Third Sunday in Lent, Year A
If you haven't seen it before, I encourage you to check out this SarahLaughed.net reflection on the texts for this coming Sunday, the themes of which strike me as being as relevant as they were in 2005. I'm continuing to reflect on the texts, of course, and will see whether something new emerges that's worth sharing.
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Jenee Woodward -- whose work is a boon to lectionary preachers everywhere -- honored this blog by making it the featured link at The Text This Week, the site she runs. It's quite a compliment. So I reread my reflection that I wrote in 2005 on the texts for this week's readings. And, if I may say so myself, I thought it was pretty good. I've been stumped for several days as to how I'd add to it, so I think I'll just link to it instead:
Let me know what y'all think of this, and blessings!
Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
A lot of people talk about St. Paul as having domesticated Jesus' message, taking the edge off of all of those radical things that Jesus said and did and rendering the Christian message palatable to an audience in the Roman Empire who didn't want much about the current social order to change. People who talk like that would love to use our gospel and epistle passages this week as a case in point. Jesus calls people to leave what they're doing -- their occupations, villages, families, and their lives as they knew it -- to follow him. Paul says “remain in the condition in which you're called” -- advice that, if Simon and Andrew took it, would have them still toiling away at their nets and fully immersed in their former lives as village fishers.
That's a bad reading of Paul, though, which depends on a bad translation of 1 Corinthians 7 (and props to Scott Bartchy for my reading of this passage).
First off, Paul doesn't say “remain in the condition in which you were called.” What Paul says is “remain in the klesis in which you eklethe. As you might be able to tell from the transliteration, those two Greek words are related. Besides in 1 Corinthians 7:20, the word klesis occurs eight other times (Romans 11:29; 1 Corinthians 1:26; Ephesians 1:18, 4:1, and 4:4; Philippians 3:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; and 2 Timothy 1:9) in the New Testament, and each time the NRSV renders it as ”call“ or ”calling.“ That makes perfect sense, since it's derived from the verb kaleö, ”I call.“ What Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:20 is ”remain in the calling in which you were called.“
Another and more thorny translation issue arises in 1 Corinthians 7:21, which the NRSV renders as ”Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition more than ever.“ But there's nothing in the Greek that says ”present condition.“ That phrase is added by our translators to clarify for readers what they're convinced the verse means: namely, that those who are slaves should try to remain slaves even if they are offered freedom. This is a highly problematic reading for at least two reasons, though.
First, nobody polled slaves for their wishes with respect to whether they would be freed. Owners could free slaves if they wished, and they generally did so when it was advantageous to them to do so. For example, a slave who had been injured or had become elderly and was unable to work would often be freed by her or his owner -- at which point, the slave would find, in the immortal words of Kris Kristofferson, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Cast out from the owner's household, possibly separated from family by her or his slavery, a slave in this situation might well want to beg the owner to remain in slavery -- but as I've said, nobody asked them, and when they did ask not to be cast out like a broken appliance, their cries generally fell on deaf ears. Slaves in the first-century Roman Empire couldn't choose to remain slaves any more than they could choose to be freed; their owners held all the cards in this situation. Paul wasn't saying, "if your owner wants to free you, try to remain a slave instead" any more than he was saying, "if you're a slave, try to get your owner to release you." If I can be a little anachronistic with the science, Paul might as well have told them to obey or protest the law of gravity; it would have had as much effect.
So what WAS Paul saying that slaves should do, then, in 1 Corinthians 7:21? The Greek is ambiguous: it's mallon chresai, literally, "rather, make use," and doesn't specify what slaves should make use of. It doesn't make much sense for the object of the phrase to be either "the opportunity to become free" or "the 'opportunity' to remain a slave," since the slave would have no control either way. There is a third possibility, though: that Paul was telling slaves to make use of their klesis, their calling in Christ, regardless of their status as slaves or freedpersons.
This not only works better than the other two readings in the context of what choices were and weren't available to first-century slaves; it also makes the most sense in the context of Paul's thought. Paul was, after all, the person who wrote that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28); and in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul wants slaves who, after all, can't do anything about their status not to feel that it in any way undermines their worth in God's eyes or their ability to live into Jesus' call.
