The Common Good
August 2004

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

by Michaela Bruzzese | August 2004

Six months after Ash Wednesday,

Six months after Ash Wednesday, we are gifted with another month of reminders of its most basic and important lessons. Once again we have an opportunity to recognize our false idols - especially the most persistent: wealth, power, and ego - and to turn back to God, the source of true power and a love so great that we neither need nor yearn for the temporary fix of things. We are warned against greed, "for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15), and against pride, "For the beginning of pride is sin" (Sirach 10:13). The psalmist reminds us that "mortals cannot abide in their pomp" (Psalm 49:12). God alone is the fountain of life in whom we abide.

We are encouraged to fill our treasure chests and lives with God's wealth, which consists of God's beloved - especially those in the "lowest place," the "poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." We must gather the treasure of God's people and love and respect the contribution of each, especially those with different views and interpretations. We must be passionate about our faith, for Jesus "came to bring fire to the earth" (Luke 12:49)! Our different interpretations of Jesus' life and message are not a cause for concern or fear but for rejoicing, because in this division lies a wealth of insight and wisdom. Together we form "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1).

Michaela Bruzzese is a freelance writer living in Chile.

August 1
Be On Guard
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

Warnings against the temptations of material wealth take center stage. In Luke's gospel, Jesus says it plainly: "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15). Jesus does not speak against possessions themselves, but against hoarding things beyond what we need. The psalmist reminds us that neither wealth, intelligence, nor power can save us from physical death: "When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever" (Psalm 49:10-11). Paul takes it a step further, equating greed with idolatry (Colossians 3:5).

We must choose, therefore, between greed and God. We cannot have both; we are possessed either by our possessions or by God. Although most of us can grasp this concept intellectually, few of us can actually do it - with some notable exceptions. The Responsible Wealth project of the organization United for a Fair Economy includes nearly 1,000 entrepreneurs, wealthy individuals, and fortune heirs who advocate for a more fair distribution of wealth through the payment of a living wage, the preservation of wealth taxes, and other measures. Their wealth inspires generosity instead of greed and responsibility instead of selfishness. Not all members are Christian or motivated by religious beliefs, but all beautifully embody Paul's advice: "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth" (Colossians 3:2).

August 8
Trust God's Holy Name
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Before the promise of offspring, God first asked Abraham to leave his land and all that was familiar to him, to "go to a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Like Abraham and Sarah, our confession of faith makes us exiles, too; according to the writer of Hebrews, we are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" who "are seeking a homeland" (11:13-14). In Luke, Jesus assures us that our homeland, God's kingdom, is ours for the taking - if only we have the right supplies for the journey. Neither possessions nor money are needed; these should be given away, and we should instead create a wealth of love, justice, and mercy - riches "that do not wear out...where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" (Luke 12:33).

After they had trusted God enough to leave their homeland, Abraham and Sarah are gifted with new life, a son whose descendants would later become a people. Their courage to believe God's promises makes them models for those of us who also want to answer God's call to covenant. Although this faith makes us exiles, we, like Abraham and Sarah, wait expectantly for new life. In the words of Hebrews, we trust in "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1-2). Like the psalmist, we can joyfully proclaim, "Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name" (Psalm 33:21).

August 15
The Blessing of Division
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Jesus' words in Luke's gospel usually have been seen to have a negative connotation; unity is good, divi-

sion is bad. In fact, division has been a feature of Christianity from its beginning. Jesus himself constantly confronted and corrected misinterpretations among his own followers, and different interpretations of Jesus' life and mission caused early Christian communities to fragment quickly. The truth is, division is not only inherent to our faith, it may actually be essential to it.

Given that individual and communal perspectives are profoundly limited and based on different life experiences, expectations, and needs, our interpretations must be understood as only part of the story. For who among us is the possessor of the whole truth, the most accurate interpretation of scripture and the most loyal implementation of its message? Jesus' words could be a warning that no individual, denomination, or faith can (or should!) even attempt to make such a claim.

Perhaps Jesus wanted us to understand that we - as individuals, churches, or religions - can't get to God alone. We must acknowledge that other visions of God are necessary; and that together we form "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). And when we value and respect, instead of reject, what divides us, we spare any one person or community the burden of trying to speak exclusively for God.

August 22
Freed from Bondage
Isaiah 58:9-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17

In the first of two Sabbath healing stories, Jesus heals a crippled woman, provoking criticism from Pharisees who, perhaps threatened by Jesus' growing popularity and power, accuse him of breaking Sabbath rules. Jesus' response is quick and severe; he exposes their hardness of heart by asking, "ought not this woman...be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16). Jesus rejects the rigid interpretation of the law and insists instead on the spirit of the law - that the Sabbath provides liberation and renewal for all.

If the Pharisees had understood Isaiah, who spells out two simple ways to please God, they would have agreed. First, Isaiah says, do justice for the needy and "satisfy the needs of the afflicted" (Isaiah 58:10). Second, "call the Sabbath a delight" and "honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs" (Isaiah 58:13). Although they were the leaders of the faith, the Pharisees obviously neither satisfied the needs of the afflicted nor honored the true spirit of the Sabbath. Instead of delighting in it, they served their own interests and increased their power and prestige at the expense of others. Jesus' actions, however, freed the crippled woman from the bondage of exclusion and sickness, and she knew firsthand the psalmist's joyful promise of God's healing and mercy: "Bless the Lord, O my soul...who heals all your diseases...who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy" (Psalm 103:2-4).

August 29
The Lowest Place
Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

According to scripture, our social aspirations betray the placement of our hearts - with God, or with false idols. In a passage unique to Luke, Jesus insists that, contrary to everything society tells us, we should not try to "keep up with the Joneses." Rather, we should keep "down" with those in need, "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind," and rejoice when they cannot repay us, "for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous" (Luke 14:14).

When we choose the "lowest place," we choose to depend on God rather than on the gods of ego, power, or money. The love of money and power are usually accompanied by pride, and all three lead away from God. Once pride has set in, Sirach warns, sin is not far behind: "The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.... For the beginning of pride is sin...." (Sirach 10:12-13). The writer of Hebrews observes that greed makes no sense for those who have God: "...be content with what you have; for he has said, I will never leave you or forsake you" (13:5).

Those whose hearts and minds are filled with God have no need, or room, to love excessive wealth and possessions. Instead, claims the psalmist, their wealth provokes generosity and justice: "They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor" (Psalm 112:9). When we are filled with God, we can be generous with things. Filled with things, we have room for neither God nor one another.

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