Posts Tagged 'righteousness'

For October 5, 2014: Proper 22, Year A

The Reading                                                                           Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5:1-7 begins in Isaiah’s voice as a love song and praise of a promising vineyard. At verse 3, the voice is the Lord’s: the carefully tended vineyard produces nothing worthwhile, and so it is to be destroyed. The last verse returns to Isaiah’s voice: the bad vineyard is God’s people, producing bloodshed rather than justice.

The Response                                     Psalm 80:7-14

Rather like Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14 begins with a promising planting by the Lord of hosts. The vine out of Egypt is Israel, flourishing from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River—but now its grapes are plucked by all comers and its leaves are animal fodder, unless the Lord turns and saves it.

The Epistle                                                            Philippians 3:4b-14

In Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul is more than usually forthright: though the Jews are God’s chosen people and he the best Jew by birth and accomplishment, all of that is a steaming pile of skubalon (‘rubbish’ is a very polite translation) when it comes to earning righteousness and (better yet!) knowing Jesus.

The Gospel                                                                 Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21:33-46 tells of another lovingly built vineyard; this time it is not the vine or the fruit that is faulty, but tenants who choose not to uphold their end of a bargain and use violence to keep what is not theirs. This is much less a story to shame “the Jews” than it is a warning against self-righteousness.

Further thoughts

It is easy and tempting to take readings like those for Proper 22 as indictments of the wickedness of the Jews as a whole. It is even more tempting to do so in challenging times, and the history of the world makes all too plain that Church and people have succumbed to that temptation with shocking regularity in the past two millennia.

But that misses the point of all the readings. First, the vineyard owners devoted all that effort to their respective vineyards precisely because they had reason to expect the best results from land and vines: that is, if anyone is producing good fruit of the Spirit, it will surely be the people who are and have been in covenant with the Lord. Second, up until the advent of modern democracy it was understood that a nation is no better than its leaders: the rant in Isaiah is aimed not at ordinary Jews but rather at the religious and governmental authorities that have led them astray. Similarly, with the parable of the vineyard Jesus targets the group of those who by virtue of more rigorous upbringing, deeper training in Torah, and higher spiritual discipline should have been better placed than anyone else to recognize who Jesus really is and what is at stake—but did not.

Paul makes the point more personal. The list of attributes with which Philippians 3:4b-14 opens is there to establish him as very much a Jew—in fact, the cream of the crop of Judaism, and perhaps the very most observant Jew ever to walk the earth. But even all that righteousness got him absolutely nowhere without the overflowing grace of God.

Having said all this, however, he is determined to let his life be his thanks by bearing the best possible fruit for all peoples in the kingdom of God. What if you and I were to go and do likewise?

For March 16, 2014: Second Sunday in Lent, Year A

The Reading            Genesis 12:1-4a

This short reading from Genesis is bigger than it looks. Abram (whom we know as Abraham) is rich but childless, in a day when family and children are everything, and God tells him to leave behind all the security that he has. But God promises a bigger family than Abram or we can imagine—and Abram believes him.

The Response            Psalm 121

Psalm 121 did not exist in the days of Abram, but it speaks to his situation and to ours as pilgrims in this world: the Lord who made heaven and earth watches God’s children and means us good.

The Epistle            Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

The epistle returns to the promise through which Abram became Abraham. Righteousness comes not by earning but through believing. What is more, it comes to Abraham’s descendants in God: each and every one of us who believes God as Abraham did receives righteousness as Abraham did.

The Gospel            John 3:1-17

Nicodemus is a man with a problem: he’s a Pharisee who grasps that Jesus is from God. The gospel challenges his thinking—and ours: God’s style is to love us, and love means not condemning even those who can’t stop asking questions.

 

 

Ponderables

I feel for Nicodemus, teacher and leader of his people. Smart people, at least in a culture that reveres intelligence, are popularly supposed to have all the answers; admitting to ignorance or uncertainty gets one dismissed as a fraud, and asking difficult questions gets one blown off as a troublemaker.

