Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Proper 14 Year C

Proper 14 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Isaiah 1:1,10-20; Psalm 50:1-8.23-24; OR Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; Luke 12:32-40

The majestic text of Isaiah identifies its location, Judah/Jerusalem, and its time, the reigns of the kings of the seventh century B.C.  The complaint the prophet brings against God's people is comparable to the legendary injustice of Sodom and Gomorrah!  Given their offenses, careful and elaborate observances of the liturgical calendar of feasts and fasts means nothing to God: "I am weary of them."   Replace reliance on ritual time-keeping with a simple gesture of washing and cleansing and the immediately swing into action: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." "If you are willing and obedient..." you will know bounty again, says the Lord; "if you refuse and rebel" you will be vanquished by the sword of your enemies.

The psalmist invokes the splendor of God's self-revelation "from Zion, the zenith of beauty," and acknowledges the witness of heaven and earth.  God summons God's people, who respond with an invocation to let the heavens testify to God's justice.  God responds: your sacrifices are of little interest.  The psalm concludes with a warning/promise" those who forget God will be "torn apart"; those who "revere" God are on the right path.


Up to this point when God promised favor to Abram and Sara, Abram remained silent.  But this time he asks God what can God give him "when I am going to my end childless" and my only heir is  an employee, my steward?  But God reiterates the promise that he and Sarah will have an heir, "who issues from your loins."  God then invites Abram outside and to look up at the night sky with more stars than can be counted: "so shall be your seed."  Abram "trusted in the Lord."

From God's perspective, the psalmist writes, God looks on the chosen and "all human creatures" and "understands all their doings."  The Lord does not work through brute power, but pays full attention to "those who fear the Lord/on those who yearn for the Lord's kindness."  The faithful respond: "We urgently wait for the Lord/Our help and our shield."

(Today and the net three Sundays we read most of chapters 11,12 and 13 from the Letter to the Hebrews.)
It is standard to note that the author of this letter makes very imaginatively use of snippets from the Hebrew scriptures within the framework of Platonic epistemological assumptions.  Hence, in this excerpt there is a presumption that behind what we experience are things we cannot see but God spoke into existence.  Therefore, the witness of Abrahan and Sarah, for example,  illustrates how these two trusted God, whom they could not seefor promises which would not be fulfilled until some distant future.  For this writer, God's concrete promise of heirs and a native country to this childless, nomadic couple become translated into a longing for a "heavenly country."

Luke's understanding of how the disciples/church (Christ's "little flock") should always be ready for the Son of Man to "come at an unexpected hour" is linked with a specific, immediate action-- "Sell your possessions and give alms."  So that when he comes-- "like a thief in the night"-- one is not startled or unprepared, because one is already doing the work God will bring to fruition at that time.

Time plays a crucial and distinctive function in Luke's narrative.  In Mark, ordinary time is interrupted by sudden divine revelation; in Matthew, the story of Jesus is the seamless fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  In Luke, time functions chronologically/historically but it can also vibrate with immediacy.  So, "Luke's Jesus is the fulfilling last of the ancient prophetic line, foretelling its end, and the beginning of a new dispensation in history."  But also for Luke, "Retrieval is not an ultimate possibility, but a current actuality with current consequences" for persons in the narrative as well as for any who read or hear it at any time.  These are the conclusions of John Drury in his brilliant essay on Luke in The Literary Guide to the Bible, (Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds., 418ff).  Drury writes that Luke refers to the past but then "makes it recur."  Now the non sequitor with which today's except begins makes quite good sense.  In one sentence, Jesus tells the "little flock" that God "gives you the kingdom," without any specifics about where, or when, or how.  If Luke stopped there, the reader might assume that this is a promise of something rather vague and in an unknown future.  But in the very next sentence Jesus gets very specific and the tense is the present tense: sell your belongings and give the proceeds to the poor!  In these two sentences we see Luke's distinctive understanding of time: God's reign will come fully and finally whenever and however God deigns it to come, "like a thief in the night;"  God's reign starts right here, right now as soon as anyone does "kingdom justice."

In an expert from Against Ethics, included in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, John Caputo explicates the uniquely biblical understanding of the "where and when" of God's reign.  Caputo writes: "The Kingdom [of God] is neither another world beyond this world, nor another time outside time, but rather the time of God's rule in this world, another way to be in the world."  Continuing, "It is the rule of a certain time, God's own good time, as opposed to the time-keeping that goes on in the world, for in the kingdom time is God's, not ours."  Caputo also considers what we ought to be doing in the meantime:  "the whole idea is to speak out in the name of justice, in the name of God, and to call for the coming kingdom, to pray and weep for the coming of justice." (p.472)

Luke seems intimate with Isaiah who rejected, in God's name, any obsession with time, even liturgical time, to the detriment of basic justice-- "seek justice" "rescue... defend... advocate...."  And although God's promise to Abraham and Sarah would in time be beyond counting, its fulfillment began with the birth of a child, their first.  The psalmist (33:12-22) tells us that God keeps one eye fixed on "all human creatures" and the other fixed on any specific individual who years for "the Lord's kindness."  In comparison to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, whose vision seems to be fixed on something ethereal and remote, Isaiah, the psalmist and Luke's Jesus have one eye fixed on God's promise and the other eye fixed on the the injustice I can do something about today.  We yearn/long/work for God's kindness/justice not just because we have some hope that it will come to full fruition in God's good time, but becuase it alters how we use this day, any day.