Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21 - link to NRSV text

Philippians 3:4b-14 - link to NRSV text

John 12:1-8 - link to NRSV text

I hope you'll indulge me -- I'm going to start with something of an aside this week, as there's something in the epistle reading from Philippians 3 that I very much want to underscore. Its very first sentence points out two things about St. Paul that are often ignored or misunderstood.

First, it's that Paul, like a significant number of early Christians (such as the Pharisaic Christian contingent at the "council of Jerusalem" in Acts 15), identifies as a Pharisee as well as a follower of Jesus; the only point in his catalog of identities in Philippians 3:4 that no longer applies is "persecutor of the church." In other words, Luke's portrayal in Acts 23:6 of Paul, long after his experience on the road to Damascus, saying in the present tense, "I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees" is realistic. Regular readers know (as the archives of this blog on the subject demonstrate) that I feel strongly that Christians should avoid presenting the Pharisees as stock villains and using the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "sanctimonious jerk." It's language that comes across as antisemitic, and furthermore, it's language that distorts the historical record and even the sometimes complicated ways Pharisees and Pharisaism are portrayed in the New Testament. As far as we can tell, Paul identified as a Pharisee to his dying day, so at least in his view, there's nothing about being a Pharisee that's in necessary conflict with following Jesus.

Second, it's worth noting that Paul specifically says that "as to righteousness under the Law" he was "blameless." In other words, Paul does NOT think that humankind needs Jesus because human beings can't manage to observe the Law and therefore can't have righteousness without having Jesus' righteousness imputed to them. Paul says right here in Philippians that he was righteous under the Law; clearly he thought that people COULD observe it. I have little doubt that Paul could assess his Torah observance in this way in part because he, like any other Pharisee, knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored. As myriad texts (e.g., Psalm 103) in the Hebrew bible demonstrate, the God of Israel has always offered people forgiveness. This whole stereotype of Judaism as proclaiming a God who, prior to the Incarnation, was impossible to please and whose presence could not be experienced by human beings is, to borrow Paul's word in Philippians 3:8, skubalon -- which, by the way, the Liddell-Scott Greek lexicon translates as "dung" or "excrement," though the NRSV renders it more in a more genteel fashion as "rubbish."

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I'd like to say more about Paul's view of the Law and why he thinks we need Jesus, and you can find more of my thoughts about that elsewhere in the lectionary blog, but I've already stretched the definition of "aside"; it's time to get to what I actually plan to preach on this week.

This Sunday's gospel story seems to be based on an earlier story -- one of my favorites in the New Testament -- that appears first in written form in the Gospel According to Mark, 14:1-11. Two days before the Passover, in the last week of Jesus' life, Jesus' followers are sharing a meal. The men among the Twelve, and especially Peter, have been fairly consistently portrayed as misunderstanding who Jesus is and potentially even standing in the way of what Jesus came to do. But two days before the Passover at dinner, a woman -- a prophet -- shows that she understands Jesus as the male disciples haven't. She anoints Jesus' head, dramatically proclaiming Jesus to be the one anointed by God (in other words, the christ or messiah), and in a context that makes clear that she has anointed Jesus also for the way of the Cross he has proclaimed. And Jesus commends her prophetic action in glowing terms, saying that wherever the Good News is proclaimed, this woman's story will be told in memory of her.

Ironically, while we know the names of others -- even the name of the host of this dinner party in Mark 14 -- the name of the woman is lost to us. So much for Jesus' disciples keeping her memory. Luke (in chapter 7) makes the woman an anonymous "sinner." John 12 gives her a name, at least -- Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus -- but like Luke, John has her anointing Jesus' feet, not his head, turning an act of prophesy into an act solely of personal and emotional devotion -- even an act that could be seen as competing with and undermining ministry to the poor.

But is that really what's going on? I have my doubts.

I think it's worth remembering that, as Malina and Rohrbaugh point out, hands and feet were seen in the ancient Mediterranean world as representing action -- action with intentionality. While Mark has the woman anointing Jesus' person, and by extension his actions, in John's story the woman is declaring Jesus' actions, Jesus' mission in the world, as anointed by God, and by extension his person.

These differences give the stories different emphases. And if you'll indulge me in another aside (this one brief, I promise), it reminds me of why it's so important not to try to harmonize the differences we hear in the the gospels -- or to try to impose uniformity in Christian community. We need those different voices, those different emphases, even or especially when they seem to be in tension with one another.

We need them if we're going to do what Mary does in this Sunday's gospel: identify and bless Jesus' intentional action, what God is doing in the world -- also known as God's mission.

I'll put it this way, with a confession: I suspect that nine times out of ten, when God is saying to me, "I am about to do a new thing; / now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" my response is something like this:

"You have reached the internal answering machine of Sarah Dylan Breuer. I'm out doing all of the things I think are God's will, the things I think I need to do to make a living, and the things I just plain want to do, but have managed to rationalize as being totally necessary. Please leave your name at the tone, so I know whether you're among those from whom I expect spiritual counsel, and assuming you're on the list, I'll get back to you when ... well, I might get back to you."

