The Common Good
November-December 1997

Into Our Midst

by Jim Rice | November-December 1997

Proper preparation for the incarnation does not include
counting down the remaining shopping days 'til Christmas.

Proper preparation for the incarnation does not include counting down the remaining shopping days 'til Christmas. The commercialized materialism that has come to mark the secular celebration of Advent is in many ways the direct opposite of the spirit called for as we seek to make ready for God's insertion into human history.

While Advent is the season of anticipation, it is also one of the times in the church year most focused on the here and now. Advent calls us as the people of God not only to reflect on the Lord's coming as a babe in a manger and his promised return at the end of time, but more important to open our hearts and our lives to be changed by the Incarnate Word. The one who is to come is close at hand. Be ready.

November 2

Sisterhood!
Psalm 146; Ruth 1:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Ruth is a book meant to be read in its entirety—Goethe called it the most beautiful "little whole"in the Old Testament. The whole story, told over four chapters, ought to be related as a piece rather than split into two parts as our lectionary stipulates.

It's remarkable that a narrative that radically overturns so many cultural mores became part of the canon. The people of Israel made a clear distinction between those who were God's people and those who were the "other,"the foreigner. Yet the hero of this story is Ruth, a Moabite, who by the conclusion is shown to be the forebear not only of King David but of Jesus himself. The story certainly illustrates a theme from today's psalm, "God protects the stranger"(146:9).

But welcoming the stranger isn't the most significant way that the story turns tradition on its head. The patriarchal order is clear: The value of a woman, even her identity, comes from her connection to a man. Naomi assumes her own worthlessness because she can provide no husband for her daughters-in-law (1:11). But Ruth rises above the ethos of her time. She is determined to stick with Naomi through thick and thin, abandoning her people, her country, even her god. Most commentators see this as loving kindness; "sisterhood"is perhaps a more apt description! Her pledge of commitment (1:16) echoes that found in the All Saints reading: "They will be his people, and God will be...their God"(Revelation 21:3).

God, through Boaz, rewards Ruth's loyalty. The writer, and subsequent commentators, casts this as a story of God's loving faithfulness, but as Jesus points out in the Mark passage, the love of God is intrinsically connected to love of our neighbors (Mark 12:28-31). Because of Ruth's fidelity, and because she chose to accept and serve God, she was worth "more than seven sons"—extraordinary praise, even if we can't ignore the irony.

November 9

Where is Thy God?
Psalm 42; Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Many sermons have been preached on the unselfishness shown by the poor widow and her two small coins. Through the ages commentators have lauded this woman and this act as exemplifying the greatest generosity, and most have assumed that Jesus' point was that the essence of true giving was sacrifice. This woman, Jesus told those gathered, has given much more than the hypocritical (and wealthy) religious leaders, with all their showy piety.

But this story is as much about the temple itself and the practices of the religious elite as it is about "generous"widows. Jesus was not only praising the widow, he was also condemning the temple cult that demanded such extortion from the poor. The lesson might well have been clearer to his listeners than it has been to commentators, especially when seen in context. A short time before, Jesus had marched into the temple, overturned tables, and decried the "den of robbers"it had become. He told the parable of the wicked tenants—and the authorities apparently knew who he meant, since they "tried to arrest him but feared the crowd."

When Jesus warns his followers to beware the religious leaders, it isn't simply their ostentation and hypocrisy he condemns. Worse, it is that they "devour the houses of widows"and cover it up with shows of religiosity. Jesus is here confronting the temple as an economic and political system that exploits the poor. For this, he says, they will receive greater "condemnation"—King James renders the word "damnation."And if that isn't strong enough, the next scene has Jesus promising the total destruction of the temple: "Not one stone will be left here upon another."

Without the structures of religious observance, we may be moved to ask with the psalmist, "Where is thy God?"Our salvation, however, does not come from sacrifices in the temple, or from any of the externalities of religion, but from the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 9:26). Therein lies our freedom.

November 16

Hannah's Song
1 Samuel 2:1-10; 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

At the end of the Judges period, Israel was in disarray. Threatened by the Philistines from without and decay and corruption from within, the nation was in dire need of deliverance. The biblical authors saw moral and theological roots to Israel's troubles, and God's intervention their only hope for salvation.

Does God intervene through the rich and powerful, through those that society honors as the best and the brightest? As we've come to see in story after story, God works in unexpected ways. Once again, God chooses to intervene in history through a downcast, marginalized individual: In this case, through the person of the anguished, childless Hannah. In response to her prayer, her bargaining with God, she is rewarded with fertility—not only the birth of Samuel, but three sons and two daughters (2:21).

We should not ignore the fact that once again, as in the preceding story of Ruth, God chooses a woman to be the hero in this pivotal moment in salvation history. In the midst of a patriarchal culture, at a time when women were treated as the lowest of the low, it is doubly remarkable that scripture focuses on a woman as the one who carries forth the unfolding story of God's salvific action. It must be acknowledged that Hannah's contribution is through childbearing, but the focus of the story is on her perseverance and trust in God.

