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Proper 9, Year C

Luke 10:1-12, 16-20 - link to NRSV text

I'll start with a side note: this passage is yet another good reason not to say “the twelve disciples” when what is meant is “the Twelve,” Peter and James and John and the rest. The gospels are clear that there were more than twelve followers of Jesus. It's also clear from this Sunday's gospel that there were more than twelve apostles.  “Apostles” means “ones sent,” and in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus chooses seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which manuscript you're reading) and sends them out ahead of him as his messengers and agents. And, by the way, there's no reason to assume that these people were all men.

Why seventy 'apostles' here? What's the significance of that? There are a few possibilities. The number seventy is a number of fullness; it often appears in contexts in which it means basically “a big bunch.” Some commentators say that the number seventy here is the number of “the nations” (i.e., the Gentiles), and that Luke is here showing that Gentiles are among those sent out as Jesus' agents. Personally, I lean toward Numbers 11 as the main biblical antecedent for Luke's use of the number seventy here. In Numbers 11, Moses appoints seventy elders to assist him, and they are anointed with the spirit with which Moses is anointed. The tradition of having seventy elders of Israel continues, with the body of seventy elders eventually becoming the Sanhedrin.

Jesus sets apart twelve of his followers as “the Twelve” to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. In other words, Jesus' ministry is reconstituting Israel, God's people. That's pretty much the only distinctive function the Twelve serve. They don't serve in Acts as any kind of governing council; they don't appear as a body after the election of Matthias in Acts 1, and in the “apostolic council” of Acts 15, James the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the Twelve, seems to be the leader of the Jerusalem disciples. They also are not the only or even the primary “apostles” or “ones sent”; even in Luke's usage of the term, which is stricter than Paul's, the Seventy have just as strong a claim to the “apostle” title as the Twelve do.

So one thing that the choosing and sending of the Seventy does for us as we read Luke is that it reminds us of what is NOT special about the Twelve. The Spirit's anointing is not at all confined to the Twelve, or even mediated by them, but is poured out in expanding circles -- first twelve, then seventy, and then (in Acts 2) believers from every nation.

Another thing that the story in this Sunday's gospel does is that in showing Jesus choosing seventy who (like those Moses gathers in Numbers 11) receive some of the spirit that rests on him, it takes up Luke's motif of showing Jesus as a (or even THE) “prophet like Moses,” another one of those eschatological figures expected within some Jewish traditions, and one of particular interest to Luke.

It's a fairly subtle but recurring motif in Luke-Acts, and one that I think is important in Luke's view of Jesus' passion. We got a big clue to that in Luke 9's story of Jesus' transfiguration, which sets the tone for the journey toward Jerusalem. In Luke 9:31, we're told that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' “departure, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.”  The Greek word for “departure” here is none other than exodus.

That's what Jesus is accomplishing for us in Jerusalem. It's our exodus, as we allude to in a different way when we say, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”  I've blogged about this before, but it's worth sharing briefly again a bit of midrash I heard from Rabbi Alexander Schindler some years ago.  The Hebrew name for 'Egypt' is Mitzrayim, “the narrow place.”  Jesus, as the “prophet like Moses,” leads us out of our narrow places, our places of slavery, and into the desert, where we receive the Torah and are made a people, God's people. We are freed from Egypt's power so we can serve God's power by being a people who use power as God commands and does, to further justice and mercy.

The wideness of God's mercy can be intimidating or even frightening to those who are accustomed to Mitzrayim, the narrow place. We may look back with longing to narrowness, and to comforting rules about who can and should prophesy. But one more reason I like to read the sending of the Seventy in Luke's gospel as an allusion to Numbers 11 is because I think it works well in Luke's theology to see part of the lesson as being the lesson of Numbers 11:29. When people complain about Eldad and Medad prophesying “out of bounds,” in the view of some, Moses exclaims, “Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”

The sending of the Seventy reminds of us of that longing, of its fulfillment at Pentecost, and of our call to continue longing for its fulfillment among us. It reminds us not to be jealous or shocked by God's profligate generosity of (and with) Spirit. It reminds us that we too are exhorted to pursue love, the greatest of gifts, and to strive especially to prophesy, to speak truth to power in God's love (1 Corinthians 14:1). We need all of God's prophets to hear God's voice in the desert, to become the people God calls us to be.

Thanks be to God!

June 28, 2004 in Acts, Inclusion, Luke, Pentecost, Prophets, Transfiguration, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 8, Year C

Luke 9:51-62 - link to NRSV text

"Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60).

A while ago, someone asked me for a collection of verses showing Jesus' and Paul's teachings on the family, as he wanted to create a bible study for young people on "family values." I said that this verse was a key one for Jesus' perspective on the family, but that the proposed study probably wouldn't go over very well with the parents. The thing is, Jesus and Paul both weren't big on "family values," at least as defined by their culture or ours.

