For the common good

31 July 2016
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 13C (RCL)
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

Hosea contains some of the tenderest imagery for God, along with some of the most calamitous prophecies. God is torn between tenderness and punishment — I suppose like many a parent. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.” God is portrayed as a mother lifting her child to nurse it. Even though Israel has continued in its unfaithfulness, God is unable to give vent to the divine anger. The prophet Hosea seems to be turning away from the imagery of the vindictiveness of God. The New Testament will complete this turn.

The two New Testament lesson seem to focus on greed, though that term might need some definition. In Colossians, Paul calls greed idolatry. In fact, the parenthesis could apply to the whole list: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed. Each of these treats something intended for the good of the human community as a private and abusive possession. Paul, or his disciple, is writing with a Gentile audience in mind, and is calling attention to his audience’s former way of life. This has resonances with Romans 1, in which the Gentiles have traded the worship of the creator for the worship of the creature, and therefore God has given them over to impiety, wickedness and impurity.

But now, they have died to that way of life, and their life is hid with Christ in God. They have stripped off the old self with its practices and clothed themselves with a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge to the restored image of the creator. Now, the knowledge (which our primordial parents weren’t ready for), instead of being a temptation, helps the creature know its creator, and hence participate in the divine life by virtue of the divine image. The self which holds on to the creature as its private possession has died, and come to a new life immersed in the divine body.

The passage in Luke begins with a pungent little story. A person approaches Jesus and asks him to tell his brother to divide the family inheritance with him. In the NRSV, Jesus opens his reply with “Friend.” The word in Greek is anthropos, which means “person.” We might better translate, “Dude, who appointed to be a judge or arbiter over you?” The man in question calls Jesus “Teacher,” which would be Luke’s translation of “Rabbi.” A rabbi was an expert in the law, and so it would make perfect sense for a rabbi to interpret the requirements of the law concerning inheritance. Jesus, however, seems to be suggesting that this is a family problem, not a problem of the law.

Using this episode, Jesus warns his disciples to watch out for all kinds of greed, and then tells the parable of the rich fool. The story has resonances with Joseph and Pharaoh in Egypt. During the seven good years, on Joseph’s advice, Pharaoh built store cities for his grain and the during the seven bad years successively impoverished and enslaved his own people and came to own all their land in exchange for food. Notice as Jesus introduces the story, he says that the land of the rich man produced well. This was never his grain in the first place, but belonged to God, because the land belonged to God.

Greed, then, is idolatry for it treats as private possession what can only be used in community. What good is all that grain in the barn, where it will only rot, unless he shares it with others?

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