Hannah's redemption is a metaphor and a vehicle for Israel's—and ours; through her faithfulness came Samuel, David, and ultimately Jesus. Hannah's song of exultation, praise, and thanksgiving celebrates much more than her personal triumph. This hymn—the prototype of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46f)—praises God as the helper of the weak and the poor, who casts down the mighty and raises up the lowly. Her own world-turned-upside-down story helps us to understand God's broader workings, if only we have the eyes to see.

November 23

What is Truth?
Psalm 132:1-12; 2 Samuel 23:1-7; John 18:33-37; Revelation 1:4-8

The week before Advent, the season that celebrates the beginning of Jesus' story, here we are reading about its culmination. It is almost as if the cycles of the liturgical season reflect the words from Revelation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come"(Revelation 1:8). Jesus is at once the babe soon to arrive in the manger and the crucified redeemer of the world.

Today's gospel passage invites us to grapple, along with Pilate, with the nature of Jesus' kingship. When Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?"Jesus does not deny it. Instead, he explains that his realm does not "belong to this world."Pilate is apparently mollified by this answer and seeks Jesus' release. But the Roman ruler is mistaken if he believes that Jesus' kingship is no threat to political authority. Jesus is not a mere king, but the King of Kings. His sovereignty is above that of all worldly kings—and allegiance to Jesus supersedes loyalty to earthly authorities, secular or religious.

The passage ends with the enigmatic, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice"—or as the Jerusalem Bible renders it, "all who are on the side of truth."What does it mean to "belong to the truth"? Is Jesus saying that all who are on the side of truth, who live a life of righteousness, do so because they are listening to his voice—whether they know it or not? Pilate, too, seems puzzled by Jesus' words (or perhaps he is just cynical), as he responds, "What is truth?"A life spent in pursuit of the answer to that question would not be in vain.

November 30 Cycle C

Those Who Wait
Psalm 25:1-10; Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

Advent is the season not just of waiting for the coming Christ child, but of anticipationùwhich is waiting combined with hope. The biblical writers, while conscious of the past, are looking toward the future. The apocalyptic texts in Luke at first glance seem out of place: What does heaven and earth passing away have to do with the unfolding Christmas story? It is clear that Advent is about much more than the coming of a poor baby in a manger. Advent is of such significance that the entire cosmos reverberates with signs. It is a time both to remember JesusÆ first coming and to anticipate his second.

How do we prepare for his coming? Today's readings are filled with guidelines. In the gospel Jesus warns that there is no automatic exemption from the coming distress; we are called to prayerful watchfulness and told to avoid "debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life"(21:34). The first two instructions are clear—a call to personal righteousness and to shun the "intoxicating attractions of the sinful world,"as one commentator put it.

But what's this about avoiding the "cares of life"? Other translations provide an insight: Be on guard that your heart not be weighed down with worries of this life, with anxiety or preoccupation about things. In other words, don't be caught up in materialism or worrying about "earthly treasures"—Jesus spells it out plainly in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:19-33). While Luke omits the phrase found in Mark's version, "Nobody can know the day or time of the end,"he uses a similar formulation in Acts 1:7. The point of the passage is that we not be preoccupied with signs and wonders, but that we instead act with righteousness in the here and now.

The passage from Thessalonians gets even more specific. To prepare for Jesus' coming requires both personal and social acts; we are to strengthen our hearts in holiness (3:13) and abound in love for one another (3:12). Jeremiah promises that the Messiah will come to execute both righteousness (personal holiness) and justice (fair and equitable relationships, protection of the weak from the strong). We join the psalmist in praying, "Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame"(25:3).

December 7

Where is the God of Justice?
Luke 1:68-79; Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Our gospel passage marks a pivotal moment in salvation history. Everything before was preparation. As Jesus put it, "Up until John it was the Law and the prophets, from that time on the kingdom of God has been preached"(Luke 16:16). Jesus makes clear which of these epochs is pre-eminent: "Of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is"(Matthew 11:11)—greater simply by being heir to God's reign.

The gospel begins with a long list of the political and religious luminaries of the day. Some claim this is simply to date the story, but we can't escape the irony. In the midst of all this power and prestige, in the midst of all these important titles and positions, the Word of God comes, not to the mighty rulers or high priests, but to...John, in the desert. John's task of preparing the way of the Lord has been long promised: In Zechariah's prophesy (Luke 1:76) and Gabriel's earlier vow to Zechariah (Luke 1:17), and in today's reading from Malachi: I am sending a messenger to prepare the way, the Lord will come to his temple. Who knew that temple would turn out to be a river in the wilderness!

The selection from Malachi responds to the age-old quandary, Why do "the good receive the treatment the wicked deserve, the wicked the treatment the good deserve"? (Ecclesiastes 8:14)—and in light of this, Where is the God of justice? (2:17). Malachi promises that God's judgment will be visited upon those who practice injustice: against the adulterer and liar, and especially against "those who oppress the wage-earner [grist for a Labor Day sermon?], the widow and the orphan, and who rob the settler of their rights"(3:5). The good news of justice for the weak entails judgment on the strong. Where is the God of justice? John the Baptist's message is that the reign of God has begun, and God's justice is at hand.

