Proper 21, Year B
O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-- Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 21
I blogged a little last week about how our romantic views of childhood can sometimes distort our reading of biblical texts involving children. I don't feel the need to repeat any of that this week, though, for a fairly simple reason:
There is no mention of children in this Sunday's gospel.
The word used here for the people whom we are called to serve such that we provide no cause for their stumbling is mikros, as in our prefix "micro-." It means "small" or "short" with respect to quantities and distances. When it's used of people in Greek literature of the period that produced the New Testament, my quick survey suggests that it's used far more often to name adults of lowly status -- widows and orphans, those in poverty and those whose status in other ways shuts them out from what they need to get by and from the communities that might otherwise receive them -- than it is for children. It is true now as it was then that children are often among the very least of "the least of these"; when food, clean water, and medicine are in short supply, they're usually the first to die, and when abandoned or orphaned, they have little hope of surviving. But the "little ones" in this Sunday's gospel are not so much like the well-scrubbed cherubs in the Sunday School classrooms of middle-class parishes as they are like the mentally ill homeless woman we drive past on the way to brunch afterward.
So why, then, do we read the passage as if it were about children (as I have to admit I did until I took a closer look at it today)? Indeed, since the National Association of Episcopal Schools has designated the first Sunday in October as "Episcopal Schools Sunday," I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't even more sermons than usual this Sunday suggesting that the "little ones" here are students in private Episcopal schools -- some of which are quite diverse and do offer scholarships to poor and at-risk students, but many of which include few or none of the "lowly ones" of whom Jesus speaks.
I wonder whether some of it might have to do with fear. In my experience, few adults experience children of any perceived race or status as threatening, while that same adorable child might a few years later be treated with suspicion in the same crowd ("He dresses like a gang member! Is he from around here?"). Photographs of children in need of food or medicine elicit pity, while photographs of adults in similar circumstances sometimes strike a little too close to home, reminding us adults that, contrary to what our consumerist culture tells us, no amount of money or goods, education or status can shield us entirely from danger and disease, and in my pastoral experience, those who have most often suffer most from the creeping anxiety that it won't be enough to protect them from suffering.
Some of us respond by trying to accumulate increasing wealth, power, and status in hopes that it will insulate us from what we fear. Personally, I think that approach doesn't work, and that's part of why so many adults are so uncomfortable an adult who is very sick or very poor. I think envy and rivalry -- the kinds of behaviors against which Jesus speaks in the gospel as he refuses to condemn those who heal and restore people to community without seeking authorization from authorities first; and for which Moses chides Joshua in this week's reading from Numbers -- come from a similar place in our hearts. Too many of us spend too much time and energy in a constant state of anxiety because we imagine "the good life" to be a very narrow band of experiences -- the good job, the good house, the good school, the good retirement plan, the good doctors, and the good lifestyle that will guarantee that we'll live a good, long time, free of pain and worry, secure that we've finally accumulated enough -- and that we deserve it all.
Anyone who's tried this long enough and who's honest enough will, I think, admit that this approach doesn't work at all. No amount of power over others we can seize will make as invulnerable as we like to pretend we are. We are creatures, after all, not the Creator, and I suspect on some level we always know this; otherwise we wouldn't find it so painful to be reminded of the fact by our encounters with "lowly ones" at the margins.
Personally, I think St. Benedict's prescription, odd as it sounds at first in today's culture, is an effective one for our condition: "remember that you will die." In essence, that's a distillation of what our extended reading from James for this Sunday is trying to do. James reminds us of how futile and joyless it is to try to convince ourselves we'll live forever by accumulating possessions and resources that are just as transitory. The letter reminds us that no amount of scrambling for status will make us as powerful as part of us wants to be -- powerful enough to be invulnerable -- and no amount of condemning our neighbors' faults will really convince us of how God loves us, because that isn't how God loves us.