What would it look like if I lived more deeply into the kind of prophetic witness we see in this week's texts? How might our lives be different in our households, our worshipping communities, our world if, instead of asking God to bless our activity, we, like Mary, were looking for the ways in which God is acting in the world and looking for ways we could bless and support God's action?

I feel blessed to have joined one of the most mission-minded parishes I've ever seen. There are so many people here giving so much of themselves and using so many of their spiritual gifts to advance God's mission. And one thing that could enhance our ability to identify God's activity in the world and bless it would be more opportunity for us to listen to one another, to hear one another's stories. I'm not just talking about stories of how we serve in and through the church. We should indeed be celebrating, thanking, supporting, and blessing one another in our ministries in church, but it's worth remembering that most of us spend the vast majority of our time in other places, and that time in other places can be ministry in the service of God's mission just as surely -- perhaps even more surely -- than time spent in this building.

If we believe that God is at work in the world, after all -- if we want to anoint Jesus' feet, his action out there -- then we need to be looking for evidence of Jesus' work in the world; we need to see the world and people's work in it through the lens of Jesus' ministry, in the context of salvation history, the story of God's creating the world and drawing it to God's self.

That means we need to be in touch both with that story of God's making and loving the world and with the stories of human beings in the world experiencing God's redemption and the historical and personal wounds in need of God's healing.

Those who know me well will not be surprised to hear me say that I think one of the very best ways to be in touch with the world's very reason for being -- with the love of God that created the world and is bringing it toward the peace, justice, and love for which it aches -- is to spend some serious calories in close reading of the scriptures. It's very hard to discern what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know, and very well, what Jesus was up to in Galilee and Judea, and in the lives and communities of early saints such as Paul and the writers of the gospels. It's hard to understand what Jesus was up to in the past if one doesn't immerse oneself in the Torah and the prophets that formed Jesus' own view of who God is and what engaging God's mission would look like.

And of course, one can't know what Jesus is up to in the world today if one doesn't know what's going on in the world today. I thank God for some of the tools I use, such as the Global Voices website, which compiles and translates web logs from all over the world that allow you and me to hear from ordinary people -- anonymous Gay Christians in Uganda, teenagers in Iraq, and countless others. But even these technological marvels are nothing compared to the resource we have in one another, in our congregations and in the larger Body of Christ. Tell me what your wildest dreams for the world are and the moments in which you catch glimpses of it at work, on the bus, with your children (or even your parents!), and I'll know that much more about where Jesus' feet fall around the world. When we share our stories -- and particularly when we come together as God's people to enter into the biblical story and ponder how our own stories might be told in the context of that great, wonderful tale -- we can see the paths that Jesus is wending through our world to bring redemption, and we have opportunity in encouraging and supporting one another's growth and ministry to bless and anoint the very feet of the Son of God.

It's hard to say what might be inspired by that process of being in touch with the world's wounds, with God's work of bringing the world to wholeness, and with the great and small wonders present in the gifts and vocations of each one of us. I wonder what might happen if those of us living in families not only ate dinner together, but asked one another questions that go beyond "How was your day?" to "What makes you angry about what's going on in the world? What inspires you? What's God doing, in the world and in you?" Parents, if you're lacking in inspiration to ask those questions, I encourage you to ask your kids, who know and care about a great deal of God's mission, and can often talk about it far more articulately than you or I can. Kids and students, try asking your parents about things like this. It might seem weird at first, but you might find conversations like this bringing out amazing ways in which God is calling you, and surprising support in living into that call -- not just in some distant year when you've got your degrees and have checked off all of the right boxes, but now.

And what, I wonder, would it do to coffee hour if we were asking one another, "So, what do you see going on in the world? What's God up to?," or even, "How has God been working in your life lately?" Among other things, we might find that we had far more to talk about that coffee hour would allow.

That's the danger of this sort of enterprise: Enter into scripture's stories of God's loving and redeeming the world, and you just might find yourself hungry for more. Enter into the stories of your neighbors and their experience of God's love and redemption, and you might catch a glimpse of something that will change your life. Look for and bless what Jesus is doing in the world, and as surely as Jesus is Lord of history, you will see the world healing, growing, and changing.

Thanks be to God!

March 24, 2007 in Discernment, Forgiveness, Isaiah, John, Justice, Lent, ONE campaign/Millennium Development Goals, Pharisees, Philippians, Prophets, Righteousness, Women, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Second Sunday in Lent, Year C

Luke 13:31-35 - link to NRSV text

I have a feeling that a lot of people will react to this Sunday's gospel by remarking that politics make strange bedfellows. Commentators' chief concern in the passage is often to puzzle over Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees. In Luke 12:1, Jesus warns, "Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy." But Jesus also dines with Pharisees at their invitation. Luke in his narrator's voice says, as if none of his readers would think of contesting him, that the Pharisees "were lovers of money" (Luke 16:14). But in this Sunday's gospel, Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.

