Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany Year C

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany C
 (Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; I Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Jeremiah piques the imagination with two dramatically different images: a lone, straggly bush struggling to survive in the desert or a salt flat  compared to a large, flourishing tree with a deep root system so strong that its leaves stay green even in a drought.  The first image is like the person who trusts only in "mere mortals;" the latter image is like the person "who trusts in the Lord."  In a related aphorism, Jeremiah adds: "the heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?"   Furthermore, the prophet reminds: "I the Lord test the mind and search the heart... according to the fruit of their doings."

Walter Brueggemann regards the psalms as "Glad obedience to the commands of Yahweh, enacted in full obedience that such obedience produces a life of joy, well-being, and blessing."  And, "Psalm 1 is... an introductory clue for the whole collection." (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997, pp 197-198)

Paul posts a strong statement that Christ's resurrection is the central lynch pin for believers.  If it is not believed, then "our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain."  Therefore, you would "Still be in your sins" and "those who have died in Christ have [merely] perished."  Such speculation is barren, Paul insists, because "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead...."   Christ's resurrection is the "first fruits of those who have died."

Luke's narrative usually places Jesus among large, eager crowds pressing to hear him and to be near enough to touch him for healing.  In such a typical scene, Luke presents 'mission statement' of discipleship.  There are four "blessings" followed by four "woes"  Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who pay a price "on account of the Son of Man."  Endure such circumstances, Jesus says, "For surely your reward is great in heaven...."  But those who are now rich, satisfied, reveling, and are esteemed by the opinions of their peers are warned.

These  readings and today's gospel are not the soft, shimmering hues of the Impressionists but the bold, black and white of an Abstract Expressionist, like Robert Motherwell. 

Jeremiah paints two opposing pictures of destitution and bounty and says one represents human deviousness to get ahead in life and the other is the Lord's  teaching.  The first psalm in the psalter sets the theme for the whole psalter:  "For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked is lost."  Luke's version of the "beatitudes" is the stripped-down summary of all that Jesus taught and will live out, which is a message of ethics/justice-- requiring us to always ask who gains, who loses, who is content, who hoards, who is generous.  One will find the richest benefits of life, the other will end up with nothing that matters.  This is Luke's reduction to the shortest, most succinct summary of the basics.

Emmanuel Levinas was fierce in his insistence that all philosophy and religion must be stripped down to the "primitive forms," which for him meant ethics/justice.  He writes that the purpose of Totality and Infinity, which is frequently regarded as perhaps his most influential work, is""the establishing of the primacy of the ethical, that is, the relation of man to man... a primacy of an irreducible structure upon which all other structures rest...." "Everything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior form but the forever primitive form of religion."  (p. 79)  

The precis of the whole of Jesus' life and teaching in Luke's narrative is not an abstract, theoretical statement of theology unrelated to the heart of the story.  It is spoken by the person, surrounded by a large crowd of eager seekers, who will, in his teaching and actions, shatter human-made barriers left and right, and who will pay with his life for it, only to be vindicated by God 'on the third day' and launch the church.  Levinas understood that it was possible for any person to be "teacher" to me.  "He who speaks to me and across the words proposes himself to me retains the fundamental foreignness of the Other who judges me" (p. 101)  "The speech which already dawns in the face that looks at me looking introduces the primary frankness of revelation." (p. 98)  "Attention is attention  to something because it is attention to someone"  (p. 99)  These observations of Levinas have a double application.  First, they draw attention to the one who speaks to me, who speaks to me as a "teacher."  Just his presence and his words require me to reassess my assumptions and (moral) relationship to him.  Secondly, they go directly to the heart of Luke's narrative; stripped to the basics, the essence of the story from Jesus and about Jesus is justice.  Everything else -- theology, liturgy, piety-- is built on that foundation.  It is the Christian gospel in its most "primitive form."