December 14

Rejoice in the Lord!
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

All of John's talk about broods of vipers and laying axes to roots seems out of place with the rest of today's readings. The theme for the day is joy! The epistle calls us to "Rejoice in the Lord always."Zephaniah invites us to "Rejoice and exult with all your heart,"and Isaiah urges us to "Shout aloud and sing for joy."These are all very fitting for the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally known as "Gaudete"Sunday, from the Latin term for "rejoice."

But what's John the Baptist doing here? His preaching is brutally honest and a little unsettling: You brood of snakes. You want to be baptized just to try to escape judgment without truly turning to God. First go and prove by the way you live that you really have repented. Your church membership or social class won't save you. Then what shall we do?, the crowd asks. If you have two coats, John responds, give one to the poor. If you have extra food, give it away to those who are hungry. A challenge to his listeners, and to us.

Repentance is not just saying you're sorry, nor is it merely a change in your head or even your heart. Gospel repentance involves a change in your behavior, in the way you live your life. Most people likely see John's call to a transformed life as an indictment, and his mandate for treating the poor justly as, at best, an unpleasant chore. But John's call to repentance should be seen for what it is: an invitation to salvation, the fruit of relationship with the Holy One coming into our midst. When we respond to this invitation in a joyful spirit, we may help to contribute not only to a transformed world but to our own liberation. That, indeed, is call for exuberant rejoicing.

December 21

Blessed are You
Luke 1:47-55; Micah 5:2-5; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Mary. By many of her devotees, she is seen as a soft-spoken, loving, universal mother, relating to each person on Earth as her child. Others find such imagery almost idolatrous and Mary largely irrelevant; her place in the gospel is solely and simply as the mother of Jesus.

But today's reading, the Magnificat, the great liberation song of the New Testament, paints a very different portrait of Mary. This is Mary, the prophet of the poor, the champion of the downtrodden, proclaiming the overthrow of the social, economic, and political order of things. This Mary doesn't sound quite so soft-spoken, praising God for "routing the proud"and "putting down the mighty"and sending the rich empty away. God shows his power, Mary proclaims, by filling the hungry with good things and exalting the lowly—she sounds more like Mother Jones than Mother Teresa!

Mary's song, which echoes that of Hannah (1 Samuel 2), could just as easily come from the mouth of her cousin, Elizabeth (and some commentators say it may have). Elizabeth, like Hannah, was "blessed"late in life after long awaiting a child. But in Mary's case, it isn't merely fertility that has made her blessed, but her faithfulness: "Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled"(1:45).

Mary's strength of character and clarity of vision evidenced here makes the reader long for more. We receive in the gospels only brief impressions of the real, human woman—in the birth narratives; in the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1f); at the foot of the cross (John 19:25f). We're given only enigmatic glimpses of her feelings as Jesus' life and ministry unfolds. We know she "treasured all these things in her heart"(Luke 2:51); we can see her confidence in her son: "Do whatever he tells you"(John 2:5); she obviously suffered greatly, as promised by Simeon: "A sword will pierce your own soul too"(Luke 2:35).

But today's story is focused on hope and vindication and triumph. "Of all women you are the most blessed.""Blessed is the fruit of your womb.""My soul magnifies the Lord!"The victory is complete; the promise fulfilled. Unto us a child is born.

December 28

Divine and Human Favor
Psalm 148; 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

The story of the boy Jesus "lost"in the temple serves as a bridge between the birth narratives and the beginning of his public ministry. This is the only account from his hidden years, and it speaks to Jesus' dual nature as divine ("I must be in my Father's house") and human (he went to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents). The story is framed by references to Jesus' blessedness before God. "The favor of God was upon him"(2:40) precedes our reading, and his increase in "divine and human favor"(2:52) ends it.

The story centers around the wordplay between Jesus and Mary when his parents discover him in the temple. Mary says, How could you do this to your father (pater) and me? Jesus responds, Don't you know I must be in my father's (pater) house? Jesus is making clear that his heavenly bonds transcend even the most intimate earthly relations. The phrase "in my father's house"is variously rendered "about my father's business"or "busy with my father's affairs."The text does not use one of the Greek words usually translated "house,"but in many English translations the word is used because of the implication of place. A more accurate read might be, "Don't you know I must be in the presence of my Father?"That rendering has very different implications than the common interpretation, that Jesus is referring to the temple.

At its heart, though, this isn't so much a theological treatise as a very human, and very emotional, story. Can you imagine what Mary and Joseph must have felt, missing their 12-year-old for three days? Their relief on finding him? Can you imagine their conversation on the way home? Their life together as a family during Jesus' teen-age years? We're left to imagine, since the next we hear from Jesus is almost two decades later as he launches his public ministry.

Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).

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