Friday, October 7, 2011

Proper 26 Year A

Proper 26 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14.25; Psalm 107:1-7,33-37


Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43

I Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

We are now in the hands of an author/editor commonly referred to as the "Deuteronominist," whom Robert Alter assumes to actually be the prophet Jeremiah assisted by his secretary Baruch, (Who Wrote the Bible? New York: Harper and Row, 1987, p.146ff).  This writer re-tells the whole history of God's people, from Abraham/Sarah up to the catastrophic sack of the Temple and enforced diaspora by the conquering Babylonians and concluding with the promise that the Temple would be re-built.  The recurring pattern that continues through all eight books (Joshua, Judges, I II Samuel, I II Kings, I II Chronicles) is-- fidelity to God's ways preserves God's people, infidelity brings on ruin.  In today's appointed excerpt, Joshua leads "the elders, the heads, the judges and the officers of Israel" through a stern cross-examination:  choose this day whom you will serve-- the God who initiated and sustained a relationship of compassion and care or the gods your ancestors worshipped before Abraham or the gods of Egypt or the gods of neighboring nations.  Three times Joshua drills them and three times the leaders pledge their fidelity to the Lord's ways.  

"Acclaim the Lord who is good," the psalmist begins.  She then reminds God's people that their originary identity is those who were "redeemed," saved, rescued, "from the hand of the foe."  She cites the years "wandering" in the "wilderness" and the ensuing thirst and fatigue.  Out of their misery they "cried to the Lord" who "saved them."  It was the Lord who put them on a "straight road" that led to a "settled town."  Continuing (at v.33), the psalmist invites all the people and the "elders" to "Exalt" the Lord.  She then declares that the Lord is capable of extremes:  the Lord can turn rivers running through the land into "wilderness" and the "fertile land into salt flats," "because of the evil of those who dwell there."  The Lord can also turn "pools of water" into wilderness or parched land into springs of water.  There the Lord "settles" the "hungry" and "founds a settled town."  There God's people "sow fields and plant vineyards" and the Lord blesses them and they flourish.


After the trauma of the fall of the Northern Kingdom and its capital Samaria to the Assyrians, a prophet named Micah, like his contemporary Isaiah, challenges the leaders of the Southern Kingdom with its capital Jerusalem.  He directly and opening ridicules these leaders who "cry 'Peace'" when they have plenty to eat for themselves, but "declare war" on those who put nothing into their mouths.  In such a bleak, dark time, without "vision," the "sun shall go down upon the prophets.  They will be silent because they cannot grasp any "answer" from God.  "But as for me," Micah announces, "I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might" to declare to God's people and their leaders "who abhor justice and pervert all equity," who build with "blood" and "wrong."  Those who are supposed to guarantee justice take "bribes" and the "priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money," but have the audacity to still presume "the Lord is with us."  This is the reason Jerusalem will be leveled and returned to "plowed" land strewn with the ruins of the city.  

Expressing isolation and the "deceit" of his own people, the psalmist cries to God for "Your light and Your truth."  They will "guide" the psalmist and bring him back to "Your holy mountain/Your dwelling place."  There, at "God's altar," he will "acclaim" God accompanied on a "lyre" his moaning and longing for God in whom he has "hope."

Having quickly left Thessaloniki, Paul now writes a letter of encouragement and exhortation to the community of believes there from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds.  Here he reminds them of his "blameless" behavior while he was with them and describes his work as nurturing them like a parent.  He then depicts his teaching as "the word of God...not as human word, but as what it really is, God's word...."  Now this "word" is "at work in you believers."

Only in Matthew's narrative does Jesus call out "the scribes and Pharisees who sit on Moses' seat..." in this particular confrontation.  He tells the "crowds" to honor their knowledge and insight and to "practice and observe whatever they teach you and follow it...."  But just as succinctly and bluntly he also tells them "do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach."  They pile on the shoulders of the devout elaborate, heavy religious rules and dense interpretations-- "burdens"-- but will not lift a finger to put their words into action.  They enjoy wearing clerical garb "to be seen" and they crave "the place of honor," including the "best seats" and enjoy the honorific titles in the streets, but "you"-- this new community of believers--  are not to use titles, such as rabbi, Father or master.  (Here the text repeats a saying that occurred earlier, 20:26-27): the person considered "greatest" among you will be the "servant" in your community.  "...[W]hoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." 

So mush religious energy, imagination and resources are devoted to defending THE (my!) faith, meaning its customs, institutions,  practices, rules and venerable teachings; so much less is spent on doing the faith.  It makes sense that human beings would prefer such efforts because they bring their own reward; the results are clear and easy and such efforts are always perceived as pious and noble.  In the meantime, the hungry go hungry, those unfairly imprisoned stay in prison or are even executed, civic life corrodes, commerce favors the strongest, and public institutions fail to serve their communities honestly.  The scriptures extol the necessity for sound teaching,  efficacious exegesis and worthy worship, but these are no substitute for action, specifically and always making justice happen.  Micah skewers the leaders for "perverting justice;"  Jesus acknowledges that the religious leaders may get the words right, but are not following through with the actual deeds of justice; Paul sees a distinction between "human words" and God's "word," which "works" on and in believers.

Reflecting on another occasion when Jesus expressed exasperation for stalling (Mark 4:35ff), Catherine Keller, in her wonderful book, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, attributes "Jesus' irritation" to those who equate faith only with "belief, with knowledge, with any stash of propositions."  But fail to "Bear the fruit, use the talent, heal the sick, feed the hungry, uncover the flame, make the peace."  She calls this the "activating gospel." (p.214)  An "activating gospel" works on and in believers, turning them into accomplished, skilled justice-workers.  They know the "words" of faith as well as anyone, but they turn the words into deeds.  Whoever exalts herself will be humbled, but whoever serves justice will be exalted in God's community."