Indeed, Paul holds that Jesus himself was a slave in the world's eyes and died a slave's death, but was honored by God with the name above all names, and Paul instructs all Christians regardless of status to have the "mind of Christ" in this respect (Philippians 2:5-11). Every Christian receives this klesis, this calling, from God. That call from God is hardly a call to stasis, or to passive complicity in propping up an unjust world order. It is rather a call to full humanity in God's image, to full maturity in Christ, and to make full use of the gifts God gives us to live into what we pray: God's just rule come and God's will done, on earth as it is in heaven.
That's the klesis to which we were and are called -- slave or free, male or female, and whatever our nationality. (And, by the way, that's why the FREE, open-source, comprehensive adult formation curriculum I designed with John de Beer is called Klesis.) That's the call that led Andrew and Simon to leave their nets, their homes, their families, and everything that gave them a good name in their culture to follow Jesus, who is always on the move in the world as Christ's Body, anointed with God's Spirit to call the whole world to the wholeness and justice for which it was made.
Thanks be to God!
Christ the King: Proper 29, Year A
First off, I want to offer a personal note encouraging y'all to read this fine reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for this coming Sunday. I commend it to you first on its own merits — its author knows American history far better than I do, and draws on a passage from the autobiography of 19th-century freed slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas in a way that I think will be very helpful and informative for preachers. The reflection is this week's entry in a regular column commenting on the RCL readings in The Witness magazine, which is my new employer. I'm working part-time (i.e., if you've got a potential additional gig for me, please do give me a shout!) for them as the magazine's editor. I've long admired The Witness and its work as an Anglican voice for justice since 1917, and I'm particularly excited about working with them at this particular moment in history. And one other point about this week's RCL reflection at The Witness: its author is none other than my partner. Bravo, Karen!
Now, to my own reflections:
I had an interesting email exchange this week with a regular reader of the lectionary blog about an issue that a lot of us struggle with: the tension between the openness of Jesus' unconditional invitation on one hand and on the other hand, the language of judgment, of insiders and outsiders, in passages like this Sunday's gospel. I've wrestled with it a great deal myself, and while I doubt I'll solve every difficulty we've got with it, I think there's a point that's very important for us to understand as we continue to explore this tension.
Yes, Jesus invites absolutely anyone who will eat with him to come to his table. The invitation to the messianic banquet is open to all -- “the good and the bad,” in the words of Matthew 22:14. In that sense, all are invited to experience “salvation” without precondition.
But what is “salvation”? Both Jesus and Paul saw it not as merely a promise of a blessed afterlife: salvation is something that starts today, and it's about a certain kind of life — specifically, a life in community. And in both Jesus' view and Paul's, that's not just any community: it's a family. Jesus said that anyone who hears God's word and does it is his sister or brother or mother (Mark 3:35). And the metaphor Paul most often uses for what we are as the Church, for who we are in Christ, is that we are sisters and brothers (a point that the NRSV unfortunately obscures frequently by rendering adelphoi, “brothers and sisters,” as “believers” or some other ungendered term). In other words, the invitation Jesus gives us is the invitation to relationship — with one another as much as with him and with the God who created us. Jesus' invitation to us, his ragtag band of disciples from all nations, is to join God's people.
Here's one way I often put it: the invitation to join the community is issued to anyone with any manner of life. But the quality of life in the community — the extent to our life together is an experience of members of one Body of Christ and a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven come to earth now — has a direct relationship to how we choose to live together once we accept Jesus' invitation to join.
Last Sunday, we read a passage of the gospels showing how we treat one another when we're at our worst as the human race. How you'll be treated under this system is a function of two things only: how powerful you are, and how useful you are to those more powerful than you. Are you a wealthy landowner? Then act like it. Call yourself “lord,” demand what you like of those in your power, and feel free to discard people once you've used them up. Behave as though the central question governing our relationships with one another were “what have you done for me lately?”
But the coming of God's kingdom is like this: people will be going about their business in precisely the way described above ... and then the final coming of the Son of Man will reveal to everyone's eyes just how empty that way of life is, just how much pain and how little reward comes of living that way.
And that coming will reveal something else as well: just how rewarding, just how abundant and joyful life is when you live in a different way, the way of those the Son of Man designates as “sheep” in this Sunday's gospel.
