Proper 26, Year A
You may find this entry on Luke 12:49-56 and this one on Luke 9:51-62 helpful for this week's gospel passage as well. Those passages from Luke and this Sunday's gospel all address something that most preachers these days gloss over: the conflict between "family values" as exalted in our culture and the demands of Jesus' call upon his followers.
In our culture, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which "s/he puts family first" could be anything other than a compliment, and the more one gives in to other pressures, the more one is expected to pay lip service to ideals exalting the nuclear family, and especially the relationship between children and parents.
I'm not saying that we actually DO put family first as a society. Our government pursues policies that make it harder for families – especially poorer families – to spend quality time together. Whatever advantages we imagine welfare-to-work policies might offer, the ones we've got mean that our most vulnerable children are least likely to have an adult at home after school who could listen to them, help them with their homework, and make sure they're safe. Wealthier families suffer too; because we've abandoned public schools in so many areas, upper-middle-class parents work harder and commute farther in great anxiety that just one thing going wrong might mean they can't make the mortgage payments on the ridiculously expensive home that entitles their children to go to a decent school.
But the more we make choices that put stress on families, the more we rationalize it with rhetoric about "family values," as if our problem was that we don't TALK highly or often enough about the nuclear family.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."
– Matthew 23:1-4
One problem with our talk about "family values" is that it's just that: TALK. Pontificating about the standards to which all families ought to rise makes us like the Pharisees and scribes Jesus condemns unless we act to lighten the burden for others rather than merely condemning those who don't rise to our ideal. Got a problem with out-of-wedlock births? Want to reduce abortions? There's a direct correlation between rising levels of education and reduced rates of both. Wagging fingers and punishing women or their doctors won't lighten the burden, but making sure that every neighborhood school is safe and provides quality education – and that every neighborhood in the world has a school that will receive all its children – will.
In other words, the message of this Sunday's gospel takes us back to last week's. Loving our neighbors – in poor rural counties, in our cities, and around the world – as we love our selves and our own families is not an interesting hobby to fill our spare time while we wait for a "second coming" in which most of them will be destroyed. Loving our neighbors, advocating and caring for children around the world as we would for our own children, is equal in importance to loving God; our love, lived out in action to ease others' burdens, is what determines whether our lofty speech condemns us as hypocrites or challenges us as disciples.
Here's another way of looking at it: All of that lofty rhetoric about what God intends for marriages means less than nothing if our marriages don't focus us on and empower us for what God intends for the world. If our marriages and our families make us focus solely or even first on the welfare of our own household, if our "family values" mean that we will value what helps our own family get ahead and neglect what will further God's justice in the world, we are no better than the false prophets Micah condemns, who "cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths" (Micah 3:5). God does not value our families based on what ceremonies we did or didn't have or whether we have children, how many, and when. God values our families as God values all communities: on the extent to which they seek first God's kingdom, the extending of God's justice in the world (Matthew 6:33). It's the extent to which we do that without regard to our perception of who is friend or enemy, righteous or unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-48). And it's the extent to which we do that without regard to blood ties, who is our child, our mother, our brother.
That last point is a particular focus of this Sunday's gospel in its command – one of Jesus' most-often ignored – to "call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). It's one of Jesus' most radical statements. In it, Jesus releases his followers from one of the commandments that self-identified Christians have agitated to have posted in U.S. courtrooms and classrooms, namely, "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).
That's shocking, I know – so shocking that I'd wager that more time and energy has been spent arguing that Jesus didn't really mean it than teaching how upholding it can actually come as Good News for all of us.
I've heard a great many of these attempts at interpretive yoga, and I haven't seen one that works; Jesus' teaching on this point is just too clear and consistent across his career as reported in the canonical gospels. Paul understood this, and that's why in all of his advice to women and men about whether they should marry and whom – advice given in cultures in which marriages were arranged by fathers, not chosen by bride and groom – he never once suggested that they ought to get their fathers' permission, or even ask his opinion. Why would a Christian need a father's permission, if Jesus taught that Christians are not to recognize any father on earth, but only God?
The bottom line for Paul, as for Jesus, is that none of us should be treated a certain way in Christian community because of blood ties. ALL of our relationships are defined first, last, and always by our relationship as children of one God. In other words, all of us – parents and children of every nation and economic status – are sisters and brothers.
We do not honor one another on the basis of who was born to whom and in what order. We honor the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted; we honor those who hunger and thirst for God's justice and who make peace in the world. Every elder who works for peace, the smallest child who longs for justice, is to be respected and lauded as the most dutiful child respects and lauds a parent. As counter-cultural as that is – as counter-intuitive as that is when we fail to sift cultural presuppositions through Jesus' teaching and example – it will come more naturally to us as we receive deeply the truth that we all are God's children, and as we seek and serve the image of Christ our mother (to use an image from Julian of Norwich) and our brother (to use St. Paul's image) in each of our sisters and brothers. As we live into that call, may God grant us the vision to recognize in every girl and boy, every woman and man, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," bound together by God's grace in relationships ordered completely and solely by God's love.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
I think that perhaps more than any other passage, the Beatitudes need a fresh translation. I like a lot of Eugene Peterson's The Message for a lot of things (I recommend it in general, and bought a copy for my partner for Christmas), but it's really, really awful for this Sunday's gospel.
Petersen renders the first beatitude (Matthew 5:3) as "You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule." The colloquial language doesn't bother me at all, and I'm not at all opposed to the idea of "dynamic equivalence" in translation, in which translators try to communicate the sense of a text as accurately as possible, even if that means not translating each word of it. The problem in this passage is that Petersen, in my opinion, gets it very badly wrong in his rendering of all of the beatitudes.
