Friends, I took a tumble off my bike a bit ago. It turns out that breaking the fall broke an arm. So ignoring the discomfort in typing is probably not prudent. I look forward to resuming these posts after a few weeks of healing.
“No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”
Perhaps these are simply parables in the spirit of Ecclesiastes 3:1 (“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”); both fasting and feasting have their place. But once uttered, they’re, well, ominous. Jesus and the Pharisees, Paul and the Jerusalem leaders: studies in pouring new wine into old wineskins? “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Perhaps it’s like that poor camel and the needle’s eye: “”For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Or perhaps the tearing of the cloth/wineskins turns out to redemptive? “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19b-20).
And then just when the parables might be coming into focus, that last bit: “And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’” So it’s not a matter of old=bad, new=good. And even the tension between old and new may not be the last word. Perhaps relevant: the brief interchange (unique to Matthew) at the end of a long series of parables: “’Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes’. And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old’” (Matt. 13:51-52).
Holy Michael & All Angels
2020 does focus the question of how to celebrate this feast. The temptation is to head directly to Ps 91:11-13 (“For he will command his angels concerning you…”), despite its role in Jesus’ temptation. And if we don’t highlight their protection? Here’s one of Mary Calvert’s prayers (from Pocket Celtic Prayers):
May the saints and angels be with me
From the top of my head
To the soles of my feet.
In the company of your saints
I would live this day;
As they lived their lives for you
So may I live this day.
With them to you I bring
My morning praise;
Heavenly chorus I would echo
In my morning praise.
Where they for ever dwell
There would I be;
In heaven to live with you
There may I be.
Or this from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet “Well done” in judgment hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors’ faith, apostles’ word,
the patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.
Hosea and Luke resonate together nicely. The presenting issue in Hosea’s oracle was Israel’s misunderstanding/misuse of the Lord’s gifts of fertility. The Lord’s endgame: a restoration of abundant fertility (“On that day I will answer, says the LORD, / I will answer the heavens / and they shall answer the earth; / and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil…”). So Jesus shows up at the lake, and “speak tenderly” turns out to include “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Fertility. I do wonder what happened to all those fish. Perhaps Elijah’s calling of Elisha provided the template: “So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, ‘Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.’ Then Elijah said to him, ‘Go back again; for what have I done to you?’ He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant” (1 Ki. 19:19-21).
Acts. Luke Johnson notices the multiple ways in which Paul’s speech follows the conventions of the Farewell Discourse, the point of which, broadly, is exhortation. More animals: not oxen (Elijah & Elisha), not fish (Jesus & Simon), but sheep and wolves. There’s a strong sense of menace (Paul, after all, recapitulating Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem). So: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock” (Paul channeling Michael Conrad’s Sgt. Phil Esterhaus).
“Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone” (from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).
James speaks of the “gentleness born of wisdom;” our combination of readings perhaps highlights a related expression of wisdom: paying attention, not getting distracted.
“She did not know / that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, / and who lavished upon her silver / and gold that they used for Baal.” Hosea’s 8th century Israel is a case study in not paying attention, but perhaps not as extreme as that, say, of our stock markets, whose traders imagine that their wealth comes from their cunning and Baal, rather than from God’s generous earth. And then, as now, multiple forms of folly ensue.
Paying attention, not getting distracted particularly by that little organ so close to the brains in which we take so much pride: “placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” [Election year addendum on Not Getting Distracted: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).]
Paying attention: Jesus’ parables highlight the payoff: the encountered treasure, the encountered pearl. And here’s where the dangers start: “As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Lk. 8:14). “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her’” (Lk. 10:41-42).
“Catch it if you can.”
The Lectionary begins our ten-day stint with Hosea today (for overviews, here and here). Abraham Heschel: “God is conceived, not as the self-detached Ruler, but as the sensitive Consort to Whom deception comes and Who nevertheless goes on pleading for loyalty, uttering a longing for reunion, a passionate desire for reconciliation.”
One’s eyes can glaze reading texts like that from Acts today. Luke Johnson’s observation helps: “More significant by far than any single stage of the journey is the way in which Luke has so obviously structured it to mirror the great journey of the prophet Jesus to his death and triumph in Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:44).” I wonder: while Paul specifically is important for the story Luke wants to tell (how the Gospel advances from Jerusalem to Rome), is Luke also using Paul as a model for every believer, someone in whom Jesus’ Spirit continues to work?
