Can I get a witness?

6 November 2016
All Saints’ Day (observed)
All Saint’s Day C (RCL)
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Psalm 149 used to come up for All Saints’ Day in each year. The Revised Common Lectionary has given us a broader set of readings. Psalm 149 starts out well, but ends up with the idea of the holy people of God wreaking vengeance on the nations, with a two edged sword in their hands. Not my favorite image. I suppose it would be a welcome vision for an oppressed people, to think that they would get their turn rendering justice to their oppressors. Daniel has a similar vision. The four beasts are the Babylonian, the Medean, the Persian and the Alexandrian Empires. The last of these was the worst, and Daniel holds out the hope that the holy ones of God will receive the kingdom. The apocalyptic imagination is always a way of critiquing the current state of affairs.

Luke’s version of the Beatitudes indulges in this vision of reversal in a way that Matthew’s version does not. Luke includes a set of woes (a better translation might be “shame on you”). Shame on you rich; shame on you who are full; shame on you who laugh now; shame on you when people speak well of you.” I have a hard time imagining that this kind of vengeance is what God has in mind in the reversal in the Kingdom.

Luke’s vision is consistent at any rate. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the rich man that he enjoyed his good things in life, and so now he suffers, while Lazarus now enjoys the good things he did not have in life. In the story of Zacchaeus we read last week, Jesus tells him that salvation has come to his house because he shares his goods, and restores four fold to anyone he has defrauded. Zaccheus, like Lazarus, is a son of Abraham. Being a child of Abraham has more to do with living the covenant than with ethnic identity (remember that John the Baptist warns that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the very stones).

The word that Luke uses for consolation (both in this passage and in the story of the rich man and Lazarus) is a cognate of Paraclete. Parakaleo means to call or be called into the presence of someone. The noun form, paraclete, could mean something not too different from our idea of defense attorney, or character witness. When a person went to the gate to have a case heard, to plead for redress, one’s paracletes were those who spoke on one’s behalf, those who stood alongside.

Luke’s version of the beatitudes is pointing to the kind of persons we should want as our paracletes, where our solidarity should lie. What would it mean to give to everyone who asked? That is what Jesus instructs the rich young man to do. If a person is really serious about living the commandments, living the covenant, then one has to take seriously the idea that all persons are members of the covenant community. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth announces the year of Jubilee, when all mortgages are forgiven, when those who have sold themselves into debt slavery are released, and all property returns to its original family. If we were living the year of Jubilee, there would be no poor. So, now, our solidarity needs to be with them.

This is the vision of the kingdom which scripture holds out to us. Sometimes, understandably, this vision includes vengeance on those who enslave us, but it is not necessarily so. Nonviolent resistance does not desire the death or humiliation of the oppressor — only that the playing field be leveled. Luke seems to preach this kind of non-violence: if someone takes your coat, do not withhold even your shirt — your nakedness will shame your oppressor. But to do that, you have to love your enemies. And this takes practice. It takes a way of living.

The passage from Ephesians holds out the same vision of when all things have been subjected to Christ and he fills all in all. But the author prays that we may have the eyes of our heart enlightened to see the hope God has called us to, and the riches of our inheritance among the saints. The vision is not obvious, but requires training. If our living together as the Church is not training in this kind of non-violent hope, we’re doing something wrong. Who do we want as our witnesses at the great judgment seat of Christ?

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