Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Matthew 3:1-12 - link to NRSV text
How do you tell who's in God's in-crowd and who needs repentance and conversion?
It isn't about your family. "God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham," John the Baptizer says, and that saying is a double-edged sword that makes mincemeat of two of the redemptive media in his culture.
I've talked about 'redemptive media' before -- that's the label anthropologists use for things that are seen in a particular culture to make a person a good, respectable, successful. One of the things that caused a person to be perceived as a good person in John's culture was having the right bloodline, the right sort of parents. "Do not presume to say 'Abraham is our ancestor,'" John warns: parentage doesn't matter at all. Being born as Abraham's descendent in the "right" sort of family won't boost your status in God's eyes any more than being born as a gentile to the "wrong" sort of parents will lessen your status in God's eyes. Baptism (at least, the kind of baptism that John practiced) was something that gentiles normally did when they wanted to become part of the people of Israel. Jews are Israelites from birth, though being descended from Abraham by way of Jacob, who was given the name "Israel" after his wrestling match in Genesis 32. John teaches that Israelites will not be saved because of their lineage, though; baptism, and the conversion and repentance baptism signifies, are just as appropriate for Jews as for gentiles. Having the right sort of parents doesn't put you right with God.
There's a second edge to this teaching, though, a second thing that John's culture says you have to do to be a good person, but John says won't advance your status at all in God's eyes: be a parent.
For Romans, having children was not only something that normal people did (you want someone to take care of you in your old age, don't you? and who doesn't find parenting fulfilling in its own right?); it was also your patriotic duty to help repopulate the empire, as the emperor Augustus' domestic policy encouraged.
For Jews, having children was also about more than making sure the family name survived. It was about the survival of the people of Israel, a tiny and often despised minority under constant threat. And fewer Israelites means fewer people worshipping the God of Israel -- no wonder "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) was given as God's first commandment to humanity. But if God can make children of Abraham from stones, then making them in the usual way won't boost your status in God's eyes any more than having the right sort of parents does. Still, John says, you need conversion.
And lest we think that conversion is a matter of coming to have the right ideas about Jesus, John the Baptizer also blows that one out of the water in this Sunday's gospel. It's something that John does unwittingly, not by his explicit teaching, but by his example: John had some seriously mistaken ideas about who Jesus was and what he came to do.
For this point, I'm greatly in debt to Robert L. Webb, who was the first person to point out to me that the Greek word (ptuon) in Matthew 3:12 for the instrument used by "the one coming" is not a "winnowing fork," as most English translations have it, but a winnowing shovel. What difference does that make?
A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use on wheat and chaff that have already been separated to clear the threshing floor, putting the wheat into the granary to be stored and the chaff into the fire to be destroyed. John says that the one coming after him will come with a shovel to clear the threshing floor. That brings a different dimension to John's saying that the coming one will baptize with "the Holy Spirit and with fire": those who receive John's baptism get to be wheat, and will receive the Holy Spirit, while those who don't receive John's baptism, regardless of who their parents or children are, are chaff, and will be destroyed in fire. And the agent of this terrible judgment, John teaches in the gospels, is Jesus.
John spent his life teaching and baptizing to distinguish wheat from chaff, and he expected that Jesus would be dealing out blessings and punishments accordingly. John had it half right: Jesus came to bless -- to heal the blind and the lame, to bring lepers back into the community as people declared clean, to bring life to the dead and good news to the poor. When John send messengers to Jesus in Matthew 11:2-6 to ask when Jesus is going to deal out that long-anticipated fire to the chaff, that's what Jesus says. Those who were expecting for the outcast to be gathered in for blessing will find their hopes more than fulfilled; those who were eagerly anticipated the destruction of the wicked will be scandalized by Jesus' behavior.
And Jesus says, "blessed is the one who does not (skandalizo is the word here -- it's an omega at the end, and I apologize for not knowing how to get that across in HTML) take offense at me" (Matthew 11:6). Blessed is the one who realizes that my question at the beginning of this entry -- Who's in God's in-crowd, and who needs conversion? -- was something of a trick question.
Having the right sort of parents won't put you in God's in-crowd. Being the right sort of parent won't put you in God's in-crowd. John got that, but he was scandalized by Jesus' dishing out the blessings of the Spirit without the fire of judgment. So in Matthew 11:11, Jesus says that while nobody born in the usual sense of the word is greater than John, the least of those in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. but even then, Matthew doesn't believe that John is permanently shut out of God's in-crowd. John is the climax of the ministry of the law and the prophets (Matthew 11:13), and Jesus says for all to hear that John "is Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:14-15), honored as among the chief of God's faithful.
