Fear or hope?

7 August 2014
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14C (RCL)
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 23-24
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Luke 12:32-40

At first sight, the passage from Luke’s Gospel looks like Luke just strung some several loosely related sayings of Jesus to make this unit. The saying, “Do not fear, little flock,” seems to belong to what came before, which was a set of saying about not worrying about what to wear or what to eat, but it then shifts to an emphasis on incorruptible treasure. Then follows the saying about good slaves waiting for the return of the master from the wedding feast. If he finds them ready when he returns, he will have them recline at table and serve them. Then, we shift to the thief coming in the night. In both instances, returning master and thief in the night, Jesus (or the Son of Man) is the one who arrives.

This poses an odd contrast. Is Jesus’ return something to be anticipated with hope, or with fear? The sayings make sense if the answer to that question depends on one’s attitude. If one has sold all one has, given alms, and put one’s treasure in heaven, then one anticipates Jesus’ return with hope and joy. If, like the rich man who built bigger barns, one has stored up treasure here on earth, Jesus’ return is like the thief who arrives unexpectedly to steal the treasure. These sayings, then, make an integral unit to finish off the foregoing teachings about wealth and trust.

The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews approaches the question about trust in the future from a different angle. Faith, according to the author, is the substance of things hoped for. The NRSV’s translation “assurance” is a stretch. The Greek word is hypostasis, which means something like foundation, something which undergirds, and gets taken up in Nicene theology to mean the real nature of a thing. All of the examples of faith given by Hebrews looked forward to a city with foundations where they might dwell, even during their exile as foreigners living in tents. If they were imagining the land they left, they had the opportunity to return. In our current political climate, there are plenty of people who want to go back to an imaginary time in the past (which of course never existed), because the future seems scary.

Isaiah continues the prophetic tradition of criticizing the people for their failure of justice. Sacrifices are of no effect without justice. God is weary of sacrifices, weary of lip service, weary of religion without justice. The psalm reminds us of the purpose of sacrifice — the meal sealed the covenant. The covenant called for justice, for fair treatment of the orphan and widow. Leviticus, the same book that gives such explicit instructions on which sacrifices are required for what circumstances, also commands the people not to harvest their field to the edge, nor to pick up the gleanings of field and vineyard, in order that the poor may have sufficient. The offering of bread or animal is of no value if it has been acquired without justice.

The investment of our life into the community of the covenant means that we can anticipate the future with hope. If we have hoarded good for ourselves, we must look to the future in fear.

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