Proper 20, Year A
Thanks for being patient with me this week. I got back on Tuesday from a job interview with a parish VERY far away. I'd naively thought I could write my lectionary blog entry on the plane coming back and post it immediately when I got home, but I was just too tired to get it done until today. By the way, I had a WONDERFUL time on the interview, thanks to my hosts -- it's a really wonderful congregation!
Jonah 3:10 - 4:11 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 145 - link to BCP text
Matthew 20:1-16 - link to NRSV text
They shall publish the remembrance of your great goodness; *
they shall sing of your righteous deeds.
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
-- Psalm 145:7-9
As I was growing up, I often heard a message preached that went something like this:
"God is a perfectly righteous judge. Humanity sinned. Because God is perfectly righteous, God can't stand to be with sinful people, and because God is a righteous judge, God MUST impose the death penalty for any instances of sin -- no other choice could preserve God's righteousness. So God became flesh and was killed so that the penalty could be paid. Now, when God looks at those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, God sees only Jesus and Jesus' righteousness, so God can be with us and still be righteous."
There's a lot that's troubling in this message, and it doesn't make much sense to me any more. First off, one of the presuppositions of the message seems to be that any law decreed by God is eternally binding, even upon God's self. Jesus doesn't seem to have gotten that memo, though. Even if you want to argue that Jesus followed all of the dietary and sabbath laws, there really isn't any way to harmonize "Honor your father and mother" with Jesus' command to "call no one father on earth, for you have one father -- the father in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That's just for starters, too -- if you'd like to see other examples, please check out my archives on kinship and family.
Another thing that troubles me about the message I described above is its assumption that righteousness -- especially God's righteousness -- would be compromised or even erased either by contact with unrighteous people or by exercising mercy, choosing not to impose a deserved penalty. I'd say that there's more in scripture to contradict that view than to support it, and this Sunday's readings form an excellent case in point, arguing that God's "righteous deeds," as the psalmist puts it, are evidenced not in invariably punishing wrongdoers, but in being "gracious and full of compassion" and "loving to everyone" (Psalm 145:7-9) -- deserving or no.
Matthew joins in that tradition in potraying Jesus' message and way of life both as proclaiming that God's righteousness is most evident in God's indiscriminate (by conventional reckoning) mercy. Yes, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus says, "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven," and that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, but take a look at what follows if you want to know what Jesus thinks fulfilling the law and the prophets and living righteously involves: it's reconciling with one another, treating women and men as human beings and not objects to exploit for pleasure and put aside when it suits us, to turn the other cheek, give to those who beg or ask to borrow, and love our enemies.
The clincher to that argument comes in Matthew 5:43-48, when Jesus says by what precedent he can argue all of this. Jesus can claim that he's fulfilling the law and the prophets, because he's siding with traditions like the one in Psalm 145 that says that God's righteousness deeds are those of "compassion over all his works," or the strand running through second Isaiah that "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Still, Jesus' strongest point isn't so much about the words of scripture, but about the character of God as revealed in scripture, God's behavior toward humankind since the first rainbow was hung in the sky. Here it is:
God sends sun and rain, "blessing rain" (thanks to Liz Zivanov of St. Clement's Honolulu for that image) upon the righteous and the unrighteous alike. When Jesus says, "be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48), that's what he's talking about: God loves loyal servants of God, and enemies of God, and everyone in between. So, folks, if anyone is waiting for God, or Jesus, to undergo some kind of personality transplant and suddenly start with gleeful smiting instead of loving, that person's going to have an eternal wait (sorry, Left Behind fans, but Jesus' glorious appearing won't be much like it is in those books, if the gospels have it right).
So if that's what I think, am I simply buying wholesale into the old liberal humanist paradigm that says that everything's going to be great because every day in every way, things -- and people -- just get better and better? Nope. That's not what I'm saying.
What I'm saying is that all of that trying to reckon whether people are good or bad and getting better or worse, has become passé in light of the coming of God's kingdom proclaimed in Jesus' teaching and inaugurated in Jesus' ministry. So, all of us Jonahs don't have to worry about the outcome of prophesy one way or another; we can just concentrate on being faithful to the call, and living more deeply into abundant life in community, and there's a heck of a lot more fun -- or, to use more accurate language, more enjoyment of the joy and peace and all the rest that's the fruit of the Spirit -- in embracing that path.
