SERMON A Dangerous Man

I didn’t preach on Sunday. But if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)

And so we have, tossed off here, one of the most horrific passages of scripture we may ever encounter. In a book full of horror, needless, pointless, purposeless violence.

Jesus is saved. In a dream, his foster father Joseph is told to flee with him, and Mary, to the safety of another land. Herod, who jealous and angry and very, very afraid. Jesus is a usurper, “the king of the Jews,” and he threatens Herod’s very own throne. Herod wants to keep his throne. He rather likes it, the wealth and the power and the privilege that come with being King of Judea, even if it means accepting Roman rule and Roman occupation.

He likes being king. Why wouldn’t he? Who would want to give up a throne, and all that came with it? So babies, toddlers, threaten him. If the cosmos has anointed him King of Judea, King of the Jews, then Herod’s has lost his throne. It is only a matter of time.

But no man goes quietly. King Saul lost his throne when he was faithless toward God, who commanded Samuel to go find and anoint a new king for all Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young David struggled with Saul for years, perhaps decades, before he came into the kingdom that had been promised to him, fleeing and fighting and even giving himself in service to Israel’s enemies.

Herod will not go quietly either. If a mere toddler from Bethlehem threatens his throne, well … it is better to do away with all of the little boys in Bethlehem than to risk that loss.

That’s fear.

There’s a sad fact about scripture. It is not sentimental about the dead. That strikes us as strange, because we revere our dead. We seek purpose and meaning in their lives, their suffering, their deaths. They are still with us in many ways, telling us what our lives mean and what our purposes are, what we will live for. We fight hard against meaningless suffering, against pointless death, especially against innocent suffering and death.

Scripture doesn’t do that. The dead … are dead. They are gone. There is lament for the dead of Israel after Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries its people into far away exile, but the message of scripture is not about the dead. It is about the living, the survivors, the remnant. Yes, we mourn our dead, and we bury them. But as we sit in the midst if the rubble of the city and lament our loss, we also know — we look forward in hope to a future, to the promise of God. And not backwards, to what we have lost. To what is no more.

In this, I believe the story of Israel that we have in scripture appreciates that we live in a violent, capricious, often times meaningless world, in which little is clear. In this passage, Jesus is saved, he flees the murderous violence of a jealous and frightened tyrant. But as a result, that tyrant murders anyway. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of children die.

Frightened and angry, Herod is a dangerous man. He kills what he fears, hoping the power to inflict death will make him less afraid.

It doesn’t work. Note well, he dies anyway.

The quote that Matthew takes from Jeremiah is part of a longer promise of God to the “people who survived the sword,” the exiles of Israel who shall be regathered in the land of promise. God specifically uses the name Ephraim in the prophesy he speaks to Jeremiah. Ephraim is one of the sons of Joseph, and a name synonymous with the northern kingdom that was destroyed by Assyria many years after renouncing its share in the promises to David and going its own way as a separate state.

There is a second part to Jeremiah’s prophesy, a response to Rachel’s crying:

16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Jeremiah 31:16-17 (ESV)

Tears at the loss of innocence. Comfort from God for the one who will not be comforted — they shall return. “There is hope for your future, your children shall come back.”

Who is Rachel weeping for? Matthew has her weeping for the murdered children of Bethlehem. But she isn’t weeping for the dead in Jeremiah, she’s weeping for the lost. Perhaps Rachel here is also weeping for Jesus, who has gone into exile and lives among a foreign people, and who — so far as we know — never returned to Bethlehem.

Jesus too, is a dangerous man. Even as a baby, even as a toddler, dangerous enough to have his birth written somehow in the stars, to draw wise men from the east — possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Iran — bearing treasure and gifts. Dangerous enough because he is, as Matthew says, the son of David, the son of Abraham, inheritor and fulfillment of the promises made to both — land, blessing, descendants, a kingdom forever. Dangerous because, as the angel told his foster father Jospeh, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Into this world he came, a world full of dangerous men who inflict suffering and death out of fear or lust or rage. But in this one dangerous man, this Jesus who fled to Egypt in the dark of night, who died on a cross and who rose from the tomb, there is hope. He has come to share joy and sorrow, gladness and suffering, tedium and excitement, life and death. In this living and dying and rising, rather than in battle and killing, in hope rather than in fear, he conquers. And he rules.

Apostles -or- The Ones Who Are Sent

So, it is back to the Bible today.

Some time ago, I noticed there was a difference between all of the different ways one follows Jesus. There are the crowds, who press in on Jesus, follow him everywhere, do not give him a moment’s peace. They are the people who Jesus has truly come for — they are the people Jesus heals and casts demons out of.

It is from the crowds that some of Jesus’ more “aggressive” followers — the lame, the lepers, the crippled, the blind who cry out, the demon possessed, the centurion of Matthew 8, the rich young man of Luke 18 — come to him and ask to be made whole, to be healed, and to find out what must be done to inherit eternal life. But they come from the crowds, from those who see Jesus, see and know that he is the Son of God incarnate, that he does the work of God, and they respond.

This is faithfulness. And if this is what brings people to Jesus, then all the good. Because these crowds who cannot give Jesus a moment’s peace, who proclaim him “Son of David” one moment and a blasphemer deserving of death not long after, these crowds are the people Jesus came to find. So, when someone is drawn to Jesus, and chooses to follow Jesus, this is good.

But there are those Jesus also calls to follow. People who are minding their own business, bothering no one when Jesus steps into their lives and commandeers them. “Follow me,” he says to Matthew/Levi in each of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32; John 1:35-51 bears some similarities), and Matthew/Levi follows:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

His calling of disciples (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11; again, John 1:35-51 tells a similar but somewhat different story) is not a matter of people choosing to follow Jesus. His disciples are not the crowds. Jesus finds them — almost exclusively at work — and calls them.

