Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Proper 22 Year A

Proper 22
(Revised Common

Exodus 20: 1-4,7-9; Psalm 19


Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80: 7-14

Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46

Robert Alter endorses the speculation of other scholars that an earlier version of the Ten Commandments was much more succinct (which would have, also, been more practical for incision into stone tablets than later, extended versions written on scrolls), The Five Books of Moses, [New York: w.w.Norton, 2004, pp 428-432]).  God identifies God-Self as the same God known by a prior wondrous act of deliverance: the God "who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery...."  The first four Commandments protect any reference to this God, --"for the Lord will acquit anyone who misuses his name"-- the remaining Commandments shift to Commandments for their well-being as community: keep the Sabbath, honor parents, shun murder, adultery, stealing, "coveting," and bearing "false witness."  The gift of these Commandments is surrounded by "thunder, lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking...."  Those who "witnessed" this display kept their distance out of fear.  They implored Moses to "speak to us," because they believe that if "God speaks to us... we will die," because "God has come only to test us."  This intimidating display serves the purpose of instilling respect and awe for the Commandments, "so that you do not offend..."

To the psalmist, the whole creation speaks in each daily cycle in "silence" to God's glory. [How does one hear this silent speaking?] The commands of this God are perfect, steadfast, unblemished, pure, truth. But our "unwitting sins" require us to beg to be cleared.


Using a venerable metaphor, Isaiah likens God's
investment in Israel/Judah to the gardener of a vineyard. The gardener prepared the soil and planted the best available vines. But when it came to time to enjoy the harvest of his hard work, all he got was "wild grapes." Now angry, the gardener tore down the protecting wall and allowed the garden to be overrun. To make certain the point of this story is not lost on his listeners, Isaiah makes it clear that the gardener is God and the garden is Israel/Judah. For all God's labor, attention, investment and nurturing, God expected justice but got bloodshed; expected righteousness but got cries of injustice.

The psalmist also uses the
gardener metaphor to describe God's establishment of a "vine out of Egypt." Why, the psalmist cries, did You allow it to be overrun?

Paul's entire identity had been shaped as a Hebrew-- Pharisee and
passionate defender of Israel. Then he met Christ. All that is meaningless now. Paul has a new goal, a new cause "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may obtain the resurrection from the dead."

Jesus has just indicted his listeners for their failure to respond to John the Baptizer and told them that "tax collectors and prostitutes" will participate in Gods realm ahead of religious leaders, (see last Sunday's gospel, 21:23-32).  Now he adds insult to injury by telling another story, which thinly disguises their lack of response to him as further evidence for an indictment against them.  This story is about a "landowner" who first sent his "slaves" to "collect the produce" from his land.  But the "tenants" abused and killed them.  He then sent more "slaves" who were also rejected.  Finally, he sent his "son," assuming they will now "repent."  But they immediately decide to "kill him and get his inhertiance."  Jesus, in the classic manner of a rabbinic teacher, asks his listeners: what will the landowner do to these tenants?  They respond that he will put them to "a miserable death" and "leave" the land to "other tenants."  Jesus quotes Scripture (Psalm 118:22-23): "the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone...."   In case he has been too subtle, Jesus now says bluntly (only in Matthew's version): "the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."  The religious authorities want to arrest him on the spot, but "feared the crowds, because they regraded his as a prophet." 

Biblical narratives operate in three environments-- God, us and the gap between.

When speaking about God or reporting God's direct speech the words used include true, trustworthy, rock, steadfast, perfect, pure. And as Walter Brueggemann notes, "Yahweh is a God who commands
(swh). The foremost mode by which Yahweh communicates to Israel is by commandment (miswah) and Israel' crucial mode of engagement is by obedience (sm). " He calls chapter 20 of Exodus God's "primal command." (Theology of the Old Testament, 1997, p. 181 ff) When God speaks in biblical narratives, it is accentuated with lightning, fire, earthquake, violent wind.

When speaking of us, the biblical narratives are blunt, honest, probing. In his seminal study of the Western imagination,
Mimesis, Erich Auerbach contrasts classical treatment of human nature to the emerging Christian perspective this way, "the deep subsurface layers [of how humans understand themselves] which were static for the observers of classical antiquity, began to move" (p.45) Later he notes that St. Augustine is "outside the style of his age" because "he feels and directly presents human life, and it lives before our eyes." (p.70) Later still, he finds in the writings of the sixth century Bishop of Tours, Gregory, further realism: "This brutal life becomes a sensible object; to him who would describe it, it presents itself as devoid of order and difficult to to order, but tangible, earthy, alive. Gregory was a Bishop-- it was his duty to develop Christian ethical attitudes; his office was a practical and demanding one, in which the cure of souls might at any moment be combined with political and economic questions." "Nothing human is foreign to Gregory" (p. 91)His observations of the formative centuries of Christianity led Auerbach to conclude, "Christianization is directly concerned with and concerns the individual person and the individual event." (p. 92)

What of the gap between God and us? If God is pure and steadfast but we are unsteady and fickle, how do we respond? The biblical narratives describe responses that include indifference, rejection and desire; the gap either overwhelms or inspires. (In the appointed readings for this Sunday, Isaiah describes indifference, the gospel describes rejection and the psalmist and Paul show passion.) God repeatedly reaches out to us across the gap and each person responds for himself or herself.

John Caputo finds in the work of postmodern writers, especially Derrida, fresh descriptions of a passionate response to this gap. Calling Derrida a "Jewish Augustinian," Caputo discovers in his work " a desire beyond desire, as a desire for God... a restless heart that desires we do not know [fully] quite what, where the name of God is the name of our desire even as it is the best name we have for what we do not know." (Kevin Hart, ed.,
Counter-Experience, p. 74) We are left then with "a justice to come that denounces the injustice in what at present calls itself just or democratic." "We do not know [fully] what this justice is, but we do know "that nothing present can lay claim to it. Thus the effect of the call to come is not to predict anything coming but to intensify our desire." (Ibid) Unsteady and fickle as we are, we can still find some life-giving response. "Our best words are empty intentions, promises that have not and cannot be kept, words that we cherish because of the promises they make but do not quite keep." (p. 76)

The gap between God and us is unstable even
tempestuous. In the biblical narratives God commands justice but then pleads, cajoles over and over and over when we do not love and do justice. We are preoccupied with "more important" concerns or we outright reject God's commands and God's repeated reaching out to us. The biblical narratives also describe in excruciating detail our flawed responses. We can feign contentment with the gap or it can become for us the source of passion for the impossible.

A few pages after considering the event described in today's reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Kevin Hart considers the 'gap' we have been discussing this way: "For God opens the space wherein love can be ventured, and the first step is always his (sic).  As absolute subject, God never presents himself (sic) as object in any sense, and so he (sic) comes to us not as experience but in (emphasis added) experience: not as that which we can appropriate, render proper to consciousness, but rather as a mystery that passes through our lives, a disturbance that opens our ways of being, doing, and thinking..."  (The Experience of God: a Postmodern Response, pp 80-81)