Posts Tagged 'justice'

For Nov. 9, 2014: Proper 27, Pentecost 22, Year A

The Reading                                                  Amos 5:18-24

Amos 5:18-24 asks a quelling question of people who take their own well-being, even at their neighbors’ expense, as a sign of being God’s favorites: “Why do you want the day of the Lord?”—and explains why they will not: sacrifices and solemn ritual do not interest God in the absence of justice being done. Verse 24 resonates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Response                                               Psalm 70

If Amos 5:18-24 can be read as one side of a coin, perhaps Psalm 70 represents the other: this is the voice of one beset by those who believe they know better. Strikingly, its call for the enemy to be disgraced is followed by a plea that those who gloat rethink and repent.

The Epistle                                                     1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Thessalonians struggled to reconcile the gospel promise of eternal life with the painful truth that some of their nearest and dearest in the faith are dead; are they lost? No, Paul says: those who have died will be first to meet the triumphant Christ, and all will be with the Lord forever.

The Gospel                                                     Matthew 25:1-13

Matthew 25:1-13 compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding in which half of the bridesmaids get left out because their lamps are running out of oil. Are the wise bridesmaids truly wise in the kingdom for refusing to share their oil? Jesus’ parables tend to be difficult, and this one is no exception.

 

Further thoughts

Taken at face value, the readings for Proper 27 don’t play very well together. In Amos 5:18-24, the Lord pronounces against those who practice religiosity but fail to ensure justice in this world; that goes well with Psalm 70, in which the psalmist clearly expects the Lord to act in the psalmist’s favor, and Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is explaining to his bewildered flock that their beloved kith and kin won’t be shut out of heaven for having had the bad grace (or something) to have died before Jesus’ return. So far, somewhat inclusive.

But then there’s the parable of the bridesmaids or virgins in Matthew 25:1-13. Imprudent bridesmaids didn’t bring extra oil; prudent bridesmaids refuse to share; when the imprudent ones do their best to remedy their lack, they get shut out of the wedding party altogether.

And, Jesus says, this is what the kingdom of heaven will be like.

Most interpretations of this parable over the centuries take it as a prescription, a forceful reminder of the perils of not being sufficiently prepared for Jesus’ coming and a prediction of what will happen to those who are unprepared. The theocracies of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the Massachusetts Bay colony operated on the principle that this preparedness could and should somehow be legislated.

A newer set of interpretations goes in a very different direction. In these interpretations, the “wise” bridesmaids’ refusal to share their oil is not a kingdom virtue and the lord who locks the door isn’t Jesus; the “foolish” bridesmaids’ error lay not in running out of oil but in running out on the party because they thought they could buy their way in by having the right stuff after all.

Which set of interpretations is correct? I don’t know—but I suspect the answer may vary depending on where I am in my walk with Christ when I read the parable. Sometimes I need the forceful urging that it is time and past time to prepare: salvation is through grace, but I do have some responsibility. At other times I need the reminder not to hide outside the door because I’m feeling more than usually unworthy.

And what if part of the point is how readily we insiders can hurt people who are outside with what is supposed to be Good News?

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For Dec. 24 & 25, 2011: Christmas, Year B

The Reading            Isaiah 9:2-7

In the time of the first prophecies of Isaiah, Ahaz the king must decide whether to try to save the kingdom from one powerful and ambitious neighbor by allying with another. Isaiah the prophet directs Ahaz to put his trust in God with this stirring hymn. The child whom Isaiah predicts is most probably Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who will indeed rule righteously in God’s sight—but of course we read it as predicting the birth of Jesus. Alleluia!

 

The Epistle            Titus 2:11-14

After Isaiah’s soaring poetry and the Psalm, the passage from the letter of Titus seems short and blunt. The point is that we await the great light, the release from bondage, the judging in equity, and the eternal joy—and, while we wait for Jesus’ return, we ourselves have plenty to do to bring these things to pass.

 

Further thoughts

Isaiah points us forward out of darkness, devastation, and carnage to the light of justice, righteousness, and peace by way of a wielder of authority and might whose wisdom will get the job done. This ringing prophecy is said of a child, to be sure, but clearly a king’s child: someone of whom it is appropriate to expect great things.

It is a challenge to square this vision with the much humbler birth that we celebrate in Bethlehem—and that, it seems, is precisely the point. This child born to us is no conqueror coming in might to fix the world by breaking it to his will. Generations of rulers before him and after have attempted that feat, and some have even had good intentions—but all have failed. This world and the people in it cannot be fixed by force, not even by force of will.

We humans find this astonishing: how much tidier if one could simply command human beings into righteousness, peaceability, and a host of other virtues. It’s evident, however, that God’s view of this is different.

I think there are several reasons for this. One of them is that none of us mortals is so much less broken than the others that we are competent to enforce our will on others totally or permanently. Even a small child must be allowed some scope to make choices and take chances, if she is to grow into our baptismal mandate to will and to persevere, and the wise parent must learn when and how to yield that authority.  Another reason is that force never lifted up a fainting heart, nor did punishment alone ever make a generous heart.

For the Babe in Bethlehem does not come to fix the world from the outside in, but rather to make the world new from the inside out through love, one heart at a time.