“Follow me,” he says.

And they drop everything. And follow.

This too is great faithfulness. But it is a different kind of faithfulness. In the synoptic gospels, the crowds see Jesus and know, “God is at work!” But for the disciples, they don’t see Jesus at work that way. They don’t hunger for the justice and mercy and redeeming work of God in the same way that the crowds do.

Instead, God sees them at work, minding their own business, and meets them. And calls them. Because they are not the people to be healed. Or made whole. Or even have their demons cast out (assuming they have any, which is unlikely, but you never know). Because they are called to help Jesus do that work.

In the feeding miracles, the disciples are anxious, because feeding the crowds in the wilderness is a logistical nightmare, one they have not prepared for. In commanding them, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13), and then blessing and breaking the bread (foreshadowing the final supper that will come), Jesus is giving them all the instruction and preparation they will need to feed the crowds — their meager supplies and the blessing and presence of Christ.

It is a lesson that the disciples have to learn over and over again: what they have at hand, and the blessing of Jesus, is all they need to care for and feed the crowds who hunger for the redeeming presence and boundless mercy of God.

But there is one more distinction. Because not all disciples are apostles. Matthew puts it this way:

1 And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. 2 The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4 ESV)

Mark describes it like this:

13 And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach 15 and have authority to cast out demons. 16 He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:13-19 ESV)

And Luke relates the account this way:

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16 ESV)

It’s funny, but Mark’s account of this is actually the longest, and it actually has a detail that neither Matthew nor Luke have — it refers to the twelve apostles as “those whom he desired.”

The Matthew account is followed immediately by Jesus sending the twelve out specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. (It’s the beginning of a very long speech of Jesus’, so we don’t really know how this mission goes, though we can guess from what comes next — disciples of John the Baptist coming to Jesus and asking him, “are you the one who is to come?” So, we can guess the disciples were successful in carrying out their charge.)

Jesus calls disciples in Mark and then goes straight home. Where he’s mobbed by crowds while his family in Nazareth are convinced that Jesus is completely out of his mind. Being the Son of God will do that with the family, I suppose.

The Luke account is followed by Jesus ministering to crowds throughout Judea, Samaria, and what is now southern Lebanon. And then he gives Luke’s version of “the sermon on the mount” (called “the sermon on the plain” from 6:17, “And he came down with them [the apostles] and stood on a level place.” So, the calling of the apostles in Luke is followed by the Beatitudes.

Luke has Jesus dispatch the apostles in Chapter 9, giving them the “power and authority to over all demons and to cure diseases” and to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. Instead of John the Baptist, though, in Luke, it’s Herod who hears of this (because John is dead), and who wants to see Jesus. (But he doesn’t, apparently.) And this is followed by an apostolic report, and the feeding of the five thousand.

I’m not entirely clear if apostle and disciple are interchangeable here. I suspect if they were, then we wouldn’t have two distinct terms — disciple (one who learns) and apostle (one who is sent). Clearly, one can be a disciple without being an apostle. Can one be an apostle without being a disciple? (Probably not.) Can one be an apostle without being called by Jesus in the flesh? St. Paul clearly sees himself as an apostle — one who is sent — but whether that means the same thing as it does when Matthew, Mark, and Luke use it, I do not know.

(I think it would be tremendously presumptuous to claim, in this day and age, to be an apostle. I am not claiming that title.)

In the great commission, as related at the end of Matthew, Jesus speaks of disciples, and not apostles. So, it may be without a physical Jesus calling “those whom he desired” that apostleship is impossible.

18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

There is, however, still a distinction between the crowds — those who follow Jesus of their own will — and disciples — who are called by Jesus to follow. It’s an important distinction, one that gets lost in arguments over just how much human will is involved when we discern God present as Christ somehow in our midst. I generally think that argument is a pointless one, because it tries to exclude at least one of these ways of encountering God. If we do all the choosing, then what of Jesus’s call to Matthew/Levi, “follow me”? And if we do none of the choosing, what then of the crowds, and those who emerge from the crowds, who have a vastly different experience of Jesus, as someone they come to?

And what does it mean for the church if this is an important distinction that was supposed to persist? What if there is, always has been, and always will be, a distinction between the crowds who follow and the disciples who are called to follow?

I, of course, default to the irresistible call of Jesus, Follow me. But then, I would. I have learned to respect, however, the notion that some — many, perhaps — choose to follow Jesus of their own accord. Indeed, discipleship clearly seems to be a minority option, something only a few would experience. It speaks to the abiding “unfairness” of God. Not everybody gets treated the same. Not everyone gets called the same. Not everyone even gets loved the same. To be called like this isn’t necessarily a good thing, either — for many of the first disciples, it eventually led to suffering and death.

There are followers of Jesus, and there those called to follow. And they aren’t necessarily the same people.

But all are beloved of God.

The Left Cheek Too

And still more from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul, saying, “We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” (1 Timothy 6:7) “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; bless be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

This is serious business, this matter of faith, of following Jesus when he tells the disciples and the crowds in Matthew 5:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)

I wouldn’t have that kind of faith. I suspect most Christians wouldn’t. But just remember, some followers of Jesus have taken non-resistance, and this command to give up everything, very seriously.