In Sunday's gospel, a man called to follow Jesus responds that he first must bury his father. That doesn't mean that the father has already died and is just awaiting burial. In Jesus' culture, children -- especially sons -- are the only social security. If you have sons, they (and their wives and children) are expected to stick around to take care of you until you die, and then to make sure you get a proper burial. The least you can do to "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12) is to take care of them when they grow old.

But Jesus says, in effect, "let 'em rot." You have absolutely no obligation toward an earthly father; your obligation is to your heavenly Father. But why not do both -- honor your biological father AND God? The answer is that it's just not possible to do that in Jesus' culture, at least as Jesus defines what honoring God means. For starters, Jesus calls people to drop their nets and their plows, leave their villages, and follow him. You just can't do that with your parents and children in tow. Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Chuza (Luke 8:1-3) are happy enough to provide for the other disciples and Jesus from what they've saved, but they just don't have enough to support everyone's extended family too. And even if they're fit to travel, how fair is it to drag them into the kind of shocking behavior you've been called to engage in as you follow Jesus?

This is called one of Jesus' "hard sayings," because it says that, at least under some circumstances, if you do your duty toward your family, that will entail serious compromises in how you follow Jesus. That's especially hard in a culture which -- like Jesus' culture, or for that matter like ours -- having a family and working hard to take care of them are what anthropologists call "redemptive media," things that our culture says we should do if we want to be considered good people.

In some ways, it's easier to follow Jesus if you don't have much respectability to lose. That's probably part of what's behind Jesus' saying, "Honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). The difficulty we respectable folk have following Jesus is compounded by our "mainstream" culture's tendency to equate the phrase "being a Christian" with "being nice" or "being good."

Lord, deliver us from the temptation of seeking respect when we should be seeking your voice.

June 21, 2004 in Kinship/Family, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 7, Year C

Luke 9:18-24 - link to NRSV text

Ah, the tyranny of expectations.

Actually, I probably should have said, "Ah, how tyrants make use of expectations."

It's one of the simplest ways to keep people in line, it seems. Find a category that applies to them (e.g., men, women). Tell them that their behavior does not fit the category. Scramble to watch them adjust their behavior to convince you that they're a real man, woman, American, or what-have-you.

The odd thing about the categories that are most effective for use in this little game is that they're about identity -- about who and what you just are. John de Beer, one of the rectors (we've got co-rectors) I work with, likes to tell the story of how he coached his sons through anxiety about what "real" men could and could not do. "What do you see when you unzip your trousers and look down?" he'd say, "You are a man. What you do is what a man does."

John suggests that one could think about identity as a Christian that way. Are you a Christian? What you do is what a Christian does. It's not like you've been playing the part in regional theater and you're still trying out for a chance to do the "real thing." It's not a part you're playing; it's who you are. It's an interesting thought, isn't it? I think that's pretty much what Augustine was talking about when he said, "Love God, and do what you will." If you do love God, if your identity is in your relationship with God, then the other things follow.

The tyrants -- people who want to set themselves up as the authorities in your life, taking the place of God, who is the only one rightly called "lord" or "father" -- REALLY don't like that. They push back. I think they often mean well. They want you to succeed. But "success" in that scheme just enslaves you further to their expectations.

I don't want to imply that Jesus was undergoing some kind of internal, Western-style identity crisis; that's foreign to Jesus' culture (which was what anthropologists call an "honor/shame culture" -- more info on that in this book). When Jesus asks "Who do the crowds say that I am?" it's in a culture in which that's a serious question to ask straightforwardly. And the crowd's response is a good one: Jesus is a prophet, in the tradition of John the Baptizer and Elijah. He speaks truth to power; he reminds people that the God of Israel is Lord, and wants people to extend justice and mercy in community.

Then Jesus asks his friends, "Who do you say that I am?" (By the way, this question also illustrates how identity in Jesus' culture comes from the group -- this isn't the angsty Jesus of Last Temptation, much as I liked that movie.) Peter answers, "You are anointed by God." 'Anointed' is what 'Messiah' means. And that answer clearly bothers Jesus. Prophets were sometimes (literally) anointed, and Jesus consistently embraces the role of prophet. But the other two big categories of people who were anointed were high priests and kings, and those are seriously problematic for Jesus.

