The one who is wise understands

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Watching for the Morning of September 18, 2016

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Wealth and poverty and the ethics of the kingdom are again in the forefront of the readings this coming Sunday. The prophet Amos excoriates the northern kingdom of Israel whose economic injustices betray a complete denial of the covenant at Sinai. The call to justice and mercy, the command to leave the gleanings for the poor and to maintain just weights, the injunction to observe Sabbath as a day for even the work animals to rest has all been overthrown in the quest for wealth and power that makes Israel indistinguishable from the other kingdoms of the world.

The psalmist provides a startling contrast to the prophet’s word as it sings of God who lifts up the poor and makes them equal to “princes” – the elites of Israelite and Judean society.

And then Jesus tells his story about the corrupt steward that leads to the familiar and fateful declaration: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In a society that clearly serves wealth, such words makes us restless. We want to tame them – or dismiss them. But they will not be tamed.

They cannot be tamed, not honestly. They speak something at the heart of the faith. The human community is one; what lifts my brother lifts me; what diminished my sister diminishes me. Such ideas underlie the words of 1 Timothy that God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to be gathered into the redeemed community. God wants all to share in the goodness of God’s creation. God wants all people to know the wholeness of life. Salvation doesn’t mean that even the wretched of the earth should gain access to a heaven after death. It means that the human community should be healed. The outcast gathered in. The sinners reconciled. The hungry welcomed to the wedding feast. It means the forces of chaos should be stilled like the sea, and the human spirit made whole like the man at Gerasa/Gadara. It means, ultimately, that every tear is wiped away and every tomb undone.

Serving wealth sets us against one another. It makes the ephah small and the shekel great, manipulating the market with deceptive weights and measures. It sells even the sweepings of the wheat. But the one who is wise understands that the time is at hand to use wealth to embody the kingdom, to unite rather than divide, to heal rather than steal, to bring the redeemed community to life.

The Prayer for September 18, 2016

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 18, 2016

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.

image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeeking_human_kindness.JPG By Enver Rahmanov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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Carrying the cross

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Thursday

Luke 14:25-33

27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

When I was twelve or so I learned how to tie a hangman’s nose. I don’t know why it interested me. Perhaps it was due to the westerns I had watched on TV. Perhaps it was because my cousin, who showed it to me, invested it with a certain emotional energy – it was ‘cool’. Perhaps it’s just because the knot itself was an interesting puzzle. As a white boy in the California suburbs it had no other meaning to me. It did not speak of terrorism, of the brutal realities of Jim Crow segregation, of the violence we would come to see thanks to Bull Connor and his dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The knot had the vague numinous power of something associated with death, but it did not fill me with the fear of lynching for failing to respect the strict social requirements of the dominant culture. It is only later that I learned that this knot was a symbol of terror and oppression.

Such was the cross in Roman hands. It was an instrument of subjugation, a brutal demonstration of power and the consequences of challenging that power. Any sign of resistance on the part of a slave towards his master, any rebellion against the social order, was answered with this bloody instrument.

We wear crosses of gold and silver, now, adorned sometimes with precious jewels. We put them on bumper stickers and doorknockers and give them as wedding gifts for a new couple to put on their living room wall. Imagine giving a newly married African American couple in the 1950’s a hangman’s noose for their wall.

The cross has been robbed of its power. For the generation threatened with crucifixion in the arena, fed to the lions, or used as the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder for mass entertainment – for this generation the meaning of the cross was quite clear. They had taken the symbol of oppression and used it as a symbol of liberation. They took the instrument of Roman dominion and used it to proclaim God’s dominion. The symbol of Rome’s power became a witness to the ultimate triumph of the reign of God.

To take up the cross was to endure the hostility of the world for the sake of the world to come, the world God was creating, the world where all imperial powers are thrown down, all injustice overthrown, where debts are released and prisoner’s freed, where neighbors are loved and bread is shared, where the honored are not those who rule but those who serve.