How can this be? Is John in the in-crowd, or is he shut out of it? Trick question, I think. Matthew does use imagery from time to time that would seem to support John's vision that there's an in-crowd and an out-crowd, but he undermines it at least as often. In that sense, Matthew reflects a tension in our tradition. Like Isaiah, Matthew's passion for God's justice inspires harsh terms for those who reject God's prophets and oppress the outcast, but also holds to a vision of all nations streaming into Zion, of the day when "the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Having the right sort of parents won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people. Having children won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people. Thinking the right things about Jesus won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people either; the righteous in Matthew 25's story of the sheep and the goats had no idea that they were serving Jesus in serving "the least of these," and John the Baptizer's serious mistake about Jesus' mission didn't diminish his honor in Matthew's presentation.
I suspect that the difficulty of trying to figure out just who's in and who's out arises because God's love is a circle expanding faster than any person or community can graph. So why not throw out the graph paper? John the Baptizer took a radical step in baptizing all who came to him in the desert, but then he found himself outpaced by Jesus, who came to the people instead of waiting for them to come to him, who showered the blessings of the Holy Spirit and offered his fellowship to any who would accept them, and taught his followers to do the same, going to people of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).
During Advent, we look for the fulfillment of that work: "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). God's kingdom is breaking through, and the circle is growing wider now, and now, and now ... It's a good thing that God gives us strength to mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31), because even then God's Spirit is moving faster, going ahead of us. We all are in need of conversion, not once, but day by day and hour by hour, and not to try to make God love us, but so we can come closer to perceiving the breadth and height and depth of God's love -- and then it gets broader, and higher, and deeper, always surprising, always moving ahead.
Thanks be to God!
First Sunday of Advent, Year A
Matthew 24:37-44 - link to NRSV text
There's a Costco warehouse shop right on my way home from work, and I stop by there frequently to pick up something for dinner. Those vast warehouses can be a little overwhelming any time of year, but it's even more overwhelming at the moment, because several aisles form a gauntlet of Christmas things -- fiber-optic laser displays that flash "SANTA STOP HERE," mechanical snowmen who wave at you with a smile that looks a little too much to me like a maniacal leer, and all kinds of gadgets squawk electronic tidings ahead of the season.
But it isn't Christmastime yet. We're in the season of Advent, and time of prayerful reflection and keen watching for Christ's coming.
This is not the second coming of Christ. We call that one "Easter." It's not the third coming we're looking for either. Wherever two or three have gathered in Jesus' name since Easter, Jesus has come among them, so we must be on about the ummpteen kajillionth coming. The coming, or "advent," we look forward to in this season is, in a sense, as mundane and as special as all of those other "advents" have been. It's all of those other "advents," all comings of Christ from the Incarnation up to this Sunday morning, that informs us about what the final Advent, the coming of Christ we look forward to during this liturgical season, really means.
So the first thing to know about the final Advent of Christ is that the person we are expecting in it is JESUS. That's the Good News of Advent. We've met and we know the person who is God's appointed judge for the nations, and it's Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter, the healer and teacher, founder of the feast and friend to tax collectors and sinners.
What we expect in Advent is the completion of the work of Creation, when God made the world and us and said, "It is good," and the work of the Incarnation, when God lived as a human being among us and showed us in one package what real humanity and real divinity look like. And in the end, that real humanity and real divinity looks like it did in the beginning and in the middle. It's Jesus, the Word of God from the beginning. It's the Jesus we've known since he was first revealed to us, and he is concerned in the end with the same things he was concerned with before his crucifixion.
A look at this Sunday's reading in its immediate context in Matthew makes that clear. Our gospel for this Sunday begins a series of parables with the theme, "be ready for Jesus' coming." I think that Matthew paired the last two parables in that series deliberately in a way that makes clear just why Jesus' coming is Good News and what it is that we do to be ready for it.
The first of these "twins" is Matthew's version of the "Parable of the Ruthless Master" (which I think is a better title than "Parable of the Talents" is; I blogged about this last week). This parable illustrates how earthly masters use their power, and what results: the rich get richer, and the poor suffer even more.
In Matthew, this parable is immediately followed with a description of what it will look like when Jesus' work among us is completed, "when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him" (Matthew 25:31), and it's the opposite of what happens when the "Ruthless Master" of the previous parable is ruling: the hungry and those who fed them, those without clean water to drink and those who gave them water to drink, the strangers and those who welcomed them, those without clothes and those who clothed them, and the prisoners with those who visited them, are gathered in to the center, to enjoy God's kingdom, while those who failed to address the real needs of those people -- those who buy into the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" system of the Ruthless Master -- are left in the darkness in which they left others.