I've blogged before about a game I like to play to illustrate the dynamic we see in last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's. To play it, you set the room up for a party — punchbowls, finger foods on trays for serving, and so on. Every person in the room gets a sign taped to his or her back, reading “monarch,” “courtier,” “servant,” or “beggar.” Once everyone has a sign on his or her back, you start the party. The game is to try to guess what sign is on your back, and try to help others guess what's on theirs by treating them as you think someone whose status was what you think your sign says would treat someone whose status matched what the sign on her/his back says. If your sign says “monarch,” the vast majority of guests are going to flatter you and offer you treats; if the sign on your back says “beggar,” you're going to be treated like trash — especially if you have the nerve to act as if you were equal to others with higher status. To debrief, I invite people to share how it felt to be treated as they were, and how they felt having to treat others according to the sign on their backs. And then I pose the question:
What would it be like to live in a community, in a world, in which everyone, especially those smarting from how they're treated by others, were treated as if the sign on their back said “monarch”? What would it be like to live amongst people who treated everyone as if the sign on their back, the “secret identity” of everyone they met, said “Christ the King,” and every Christian saw their life's calling as treating people in such a way that they could guess this?
That's the invitation issued to us this Sunday. That's the vision we're called to claim as ours until it is realized for the world. Could we really allow the Christ child, the boy born as king and the one appointed by God to judge the nations, to die of malaria in infancy in Africa, knowing who this child is and just how little it would take to see him grow up and realize all he was created to be? Could we let a young girl toil away her days fetching water rather than going to school, and her family suffer when that water carries disease, if we loved Jesus as much as we say we do, if we knew what we did and didn't do for this family was what we did and didn't do for the Christ? Or do we want to experience fellowship with Christ by serving and empowering the poor, outcast, and prisoners of our world?
This invitation is not for after we die — the chance to act is gone then. It's an invitation for this moment, this day, this generation. And it's not just about avoiding punishment. What we do, the extent to which we respond to Jesus' invitation not just to come into the House of God's chosen people, but to live as one of the family, in relationship with and caring for the rest of the family as for our own flesh and as for the Body of our Lord, is the extent to which we experience eternal life, God's just and peaceful kingdom, right here and now. In Paul's words, Christ's risen life is the “first fruits,” and we are called to enjoy the full harvest of that abundant life. In Ezekiel's words, the destiny of God's people since the founding of the world is to be fed with God's justice. Do you want a taste of that? It's there for you now, as abundant as are the opportunities to exercise compassion toward the least of Jesus' sisters and brothers.
Thanks be to God!
November 16, 2005 in 1 Corinthians, Christ the King, Eschatology, Ezekiel, Inclusion, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Matthew, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Ordinary Time, Parables, Personal Notes, Prophets, Year A | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Proper 28, Year A
Added 11-14-05: By popular demand, my first podcast. It's pretty much this blog entry read aloud, and it's something of an experiment. Let me know what you think!
By the way, if you haven't yet visited and put a pin down on the SarahLaughed.net online map, please consider doing so. You won't be giving any information that will generate spam, and I am REALLY enjoying seeing where y'all are and hearing your shout-outs!
Oh, and I preached on this text last year; that sermon is here.
Matthew 25:14-15,19-29 - link to NRSV text
This Sunday's gospel is yet another reason to get out of the habit of seeing all of Jesus' parables as allegories in which one character represents God or Jesus. That isn't what's happening here. Take a hard look at the behavior of the master: he's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. Take a look at the behavior this master wants of his slaves: the profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture would of necessity come at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The master tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury (Matthew 25:27), a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament. And the Greek word for "talent" very specifically means a unit of money; it has no relationship whatsoever to the word for an ability, so this is NOT a parable about us being the best we can be, no matter how much our culture of achievement wants to twist it into that. There are versions of that message that can be helpful, but it just isn't what the parable is about.
So what's the message of the story, if it isn't about us using the abilities God gave us? Jesus gives it to us explicitly in verse 29: "to all who have, more will be given, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away." In other words, "the rich get richer, and the destitute lose everything."
Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people? Heck no! If you've got any doubts of that, read what comes immediately after this story: read the prophesy (it isn't a parable) of the sheep and the goats, which tells us that when the Son of Man comes, judgment will not be on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't.
