The Common Good
February 2011

What Does Our 'New Self' Look Like?

by Walter Brueggemann | February 2011

We enter into a season focused on Christ’s human possibility as a defiant alternative to the human self proposed by the dominant values of our culture.

We enter into a season focused on Christ’s human possibility as a defiant alternative to the human self proposed by the dominant values of our culture. Our culture offers an autonomous self accountable to none; the new self in Christ is accountable to God in obedience. Our culture offers an anxious self who is never safe or adequate; this new self is safe with God. Our culture offers a self that is one-dimensionally profane in self-regard; this new self is authorized to holiness in attentiveness to the poor, the neighbor, and finally the enemy.

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These readings tell the tricky truth of the gospel. What we want and seek in our society (safety, joy) is offered in the gospel, but the requirements for that self countermand the illusions of our society. The gospel authorizes an alternative world where God's holy presence and reliable comfort prevail.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[ February 6 ]
The Jesus Community
Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20

Paul's meditation on the crucified Christ leads him to see that his death discloses "what is truly human," a humanity that contradicts the conventional way of the world (verse 11). Such human persons—grafted into the self-giving death of Christ—live differently in the world, according to "the Spirit that is given by God" with "gifts bestowed on us by God" (verse 12).

The other readings illuminate what that new humanity looks like and who we are called in Christ to be. Psalm 112 outlines the conduct of a "righteous person" who is "happy" in a life of Torah obedience. Such persons are "gracious and merciful" (verse 4), "generous" in "justice" (verse 5), "not afraid" in the world (verse 8), and ready to give to the poor (verse 9). Such persons live a life given over to the well-being of community.

A specific dimension of such humanity is voiced in Isaiah 58. The chapter poses the question of "Who belongs?" This prophetic poem tilts completely toward inclusion of those most unlike "us." The new human person practices a large, embracing, notion of the neighborhood.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus designates his community of followers as "salt" (Matthew 5:13) and as "light" (verse 14), the ones who obey the Torah command to love God and to love neighbor. The "righteousness that exceeds" (verse 20) is not about punctilious moralism or self-enhancement through "goodness." Rather, it concerns a reach beyond the self to the neighborhood and the world.

Thus the righteousness of the psalm, the inclusiveness of the prophetic poem, and the new righteousness of Jesus add up to the "mind of Christ" in 1 Corinthians 2:16, the capacity to act and to give, even as Jesus gave himself for the world. Such a human person unmistakably lives against the stream in our society. Clearly the Jesus community is peopled by folk with energy and courage to live beyond "business as usual."

[ February 13 ]
'Make Me Captive'
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Addressing the church in Corinth, Paul notes it is riven with a quarrelsome spirit. It sounds like our church now or like our society, with its divisive ideologies in which each party seeks domination. Paul reminds his congregation that they are all in it together, that all belong to Christ, and none has a monopoly on truth and right.

The way beyond such contentiousness, these readings suggest, is to share in a common obedience to the commandments of God so that we are pushed beyond our own interests. In a covenantal context, obedience moves beyond party, sect, and ideology to the larger purposes of God. Psalm 119 is an extended meditation on Torah obedience, beginning with the double affirmation of "happy" (verses 1-2). The psalm asserts that obedience to God's Torah is the only route to well-being. This is in contrast to a wayward self-assertiveness that imagines it is accountable to none. We have ample evidence that a life focused on self-security and self-advancement does not end in peaceable joy, but instead in a scurry of endless anxiety.

Deuteronomy sets out the either/or choice of willing obedience or willful autonomy most clearly. In the teaching of Jesus, the either/or nature of the choice is intensified because he takes the Torah commandments with deep seriousness and pushes them to even more stringent requirements. His teaching in Matthew concerns the prohibitions against murder (verse 21), adultery (verse 27), divorce (verse 31), and false swearing (verse 33), three of which are from the Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6–21). Jesus turns the prohibitions of Sinai to a strategy for living alternatively in the world.

These readings join issue with the common propaganda of consumerism and the market ideology that proposes a life of unfettered freedom with endless unencumbered choices. Biblical faith knows better than that. It knows that such undisciplined self-preoccupation will come to no good end. That is why the church sings, "Make me captive, Lord, and then I shall be free."

[ February 20 ]
Christ Before Politics
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Paul sees thathis congregation in Corinth is messed up because of arrogant pride among its members. The know-it-alls were perhaps zealous experts in the role of the church in society or in missional strategy. Maybe they had an axe to grind for the budget. Perhaps they were seeking to control according to their special insight or competence. All are common maladies in the church. Against that temptation to pride, Paul insists that all "belong to Christ" (verse 23). Belonging to Christ means to submit all of one's "wisdom" to the gospel of self-giving love, a theme of Paul in the more famous chapter 13. The point is succinct in 1 Corinthians 8:1: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

Matthew's gospel is a summons to another kind of life. The reading in Leviticus calls us to "be holy" in a way that is commensurate with God’s own holiness (verse 2). The call is to a self-conscious difference in conduct, attitude, and lifestyle. While Leviticus is filled with rules for holiness, many of which we commonly judge to be problematic in the extreme, our reading leads to the conclusion that authentic holiness, commensurate with God’s own holiness, consists in generous attentiveness to the poor (verse 10) and getting one’s mind off one’s self for the sake of the neighbor (verse 18). The call is away from self-preoccupation and from punctilious scruples often associated with "holiness" and toward the needs of the neighborhood. The psalmist prays that God would "give life" (119:37, 40). Abundant life is given to those whose conduct is in sync with the good purposes of God.

Jesus again radicalizes the old commandments. The old command is to limit vengeance to what is symmetrical ("eye for an eye"), but Jesus breaks the cycle of vengeance by forbearance. Whereas Leviticus commands "love of neighbor," Jesus pushes to "love your enemy." Clearly the people around Jesus walk to a different drummer, in a generosity and graciousness that defy a world of fear and anger and hate.

[ February 27 ]
Coming Home to God
Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34

Paul insists that he is not to be judged by human criteria, for judgment belongs to God. From that he extrapolates that his congregation is not to use its energy judging and standing in God’s place doing God's proper work. The congregation has enough to do with its own life of trust and obedience.

In the Isaiah reading, exilic Israel in its anxiety had judged God to be fickle and forgetful. The poet, however, refuses such a verdict on God. God is the one who remembers, even when a nursing mother may forget (verse 15); who comforts with compassion those in need (verse 13); who gathers all the lost to come home (verse 18). The poem is a vision of homecoming wrought by the faithful power of God. Clearly Israel has "misjudged" its God!

Psalm 131 is a quiet, modest meditation on what it means to be "at home" with God … free of care and finally filled with hope (verse 3). One could imagine that the homecoming of Isaiah culminates in the restfulness of this psalm. It turns out that "home" is wherever one is remembered, comforted, and gathered by God.

The invitation to trust God in every circumstance is the summons of Jesus. Jesus knows that a life of anxiety results from the pursuit of "mammon," because pursuing mammon produces alienation, abandonment, and fear of rejection. Such a pursuit leaves one never good enough, never having enough. The good news is that there is another way to freedom from rat-race anxiety, a way that has come down from God’s good generosity. Those who come down that way are free for the counter-pursuit of God's righteousness for the world.

These texts resist the "edginess" of judgment (Paul), being forgotten (Isaiah), being "far from home" (the psalmist), and being filled with anxiety (Matthew). The Mother God in Isaiah 49:15 offers a safe place of peaceableness, joy, and freedom -- enough well-being to live out God’s righteousness for the world (Matthew 6:33).

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