A lot of people think, or even hope (or despair) that things will never change, that the Ruthless Masters of this world have the last word. If that were so, if the "way of the world" these masters set up were really the way things are always going to be, then the most sensible course of action for us would probably be to do what the others who served the Ruthless Master did: Keep your head down. Work hard. Line the master's pockets, and maybe there will be something in it for you too. If somebody else loses, tell yourself it's probably their own fault, or just ignore them altogether.
But this Sunday's gospel, and this season of Advent, proclaim Good News to God's people. The Ruthless Masters do NOT have the last word; Jesus does. The completion of Jesus' vision for the world, in which "the least of these" and those who worked for justice for them are finally vindicated, is coming! The signs are all around us, though some people don't recognize them any more than the kings of the earth recognized their Lord when he was a baby, or a homeless man, or a convict on a cross.
Jesus is coming. Will we recognize him? The best way to know, deep down, is to get lots of practice. Whatever we do for "the least of these," we do for Jesus. If we want to see Jesus and know Jesus, if we want to experience the Good News that Jesus is coming, we need to listen to the stories, the hopes, and the concerns of "the least of these." If we want Jesus to recognize us as a neighbor, we must become neighbors to "the least of these, building real community -- shared bread, shared dreams, shared vision -- with them. That shared vision is Jesus' vision. That shared hope is what makes the certain news of Jesus' coming Good News. That shared dream is coming true among us, and Jesus invites us to make it our own.
Thanks be to God!
Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year C: Christ the King Sunday
Luke 19:29-38 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday is our celebration of Christ the King. But what are we doing when we acclaim that Jesus is our king? There's a game I like to use to provoke thought about that. It starts as each participant gets a sign taped to his or her back saying, "queen," "king," "duke," "duchess," "servant of the court," or "beggar." There are munchies and a punch bowl to sample, and everyone is told that this is a party, and the object of the game is to help people guess what the sign on their back says by behaving toward them as you think someone of your status (what your current guess says the sign on how the sign on your own back reads) would treat a person of that status. If the other person's sign says "beggar" and you're pretty sure yours says "duke," you would might haughtily ask, "what are YOU doing here," or you might try to summon a servant to remove the beggar -- but you'll have a rude awakening if it turns out your own sign says "beggar" too! After a while, we stop the game and talk about how we tried to guess what sign was on our backs, how it felt to treat other people according to what we saw, how it felt to be treated as we were. The "beggars" and the "servants" almost always report that it felt pretty bad to be treated as they were -- especially when they tried to present themselves as someone worthy of a place at the table.
Jesus' parable in Luke 19:11-27, AKA "The Parable of the Talents," shows us the brutal side of living in such a hierarchy. It's a common thing to interpret this parable using wordplay on "talent" as a unit of money and "talent" as a gift or talent, and to conclude that the parable is an allegory suggesting that we ought to make profit with the talents (gifts, abilities) God gives us. But there are some serious problems with this interpretation. First, the whole "talent/talent" wordplay thing doesn't work in the Greek; the Greek word means clearly (and exclusively) a unit of money, and bears no resemblance to the word for an ability. Second, in the culture of the first-century Mediterranean world, making a profit as the master of the parable demands and two of the servants do wouldn't be seen as virtuous or clever so much as grasping and unethical.
But most importantly, look at how the nobleman in the parable -- the character usually taken as representing God in an allegorical reading -- is described. He is NOT a king at the start of the parable; he is a nobleman who is seeking royal power for himself, an ambitious pretender to the throne. He is "a harsh man, taking what [he] did not deposit and reaping what [he] did not sow." He fumes that his servant could at least have lent the money at interest, breaking the commandment against usury, and he punishes his servant for refusing to break that commandment.
Is this how God behaves? Is this how God uses power? I don't think so. It makes a whole lot more sense to see the statement of "to all those who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away" as a statement of how sinful people operate -- the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. That's what happens when your ruler is a sinful man: ruling by might and fear, he aggrandizes himself at the expense of his poorest subjects.
Jesus offers a radical redefinition of kingship, a radical vision for how the truly powerful use power, and Luke's presentation of the "triumphal entry" in this Sunday's gospel right after his "Parable of the Ruthless Nobleman" (a better title, I think, than "Parable of the Talents") makes the two passages together a one-two punch blow to those who misuse power, following up the verbal jab of the parable with a roundhouse blow of street theater.