Those who live in “the real world” mock the “starry-eyed dreamers.” But Jesus was not a dreamer. He saw the world clearly. He knew his fate. Yet all the might of imperial Rome could not silence his witness that a world in which the Spirit of God governed was coming – indeed, was already present. Sins were forgiven, the sick healed, the scattered gathered, the dead raised. Bread was already being shared, the light shining, a new creation dawning.

Those who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps must be clear-eyed, too. It’s not a requirement to give up everything to follow him; it’s just a fact. You can’t hold on to a dying world and participate in a new one. You can’t hold on to hate and follow love. You can’t hold on to fear and follow faith. You can’t hold on to wealth, power and privilege and follow hope, mercy and service.

The dying world doesn’t go away easily. Hate and fear, violence and shame abound in us and around us. And the dying world resists the birth of the new. Always. But the new is come. And those who would be disciples should recognize that we are not on a pilgrimage to the old Jerusalem (after which we all go home to our same old lives); we are on a pilgrimage to the New Jerusalem, the city God creates, the world God governs, the community where the fruits of the Spirit reign: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGelati_Gospels_MSS_(2).jpg By Anonymous (Center of MSS (Tbilisi, Georgia)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Counting the Cost

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Watching for the Morning of September 4, 2016

Year C

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

Jesus’ relentless challenge of the social order continues this week as he spells out to the crowd the consequences of enjoining the privileged to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to their banquets. Banquets functioned to maintain the social fabric through ties of kinship and friendship and by reinforcing the honor status of the host and guests. Jesus’ teaching to invite those on society’s margins jeopardized the safety and security of the family by bringing shame on the family, undermining their position in society and incurring the hostility of their social class.   ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ are words expressing attachment and detachment. Those who would follow Jesus must detach from the social system of this world in order to show allegiance to the new order that is dawning in Christ. The reign of God welcomes all, feeds all, forgives all. One cannot live the kingdom and yet maintain the ties of security through family position and wealth. “Count the cost,” Jesus says, “Count the cost.”

With this radical challenge comes the preaching of Moses declaring that God’s way is not too hard for you,” but is in fact the way of life. We hear the psalmist describe the one who shows fidelity to God (and neighbor) as a tree planted by streams of water,” drawing in the water of life in contrast to “the wicked” (those who lack fidelity to God and neighbor) who are “like chaff that the wind drives away.” And we hear Paul writing to Philemon, setting before him the need to welcome his runaway slave, Onesimus, (whom Philemon had the legal right to punish even to death) as a brother in Christ.

The world will staunchly defend the social order, but Jesus calls us to be a new creation, citizens of the age to come when all creation is reconciled to the Lord and Giver of Life. There is a cost to discipleship – but a greater cost for ignoring so great a salvation.”

The Prayer for September 4, 2016

Lord to whom our lives belong,
grant us courage to follow where you lead,
bearing the burdens of a broken world,
daring to speak the word of hope,
and living the love that lays down its life
for the sake of the world.

The Texts for September 4, 2016

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:11-20
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
– In a sermon set in the mouth of Moses, speaking to the Israelites as they prepare to enter the promised land, the preacher sets before them the choice of faithfulness and life or disobedience and all its consequences.

Psalmody: Psalm 1
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season.” –With this psalm that opens the psalter, the poet speaks of the enduring quality of the righteous (those faithful to God and neighbor) in contrast to the ephemeral existence of the wicked who are like chaff swept away by the wind.

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21
“Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
– Paul writes to Philemon on behalf of a runaway slave who has come to Paul and become a follower of Christ. Paul is sending him back to his master with instructions for Philemon to receive him as a brother.