16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22 ESV)

The Least in The Kingdom

It’s been a busy week, and I’ve not really had time to sit down and do any serious — or even casual — blogging. (But I have a long list of things to blog about. So, there’s that…)

I noticed something going over the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7, beginning with the blessings and ending with the authority of Jesus), and it deals, I think, with the writing I’ve been writing about on the torah, the teaching God gave through Moses to Israel in Sinai (both in Exodus-Leviticus and Deuteronomy). Continue reading

Sermon — There Is a Light in the World. And It Is Not Us.

This is my sermon for this Sunday, preached at Living Christ Lutheran in Hanover Park, Illinois. The readings for the week, the second week in Christmas, are

  • Isaiah 60:1-6
  • Psalm 72: 1-14
  • Ephesians 3: 1-12
  • Matthew 2:1-12

I vamped a bit on this, and ad-libbed in a few places, like I always do. But there were no substantial changes.

* * *

I want you to imagine, for a moment, what today’s gospel reading looks and sounds like from the perspective of Herod the King of Judea.

Life is tough enough. People know you are really an illegitimate king, that you depend almost entirely upon the Roman army for your position. It was the Roman Senate that appointed you king of this place, and not any real claim to the throne you might have had. This isn’t new — the Romans are here because your ancestors — who were converts to Judaism, by the way — invited them in to help during a power struggle. But it all adds up to a sense people have, something everyone sees as Roman soldiers march through your kingdom, that you really don’t deserve to be king of Israel. That you’re not legitimate.

So how to create that sense of legitimacy? You build. That marvelous temple there in Jerusalem, with its huge stones? You had it built. You’ve spent money you didn’t have to build mighty and marvelous structures to show the people you rule — you are a legitimate king. You’re not just a puppet of some foreign conqueror. You are “The King of the Jews.” You lavishly provide cedar and stone and bronze and gold to make the temple, the house where God dwells in the midst of God’s people, shine and gleam in the noonday sun.

All to show you are legitimately The King of the Jews.

So, one day, three strange priests — Zoroastrian astrologers most likely — show up after a long journey from Iran asking around to see the King of Jews, “for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

You’re thinking — wait … that’s me! I’m the King of the Jews.

You humor them, and you send them on their way and ask them to report back to you, but it’s clear — they didn’t come looking to worship you. They didn’t even know who you were, you who had spent so much to build this temple, who lavished so much on public works and buildings and projects and whatnot.

The star they saw. It wasn’t yours.

The light they saw. It wasn’t yours.

Notice, it isn’t Jewish priests looking for and finding in the heavens the sign that the King of the Jews has just been born. Or some mad-eyed prophet like Jeremiah or Elijah wandering the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the Messiah is at hand. These three men are not Jews. They aren’t Israelites of any kind or flavor. They are foreigners, magicians, diviners who seek to tell the future from the stars and from signs and who worship something other than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Now, Israel has a long history with Persia — it was the Persian king Cyrus who let the exiles return from Babylon and rebuild the temple after he conquered Babylon, and Jews did pretty well under Persian rule while it lasted. Isaiah refers to Cyrus as “the anointed one” — messiah — for the part he plays in redeeming the exiles.

But that was a long time ago, long before the words in our Gospel reading were written. And so far as we know, Israel’s faith had little influence on religion in the in ancient Iran.

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose, and have come to worship him.”

It’s no accident it takes these strangers, these foreigners, these idolators, to see that star. To see something that King Herod or none of the priests of the temple can see. Or want to see. A sign that the promise of God,the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, is about to be fulfilled.

Isaiah saw it. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Upon Jerusalem, upon the people of God. And the whole world, a world mired deep in darkness, unable to see, will suddenly find a light. That light, God’s light, will pierce the darkness, will shine brightly, and no darkness, no matter how pervasive, now matter how thick, no matter how impenetrable, will not defeat that light.

That light is the glory of the Lord. Arise, your light has come, and the glory of the lord has risen upon you.


We are not the light. As the people of God, we merely reflect the light. It shines upon us.

This bears mentioning because we, the church, are struggling these days with what it means to be church. We struggle with the loss of our influence, our power, our prestige — it is not respectable to be Christian anymore, I heard one Texas pastor lament some time ago. And it needs to be respectable to be Christian again. Congregations shrink, money gets scarce, buildings fall into disrepair, churches close, we turn upon each other, and it seems no one out in the world pays attention to us unless someone is saying something foolish, doing something scandalous, or breaking the law.

And many of us, especially those with memories of times when churches were full and pastors were listened to and when being a good American was the same thing as being good Christian — and almost everyone was — shake our heads and say, “If only it could be like it was.”

When people came to see us. To be like us. To be one of us. When you couldn’t get ahead in business or be prominent socially or even thought a decent, respectable person without without being in and belonging to church.

We lived for so long with this that we came to mistake ourselves for the light. “We have what the world needs,” reads a banner I have seen hanging in another Chicago-area Lutheran church. We are the bearers of the light. People come to us because of our buildings, because of our status, because of our power, our influence, because of our programs and our fellowship, because that’s how you become a good person, because it’s good to be associated with such things.

We are the light, we have said to ourselves, and we keep the darkness at bay. And so the world comes to us.

Or at lest it damn well ought to.

But those three Iranian astrologers bearing their gifts did not come to see Herod, or his temple, or his works, or his so-called glory. Or to hear the words of the law. They saw a star in the heavens, and it wasn’t him. They saw a light, and it wasn’t him.

There is a light in the world. And it isn’t us.

If anything, we who are the church have become part of the darkness, attempting to overcome the light. Or thinking somehow that we are the light, or that we own the light, that we can possess and control it, turn it on and off, dole it out in little bits, or not at all if we don’t like you or think you are somehow too sinful. Or simply not respectable enough.

We’re like Herod. Confused. Frightened. Angry. How can there be a King of the Jews that isn’t me? How can there be a light in the world that isn’t us?

