Sunday, August 23, 2009

Proper 20 Year B

Proper 20 Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Proverbs 31:10-31; Palm 1


Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1,12-22 OR Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54

James 3:13-4:3.7-8a; Mark9:30-37

The collection of teachings, based on Egyptian and other ancient sources, included in the Hebrew canon as Proverbs now turns a depiction of an ideal wife. She is shrewd, industrious, wise in the ways of the world, an entrepreneur, the primary provider for her family, has muscular arms, is indifferent to her appearance, and has a happy disposition. Also, "she opens her hand to the poor, and "reaches out her hand to the needy." For all this, she has earned the praise of her children and husband and "a share in the fruit of her hands."

Of the first psalm Robert Alter writes, "It is easy to understand why the ancient editors set this brief, eloquent psalm at the head of the collection. In context, it is a Wisdom psalm, affirming the traditional moral calculus (to which Job will powerfully object) that it pays to be good, whereas the wicked will be paid back for their evil." (The Book of Psalms, New York: WW Norton, 2007, p.3)


The question identified by Robert Alter (above) is a recurring question in the Hebrew scriptures: Does the person who seeks to do good for neighbor and God get a reward and others get punished or is life indifferent and we might as well get what we can get for ourselves while we can. This excerpt from the Wisdom says the "ungodly" have decided that life is "short and sorrowful" and when you die, that's it. The "righteous" person is an affront to this position, because it is "unlike that of others, and his ways are strange." He clams to know and seek "God's ways" and "boasts that God is his Father." But the test of these competing claims comes when we die, "for if the righteous man is God's child, he will help him and deliver him from the hand of his adversaries." Those who "did not know the secret purposes of God" have "made a covenant with death."


Jeremiah had accepted the lonely role of being God's prophet. But after "the Lord made known" to him that his family are out to assassinate him, he describes himself as "like a lamb led to the slaughter." Still he remains committed to the Lord's "cause."

The psalmist reacts to an immediate crisis when personal enemies are out for revenge. He pleads for God's help, on which he has relied in the past.

The writer who has taken the name "James" enters into the ancient debate of how does one live this life. One approach he depicts as base, marked by "bitter envy and selfish ambition," even to the point of lawlessness and murder. The other approach assumes that there is something more to life than base instinct; it is understood as "wisdom from above." Following this approach has very different results, which can be described as "pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." Decide which alternative you will bet your life on!

Perhaps the followers of Jesus are still excited over the "transfiguration" of Jesus which has just happened when he tells them for the second time, in Mark's chronology, that "the Son of Man" will be betrayed, killed and rise again. But "they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him." When Jesus asks them what they have been discussing, they are too embarrassed to tell him they had been speculating about their status in this growing, successful Jesus movement. But Jesus says anyway, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all." To make his point vividly clear, he places a young child among them and says that "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" as well as "the one who sent me."

These readings are not subtle. They juxtapose two starkly competing assumptions about the best way to live this life. One way assumes life is "short and sorrowful" and that justifies "selfish ambition." The alternative wants to believe there is a "wisdom from above" that instructs us to be "peaceable, gentle" and to look out for the needs and interests of others (such as a child who it is easy for adults to literally overlook when she is standing right before them). This behavior, however, challenges the more calculating approach to life. Still, the Wisdom of Solomon asserts that those who decide that life is just dog-eat-dog have "made a covenant with death."

Martin Heidegger's
Being and Time, which is generally regarded as a turning point in twentieth century thinking in the West, can be considered as a sustained exploration of how one chooses to live the life one is given. He begins by noting that human beings are distinct from anything else in existence because of our capacity to imagine, experiment, discover, project and make decisions about our identity, our lives. [Therefore, only human beings can have the kind of debate with themselves that preoccupies our readings this Sunday.] In one place Heidegger describes this unique human capacity thus, "These entities in their Being comport themselves towards their Being. As entities with such Being, they are delivered over to their own Being." (p.67) In his gloss on Being and Time, William Blattner summarizes, "This sense of identity underlies my awareness of my convictions, commitments, thoughts, and responsibilities. To be a person is to project a person to be, and so our being is at issue for us." "To live a life is to answer the question of identity." (Heidegger's Being and Time, p.37)

Heidegger continues by drawing a distinction between the level of attentiveness with which one confronts these issues of identity, responsibility and commitments. We can live quite "successfully" at the superficial, conventional level. This is the comfortable world of "They," i.e. all others who are also just going-along-to-get-along. One can also make the decision to go deeper into life. This decision entails the never-ending quest to know and accept one's self and to care for others with a keener moral obligation for the well being of others, especially for those who are the most vulnerable.

The crisis that reveals the difference between these two distinct approaches, according to Heidegger, is the reality of death. To live superficially, death is just a distant fact over which I have little control. The reality of death just proves that life is "short and sorrowful." Those who care to live life more deeply, however, recognize that because that time will come when we are no longer a part of other peoples lives and our life can no longer impact theirs, there is a sense of urgency about whatever time we might have. Further, there is the recognition that one can experience an emotional, moral, spiritual "demise" even before our bodies give out. Heidegger describes this attitude as "Being-towards-death." This is not a morbid preoccupation, it is a healthy "anxiety" which can lead us to "the possibility of understanding one's
ownmost and uttermost potentiality-for-Being-- that is to say, the possibility of authentic existence." (p. 307) He continues, "When, by anticipation, one becomes free for one's own death, one is liberated from one's lostness in those [superficial] possibilities which may accidentally thrust themselves upon one; and one is liberated in such a way that for the first time one can authentically understand and choose among factical possibilities lying ahead...." (p. 308)

For the second time in Mark's narrative, Jesus raises with his friends the eventuality of his own death. Their reaction is very instructive and way too familiar-- they did not understand and did not want to understand when he wanted them to confront the reality of his death and, by implication, their own danger and possibility for death. Instead, they wanted to gossip and speculate among themselves about who will have what status in this exciting, growing Jesus movement.

But the blunt biblical warning is that those who choose to live this way have "made a covenant with death." Even before their bodies can be pronounced dead, they can "die" in the sense of not finding and fulfilling their "authentic" "potentiality-toward-Being." Conversely, those who have confronted both senses of dying acquire an urgency about life, an insistence not to live superficially, absorbed in the conventionality of the majority, despite the personal costs.

And to just make certain this discussion gets grounded in immediate, concrete reality, Jesus moves a child to the center of attention and says that anyone who is attentive to the most vulnerable, such as this child right here, right now, welcomes me as well as "the one who sent me."

This is far more basic than philosophy or even theology and far more consequential.