And I do think that the "triumphal entry" was street theater, a satirical criticism of how rulers like Pontius Pilate behaved. When Roman rulers had a military triumph, they would process in to the city mounted on the finest war horse, outfitted in gleaming armor, marching the prisoners captured on the campaign and displaying trophies from the conquest. Such processions served to honor the conquerors and humiliate the conquered, striking awe and (for those who hated Rome's power) fear into the hearts of all who saw the spectacle.
Jesus rides in to Jerusalem on the same route these conquerors would have used. But instead of mounting a charger, wearing fine clothes and impressive armor, and marching with his armies pushing forward their captives, Jesus rides in on a borrowed colt, a peasant flanked only by a ragtag bunch of followers. His humble entrance spoofed and mocked the displays of might that Roman rulers staged. The people's recognition of his humility comes across as they acclaim him not by his own name, but in the name of the Lord.
But I don't think that we need to read Luke's comment on "the deeds of power they had seen" as being necessarily or entirely ironic. True, Jesus does not display the might of armies, the power of senators and generals and governors. Jesus' power is not shown in his ability to bring a people down, but in his power, given by God, to bring a people together. It's a people called to treat one another and everyone they meet as if the sign on their back -- the identity they secretly have and need to discover, is something like what 1 Peter 2:9 says is our identity as God's people -- "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation."
Christ the King is the one whose kingship was shown in how he treated the poor and outcast as royalty, and whose vindication from the God in whose name he rode into Jerusalem showed us that his humble service is the kind of behavior God truly honors.
Thanks be to God!
As of today, this blog (which started in December of 2003) has had over 50,000 visitors, not counting those who read it via RSS with a news aggregator.
Thanks for reading, thanks for linking, and thanks for your comments and emails! I've enjoyed doing this, and look forward to doing it for a long time (hey, two more years and I will have posted something for every week in the lectionary!).
Proper 28, Year C
Luke 21:5-19 - link to NRSV text
If you want to see what put Jesus in the mood to talk about destruction, check out Luke 20:45-21:6, which sets the stage for this Sunday's gospel. In chapter 19, Jesus has condemned the Temple establishment as turning what should be a house of prayer for all people into a "den of thieves," and at the end of chapter 20 and the beginning of chapter 21 we see a specific example of what Jesus was condemning. He warns his disciples to beware of those who "devour widows' houses," and then sees it happening before his eyes as a poor widow puts her last two cents -- all she had to live on -- in the Temple treasury. The whole scene -- from Jesus' calling the Temple a "den of robbers" because of its unjust exploitation of widows to predicting its destruction -- evokes Jeremiah, so this Sunday's gospel is continuing in the jeremiad groove. Luke loves to show Jesus as a prophet, and the tradition of reading Deuteronomy 18:15-18 as predicting that a prophet like Moses will arise to proclaim the eschaton, the end of humanity's history of injustice. With Jesus' prophetic proclamation of the coming crisis (really, my alliteration there was unintentional), Luke is saying that, at least in a sense, the eschaton is here.
Would Luke's readers buy that? You bet. Everything in this Sunday's gospel that Jesus says is going to happen has already happened by the time Luke wrote. The book of Acts describes how some of them happened -- the famine, for example, and Christians being hauled before governors. Other things, like the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E. (or A.D., if you prefer), remain "off-camera," but they are well-known to Luke's readers, as the earliest plausible dating for the gospel is around 80 C.E. So Luke's readers don't doubt Jesus' word here; they've experienced how "this writing has been fulfilled in your hearing."
How would this knowledge affect them? Would it stir up a kind of Left Behind hysteria? No. Jesus' word (with apologies to the Hitchhiker's Guide), includes the message, "DON'T PANIC."
Don't panic in the face of human destruction. Don't panic about wars and rumors of wars. Don't panic when the sky itself shows troublesome portents. Don't panic when Jesus' demand that God the Father, Christ our Mother (to use Julian of Norwich's image), and our brothers and sisters in Christ take priority over our biological family leads to the fulfillment of Jesus' word in Luke 12:49-56, and friends and even our parents and siblings reject and wound us.
It may be tempting to panic, as we ask ourselves how, in light of the violence and pain we see, and especially when following Jesus brings conflict to our families, it could possibly be true that, through Jesus' ministry, "the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20). But we are not to ruled by fears. Jesus is still with us, giving us words to bear witness to his healing and reconciling of the world to himself. We believe that work will be consummated, and God's will accomplished on earth as it is in heaven. Endure the troubles, which will pass; hold on to Jesus' vision for us and for the world, and we'll hold on to our souls, our integrity and our destiny.