Because there is a light in the world. And it isn’t us.

Those who see the light, who are drawn to it the way Isaiah describes, don’t come to see our works, our buildings, our power, our influence, our rules, or our glory. They come to see a child, God wrapped and swaddled in mortal flesh, weak and powerless. A child living in a hovel, playing in the dirt, wiping his runny nose on his sleeve. To worship THAT child! A child who will grow into a man who will live in our midst, who will eat with us, teach and heal and call us to follow.

And who will die with us. At our hands.

He is the light of the world. Not us.

Now, there’s good news here. Isaiah says that once we can get past our sense of self-importance, past our pride in the works of our hands, past our delusion that we are the light of the world, then we can see that light for what it is — that it is for us, the people of God! It rises on us, shines upon us, shows itself to us! It is the light of our salvation, of our redemption! It is our light, and it shines on upon us first.

But … Isaiah also tells us that the light will draw all manner of people. “The nations shall come to your light, and the kings to the brightness of your rising.” Not only will that light shine on us, but the world will see it as well. And all kinds of people — foreigners (that’s what the word “nations,” or גוי means here) with strange faiths and strange ideas, the dispossessed, the disreputable, people we would expect would never find their way to the light. Persian astrologers. Misfits and malcontents and nonbelievers of all kinds who will see in that light goodness and grace and reconciliation.

When we stop being Herod, when we stop depending on the Romans for our power and position, when we stop trying to subdue the darkness with our bare hands, or thinking we ourselves are the light, and simply let the light of God’s presence shine upon the earth, then we will see. We will truly see.

We will see there is a light in the world.

The Lectionary This Week – Fill Your Lamps

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 32, 09 November 2014 (Year A)

  • Amos 5:18-24
  • Psalm 70
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

I’m going to a little something different as I consider these lectionary readings this week.

The last time these readings rolled around was 2011. Kurt Hendel, a professor of church history and Lutheran confessions at LSTC, asked me to play a song I’d played earlier in the semester, “No People, No Pity,” one of two I wrote on prophetic judgment and promise for the confirmation kids at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Somonauk, Illinois, for a sermon he was set to preach in the seminary chapel the week of these readings.

I was not keen on playing the same song twice in one semester, so I told Dr. Hendel I’d write him a pair of songs based on the Amos reading and the Matthew reading. It wasn’t a commission as such, but what came out of this was “Fill Your Lamps” and “Let Justice Roll Down.” And writing these songs about this bit of the lectionary was actually quite eye opening.

First, the readings. I’ll start with Amos:

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19 as if a man fled from a lion,
and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(Amos 5:18-24 ESV)

What we have hear is the passing of judgment on the Kingdom of Judah, following the long indictment of Israel and Judah (which themselves come after an indictment and judgement of Israel’s neighbors). It proclaims the “Day of the Lord,” which apparently some in Judah are eagerly awaiting. (Rapture, anyone?) Amos says that day will not go very well for those who actually want it to come. It will be a dark and frightful day, full of dread, and pain, and suffering, and death.

And now, the Matthew reading, which at first glance struck me as utterly unrelated:

1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. ’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out. ’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves. ’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us. ’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you. ’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:1-13 ESV)

Again, this is a judgment text, in a long line of Matthew judgment texts. And for Matthew, for the community Matthew speaks to (and for), escaping the coming judgment is hugely important. That some will be swept up in that judgment, and not ready for it, is also crucial to Matthew. I have written at length about judgment previously, and so I will set that aside today.

When I looked at these two texts, and considered how to make songs out of them, the thing that struck me most was how to balance them against each other, and how to make sense of them in terms of each other. The editors of the Revised Common Lectionary didn’t just simply pull them out of hat, or matched them together on a whim. There was a reason. To quote Craig Satterlee, “They may have actually known what they were doing.”

The link, I decided, was in the judgement of the deeds in question. In the Amos reading, God utterly rejects Israel’s worship, its sacrifices, its praises. They are meaningless, and God has promised to flood Israel and destroy it rather than heed worship and praises that were empty and pointless. The justice God plans is an annihilating justice, and it reminded me of desert storms that seemed to come out of nowhere, dump an intense and overwhelming amount of rain, and then as quickly as they came, simply move on or disappear. Gullies become temporary — and frequently dangerous — temporary rivers.

“Let Justice Roll Down” is a fairly straightforward rewording of the text, with my experience of desert rain (From New Mexico, California, and Saudi Arabia) informing how I understand the flood of justice that Amos is calling down. I’m not a “social justice” Christian, and I frequently find social justice talk smug and self-righteous, as most of those talk that talk seem to me to assume they are always on right side (or will be) of God’s justice. Amos here is reminding all who listen that God’s justice is overwhelming and annihilating — it destroys all in its path (Noah’s flood, for example).

We experience that annihilating justice as mercy in baptism. Because in baptism, we are put to death, we are annihilated, and then raised again. There is the prophetic promise of new life that Amos leaves to the last few verses of his long and somewhat frightening declaration of judgment. And at Kurt Hendel’s suggestion, I altered the repetition of the last verse to reflect the fact that even though these quick desert storms wash away and destroy, they also provide the necessary water for the plants of the desert to bloom. Desert plants bloom quickly and furiously after a even a short rain. New birth, new life, coming from the annihilating flood.

And now that I look at the passage, the desert comparison is even more apt, because Amos also wants “an ever-flowing stream.” After washing away the old, this new water will not be subject to the vagaries of the monsoon cycle, but rather, will bubble up and provide water so a garden can grow and thrive where once only parched plants and the hardiest of critters struggled to survive in the harshest of conditions.