In short, PLEASE don't tell people that the message of this Sunday's gospel is anything along the lines of "make the most of the talents you've got," as its message is much closer to "care for those whom the world would leave destitute." Reading the parable in the context in which it appears in Matthew tells us how Jesus finishes that thought: We shouldn't be like the master in the parable because the world in which people like that come out on top is passing away. Jesus will bring his work in the world to completion; God's kingdom will come and God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. You know that wave I talked about last week? Jesus' parable in this Sunday's gospel is telling us that we should line ourselves up to ride it. It's coming -- bank on that, not on what our culture says is most profitable!
The live question for us, I think, about this Sunday's gospel is whether we can really believe that, if we really can trust in that enough to risk living as Jesus taught us rather than according to the demands of those who try to set themselves up in Jesus' place as our lord, who try to enslave us to wordly standards by telling us that our security is in acquiring resources for ourselves and striking out at our enemies.
I believe we can. We can because it's Jesus who told us this, and Jesus is absolutely trustworthy. And as we inch toward Advent, I want to encourage y'all to look for the signs that Jesus was right, the signs happening in the world right now that the Spirit Jesus sent is living and moving and active in the world to accomplish Jesus' work among us.
They're out there: large and small signs. Here's a large one: over two million Americans have signed the ONE campaign's pledge to use their vote and their voice to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. By 2008, it's expected that over five million will have signed, making this campaign bigger than the National Rifle Association, speaking good news to the poor not only with the moral authority of the cause, but with the power in numbers to make it happen.
I remember when the Berlin Wall came down. That was big. People were dancing in the street; students at the seminary I was at were leaving in droves to dance on the Wall itself as it came down, bringing graffiti-covered chips home to remember the moment. It was big -- the moment of a lifetime, some people would say. But I believe that a moment bigger than that is on its way. It's not a pipe dream; many of our world's top economists think it's attainable in our lifetime. Imagine with me for a moment what the party is going to be like in streets around the world when we're celebrating the end of poverty. Imagine telling your children or grandchildren about that.
That's a vision that made me want to dance, much as it made Mary want to sing:
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
That's what Jesus came to do among us. It's what we pray for when we pray as Jesus taught us. And it's the future we can bank on.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 27, Year A
Those of you preaching this Sunday on the readings for All Saints' instead of those for Proper 27 might find this sermon on Matthew's beatitudes and/or this sermon on Luke's beatitudes and woes helpful. I'll be blogging on the Proper 27 readings:
Here's the scene behind our parable for this Sunday:
It's a wedding. In Jesus' culture, village weddings tended to look something like this: The groom and his family gather at their household (married couples tended to remain living with the groom's parents for as long as the parents survived). The bride and her family and guests gather at her household. The groom and his family make their way to the bride's house to collect the bride. When the groom arrives, he takes the bride indoors, and they do what we might call "consummating the marriage," but in their culture was what would make them married in the eyes of their families and the village: namely, they had sexual intercourse. After that, the blood on the sheets (seen as proof that the bride's hymen had been intact) would be shown to the crowd outside as proof that the couple were married, and partying would ensue.
In the parable we read this Sunday, there are ten young women who are guests of the bride. Five of them don't have enough oil, so they rush out to buy some before the groom arrives. The groom arrives while they're still out, so the party starts without them.
If I were preaching this Sunday, the sermon would probably be titled "People Get Ready" -- and not just because I've wanted since 1987 (when U2 started pulling fans on stage for this purpose) to get pulled on stage to play that song with the band. "People Get Ready" is pretty much the point of this Sunday's gospel reading. The party we've waited for is starting, and if we want to be in on the action, we need to prepare ourselves for what's coming.
That's a pretty popular theme in our culture, if sales of the Left Behind books (and movies, and board games, and who knows what else) are any indication. The message of Left Behind is that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should be ready. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the series' idea of just what that means and how we should prepare departs radically and in very unhelpful ways from what the vast majority of texts in our scriptures have to say.
First off, works like Left Behind have a fascination (perhaps even an obsession) with trying to line up current events with biblical prophesies (which they read as predictions about the future, though in the vast majority of cases it seems clear that the biblical writers took them as comments on events current FOR THEM, centuries ago -- witness Matthew 24:34, for example) to establish when and how what New Testament texts call the parousia (which might best be defined as "Jesus' coming to complete finally and fully his purposes on earth") will happen. Jesus puts the kibosh on that kind of speculation just paragraphs before this Sunday's gospel, in Matthew 24:36: "No one knows of that day and hour -- not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only."