I think the first thing worth noting is our impulse to try to decide whether "the Pharisees" were "good guys" or "bad guys." It's an impulse to fight. It's better than the all-too-common impulse many Christians have to use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "rule-bound hypocrite," "jerk," or "villain," I'd say. And I'll say this in bold type (anyone who's read this blog for a while knows how rare this is, so please take is as a signal to, as Mark would say, "let the reader understand" how important I believe it to be):

Christian use the word "Pharisee" as I've described above will often, and I think rightly, be heard as antisemitic (i.e., reflecting hatred of Jews) by our Jewish neighbors.

Folks, please remember that Jewish campus ministries around the country are called "Hillel House," after Hillel, the great teacher and prominent Pharisee. All major branches of Judaism surviving today are in some sense descended from the Pharisees; others were mostly wiped out in the devastating wars with Rome in the first and second century. Our rhetoric about Pharisees is unfortunately and mostly unthinkingly conditioned by Reformation rhetoric that used "the Pharisees" as stand-ins to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, a tradition that, much to my frustration, continues today amongst many of my fellow Christian progressives who, when they want to insult their fellow Christians, compare them to Pharisees -- that, is, to Jews. Well, I've said it before (and you may find some more information on why I'm saying it in the archive of posts on Pharisees), but it's worth saying again:

It's well past time for the antisemitic tradition of Christians insulting other Christians by comparing them to Jews to end. Please. You can do it: just walk away from the metaphor. It's misleading, its roots are in hatred, and it does no good to interfaith relations, to justice, or to our souls.

The bottom line, I'd say, is that we see Pharisees so often in conflict with Jesus in the canonical gospels NOT because the Pharisees' ideas and way of life were antithetical to Jesus', but because they had so very much in common. They (unlike most other Jews in the first century) read prophetic texts like Isaiah as scripture. They (unlike the Sadducees) thought that scripture and its injunctions must be interpreted using our reason in light of changing circumstances. Both the Pharisees and Jesus believed that the sacrifices of prayer and holy living where people were day by day were at least as important as anything that went on in the Temple. Both the Pharisees' movement and Jesus' were known for reaching out to others, and both were known for their enthusiastic welcome to Gentiles who wanted to join up. Really. There's more info on all of this in the archive.

It's worth remembering as we read texts about Pharisees that the Pharisees are not like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, linked telepathically with one another and acting in unison. Indeed, one of the best things to remember about Pharisees is that they actually VALUED difference and debate. The Talmud is a long record of debates, of Pharisaic teachers disagreeing with one another, coming together to share their best arguments before the assembly, of voting on a decision, and then recording the minority opinion along with the majority. Should we be surprised that Luke shows some Pharisees as hypocrites, some as lovers of money, some as attracted to Jesus' ideas and movement (and some in the book of Acts as being Christians!), and some as wanting to help Jesus? Why is it so hard for us to understand that the Pharisees were a diverse movement of people with a shared commitment to seeking the God who created the universe in every moment of daily life as well as in their wrestling with scripture, but who differed from one another in important points -- sometimes very important points indeed -- as well?

Perhaps it's because too many of us in the church have forgotten something the Pharisees, like Jesus and his band of squabbling disciples remembered -- that the history of God's people is of God calling together disparate peoples with different gifts and weaknesses, and forming them into one people, still distinct in gifting and in perspective, still wrestling with scripture and with one another with the vigor that characterized Jacob/Israel's wrestling with God's angel, and still called to a common destiny, to do justice and mercy and worship God.

The Pharisees, with all of their differences from one another as well as from Jesus, have a great deal to teach us at this moment in our life together:

We are not made a people, God's people, by our thinking alike or even our behaving alike; we are made a people by God's action, and our response to God's graciousness must include graciousness toward one another, preserving the minority opinion alongside the majority, and coming together over and over again to argue (with tears as well as with texts) and, from time to time, to vote, and then to resume arguing. We are sisters and brothers, after all, and what sisters and brothers in a healthy family are not arguing or playing most of the time when they're not eating (and much of the time when they are)?

Had Jesus' followers written off all Pharisees as enemies and hypocrites, their numbers would have been diminished by the number of Pharisees who became Christ-followers. More importantly, though, the Body of Christ would have been diminished in God's gifting. I don't doubt that Pharisees who were Christians lost the vote at the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, but the Body won in other ways for their presence. Pharisaic Christians were there as a crucial voice in the church connecting the prophets Isaiah and Amos, Micah and Jeremiah, and others to what God was continuing to do through the Holy Spirit among Christians and in the world. They were there to remind Gentile believers, many of whom were too quick to equate emotional spiritual epiphanies and the promise of a blessed afterlife with the whole of the Christian message; they were there to teach Gentiles that Jesus affirmed and even expanded the teaching of the Law and the Prophets that we worship God with justice for the poor.

