Saturday, August 14, 2010

Proper 17 Year C

Proper 17 C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1.10-16; OR Sirach 10:12-18; OR Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-56; Luke 14:1,7-14

Jeremiah delivers the Lord's subpoena against Israel.  The charges are that the people have gone "after worthless things, and become worthless themselves."  The Lord brought them through the wilderness into a "plentiful land,"  But the priests and "those who handle the law" failed to fulfill their responsibilities; the political leaders "transgressed against me," and even the prophets turned to Baal,  "therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children's children.'  No other nation has done what Israel has done-- "changed its gods...."  "Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that hold no water."

A psalm that begins with a festal celebration of all God has done for Israel to the accompaniment of a large orchestra now turns prophetic with a riff on the first two of the Ten Commandments: "there shall be no foreign god among you... I am the Lord your God...."  but the people "did not heed My voice...."  The Lord allowed the people to "follow their heart's willfulness...."  


Sirach, a prominent wisdom-teacher (Jerusalem, c. 180 B.C.) writes: "the beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord: the heart has withdrawn from  its Maker."  The Lord exercises appropriate justice, which is the Lord's exclusive prerogative.


One of the anonymous wisdom-teachers, whose writing compose the anthology we know as the Book of Proverbs,  advises on the proper behavior "in the King's presence...."  Stand in an obscure place, because "it is better to be told 'Come up here,'  than to be moved to a less prominent place in the presence of a noble.

"Happy is the person who honors the Lord," the psalmist begins.  She will prosper and walk in light.  She will "show grace and lend" to those in need, complementing her words with deeds of justice.  The wicked person is confused and bitter.

The text of the "Letter to the Hebrews" begins to reach its conclusions with certain reminders: welcome strangers, do not forget prisoners, honor marriage, stay free from "the love of money," respect leaders and make a continuous "sacrifice of praise" in words and deeds.

Jesus is in the home of a pharisee who welcomed the nomadic stranger and teacher and uses the occasion at table to comment on the behavior of dinner guests and the host.  Luke's Jesus begins with a conventional teaching, which is a direct paraphrase of Proverbs (25:6-7): "do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host... and then in disgrace" you would be asked to take a place of lower esteem.  Rather, start at the lowest place so you might be invited to move to a better place.  He then addresses his host, the Pharisee: next time you have a party, do not invite friends and family, who can and will reciprocate your hospitality; "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."  Why?  Because "you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you...!"

Jeremiah reminds God's people of their origins and, therefore, their identity: the people led by God through all the pitfalls in the wilderness to a "plentiful" place.  Not at their own initiative nor as any kind of reward, but only at God's initiative and for God's inexplicable reasons, they owe their very existence to God's extravagant, unreasonable generosity.  If they forget this memory, they will lose everything.  The wisdom-writer, Sirach, warns those who "withdraw from their Maker."  The psalmist (112) describes the traits of the good life as "honor the Lord" and pair those words with deeds of justice.  Luke demonstrates once again his brilliant skill in a story unique to his narrative.  The setting is the home of a Pharisee who welcomes an itinerant preacher/teacher into his home and provides a generous meal.  Luke uses this occasion at table to paraphrase one of the more conventional proverbs (25:6-7).  But the next teaching returns to the most consistent theme in Luke's narrative-- the well-being of those in need and God's reign.  Jesus addresses his host directly, one can imagine not so much in rebuke but as an extension of the generosity the Pharisee has already shown to Jesus, and says: next time you put on a lavish party, do not invite your relatives and friends who can and will reciprocate; "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind."

Within "the economy of the gift," as articulated by Jean-Luc Marion, for one, the individual decides whether to see her self as a beneficiary and, therefore, as one capable/responsible for being a beneficiary to others, or not.  In the Prolegomena to Charity, Marion defines the stance of a person who has decided to participate in "the economy of the gift-- which he also equates with the "believer-- vis a vis a person who has not this way:"Nothing separates, perhaps, he who believes from he who does not believe, except this: not reasons, of course, not some certainty....  To believe in Love, and that Love loves me in spite of my belief that 'I don't have faith': in other words, to put more confidence in the Love that is given than in our deficient will; to compensate the distrust in oneself with trust in God; to prefer the immensity of the gift proposed... to make up one's mind in favor of the infinite that one cannot master or posses rather than the dandy's impotence; to risk abandon to the overabundance of a gift, instead of immobilizing oneself in the idiocracy of scarcity.  nothing separates the believer from the unbeliever...." ( p.64)

Because Luke uses every detail carefully, we should pay attention to the context for this teaching.  It is at a lavish banquet provided to a stranger, himself, that Jesus reveals more details about God's reign, or to use Marion's language, "the economy of the gift."   Without realizing it, or perhaps even contrary to his original motives, the Pharisee is invited by Jesus to take one step closer to God's reign.  Next time you put on a party, Jesus tells him, invite the poor and disabled, those who have no way to repay your generosity.  Without any elaborate theological discussion, which is what religious leaders preferred (prefer?), just take the specific steps and participate in God's reign.  Being a beneficiary to those in need is the way you will (re)discover your status as a beneficiary; deciding that you are a beneficiary inaugurates your being a beneficiary to others!  When God' people forget their identity as beneficiaries of God's love, they "become worthless themselves;"  they loose contact with their "Maker."  But, "happy" is the person who "honors" the Lord and does justice.