The two become one

Proper 22B

Genesis 218-24

Psalm 128

Hebrews 2:1-18

Mark 10:2-26

The readings for this coming Sunday contain several landmines around which the preacher must step gingerly, if s/he is not able to defuse them. We are told that marriage is part of nature, and as such, absolutely indissoluble. The trouble with arguments from nature is that nature and culture are bound so closely together. An argument from nature is a culture’s way of saying this is so obvious that we shouldn’t have to explain it. Our difficulty is that we live is a such a vastly different culture than the ones which gave us the Genesis and the Mark reading for today. For us, marriage is primarily about romantic love. The primary myth of our culture is the myth of romantic love. If a story begins, “Once upon a time,” we all know it will end, “and they lived happily ever after.” Continue reading “The two become one”

Where’s the beef (or quail)?

BCP Proper 21 Year B

Numbers 11:4-29 (with various verses omitted)

Psalm 19:7-14

James 4:7 — 5:6

Mark 9:38-48

Both the passage from Numbers and the passage from Mark’s Gospel are confusing, and seem disjointed. On the face of it, they seem to be saying the same thing — God’s Spirit and power will pop up where it will. Eldad and Medad prophesy even though they weren’t at the tent of meeting, and some unknown person is casting out demons in Jesus’ name. But from there, things just get stranger. Continue reading “Where’s the beef (or quail)?”

The suffering righteous one

The passage from Wisdom appointed for this Sunday is an instance of the literary trope which scholars sometimes call, “The suffering righteous one,” or “The Wisdom Tale.” The basic plot outline of the trope is that a righteous person is unjustly accused, suffers persecution, and is finally restored to favor. The story of Joseph is a good example. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, becomes Potiphar’s servant, is accused by his wife of rape, imprisoned, and through his ability to interpret dreams, elevated to the right hand of Pharaoh. In that position, he is able to get his own back against his brothers, and finally be reunited with them and his father. The story of Job is another classic example of this trope. Continue reading “The suffering righteous one”

Great and small

Wisdom 1:16 — 2:22

Psalm 54

James 3:16 — 4:4

Mark 9:30-37

This passage from Wisdom is one of the Old Testament options for Good Friday, and my favorite among those options. It is a fine telling of the story of the suffering righteous one. Robert Herrick takes from this poem his line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” in his poem, “To the virgins, to make much of time.” If we fail to find a larger purpose in life, then pleasure, or acquisition, or food or whatever the drug is, becomes the goal and end of life. Continue reading “Great and small”

Rich and poor

Martin Luther is well known not to have like James’ epistle very much — he considered it a “right straw-y epistle” comparing its importance in the canon to the importance of the straw in the manger in the Incarnation. James’ epistle insists on the value of “works” with which Luther and all readers of scripture post-Luther have such difficulty.

It is clear in reading James that the righteousness in view is a corporate righteouness, not an individual righteousness, which is what vexed Luther so. We are the assembly, “over which the noble name has been invoked,” and we had better behave worthily of that name. Continue reading “Rich and poor”

Hearing and speaking

Isaiah 50:4-9

Psalm 116:1-8

James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18

Mark 9:14-29

Sorry I missed a week, if anyone was looking for last Sunday’s propers. I flew to Colorado to celebrate my dad’s eightieth birthday. It was a great thing to do.

This Sunday, I am choosing the second option from Mark’s Gospel, because it seems like we have already heard about taking up our cross and following Jesus once this year, and we almost never get to hear this story about the disciples’ failure to cast out a demon. Continue reading “Hearing and speaking”

Reading Ephesians

Anyone who knows me, knows I am not fond of military imagery in theology: “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is not my favorite hymn. Too much of the Crusades clings to that imagery. However, I had something of an insight reading about the “breastplate of righteousness” this time around, or at least raised a question I would like to chase down at some future date.

Most of the language in this paragraph in Ephesians (6:10-20) comes straight from Isaiah and the Psalms. Isaiah 59:16-17 reads, “He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was none to intervene; So his own arm brought about the victory, and his justice lent him its support. He put on justice as his breastplate, salvation as the helmet on his head; He clothed himself with garments of vengeance, wrapped himself in a mantle of zeal. He repays his enemies their deserts, and requites his foes with wrath.” Isaiah 49:2; “He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me.” Isaiah 52:7; “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings glad tidings [gospel], announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, ‘Your God is King!'”

What if the author of Ephesians is writing to a group of primarily Gentile christians after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, who nevertheless, as successors to Paul’s community have a tradition of reading and interpreting the prophets? How to make sense of this language of restoration and vengeance becomes a problem. These christians are no longer going to be very interested in the epic of Israel as an etiology for the Jerusalem Temple. All that language is going to have to be reinterpreted. So, in this author’s hands, it becomes language about a cosmic struggle in which every christian is engaged. Philo does something similar with the life of Moses, turning Moses into a good stoic.

The marriage language of Ephesians could also then be a reinterpretation of Hosea, and other passages in the prophets in which God marries Zion, adorning her and presenting himself to her as a bride. cf. Isaiah 62:1-5. Prophecies of restoration have been reinterpreted as metaphors for God’s relationship to the individual christian.

Traditions of the elders

Deuteronomy 4:1-9

Psalm 15

Ephesians 6:10-20

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.

Whenever the lectionary skips verses in a reading, my first question is, “What are we leaving out?” In this instance, we are omitting the reference to declaring whatever one would have gained from parents as dedicated to God and thereby getting oneself off the hook of caring for them (vv. 9-13), and Jesus’ scatological joke about what emerges making one unclean (we all use the latrine, therefore all are unclean).