I know that there are some short-term psychological rewards in being more like Jonah. If you don't feel you're in a position to be joyful yourself, it can be maddening to see others experiencing joy, and it might seem like some small consolation at least to feel twice as righteous for it, and/or to long for and expect some cosmic payback for the person judged as less deserving. But there's a huge price for living that way. One dimension of that price is constant vigilance. As long as we place ourselves in the judge's seat, we'll always find massive caseloads, as long as we try to place ourselves above others we'll suspect others of being as grasping as we are, and as long as we view the world as being full of people in need of judgment and punishment we will find it very hard to accept and internalize the Good News of this Sunday's gospel:
God is infinitely generous, and God showers us with blessings far without the slightest regard for our deserving.
I mean that "infinite" part too. God's blessing and God's love is not a pie with less of it left for me every time God gives something to someone else. It's more like a really good joke, or a truly amazing concert -- all the more living and life-giving for every person who shares it.
We all forget that sometimes, of course. Sometimes we end up as angry at God for being merciful and generous toward those we reckon as the wrong sort of person as are the workers in the vineyard who cast the evil eye, a curse seen as potentially deadly, on the generous landowner (that's what Matthew 20:15 says -- literally, it's "Is your eye evil because I am generous?"). Those grumbling workers are right in their assessment that the landowner is not treating everyone in the vineyard as a "fair" (by the world's standards) employer treats employees, paying each according to what each deserves, but they're so busy with their attempt to see that all are treated as employees deserve that they're missing the invitation implicit in the landowner's conduct: to receive not wages earned but blessings shared, to be treated more like family than like employees.
That's why Matthew 5 links being "children of your father in heaven" with loving and blessing neighbor and enemy alike. We are invited to see ourselves and all those around us not as worthy or unworthy servants or lazy or diligent day-laborers, but as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. Forgiving those whom the world reckons as unworthy of forgiveness, honoring those the world deems as shameful, and blessing without bothering about who deserves what is participating in our family business. It's what Jesus was and is about among us, and as the way of the Lord, the path upon which God's family is set, it's the way we'll experience most fully who God is and what life, abundant life, is like.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 14, Year A
I remember when I was an undergrad, this story bothered me. It seemed to me that Peter was getting chewed out for not having enough faith, and I didn't see why he deserved that. My college chaplain proposed that Peter was getting chewed out because, despite Jesus' directing them to go to the other side, none of them should have been afraid that anything ill would befall them on the way. After all, Jesus didn't say, "go on ahead ... there's an evil ghost who's going to attack you, and I don't want to be around for the carnage," right?
At the time (before I'd taken any New Testament courses, among other things), this seemed like a perfectly good reading to me -- so much so that I repeated it to many others, with the moral of "if you get a word from Jesus to do something, you can anticipate success."
Let me start this week's blog entry by apologizing to everyone to whom I said that, or anything like it. That's the sort of thing that only very young (or young in the faith, anyway) people and people in frenetic denial can say with a straight face. Or maybe I'm just talking about myself when I say that just about every week between then and now I've had plentiful opportunities to fail, and many times to fail in spectacular fashion ... and I'm not one to squander opportunities.
So I can identify with Peter, and especially with that sinking feeling (literally!) he must have had just before he cried out to Jesus to save him. But I don't think that my natural sympathies for Peter form the only reason to think that he's been given rather a bad rap by many interpreters of this passage (e.g., my college chaplain). After all, what does "faith" mean anyway, and how much of it does one need?
The first thing I think it's important to clear up is that "faith" or "belief," at least in the biblical sense of those terms, doesn't connote belief in a particular outcome or intellectual assent to a proposition so much as it suggests trust in and allegiance to a person. Believing in Jesus does not mean believing that we'll be "successful" (however we define that!) in a particular enterprise if it was Jesus calling us to do it, and having faith IN Jesus doesn't imply signing off on a list of statements ABOUT Jesus. Having faith in Jesus means, in my view, a willingness to follow Jesus -- not because we believe that we've already got the rest of the story plotted out once we've made that decision, but because we take seriously that Jesus is Lord, and the ultimate in good ones. As I've preached on before, having faith doesn't mean convincing ourselves that we're convinced of something. Faith isn't an activity of the brain so much as of the heart, and then I mean it not in the sense of drumming up some kind of feeling, but of pumping blood to ones feet and hands.