As commentators notice, Luke in this Gospel text both follows Mark and reorders his sequence (we encounter the calling of the disciples in our next Luke reading). Is the point to give Jesus’ call of Peter some context? Meanwhile, “proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God:” executing the previously-read mandate from Isaiah, healing and exorcising. O Jesus, we could use more of that here, today.
When the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah we’re told that one night “the angel of the Lord” struck down 185,000 Assyrians in the camp—and the Assyrians departed. Today’s text records a similar outcome—at the cost of one Assyrian life. I wonder: has something shifted in the culture and/or theological sensibility?
(By the way, the Book of Judith continues for three more chapters. Judith’s thanksgiving song is particularly worth attention, e.g., “Her sandal ravished his eyes, / her beauty captivated his mind, / and the sword severed his neck!”)
Every year Episcopal parishes complete the Parochial Report—many numbers—“to assist the Church in planning for mission.” Why isn’t one of the numbers requested the number of times merchants in the city have rioted in response to the parish’s missional activities?
The demon gets it right: Jesus is “the Holy One of God.” Not that it does the demon any good—he’s still sent packing, and an unnamed man—his former residence—is a little freer. Holiness and freedom: that’s a very old association: Moses encounters holy ground—and gets sent to bring Israel out of Egypt. Here’s another missional project for us—that also will not be (directly) registered in the Parochial Report—make more visible in our city the link between holiness and human freedom.
Judith: exemplary courage over an extended period in which things could have gone terribly wrong at any moment. (“It would be a shame for us to let such a woman go without having sex with her. If we don’t reel her in, she’ll laugh at us.”) Her speech, a master class in double meanings (vv. 4, 14, 18). When does assassination belong in the asymmetrical conflict toolkit? Judith’s story is also part of that conversation.
Meanwhile, here’s Jesus in front of a Jewish audience illustrating “bring good news to the poor” by citing Elijah, who helped the widow at Zarephath in Sidon (and not the Israelite widows) and Elisha, who cleansed the Syrian general Naaman of leprosy (and not the Israelite lepers). Naaman—any different than Holofernes? On my extended “bucket list:” listen in on Judith, Esther, Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Priscilla (from the September 22 reading) comparing notes.
P.S. There is perhaps one important difference between Holofernes and Naaman. Both receive accurate intelligence re Israel, Holofernes from the Ammonite leader Achior (re the Lord’s protection of Israel), Naaman from a young Israelite girl captured in one of the Aramean raids (re a prophet with the gift of healing), Holofernes chooses to ignore the intelligence; Naaman to act on it.
Later in Luke we’ll hear Jesus tell this parable: “’A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.’ As he said this, he called out, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant. He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that “looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.” Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.’”
“Let anyone with ears to hear listen” indeed!
Today we might read the first and third lessons in split screen. What will the protagonists do after the build-up in the previous chapters? Judith’s prayer (chapter 9) gives us clues, but leaves much unsaid. Simeon and Levi led with deceit, then drew the sword; Judith prays for her deception’s success and leaves the sword unnamed. Between Zechariah’s prophecy, Mary’s song, etc., a wealth of potentially different expectations re what Jesus will accomplish. Judith in front of her closet is a classic hero-preparing-for-battle scene; Jesus stands before his deciding what not to wear, what trust in God looks like. (And what about the sword in that closet?) Both will be performing without a net.
Note: the first link connects to all of chapters 8-9.
Luke. Yesterday’s reading—bumped by the Feast of St. Matthew—introduced John and began a course reading of Luke that will continue into late Advent. There John called for fruit proving repentance, and gave examples. Here John—switching agricultural metaphors—reminds us that our choices yield identities: wheat or chaff. No inside track for the privileged, no judges to bribe; just choices to be made.
Judith. Today we meet Judith—and the Lectionary leaves too much on the cutting room floor. Of the many striking elements in Judith’s prayer (chapter 9), here are three:
- Judith emphasizes God’s hand in events—past, present, and future (vv.5-6). But this does not stop her asking that God make her plan successful.
- Judith describes God’s character: “But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope.” She sounds something like Hannah; Mary sounds like both.
- Judith’s opening (vv.2-4) reveals perhaps unexpected freedom to read against the grain of Scripture. In Genesis 34 prince Shechem seizes and lays with Dinah. Her brothers Simeon and Levi respond by slaughtering all the males in his city. Their father Jacob rebukes the brothers, and on his deathbed doubles down on the rebuke. But here Judith celebrates their action in response to the outrage. Judith’s plan builds on their action to prevent further outrages.
Judith, written with the Maccabean violence against Hellenistic outrages fresh in the mind, reads Israel’s traditions in support of that violence. The context in which we read and the choices we make in reading matter.