According to Mack (Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence), chapter 7:1-23Â is one of two carefully constructed rhetorical arguments in Mark’s Gospel (chapter 4, being the other). What makes Mark so frustrating is that the arguments are not designed to persuade, but rather to draw lines. “Well did Isaiah prophecy concerning this generation” is not likely to win any of “this generation” to Mark’s cause. It is instead constructed to show those inside just how right they are, and just how wrong are those on the outside. Do we need any more religion like that?

It is interesting to me that Mark has to define his community over against “the Pharisees, and the Scribes”, in a word, “the Jews.” Mark’s community of christians couldn’t have existed and come to definition without “the Jews.” In fact, Daniel Boyarin (Border Lines) shows that this kind of line drawing defined “the Jews,” and line drawing by “the Jews” defined “the christians.” Each needed the heretic other to achieve a sense of identity.

I wonder if we haven’t created “Islamic fundamentalists” in order to define ourselves as the truly righteous. “They” couldn’t exist without “us:” “we” couldn’t exist without “them.” What if we rejected Mark’s ploy of hardening the lines, of constructing arguments only designed to make those inside feel better about themselves, and engaged in dialog with “the other.”

Sandy Tolan’s book, The Lemon Tree shows what happens when a Jew and a Palestinian confront one another across the threshold of the house they both have shared. He gives us great insight into the perspective of each, and truly, neither could exist without the other. What if we recognized that? Paul works a lot harder than Mark does at trying to imagine what a new humanity might look like that made room for both Jew and Greek. No wonder Paul was so nuts: it’s hard work, and nobody wants you doing it.

Wives, be subject. . .

I wonder how many people will hear anything beyond this line in the reading from Ephesians on Sunday morning? There were certainly christians who refused marriage, and those who promoted it in the time during which this epistle was written. There is no question which side the author of the epistle came down on. There is also precedent for what he is doing. Hosea had modeled the relationship between God and God’s people on his own marriage to a prostitute — the people were unfaithful, God was faithful. Isaiah has some beautiful passages about God adorning Zion as a bride God will marry and never again put away.

At best, we are always stumbling for metaphors to describe the divine, and our relationship to it. In the epistle’s day, marriage was a social obligation (refused, especially by women, at great peril). But in the contract, the husband was obliged to nourish, clothe and shelter his wife. What is a little bit surprising is the tenderness with which the author describes our relationship with God. Just as a man nourishes his own flesh and “warms” it (that is what the verb means, not as the NRSV has “cares for it”). Metaphorically, it can mean cherish, soften, and even inflame, as with passion. It seems God may well become passionate for us.

Ephesians sets out a hierarchical relationship between God and the community. John’s Gospel sets out a relationship of near-equality, with the divine and human natures interpenetrating to the point of confusion (the Father is in me, and I in you and the Father in you and the Spirit in everything and so on). Perhaps we need both aspects of that relationship with God. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians used a handy metaphor, without thereby fixing forever the nature of the marriage relationship. Our task is to find similar metaphors for God’s intimacy with us, care for us and relationship to us.

Spirit and flesh

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-25

Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 5:21-33

John 6:60-69

We are nearing in the end of the long summer of bread. This week’s reading from John is the last of the series. Here, we see the split that occurred in the Johannine community between the “sacrifice” and “non-sacrifice” partisans. One group is saying that the Johannine meal must be seen as sacrifice: eating flesh and drinking blood (it is interesting to note that the word for eating implies chewing, and the word for flesh implies raw meat — I wonder if the Johannine community tended toward the dionysan — compare to the miracle of water to wine). Another group says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” A split occurs.

I’m sure that is why we have the reading from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” You had better be ready to go the distance, seems to be the message of the designers of the lectionary.

But I’m a lot more interested in the passage from Ephesians. This is one that gets people up in arms: “Wives, be subject to your husbands.” Again, I think this represents a point of real contention in the early church. Many early christians eschewed marriage completely. The various acts of the named apostles all deal with an apostle preaching and convincing the engaged to forgo their marriages. The apostle would then celebrate a eucharist, almost always in the order of cup and then bread. I believe these were the water and bread Christians (see McGowan, Ascetic Eucharists). Marriage and sacrifice were deeply intertwined and implicated in the cultural background of the time: marriage produced progeny and sacrifice guaranteed descent from father to son. If you wanted to be counter-cultural, you could refuse marriage and sacrifice both. Thecla, in the Acts of Paul, gets herself martyred for her refusal to marry. Many christians got themselves martyred for refusal to sacrifice (and plenty of others got themselves killed for sacrificing to Christ, rather than Caesar).

So the Letter to the Ephesians represents a step along the way of accommodating the christian message to the cultural background, making it possible for people to live in both worlds. The section that this pericope begins lays out a handbook for household organization. There is nothing particularly shocking here. Any good Roman could agree. Our christianity today isn’t very shocking. Any good American can agree.

What would it be like to be a christian of the other variety, one who opts out of the cultural background? Sacrifice is not the organizing principle of our society, the way it was of Greco-Roman society. The money economy is. What would it be like to opt out of that background? What would it be like to engage in it, but directed to a different emperor, the way the sacrificing christians directed their sacrifice to Christ, not the emperor? How would we organize our households?

Marriage in the Greco-Roman world was part of one’s responsibility of citizenship. Now, marriage is about love, not duty to a larger community. How would we go about opting out of a hyper-individualistic (romantic) understanding of marriage and fulfillment? Somehow, we would have to find a way to consecrate the fruits of our labors and of our households to an intentional community, not identical to America.