The Common Good
November 2005

A People's Identity

by Robert Roth | November 2005

Whenever you helped the needy - or ignored the poor - Jesus said, "you did it to me."

A People's Identity

We rise or fall together. God can use us as a faith-filled worldwide community to end starvation, bring wholeness, and staff the turning points of history. For those of us from faith traditions emphasizing solo salvation, these can seem like novel ideas. But they are at the theological heart of many of this month’s passages. The readings lead us to consider our corporate identity—both who we are now and who God calls us to become.
Repeatedly, we hear the one who speaks as the voice of many guiding a chapter in the Bible. Psalm 78:1 says, “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching.” In Psalm 123, the psalmist lifts up “my eyes,” but later speaks of “our eyes,” even “our soul” (italics added). Deborah judges Israel, a people, in Judges 4. In Ezekiel 34, the Lord judges between one group of “sheep” and another. In Matthew, Jesus delineates between the “sheep” and the “goats” in the gospel’s declaration of a final judgment.
Repeating who we are as a community of faith is a necessary redundancy if we have been raised, even spiritually and ethically, as rugged individualists. By the third week’s readings, Jesus makes clear the basis on which a people are judged: Whenever you feed the hungry or give water to the thirsty—or ignore the desperate state of the poor, he says, “you did it to me.”
The final week offers the reassurance that God continues to reform and create that people anew for just such a calling, even as a potter forms clay. In a beautiful way, form meets function with the many sculpted as one.

November 6
A Kairos Community
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Mary T. Washington of Chicago stepped bravely beyond race and gender boundaries in 1943, becoming the first black female certified public accountant in the United States. Washington, 99 years old when she died in late July, first opened an accounting practice for African-American clients in her basement while working on her college degree.
Washington lived and led in a world not yet here, creating what her business partner later called an “underground railroad” for aspiring black CPAs. Was she ahead of her time, or simply living in God’s time for her and her people?
Joshua 24 celebrates one of those pivotal moments in biblical history when a people step beyond the chronos of what is supposed to happen according to human clocks and calendars and into the kairos fullness of time when an extraordinary God-given possibility changes everything. Though Joshua assembled dissimilar tribes at Shechem, they committed themselves as one people to reject the “other gods” of their ancestors and enter into a future-oriented covenant with God and one another.
Shechem was an ancient sacred place where Joshua was called to lead Israel into living in a world yet to come. Even as the psalmist calls the people to “give ear” as one (Psalm 78:1), Paul, too, challenges the church at Thessalonica to see beyond the expected to the point in time where generations living and dead share a boundless hope.
Jesus’ parable of the bridesmaids teaches the church in all times to live with heart and mind in the reign of God—which is coming but already here. We are to remain spiritually and ethically awake because we “know neither the day nor the hour” when Christ comes again, bringing the fullness of the kingdom. Mary Washington kept “oil in her lamp,” and, sure enough, the future became the present.

November 13
A Commonwealth of Accountability
Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

As the United States renders foreign suspects to countries that practice torture, and as we house domestic prisoners with HIV/ AIDS in sometimes barbaric conditions within for-profit prisons, should I be worried that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2)? As my government justifies bombing Iraq and Afghanistan so that, in part, women might have more rights, yet cozies up with a Saudi Arabian regime that denies women basic rights and freedoms at every turn, should I fret that Jesus describes God as a master who will send a people irresponsible with their privilege “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30)?
This week’s passages are not for the fainthearted. We hear in the Hebrew Bible how “Israel did evil” and in the New Testament epistle how “sudden destruction will come” while the morally sleepy-eyed daydream of “peace and security.” For Israel, Deborah came judging, but as the Israelites cried to God for help, she came to their rescue. Paul offers the early church the “breastplate of faith and love” while establishing their common interest in mutual accountability. “Therefore,” he writes, “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
At face value and out of context, the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 might read like a preamble to a get-rich prosperity theology. Encountering a gospel with a bias toward compassion and justice, the reader needs to see beyond the parable to where the Chosen One comes in glory and judges people based on their treatment of “the least of these.” Think of those with HIV/AIDS in prisons lacking adequate healthcare.
In context, the talents represent any resources that might be expanded in the service of God’s providence and rule. We must own our collective values, decisions, and stewardship. Like those slaves, we are entrusted with much of sacred value. And also like them, we are accountable.

November 20
Sheep, Fed and Feeding

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46 is “the Great Judgment,” the place where Jesus spells out clearly what God’s ultimate judgment looks like. There is nothing about belief or doctrine. No mention of whether one has had a personal, emotional conversion experience. Nor even any reference to homosexuality, alcohol, swearing, or forms of worship.
It’s frighteningly simple. “Nations” who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the imprisoned are the sheep. They’re in. Peoples who don’t are the goats. They’re out.
Isn’t this “works righteousness?” What about my individual, autonomous redemption—where it matters not if I’m in with the sheep or the goats? Can’t we look to traditions that wrest back the dignity of the individual, free of social connections, in communion with God? Not this week. The Lord God speaks through Ezekiel to the Israelites in Babylonian exile: “I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. …I will judge between sheep and sheep” (Ezekiel 34:11, 22). Then there is Psalm 100:3: “We are his people and the sheep of his pasture.”
The oddness of Ezekiel and his stories sometimes gives us the cover of competing poetic interpretations. Not here. Witness his straightforward metaphor in which the Lord God “will feed [the sheep] with good pasture” and feed “the fat and the strong…with justice.” God judges between sheep and other sheep, some fat and some lean. The oppressor and the oppressed. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
At this moment, 800,000 children in Niger are threatened by malnutrition. Too complex? Only until The New York Times reported on August 8 that French scientist Andre Briend invented “Plumpy’nut,” a nutrition-fortified peanut butter in a packet that doesn’t spoil. A clear answer for most of those kids in Niger. Real simple, says Dr. Milton Tectonidis of Doctors Without Borders. “It’s just the will that’s lacking.”

November 27
We are the Clay

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Isaiah’s prophetic word lands amidst a biblical people. The subject is “we” seven times and the object is “us” twice, all in these first nine verses. The great oracles and visions are often aimed at the corporate body of the faithful. Thankfully, that body is continually renewed and reformed: “We are the clay and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).
Equally compelling is the “we”-ness of the body of Christ, the church. The Chosen One coming is something “they will see,” says Jesus (italics added), and God’s angels will gather them up “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:26-27). Once again, no one knows what day or hour.
Again, the gospel’s apocalyptic imagery denotes the end of an age and calls the people to a shared, wide-awake clarity of purpose. So, too, does Paul focus on a community formed for a new age to come, awaiting “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In his opening words to the church at Corinth, he praises them as a body formed with giftedness, reassuring them that God “will also strengthen you to the end” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
Picture Akira Yoshizawa, a modern origami master who died last March, forming flat sheets of colored paper into birds and bears, peacocks and ponies. He pioneered the “wet folding” technique to allow him to improve on the indentations in the gruff face of a gorilla. During a 1990s project to create an origami landscape in Spain, Akira spent more than six weeks perfecting the transformation of pieces of paper into ears of rice.
Could the Potter who formed the cosmos be taking any less care, just now, forming the community of faith for the work of wholeness and harmony we call shalom or salaam? Within that kairos community—and because of it, for countless others—we will rise or fall together.
“Now consider, we are all your people” (Isaiah 64:9).

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

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