God loves us in our vulnerability. Indeed, God made us vulnerable. After all, we are made in God's image, and if we want to know what God's image revealed as fully as we can receive it in the life of a human being looks like -- if we want to see what full, authentic humanity in God's image looks like -- we can look to Jesus. We look to Jesus, whose suffering with the "lowly ones" who suffer started long before his being sentenced to a slave's death on a Roman cross. Jesus journeyed with the "lowly ones" throughout his ministry. By this point in the gospel, his face is set toward Jerusalem, and he knows what he faces there. Having accepted that, he doesn't need to look away from others' pain; indeed, he identifies with all in need of the most basic, immediate necessities -- a cup of water, a day's bread, a moment of compassion.
Jesus knows something that our culture finds it extremely hard to understand: God's power -- the power that speaks light from darkness and life from dust, the power that sustains the universe -- is not shown in shutting out those who are less powerful. The richness of God's blessing -- the only riches that can truly bring joy or peace -- is not enhanced by hoarding God's gifts. And Jesus' gift of what John calls "eternal life" -- the kind of lasting joy, peace, and love for which we were made and the universe aches -- doesn't come from vain and futile chasing after immortality. Instead, Jesus' words and example teach us, God's power is experienced in empowering the "lowly ones"; God's rich blessings are found in seeking justice for the poor. And the life of the world comes through Christ crucified; we will see God not by averting our eyes from the suffering "lowly ones" with whom he identified, but by looking with compassion in their eyes until we, like Jesus, can see the world through their eyes -- until we, like Jesus, identify with all who share our humanity, the image of God in us.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 20, Year B
Sorry this week's entry is so late; I was encountering technical difficulties that now (thankfully!) are resolved.
What was Jesus talking about when he said, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me"? I've heard many a sermon linking this to Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says, "it is to such [children] that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it," and speculating about what qualities children have that Jesus is saying should appear among his followers: a child's innocence? playfulness? openness?
The problem with most of these readings is that they depend on a romantic view of childhood that's key in most movies by Stephen Spielberg but foreign to the cultures that produced the New Testament. Such readings overlook something that would occur immediately in the minds of adults in the first-century Mediterranean world, especially parents:
Fewer than half of children born would make it to adulthood.
In other words, the most salient characteristic of children for most first-century readers of this text would be that children are extraordinarily vulnerable -- perhaps the most most vulnerable in their society. First-century parents loved their children as all parents do, and children were also celebrated as the closest thing to social security in the ancient world -- if you were lucky enough to make it to old age, your children would most likely be your only means of support once you could no longer work. But children were generally the first to fall when disease or famine struck, or if the family for whatever reason became refugees, and a great many did. Children were vulnerable not only physically, but due to their low status in family and society. Even slaves could own property, for example, but children could not; they weren't considered people for the purpose of inheritance.
In other words, Jesus said that God's kingdom belongs to those to whom the world said nothing belonged.
What does this say to us? How might we live differently if we believed this to be true?
For a start, we might come to the conclusion toward which our reading for this Sunday from the book of Wisdom points (especially the part our lectionary rather unhelpfully brackets as optional). The world contends that the good things of the world are OURS to enjoy, that we can and should take what we can get for ourselves and our families, as "what is weak proves itself to be useless." The world contends that those whose "manner of life is unlike that of others" (Wisdom 2:15) can and should be tested with insult and torture -- especially if that manner of life is a challenge to us respectable and deserving people.
The world presents all of this as wisdom. Our scriptures present it as "unsound reason," spiritual blindness, a disaster. And the letter of James comes down even harder on Christians who act out worldly scrambling to grasp at resources, power, and status and to honor most those who have most within the church.
We get caught up in all of those zero-sum games, forgetting that, to paraphrase Lilly Tomlin, winning the rat race just makes me a prizewinning rat. I want to be more than that. More importantly, God made me for more than that. And so God offers you and me -- all of us -- a chance to be more than that, to opt out of the rat race, to respond to the world's contention that we are what we can say is OURS by instead looking at the world at every opportunity with the eyes of someone who, in the world's way of doing things, has been disqualified from owning and having.