I don’t remember if I played that revised second refrain in chapel or not when Dr. Hendel preached it. It wasn’t part of my original lyrics, and I’ve scrawled them at the bottom of the lyric page.

Okay, but how does this relate to the Matthew reading? I mean, aside from judgment, which I’m not really dealing with today? I thought a lot about the relationship between the actions condemned in Amos and approved of in Matthew. What might be the difference? God condemns empty worship for the sake of empty worship in Amos. But why might those who fill their lamps be the young women ready to meet the bridegroom here?

This is where I got creative with “Fill Your Lamps.” I’m going to post the lyrics to the son as well, and I hope you can see what I’ve done.

Fill your lamps with the oil of gladness
Fill your lamps with the oil of kindness
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of healing
Fill your lamps with the oil of blessing
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of patience
Fill your lamps with the oil of celebration
Wait for the Lord to come

Dark midnight’s coming, yet the Spirit pours
Abundant oil to anoint and to restore

Fill your lamps with the oil of friendship
Fill your lamps with the oil of worship
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of compassion
Fill your lamps with love in action
Keep your lamps full, wait for the Lord to come

Fill your lamps with the oil of mercy
Fill your lamps with the oil of hospitality
Wait for the Lord to come

Behold, it’s midnight, and the bridegroom’s here!
In our darkest moment God’s light appears!

I made the oil, and the filling of the lamps, a metaphor for the commands Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in Matthew, on how we should live together as the people of God. In effect, we fill our lamps and “wait for the Lord to come” by living as Jesus has called us to live — with self-giving love, compassion, mercy, and kindness. Our lives together as a community of people, the love we show to each other and to the world, is itself a form of waiting for the Lord. Yes, the implication is some will be ready and some will not. But that message is central to Matthew — some will, in fact, be ready, and some will not. Judgment is coming, the master is coming, the bridegroom is coming. We don’t know when. So be ready.

The main difference I saw when I wrote these two songs — Amos condemns acts aimed at solely pleasing God for the sake of pleasing God. By “filling the oil” with the content of the beatitudes here, Jesus is encouraging acts intended not to please God but to show love to neighbor by noting that such acts will also please God.

This song is an exhortation, and not a condemnation. But if I want to go that route, then something this approach to the reading suggests is that this Christian way of living together is not a commodity, not something that can be bought or bartered or traded. It cannot be given away either. It must be carefully cultivated, and it cannot simply be acquired at a moment’s notice. (And even the virgins who are ready fall asleep, and are awoken by the bridegroom.) Kindness. Mercy. Generosity. Love. These are not easy things. They are hard, and hard to live in an unkind and violent world.

Now, perhaps I am doing a tremendous injustice to the passage by making the oil (and the lamps) so metaphorical. I don’t know. I do know I like “Fill Your Lamps,” and it was one of my more inspired melodies. Because I don’t actually write musical notation, it took concerted effort to remember this melody (that happens a lot), some deliberate dwelling on it before it got properly lodged in that part of my memory that contains song melodies.

And so, I will be playing this song this coming Sunday at Grace Lutheran Church in Westchester, Illinois. Come out and listen, and maybe even sing it with me!

The Lectionary This Week — The Humbling of the Exalted

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

All Saints Sunday / Lectionary 31, 02 November 2014 (Year A)

While this Sunday is All Saints Sunday in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I will be going with the Lectionary 31 readings, as they continue a theme of judgment in both the Old and New Testament readings that has fascinated me for the last few weeks.

  • Micah 3:5-12
  • Psalm 43
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

There are some tremendous parallels between the Old Testament reading, from the third chapter of Micah, and the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I’ll start by putting the entire third chapter of Micah here, because even though the reading begins with the fifth verse, the whole thing is worth contemplating:

1 And I said:
Hear, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice? —
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
and their flesh from off their bones,
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
and chop them up like meat in a pot,
like flesh in a cauldron.
4 Then they will cry to the Lord,
but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
because they have made their deeds evil.
5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against him
who puts nothing into their mouths.
6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without divination.
The sun shall go down on the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
7 the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
and make crooked all that is straight,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with iniquity.
11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
“Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height
(Micah 3:1-12 ESV)

This is a condemnation, of both rulers — the “heads of Jacob” (רָאשֵׁ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב) — and of prophets (נְּבִיאִ֖ים, a word which has its root in נבא نبأ نبو exalting, elevating, informing, but can also have implications of remoteness, distance, overcoming or even something that sickens). The lectionary reading focuses solely on the prophets, but Micah here bundles God’s condemnation of those prophets with God’s condemnation of Israel’s rulers.

The rulers devour the people, and the language here is both graphic and brutal. Those rulers hate what is good, and love what is evil. They butcher and devour the people of God, “my people” in the ESV, “from them” מֵֽעֲלֵיהֶ֔ם (likely referring to Israel) in the Hebrew. These awful rulers are cannibals, slowly skinning, cooking and devouring the people they are responsible for, down to the marrow. Their fate is clear — there will be no help for them when the judgment comes. God will abandon them.

The prophets are not accused of devouring the people. They merely lead the people astray by proclaiming not God’s truth but by speaking solely on behalf of those who pay them. (Verse five confused me for a bit, but realizing the “they” in “when they have something to eat” and “who puts nothing into their mouths” refers not to “my people” but to “the prophets” earlier in the verse.) These are people paid to speak good words on behalf of the rulers, to justify their rule, their power, their acts and deeds. They believe they act in the way of God, with the favor of God. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us!” All their pretense will come to nothing when the day comes. They shall be in darkness, and see nothing, they will be able to say nothing, and God will abandon them as utterly as God has abandoned the “heads of Jacob.”