Jesus doesn't want to head up the Temple hierarchy, and he doesn't want to head up the palace hierarchy; his prophetic ministry undermines both. And just try for a moment to imagine Jesus serving as high priest or king as those roles were defined. As high priest (not, mind you, that he was of the right bloodline for that role), he'd be the one on whose purity (as in "don't come into contact with anything or anyone impure") the whole nation's observance of Day of Atonement would depend, as I've blogged a bit about before. As king, the nation's success would depend on his being taken seriously by neighboring rulers. He'd have to play the part, demonstrate his power by erecting palaces and temples, paid for with taxes on the poor he called "blessed." He'd have to command armies -- and "turn the other cheek" wouldn't fly with them as a national defense policy.

That wasn't Jesus' vocation, so he refuses to be defined by those expectations. Rather than accept the 'anointing' of others' recognition of his lordship and worthiness of his sacrifice, he LIVES his vocation; he exercises the power he has -- the power God gives him -- rather than accept the power others would give him.

That strikes me as a good strategy. There are still people who start from the categories -- Jesus is Lord, at the right hand of God the Father, who is pure, holy, and righteous -- and move from there to how Jesus, and the Spirit whom Jesus breathes on his followers, ought to (and therefore do -- after all, God can't break God's own laws!) behave. That puts God in a box.

Another approach is to look at how Jesus behaves, to look for what the Spirit is doing -- and scripture and the living tradition of the Church are key in that process, of course -- and then, knowing that Jesus is Lord and the Spirit is the Spirit of the God of Israel, let that inform our theology. We can take to heart Augustine's "love God, and do what you will." We can anoint what Jesus does, rather than expect Jesus to live into what we anoint.

Thanks be to God!

June 14, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 6, Year C (Part II)

Galatians 2:11-21 - link to NRSV text
Luke 7:36-50 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 32 - link to Lectionary Page

If this part of my Proper 6 blogging were to get its own title, I'd call it "Fellowship and Forgiveness."

That's a live issue right now in my congregation, and in the church in general. A lot of communities are experiencing conflict that's far more open than the usual simmering stuff that we can and do ignore unless it boils over.

It's especially hard when the conflict is a matter of principle between two principled parties, and when things get difficult, it's often tempting to idealize a past perceived as conflict-free -- something I occasionally call the Happy Days syndrome. It seems, though, there was principled conflict among Jesus' followers pretty much from the moment he had more than one of them.

This Sunday's passage from Luke shows Jesus eating in the home of a Pharisee. Pharisees are among Jesus' followers in Luke-Acts; a number of them hang out with Jesus in the gospel. And it's really not that surprising that at least some Pharisees would find Jesus' message attractive. Pharisees accepted the prophetic writings, like Isaiah, as scripture, when some other schools did not. Pharisees were well known in the first century for their openness to converts and their joy when a Gentile was won over. Pharisees eagerly anticipated God's action to make Israel a light to the nations, and looked for the anointed leader who could fulfill that promise.

The book of Acts continues Luke's portrayal of how close Pharisaism was to Jesus' message. Acts 15, presents the scene of Pharisaic Christians present at the "apostolic council" in Jerusalem. Indeed, the person who is probably the most famous Pharisee in history was none other than St. Paul, who is shown in Acts (as does Paul's own letter to the Philippians) as continuing to identify -- in the present tense -- as a Pharisee long after his Damascus Road experience. When conflict arose between Pharisees and Jesus, or between Pharisaic and non-Pharisaic Christians, it was a conflict between siblings, not enemies. It was a conflict that arose out of shared passion -- passion to see God's kingdom come and God's will done on earth as it is in heaven, to share the full joy of devotion to the God of Israel with members of all nations. I think that's why the conflict was so painful and so protracted.

And it went on for decades, if not centuries, if not millennia. The main point of conflict is still a live one. One view is that the invitation issued to all is the invitation to get with the program, to repent, and then to come to the table to be in fellowship with God and God's people. Another view is that the invitation issued to all is the invitation to the table, to full communion without precondition, and that change in behavior -- "amendment of life," to use the traditional phrase -- is a response in gratitude for the grace of the unconditional invitation.

That's the point, I think, in what Luke does to his source material in this Sunday's gospel. Clearly, the story Luke tells here is a parallel to Mark 14:3-9. The story in Mark has quite a different thrust. Jesus is dining in the house of a leper (not a Pharisee) when a woman comes in and anoints his head (not his feet). Dinner guests scold the woman for her extravagance (not her manner of life, as she is not "a sinner," as she is in Luke), but Jesus points out that this woman is the only one who anticipates and understands what he's been saying for some time: that he is indeed the Anointed, the messiah, but that he must nonetheless suffer and die. Luke uses the story to serve a different point -- not, I think, because he was in any way embarrassed at the prospect of women prophets pointing to Jesus as messiah. Luke is the one who, in his Pentecost story, brings in Joel's prophesy that women and men would both prophesy, and he seems not at all shy about naming women leaders and patrons among Jesus' followers. So Luke tells his story of a woman anointing Jesus to raise once more what is a major theme for him, especially in material unique to his gospel: forgiveness.