Second, and more seriously, the Left Behind genre seems to be fundamentally confused and WHOSE coming it is that we expect. They get the name right, but they seem to think for some reason that by the time Jesus' parousia happens, he will have undergone a complete personality transplant. They (and especially the horrible and horribly mistitled book Glorious Appearing) seem to have Jesus confused with a creature I call "the Christ-inator," after the robot assasin Arnold Schwarzeneggar played in the first Terminator movie -- an unstoppable force, absolutely determined to kill-kill-kill, and empty of any human feeling, let alone compassion, for its victims.
For those who are eagerly expecting "the Christ-inator," this might sound like bad news, but for the rest of us, who (after hearing too many Left Behind-ish readings of these texts) are tempted to hear readings about Jesus' parousia -- such as we hear in Advent, the season in which we train our hearts particularly on that event -- it's very Good News indeed:
The person we are expecting is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. If we've read the gospels, we should know his character. He taught, healed, and broke bread with anyone who would join him, and he was known particularly for his compassion toward the poor and outcast. While his disciples often seemed to expect him to duck into a phone booth and emerge as Messiah Man to kick the butts of evildoers (props to Scott Bartchy for that image), he consistently denied that was his calling, going even to the cross rather than strike back against violent people.
That's what Jesus was like in his first coming, the Incarnation.
Will he be different at the Second Coming? That's an easy question to answer, because Jesus did come back a second time: we call that "Easter." And when Jesus came among us a second time, he opened the scriptures to his disciples, walked beside them on the road, and cooked them breakfast -- not exactly the behavior of a "Christ-inator."
And don't forget that Jesus said that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. How many times do you think that's happened over the last two millennia? I'm no statitician, but I figure we're probably somewhere in the neighborhood of the trillionth coming of Jesus, and his character remains the same. The Left Behinders have got it wrong: the realization of Jesus' purposes on earth -- what we pray for every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" -- is GOOD News for the world.
That all leads back to the point of this Sunday's gospel. If we're mistaken about who exactly it is that we're expecting in the parousia, we're that much more likely to be mistaken about what that person would have us to do to prepare. I've already talked about the mistake of trying to prepare by trying to calculate when it will happen. The other thing that the Left Behinders seem to think we should be doing to prepare is to talk endlessly about how "the Christ-inator" is coming soon, and if people don't want his army of angels to come around to bust their kneecaps or worse, they'd better pray a prayer to get on his good side.
Is that what Jesus said we should be doing? Personally, I haven't found a single reference anywhere in scripture to "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior." That's a phrase I've actually found helpful from time to time in my life, and I've been "born again" (probably a dozen times or more in the evangelical sense even). But I don't mistake a phrase that makes sense in one late-20th century context for Holy Writ, and of all of the things that scripture teaches us we should do to be ready for Jesus' parousia, the vast majority involve a lot greater expenditure of calories, marshalling of compassion, and putting what we value most on the line than mouthing a "sinner's prayer" or handing out tracts with the "Four Spiritual Laws."
So what is that, then? How do we prepare for Jesus' parousia? Our reading from Amos might give us a clue:
Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
We prepare for the fulfillment of Christ's purposes on earth by doing what he did. We prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it, and God's justice first, as Matthew 6:33 suggests ("justice" is a fine translation of what's often translated as "righteousness," namely dikaiosune -- sorry if I get the transliteration wrong; I really need to learn how to do that properly in ASCII one of these days).
All of those fine-sounding words like "justice" can seem awfully abstract, but it isn't. I'm saying that we prepare for God's kingdom by seeking it in the here and now, gaining strength from a life of prayer to engage in a lifetime of pursuing what God pursues. And what is that? As we move toward Advent especially, we might look to Mary's song of expectation for some pointers -- how about scattering the proud and removing the powerful from their thrones, lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things? If we wanted to seek that, if we expected that God's purposes on earth, the fulfilment of Jesus' work in the world, were really going to happen and we wanted in on the action, wouldn't we be doing things like these?
