Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Lectionary 22, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
- Deuteronomy 4:1-9
- Psalm 15
- James 1:17-27
- Mark 7:1–23
Be doers of the word. For the sake of the world. That’s what both Deuteronomy and James are telling us this week.
The reading in Deuteronomy has God reminding Israel through Moses to remember what they had witnessed when some Israelites took to cavorting with Midianites and worshiping the Baal (lord) of Peor, and that those who are alive to hear Moses speak the words of God this day are those who held fast to their faith in Israel’s God. (This is all of Numbers 25, though it gets mentioned in Psalm 106 and Hosea 9, where it becomes part of the prophet’s general indictment of the northern kingdom.) God then tells Israel that this teaching has a value. Not just that Israel will prosper and inherit the land that God has promised, but that Israel will show the world what it means to have a teaching תורה torah, and have the Lord God as their God.
6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8 ESV)
Here, we see what makes Israel a “great nation” (גוי גדול, or goy gidol) — it is not wealth, or military might, or the conquest and control of great territories and many subject peoples. It is the torah, this teaching, that makes Israel great. That makes Israel stand out from the peoples around it.
In fact, God goes so far to say that this teaching makes the peoples around Israel stand up and pay attention. This is true wisdom, they will say. These are a wise and understanding people, they will say. This teaching will inspire. It may even, as Isaiah 55 says, draw some to Israel, to become part of this covenant, to share in this teaching. This wisdom. This understanding.
But God is clear to Israel — don’t just teach these things, but remember them. Because Israel has witnessed them. “Your eyes have seen,” God tells Israel. So teach these things to your children, and their children, that you may not forget them. That you may not forget them.
I try not to watch video or even look at pictures of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Because I was there, and I want to remember what I saw — what I tasted and heard and felt. I don’t want those images, those memories, contaminated with media pictures, with the CNN feed, with what the world saw mediated on its television screens.
I was there. I saw and experienced that day with my own eyes.
But in order to remember that day, I need to bear witness to it — to tell my story. Again and again. In the telling, I remember what I saw. What I felt.
The same applies here. We are witnesses to the teaching of God, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because we were there, but because we have been told by people who have been told by people who have been told by people who were there. Who knew that that bear witness to a truth that they made real again in the telling. That’s what it means to witness. It’s not just watching, it’s telling. It’s both things. In telling the story, we make it real.
When I heard those words in my head on 9/11, “My love is all that matters,” I had no idea who spoke to me. I didn’t get an introduction like Saul did on the way to Damascus. I didn’t know quite who this was. It took meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospel of John, meeting Jesus in the love of the people of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, to know who it was who spoke to me. I am a witness to the risen Christ, but only because I speak of what I experienced. And what I experienced makes sense only in the light of what others — in this case, the Gospel writers — have witnessed.
James approaches this from another angle. While God says we will impress the neighbors as a people of wisdom and understanding thanks to the teaching, James tells us that we will love the most vulnerable in our midst and around us because of this teaching.
James also says there is no real hearing without doing. There is no watching without speaking. There is no bearing witness to the love of God without loving.
And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells us that what defiles (makes common in the Greek) is what comes out of us. His list of things — evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness — dovetails nicely with the things James warns against as well.
Now, it’s easy to take these as matters of personal piety, things one avoids in order to be right and stay right with God. But that’s not what’s at work here. This isn’t about piety. It’s about showing the world what wisdom and understanding look like, what real religion (ceremonial or ritual observance here in the Greek) looks like. It is concern for the most vulnerable. This is a constant theme, especially once the prophets began to call Israel out for its sin and faithlessness as the armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians loomed. It is part of the constant reminder that we don’t use or abuse others, or ourselves. We don’t treat each other, or ourselves, as objects for pleasure or profit.
Because we are not objects. We are not things.
This is a tough task. The world is all about things. We are in the world (κοσμος, the thing God so loves in John 3:16) but are to be untainted by it, by its wisdom and understanding, by its way of doing business. This means, at least here, visiting those most wounded by the world, those most at risk at being objectified and exploited, those least capable of succeeding in the world according to the world’s terms. For James, that was widows and orphans. (And in many ways, it is still true, especially for orphans.) For us, it is likely to be the poor, the broken, the cast off and discarded people, refugees, anyone subject to violence simply because they draw breath.
And we treat them not as objects, but as human beings, children of a living God who has created them, formed them, shaped them, made them. As beloved sisters and brothers.
In this strange way, we are to show the “great nations” around us what understanding and wisdom looks like. Whether the peoples around us will be impressed or not hardly matters. (We have God’s assurance some will be, and the evidence of our eyes that some aren’t.) And what it is to have a God who is so near to us that he became one of us, lived and breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried with us. Suffered with us. Died with us.
And rose so we might rise.