The Common Good
September-October 2012

Romancing the Word (September 2012)

by Martin L. Smith | September-October 2012

Reflections on the Common Lectionary, Cycle B

By the late Middle Ages, which book of the Bible had inspired the most commentaries? The surprising answer is: Song of Solomon—a book that never mentions God once. There were more than 200 commentaries! A quirky piece of Christian trivia? Maybe. But it isn’t trivial that for more than a millennium this collection of love poems was taken as the key to opening the innermost meaning of the whole biblical revelation. It was read—or rather explored through contemplation—as a poetic allegory of the quest of a God to awaken the creature’s reciprocal desire. God, overflowing with yearning desire for creation, seeks union with us and arouses our own latent longing to be loved passionately, totally, and unconditionally.

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A single reading this month provides a rare stimulus to explore this erotic poem as the Word of God. Some may want to take it as a signal to celebrate the sacredness of sex and intimacy, though we must note that marriage, home, domesticity, and childbearing lie entirely outside the poem’s scope. But it may be more adventurous to find in the hottest pages of the Bible permission to reinterpret the love of God through erotic metaphor, as our Christian forbears did. Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore gives us a hint: Why not reimagine the idea of the will of God—usually supposed to be a preordained plan that calls only for our obedience—in terms of God’s longing for union with us, “the wanting-to-be of God in our lives”?

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ September 2 ]
In the Mirror
Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15;
James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The letter of James seems to lie at an opposite pole to the reading from the Song of Solomon. James isn’t the most attractive kind of reading. Diatribe is a genre few people warm to today, and this letter can sound didactic, sarcastic, and nagging. However, the image of the mirror calls for imaginative development. “If any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (1:23-24).

There is a process of reflection that is essential for establishing a link between hearing the divine summons to the life of self-giving, compassion, and peacebuilding, and actually committing oneself to it through persevering action. This process requires a willingness to know oneself and accept one’s own humanity, poverty, and vulnerability. Those who “do the word,” as James’ compelling idiom has it, are those who have spent time looking at their own faces long enough to accept the paradoxes of the human condition: our giftedness and our brokenness, our talents and our neediness. They have found the spur to action through a costly self-knowledge that has broken down the excuses that we use to justify indolence in the face of the injustices and inequalities around us.

[ September 9 ]
‘Conquerors of Heaven’s Will’
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 146;
James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

The ruthless way single-minded people stay focused on their main task, the social risks they take by maintaining boundaries and rejecting distractions, is more offensive than impressive to most of us who like to please people and keep juggling lots of balls in the air. Mark’s gospel isn’t in the least afraid to present the ruthless focus of Jesus on his mission to his own people as something bound to offend. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (7:27). It makes Jesus’ instant concession of defeat by the Syro-Phoenician woman, who uses his own put-down against him in a brilliant verbal judo throw, all the more intriguing. It suggests the willingness of divine grace to be taken on and won over by sheer human determination not to take no for an answer.

The best key to this passage is found in some verses from Dante’s Paradiso, where the poet takes his cue from the very enigmatic remark attributed to Jesus in Matthew 11: “The kingdom of God has suffered violence and the violent take it by force” (12). Dante writes, “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence / from ardent love, and living hope, for these / can be the conquerors of Heaven’s Will; / Yet not as man defeats another man: / the Will of God is won because It would / be won and, won, wins through benevolence.”

[ September 16 ]
God Appeals to Us
Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 116:1-9;
James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

God does not dictate; God appeals to us. Proverbs 1 personifies the appeal of God. The divine wisdom is dramatized as an outspoken but alluring teacher, recruiting pupils to join her richly appointed salon, which is a school for the true art of living. She is out in the public arena, inviting everyone to join her on a radically alternative path to the crowded street where folly rules and ruin is the destination.

Jesus, who is dedicated to God’s Sophia, also appeals for recruits in Mark 8 to join him on a radically alternative path that leads to life. Shockingly, this path is death row: the last mile along which the condemned plod under the burden of their own instruments of torture toward the killing fields! It was an everyday sight to see soldiers herding slaves and bandits to their crucifixion, and all right-minded people would steer clear and look away. Jesus proclaims that no one can be a follower of his who is not prepared to cross over to them in solidarity, to be on their side, to join the procession of those on death row, to identify with the rejected and the ruined. We have our work cut out to rescue “carrying the cross” from being a pious metaphor for coping with burdens and to restore the cross to its searing force as a symbol of God’s appeal to us to join the marginalized and abandoned in solidarity.

[ September 23 ]
The Meaning of Conversion
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 54;
James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). As we reflect on Jesus’ words, we might become aware of the way our conventional modern understanding of personhood tends to block our hearing of scripture. It is second nature for us to consider persons as individuals, intrinsically separate in identity. But in scripture, personhood is manifest in relationship, in mutuality, in the ability to participate in the personhood of one another, and all this is grounded in God. God does not shrink from wanting to be in our lives. A child is a form of the presence of Christ, and the presence of Christ is a form of the presence of God.

Unless we are prepared to enter into this strange world of mutuality, of interpenetrating life, we shut ourselves out from the reign of God. In Christ, nothing is quite what it seems, no one is quite what she or he seems. The one who has seen Jesus has seen the One who sent him, and this Eucharistic bread is actually the body of Christ and this wine, Christ’s blood. And this church is actually the body of Christ, and the body of Christ is the embodiment of God. And the stranger who needs clothes or a prison visit is the Lord. Awakening to this reality, an awakening from which there is no going back, is at the heart of what Christians mean by conversion.

[ September 30 ]
Pluck It Out, Throw It Away
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 19:7-14;
James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Mark presents Jesus at his most trenchant in talking about the decisive action many of us will need to take if we are going to uproot, rather than merely trim, our most destructive patterns of behavior. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off” (9:43). Jesus tells us that for many of us to enter life, enter the kingdom of God, we will have to do so maimed and lame and one-eyed. Can we imagine language more difficult to reconcile with the focus maintained by all the popular spiritualities of our culture, the cultivation of wholeness? Who wouldn’t prefer the rhetoric of healing, balance, harmony, realization of our full potential, and all the rest of the alluring promises of New Age spirituality, to Jesus’ appalling hyperbole about mutilating ourselves in order to be saved?

Those recovering from addiction are probably our best guides to verifying Jesus’ wisdom through experiment. In 12-step programs there is calm mutual support for the painful work of actually renouncing entire patterns of behavior, renunciation that certainly seems like diminishment and impoverishment to outsiders who cannot empathize with the particular vulnerabilities of addicts. And those in recovery are among the most authoritative witnesses to the paradoxes of grace. What seems like maiming ourselves actually sets us free to really enter life.

This teaching of Jesus has the utmost relevance to our political lives. The abolition of war would actually seem like cultural and economic mutilation to most people, since warfare is surrounded by such impressive trappings, and armaments provide immense profits, as well as employment for millions. But what does the reign of God demand?

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon prep and Bible study, is at sojo.net/preaching-the-word. Reflections for October can be found here.

Image: Song of Solomon, Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock.com

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