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Proper 5, Year A

By the way, I'll be participating tomorrow (Wednesday) night in Open Source, a new public radio show that starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, and can be heard on the Internet here. The show will be looking at how we experience God in online community, and how that changes online community and our perception of God. Online discussion for the show is already happening here; feel free to weigh in on what role this blog, Grace Notes, and other theoloblogical waystations play in your own spiritual journey!

Hosea 5:15 - 6:6 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 50:7-15 - link to BCP text
Matthew 9:9-13 - link to NRSV text

I'm sure you've heard the expression of a "vicious circle" or a "vicious cycle." They come in many flavors.

There's the spiral of violence. In the ancient Mediterranean world, vengeance was mandated for honorable men: you kill my brother, so I kill you. If your brother is an honorable man, he avenges your death by killing me. My brother or my cousin kills him. And he kills two of my cousins, for which surviving relatives kill four ... it never stops. How different is it today? In some ways, not very. Watch this short Flash movie, released just after September 11, 2001, for a reminder of how that works.

There's the cycle of poverty. If you're poor, you're less likely to have access to the kinds of preventative care and treatment that could keep you healthy. And when you're seriously ill, it's that much more difficult to find or keep work that could give you access to the kind of care that could help you get better. In a society that doesn't care for its outcasts, for those who are sick, or very elderly, or otherwise unable to work, the only social security is children who survive to adulthood. And then there's the overlap with another vicious cycle, this one having to do with self-esteem. If you're a young woman whom nobody thinks will ever amount to anything, there's one thing you can do to see that there's someone who looks up to you, who sees you as important, as needed, and that's to have a baby. If you're a young man whose agency and potential for power is unacknowledged, there's always one thing you can do to prove that you're a real man; you can demonstrate your virility by coming up with a conquest. Or, if you're a young woman or man who feels powerless, there's no better short-term equalizer when it comes to feeling powerful than a gun.

There are other vicious cycles that may be less familiar. They don't make the headlines so often. Here's one that I think about a lot, as I commute sixty miles each way to a parish where many, if not most, parishioners who work outside the home commute at least 60-90 minutes each way to their jobs:

The city center is plagued with urban ills, so those who can afford it move further out, to a suburb where they think the quality of life will be better. When they and all they have to contribute leave the city center, things deteriorate, pushing more people and more poverty outside the city center. Urban ills follow, so those who can afford it move further out, to a new development where they think the quality of life will be better, and so on, over and over again, until people sacrifice their quality of life with mortgages far beyond what they can afford realistically (especially if ANYTHING goes wrong with one partner's health, or job, or ... ) and commute in such traffic for so long that they find it hard to spare even an hour a week to pray with friends or read the bible in community. 

There's a reason we call these cycles "vicious." They're all about "solutions" that exacerbate the problem. Watch these cycles in motion in isolation for long enough, and you'll get this sad, odd kind of vertigo, this sense that everything is inevitably going downhill, and the best anyone can do is look after oneself and one's own, and try to retreat from and forget about everybody else. Those cycles draw you in until -- if you've got the energy -- you cry out:

Mercy.

But it isn't hopeless. Those vicious cycles don't have to go on forever. Someone, anyone, any person can declare unilateral forgiveness, remission of all debts and an end to all scorekeeping. Mercy! One person did that with his whole life, and even with his death, and so we know that it's possible; in our Baptism, we receive power from the Spirit who descended upon him at his Baptism.

Mercy.

That's what happens today. Matthew, not one of the chief tax collectors, but a lowly employee of someone. An empire that profited from the conquered recruited people who were just enough on the edge of community, just shut out enough, to take some small chance at profit under tremendous risk. The empire made them pay tolls and taxes up front for the whole region, which they did in hopes that they could collect enough to turn a profit. They recruited those who were even more on the margins, people who didn't have land to farm or means to work a trade, and who would take work by which they might subsist, though it would make them outcast even further from the community.

That's Matthew, someone who took a really lousy job in which he handled everybody's stuff looking for what ought to be taxed, picking up and spreading any uncleanness he encountered, someone who took a position that shut him out of respectability because he knew that nobody would ever let him in anyway.

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully not in flaws noted and shut out or scores kept and settled, but in extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
   -- Matthew 5:38-43

What right does any one of us have to demand of anyone else a sacrifice, if we believe what we say about Jesus' sacrifice: that it was full, perfect, sufficient? What right do we have to talk about who's deserving if we really understand the unconditional and unreserved quality of Jesus' embrace of us? Jesus' sacrifice was once and for all, but his mercy is such that it will take all of us who claim to follow him a lifetime of wild, uncalculating extension of unilateral mercy to even hint at the fullness of Jesus' love.

