here it makes sense to focus on verses 15-18 with the understanding that they come down to us ultimately from the Priestly (“P”) source. As Professor Gerhard Von Rad points out, “P depicts a course of history in which new manifestations, institutions, and regulations are revealed from age to age.” Von Rad, Gernard, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd, pub. Harper &Row Publishers, Inc.) p. 233. At this particular juncture in the Exodus narrative, Moses is being summoned to the top of Mt. Sanai to receive the “tables of stone, with the law and the commandments.” Vs. 12. He instructs Aaron and Hur to remain below with the people. Vs. 14. At the beginning of vs. 15 we are given the Priestly authors’ account of Moses’ direct encounter with God upon Sinai. God appears as a devouring fire in the midst of a dense cloud. While at this point Moses alone can approach God, Moses is to receive detailed instructions for construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in which it will be housed. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in the Tabernacle which will henceforth mediate God’s presence in the midst of Israel. All of this is spelled out in Exodus 25-31.

The Priestly history reveals that “new manifestations and institutions” governing worship and faithful living are not directionless. They have a goal, namely, the nearer presence of God. There is, one could say, an incarnational tropism expressed in the relentless approach of God toward his people. The end point is that day when “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest…” Jeremiah 31:33-34. Or, in terms of the New Testament, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them.” Revelation 21:3. This dogged progression of God toward oneness with his people manifested throughout the growth and development of Israelite religious institutions could not have been lost on Matthew whose purpose is to present Jesus as the end point of the law and the prophets. That will become increasingly evident in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration.

Psalm 2

This psalm is familiar to all lovers of Handel’s Messiah. Formally, it is an “enthronement psalm” portraying the coronation of an Israelite/Judean King. As such, it reflects a ritual common throughout the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, where the king was designated “God’s son.” The coronation took place in the sanctuary where the newly crowned king received an oracle from the priest legitimating his rule. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 188. This ritual and its accompanying liturgy brings into sharp focus the danger of monarchy and the reason for Israel’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship. As the prophet Samuel pointed out when the people of Israel first began agitating for a king to rule over them, kingship would bring with it taxation, loss of tribal autonomy and oppressive military conscription. I Samuel 8:10-18. But the more significant threat was theological. It is the Lord “who is enthroned on Israel’s praises.” Anointing a king over Israel amounted to dethroning the Lord as king. I Samuel 8:7. Linkage between the liturgy of the Temple and the coronation of the king is symptomatic of a dangerous synergy. Before long, the worship of God would be swallowed up in adoration of the king. Very soon the institutions of worship and the observances of the covenant would become the religion of the nation state. Faith in Israel’s God would be reduced to sacred ideology legitimating injustice and oppression under the monarchy. This is precisely the evil which the 8th Century prophets rose to denounce.

Nevertheless, this and several other psalms containing coronation liturgies and prayers for the king have made their way into the Psalter. It is important to keep in mind that, however corrupt the institution of monarchy might actually have become in Israel and Judah, the role of the king was to serve as God’s minister for justice. The king is not above the law as the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates. II Samuel 11:1-12:25. Kings of Israel were anointed to “judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice,” “to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Psalm 72:2-4. The hope that such a king would someday arise remained alive even among prophets most critical of the monarchy, such as Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 23:1-6). It finally evolved into the fevered messianic expectation present throughout Palestine in Jesus’ day. This longing for a messianic liberator was naturally fed by resentment toward Roman domination. Thus, claiming the title “messiah” or “son of God” was a dangerous political assertion. It amounted to a frontal attack on the Roman Empire which maintained that “Caesar is Lord.”

Verse seven of the psalm is echoed first at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:17. The devil takes up the refrain throughout his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11. We hear these words once again in Sunday’s lesson on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Matthew 17:5. The allusion to this psalm is intended to inform us that Jesus is the messiah and, among other things, the rightful heir to the throne of David. But as we shall see in our reflections on the gospel lesson, there is far more to be said of Jesus than was ever intended for any Israelite king by the psalm.

