Love and the law

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 6 September 2020; Proper 18A (RCL); Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20.

Psalm 149 starts out so well — Hallelujah! Sing to the Lord a new song!
And it ends so vindictively — Let the praises of God be in their throat, and a two-edged sword in their hand; to wreak vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples. What a contrast to Paul’s word to the Romans — love is the fulfilling of the law.

If God is the only God, so the reasoning goes, then our way of life (when we follow God’s word) must be the right(eous) way of life, and all others should live the same way. The grand narrative of the Old Testament followed these lines. When Adam sinned, we all messed up, and creation lost its purpose. The calling of Abraham was meant to set things right, and so the people of Abraham were called on to be the nation that did the setting to rights.

The story of the Exodus shows us a step along that path to God’s people taking their rightful place as the workers of God’s righteousness in the world. The death of the first-born in Egypt is part of that judgment on the ways of the nations. The story shows us the people of no account, a nation of slaves, coming into their glory. The trouble is, it is always at the expense of others.

The crisis to monotheism created by the Exile would lead to a re-examination of the role Israel thought it played in the world. There would be those who prayed to God for vindication against the nations, and dreamed of a time when Israel would again reign supreme. The psalms are full of laments that God is delaying his vindication. Psalm 149 imagines what the world will be like when God acts.

Another strand of response to the crisis would be the poetry in the third portion of Isaiah, songs of the suffering servant. Israel’s suffering would be redemptive for the world, and pay the price of the world’s misdoings. It is easy to see how the early Christians fastened on that strand of tradition when seeking to understand what happened to Jesus.

For Paul, Jesus as the crucified Messiah turned the expectation of Israel bringing about God’s righteousness on its head. Jesus was God’s righteousness. Instead of working vengeance, God had accepted into the divine self the consequences of human sin, and would restore the world the way it should be with the resurrection. Israel had misunderstood the point of its election — it had been elected as servant, rather than as conqueror (Christians often make the same mistake, thinking that we are elect for our own salvation, rather than for the salvation of the world).

Jesus’ instruction about intra-community strife is one of the few places the word “Church” occurs on Jesus’ lips (signalling its anachronicity — there was no church, then). But notice what happens: sin is shifted from being something done against God’s righteousness to being a rift in the fabric of community, and the responsibility for healing the results resides squarely in the community.

No wonder Paul took the cross as the sign of the fulfillment of God’s righteousness, God’s covenant faithfulness. The path toward healing what is wrong with the world lies through the cross, rather than the sword. God accepts the consequences of human sin into the divine self — that is the message of the cross. We are to do the same, and then work within the community to heal the rip. The world is healed from the bottom up, not the top down.

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