Posts Tagged 'Proper 27'

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?

For Nov. 10, 2013: Proper 27, Year C

The Reading            Haggai 1:14-2:9

In 539 BC, the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians. King Cyrus decreed that the exiled Jews should return home; his son and successor Darius sent them with means with which to rebuild. As the first chapter of Haggai tells it, they rebuild their own houses first but life is hard, until the Lord moves them to work on the Temple.

The Response            Psalm 145:1-5, 18-21

“The Lord is near to those who call upon him, to all who call upon him faithfully.”

The Epistle            2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

The church at Thessaloniki in the northern Aegean Sea was under persecution, and its members deeply afraid that somehow they had missed the return of the Christ. This passage reassures them—when that day comes, it will be obvious—while directing them to what matters most now: standing firm in the faith.

The Gospel            Luke 20:27-38

“‘Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’”

 

Further thoughts

Stewardship could be thought of as taking care of the future by taking care in the present. The readings for Proper 27 explore the theme from the perspectives of people whose futures may not look like winning ones.

The Jews in the verses preceding the Old Testament lesson have returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt their houses—the reference to paneled houses in Haggai 1:3 suggests some high-end edifices—but the second year’s harvest is meager. The remedy comes from God through Haggai: it is time to rebuild God’s house. Once they begin in earnest, Haggai brings them God’s own promise: though the house looks unpromising, it is already God’s dwelling among them. It will be even more splendid than before, for in it God will give shalom; the NRSV translates this word as “prosperity”, but the sense is not merely ‘riches’ but ‘blessing’.

The Christians of Thessaloniki are, if anything, in a worse way, persecuted by the Roman authorities, beset by other afflictions mentioned in the first chapter, and troubled after Paul left their corner of the northern Aegean Sea by someone teaching that Jesus somehow returned without them noticing and, horribly, left them behind. They still may have to choose at any moment to die for Christ, but they also face the same day-to-day dilemma that we do: how to live as Christians day by day by day by… The right course, says this epistle, is good stewardship: persevere in the faith, for Jesus has already seen to their sanctification—and ours.

The Sadducees of the gospel were influential priests who held that the five books of the Torah—the only true word of God—did not provide for an afterlife, and so a man lives on through his sons or at worst through his widow’s children with his brothers. This practice also provides for the widow, even one who flagrantly fails to fulfill her purpose of bearing heirs. Jesus evades the trap by challenging its premise that anyone in heaven can belong to anyone else. Instead, we all belong to God—in the afterlife that the Torah anticipates by declaring that YWHW is (not “was”) the God of all those patriarchs.

The future is in God’s hands, in short—though it is our choice to persist in the faith and to use our gifts gladly as stewards of God’s reign of blessing here on earth.

For Nov. 11, 2012: Proper 27, Year B

The Reading            1 Kings 17:8-16

The first and second books of Kings catalogue the rulers of Israel and Judah after David by their wickednesses and tell stories of the prophets who called them to account. After the prophet Elijah announces a punishing drought to King Ahab and his pagan queen Jezebel of Sidon, the Lord sends Elijah away for his own safety. In far-off Sidon Elijah meets a widow with whose cooperation he brings about one of God’s miracles of feeding.

The Response            Psalm 127

The Epistle            Hebrews 9:24-28

The book of Hebrews demonstrates how and why Jesus is the Messiah. The verses before today’s reading describe the Day of Atonement, the one day each year on which the high priest alone would bring animals’ blood for forgiveness to the holiest place in the temple. In contrast, Jesus who lives brings his own shed blood to heaven itself so we humans can enter the presence of God.

The Gospel            Mark 12:38-44

 

Further thoughts

That the reading from the book of Isaiah is one of the lectionary selections in the month of November is no surprise: this is stewardship season, after all, in which we are called to give of the abundance that we have been given. This is a problematic call, however, when we humans sense our abundance threatened or ebbing.

The ladies of the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel had been wives, each of them, with households to manage and husbands to look after. Then the worst possible societal disaster struck: each was widowed, bereft not only of husband but of financial support given the lack of reputable jobs for women outside the home.

The widow of Zarephath is down to her last meal, literally—or, worse, her son’s—when along comes Elijah, the foreign man of Israel’s God, to demand the little she has left. She protests. Then Elijah announces that God will not let her flour and oil run out until the rains come, if she gives what she has to Elijah first. She elects to trust Elijah and the God who sent him, and it is as Elijah promised: he and she and her household all have enough. Elijah’s prophecy gives her the hope with which to trust.

As for the widow at the Temple, we know that the law of Moses specified offerings for various purposes. Though one could bring actual turtledoves or grain or wood or oxen, it was easier for all concerned to bring the price of the sacrificial item for the Temple to buy and sacrifice in quantity, and so the Temple treasury featured both thirteen or fourteen different trumpet-shaped chests to collect the money and the means to make sure that each worshiper paid the right amount. Then as now, two little copper coins will not buy much—but two little copper coins are all that this widow has, and in front of everybody that is what she deposits. Is she one of the widows devoured by the scribes? Does she put in everything she has out of love of God, or because she will be barred from worship at the Temple otherwise, or perhaps because, like the other widow before Elijah’s prophecy, she has lost all hope? Is she a good steward in giving up this money, if it means that her child starves?

Is it in fact always good stewardship to give up one’s life except when the need is extraordinary?

As the reading from Hebrews tells us, Jesus gave his life to save the world God made—but he gave so great a gift of his own free will and only once. And he yielded neither his Godhead nor his soul.


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