In other words, faith is about doing. A faithful person eventually gets to the point at which s/he can say to God, "I don't know where you're going, but I know that wherever it is, I'd rather be drowning with you than be crowned by somebody else." That kind of trust in Jesus, in my experience, comes from experience with the person of Jesus. The kind of trust I have in Jesus has come as I've experienced Jesus' generosity and mercy, so much that I'm pretty sure that if Jesus is involved, then following Jesus is where I'm going to experience the most of the goodness and mercy God has to offer. That process of building confidence, of getting to know Jesus such that I'm understanding more deeply just how much I can trust Jesus is a major ingredient in what I call the journey of faith.
But when I say that faith is like that function of the heart that gets blood to hands and feet, what I mean is that faith starts with action, with taking a step, with taking a risk. The best intentions in the world don't do much without action, but taking that step, even with the worst of intentions, just might give you the experience of meeting God on the road, on (or in) the sea.
There's no better evidence for that than the story of Jonah. Jonah just might go down as the whiniest prophet in history. He had no intention of saving anyone. He didn't even intend to follow God's direction, but when the seas got rough, he knew that it was time to step out of the boat. Just about everything that Jonah has said up to this point indicates no faith, no trust that God's will could mean anything good for him, but when his life is at stake, he calls out to the very god he's been running from. That suggests to me that despite all his protestations of how much God's will means only ill fortune to him, underneath all that is both a trust that God will take care of his fellow travellers (as Jonah 1:11-12 indicates) and that God will deliver him (as Jonah's poem in this Sunday's readings indicate). By the end of the story, we understand that every step he took, even Jonah's whiny rebellion, came in some sense from a deep sense (and sometimes an unwelcome sense!) that God will extend mercy, that God's mercy will be the final word.
That trust, that willingness to risk stepping outside the boat, is how I think of faith. And Peter has that. So why does Jesus address him as "you of little faith"? Not because of the faith he lacks, but because of the faith he has. Peter has a little faith. Jesus addresses his followers as people of "little faith" repeatedly in Matthew's gospel (e.g., Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, and 17:20), but following the last of those, he says, "if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20).
So how much faith do you need to make a difference in your life, or even to change the world? Not much, by some ways of reckoning. You don't have to talk yourself into absolute confidence that anything in particular will happen. That's a good thing, since none of us -- not even, or perhaps ESPECIALLY not those who shout most loudly about knowing exactly what God's specific plans for everyone are -- really knows the future, or even the heart of another person. Faith isn't about knowing, though.
Faith is willingness to risk. It's willingness to take that step out of the boat, whether you think you'll sink or skate. It proceeds from the kind of love that, despite all of the butterflies in one's stomach, makes a person willing to be the first to say "I love you" in a relationship -- not because of a certain expectation of a particular reply, but because of the possibilities that saying "I love you" opens. Reading a biblical expression of that kind of faith makes me think of a passage (one I've used in preaching before) from Sara Maitland's short story "Dragon Dreams" (found in her collection Angel Maker):
When [you] died I knew that there was no safety, anywhere, and I will not sacrifice to false gods. There is no safety, but there is wildness and joy, there is love and life within the danger. I love you. I want to be with you. ... I refuse to believe that we only get one chance. This letter is just a start. I am going to hunt you down now in all the lovely desolate places of the world. ... there I will be waiting for you. Please come. Please come soon.
And that's why I take hope and not condemnation away from reading the stories of Jonah, and Peter, and the rest of God's reluctant prophets and Jesus' wavering disciples. They didn't have it all together, and they didn't fully understand or consistently appreciate what they eventually would proclaim. But the steps they took, however cluelessly or clumsily, made space in which they and others could encounter God's mercy, giving rise to generations of risk-taking and faith arising -- the kind of faith, shared across the Body fo Christ, that could not only move mountains, but turn mountains and valleys to plains.
Thanks be to God!