We stop saying, "they're taking MY church away from me," and we recognize that it's God's church, and God has made room for those God has invited.
We ask God to deliver us from the presumption that it is in any way up to us to decide who deserves what we all want for ourselves and our children, and to give us the vision and courage to receive every child -- not just those we know or like, and not just those with whom we share a culture, a language, a social class, or a legal or genetic family link -- as a full, beloved member of God's family, as deserving as we are to share the good things that are God's gifts, not our property.
And we evaluate every system, every power, every choice based on what it will do for the most vulnerable, not those closest to us. In God's economy, that's the key index.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 25, Year A
White American middle-class churches are particularly prone, it seems, to an assumption that spirituality, and Christianity in particular or by extension, is primarily about interiority -- about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one's self. This Sunday's texts put the lie to that. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "love" was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. When Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 6:5, says, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," he's spelling out what is implied in calling God "Lord," and what is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4: when God is Lord, that position is filled; no others need apply, as all our faculties are fully devoted to God's service.
And when Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a commandment which Jesus says is of equal importance with the first -- I'm with Daniel Harrington (with whom I often disagree on other points) that "there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others" (from p. 315 of his commentary on Matthew). Self-esteem is a fine thing, to be sure, and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology, but these interior emotional states just weren't a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.
So what does this command mean, then? The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the gospels, namely James 2:1-17, will be a major help in figuring that out. When Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself," he was essentially saying, "treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood" -- that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. You may notice that this passage in James treats "faith" and "love" almost as synonyms; while American churches tend to read both as interior mental or emotional states, in first-century Mediterranean cultures true faith and true love are both matters of affiliation backed up with consistent action, of treating people with respect and enacting rather than merely professing compassion.
In other words, the kinds of facts we see laid out here show just how far we have to go in loving our neighbors as as our own family. Bread for the World is right: we have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to bring everything we've got -- our voice and our political power as well as our financial resources -- to bear in living out God's mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. It's true that our sins, things done and left undone, have built a world in which coming from a family or a region trapped in extreme poverty means a death sentence issued before birth, a world built around the kind of favoritism that the Letter of James condemns writ large.
But it's also true that Christ came to save the world from sin, and Christ is both calling and empowering us to do what it takes to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. That means not only sending direct aid to feed people in places like Haiti, but also working to end U.S. policies that dump highly subsidized rice on the Haitian market, creating the hunger we're supposedly dedicated to ending. That means making trade fair, creating economic opportunities for children around the world that we want for our own children. That means working for educational opportunities around the world so that every child has the kind of chance to succeed that we want for our own children.
For that reason, our text for this Sunday from the Hebrew bible seems especially well-chosen:
God said, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
-- Exodus 22:21-27
These days especially, the temptation seems especially strong to churches and their members to reduce the Gospel to one point, and for some it's the more specific the better -- the better for use as a very specific litmus test, I suppose. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is given a wide-open invitation to do the same, and he declines. Asked what one commandment is most important, he gives two -- and not just any two. The two commandments he gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor (and for who would be exempt from the category of "neighbor" in Jesus' mind, I can think of no better place in Jesus' teaching to turn than the "Parable of the Good Samaritan"). There's a point of Jesus' morality that I derive from this that I think is a timely one in our current climate of polarization:
Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they're NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God's love and therefore are beyond the call of God's people to ministry, Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. In other words, we may as well take the energy we devote to coming up with a clever question to exempt us and give it to the call of love that is before us. The book of Exodus is spot-on in presenting this as a matter of national security; there is no better way to undermine the agenda of terrorist groups who would drum up hate against us and make widows and orphans of our families than to love our enemies, overcoming evil with good. And in citing the two greatest commandments, Jesus has shown us also that this is a matter of spiritual fidelity as well, that in serving our neighbors around the world as we would our own flesh and blood, our lives stand as testimony to the lordship of the one God who made us all. There is no call more consuming, and none more fulfilling.
Thanks be to God!