The Common Good
June 2008

Uncomfortable Words

by Laurel A. Dykstra | June 2008

We have returned now to what some churches call “ordinary time,” a designation more to do with the numbering of weeks than a plain or mundane time.

We have returned now to what some churches call “ordinary time,” a designation more to do with the numbering of weeks than a plain or mundane time. Rather than celebrating a particular event or season, each Sunday in ordinary time is a celebration of resurrection—which isn’t so ordinary after all.

After Easter readings from Acts, Luke, and John, we return to the Hebrew Bible and gospel of Matthew. This month we read passages from the first half of the gospel; some are lengthy, some very short, some ignore divisions that most scholars recognize, others skip verses in the middle of a passage, some are collected sayings of Jesus, and others narrate scenes of action. All of them disturb me.

As a child I puzzled over these words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him.” This month’s gospel lections seem to be composed instead of uncomfortable words, words that assail us where we are most complacent. The portrait of Jesus and his call to discipleship is harsh and challenging. Ongoing action, radical inclusion, obligatory hospitality, divided families, and life-changing welcomes all call into question the divisions and barriers we use to define ourselves and to keep ourselves safe.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture

and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia.

www.laureldykstra.com

June 1

Just Do It

Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31; Matthew 7:21-29

Today’s gospel concludes the Ser­mon on the Mount. Mat­thew 7 consists of several sayings that contrast two choices or ways of living, including seeing the speck in our neighbor’s eye but not the log in our own; giving bread vs. a stone; entering through a narrow gate or a wide gate; and trees that bear good fruit or bad. The chapter ends with the story of the wise and foolish builders who chose to build their houses on sand and rock.

The drama of the foolish builder’s house—“great was its fall!” (Matthew 7:27)—and the ques­tion of whether one is wise or foolish makes it easy for readers to miss the directive, but the text is clear: “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”

The call to hear and act is reinforced by the structure of this gospel, which consists of long speeches (hear) alternating with narratives describing the actions of Jesus and his community (act).

Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen points out that the verb “to act”—which is also translated “do” and “bear,” as in “bear fruit”—appears 11 times in this chapter. Every time the verb appears, it is in the present tense. The one exception is Matthew 7:22, where the many who say “Lord, Lord” tout their past deeds.

The story of the wise and foolish builders and the call to hear and do has nothing to do with belief, attitude, church membership, virtue, theology, or prayer. It has nothing to do with our credentials and past accomplishments. It is about ongoing productive action rooted in our understanding of the will of God. What are you doing?

June 8

Dirty, Dirty, Dirty

Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 33:1-12; Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

This week’s gospel passages come from a narrative between the Sermon on the Mount and teachings on discipleship. In two chapters, Matthew 8 and 9, nine people are healed. The action concludes with the following statement: “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

Healing is one of the signs of the kingdom; Jesus is enacting the reign of God, declaring it present and begun. Who is healed tells us who this kingdom is for and about, who is at its center: women, children, servants, people with disabilities.

But in this passage, among the people with leprosy, paralysis, blindness, and bleeding, is the tax collector. What’s wrong with him? The tax collector, the bleeding woman, and the dead girl have one thing in common: They are considered unclean. Contact with them would make Jesus, or anyone else, ritually impure—separate from God in concrete practical terms.

Jesus eats with tax collectors, touches a dead body, and is touched by a bleeding woman. This healing is not fixing the defective, or endorsing a particular kind of body as holy or whole. It is restoring relationship, creating community, and transgressing boundaries that exclude people.

Jesus asserts that whatever purity means, it is not threatened by occupation, outsider status, failure to conform, or type of body. That is good news indeed for those of us who because of sexual orientation, transgender identity, HIV status, a lack of address, mental illness, prostitution, addiction, immigration, and many other reasons are considered not quite clean.

June 15

Failure of Hospitality

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:23

In Matthew 10 Jesus describes the harsh life of discipleship, which includes violence and persecution. Households and towns that refuse the disciples hospitality and welcome are condemned: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” says Jesus (Mat­thew 10:15).

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 and 19 is violent and disturbing; none of the characters act in a way most Christians would want to emulate. But like most other biblical references to the story, the author of Matthew understands the failure of Sodom and Gomorrah to be about hospitality, not sexuality.

Hospitality is further emphasized in the Hebrew Bible reading for this week. The story of Abraham’s lavish hospitality in Genesis 18 is contrasted with the aggression of the people of Sodom in chapter 19.

In the ancient Near East, hospitality was not a nicety but a sacred obligation. A traveler denied water, food, and shelter could die in the harsh environment. But the sacred obligation of hospitality doesn’t belong just to the ancient world. On Jan. 31, a man named Darrell Mickasko, one of 1,500 to 2,000 people living on the streets of Vancouver, was fatally burned trying to stay warm in his tent, three blocks from an emergency shelter that was full. His death was a completely avoidable failure of hospitality.

June 22

Family Values

Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39

In this week’s gospel reading, two sayings about family appear side by side: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Mat­thew 10:34-36). And “Who­ever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

Although the author of Matthew softens the second saying from the version in Luke and the gospel of Thomas—“whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother” (Luke 14:26)—these words are not exactly pro-family. In this gospel, Jesus makes other disturbing statements about family (Matthew 8:21-22, 10:21, 12:46-50, 19:29, and 23:9). What is this about?

Power, answers historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan. The father-dominated family was a social unit fundamental to the order of the Roman Empire. Referring to these passages, Crossan writes in The Historical Jesus: Life of a Mediter­ranean Jewish Pea­sant, “Jesus will tear the hierarchical or patriarchal family in two along the axis of domination and subordination.” Jesus is challenging the traditional family hierarchy.

In light of these sayings, those who want to talk about Jesus and family need to be asking not if a given family has two, one, or zero fathers but whether family is a place that upholds systems of domination or nurtures resistance.

June 29

Don’t Be Fooled

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

Don’t be fooled. Just because this week’s gospel passage is three verses long, don’t think we’re getting off lightly.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).

Prophets are notoriously hard to be around. They don’t make nice, they shout and smash, and their overstated object lessons and street theater pieces clutter up the place. Prophets have no subtlety, no appreciation for the daily compromises required for getting along. And while truly good people don’t trash the place, they can make you really look at your own life and upset your routine. Disciples and little ones are perhaps the worst of all. You know who they are: no money, no bag, no coat, bad-smelling, and talking about mercy. To get a cup of cold water, they have to come right into the kitchen.

No, don’t be fooled. This welcome is not a little thing.

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