The signs of the times

14 August 2016
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 15C (RCL)
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Many people react strongly to this reading from Luke’s Gospel. We have the picture of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and an understanding of the Kingdom as peace on earth. And yet, here is Jesus telling us that houses will be divided against one another. This saying fits in with other sayings such as “If you do not hate father and mother, brother and sister, you cannot be my disciple.” We’ve been trained that Christianity is about loving our neighbors and especially our family. Don’t we go to Church together as families?

But here, Luke reminds us that the reconciliation of the kingdom requires a commitment to the message of the covenant, and not everyone will share that commitment. I think that these sayings fit in the overall context of the last several weeks. The rich fool, who built bigger barns for his grain misunderstood the covenant at fundamental levels. He forgot that the land was God’s in the first place, so that its abundance also belonged to God, and was intended for the good of all the people of the land (Jesus’ first sermon in Luke’s Gospel announces the year of Jubilee). Whether one anticipates the return of the Son of Man as a joyful master who will serve his slaves, or as a thief in the night who will break into the house and steal, depends on where one has hoarded one’s treasure — in heaven or in barns.

Here again, the division will be in the way we live in the present in anticipation of the renewal of the covenant. Jesus accuses the crowd of hypocrisy because they know how to the sky but not the times. He gives two signs. When they see a cloud in the west, they know it will rain. This is a good thing. When there is a wind from the south, they anticipate scorching heat. This is a not-so-good thing. We need to learn to discern rain from heat in the times, what gives life from what scorches it.

Isaiah’s song of the vineyard again suggests that we can live with one of two attitudes toward the covenant. If we use its produce for justice, God will tend it; if we hoard the grapes, and seek profit for ourselves, God will tear down the wall, stop the rain and allow people to burn the vineyard. This particular piece of poetry has exercised a profound effect on much of the New Testament. Every parable Jesus tells about vineyards has this poem as its reference point. When the prophets imagine the return from Exile, they picture every family enjoying the fruit of its own vineyard and sitting in the shade of its own fig tree. The psalm picks up the image of the vineyard, and implores God to restore the people.

Hebrews continues with the image of all the faithful in ages past as well as in the present journeying toward the city with foundations. Interestingly enough, however, we all go in together. Only all together will we be made perfect. This race is not an individual time trial, but we run surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.

In our own day, we would do well to learn to distinguish what is live-giving from what scorches the earth, literally and figuratively. We will face divisions, but that only makes the task of discernment the more important.

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