Posts Tagged 'Proper 28'

For Nov. 16, 2014: Pentecost 23, Proper 28, Year A

The Reading                                                            Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

In the late 7th century BCE, the rich and powerful of Judah tolerate idol worship and plunder the poor, yet expect the Lord to do nothing about it. The prophet Zephaniah says otherwise. For the sacrifice that the Lord has prepared, these complacent ones are not on the guest list: they are on the menu.

The Response                                                         Psalm 90:1-8, 12

In the face of Zephaniah’s denunciation of human complacency and promise of divine retribution, Psalm 90:1-8, 12 might be among the few sane responses. We have so little time to do the good God would have us do…

The Epistle                                                          1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Zephaniah warned the complacent not to expect to gain from the day of judgment. Paul’s Thessalonians believed that Jesus would return, ending the world as we know it, any day. He advises them—and us—to watch out, to protect ourselves through faith, hope, and love, and to help make each other better.

The Gospel                                                                Matthew 25:14-30

Chapter 25 of the gospel of Matthew follows up the parable of the foolish and wise bridesmaids with another difficult story in the parable of the talents. The word talent seems to have acquired its meaning ‘special ability’ from this parable: in Jesus’ day, it simply meant a great deal of money.

 

Further thoughts

On the next to last Sunday before the end of the church year, the readings for Proper 28 look toward our own end and the end of all things, although they are not unanimous in the conclusions they suggest.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 offers excerpts from a jeremiad that combines forceful denunciation of the complacent with a description of the day of judgment that is terrifying enough to have inspired the medieval Latin hymn Dies Irae (‘Day of Wrath’). He is emphatic that all their silver and gold will buy the rich no relief whatsoever. This is quite consistent with Jewish law, which forbade usury and commanded generosity toward the poor, and Jewish custom that frowned upon amassing wealth for the sake of amassing wealth.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30, taken at face value, is astonishing and a bit shocking. To each of three slaves a man entrusts a substantial sum of money; in Jesus’ day, the word talent—from Greek talanton ‘scale or balance’—denoted a large mass of silver worth 6,000 denarii, or 20 years’ work at the daily wage of a denarius. The slaves whose wheeling and dealing doubles the money are praised, counter to Jewish cultural expectations, while the slave who simply saves the money because he fears the rapaciousness of the master loses what he has and is condemned as worthless. It is traditional to interpret the monetary talents as standing for the special gifts and abilities given to each of us by God; on this reading, the parable is a call to make the best possible use of these gifts for God, which seems straightforward—but the master must then represent God, and how can the descriptors “harsh” and “reaping where you did not sow” possibly fit? Under a more recent view, the first two slaves are guilty of buying into the master’s greed and hardness of heart, the third slave is the hero of the piece for refusing to go along, and the master’s condemnatory words are cited by Jesus not for honor but for censure.

Whether the third slave is right or wrong, he is certainly not complacent and he certainly is awake, as the letter to the Thessalonians advises. That letter also counsels believers to put on faith, love, and the hope of salvation as protective armor, to remember that our destiny in Christ is not damnation but salvation, and to encourage one another. Could that mean that our armor is shared?

What if the point is that we can’t hope for salvation without Jesus—and each other?

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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.

For Nov. 18, 2012: Proper 28, Year B

The Reading            1 Samuel 1:4-20

When a Jewish man offered a sacrifice, he would receive part of the animal back to share with his family at a ceremonial meal with wine. Hannah, weeping, refuses her portion and then goes to pray; the fact that the priest Eli assumes her to be drunk speaks of both the depth of her grief and his limited competence. Her prayer results in the birth of Samuel, who grows up to prophesy Eli’s destruction and anoint David as king of Israel. The Response which follows is Hannah’s exultant and even revolutionary song of thanksgiving to the Lord.

The Response            1 Samuel 2:1-10

The Epistle            Hebrews 10:11-25

Today’s reading from Hebrews summarizes the claims about Jesus as the perfect high priest. Jewish priests stand to perform the sacrifices again and again; Jesus sits, because he sacrificed once for all. Since we are forgiven, we can enjoy a good conscience—and through the community that is the Church, we can hold up and spur on each other in love.

The Gospel            Mark 13:1-8

 

Further thoughts

The first and third of today’s readings show us, among other things, the fruits of insecurity.

In Hannah’s time there was no theology of personal resurrection. One lived on through one’s remembered deeds—and memorable women were not generally respectable women—or through one’s children. More practically, childlessness for a woman was disastrous. Everything a woman had with her husband would pass, on his death, to some other woman’s son, who might not feel it his duty to give the widow a pallet to sleep on and a crust to gnaw. Hannah’s presence embodied this uncomfortable truth to Penninah, and Penninah’s own insecurities (for a woman can’t give birth that many times without her body telling the tale) were surely rubbed raw each and every time Elkanah did anything even remotely special for the still-svelte Hannah.

As for Eli the priest, in accusing Hannah of drunkenness, might he have been projecting his sons’ vices that he should have controlled, or even feeling guilt about tepidity and stale formula in his own prayer life? In any case, he never did actually ask Hannah what was wrong.

Elkanah at least recognized that Hannah was wretched and why—but in groping for magic bullets to fix her or at least distract her, he failed dismally to foresee the corrosive effect that buying Hannah off would have on the rest of his household. Worse, Elkanah then made it all about him: Baby, you’ve got me! What do you need sons for, when I have plenty?

The disciples were the disciples we know so well: overawed hayseeds goggling at the magnificence of the Temple and almost pathologically desperate to be in the know for once: Ooo, when’s the disaster? Can we watch? The similarities between them and Penninah are eye-rollingly more than superficial.

Worst of all, all of these witchy, hypocritical, self-absorbed, flawed and flawing oafs are—me.

There is hope, however. To paraphrase the reading from Hebrews, it’s not that I can haul myself out of the swamp of myself by myself, because none of us can—but the sacrifice of Jesus is meant to free me to grasp the human hands reaching down by grace to help lift me up and reaching up by grace for me to help lift.

For thus indeed is the kingdom of God at hand.