Archive for October, 2012

For Oct. 21, 2012: Proper 24, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 53:4-12

Today’s reading from Isaiah is one that we associate with Holy Week. It speaks—at first from the point of view of those who benefit, later from the point of view of God—of a mysterious figure who suffers grievously in order that others may be spared the punishment they deserve.

The Response            Psalm 91:9-16

The Epistle            Hebrews 5:1-10

Hebrews 5:1-10 explains how and why Jesus Christ is the ultimate high priest, in both senses of the term: he is human, so he understands human weakness; he is God, but served humbly just as, in today’s gospel, he calls us to serve; he knows what it is to sacrifice—and to be the sacrifice. Melchizedek, which can mean ‘king of righteousness’, is the king and priest who came to Abram in Genesis bringing bread and wine.

The Gospel            Mark 10:35-45

 

Further thoughts

The Melchizedek who is Jesus’ prototype in the book of Hebrews is named in Genesis 14:13-20: as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and three other kingdoms flee from an unsuccessful revolt, their overlords the Elamites capture Lot, who is the nephew of a certain Hebrew that the world will later know as Abraham. Blood being thicker than water, Abram combines his own forces with those of his neighbor Mamre and Mamre’s brothers Eshcol and Aner and goes to Lot’s rescue.

Abram’s forces rout the enemy and take Lot and and his goods plus, one surmises, prisoners and booty. On the way back, Abram meets the king of Sodom—Lot’s king—in the Valley of Shaveh. Also there is Melchizedek, king of Salem (which is Arabic and Hebrew for ‘peace’) and priest of God Most High. This is in the time before the Levites in Israel were set aside as priests; indeed, neither Israel nor the tribe of Levi even existed. Now it was not unusual for a king also to be a priest. Unusually, though, Melchizedek comes to Abram rather than making Abram come to him, and Melchizedek brings bread and wine. That is, even though Melchizedek is a king and Abram is not, Melchizedek serves and honors Abram before blessing him.

What a contrast this is with the bumptious Sons of Thunder, James and John, demanding their places at Jesus’ left and right hands in heaven! It’s easy to laugh at their lack of polish, at least when I’m not wincing at how much it looks like my own.

And yet the most valuable servant is not the one who passively waits for orders but rather the one who takes initiative. James and John, and the almost irrepressible Peter, have caught glimpses of what Jesus is doing on earth; whatever their mistakes, they are doing their best to live into the vision given their understanding of the way the world works. That God Almighty is also in the business of seeking dirty feet to wash remains a startling concept, two millennia and thousands of Bible studies later. As I struggle to reconcile Jesus’ vision of servant leadership with the facts of worldly hierarchical life, I have a good model to follow in Melchizedek’s graceful integration of the exalted roles of king and priest with a personal reality in which, by God’s grace, he is clearly pretty well over himself. I have a very long way to go to match Melchizedek as a servant, let alone Jesus—but, as with James and John and Peter, there’s grace and work and hope for me, too, in Jesus’ vision.

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For Oct. 14, 2012: Proper 23, Year B

The Reading            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

The book of Job, composed between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, poses one of the great questions of life: if God rewards virtue, why do bad things happen to good people? In today’s reading, as Job grieves in ashes for his children and his lost wealth, he demands a hearing with God—and he is terrified that God is no longer anywhere for him.

The Response            Psalm 90:12-17

The Epistle            Hebrews 4:12-16

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues to explain to a Jewish audience why and how Jesus is the Messiah. The word of God here refers not to scripture but to God’s ongoing revelation and discernment of our hearts; unlike Job, however, our judge is Jesus, who knows exactly what it is like to be human.

