2 October 2016
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22C (RCL)
2 Timothy 1:1-14
We do not like the ninth verse of Psalm 137, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” In the LXX the word for “happy” is makarios, which means something like “how honorable.” I suppose this might make more sense if we had ever been in the position of a vanquished people. Even so, we think, surely God does not desire that kind of vengeance, right? That’s why the psalmist can express it to God and then just leave it there. Reading the Lamentations and singing the psalm puts the word of the oppressed on our lips, and forces us to begin to see things from another perspective.
The reading from the Gospel also seems a bit hopeless: when we have done what we ought to have done, we are to say that we are worthless servants. Where is the hope. The figure of the mulberry tree also seems a bit strange: why would one want to uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the sea? In Mark’s Gospel, the statement about faith the size of a mustard seed concerns “this mountain.” Jesus has cursed the fig tree, and then gone into Jerusalem and delivered the parable about the vineyard and its tenants. On the way in the next morning, the disciples see the withered fig tree. Jesus says that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could say to “this mountain” to be thrown into the sea and it would happen. Clearly “this mountain” is Zion — Christianity will replace the unfaithful tenants of the vineyard.
In Luke, the figure of the mulberry tree (in Greek sycamine, not far from fig, sykos) comes after sayings about causes for sin, correcting a wayward brother or sister, and forgiving seven times a day if necessary. These are acts performed to maintain relationships within community. The mulberry tree then perhaps represents the entangled system of sin and injustice within a community. It is difficult to uproot. Then the figure of the slaves makes sense. It takes much work and a long time to root out these systems, and we can’t expect thanks for having worked.
In our current situation, my thoughts turn immediately to the Black Lives Matter movement. Saying the Lamentations and Psalm forces us (white people) to hear the lament of our brothers and sisters. The work to remove these systems of injustice will be hard, and we can expect thanks for doing it, but if we have even a little faithfulness, we can in fact uproot it and plant it in the sea.