For Luke, as for Mark, the woman who anoints Jesus is speaking directly to a central issue with which the community struggled, but for Luke the issue is that chicken-or-egg question of how new life and the new community of God's people starts. It is not a question of who values scripture more; all sides of the conflicts held a high view of the same scriptures. It is not a question of whether God is gracious or not; all sides praise God for limitless grace. And it is not a question of whether journeying with Christ requires changes that can turn one's life upside-down; all sides saw radical change as being necessary. Otherwise, if people were just joining a community that didn't take Israel's scriptures seriously, didn't believe God to be the loving and gracious God of Israel, and didn't believe that worshipping the God of Israel was something done with a life that builds God's kingdom as well as with prayers and praise, then this community would just be another interest group, a kind of philosophical society or mystery cult like so many scattered around the Roman Empire. That's something else that Jesus' followers agree on.

But one set of views -- a set that included Luke's and Paul's -- held that the Word, the holiness of the God of Israel, and the hard choices required of the people of Israel were most fully expressed in letting go of ALL score-keeping -- of tracking monetary debts owed, sins committed and repentance needed, and of standards for cleanliness of food served and hands that share it. That wasn't the only possible, sensible, or loving way to read scripture and to interpret what God is doing in the world; intelligent, sensitive, and sincere people could and did come to different conclusions. The church from its earliest days struggled with this, and the rhetoric around the conflict -- rhetoric like what we see in this Sunday's Epistle reading -- rivaled for forcefulness anything to come out of a camp within the church today. It's painful stuff, to see brothers fight like this.

But the challenge I experience in moments like this -- especially as one who falls toward the "amendment of life is a response to being invited in" side of the spectrum -- is to express in the conflict what I think God is doing in the world, and that's inviting us all to join the feast we taste most fully when we share it most freely. The more painful the conflict, the more chances for us all to enter the experience of the woman who met Jesus amongst those who called her a sinner, whose extravagant love only became richer for the scorn it attracted, and who received Jesus' forgiveness in circumstances that must have required her extending it to those who scorned her.

Thanks be to God!

June 8, 2004 in Psalms | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 6, Year C (Part I)

This is going to be at least a two-parter; reflections on the Epistle and Gospel readings will be up in a bit.

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15 - link to NRSV text

Decisions, decisions ...

I'm preaching this Sunday, and my congregation does the Hebrew Bible OR the Epistle reading, but not both. Which to do?

Both readings have great drama. Can you imagine being Nathan?

I think my knees would have been knocking on the way to the throne room. In the nations, kings were supposed to be lords of everything in their territory. It wasn't possible for a king to steal something from one of his subjects; if he took something from his subjects, he was just taking what was his. Telling him otherwise was a very dangerous job.

But the people of the God of Israel were supposed to do things differently. As far as God's people were concerned, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1). Yahweh was Israel's king; no further applications for the "king of Israel" position were to be taken. Even after the Israelites demanded and got an earthly king, deep ambivalence about the wisdom of that decision remained in the tradition. Small wonder, given how often Israel's kings were tempted to act like their royal counterparts in other nations, to act as though the land and its fullness belonged to the king, to act as though the people and the land both existed to increase and demonstrate the wealth and power of the rich and powerful.

And that's how David is acting when Nathan confronts him. What David has done is much worse even than what the man in Nathan's story does. The rich man takes a lamb from a poor man; David kills in order to steal, and in the process treats a woman like livestock.

True, there was a lot of that going around in cultures of the ancient Near East -- much as there were a lot of kings who thought all they surveyed was rightly theirs. But God's people are supposed to use power as God does, not to further their own privilege, but to serve the poor. God's people are supposed to remember that the only one who deserves to be called "lord" is God. Nathan's job is to remind King David that he has a Lord to whom he is subject -- and that Lord can't sanction treating Uriah and Bathsheba as objects.

No, I'm not trying to make Nathan into a proto-feminist -- that just wouldn't be possible in that cultural and historical context. But Nathan uses his access to the corridors of power to speak truth to power, and that call is still the call of God's people.

June 8, 2004 in 1 Samuel, Histories, Justice, Ordinary Time, Prophets, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)

no blogger can serve two masters ...

I'm hard at work on an immediate writing deadline for the strategic plan of the parish where I work, and I can tell that I'm going to need the remaining couple of hours in this day (day before deadline) for that assignment. The lectionary blog entry will arrive Tuesday morning, and I think it will be worth the wait.  I'm preaching this Sunday, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about all three of this coming Sunday's lectionary readings, so I hope your patience with respect to the blog entry will be more than rewarded.

June 7, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)