In the end, the rulers and the prophets, though their misrule and their lies, will lead the people to destruction. The coming judgment on Jerusalem is all their doing: “Therefore because of you [plural], Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”

It’s a fairly straightforward prophetic warning. Except that Micah refuses to claim the mantle of prophethood for himself. It’s as if he’s saying, “I am not a prophet. I am not paid to do this. I have the Spirit and Power of the Lord prompting me to do this.” Here, it’s not a good thing to be a prophet, and Micah’s calling is clearly NOT as a prophet. His calling is something bigger. We might call it prophetic, his condemnation of Israel’s leaders — rulers and spokesmen — but Micah wouldn’t.

Which brings us to Jesus, pronouncing woe upon the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)

“Do as they say, and not as they as do,” Jesus tells those assembled of the Pharisees and the scribes. They teach correctly, they just don’t live what they teach. (Oh, that so sounds like the church in just about any age I can think of…) This is the beginning of all the woes pronounced to the scribes and the pharisees, woes that they live in ways which impose “heavy burdens” on those they teach, burdens they themselves are unwilling to take up and carry. This pronouncement of woes takes up nearly all of chapter 23, including what is probably the “nut graf” for this entire section, verse 23:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness [τὴν κρίσιν καὶ ⸂τὸ ἔλεος⸃ καὶ τὴν πίστιν]. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23 ESV)

It’s not one or the other, not mercy or the teaching. It’s both. And here, a teaching without mercy, without justice, without faithfulness, is empty righteousness.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because these woes are the beginning of a long discourse on the coming judgment against Jerusalem. The woes are God’s indictment against the “rulers and prophets” of Israel. Micah’s pronouncement, which saw the coming of God’s judgment with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, is being repeated here.

Even when Jesus repeats the claim from the scribes and Pharisees that “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,” that is part of his indictment of the people ruling Israel. Such an admission is, he says in verse 31, “witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (This has some interesting implications for those who apologize for the sins of ancestors…)

Jesus ends this with another pronouncement of the coming judgment:

32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:32-36 ESV)

It’s just as well, I think, that this coming Sunday is All Saints Sunday. No one has to struggle with the few measly words of grace from the 1 Thessalonians reading.

Because there’s a huge question in all this: Where is the good news?

Were I to preach this, I might focus on the last three verses of the assigned lectionary reading, when Jesus tells all those assembled, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then to talk about how Christ does that, and makes it possible.

But I’m still fascinated here with Jesus’ prophetic — or not, if we take Micah’s cue — pronouncement of the coming judgment. It seems to be central to Matthew’s gospel, and so it needs to be dealt with.

So, a word on what judgement isn’t. Because these are easily misused words. What Jesus (and Micah) aren’t doing, and what those who truly speak prophetically don’t do as well, is blame someone, or some (typically marginalized and powerless) group, outside the community of God’s people, for calamity or disaster. This isn’t about blaming homosexuals, or abortionists, or liberals, or illegal migrants, or atheists, or the president of the wrong political party, or whatever, for earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, or a bad economy, or whatever. This isn’t about some them who is not us being responsible for whatever is wrong, and it is not about dealing with that them properly in order to get right with God.

The judgment is upon us — and only upon us — the people of God. And this judgment is coming because those with the responsibility to rule and guide us, to teach and lead us, have done that selfishly and cruelly, for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they rule. Because our elites are venal, incompetent, self-centered, greedy, and evil.

Yes, evil.

Now, the terrible thing of this is that while the judgment may be upon us all because our leaders are incompetent, stupid, and cruel, the entire people of God will suffer. When the Babylonians arrive to lay siege to Jerusalem, they won’t just kill those in charge and then go home. The guilty and the innocent alike shall suffer from war, starvation, and disease. And if that wasn’t unfair enough, all this is happening not because of what we did, not really, but what was done ages before us. We are bearing the burdens, and paying for the sins and faithlessness, of our ancestors.

This may be why Jeremiah, and Jesus in chapter 24, counsel flight. I remember staring up at the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and thinking: “All smart little animals will run fast and hard right now, because when those buildings come down, they will respect neither person nor position.” If this judgement is solely a temporal one, then flight from the disaster is possible. And absolutely necessary if a faithful remnant is to survive.

Which leads me to one more point. A lot of the covenantal language of Deuteronomy and Leviticus — the covenant in which God promises to bless Israel if it keeps its end of the bargain with God, and expel it from the land if is does not — has an “if-then” construction, and is phrased in terms of real human choice. And perhaps Israel could have kept its end of the deal. Who knows.

But Israel did not keep its end of the bargain, and the prophets are not warning Israel to improve its behavior. They aren’t telling Israel to care for the poor and do justice in order to keep the Babylonians at bay. It’s too late for that. The consequences outlined in the Wilderness are coming true. (Though Jonah suggests change is possible.) The disaster is upon Israel, either right there at the walls or looming on the eastern horizon. It is too late to make the kinds of changes that will save the people and the leaders who have brought this mess upon us all. At this point, the only redemption coming is for a faithful remnant who flee the disaster. Who keep the faith, who gather and worship, who take risks by living out the generous faithfulness of our crucified and risen Lord in the same world that put him to death.

Now, whether this judgment is immediate and temporal — the Jewish War in which Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed — or eternal, or both, I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters. I have been considering the fate of the Church in the West in terms of God’s judgment, with Modernity and Enlightenment as metaphorical Assyrians and Babylonians, and am considering what a book along those lines would look like.

But as followers of the crucified and risen one, we must never forget that judgement is never God’s final word. Redemption is. And that’s always good news.