But I’m morally convinced that having faith doesn’t mean that uncertainty is just to be papered over, and it doesn’t mean that difficult questions aren’t to be asked.

Nicodemus knows what Judaism says about righteousness. Abram’s faith may be reckoned to him as righteousness, but mainline Judaism generally makes the same claim that most religious orthodoxies do: that righteousness is the fruit of following the rules. Nicodemus is also smart enough and worldly enough to grasp how unattainable that kind of righteousness is.

Jesus offers a way out that is stunningly at odds with the way we tend to do religion. God isn’t offering to love us once we’re righteous enough: God is offering to make us righteous because that’s the kind of love God has for us. And that’s the kind of love that God calls us to have for all God’s world.

What if the best Lenten discipline I can undertake is to stop telling God how to condemn me?

For Feb. 9, 2014: 5 Epiphany, Year A

The Reading                                                        Isaiah 58:1-9a

When the people of Jacob—the inhabitants of Judah and Israel—return from exile in Babylon, they wonder why their fasting and self-punishment seems not to impress the Lord. Isaiah pulls no punches: the best sacrifice is to feed and heal and free God’s afflicted children.

The Response                                          Psalm 112:1-9

Psalm 112:1-9 praises those who fear the Lord: they will be mighty, merciful and full of compassion, generous, and just. For such upright people and through them, light will shine.

The Epistle                                                              1 Corinthians 2:1-12

In the Roman world, one function of education was to produce powerful, persuasive orators. The people of Corinth expected great speech from the apostle Paul, but were disappointed. Here Paul explains: human wisdom sheds little light on either God’s wisdom or the astonishing depth of God’s desire that we be saved.

The Gospel                                                                   Matthew 5:13-20

The gospel for the fifth Sunday in Epiphany picks up the Sermon on the Mount just after the Beatitudes. In today’s world, salt can be bought at the 99-cent store and getting light is as easy as flipping a switch, but in Jesus’ time both salt and light were precious and often difficult to obtain.

Ponderables

The readings for the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany pose a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum of the faith: whether righteousness comes from doing good or doing good comes of being righteous.

On the one hand, Isaiah enlightens the Israelites returning from Babylon as to why God appears not to pay proper respect to their fasting and sackcloth and ashes: they are doing it for show and to get blessing and healing for themselves. Only if they bless and heal the poor and the marginalized will they receive God’s light and vindication. Similarly, the psalmist notes, only those who do good will get wealth and light and honor and remembrance in death. (It is worth noting that, by Isaiah’s time, the notion that there might be life after death did not yet figure in Jewish theology: being remembered was the best one could hope for.) In this context, Jesus’ observation that getting into heaven takes more righteousness than even the doggedly righteous scribes and Pharisees can muster is disturbing (and sometimes being disturbed is good for us).

On the other hand, Jesus tells the crowd—and us—not that they should become the salt of the earth and the light of the world, but that we already are. This coheres with the idea that the passage from 1 Corinthians develops: our righteousness is God’s doing rather than ours. Then Jesus instructs us to let the light that we already are shine by doing good things. And we all know that habits, good and bad, are self-reinforcing.

Almost six hundred years ago, Martin Luther weighed in on the side of sola fide—‘only by faith’. But many of us find that the light that we shed, and the good that we’re willing to expect of others, has a bearing on the light that we’re able to receive. So what if, with righteousness received, the answer is “both”? And how do we make room for everyone’s light to shine?

For Dec. 8, 2013: 2 Advent, Year A

The Reading            Isaiah 11:1-10

For the second Sunday of Advent, Isaiah the prophet poetically continues the theme of promise: from the remains of the house of David will come a ruler who will bring righteousness and peace beyond our dreams—and perhaps, as we contemplate the mess that we humans have made of God’s world, beyond even our fears.

The Response            Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Psalm 72 may have been composed as a coronation hymn for Solomon, the son of David. The psalm asks God to grant righteousness and justice to the king’s son—that is, the rightful heir—so that even the mountains will be sources of wellbeing. The king’s rule will be long and will bring blessing as does rain in the dry season.

