The Common Good
September-October 1997

Get It Straight

by Peter B. Price | September-October 1997

Let’s get it straight: Living God’s way in the world is not for the faint-hearted.

Let’s get it straight: Living God’s way in the world is not for the faint-hearted. Our readings in the next few weeks challenge our discipleship, calling to its very foundations. We are invited to face our prejudice, to analyze our motives for doing good, to reflect on our seemingly endless capacity for conflict, to observe our desire for status, as well as our murmuring and moaning against God when the least thing upsets our way of doing things. And as they say in the movies, "We’re the good guys!"

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Most of us suffer from spiritual blindness. Bartimaeus, who was blind, called out to Jesus, but before Jesus could restore his sight he had to find out if that is what Bartimaeus wanted— "What do you want me to do for you?" "That I may receive my sight," he replied. Let’s get it straight: What do you want me to do for you? is the same question Jesus asks of us.

September 7
Face Your Prejudice
Psalm 125; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

Do not let class distinction enter into your faith in Jesus Christ, our glorified Lord (James 2:1). The lectionary readings today contain a litany of directions and leave us in no doubt about our behavior toward the poor and oppressed. The selection of Proverbs concludes with the command, "Do not despoil the weak...and do not oppress the poor...for the Lord God takes up their cause and [rather more uncomfortably] extorts the life of their extortioners" (Proverbs 22:22-23). The psalm, one which reflects people’s trust in time of suffering, also calls on God to "do good to those who are good....But the crooked, the twisted, turn them away with evildoers" (Psalm 125:4-5).

The letter of James is uncompromising on behalf of the poor. He pictures a courtroom dialogue between the wealthy and the poor and exposes the tendency of us all to judge by appearances, offering preference to the well-dressed. However, poverty is not only measured by appearance. There is the more insidious and deeply ingrained impact of culture, which leads even the most enlightened to the borders of sin.

Jesus is accosted and addressed by a Gentile woman, a culturally unacceptable thing to do. Reacting like any Jewish male, Jesus uses words that shock us: "It is not fair," he says, "to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs" (Mark 7:27). Having gotten further than most others would—a reply from a Jewish man—the woman pushes her luck by responding, "But little dogs...eat the scraps from the children." Jesus receives a riposte that he cannot gainsay.

The woman, who has been discriminated against on the grounds of gender, race, and class, "teaches" Jesus something about inclusivity in God’s order. Her persuasiveness in argument forced him to recognize his privileged position and to re-evaluate it. This is an example of what the writer to the Hebrews meant when he said of Jesus that he "learned his obedience, son though he was, through his sufferings" (Hebrews 5:8). We too are invited to recognize our privilege, to face our prejudice, to observe and change our exclusiveness into inclusiveness.

Reflection and Action

What privileges do you have in your life? List some examples. Recall those who do not share your privileges. Make another list. How will you seek to obey James’ instruction not to let class (or any other) distinctions enter into your faith in Jesus Christ?

September 14
Getting It Straight

Psalm 19; Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

James tells us to watch our tongue because it is "a whole wicked world" (James 3:6). Wisdom, that is, the Spirit, calls for our attention and warns those who mock others, and who hate knowledge of God’s justice, that "they will have to eat the fruits of their own ways of life and choke themselves with their own scheming" (Proverbs 1:22, 31). The psalmist calls us to behave with integrity because we are here to worship God and the beauty of creation, which reveals God’s creative power (Psalm 19:1).

However, it is the gospel that gives the strongest directive to all who would follow Christ—"renounce self" (Mark 8:34). Direct, almost brutal, it is the element of the gospel, apart from loving neighbors as ourselves, to which we are most resistant. Certainly the idea of renouncing self has led to oppression within the church of one group over another, particularly men over women, and that is in itself a corruption of Jesus’ intent. The "self" talked of here is the self that resists the invitation to inclusivity; refuses reconciliation, the practice of saving justice, and God’s invitation to recreate the world (Psalm 19:4).