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” – The words love and hate convey a different sense to the first century than to ours, but the words were shocking then as now. The kingdom of God, the reign of grace, requires our ultimate allegiance. We should count the cost.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWTC_Hub_July_2014_vc.jpg By JasonParis from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Death and Life

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“Be on your guard…for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Watching for the Morning of July 31, 2016

Year C

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

Death haunts our readings this Sunday – the power of death to render all our striving meaningless. It is the heart of the reflection in the book of Ecclesiastes from which we draw our first reading. It ripples through the Psalm. It makes mockery of the rich man’s attempt to store his abundance to live out his days in peace: “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” Even the reading from Colossians speaks of death – but here, it is the death of our inward-turned broken humanity, for there is a life available to us, a true life, a divinely redeemed and resurrected life, a life turned towards God and neighbor.

The rich man of our parable is a ‘fool’. He fails to understand life’s most fundamental truths: we are members of one another. The bounty of my fields provides for those whose harvests were poor so that, when my harvests are poor, their bounty may provide for me. Life, true Life, divine Life, the life for which we were created, the Life that does not perish is life connected, life in communion with God and others.

Such an understanding strains against the modern western notion of the individual. But the wise understand it is a deep and profound truth of all human existence. We are dependent on one another. We do not come into the world able to stand and flee from the predatory wolves. We cannot feed ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. We are deeply and profoundly communal creatures. What helps the tribe helps me. What hurts the tribe hurts me. No man is an island. And the only meaningful question is who is our tribe? How big are we able to see? The rich man in Jesus’ parable cannot see beyond himself. He cannot see that his neighbors are his tribe.

And Jesus has already spoken to us about who are our neighbors.

The Prayer for July 31, 2016

O God, from whom all good things come,
you have called us to live with open hands,
sharing what you provide with those who are in need.
Grant us humility to receive your gifts with thanksgiving,
and the wisdom and compassion to share them freely with others;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 31, 2016

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” – The poet reflects on the meaningless of life in the face of death that renders all human striving vain.

Psalmody Psalm 49:1-12
“When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.” – The poet is not troubled by the threats of the wealthy and powerful, for their wealth cannot deliver them from the grave.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” –
Paul writes for us to put to death the deeds of our fallen nature and clothe ourselves in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
“Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
– asked to arbitrate and inheritance dispute, Jesus warns about the corrupting power of possessions.

 

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AL%C3%A1mparas%2C_Djemaa_el_Fna_–_2014_–_Marrakech%2C_Marruecos.jpg By I.Barrios & J.Ligero (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Words we do not mean

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Thursday

Psalm 19

7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;

I asked the question yesterday whether we will mean it on Sunday when we say, while reading this psalm, that God’s Word, God’s commands, are “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” But we don’t have to mean it on Sunday; we have to say it.

We don’t have to mean these words and others like them; we have to say them. We have to say them again and again. We have to say these words so they can nestle down into some corner of our souls so that, in the day when wealth fails us – for surely it will. Wealth is fickle, and frail, and cannot sustain us in the face of life’s sorrows. No one yearns on their death beds to be reconciled with neglected bank accounts or visited by lost possessions – we say these words so that, in the day that wealth fails us, these words will be there, ready to fill the empty space left by our failed hope in money’s power to bless.

The church is routinely criticized for saying words we do not live. Those criticisms are fair; they just don’t understand the nature of the words we speak. None of us are saints yet (in the common understanding of that term). We are all far from the fullness of the kingdom. We do not love as we ought to love. We do not trust in God as we ought to trust. We are frail human beings limping toward the promised land. So we say words we do not mean, or do not mean perfectly, because we are planting those words in our souls that they may sprout and grow and – in the days when all the other things in which we hope and trust fail us – carry us into the presence of God.

Our parents made us practice saying “Thank you” when we received a gift from Aunt Sarah for which we were not thankful, and to say “I’m sorry” to a sibling we have punched when we were not at all sorry. They were not teaching us to practice insincerity. They were teaching us such words in hopes that thankfulness and compassion would find root and grow in us.

