For Nov. 17, 2013: Proper 28, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 65:17-25

The prophet Isaiah speaks to Israelites who, after exile in Babylon, return to Jerusalem laid waste, the temple burned, and their lives in ruins. Isaiah attributed these disasters and more to the people’s disobedience. This Sunday’s reading, however, sings joyously of God’s gracious intentions for the people.

The Response            Canticle 9

“Cry aloud inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

While the Old Testament this Sunday prophesies grace, the epistle lays down the law. The author, who may or may not be Paul, is vexed with first-century believers who, instead of doing productive work, are ataktos peripatountos—less nearly ‘living in idleness’, as our translation has it, than ‘going around sowing disorder’.

The Gospel            Luke 21:5-19

“‘By your endurance you will gain your souls.’”

 

Further thoughts

As the beginning of Advent nears, the Proper 28 readings fittingly touch on order and irony.

The passage from Isaiah is a glowing depiction of orderliness and rightness. We deeply feel the unfairness of little children having to lose their parents and parents having to bury their children; we perceive wrongness in people dying too young to collect on their 401(k)s; in nature documentaries, we flinch when the defenseless little zebra calf falls to the ravening lion even as we concede that the lion is simply being who the lion is. Isaiah foresees a world in which things are put right, and it is tremendously appealing.

On the face of it, the epistle goes in a different direction. 2 Thessalonians 3:10—“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”—is widely quoted out of context as a condemnation of the chronically lazy; it resonates well with the sense of enjoying what one has properly earned that makes Isaiah’s vision appealing, and the NRSV’s rendering of the Greek phrase ataktos peripatountos in 3:3 and 3:11 as ‘living in idleness’ contributes to that impression. The problem that the passage addresses, however, isn’t mere laziness: ataktos is ‘disorderly’ and peripatountos is literally ‘around-walking’ (as in English peripatetic), so this is active interference. The rest of 3:11 calls the ataktos believers not ergazomenous ‘working’ but periergazomenous; the play on words suggests the painful irony of busyness that is badly off target. In such a world, professing Christians toting prayer books toddle off for a comfortable round of gossip about people we just finished hugging and sharing Eucharist with. In this world budgets dictate slapdash subsoil containment from which toxins leach into drinking water; monuments to piety and/or greed soar and shine while those who have never caught an even break—and, too often, those damaged while serving our nation at war—squat in doorsteps and scrounge in dumpsters for food.

It is messy, this world of ours, and in today’s gospel Jesus fails to do much about it. He doesn’t promise to strengthen the Temple or eliminate war or make natural disasters stop, or to keep out of jail or the media or others’ gossip, nor to keep our families from splintering, nor to eradicate any of the predators of which this world is so full (including the two-footed ones, and sometimes that means us).

What he does promise is to give us the wisdom and the heart to stay in this messy world and speak his words and be his hands and feet, if we choose to listen and keep listening. For, in God’s richest irony, it is meeting the deepest fears and needs of God’s children around us with God’s love that is the real work of the Kingdom.

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