The rulers of this world put on a convincing show of power, but we who know Jesus know what real power is and what it's doing among us. In a meditation called "until the end of the world" that I contributed to Get Up Off Your Knees (pp. 28-29), I put it this way:
The world of darkness and violence, of injustice and hatred, has ended, is ending, will end. The world [the prophets] proclaim can't be stopped with the sword, the might of institutions, or the betrayal of a brother. The universe arcs toward the justice for which it aches, and the whole world -- martyrs and traitors, soldiers and healers, lovers and lawyers -- will one day echo the song of the angels: Holy, holy, holy is the God who is Love, who is now, who is then, who is ever. Amen.
... and thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year C
Luke 20:27-38 - link to NRSV text
Those theological innovators! They think they're being prophetic as they rewrite the canon of scripture. That's the root cause, but look at the results -- look at what this does to marriage -- if they're right, one woman is going to be living with seven husbands! They may have been successful in taking over our assembly, but the marriage question will show the people just where their agenda leads. That's gonna be the one to trip them up.
I'm talking, of course, about the controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and about this Sunday's gospel, which just might be the earliest recorded use of marriage as a wedge issue to trip up leaders.
The Pharisees believed that God revealed God's will not just in the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), but continued to speak to and through God's people in their changing circumstances. Their theological innovations included adding new books, like Isaiah and Daniel, to the list of what was considered authoritative. They also came up with new teachings. They looked at what was happening around them in the culture -- the righteous suffered, and the wicked seemed to prosper -- and they knew that a just God wouldn't let this be the final word. They concluded that God would raise the dead. The righteous would receive their reward, and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment.
The Sadducees were horrified, and were probably even more horrified as the Pharisees became more popular with the people and gained power -- even power in the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. So when they saw that Jesus of Nazareth, this charismatic rabbi who was attracting so much attention from Galilee to Jerusalem, was teaching as the Pharisees did about scripture (Jesus seemed to count the book of Isaiah as having canonical authority) and even about the resurrection, they decided they had to confront him.
They went for the political jugular -- they went for family values. It's a natural choice, because everybody knows that family -- marriage and parenthood -- is the bedrock of society, the human institution with the clearest eternal importance. The Pharisees knew that -- even they couldn't deny that one of God's first commandments to humanity was to "be fruitful and multiply." Heck, even the Romans knew it -- central to the emperor Augustus' domestic policy was that marriage and childbearing should be encouraged to repopulate an empire decimated by war. The Sadducees had Jesus right where they wanted him.
Or so they thought. Jesus offers an interpretation of a passage from the Pentateuch (an innovative interpretation, to be sure) to back up his view that God will indeed raise the righteous at the end of the age. That's not all, though. Far from trying to downplay the radical edge of his theology, Jesus comes right out with its most radical edge:
Marriage is not of eternal importance. It does not define who you are in God's eyes.
It's still radical to say. When women get married, most still change their names. Couples planning their wedding speak of the day as "the most important day in our lives." Anthropologists have a label -- "redemptive media" -- for the things one must do in a given culture to be considered a good and successful in a culture, and marriage (alongside things like getting a college degree, having children, and owning a home) is a powerful redemptive medium in our culture. Think about it -- what chance would a potential candidate for president have if he (or worse yet, she!) had never been married? In our culture, marriage plays a huge role in defining who's trustworthy, who's successful, who's blessed.
But not so for Jesus. "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage."
That's heavy, heavy stuff. Where's the Good News in this?
For those who are single, I'd start with this. Whether you're single by choice or not, whether you think you have a vocation to singleness or you're hoping to marry, your life -- your real life, your full life, your living into your vocation and experiencing God's abundant blessings -- is not on hold. It's not contingent on finding someone to marry. Your life in Christ is your real life.
Life in Christ is not without loneliness, whether you're single or married. But it's a full life. You were created for love, and love is here. You are not waiting to start a family; you have been set in a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, children of one God. Those of us who grew up in dysfunctional families can find it hard to hear this as good news, but it is. This one's different; it's the place we discover who we really are in Christ, and we learn through mistakes and being forgiven and forgiving others to be who we really are, whom God calls us to be.
For those who are married, I'd start with this: see the above. It pretty much all applies. And then consider that you have the opportunity to see the family you live with as intentional Christian community, given for the same purposes that all communities are given. It's a place where our faults and our gifts provide opportunities for us to learn to forgive and to receive forgiveness with one another, a place where we can learn to pray and question together. As in any place where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, it's a place where Jesus is present to help us help one another become mature, who we are in Christ.
That's what's of eternal importance. It's the life of the resurrection, and it's available to all.
Thanks be to God!