The Epistle            Romans 15:4-13

In the early church at Rome were both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity who did not always agree. The epistle calls all the Romans to live together in harmony and with hope: as Jesus came to the Jews to fulfill God’s promise, he now comes to the Gentiles or non-Jews so that everyone might see and believe.

The Gospel            Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament lesson and the psalm sing the praises of the king that God has anointed; the psalm, for one, has in mind a king of the standard sort, if a really good one. In the gospel, John the Baptizer is a most unusual herald announcing a much less familiar kingdom, in which repentance and readiness count more than rank.

Ponderables

The readings for the second Sunday in Advent trace royal descent in more senses than one. The psalm, dating back to the second and third of Israel’s kings, expresses a people’s high but not entirely unthinkable hopes for and of their new monarchy. We know that things went downhill rapidly—each generation of flawed and even wicked king had prophets reading him his metaphorical pedigree—but Isaiah points to a literal lineage in foreseeing a new kind of ruler whose judgment cannot be corrupted by lust for power, whose mere breath smites the wicked, and whose rule will be righteous enough to bring back Eden. This is the king whose coming John heralds in the gospel, the king who brings the fire of judgment on those who take pride in their ancestry and their spirituality. But neither psalmist nor prophet, nor even proclaimer, had actually met him.

It falls to the book of Romans to tell of the dream come true: real man, real God, real servant. We wonder at the indelible image from Christ the King Sunday two weeks ago, of Jesus, even in humiliation and agony, extending mercy and welcome to the sinful. What kind of king is this? And what kind of people would we Christians be if we poured ourselves out to welcome all God’s children as Jesus has welcomed us?

For Aug. 18, 2013: Proper 15, Year C

The Reading            Isaiah 5:1-7

Today’s passage from Isaiah begins as a love song but rapidly turns bitter. Everything possible has been done to assure that the vineyard would produce a sweet, good vintage. Instead, the vineyard yields fruit that stinks: not justice (miṣpat in Hebrew) but spillage (miṣpaḥ) of blood, and not righteousness (tsedeqah) but a cry (tseʕeqah). As Isaiah explains, the errant vineyard will be laid waste—and it stands for God’s people.

The Response            Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18

“Turn now, O God of hosts…; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

The Epistle            Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Today’s reading from the book of Hebrews continues last week’s discussion. The towering figures of the Old Testament, and those who underwent bitter torment, are held up as examples of faith to follow—and yet, we are told, they had to wait for the fulfillment of the promises in Jesus.

The Gospel            Luke 12:49-56

“‘I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!’”

 

Further thoughts

Today’s readings induce squirms. The reading from Isaiah gives us God’s forceful renunciation and even repudiation of Israel: this squares uncomfortably with our sense of God as abounding in mercy. The Psalm, for its part, begs for God’s intervening, up to and including the annihilation rather than the redemption of others. The reading from Hebrews holds up as heroes the likes of Rahab the Canaanite whore and assorted practitioners of ethnic cleansing, Old Testament-style, and brings up that vexed word “perfect”. To top it all off, Jesus’ words as transmitted by Luke show us the Son of God and Prince of Peace as a fomenter of interfamilial strife; little wonder that preachers tend not to preach on the gospel this Sunday.

I wonder if the messages might be mixed on purpose, and, as the last three verses of the gospel suggest, much turns on how we interpret them. When bad things happen to me, should I not at least consider the possibility that my bad choices had something to do with it—but should I not also entertain the possibility that it is not be about me at all? When my foes come to the bad end that the Psalm requests, perhaps it is their wickedness, but might it be not about them at all, and have I any right to my barely suppressed snicker at their comeuppance? How am I to understand this word “perfect” in Hebrews when I know in my marrow that I am nowhere close, and how shall I manage not to make the goal of perfection a burden to those around me? What of the fact that even closely related people can and do disagree violently on how or whether to live life in Jesus? Does my belief entitle me to push the divisions however I can? Does it license me to press tracts and testimony on all comers at all times? If I don’t press tracts at all, am I simply trying to keep a peace that can’t be kept?