Petersen plays up even more something that I think is already a problem when we take the familiar and traditional "Blessed are ..." language of the Beatitudes and read them through the lens of Western individualism:
We end of with a collection of pious platitudes about the attitude with which you go about your business -- business as usual, as our culture defines it. We end up reading the Beatitudes as something like what Robert Schuller called them in his book: the "Be-Happy Attitudes." That's not at all what they are.
I think that Jerome Neyrey ends up with a MUCH better reading of this text in his book Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, and there are two things that get him there:
First off, he starts with a good translation, following K.C. Hanson in translating makarios, the Greek word that the NRSV renders as "blessed," as "honored." These verses don't show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honor to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.
Second, Neyrey suggests that we take the last Beatitude -- "Honored are you when people revile and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account" -- as our starting point for understanding what's going on here.
In the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you "your own man"; it made you nobody. That's serious stuff, because nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position.
That situation brought about all kinds of other hardships. The one pushed out could be destitute (ptochos), like the person Jesus honors in Matthew 5:3, and the hunger and thirst that Matthew 5:6 talks about -- literal hunger and thirst incurred for righteousness as Jesus redefined it -- would certainly follow, as would mourning (Matthew 5:4).
Why would the families of Jesus' followers push them out, though? The scandalous behavior Jesus' followers displayed left their families little other choice in their culture. The free social intercourse between men and women, respectable folk and sinners was shocking to many, and people who behaved like that paid a steep price. Perhaps even more shocking to many was the way Jesus' followers treated their fathers. Jesus himself was said to advocate abandoning one's aging parents to follow him, rather than staying by them to care for them until they died, and to make sure they received an honorable burial ("let me bury my father," as in Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, was shorthand for this). St. Paul counseled Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 to choose whom they would marry, completely ignoring the authority of fathers, who would have arranged marriages for their sons and daughters according to what they thought best. Such disobedience shamed the whole family, threatening everyone's welfare in the process; small wonder that those who engaged in it were so often pushed out.
Matthew expands on the smaller set of Beatitudes as Luke presents them, and the additional ones make clearer what other kinds of behavior got Jesus' followers into such trouble. They were "meek," refusing to engage in contests for honor that affected their entire family as much as it did the individual male who refused to "be a man" when challenged. They were "merciful" and "peacemakers," seeking reconciliation with rather than revenge on someone who wronged them. They were "pure in heart," and as Jesus defines purity, that meant doing things -- like eating with any who would break bread with you -- bound to render them impure in others' eyes.
Jesus gathers in all of these people who have are completely bereft and without honor in their culture's eyes, and he gives them two gifts which more than compensate for their very real losses.
Jesus gives them honor. In front of all the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to them, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. Their human fathers may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs.
And that brings up the second gift that Jesus gives them: He makes them family. They are children of one Father, and that makes them brothers and sisters. They will never be bereft in a community that sees themselves as family, and that cares for one another in ways that show that they take that family relationship with utmost seriousness.
What a challenge to the church! I think that's why I wanted to post that prayer from Jeffrey John yesterday, as I was reflecting on the texts for this coming Sunday.
What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility. Sounds simple, but living into that in our culture has costs. We probably won't be left destitute (kind of puts the financial hits that parishes take after taking strong stands on justice issues into perspective, doesn't it?). But if you say "YES! In my backyard!" to a homeless shelter in your neighborhood, and your neighbors will be pretty pissed off at the way you're lowering everyone's real estate values. But keep on doing it -- God values what you're doing. God honors that, as God honors the poor whom you're serving.
What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture's games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey? It's quite an adventure.
Thanks be to God!
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.
I'm preaching this Sunday, so as much as I love the Magnificat, which is part of this Sunday's gospel, I thought I'd comment here on something I'm not preaching about. After all, you can always check out the sermons page next Monday to see what I had to say about the Magnificat! So this week's blog will look at something else — specifically, at Micah.
Some years ago, I was persuaded to go to a Christmas production at a immesnsely wealthy and absolutely huge mega-church. It was quite a spectacle — there were live camels carrying the magi down the center aisle of the church, angels suspended by a state-of-the-art rigging system zooming over the heads of the audience, and glittering costumes. It was very professional, very colorful, and very spectacular — unmistakably grand. The Glory of Christmas, it was called.
And then I look at this coming Sunday's reading from Micah. The expectation that the one coming to rule Israel will be "great to the ends of the earth" is certainly grand, but the primary images in the passage are not what I'd call Hollywood special-effect moments. A woman in labor. A shepherd feeding a flock. It's rather mundane, really. But the inbreaking of the kingdom we anticipate is like that. It's not a special effects moment, any more than the planting of a mustard seed is a special effects moment. But Micah presents this moment of childbearing and shepherding as the downfall of the mighty kingdom of Assyria.
That kind of thing — the inbreaking of the kingdom amongst and through the mundane — is the real glory of Christmas, I think. If God's kingdom arrived with fireworks, we wouldn't need to look or listen for it; we could just wander outside once we heard the booming. But it isn't like that. Being present in the darkness of Advent sharpens our sight and trains our ears to look and listen for a single star and the cry of a child. Turn up the stereo or point your telescope ten more degrees to the right and you could miss it. But that moment, that quiet and not particularly spectacular moment, is the advent of a world of possibility. Keep watch! Listen up! And pay attention to every moment. The Christ is coming!