If you think back to the last time you finally got all the pieces together for a grand project only to have it spectacularly fail, whether a project in the kitchen or the shop, at school or at work, you’ll be able to empathize with the Good Lord in the first reading.
In this case it’s been a centuries-long project: from those long journeys with the patriarchs and matriarchs, through the exodus, into the land flowing with milk and honey, and now the unbridled greed of the elites in the Northern and Southern kingdoms, forcing folk off their ancestral lands to make way for wheat for the cities, wine and olive oil for export. What was supposed to be a harvest of justice and righteousness: a harvest of bloodshed and cries.
Justice and righteousness. We’ve been hearing these words repeatedly during these last six weeks as we’ve listened to the 8th Century prophets: Amos, Hosea, and now Isaiah. In today’s fractured discourse it’s often hard to figure out what ‘justice’ means, other than what the speaker happens to like. So it’s worth recalling what these prophets meant, fairness and a bias toward approximate equity. Fairness: the same set of weights and measures for buying and selling, the contents matching the labeling. A bias toward approximate equity: this has to do with what stories you tell. Israel lived between the great and ancient centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). In Egypt the Pharaoh was divine. In Mesopotamia the story was that first the common folk were created, and then the gods brought together the beautiful, the glorious, the mighty, and produced the king. Whichever of those stories you told, it was only right that the king and his court had all the goodies. Israel’s God had given Israel a different story: humankind as a whole bear God’s image. (In other words, until we deciphered the Egyptian and Mesopotamian scripts in the 19th Century we weren’t in a position to know what “Let us make humankind in our image” was about, because we didn’t know what conversation—what argument—it was part of!) And if all of us bear God’s image, all of us have the right and responsibility to steward this good earth. The difference between king and commoner? Almost not worth talking about.
So the law given to Moses includes provisions that limit debt slavery, allow folk to periodically regain their ancestral lands (the Jubilee), etc. If all bear God’s image and have the right and responsibility to steward this good earth, then a legal code is just to the degree that it promotes this—not that arriving at a set of workable laws is any easy matter, then or now. Back in the 8th Century BC, the problem was that the Israelite kings and their courts (both Northern and Southern Kingdoms) generally preferred the Egyptian or Mesopotamian stories. So, predictably, bloodshed and cry.
To get a sense of how it was supposed to work, look at Psalm 72, which we used a few minutes ago. “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” The psalm focuses on three issues: the well-being of the most vulnerable, the fertility of the land, and the nation’s security vis à vis the surrounding nations. The division of labor is pretty clear: the king worries about the most vulnerable (vv. 2, 4, 12-14); the Good Lord worries about fertility and the king’s international enemies. The irony—well, the scandal—is the contrast between Psalm 72 and the 8th Century BC elites. The irony—well, the scandal—is that with “In God we trust” on our currency we’re giving Psalm 72 about the same attention that the 8th Century BC elites gave it.
Holding the Hebrews reading in reserve for the moment, on to the Gospel.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Coming at Jesus’ words cold, it’s understandable if our first reaction is “Well, someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” For texts like this, it often helps to look back to see what’s been happening earlier in the text.
Here, as Luke tells the story, it started with someone in the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” So Jesus tells the parable about the rich man who ran out of storage space, the parable that ends with God saying “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.” We heard that two weeks ago.
And Jesus stays with this theme, pointing us to the ravens, the lilies of the field, and reaching a crescendo with
“And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We heard that last week. It doesn’t take much reflection to recognize that this message is a formula for division, not peace! “You want to do what with the family budget?”
And, having just heard Isaiah’s Vineyard parable, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that Isaiah and Jesus are working the same script. The problem with Jerusalem’s elites is precisely that they’re striving for what they’re going to eat, drink, wear, and are driven by fear, whether of their neighbors next door or next kingdom over.
And if we see this, we can perhaps understand Jesus’—well—impatience. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” The Holy Trinity has been working this problem, seeking to cultivate sustainable justice and righteousness in Israel, for well over a millennium. And now the Holy Trinity has—as they say—skin in the game, Jesus’ skin, Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood. Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood: which will soon receive the full impact of the division he describes. Jesus’ body, Jesus’ blood: which we’ll be receiving in a few minutes.
Where do these readings leave us?
Please open a prayer book to p.305. At the end of the Baptismal Covenant the Celebrant asks “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” And the people reply… Readings like today’s readings help us hear this more clearly:
–Justice: not something one of the factions in the church slipped in, but central to God’s agenda;
–Justice: its meaning not determined by the speaker’s agenda, but deeply rooted in the Bible’s story: fairness and a bias toward approximate equity. Fairness, what we might call procedural justice. But that’s only half the story, for a bias toward approximate equity is equally important: all bear God’s image; all have the right and responsibility of stewarding this good earth.
–The dignity of every human being: particularly a challenge today with too many loud voices declaring many beneath this dignity.
–Peace: not always the immediate result of our striving, but given Jesus’ words and life, that’s par for the course.
And at the start of The Baptismal Covenant: “Do you believe in God the Father…maker of heaven and earth?” Jesus’ words, the words we’ve heard in the last two weeks leading up to today’s reading, spell out what this belief looks like:
–This Father knows what we need, and is generous—and believing that means letting it be the motor for our attention and actions
–So, parenthetically, Genesis 1 is in our Bible not so we can argue about evolution, but first to bring God onstage as a generous God whose creation has enough for everyone, and second (“humankind in our image”) to counter the recurrent claim of the elites that they alone ought to steward God’s creation.
–We grow our belief, our faith, as we work on throttling back our worry about what we need.
–We grow our belief, our faith, as we work on throttling back our fear.
And here the preacher’s with that distraught father in Mark’s Gospel: “I believe, help my unbelief!”
We return to the Baptismal Covenant at various points during the year because our calling as a community is to live together in a way that makes it easier for us to believe in this generous Father, easier for us to be generous, easier to engage in that striving for justice.
And we return to the Holy Communion every week because we need Jesus’ life coursing through us for this work, and Jesus’ story in the center of our consciousness.
How to close? The words from our Epistle give us the words. Let us read together the last two verses, Hebrews 12:1-2:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”