So this Sunday, I encourage you to thank God for the Pharisees, and to learn from them about what it means to be God's people. When there are foxes about who, like Herod, want to consolidate their power by eliminating troublesome voices, the Pharisees' willingness to continue in ongoing discernment about what God wants from us, ongoing dialogue with one another about scripture and what it means in light of the circumstances we're in serves as an excellent example. In light of those godly values, we shouldn't be all that surprised that some Pharisees were concerned about Herod's plots against Jesus.

Indeed, we shouldn't be surprised when Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness should exceed that of the Pharisees. Jesus, after all, defines God's perfection, God's righteousness as imitating God's graciousness in giving rain and other good gifts to the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:43-48). In saying that our graciousness should be even more extravagant than the Pharisees, Jesus is setting a high bar -- but God's grace is such that God sends God's Spirit upon us to empower us to do that as the Body of Christ.

Is that a gift you and I are ready to receive? Are our churches in the Anglican Communion and our leaders?

I don't know. I do know what Jesus did. He received what his allies among the Pharisees offered graciously, and he one-upped it, not fleeing from Herod, but setting his face toward Jerusalem, where he would confront the arguably greater might of Pontius Pilate and the members of the religious establishment who (unlike most Pharisees in Galilee) owed their position to the favor of Rome.

I would like to be as gracious as Jesus, but I hope I am at least as gracious as those Pharisees who stayed with him and argued with him, and especially those who broke bread with him. God was at work within and among them, after all, and many became prophets to God's church as well as to the world, preserving the priceless vision of the prophets of all nations streaming into Zion at God's invitation.

Thanks be to God!

March 2, 2007 in Lent, Luke, Pharisees, Prophets, Year C | Permalink | Comments (6)

Proper 17, Year B

Deueteronomy 4:1-9 - link to NRSV text
Psalm 15 - link to BCP text
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 - link to NRSV text

There are all kinds of irresponsible caricatures drawn from pulpits about what Judaism and Pharisaism was and/or is like, and I expect that too many of them will be drawn this Sunday. This Sunday especially, we need to remember that there's a reason that, for example, Jewish ministries on college campuses are called "Hillel House" after the man who's probably the most famous Pharisee (other than Paul of Tarsus, whom Christians call St. Paul) in history: to my knowledge, all branches of Judaism today are descended from Pharisaism. When we Christians use the word "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or speak of Pharisaism as a religion of empty ceremonies and heartless enforcement of rules, we are using rhetoric that insults today's Jews and Judaism. Such rhetoric is not only insulting, but also profoundly misleading.

Pharisees in Jesus' day didn't hold to a religion that said that God was more distant or less loving or merciful than the god we proclaim. Anyone who looks up words like 'love/loving' and 'mercy' in a decent concordance that includes the Hebrew bible will find plentiful evidence that the Pharisees taught that God is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7, "merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness," and "forgiving iniquity and sin." Neither did the Pharisees teach that God is distant or that human beings can't have an intimate relationship with God, as anyone who reads the Psalms can witness. Indeed, the Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, taught that God could be present in anyone's kitchen, workplace, and bedroom as God is present in the Temple. Nor did the Pharisees confine God's love to Jews or suggest that one had to be born Jewish to know or follow God, as this passage from the Numbers Rabbah (8.3) on proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism) suggests:

The Holy One loves proselytes exceedingly. To what is the matter like? To a king who had a number of sheep and goats which went forth every morning to the pasture, and returned in the evening to the stable. One day a stag joined the flock and grazed with the sheep, and returned with them. Then the shepherd said to the king, "There is a stag which goes out with the sheep and grazes with them, and comes home with them." And the king loved the stag exceedingly. And he commanded the shepherd, saying, "Give heed unto this stag, that no man beat it"; and when the sheep returned in the evening, he would order that the stag should have food and drink. Then the shepherds said to him, "My Lord, thou hast many goats and sheep and kids, and thou givest us no directions about these, but about this stag thou givest us orders day by day." Then the king replied, "It is the custom of the sheep to graze in the pasture, but the stags dwell in the wilderness, and it is not their custom to come among men in the cultivated land. But to this stag who has come to us and lives with us, should we not be grateful that he has left the great wilderness, where many stags and gazelles feed, and has come to live among us? It behooves us to be grateful." So too spoke the Holy One: "I owe great thanks to the stranger, in that he has left his family and his father's house, and has come to dwell among us; therefore I order in the Law: 'Love ye the stranger'" (Deuteronomy 10:19).
-- The New Testament Background, pp. 208-209

Jesus criticized Pharisees, to be sure, but even when he was doing so harshly, he acknowledged their zeal in evangelism, in letting Gentiles everywhere know that the God of Israel would receive them gladly -- take a look at Matthew 23:15, in which Jesus specifically says to Pharisees, "you cross sea and land to make a single convert." Nor were the Pharisees uninterested in justice for the poor; they taught that scripture passages like this week's reading from Deuteronomy mean that God made the Hebrews a people and chose them specifically so they could be a community that did things differently from the nations, including caring for the poor, and in a way that could make the people of the God of Israel a light for the whole world.