- Eradicating extreme poverty and hunger
- Achieving universal primary education
- Promoting gender equality and empower women
- Reducing child mortality
- Improving maternal health
- Combatting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
- Caring for God's Creation
- Bringing people together around the world to do justice
This isn't some pie-in-the-sky, wide-eyed dreaming. It's what development experts think we could actually accomplish: that, if we seek this justice first, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Matthew 24:34). Call it "the Millennium Development Goals" or just call it justice for the poor, but don't just talk about it.
People, get ready -- it's coming! It's like a huge wave, and did you know that surfing is basically strategic falling? You align yourself on the board to align the board with the wave such that gravity -- not your own effort propelling you -- takes you down the wave's surface at the right angle for you to just keep falling, sliding down with gravity but zooming at an angle as close as you can get to parallel with the beach. A big wave like that is good news to those of us called to ride it; align yourself with the wave now, and you're in for the ride of a lifetime.
Surf's up! Get ready!
Thanks be to God!
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!
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!
Proper 24, Year A
For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ... in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.
1 Thessalonians 1:4-9
The Thessalonians' faith was known such that there was no need to speak about it because they lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words, they didn't shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God's lordship (and please see this post if you want to know why I want to reclaim that fraught language of "lordship") in their lives.
It's a lesson that the Pharisees and Herodians questioning Jesus in this Sunday's gospel could benefit from, as indicated by a combination of two things often overlooked in the story. The first thing is the setting of the story in the courtyards of the Temple, as indicated in Matthew 21:23. There's something very significant about that for how we read this Sunday's gospel story, and it has to do with why the moneychangers' tables that Jesus overturned in Matthew 21:12 were there in the first place. They were there because coinage of the Roman Empire included images -- such as the image of Caesar, that man who called himself "lord" when that title truly belonged only to God -- that ought not be carried into the temple of the God of Israel, who forbids such images (that's commandment number one in Christian ways of numbering the "big ten"). We need to note that this Sunday's gospel takes place in the Temple because that's what makes the next point such a kicker.
The second point we need to notice in the story is that when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians who are questioning him to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, THESE GUYS CARRIED AN IMAGE OF CAESAR INTO GOD'S TEMPLE! And these are the people who were going to teach Jesus a lesson about devotion to God rather than selling out to Caesar if Jesus failed to condemn paying taxes to Rome?
Until that moment when the coin is handed to Jesus, Jesus was between the horns of a dilemma. Had he said in so many words that paying taxes to Caesar was wrong -- especially during the Passover season, in which countless pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem to remember God's liberation of Israel from slavery under foreigners -- Jesus would be provoking Rome to immediate action against him. Had Jesus said that paying taxes to Rome was right, his questioners were ready to accuse Jesus of disloyalty to Israel.
And then Jesus tripped them up beyond any hope of recovery by showing that they were bearing proclamations of Caesar's lordship into the very Temple of the God they claimed to be serving with such single-mindedness. Anyone who was there to listen probably would have heard in dozens of voices whatever was the first-century Jerusalemite's equivalent of "D'OH!!!!!!!" On the spot, Jesus has won the argument; he could now go home in peace, having avoided that difficult question entirely while still carrying the day against his critics.
But he doesn't. Jesus, having already won the argument, answers the question anyway.
What he says might have confused anyone around (if indeed there was anyone meeting this description) who didn't know their Torah from their Plato, but it wouldn't have confused any self-respecting Pharisee. Jesus says, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's, and give to God what is God's." So what in this world is God's?
Our reading for this Sunday from Isaiah provides some clues. It has God addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, a gentile, as one who is nonetheless called by the God of Israel. In other words, it's not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath. And God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help "though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other. Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth.
As Psalm 24:1 puts it:
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it.
It's a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make as they said that the land of Israel and everything in it belonged to the God of Israel. But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- the question of whether Israelites should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing:
What belongs to God is everything.
And if we really take seriously the claim that God is rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it, over what is Caesar a rightful lord?
Nothing. Squat. Nada.
That is the radical edge and the liberating cry of the claim that "Jesus is Lord"; as I've argued before, it's that when we make that the central fact of our lives, nobody and nothing else gets to make the same claim. So when it comes to all wordly powers who would be our lord, whether it's the flag of a nation, a cause that we hold dearer than the Spirit's guidance and the fruit of following it, those amorphous but ubiquitous would-be lords of respectability and achievement, or a person who wants to take God's place as Lord of our lives, get up off your knees. They have no rightful claim on you at all. And when somebody else wants to condemn you for the freedom Christ won for you, then remember how often people lash out at their own shadow sides, and ask them to produce a coin. You might be surprised -- and get a much-neededm life-affirming, and despot-disarming laugh in the process -- at what you discover.