Mercy. As followers of Jesus, that's not a cry of despair, but a testimony of hope: we have seen the limitless mercy that is the most fundamental power in the universe, and we are empowered to extend it in the same wildly extravagant way that Jesus did in calling Matthew, toll collector and outcast, to join him as disciple, evangelist, and saint.

Thanks be to God!

May 31, 2005 in Hosea, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink

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A beginning fact about this text is that while this information about dining with tax collectors and sinners is common to all of the synoptic Gospels only Matthew inserts the quote from Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The verse in Hosea is translated like this in the NRSV: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” This use by the author of Matthew underlines that an important part of Jesus’ mission was to undermine the sacrificial cult which was a powerful part of the Judaism of the day. Further Jesus and Matthew undermine the cult of sacrifice using the words from one of the prophets. Thus two Jews speaking to an audience of Jews claim that God prefers the prophetic emphasis on justice and mercy rather than the cultic emphasis on blood payment.

The sacrificial cult was an attempt to address the cycle of violence by ritualizing it and making it sacred. Since before history human groups have tried to hide their own culpability for the violence in the world by ascribing it to God in this way. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection can be viewed as a way of de-mythologizing the sacred violence and showing it for what it is – an attempt by humans to cover their own violent tracks. Another way to say that might be that God subverts the human attempt to lay their own violence at his door by taking on flesh and submitting to the violence himself as the merciful victim. This is one of the ways that Jesus succeeded in his mission since blood sacrifices which were predominant in the Judaism of his time are now rare in either Judaism or Christianity. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence continues outside the church.

Scholars tell us that the Gospel of Matthew was written sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and probably in the 80s or 90s and, therefore, probably is not the work of Matthew the tax collctor and disciple of Jesus. To me this makes the emphasis in this text and throughout Matthew all the more telling. The person who wrote this down was telling about the cycle of violence stemmed not only in a particular life, but in the life of his spiritual family. That is, the family of all those who do the will of God.

Posted by: MontanaPastor | Jun 1, 2005 12:10:57 PM

Thanks, Sarah, for some thoughts that brought these thoughts to mind.

The gospel writer adds the call of Matthew the tax collector to Mark's material in a way that reinforces the ritual cleanliness issue for Temple worship. Jesus faces the kryptonite of his time (the woman with the flow of blood, the child declared dead, a tax collector) and reverses the process. If ritual cleanliness was a ceremonial demonstration that "one bad apple spoils the bushel," Jesus becomes the good apple that makes the whole bushel clean and whole.

The vicious cycle of fear in the face of the unclean and the outcast can be broken because the new temple, the body of Christ, is not polluted by the ritually unclean -- he instead pursues the tax collector, the chronically ill, not flinching even at the dead body of a child.

It's a challenge in my culture to welcome the outcast. What makes someone ritually impure in our culture? In our own mind? How do we reverse the fear and bring the confidence of the new temple, the body of Christ, into the communities we lead?

For the most part, the congregation I serve welcomes the members of the Joy Class when they decide to join the church. The Sunday school class has all kinds of people, but the curriculum is designed for the adults with developmental disabilities. Some of them are verbal, some are difficult to understand, and others can communicate little more than yes and no.

When Ina, blind, wheelchair-bound, and mildly retarded, joined last Sunday by reaffirmation of faith, reciting Scripture in front of the congregation at her own request, most people stopped at the door after worship to welcome her. Those who did not rushed past with a glance at Ina, knowing she could not see them slip by. I asked my wife, "What are they afraid of?" and she said, "That this is who we are now."

Perhaps the future of this congregation will not be the upper middle-income professional class at prayer, but the blind, the lame, and the outcast. It's a fearful thing. I think Jesus is O.K. with it, though.

Posted by: FarmerPastor | Jun 2, 2005 11:07:54 AM

I think about the cycles in terms of ecclesiology. As a Baptist, we are schismatic by habit at this point. Once someone bugs you enough, you can crate yoru own church. This cycle is fully supported and valued by the tradition. Its original purpose was to keep religious oppression and repression to a dull roar. As you can see, it worked not at all. In fact, it became the vehicle for it.

Now, we Baptists did not invent this. No. But we have adopted it. We would rather be of Paul or Apollos or Falwell or Calvin or King...It is considered good pastoral care to encourage people to leave one another, to abandon one another.

What thsi scripture points out is that these cycles keep us apart. The suburban commute keeps neighbors apart, keeps children and families apart. The intention was the opposite, but the reality speaks for itself.

So, what do we do to fulfill the uge for unity and community? Political jingoism, addictive behaviors etc...life must become idealized because reality is splintered. We cannot begin to identify ourselves by our relationships anymore...not really. We identify ourselves by the ideas we hold sacrosanct.

This is being of Paul and being of Apollos.