Sinning In Thought And Deed

As Jennifer and I were getting ready to go to our favorite Bridgeport cafe, I was mulling over a conversation I had earlier in the morning with my “daughter,” Michaela. (I put daughter in quotation marks because, well, she’s my daughter by proclamation. There’s nothing formal or legal or biological about it. Like most good things in my life, she just walked up to me one day a couple of years ago and simply claimed me. “You shall be my daddy, and I will be your daughter,” she said. And that was that.) I won’t say what that conversation was about, but as I was mulling it over in my mind, and something Jennifer noted afterwards, I began to think a bit about some things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s a long passage, after Jesus tells those gathered (disciples and others) who is truly blessed in this world, that they are the salt and light of the world, and that Jesus himself came to fulfill the “law” or “teaching” (νομος nomos in Greek, תּוֹרָה torah in Hebrew) that God gave to Israel in the Wilderness. He then tells everyone listening something that sounds both stunning and harsh:

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19-20 ESV)

It’s a rigorous teaching that Jesus gives here. None of it can be dropped, none of it can be relaxed. Even as he fulfills God’s teaching, all the word’s spoken by God to Moses (and through Moses, to Israel) in the Wilderness remain true. All of it.

What does Jesus preach in Matthew 5:17-32? That even thinking of killing, even being angry, even insulting one’s neighbor and brother, puts one at risk for judgement (a very earthly and temporal judgement, the council and the fire of Gahenna). That even thinking lustful thoughts makes one guilty of adultery, and that it is better to “lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Again with Gahenna.) In fact, Jesus tells those assembled to hear him that anyone who divorces, or married someone who is divorced, “commits adultery.”

He then follows with a teaching on oaths, an admonition against retaliation (“But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil”), and the command to love enemies, followed by one final command that seems utterly unreachable to all but perhaps the most dour Calvinist or most committed Catholic traditionalist:

48 You therefore must be perfect [τέλειος, with an implication of completeness], as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 ESV)

While the teaching here is rigorous, and can be read literally (and may even be meant literally), I think there’s also another reading here, one that fits in well with the way many Torah teachings sit in tension with the actual lives of many of the characters in scripture.

One example. (There are many others…) Leviticus 18:9 states, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home.” And yet, Genesis 20:12 reports during the second time Abraham pawns off his wife Sarah as his sister to avert a potential violent death, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” [Emphasis mine.] Granted, Abraham does this long before the teaching in Leviticus is given to Israel, but the editors of scripture left this intact purposefully, I believe, to note that the lives of even the best of God’s people — and this whole story really begins with Abraham and Sarah — are messy and frequently out of sync with God’s teaching.

And that we would not exist as a people — the people of God — had these people not lived messy lives. We are the product of their messy, disordered, sinful, and law-breaking lives.

With that in mind, I look at what Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-32 and think that perhaps this is a reminder to those who have not murdered, or committed adultery, or divorced (or married someone who was divorced), or sworn an oath, or even sought vengeance and hated an enemy, that there isn’t that much difference between thought and deed. If we take what Jesus says here seriously, we are all sinners. (I know this is what Lutherans teach and generally believe, even if it isn’t what they practice. Because it isn’t what they practice.)

The point of the teaching here, then, is to provoke both conscience and humility. “At least I’ve never killed anyone,” I can say. And it’s true. I’ve never killed anyone. But I have been angry, so angry I have wanted to. And so, rather than allow me to sit in smug self-righteous, this teaching reminds me that I too am a sinner, little different, and little better. (Think of what you can truly, honestly, and self-righteously claim to never have done.) To use an example from my upcoming book (and the reason I am no longer being considered for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), the one who has never actually committed adultery should look upon someone who has with a little humility. Who has not contemplated someone else lustfully? Because not all that much separates the thinking from the doing.

Certainly not in the eyes of God.

And note, Jesus speaks in this passage not of eternal consequences for sin in one’s heart and one’s soul, but of temporal consequences. This is part of the coming judgment that will overtake Israel. I’m not entirely sure what that means. On the face of it, there is a incredible harshness, a brutal mercilessness to this. Just as there is to all of the judgment talk in Matthew. (And Matthew is very focused on the coming judgment.) “Don’t think those of you who haven’t actually done anything will be safe, or safer than the rest of you, when the hour comes,” Jesus might be saying here. (This is why we need to take judgment seriously in Matthew.) And yet, the point may also be that when we argue among ourselves over who is more sinful, or more righteous, we are no longer paying attention to what’s going on around us, and the judgment to come will overtake us — all of us, even the supposed righteous who have sinned in thought but not in deed — when we least expect it. “Watch therefore,” Jesus tells his disciples later in Matthew, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

In fact, it may be that in the judgment to come, those have actually sinned, in thought and deed, and who have acknowledged that sin, will have an advantage over those righteous who have lived far more exemplary and respectable lives. Because perhaps they are paying attention, and know to flee when the time comes. While the righteous will stay. And fight. And die. (Evoking Jeremiah 21, as so much of Matthew’s judgment talk does for me.)

I don’t like to mix my gospels when I do this kind of thing (contemplate and teach), but this understanding brings to mind a passage from the Gospel of Luke:

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. ’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

The Lectionary This Week — How to Love God and Love Your Neighbor

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Reformation Sunday, 26 October 2014 (Year A)

  • Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

After several weeks of difficult and even unpleasant readings from Matthew, this Sunday’s readings — and it’s Reformation Sunday for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — give us something that, at first blush, seems a lot less problematic. Something we can find some grace in. Something that doesn’t involve kings and masters burning villages and consigning the improperly dressed to outer darkness.

