28 July 2013
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12 C (RCL)
In the RCL, we have been working our way through a sort of history of the divided kingdoms in the Old Testament readings of Year C. We have been reading the minor prophets for the last couple of weeks. Amos was a southern prophet who went north to Bethel and spoke against the excesses of the wealthy. Hosea is, by all appearances, a northern prophet who inveighs against the polytheism of the north. It would be unfair to say that a pure YHWHism had become infected with the worship of the Canaanite gods, but more accurate to say that Hosea was out there on the leading edge of monotheism, trying to direct the religion of Israel toward a pure YHWHism. The fertility cults of the whole Canaanite region were found equally in Israelite (and probably Judahite) religion, but as the disaster of political collapse approached, the prophets of YHWH began to insist on a pure monotheism.
YHWH tells Hosea to take a promiscuous wife, and have children of promiscuity with her. The irony here is that concerns with fertility are seen as promiscuity; the worship of the fertility gods is seen as unfaithfulness to YHWH. Hosea sees in this unfaithfulness an impending disaster, which was certainly realized in 721, when the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians. Scholars generally agree that the book of Hosea’s oracles has gone through several redactions. First, when some of the people of the north escaped south, and brought the oracles with them. The superscription of the book gives us more information about southern kings than northern. And while God will no longer pity the north, God will continue to pity Judah. It is then likely that the book received its final redaction in the exilic period. This accounts for the dramatic shift at verse ten, when God will restore all of Israel whose people will be as numberless as the sands of the sea.
The reading from Colossians aims at a similar emphasis: You have been raised with Christ — don’t be distracted by the various levels of the deity of the gnostics. The fullness of the deity dwells in Christ, bodily. There is nothing else, whether in philosophy or speculation about the elemental forces of the universe, that you need to know. So, don’t let anyone shame you into observing fasts or feasts, or self-abasement, or memorizing the names of angels. What you need is in the body, where the fulness of the deity dwells.
What leaps out of the Gospel passage for many is the declaration, “Ask, and it will be given to you.” I know people who have used this passage to make others (or themselves) feel inadequate: because I am not receiving what I ask for, I must be asking wrong. First, it is important to note that the “you” in this passage is the second person plural. The imperative is in the plural. Translating to “southern” we might say, “Ask, ya’ll, and it will be given to ya’ll; seek, ya’ll, and ya’ll will find; knock, ya’ll, and it will be opened to ya’ll.” It is corporate asking, seeking and knocking to which God responds, not individual asking. And if we sinners know how to give our children good gifts, how much more will God give us what we (together) ask for.
The parable of the sleeper and the knocker is told in such a way that the narrative point of view shifts in the middle. It begins with the person knocking (who is shamed by not having what is needed to show hospitality to a friend arriving in the night) to the point of view of the sleeper. So when Jesus says, “I tell that even if he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his shamelessness (not persistence), he will get up an give him what is needed,” we’re not sure whose shamelessness Jesus is talking about: the knocker or sleeper. But if we take the cue from the second person plural of the “Ask and it shall be given you” statement, then perhaps the shame (or shamelessness) belongs to the whole village. If the friend does not entertain his friend, certainly he will be shamed. So he has nothing to lose standing outside the door asking for bread, he can’t be shamed any further by asking. But if the sleeper won’t arise, he will be shamed for not helping a friend in need. The whole village will be shamed for the failure of hospitality (see Judges 19).
When we need each other so badly we are no longer shamed to ask, then God (or the village) will respond. What we need to do is build communities in which it is not a shame to ask, and form persons who already know their dependence on one another and God, so there is no shame in receiving.