Self-renunciation is coupled with a mind-blowing activity to "take up the cross" (Mark 8:34). For most of us, the idea of judicial execution is chilling and unacceptable. The cross symbolized such a form of execution, firmly placing the victim of such punishment as someone from the wrong side of the tracks—which is not where most professing Christians come from.

Miguel D’Escoto of Nicaragua once observed, "I don’t think we Christians have understood what carrying the cross means: the path of baptism. We are not carrying the cross when we are poor or sick, or suffering small everyday things. They are all part of life. The cross comes when we try to change things. That is how it came for Jesus." Let’s get it straight!

Reflection and Action

Do you agree with Miguel D’Escoto’s understanding of carrying the cross? Can you think of examples from your own or other people’s lives that would bear this out?

September 21
Take Time to Learn
Psalm 1; Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

"Anyone who is wise or understanding among you should from a good life give evidence of deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom" (James 3:13). The importance of understanding our faith and the behavior that grows from such faith is the keynote of today’s scriptures.

Both James and Mark provide evidence to their readers of how "wars and battles between yourselves first start" (James 4:1; Mark 9:34). Ambition and the desire for status are strong within the Christian community. Jesus recognized this and took his disciples away from the crowds in order to re-educate them about the true nature of power and its destructiveness, prophesying his own end. "But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him," says Mark, in a commentary that could apply just as much to our times (9:32).

When I was a parish priest, people would occasionally say, "We need more teaching." Rather tartly I would reply, "It is not more teaching that we need but more learning!" The psalmist pictures a tree planted by a stream being nurtured from its roots by the life-giving water as a parable of how we need to learn God’s wisdom. In this idyllic pastoral scene, there is a profound truth; we need solitude as much as we need company in learning God’s ways. When we are nurtured like this we are enabled to "bear fruit" and to watch "every project succeed" that is borne out of "the gentleness of wisdom."

The eulogy of the "wise woman" in Proverbs gives us a picture of well-ordered humanity. Wisdom literature always offers a hidden message. Here, "wisdom" is synonymous with the Spirit, which in the Old Testament is usually feminine. The picture of the "orderly woman" is of a Spirit-ordered world in which hands are held out to the poor and arms to the needy (Proverbs 31:20). This is the true nature of the "wisdom that comes down from above": it is "essentially something pure; it is also peaceable, kindly, and considerate, full of mercy—it shows itself by doing good" (James 3:17).

Reflection and Action

How do you take time to learn God’s ways? Where have you witnessed or experienced ambition and status seeking? How does your life demonstrate "evidence of deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom"?

September 28
For...Or Against?
Psalm 124; Esther 7:1-6, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

"Anyone who is not against us is for us," says Jesus to the disciple John (Mark 9:40). The disciples had been arguing over status, and Jesus had given them a visual parable by embracing a little child, saying, "Anyone who welcomes a little child such as this...welcomes me." He continues to surprise by advising his disciples that the most basic hospitality, the "gift of a cup of water," is evidence of being "for us." An important task for God’s people is discerning allies who are allies in "escaping from the fowler’s net" (Psalm 124:7).

Esther is the most secular book in the scriptures. It tells of a Jewish woman who has found favor with a pagan monarch, acting to prevent the genocide of her people. Boldly risking her privileged position and status with a paranoid ruler, she achieves freedom for her people and brings about the punishment of the chief conspirator to the potential holocaust.

There is little mention of God in this story. It is unlike so much of what we read in the Old Testament. We are left to draw conclusions rather than have them thrown at us. Michael Fox has commented that it is "the willingness to face history with an openness to the possibility of providence—even when history seems to weigh against its likelihood...this is a stance of profound faith."

Elie Wiesel, commenting on a meeting of "righteous Gentiles" in New York, spoke of those who had defended Jews in the European holocaust: "Most who cared were simple people who didn’t even know what they were doing was courageous.... They did it because it was the thing to do. And I felt then, woe to our society if to be human becomes an heroic act."

Jesus understood how much it takes to be a full human being. He saw the need to affirm what was "good" outside his discipleship community and to cut out what was "bad" inside it. To be like salt is to be at peace. The challenge of making shalom calls for "confession of sins to one another" within the community (James 5:16); and outside of it believing that "anyone who is not against us is for us."