In short, Jesus didn't criticize Pharisees so passionately because they were the furthest from his point of view; he criticized particular Pharisees because in so many ways their thinking was so very close to his. In other words, Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees is a quarrel between brothers -- which, as anyone who grew up with siblings knows, can be the most animated kinds of arguments.

So what, then, was the substance of Jesus' quarrel with the Pharisees? I've said a great deal so far about what it was NOT, but little about what it was. The short answer is, I think, the main point of this week's gospel reading, and it's a point that ought to be very challenging for us too. The Pharisees weren't concerned only with purity laws; they are, after all, the people who lobbied longest and hardest for prophetic books like Isaiah to be counted as scripture. And their position on purity laws was one that, I think most Pharisees were argue (if you'll forgive my saying this in anachronistic terms), was an inclusive and progressive one. Sadducees would say that the purity rules that priests (and you had to be a male without deformity born into a priestly family to be a priest -- it wasn't something one could choose or decline) were supposed to follow surrounding their periods of service in the Temple were just for those born in a position that would bring them into God's holy place. The Pharisees were making Judaism and the sense it offered of being in God's presence accessible to anyone by saying that anyone could be a Jew and a Pharisee, and any place could be holy to God if only people would treat it as such. That point is the core, I think, of Jesus' agreement with his Pharisaic contemporaries.

The disagreement was about what it was that made a place holy, what it was that constituted purity. This Sunday's gospel shows Jesus teaching something with potentially radical implications. It's not that purity doesn't matter. Getting people to treat everything and everyone as pure would, in my opinion, be hopeless in any culture, and probably not desirable either. Sometimes I ask students to make a list of the purity rules they follow. At first they usually object that they don't follow any, but then I offer some examples. Most of us grow up being taught not to eat or leave the bathroom without washing our hands. Oh, but that's just about germs, right? Our purity rules are just about health and science, and those are the only purity rules worth following. But we generally think it's weird or even offensive to prepare food in the bathroom -- a rule that's not at core about germs, as studies have demonstrated that the bathroom is generally the least germ-ridden place in our houses. But guests would be puzzled or grossed out if they thought I'd prepared their dinner in the room I used to defecate. I'm not saying that's bad or stupid -- I'm just saying that we ALL have purity rules that we follow.

And that's why I think what Jesus does in this Sunday's gospel is so brilliantly subversive. Jesus redefines purity in terms of "what comes out of a person" -- of qualities we demonstrate in relationships.

It's brilliant because it would have been someone between fruitless and counter-productive for Jesus to say anything like "purity doesn't matter." Human beings just aren't 'wired' culturally to be that way -- and being the kind of person who will say "that just isn't appropriate," especially when we feel and say it on a gut level, can be very helpful in some circumstances. But Jesus is proposing that intentionally, in community, we 're-wire' ourselves, building a subculture that trains us to feel as much 'ick factor' about carelessly wounding remarks as most of us were taught growing up to feel about carelessly (or, if you have to have it in 'scientific' terms, unhygienically) prepared food. Jesus is proposing that we intentionally build a culture that worries about whether our behavior is feeding grudges or a spiral of violence in the same way -- but with considerably more intensity -- than most of us were brought up to worry about food practices feeding bacteria. And building that kind of culture requires that we engage intentionally with one another in the kind of gentle, consistent, persistent, 24/7 formation in community that, in most healthy households, gradually teaches children about washing hands and being careful with meat and potato salad. That would be a radical move. Can you imagine how much more positively people at large would view churches if every congregation put as much care into seeing that our children aren't infected with racism or pride as we generally want them to put into seeing that they're not infected with salmonella at the potluck?

That would be cool. But that's not the most radical implication of what Jesus teaches about purity.

The most radical implication of Jesus' view of purity is something that St. Paul picks up and applies to his view of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. Most views of purity that anyone would count sensible know that if just one impure thing comes into contact with something pure, that transmits the impurity -- in other words, both things will now be impure. If just a wee bit of litter from the catbox makes it into a cake, that cake -- not just a piece of it, and regardless of what scientific tests demonstrate that some part of it is free of bacterial nastiness -- is not going to be seen as suitable to serve to guests. That assumption about purity often carries over into how we treat people, though. There are some things people can do that render them in relational terms "radioactive" -- treated as untouchable, lest we "catch" their bad reputation and/or bad conduct. But what if purity is every bit as transmittable as impurity? What if purity can actually overpower impurity? In St. Paul's view, a woman -- a person the culture sees as easily made impure -- can actually render her whole household "pure," holy, a place where God is powerfully present and powerfully at work. That attributes a great deal of positive power to the woman.