A day will come when God’s promise to me will be more important than the largest lottery prize, but I am not ready for that test yet. There is a reason the devil offered Jesus all the wealth and power of the world. Thankfully, Jesus chose God’s word.

So Sunday we will read aloud the words of Psalm 19, we will sing songs of praise we may not feel, we will pray prayers and hear stories we may not believe in. Not yet. Or not completely. But we will come that the word may be planted in us and bear its fruit in its season.

 

Image: By Dbxsoul (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More than much fine gold

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Wednesday

Psalm 19

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;

The country went crazy last week because the lottery jackpot had grown to over a billion dollars. People stood in line for hours, the news media told us, as they added their voice to the hype. It says something about our culture when the millionaire broadcasters are buying tickets. We believe in money. Despite all our disavowals that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” we have a deep and abiding faith in the power of wealth to bless us.

Sunday we will read together Psalm 19 that speaks of God’s wondrous ordering of the natural world around us – and then testifies to God’s wondrous ordering of what we might call the spiritual and moral universe:

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

And then comes the verse above: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.”

God’s word, God’s instruction, God’s wisdom and guidance for life, God’s promise and our loyalty to that promise, is worth more than the lottery prize.

And the interesting question as we recite these words on Sunday is whether we will regard them as true or as a pious fiction.

 

Image: By Ian and Wendy Sewell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shamed

Wednesday

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Isaiah 53:4-12

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

When we remember the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, where the first line is restated by the second line, we see the words ‘grave’ and ‘tomb’ in parallel and that makes sense. But then we see the words ‘wicked’ and ‘rich’ in parallel.

Christians move so quickly in the hearing of this text to Jesus laid in a rich man’s tomb that we seldom pause to recognize that the word ‘rich’ is regarded as a synonym for ‘wicked’.

From the perspective of the oppressed poor, burial among the rich and mighty is a scandal for a prophet. Political candidates work hard to wear plaid shirts and drink beer like one of the guys (or gals). This is odd when you consider that they are applying for the post of representing our country among the leaders of the world. We don’t want our president wearing plaid shirts to have a face to face with Putin or Merkel or Xi Jinping. We want him wearing his fiercest power suit.

But there is a suspicion about the rich and powerful that’s different than those who prosper from hard work and good fortune. People who get rich by clever schemes that leave homeowners underwater are not regarded as much more than thieves. So the president wears plaid shirts.

But this poor prophet is condemned to burial among the rich elite, as if all his words had fallen on deaf ears. The prophets call for justice. They stand with the poor, the victims, the faithful of the land trying to do right by God and their neighbor. They do no not hobnob with the men or women wearing hundred thousand dollar suits or watches or pearls or yachts. They might as well be sitting on the porch with the leader of the Crips.

And then, in our text, ‘violence’ and ‘deceit’ become parallel to ‘rich’ and ‘wicked’. The prophet lies in state among the ‘wicked’ even though he did no violence and told no lies!

Guilt by association. Shamed completely. “We accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” We regarded his fate as just. We thought God had given him his due. We did not see that he was wounded for our transgressions,” that God made “his life an offering for sin.”

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” says the Baptist. Behold the lamb whose blood marks the doors of the Israelites to save them from death. Behold the lamb who dies at the hour the Passover lambs were sacrificed.

Behold. See. See truly. See deeply. Recognize the face of God beneath that crown of thorns. Recognize the hands of mercy pierced. Recognize the faithfulness of God who does not strike back, but bears our violence and sin.

Behold the one shamed; it is our shame.

9They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

But the prophet does not stop there, for then God speaks: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” The disgraced one was faithful – and will make us faithful.

So we are summoned no only to see, but to follow. And the faithful one tries once again to help us understand: Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

 

Painting: Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Riches

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Watching for the Morning of October 11, 2015

Year B

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 23 / Lectionary 28

The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about divorce turned into an invitation by him to live the kingdom. Now a rich man comes asking how to enter the kingdom, but he turns away, unable to live the life Jesus is bringing.