Reflection and Action

Who do you sense is "for us" but does not belong to your faith community? Where have you witnessed being human as "an heroic act"? What do you want to affirm as "good" outside, and deal with as "bad" in your church life? Re-read the Michael Fox quote. Do you agree with him?

October 5
Why Me?
Psalm 26; Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Why do we suffer? Is it our own fault? Are we being punished for wrongdoing? These kinds of questions dog us today just as much as they did the writers of the Bible. Many of the psalms ask the question, Why me? They represent the voices of people who sense that they have lived faithfully: "Lord be my judge...; my trust in God never wavers" (Psalm 26:1). Job also was "a sound, honest man who feared God and shunned evil" (Job 1:1). Yet despite his goodness, he was to experience faith-testing calamity at the heart of an almost Faustian bargain between God and Satan (Job 2:1-6). His resilience in suffering causes first his wife and then others to question God.

Many of the psalms, particularly 38 and 51, reveal a heightened sense of self-awareness over wrongdoing, and there is undoubtedly a real element in suffering that is brought upon ourselves through our misdeeds. Mark points us to the oppression in marriage caused by patriarchy, and the life-tearing pain of divorce when a marriage dies. Or the destruction of the innocence in children, or life’s poor "little ones," through abuse and exclusion (Mark 10:13-16). The roots of all violence are to be found in oppression of the small and weak.

Paradoxically, it is through suffering that healing comes. Hebrews reveals a God who throughout the human story has sought ways of being heard. To wrest humanity back from its own destruction, God did not choose angels, but human beings: "What are human beings that you spare a thought for them?" asks the writer rhetorically, and answers, "You have crowned them with glory and honor and put all things under their feet" (Hebrews 2:6-8).

Human failure to live up to its destiny means that God’s intervention through Jesus, and his submission to suffering and death, was to "benefit all humanity" (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus’ example is not something we are required to observe through the rearview mirror of history, but to follow in every detail in order to "make perfect through suffering the leader of their salvation" (Hebrews 2:10).

Some mystery!

Reflection and Action

When have you asked the question, Why me? Have you had times when your own sense of wrongdoing has been heightened? What caused such a change of perspective? How has Jesus’ experience of suffering challenged you to live your life as he did?

October 12
It's God's Fault!
Psalm 22:1-15; Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

"God has undermined my courage....I am plunged back into obscurity by him," complains Job (23:16-17). The psalmist offers a prayer full of rage and complaints against God, accusing God of forsaking, betraying, and failing to help. Bereft, he reveals the physical impact of grief and sense of despair, and finally accuses God of "laying me down in the dust of death" (Psalm 22:15). Such a sense of being lost to God is experienced by many, and one survivor of Auschwitz recalls how he fasted in the camp in order to shame God.

Most of us find such rage and anger against God hard to express. It rarely, if ever, forms part of our worship, except in the rather ersatz form of the repeated psalm. We are scandalized by such boldness against God; we are often too timid to tell it as it is, fearing some kind of divine thunderbolt because we have dared to challenge God. We need someone to interpret for us.

The writer of Hebrews exhorts readers, "We must hold firm to our profession of faith" (Hebrews 4:14). Such words fall on deaf ears unless they are connected to the reality of suffering. We should hold on to our faith, with all its rage, despair, and confusion; fear of mockery (Psalm 22:7); and sense of futility (Mark 10:28) because "Jesus the Son of God...is not incapable of feeling our weakness with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as we ourselves...apart from sin" (Hebrews 4:14-15).

Jesus is the interpreter of our pain, and challenges our comforts. As the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14), Jesus reveals our schizophrenia and "seeks out the place where soul is divided from spirit or joints from marrow" (Hebrews 4:12). Warning of the danger of riches, Jesus offers the companionship of community (Mark 10:21-22). Jesus invites us from the addictions of consumerism: to renounce the security of home, relationships, and property. By offering a new order of Jubilee, a time of re-distributive justice, he makes possible a world where "first will be last, and the last first" (Mark 10:31).