Powerful stuff, Dylan. Thanks.

Posted by: Tripp | Jun 2, 2005 11:08:07 AM

Thanks, Sarah, for some thoughts that brought these thoughts to mind.

The gospel writer adds the call of Matthew the tax collector to Mark's material in a way that reinforces the ritual cleanliness issue for Temple worship. Jesus faces the kryptonite of his time (the woman with the flow of blood, the child declared dead, a tax collector) and reverses the process. If ritual cleanliness was a ceremonial demonstration that "one bad apple spoils the bushel," Jesus becomes the good apple that makes the whole bushel clean and whole.

The vicious cycle of fear in the face of the unclean and the outcast can be broken because the new temple, the body of Christ, is not polluted by the ritually unclean -- he instead pursues the tax collector, the chronically ill, not flinching even at the dead body of a child.

It's a challenge in my culture to welcome the outcast. What makes someone ritually impure in our culture? In our own mind? How do we reverse the fear and bring the confidence of the new temple, the body of Christ, into the communities we lead?

For the most part, the congregation I serve welcomes the members of the Joy Class when they decide to join the church. The Sunday school class has all kinds of people, but the curriculum is designed for the adults with developmental disabilities. Some of them are verbal, some are difficult to understand, and others can communicate little more than yes and no.

When Ina, blind, wheelchair-bound, and mildly retarded, joined last Sunday by reaffirmation of faith, reciting Scripture in front of the congregation at her own request, most people stopped at the door after worship to welcome her. Those who did not rushed past with a glance at Ina, knowing she could not see them slip by. I asked my wife, "What are they afraid of?" and she said, "That this is who we are now."

Perhaps the future of this congregation will not be the upper middle-income professional class at prayer, but the blind, the lame, and the outcast. It's a fearful thing. I think Jesus is O.K. with it, though.

Posted by: FarmerPastor | Jun 2, 2005 11:08:30 AM

Thanks, Sarah, for some thoughts that brought these thoughts to mind.

The gospel writer adds the call of Matthew the tax collector to Mark's material in a way that reinforces the ritual cleanliness issue for Temple worship. Jesus faces the kryptonite of his time (the woman with the flow of blood, the child declared dead, a tax collector) and reverses the process. If ritual cleanliness was a ceremonial demonstration that "one bad apple spoils the bushel," Jesus becomes the good apple that makes the whole bushel clean and whole.

The vicious cycle of fear in the face of the unclean and the outcast can be broken because the new temple, the body of Christ, is not polluted by the ritually unclean -- he instead pursues the tax collector, the chronically ill, not flinching even at the dead body of a child.

It's a challenge in my culture to welcome the outcast. What makes someone ritually impure in our culture? In our own mind? How do we reverse the fear and bring the confidence of the new temple, the body of Christ, into the communities we lead?

For the most part, the congregation I serve welcomes the members of the Joy Class when they decide to join the church. The Sunday school class has all kinds of people, but the curriculum is designed for the adults with developmental disabilities. Some of them are verbal, some are difficult to understand, and others can communicate little more than yes and no.

When Ina, blind, wheelchair-bound, and mildly retarded, joined last Sunday by reaffirmation of faith, reciting Scripture in front of the congregation at her own request, most people stopped at the door after worship to welcome her. Those who did not rushed past with a glance at Ina, knowing she could not see them slip by. I asked my wife, "What are they afraid of?" and she said, "That this is who we are now."

Perhaps the future of this congregation will not be the upper middle-income professional class at prayer, but the blind, the lame, and the outcast. It's a fearful thing. I think Jesus is O.K. with it, though.

Posted by: FarmerPastor | Jun 2, 2005 11:09:22 AM

Liked your blog today. First time on your site.
Would you also email to Dan at dtb303@yahoo.com.
Thanks I will be reading..

Posted by: Mary Beth | Jun 5, 2005 10:39:49 AM

Thank you for articulating how I feel. I am a lay person who is allowed the privlege of proclaiming the gospel from time to time to fill in for a pastor on leave or called away for a Sunday. I just discovered your site and have added it to my list of online resources. Your insight is annointed!
Rick

Posted by: rick brown | Apr 21, 2008 9:14:16 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
Dylan's lectionary blog: Proper 5, Year A

« Proper 4, Year A | Main | Proper 6, Year A »

Proper 5, Year A

By the way, I'll be participating tomorrow (Wednesday) night in Open Source, a new public radio show that starts at 7:00 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, and can be heard on the Internet here. The show will be looking at how we experience God in online community, and how that changes online community and our perception of God. Online discussion for the show is already happening here; feel free to weigh in on what role this blog, Grace Notes, and other theoloblogical waystations play in your own spiritual journey!