The Gospel            Mark 10:17-31

 

Further thoughts

The lectionary today gives us some difficult and chewy food for thought. It was accepted wisdom in Judaism that God always rewards the virtuous with material wealth and therefore that loss or absence of the good things of life was a sign of guilt. This is the assumption that Job’s friends in the fourth century BC made earlier in the book when they called upon him to confess the sin that must have impelled God to take away all of his children, all of his wealth, and even his health. It is also a source of the shock and grief of the man whom Jesus instructed to sell his possessions—for they were his badges of rightness with God—and of the subsequent astonishment of the disciples. To put it in 21st century terms that are all too common, if even God’s evident favorites can’t enter the kingdom, what hope is there for the other 98%?

Job resists his friends’ insistence that he find a sin to repent: to have earned the depth of grief, destitution, and pain he is in, he would have to have behaved viciously, but his conscience is clear. In any case, even if Job deserved punishment, how is it just to his ten children to kill them? It follows logically that, whatever the source of these disasters, it is not God’s justice. Job retains enough confidence in his friends to challenge them to their faces, rather than just writing them off as idiots; today’s reading follows that outburst—and, significantly, enough faith to challenge God, too, even angrily. He is aware that God is not a merchant bartering righteousness for goodies. He who dies with the most toys doesn’t win: he simply dies like everyone else.

Here may be the root of the rich man’s quandary, and often ours. We understand buying and selling and scarcity: we give up time to gain income or income to gain time; we trade money for goods and services, and if we hand over more money we expect better stuff or a greater return; all in all, it seems sensible, and we tend to expect that God’s favor also is to be bought, whether with money or power or charm or good behavior.

But the kingdom of God operates differently. We come into the world with nothing except our skin and what lies within it—and even that is on loan. What gets us into God’s good graces is simply God’s good graces, through the sacrifice of Jesus, and what keeps us believing that that grace is there for us is giving love to and receiving love from each other.

For October 7, 2012: Proper 22, Year B

The Reading            Genesis 2:18-24

In last week’s Old Testament reading, Moses cried out for relief in dealing with the Israelites, and God sent a committee. Today’s reading takes us back to the beginning of all things: in God’s view, it is no better for the first human to be alone than it is for God. Interestingly it is the creation of woman that makes humans unique.

The Response            Psalm 8

The Epistle            Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

The letter to the Hebrews, which we read over the next few weeks, is less a letter than it is a tract that sets out demonstrate to first-century Jews how Jesus is the Messiah and fulfiller of the promises in the Old Testament. The quotation in today’s reading is from Psalm 8.

The Gospel            Mark 10:2-16

 

Further thoughts

Divorce—the ending of a marriage by a legal process—has become more and more common in today’s society. The scars that it leaves are properly to be lamented; most of us know and perhaps have sided with a spouse who has been left; some of us have been the spouse who was left or the spouse who left, and too many among us have been the children of a divorcing couple who could not keep their bitterness and anger to themselves. Jesus reminds us that neither marriage nor divorce is to be undertaken lightly, and, though the reminder can be painful, it is salutary.

It is both familiar and appropriate to take the Old Testament text and the gospel together as explaining and approving marriage as part of God’s design for human life. Perhaps, though, they and the epistle are also making a larger point. When the Old Testament tells us that woman was created from man, it tells us that God prizes our distinctivenesses: to hark back to the earlier account in Genesis, God has created each and every one of us in God’s image. It may also be telling us that each of us is created part of all the others. I am a part of you and you are a part of me, and you and I are each a part of people we will never meet, because through God every human being carries the imprint of all human beings. From this it follows that it should matter to me if you are hungry or cold or sad or fearful or in the dark, and it should matter enough to me to do what I can to feed you, warm you, cheer you, or bring you light. For me to turn my back on you amounts to a kind of divorce: you will learn from it, as children of bitter divorces do, that there are questions that are not to be asked and kinds of help you deserve that are not to be gained in your interaction through me, and this closed door may well hamper you in your other dealings.

To turn and seek and serve Christ in someone who has ignored or even scorned me can be painful. To turn and seek and serve Christ in someone I have ignored or scorned can be both painful and shame-inducing. Nevertheless, Jesus whom we all crucified calls me to do exactly that. In so doing I help build up the body of Christ, grace by grace and soul by soul.