And that's an idea I'd say Paul got from Jesus, and specifically as a solid inference from passages like this Sunday's gospel, as well as from Jesus' consistent example. It is possible, Jesus teaches us, to live in such a way, to display in our relationships a quality and consistency of love, that something the world writes off as irredeemable is transformed into something bearing witness to God's power to redeem. If it's "what goes in" that makes someone impure, then people need to guard carefully against coming into contact with the wrong sort of person, lest they come into contact with the wrong sort of things. But if what flows out of people in loving relationship with one another radiates purity, then we are freed to live making decisions based on love and not in fear. That is an incredibly radical, liberating, transformative insight -- one I'm always trying to take in more deeply.

And there's one further insight from Jesus' view of purity that might be more radical still. If purity is something radiated out by how we are in relationships, then we actually NEED other people for a life of holiness. For example, if true purity is about exercising forgiveness, then we NEED to take the risk of staying in relationship with people the world thinks are hopeless to experience God's holiness. If true purity involves exercising compassion, then suffering in the world isn't proof that God doesn't care, but is an opportunity to experience and proclaim just how much and in what ways God does care. If true purity is about relationship, then the challenges facing us as a church of flawed and bickering people are an opportunity to understand God's grace more deeply and proclaim it more powerfully by insisting that reconciliation be the first, middle, and final word. Is that possible? If Jesus is right, if what's "out there" doesn't make us impure and purity flows out in relationship, then past or present nastiness already "out there" is beyond what can be transformed by God's holy and holy-making love. That's Jesus' teaching in this Sunday's gospel; that's the example we have in Jesus' manner of life, which posed a profound challenge to his Pharisaic brothers much as it challenges the church today.

Thanks be to God!

September 1, 2006 in 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Mark, Matthew, Pharisees, Purity, Year B | Permalink | Comments (5)

Proper 25, Year C

Luke 18:9-14 - link to NRSV text

Back in August, I blogged (and preached) on spiritual pride, a subject that today's gospel addresses directly.

Spiritual pride is among the most insidious of sins. Fight it successfully for a moment, and it's tempting to start saying, "Hey -- I'm being really humble! I'm WAY more humble than Bill over there. Maybe I should teach a class on humility at church." Or have you ever found yourself thinking along these lines?

"I can't stand those conservatives/liberals. They think they're so much holier/better informed than everyone else. Well that's PRIDE! If only they'd be like me, the world would be a much better place."

Frederick Buechner defines humility as thinking of yourself as neither better nor worse than you are, and I like that definition. I think, though, that it may be even closer to the mark to say that the humble person is the one whose energy is so occupied with serving others, with exercising the kind of spiritual leadership that calls all into deeper maturity, with seeking God's will and enjoying God's fellowship, and with enjoying all of God's good gifts that s/he just doesn't have all that much left over to devote to assessing whether s/he is more or less virtuous than others.

One of the difficulties I find in preaching on a passage like this Sunday's gospel is that while it's easy to say that we should be more like the humble and penitent tax-collector and less like the Pharisee, the reaction I observe to saying so often doesn't seem very humble. That game of competitive virtue is just too seductive. Point to the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple, and people often do two things: identify with the tax collector, and start talking about how much they hate those proud and hypocritical Pharisees -- whom they usually identify with whoever is on the Other Side of whatever issue is hottest.

Here's one test of whether we're reading one of Jesus' parables correctly: if it doesn't surprise, shock, and challenge us, then we should probably go back to the drawing board. If our reading of this parable mostly says to us, "I thank God that I'm not like that awful Pharisee," we're in trouble.

So, what to do?

It might be helpful to start with trying to understand where the Pharisee is coming from. We're so accustomed to Pharisees being used as stock villains without any redeeming qualities that the shock of the parable is lost to us. Of course Pharisees are awful people who are zealous about superficial rituals but don't love God, and certainly don't love their neighbors.

This reputation has got to go -- not only because it's insulting to today's Jews, who trace their spiritual heritage to the Pharisees (there's a reason that Jewish campus ministries are called "Hillel"!), but also because it's inaccurate.

For starters, the Pharisees were not the fundamentalists of their time. They did not read scripture literally. They understood that the laws given to Moses while the people were nomadic herders needed to be interpreted to suit changing circumstances. And the Pharisees were remarkably INCLUSIVE. They were well known for their enthusiasm for evangelism (as Matthew 23:15 reflects, albeit with a negative comment added), and they received Gentile converts (i.e., those who joined the people of Israel by being baptized, offering sacrifice in the Temple, promising to follow the Law, and for men, being circumcized) with great joy. As for justice issues, we pretty much owe it to the Pharisees that the prophetic works like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos are in the canon; the Sadducees saw these works as newfangled innovations and not canon, and other groups (like the community at Qumran on the Dead Sea that produced those famous scrolls) that accepted them were too isolated to have much influence. The Pharisees longed for what Christians long for: God's will done on earth as it is in heaven, and all nations streaming into Zion to enjoy God's just and compassionate rule.