We know this story as the story of the rich, young ruler, but Mark doesn’t tell us that he is any of these, until it comes out at the end that the man cannot give up his wealth. Every adjective we add to describe this person who comes to Jesus seeking the kingdom of God, every detail with which he is embellished, pushes him further and further into a comfortable distance from ourselves. Bit by bit we define him as someone specific rather than an everyman. He becomes someone else, not me.

But he is me – me with different issues, maybe, but me. What is Jesus asking of us? What is he promising? What do I have to walk away from in order to walk into the realm of the Spirit? My wealth? My anger? My bitterness? My sorrow?

The subject under discussion here is wealth – but much more than wealth. Even as last week’s conversation was about much more than divorce. We are still on the journey towards Jerusalem. Jesus is still headed to the cross and resurrection. He is still talking about what it means to take up the cross, what it means to be citizens of the dawning reign of light and life, what it means to show allegiance to Jesus and Jesus only.

The prophet Amos tills the soil for the seeds Jesus is sowing. He cries out against the economic injustice of his day, the loss of compassion, the abuse of the poor, and declares the coming catastrophe when Assyria will come trample those who trampled the poor:

“You have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.”

The psalmist calls us to be wise, to recognize that

“The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

Pain and struggle and mortality are the heritage of a world turned away from God – but the poet prays for God to soften the burden of life’s sorrows.

What is unspoken in the psalm – but present nonetheless – is the recognition that our brief and fragile life should be spent in “fear” of the eternal God (respect and honor of God’s ways).

As he warns us to show trust and allegiance to God, the author of Hebrews states boldly that the Word of God will reveal the heart of each of us. But he also declares that in Christ we may “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

In this mix of warning and promise, judgment and grace, there is an abiding promise that God’s reign is dawning. It requires our full allegiance, but it abounds with riches – just not the ones taken from our neighbors.

The Prayer for October 11, 2015

In your kingdom, O God, all find shelter and all are fed.
May your Spirit reign among us
that, abiding in your goodness,
we may live with joyful and generous hearts;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for October 11, 2015

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
“Because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them.” – In the 8th century BCE, during the reign of Jereboam II, the northern kingdom of Israel grew rich but failed to live God’s justice and mercy. As Assyria rises to power, the prophet Amos cries out against the nation’s failure, warning them of the coming catastrophe, and urging them to turn and live.

Psalmody: Psalm 90 (appointed 90:12-17)
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
– The poet meditates on the brevity and sorrows of human life, rooted as they are in humanity’s sinfulness. The poet bids God grant them a proper humility, but also asks God to have mercy and deal with us according to his faithfulness and love.

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
– God knows and will reveal the heart, but the author also declares that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,” and urges his hearers to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – A man comes up to Jesus asking how he can inherit the kingdom of God (be among those to enjoy the age to come when God rules over all). But when Jesus summons him to sell his possessions, give to the poor and come, follow Jesus, he turns away. And Jesus comments on how difficult it is for the wealthy to start living the kingdom. Fortunately, “for God all things are possible.”

 

Photo: By Jeff Belmonte from Cuiabá, Brazil (Contando Dinheiro) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Extortion and robbery

Sunday Evening

Psalm 62

File:Chocolate Eggs.jpg10 Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

Perhaps it’s because I was one of those kids that is timid about departing too far from the rules, but I have a hard time imaging that someone would put their “confidence in extortion” and their “hopes on robbery.”

But maybe extortion is too big a word, for there are all kinds of ways that we pressure one another to do or say something that benefits us rather than the one so pressured. I learned this lesson the hard way at nine when my fourteen-year-old brother persuaded me that trading my small speckled Easter eggs for his large brightly colored ones was a great deal. They were so much bigger in size he was doing me a favor – at two of mine for one of his. It turned out these big ones were disgusting and those little ones the real prize in our baskets. It’s not exactly extortion or robbery, but it does reveal how early and easily we learn to use one another to gain for ourselves.

“Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

We have a notion that the free market means that we are trading fairly with one another, but the truth is darker. There are plenty of products cheaply made in order to gain our money – and plenty of employee behaviors taking advantage of their employers. I had a part-time job during seminary where they rounded your time card to the nearest quarter hour. My associates there showed me how to linger on the way to the time clock in order to punch out at 8 minutes after the hour rather than 7 and gain the extra fifteen minutes’ pay.

“Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery.”

The truth is we put a great deal of confidence in taking advantage of others. It’s a path to success. It’s a secret to wealth. Buy low, sell high. A little shoe polish makes the photo of the hamburger look all that more delicious. There’s a reason they hire attractive women in shiny dresses to stand by the shiny cars at the Detroit Auto Show.

We don’t have to be thugs on the street to use power to our advantage. This is the heart of K Street and the corruption of our political system. It is why the scripture looks so negatively on wealth/riches – wealth that is not from God in the form of abundant harvests, but gained at the expense of others. There are harsh warnings about buying and selling with false weights. There would be no need for such warnings if it didn’t come naturally to us.

So maybe the injunction in this psalm isn’t so odd.

The psalm is both an expression of faith and a warning: the poet declaring his confidence in God and warning his opponents of the danger of trusting their power.

11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all according to their work.

There are consequences depending on in whom – or what – we place our trust and hope.

Yet another reason to seek out the God of mercy, and to follow when he calls.

 

Photo: By Kris de Curtis from Maddaloni, Italy (and Now .. Chocolate Eggs to Everyone!) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Whose image?

Thursday

Matthew 22

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Denarius with the Image of Tiberius

20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

I don’t know why our translators chose this expression, ‘head’, for the Greek word that comes into English as icon – though certainly ancient coins bore the visage of the emperor. At the time of Jesus, during the reign of Tiberius, they bore an inscription that declared: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” This was the reason you couldn’t use these coins to pay your temple offerings, the reason there were moneychangers in the temple to convert these idolatrous coins into a proper currency to bring into the temple.

Curiously Jesus accusers have no problem coming up with this idolatrous coin.

But Jesus is not sucked into the argument about the coins. Nor is he sidetracked by the trap they have set for him: a trap that would force him to risk open rebellion or risk alienating his base. He has a much deeper concern.

This narrative hinges on the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘image’. This is the same word used in the Greek of Genesis where God says “let us make humankind in our image.” Jesus doesn’t use one of the words for a graven image, a statue, an idol; he uses the word that connects to Israel’s fundamental conviction that humanity bears the image of God – for this is the question at issue. The Herodians and the Pharisees are made in the image of God, and have they rendered to God what belongs to God? Or are they rendering to Caesar what belongs to God?

Jesus is not dividing life between our civic and religious responsibilities. It is important to say this, because we routinely divide church and state, politics and religion. Jesus is challenging his accusers about where they have placed their allegiance. They have sided with Rome, not God. They have sided with wealth and power and safety rather than with the God who bids them care for the poor and protect the weak. They have sided with the accumulation of great estates rather than the commands of God that guards every family’s lands. They serve the empires of this world, not the reign of God.

This is why in the Gospel of Luke the leaders tell Pilate that Jesus forbids the people to pay taxes to Caesar. They hear Jesus’ challenge and know that he is repudiating their allegiance to the world of Rome. It is not that Israel could not live under Roman rule; it’s that its leaders have committed themselves to the way of human empires rather than God’s reign of justice and mercy. They have chosen to be “of the world” not just in it. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” says Jesus. He does not mean that it is tricky to pull off, or that you should temper your desire for things. It’s that your fundamental allegiance cannot be to God and to wealth at the same time. We must choose: the way of wealth and power or the way of justice and love.

Which takes us back to the central question: in whose image was I made? Whose image will I bear?