The gospel reading is from Matthew 22, verses 34-46:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46 ESV)

“On these two commandments depend all of the Law [νόμος] and the Prophets.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and body, and loving your neighbor as yourself. These are the whole of not just the Law, the Torah, the teaching that God gives to Israel as it wanders in exile, but also of the prophetic critique God makes of Israel as the divided kingdoms are sliding toward conquest, exile, and oblivion. Israel is called to love God, and to practice love toward others, as its part in the call by God to follow. And the failure to love God, and love neighbor, will be the cause of the disaster looming over the divided kingdoms as Assyrians and Babylonians bear down upon them.

Love is that important.

We’re lucky, this Sunday, for having some real guide to what that love looks like. Too often, we’re deprived of concrete examples of what “love of neighbor” look like in daily living. But the first reading from this coming Sunday, from Leviticus 19, does a very good job of laying out in black and white what that love is supposed to look like as God’s people strive to live with each other (the lectionary reading excludes verses 3-8, but I have included them here):

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God:I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:1-18 ESV)

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is about being holy — קָד֔וֹשׁ — and so it would be fair that in these commands God gives to Israel, God is describing what holiness looks like.

And it looks like generosity. It looks like grace.

All of these acts are relational. The you here in the commands is singular, and all this is spoken to the individual Israelite. The commands and prohibitions are about life together as the people of God. How I treat you, and how you treat me, matters. These commands speak to what it means to live with each, and how each us should live with each other. Especially with the most vulnerable — we aren’t to strip our fields bare, whether to maximize our own gain or to keep all of the produce for ourselves. There are people who rely on gleanings, on the grapes dropped in the vineyard, on the fat of the land, for their sustenance. Just as Israel relied on manna gathered daily — and only daily — for food in the wilderness.

Down the list, the prohibitions against stealing, lying, profaning the name of God, depriving laborers or servants — who would be neighbors — of their earnings, cursing the blind and deaf and making life unduly difficult for them, showing partiality in court, slandering neighbors, hating and taking vengeance upon neighbors — all of these things destroy trust, allow the strong to behave callously and cruelly toward the weak.

It isn’t how God treats God’s people.

Note, with the exception of not hating “your brother in your heart,” this love of neighbor isn’t about feeling good about your neighbor. It isn’t in what you think or believe about your neighbor. It’s almost entirely about how you act toward your neighbor.

Even when it seems they are solely about personal piety in which no one else is affected. How can keeping leftover meat for three days even approach sinfulness, much less the kind of sin that would merit someone being “cut off from his people”? (And that consequence for keeping leftovers is probably the reason these verses were not included in this week’s readings.) Possibly because it shows a lack of generosity, and unwillingness to share, or a belief that something must be hoarded, either because it’s scarce or simply because it’s delicious. No reason is stated here, but given what else this prohibition is bundled with, it would make sense that this is about an unwillingness to be generous. To share without fear.

While Leviticus will go on to describe holiness as being separate:

23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. … 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Leviticus 20:23, 25-26 ESV)

in our reading for this Sunday, holiness is described as generosity, honesty, kindness, truthfulness. We are not Canaanites, and we do not live like Canaanites. Not just in what we don’t do (this section of Leviticus is full of things Israel is forbidden from doing), but also in the things we do for each other. In the ways we live together. We care for one another. We create a community where the poor, the blind, the deaf (and others) don’t just eke out a living in some neglected corner, but live with some dignity in the midst of everyone.

This is what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … [and] … love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is a weakness in this Leviticus passage, it is the sense that neighbors are largely restricted to “your own people” (בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ). This is a legitimate concern, especially since Israel has been commanded to separate itself from the Canaanites, the people whose land they have been given, who they are conquering, the people God is driving out from the land. Is nothing owed the stranger, the foreigner, even the one set aside for destruction?

Well, I cannot speak to the Canaanites — who aren’t exterminated, by the way — but God does instruct Israel quite explicitly later in Leviticus 19:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

The stranger, the sojourner, is to be treated the same as the kinsman. The stranger, the sojourner, is also a neighbor, entitled to the gleanings from the field, to the kindness and respect due every fellow Israelite.

(Don’t forget, however, that this talk of loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew comes as something of a break in a long series of deeds, parables, and discussions about the coming judgement of God upon God’s people Israel. And after this, Jesus gets serious — down and dirty — in describing the hows and whys of that coming judgement.)

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And then after this, Jesus asks the Pharisees an interesting question: “What do you think of the Christ [the anointed one]? Whose son is he?”

It’s a fascinating question, since Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 110 to suggest that the Christ — the anointed one — cannot possibly be the Son of David, since David calls him “Lord.” At least I find it fascinating, since Matthew so clearly puts Jesus in line with both David and Abraham at the very beginning of his gospel:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 ESV)

So, Matthew puts him in this lineage, while he also quotes Jesus seeming to deny it. It’s a stunning juxtaposition. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it.

I think I know why Matthew roots Jesus so solidly in that lineage of Abraham and David — Jesus inherits the promises given to Abraham, bears those promises, witnesses those promises, and finally fulfills this promises. The same is true of the promises made to David. To Abraham, God promises many descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to the world. To David, God promises to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is given all of these promises, and in him, they are all fulfilled. (I have come to believe that for Matthew, Jesus is Israel.) And yet, he is bigger than Abraham and Moses and David and even all Israel gathered from exile. I cannot quite put my finger on this right now. Mostly this is just churning around in my mind. But Jesus’ story, from the beginning of his ministry to his passion and eventually his resurrection, is the story of Israel, it parallels the judgement that is about to descend upon Israel in the coming war, and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.