Is it even possible to have a faith that amounts to anything worthwhile without squirming?

For June 16, 2013: Proper 6, Year C

The Reading            1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a

The first and second books of Kings tell the stories of the rulers of Israel and the prophets during their reigns. In today’s reading from the first book, notorious King Ahab pouts because he wants land he does not own; Jezebel, his even more notorious wife, arranges for the land’s owner to be executed under trumped-up charges. It falls to the prophet Elijah to confront Ahab about his wrongdoing.

 The Response            Psalm 5:1-8

The Epistle            Galatians 2:15-21

As the second chapter of the book of Galatians opens, Paul defends his call to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. He makes a narrow point and a wider one. The first point, made in verses that we are not reading today, is that the circumcised and the uncircumcised are to share the good news together. This leads to his second point, which we read today: what justifies us with God is nothing whatever that we do.

The Gospel            Luke 7:36-8:3

“‘…her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.’”

 

 Further thoughts

Today’s readings present somewhat unappetizing views of righteousness. The psalmist tells us that God shuns the bloodthirsty and protects the righteous, but righteous Naboth is publicly humiliated and killed on trumped-up charges just so Ahab can take his land for a vegetable garden. Super-righteous Paul tells us just how far his super-righteouness goes in buying him justification with God: absolutely nowhere. Jesus’ host clearly believes he has done two extraordinarily generous and superior things in inviting this controversial itinerant preacher to dinner and in not making a public issue of Jesus’ gaucherie in allowing a “sinful woman” to touch him, and then Jesus sets him straight on, among other things, Simon’s unfortunate lapse from the standards for hospitality.

It is hard not to cheer when grasping Ahab and Jezebel finally reap what they have sown, and it may be even harder (because the consequences are less) not to feel satisfaction at Simon getting taken down a peg. This may not be altogether inappropriate: as we will see in the course of the summer’s lectionary readings, justice and equity are very much on the mind of God and so they ought to be on ours.

It is sobering, though, to realize just what Jesus has to say about that nameless woman: she loves extravagantly not because she is good or gifted but because she has been forgiven extravagantly.

What might the world look like if we forgave like that?

For Feb. 24, 2013: 2 Lent, Year C

The Reading            Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

In today’s first reading, God promises to childless Abram uncountably many descendants and the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia. This promise is sealed by a ceremony familiar to Abram: the parties to a contract would cut an animal in half and walk between the pieces declaring that, should they fail to do their part, they themselves ought to be cut in half. Here the fire pot and the torch represent God.

The Response            Psalm 27

The Epistle            Philippians 3:17-4:1

In the epistle today, Paul warns the Philippians about “enemies of the cross of Christ”. He is referring to those who insisted that Christianity means keeping the law of Moses, especially with regard to food and circumcision. Paul disagrees vigorously: God’s grace is for all of us believers, just as we are.

The Gospel            Luke 13:31-35

Further thoughts

Woven into today’s three readings are the concepts of promises and signs. In Genesis, old Abram receives two extravagant promises from God: he will possess the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea from Mesopotamia in the north to Egypt in the south, and he will have so many descendants he can’t count them. God seals his part of the deal by “walking” between the animals cut in half. Some years later, God extends the covenant and has Abram—now Abraham—seal his part of the deal through circumcising himself and all the males with him, and it is after that that Abram’s wife Sarai finally bears him a son. From that day to this, circumcision has been universal among Jewish men as a mark of their special covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham, along with the complex of special dietary laws that we know as “kosher”.

But in the epistle, along comes Paul to announce that neither the dietary restrictions nor the physical circumcision work to make us righteous; what’s more, bragging about what one is or isn’t or what one does or doesn’t do to be righteous is not only missing the point, it might even be poisoning the well.

For through Jesus’ willing and deliberate gift we are all as circumcised as we need to be and all as punished as we need to be. Whatever else we do should show not our human determination to Do It All Ourselves but our gratitude for the great gift of grace—and our willingness to share the grace with the whole world for which Jesus died.


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