2 Peter 1:16–21

The second letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16).  The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.

The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.

Sunday’s reading appears to reference the Transfiguration story recounted in the gospels. However, it is possible that the author is referring to a resurrection appearance of Jesus similar to that described in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:16-20. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears only briefly to the women at the tomb following his resurrection. He instructs them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet him at a particular mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:8-10. Mark has a similar sequence, but in his gospel the women do not see Jesus, but only an angelic messenger at the tomb. Rather than delivering to the rest of the disciples the instructions to return to Galilee, the women run away from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:5-8. In Matthew’s account, the women deliver the message from the risen Christ and the disciples travel to Galilee where they encounter him. Matthew 28:16. So the question is, which “holy mountain” is the author talking about? The Mountain of Transfiguration? Or the mountain in Galilee where the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ?

In either case, the point is that faith rests upon the handing down of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life giving ministry, obedient suffering, faithful death and glorious resurrection. These are not “cleverly devised myths,” but faithful testimony grounded in the witness of the apostles. Vs. 16. Jesus is the “prophetic word made more sure.” He is the “lamp shining in a dark place” by which we read the scriptures. No scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation. For disciples of Jesus, the scripture has one purpose: to illuminate their Master. It is a dreadful mistake, therefore, to read the scriptures as though they were a list of moral rules, a collection of wise sayings or interesting narratives apart from their testimony to Jesus who, for us, gives them their meaning.

Matthew 17:1–9

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Vs. 1. The six days almost certainly harken back to the Exodus narrative in which the glory of the Lord in the midst of a cloud descended upon Mt. Sinai for that period of time. Exodus 24:16. Just as it was on the seventh day that Moses was called to enter into the cloud where the glory of the Lord resided, so Jesus takes his disciples “after six days” to the Mountain of Transfiguration where they enter with him into the cloud. The glory of the Lord which they behold, however, is Jesus himself whose face shines like the sun and whose garments become white as light. Vs. 2. Professor Stanley Hauerwas sees in these “six days” an allusion to the six days of creation after which God rested. Genesis 2:1-3. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 154. This could well be so. As I have noted before, it is not Matthew’s intent to fit Jesus into a single, ridged scriptural paradigm, but rather to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through myriad Hebrew Scriptural figures and traditions. Fellowship with Jesus is indeed the ultimate Sabbath rest and may well be what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:27-30 where he promises rest to all “who labor and are heavy laden.”

Jesus appears in the company of Moses and Elijah. The former is the mouthpiece through whom God delivered the covenant to Israel from Mt. Sinai. The latter is the mouth through which God persistently called Israel back to faithfulness under that covenant. Though ever in tension with one another, the law and the prophets are inseparable. The law (understood as “Torah”) is the concrete shape of Israel’s life of faithful obedience to her God. The prophets speak that same Torah freshly to each generation. In that sense, the prophets are “radicals,” ever calling Israel back to the roots of her faith. Matthew means to make it clear, however, that Jesus transcends both Moses and Elijah. Jesus both extends and fulfills their missions in himself. The voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Vs. 5. When the cloud recedes and the disciples raise their terrified faces once again, they find themselves in the presence of “Jesus only.” Vs. 8.

Once again, we hear the echo of Psalm 2 in the words, “This is my beloved Son.” Vs. 5. Though Matthew is obviously intimating that Jesus is, among other things, the messiah and heir to the throne of David, he is saying far more about Jesus than could ever be said of any Israelite king. For Matthew, the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures and their great figures can shed light on the person and work of Jesus, but none of them can contain him. Here on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the new wine of the kingdom bursts all of the old skins. Our attention is turned to ‘Jesus only.”