The Pharisees weren't perfect, to be sure; like Christians, they didn't do everything they professed was God's will.  That's why Jesus, in Matthew 23:1-3, tells Christians to do what they say, but not what they do. I think this particular Pharisee in today's gospel is being presented as one of the good guys. Fasting was a sign of penitence; tithing ensured that those in Israel who did have land provided for those who didn't. However, the Pharisee's prayer betrays something that may characterize his fasting and tithing as well.

This guy (let's give him a name, to make clear that we're not talking about a category, but a person. Let's call him Eli.) is busting his butt to further God's kingdom, and he's succumbed to something that a lot of us struggle with. Eli knows that the world could be powerfully transformed in his lifetime, if only everyone would just GET WITH THE PROGRAM. He does his best to persuade them to sign on -- a move that would introduce them to experiences of God's presence in community as powerful as what he's experienced dining at a pure table with his family or studying Torah with his fellow-travelers in the Pharisaic movement.

It's a generous impulse, but when someone doesn't sign on to such a program, it becomes tempting to start seeing people on the other side as the problem, and it's practically impossible to proclaim something that will sound like Good News to your audience if you're doing it from a position of resentment. So his passion for God's prophetic word degrades into distaste for a fellow Israelite, as Eli finds himself focused more and more on others' perceived shortcomings and less and less on their commonalities -- both Israelites, both seeking, both sinners. Eli might have found himself more concerned with understanding the man praying next to him than he was in persuading God that they he was different from his neighbor.

The report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion is out. I'm reading and rereading it carefully. The diversity of those on the commission coupled with the unanimity of the report says to me that it ought to be taken very seriously and considered very prayerfully. There is much in the report that is challenging, but I am particularly encouraged by the report's call for the world's Anglicans to finally address the most-neglected mandate of the 1998 Lambeth resolution on sexuality, to "commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and ... assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ." I favor proposals that will invite deep listening on all sides.

In the end, the best test of the report's success is this: does it move us beyond pointing to others' perceived sins and shortcomings, and allow all of us sinners -- all of us who know what it means to be rendered invisible, shut out, and discriminated against -- to work together to proclaim God's love and extend God's justice to all?

The Spirit is speaking; may God grant us the inner quiet to hear, and the courage to follow.

Thanks be to God!

October 20, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Pharisees, Year C | Permalink | Comments (2)

Proper 16, Year C

Luke 13:22-30 - link to NRSV text

I blogged on this passage back in Lent, when it was an optional set of verses one could read with Luke 13:31-35. I think if I were preaching this coming Sunday, I'd go with basically the same take, but perhaps adding something that I think I recall Brian McLaren saying (I couldn't find the quote -- perhaps it was said in personal conversation, or perhaps I'm saying what I think he'd say): If you claim to be a Christian and you don't think that universalism -- the idea that everyone will benefit from Christ's saving work -- is true, you should WISH with all your heart it were true.

Here's what I'd preach on, if I were preaching this Sunday: if you were asking Jesus the question, "Lord, are only a few being saved?" what answer would you be hoping to hear? What answer would make you breathe a sigh of relief, and what answer would make you want to weep or push for a different answer? If you can't say, with all your heart, that you hope Jesus would say that EVERYONE, including each one with whom you disagree and each one whom you see as an enemy, is being saved -- right now, as they are -- then here's my advice as a person with a passion for evangelism:

Before you go to do whatever you think needs to be done to make your neighbor save-able, ask God to work on your own heart. Until you want your neighbor's joy and peace more than you want to be right, you won't be able to communicate very effectively about the God who is Love, or about the man we testify is Love Incarnate.

That said, here's my blog entry from the Second Sunday of Lent, including comment on this coming Sunday's gospel:

Luke 13:(22-30)31-35 - link to NRSV text

This is a long entry, but I'm such a fan of Luke's craft as a writer that I can't keep myself from examining and admiring it here.

I can see why the good folks who crafted our lectionary decided to make verses 22-30 optional. A lot of commentary authors comment on it in a section apart from their comment on verses 31-35.

But Luke is a VERY careful writer, and I see a possible thematic connection here. It seems clearer to me when I read a larger section -- say, starting from Luke 11:37 and continuing through 18:14. I wouldn't say that this whole thing is one big thematic section, but there's a much higher concentration of material that mentions the Pharisees, or seems -- at least in Luke's seemingly idiosyncratic portrayal of the Pharisees -- to be targeted at them. And I'm interested in this, in part because I think it helps to answer the question most interests most folks commenting on Luke 13:31-35, the section in which Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is out to get him -- namely, were the Pharisees here trying to do Jesus a favor, or were they trying to set him up in some destructive way?