Reflection and Action

When have you experienced the despair of Job, or the anger of the psalmist? How did you express it? Where have you discovered Jesus as interpreter of your pain, offering the solace of others and the challenge to live in the spirit of Jubilee?

October 19
God Hits Back
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35; Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

"Man bites dog," runs a famous newspaper headline. It is meant to take our notice because it is a reversal of what we expect. "God hits back" could well have been the headline of tabloid writers following Job’s arguments with God. "‘Who is this obscuring my intentions with his ignorant words?...I am going to ask the questions, and you are going to inform me!’" says God (Job 38:2-3). God searchingly questions Job about the order of creation, the universe, and everything else, concluding with the knockout punchline: "Have you grasped the celestial laws? Could you make their writ run on the Earth?" (Job 38:33). Contemplating the creation, the psalmist is moved to praise, "How countless are your works, Lord; all of them made so wisely!" (Psalm 104:24).

Most of us do not naturally contemplate God. Like the disciples we tend to offer the kind of prayers that ask God "to do us a favor" (Mark 10:35). Status and influence are more to us than spirituality. We find it hard to hear the question that goes alongside true holiness, "Can you drink the cup that I shall drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I shall be baptized?" (Mark 10:38). Even if like the disciples we answer the question by saying "We can," Jesus reveals that that, in itself, does not guarantee a reward that we can calculate ahead of its being granted.

Serving God demands the same generosity of spirit with which God serves us. God provides a creation that never ceases to amaze because of its fecundity, or the cosmos by its immensity. The same God provides an exemplar in his Son coming "not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). The reward even for Jesus is service: "Christ did not give himself the glory of becoming a high priest, but the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have fathered you’" (Hebrews 5:5).

There is a great paradox here: When we are obedient to God’s calling we learn, like Jesus, through suffering (Hebrews 5:8). The reward is service, and to share with Jesus "the source of eternal salvation" (5:9). The last word is always with God!

Reflection and Action

When have you been forced out of self-obsession into contemplating the wonder of God’s universe? Have you ever sensed God asking you questions? What were they? Can you look at any experience of suffering from which you have learned?

October 26
What Do You Want Me to Do?
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22; Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

What a difference it makes how we answer the same question! On their journey to Jerusalem, Jesus asks the squabbling disciples, "What do you want me to do for you?" They answer him, "Grant us to sit on your right and left hand" (Mark 10:36-37). A few days later, Jesus is accosted with the shouts of the discriminated against, disenfranchised blind beggar, Bartimaeus. "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asks him, and he replies, "Teacher, let me see again" (Mark 10:51).

Jesus cannot answer the request of the disciples, because they are seeking self-aggrandizement and the power that goes with it. Jesus can help Bartimaeus, on the other hand, because he understands the true nature of his condition: He is blind.

One of the "last" has become "first," and those who might reasonably have thought themselves first—we who "have left everything and followed"—have become "last." The writer to the Hebrews draws a distinction between those called to high office in the church who are subject to weakness, and the Lord, who has real "power to save those who come to God through him who is absolute, since he lives forever to intercede for them" (Hebrews 7:25).

In a world whose values are almost permanently topsy-turvy, people with integrity, uncontaminated by the self-seeking of the world, are usually the disregarded, the discriminated against. To choose to live life in the way of God, despite the worst the systems can throw at us, requires opened eyes. It calls for us to move beyond the simplistic condemnation and blaming of God that so often mark discipleship under pressure. Like Job we need to confess that we have so often been those "who misrepresented your intentions with ignorant words" (Job 42:3), and recognize with the psalmist that "though hardships without number beset the upright, the Lord God rescues...from them all" (Psalm 34:19).

Reflection and Action

If Jesus were to ask, "What do you want me to do for you?" how would you answer? How have you "misrepresented God’s intentions with ignorant words"? Where have you discovered God rescuing from hardships?

PETER B. PRICE is general secretary of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, an Anglican mission agency based in London, and practices—with his wife, Dee—a ministry of hospitality. Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in the resource Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).

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