Thanks be to God!
Proper 23, Year A
It's fun to be writing this week's entry from the Cornerstone Café in Edinburgh, where I worked while I was in seminary and which was an important part of my formation and my vision of what the messianic banquet might look like on earth. Especially being here so near St. Francis' day, Brother Basil (SSF when I knew him, though I understand he's now a Roman Catholic priest), who founded the café, is very much on my mind. If you happen to know him, please pass along my greetings!
This Sunday's gospel passage is a challenging one. Like last week's gospel, it tells a story of violence that should disturb us. Like last week's gospel, it portrays the devastating consequences of perpetuating or escalating the spiral of violence rather than choosing Jesus' way of resisting evil with love rather than arms and blows. Like last week's gospel, it seems to invite an allegorical reading, with the king as God, the king's son as Jesus, and the unworthy subjects who kill the king's messengers as those who persecuted and killed prophets, and especially those who persecuted and killed Jesus and his apostles.
Once again, though, I'm mostly resisting that ready temptation to allegorize. Jesus' condemnation of violent retaliation is so clear and so consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his career but also and perhaps even more importantly by his own example of becoming subject to death on a cross rather than striking out at his persecutors, that I think one would need a great deal of evidence to support a suggestion that the God whom Jesus proclaimed is one who will retaliate violently when God's messengers are attacked. Whatever else we might want to say about this passage, let us remain always grounded in the central confession of Christian faith that we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate, and if we believe that, we must say that the eternal character of God is the character displayed in Jesus, who is nothing like the vengeful king of this story.
I know that many do and will continue to read this Sunday's gospel as an allegory in which the king is God, so I will say one thing about how I would preach on this text if I were going to allegorize it in this way:
*If* we are going to say that God is the king in this parable (a stretch I don't care to make myself), then at the very least, we must say that the parable reserves as God's role alone a task which too many people try to claim for themselves: God is the one who will settle any scores that need settling. No matter what evil others do or are accused of doing, no matter what murder or terror is committed by human beings, taking human lives is the sole prerogative of the God who is the source of life. If God is the king in this parable, then we are NOT the king, and we've got no business pretending otherwise. Those who proclaim that Jesus' blood shed on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of the world in particular are bound to proclaim it with their lives, by being absolutely clear that no human being may ever say again that blood must be shed because of sin.
Furthermore, if we allegorize the wedding feast dimension of this Sunday's parable as a picture of the messianic banquet, we have to acknowledge at least that the guest list for the party and the task of modifying it if that should for any reason be necessary along the way belong fully and exclusively to the king -- a part which no allegorical reading says is ours. The job of the servants is to gather all -- “both good and bad,” as our text for this Sunday says. Some may show up without proper wedding garments -- no small slight, as wedding garments were often designed in such a way as to thwart casting of the evil eye, a curse to which people were particularly prone at joyous events like weddings, which might arouse a person's envy. But even if we see someone doing something that, like going to a wedding without the proper garment, is believed to cause actual and potentially deadly harm, it's still not our place to decide they should be tossed out. If that call belongs to anyone, it would be to the king.
But this Sunday's gospel isn't just a loud “thou shalt not” to those who would claim God's prerogative of judgment; it's an invitation to enjoy the freedom and peace that comes with leaving all of that to God. As long as we feel personally charged with deciding who should pay for their sins and how, there will be no rest for us -- not only because there is always some crime which we might feel charged to avenge, but also (and perhaps more importantly) because when we're caught up in the vengeance cycle, those dark places we see and lash out at in others are bound to be projections of unacknowledged and therefore unhealed dark places in ourselves. In other words, people caught in the vengeance cycle are “treating” something that isn't the wound, leaving the real wound to fester.
Jesus offers us freedom from all that. Is vengeance needed at all, ever? Will the climax of history include a meting out of justice that includes punishment of unrepentant evildoers? That's an open question within the Christian canon -- some texts seem to suggest that there will be such a thing, and others seem to preclude it. But our Lord is clear on one thing: if that's needed, then God will take care of it at the end of the age. We can rest in that.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Thanks be to God!