So, check out Luke 13:10-17, the section just before the optional section of this Sunday's gospel. It's one of those controversial healings in a synagogue on the sabbath, criticized by "the leader of the synagogue." Jesus answers by saying that someone with a thirsty ox or donkey would untie it on the sabbath to give it water. Who met in synagogues? Pharisees. So even though the word isn't used here, Pharisees are Jesus' foils in the passage. And then look at Luke 13:31-35 -- it's the Pharisees again. Look at Luke 14:1-6.  It's another story of a controversial healing in front of Pharisees on the sabbath -- and to top it off, Jesus again (in some manuscripts, at least) talks about how one would treat an ox or donkey on the sabbath. And look at Luke 14:7-23, which, with 14:1-6, completes a trilogy of stories involving a host giving a dinner and pointing toward Pharisees. It's a good bet that that Luke 13:20-30 (and vs. 18-20 before that) little bit of text in between, also, for Luke's readers, has something to do with Pharisees. That's Luke's style.

This Sunday's gospel, including the optional part, ties well into the themes Luke is raising in this large section of the gospel. In the opening and optional part of the gospel, Luke 13:22-30, someone asks Jesus whether only a few will be saved. That was a live question, in Jesus' day. I wonder whether the questioner hoped the answer was "yes" -- only a few will be saved -- or "no" -- a great many will be saved.

Jesus' answer leads me to believe that he saw his questioner as exactly the sort of person Luke criticizes in Luke 11:53-54 -- a person who wants to see others tripped up, someone who takes more pleasure in seeing someone, or at least an "unrighteous" person, destroyed than in seeing that person saved. Jesus starts off talking about a "narrow door," and about "many" who will strive to enter it and won't be able to get in. His questioner probably would have perked up considerably at that point; he's being invited to think of himself not only as an insider, but as a very select group of insiders. Then the questioner hears about all those on the outside weeping and gnashing their teeth. So far, so good.

And then Jesus pulls the rug out. He talks about people coming "from east and west, from north and south" to "eat in the kingdom of God." That's a vision of the nations, ta ethne -- AKA "the Gentiles" -- feasting in God's kingdom. And Jesus says, "some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last" (13:30). Jesus doesn't condemn any group wholesale, but he observes that it's going to be very hard for people to get in who want to be invited to the feast because they think it's a selective affair. Once they see the guest list, they're going to have to tame some pretty major revulsion about the person who'd be passing them the salt at the feast, and that's just too hard for some folks who see themselves as among the "first." So some may find themselves shut out from Jesus' table in the only way one can make that happen: by refusing to share it with the others invited.

And then comes the Pharisees' warning to Jesus: Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him. Were they trying to help him or harm him? Either way, they are trying to tame him. If they are doing Jesus a "favor," it's worth remembering that this is what anthropologists call an honor-shame culture, in which any favor someone pays you will be called in for a favor to be given in exchange at some point (think of the film The Godfather as a helpful comparison). If they are helping Jesus by encouraging him to flee from Galilee and Herod's power, Jesus will owe them one, and he'll be in their power.

And then it's worth pointing out that the Herod in question is Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee -- these people are telling Jesus to flee from Galilee to Jerusalem. They could full well be counseling Jesus to go where he is most likely to run afoul of Roman authority, and furthermore to look like a coward in doing so.

Jesus is too smart to be tamed that way. In his response, he says what we already know is true from Luke 9:31, which I blogged on a couple of weeks ago. That's in the story of Jesus' Transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' "departure," his exodus, "which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." Jesus knows he's headed for Jerusalem, regardless of what Herod Antipas does or does not want. He's not going to be distracted from his mission: freeing people from the powers and illnesses that hold them down and apart from community, and then finishing his work in Jerusalem (Luke 13:32). He refuses to act as the Pharisees' client or as Herod Antipas' subject here -- ironically, because he is headed for Jerusalem to be exposed, made vulnerable, and treated as a slave to all.

Luke's portrayal of the Pharisees is complicated; throughout Luke-Acts, some are friendly to Jesus and his disciples (see, for example, Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39, and the Christian Pharisees who are present at the "apostolic council" in Acts 15:5). But in Luke's gospel (as in the work of the ancient historian Josephus), Pharisees are shown as having significant power and influence, and as a result Jesus' dealings with them are fraught. Whether they are trying to recruit him or trap him (and is there always such a big difference between those two things?), they present serious challenges. These are good people seeking to do right, but they're caught in a system, a kosmos or world order, in which good people seeking to do right sometimes end up persecuting prophets. When we who seek to follow Jesus read passages in which Jesus interacts with Pharisees, we're tempted to identify with Jesus. But I think that it's a good discipline for us, especially in Lent, to prayerfully ask how much we're like the Pharisees -- how much we good, religious folk manage, through our participation and complicity in unjust systems, end up despising those whom God honors, hurting God's healers, trying to silence God's prophets.

Thanks be to God for Jesus' life, ministry, and death, through which Jesus defeated the powers that oppress, and that turn us into oppressors.

August 16, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time, Pharisees, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)