Hosea 5:15 - 6:6 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 50:7-15 - link to BCP text
Matthew 9:9-13 - link to NRSV text

I'm sure you've heard the expression of a "vicious circle" or a "vicious cycle." They come in many flavors.

There's the spiral of violence. In the ancient Mediterranean world, vengeance was mandated for honorable men: you kill my brother, so I kill you. If your brother is an honorable man, he avenges your death by killing me. My brother or my cousin kills him. And he kills two of my cousins, for which surviving relatives kill four ... it never stops. How different is it today? In some ways, not very. Watch this short Flash movie, released just after September 11, 2001, for a reminder of how that works.

There's the cycle of poverty. If you're poor, you're less likely to have access to the kinds of preventative care and treatment that could keep you healthy. And when you're seriously ill, it's that much more difficult to find or keep work that could give you access to the kind of care that could help you get better. In a society that doesn't care for its outcasts, for those who are sick, or very elderly, or otherwise unable to work, the only social security is children who survive to adulthood. And then there's the overlap with another vicious cycle, this one having to do with self-esteem. If you're a young woman whom nobody thinks will ever amount to anything, there's one thing you can do to see that there's someone who looks up to you, who sees you as important, as needed, and that's to have a baby. If you're a young man whose agency and potential for power is unacknowledged, there's always one thing you can do to prove that you're a real man; you can demonstrate your virility by coming up with a conquest. Or, if you're a young woman or man who feels powerless, there's no better short-term equalizer when it comes to feeling powerful than a gun.

There are other vicious cycles that may be less familiar. They don't make the headlines so often. Here's one that I think about a lot, as I commute sixty miles each way to a parish where many, if not most, parishioners who work outside the home commute at least 60-90 minutes each way to their jobs:

The city center is plagued with urban ills, so those who can afford it move further out, to a suburb where they think the quality of life will be better. When they and all they have to contribute leave the city center, things deteriorate, pushing more people and more poverty outside the city center. Urban ills follow, so those who can afford it move further out, to a new development where they think the quality of life will be better, and so on, over and over again, until people sacrifice their quality of life with mortgages far beyond what they can afford realistically (especially if ANYTHING goes wrong with one partner's health, or job, or ... ) and commute in such traffic for so long that they find it hard to spare even an hour a week to pray with friends or read the bible in community. 

There's a reason we call these cycles "vicious." They're all about "solutions" that exacerbate the problem. Watch these cycles in motion in isolation for long enough, and you'll get this sad, odd kind of vertigo, this sense that everything is inevitably going downhill, and the best anyone can do is look after oneself and one's own, and try to retreat from and forget about everybody else. Those cycles draw you in until -- if you've got the energy -- you cry out:

Mercy.

But it isn't hopeless. Those vicious cycles don't have to go on forever. Someone, anyone, any person can declare unilateral forgiveness, remission of all debts and an end to all scorekeeping. Mercy! One person did that with his whole life, and even with his death, and so we know that it's possible; in our Baptism, we receive power from the Spirit who descended upon him at his Baptism.

Mercy.

That's what happens today. Matthew, not one of the chief tax collectors, but a lowly employee of someone. An empire that profited from the conquered recruited people who were just enough on the edge of community, just shut out enough, to take some small chance at profit under tremendous risk. The empire made them pay tolls and taxes up front for the whole region, which they did in hopes that they could collect enough to turn a profit. They recruited those who were even more on the margins, people who didn't have land to farm or means to work a trade, and who would take work by which they might subsist, though it would make them outcast even further from the community.

That's Matthew, someone who took a really lousy job in which he handled everybody's stuff looking for what ought to be taxed, picking up and spreading any uncleanness he encountered, someone who took a position that shut him out of respectability because he knew that nobody would ever let him in anyway.

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully not in flaws noted and shut out or scores kept and settled, but in extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
   -- Matthew 5:38-43

What right does any one of us have to demand of anyone else a sacrifice, if we believe what we say about Jesus' sacrifice: that it was full, perfect, sufficient? What right do we have to talk about who's deserving if we really understand the unconditional and unreserved quality of Jesus' embrace of us? Jesus' sacrifice was once and for all, but his mercy is such that it will take all of us who claim to follow him a lifetime of wild, uncalculating extension of unilateral mercy to even hint at the fullness of Jesus' love.

Mercy. As followers of Jesus, that's not a cry of despair, but a testimony of hope: we have seen the limitless mercy that is the most fundamental power in the universe, and we are empowered to extend it in the same wildly extravagant way that Jesus did in calling Matthew, toll collector and outcast, to join him as disciple, evangelist, and saint.

Thanks be to God!

May 31, 2005 in Hosea, Justice, Matthew, Nonviolence, Ordinary Time, Year A | Permalink

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