Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Proper 10 Year C

Proper 10C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82 OR Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

In this third of five visions, Amos sees the Lord lower a plumb line directly into the midst of the institutions, laws, practices and customs that comprise the daily life of Israel and finds them askew.  Amos declares that the royal dynasty will end with the disgrace and death of the King, Jerobam II, and the desecration of the holy sites ("high places").  The high priest in Bethel reports the prophecy of Amos to the King, who tells the prophet to leave and earn his living as a prophet in Judah.  But Amos responds that he is not a prophet for hire, but a common laborer who is merely obeying God's call.  He then repeats his warnings, and now adds a prophecy that the high priest's wife will be raped and become a prostitute.  Similarly, Israel will be divided and sold off to an "unclean" nation.

God declares that God will take a stand among any and all competing gods because justice for the poor and destitute is not being upheld, the psalmist records.  God expresses disillusionment with other gods, who stumble around as if they are in the dark.  They will die one day, "like humans."  The psalmist concludes on his own: "Arise O God judge the earth/for You hold all the nations."


Moses concludes his farewell speech to the people he led out of slavery into freedom (and the entire Pentateuch, as well) with the assurance that they will prosper as long as they observe God's commandments and "because you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul."  The speech then identifies a characteristic assumption that distinguishes the biblical narrative: God's rules are not remote, transcendent, esoteric, very difficult to understand or improbable to observe; they are "very near to you... in your mouth and in your heart...."

The psalmist expresses confidence that her enemies will be "shamed" because she trusts in the Lord's ways to inform her and to instruct her.  She also trusts that the Lord will not hold her youthful indiscretions against her, because the Lord is kind and willing to "guide" offenders.  She is confident because the Lord leads the lowly in justice... and teaches the humble the Lord's ways.

(We read most of the Letter to the Colossians today and the next three Sundays.)
Whether written by Paul himself or not, the letter to the Christians in Colossae opens with the standard greetings, encouragements, and assurance of prayerful support.

Mark and Luke include episodes (with characteristic variations, of course) that present Jesus quoting the (Hebrew) scriptures in response to questioners about the essence of the Law: love God and your neighbor as yourself.  But Luke provides a story that pushes toward a more pointed interpretation.  A man traveling to Jerusalem through Samaria is robbed, beaten and left for dead.  A priest sees him in the gutter and walks by on the other side of the road.  Soon after a Levite does the same thing.  Finally comes a Samaritan who not only tends the man's wounds, puts him on his own animal to take him into town, but arranges for room and board and promises the innkeeper that he will return to pay off any additional costs.  Which of these fulfilled God's commands, Jesus asks.  "The man who showed mercy," his questioner responds.  "Jesus said to him, 'Go and do likewise'."  

In his wonderful translation and commentary on the Pentateuch, Robert Alter (The Fives Books of Moses, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004),  amplifies this pivotal point form the closing address by Moses when he writes: "The crucial theological point is that divine wisdom is in no way esoteric-- it has been clearly set out in 'this book of teaching' and is accessible to every man and woman in Israel."  He continues: "The Deuteronomist, having given God's teaching a local place and habitation in a text available to all, proceeds to reject the older mythological notion of the secrets or wisdom of the gods."  "This mythological... era, the Deuteronomist now proclaims, is at an end, for God's word, inscribed in a book, has become the intimate property of every person." (p. 1029)  The psalmist tasks up an ancillary theme in Psalm 82, (which is not the appointed responsory to the lesson from Deuteronomy) by observing that "other gods" stumble around as if in the dark, but God speaks and acts decisively always with the same passion-- justice, especially for the poor.

John Drury has written with such rich insight about Luke's gospel, including a short essay he contributed to that splendid collection by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, The Literary Guide to the Bible, Cambridge, Belknap Harvard University Press, 1987). About what he calls "Luke's parable section," which includes the story of the"Good Samaritan," Drury observes that Luke insists "the one thing needful is not endurance nor the penetrtion of supernatural secrets but the resilience to face up and cope with the problem in front of one's nose."  ( p. 434)  The antihero in Luke's story is an anonymous Samaritan, a people whom the Jews regarded as wrong and unfit by any and every religious measure.  But, by responding to "the problem in front of one's nose" with simple, basic, tangible compassion he fulfilled God's law, while the priest and the Levite failed spectacularly.

Following comments on last Sunday's propers (9C), we continue to live with this biblical, absolute insistence on pure, basic, everyday justice and compassion as God's only and unique priority, which Jesus upholds in the gospels as well, especially in Luke.  This insistence undercuts everything else about religion.  It is the true measure (like the plumb line Amos saw) against which every theological debate, church controversy, social or political issue must be measured.  Sometimes it has been said that the challenge today is to make religion "relevant."  The challenge is just the opposite: these biblical priorities are, if anything, too close for comfort!