This text amplifies what the gospels all teach us repeatedly. Just when you think you know Jesus, you find out that you don’t. There is always more to Jesus than meets the eye and discipleship is as much about unlearning what we think we know about Jesus as it is learning new things about him. Sometimes I think that the church’s biggest problem is that we have ceased to be amazed by Jesus. The Christ we proclaim is too often the predictably nice, inoffensive, upper middle class, slightly left of center, socially responsible but ever white and ever polite protestant gentleman. Without the beard, bathrobe and sandals he would look just like us. As a friend remarked to me years ago, “Fritz Mondale in a Jesus suit.” Nothing against Fritz, but he and the rest of us just aren’t sufficiently interesting to get most people out of bed on a Sunday morning. That is why we need Jesus!

Sunday, February 16th

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 119:1–8
1 Corinthians 3:1–9
Matthew 5:21–37

O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Two men were seated in a darkened movie theater. One, Curtis Reeves, a retired police captain with a distinguished record of public service. The other, Chad Oulson, a husband and father of a young toddler. Both men were gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens enjoying an American entertainment staple-going to the movies. A dispute arose over Oulson’s use of a cell phone as the movie was starting. Reeves complained. Oulson ignored him. Reeves became increasingly vocal in his complaints. Oulson turned to confront him. Tempers flared. Oulson threw his popcorn on Reeves. Reeves pulled out a revolver and shot Oulson, killing him and wounding his wife.

How did this trivial dispute over theater etiquette erupt into a violent confrontation ending in death? I suspect testosterone had something to do with it. A young man is insulted and disrespected in front of his wife. An older man, having been an authority figure all his life, finds his authority ignored and finally challenged. Each feels his manhood is on the line. Neither can afford to back down. They are both trapped in a spiral of escalating anger taking them where I suspect neither of them really wanted to go. The end, I am sure, is not what either Reeves or Oulson could have imagined.

Anger is a dangerous emotion. When it seizes control, it robs a person of rationality and common sense. When people are angry, they make rash statements they later regret. They make poor decisions. In the extreme, anger leads to violence. At the dawn of history Cain became angry with his brother Abel. God warned Cain with these words: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7. Tragically, Cain could no more master his anger than could Reeves and Oulson. So history began with brother murdering brother out of anger. And so it continues.

Jesus was right on the mark when he equated anger with murder. The latter frequently follows upon the former. Relatively few murders are committed in “cold blood.” There is almost always provocation of some sort, either real or imagined. For that reason, Jesus counsels his disciples to nip anger in the bud. The time for reconciliation is when anger first rears its ugly head. If you have reason to believe that someone is angry at you or you become aware of anger against someone else, drop what you are doing-even if you are in the middle of prayer-and be reconciled. The earlier anger is quenched, the less time it has to breed hatred and violence.

There is no place for anger in the church. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, “Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and anger.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 143. Jesus meant for his community of disciples to be an “anger free zone.” Reconciliation requires us to put ourselves into the skin of the very person with whom reconciliation is sought; to see ourselves through his/her eyes; to be ready and willing to let go of our anger. I cannot do that on my own. I am too blinded by my rage; too convinced of the rightness of my own cause; too hurt and fearful to expose my wounds to those I feel have injured me. I need a community of honesty and truthful speech to help me diagnose the source of my deep seated anger. Before I can risk reconciliation, I need to know that I am embraced by the Body of Christ where I can be certain that the sins brought to light in the process of confession will be forgiven. The church is the one place where anger must not be allowed the last word. It is the place where anger is recognized, exposed, confessed, forgiven and reconciled out of existence.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.

It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.

Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Psalm 119:1–8

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.

Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.

Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.

Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.

Matthew 5:21–37

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.

The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.

Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.

A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.

Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.

Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.

That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.

“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. How many times haven’t you heard it said: “To be perfectly frank with you…” “Let me be honest with you…” “To tell you the truth…” Sometimes I am tempted to respond to these prefaces by remarking, “So, now you are being honest with me. Does that mean you have been lying through your teeth for the last ten minutes of this conversation? Are you not always honest when you talk to me? That is the problem with oaths. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.

Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.

Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.

There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.