Faithfulness. For the unnamed "young girl" in the story of Naaman, it meant trusting in God’s healing power. For Amos, it was speaking truth when it would have been safer to keep quiet. For Martha’s sister Mary, it entailed choosing the "better part" at Jesus’ feet. And for Jesus, it meant a determined focus on his mission, even in the face of persecution, suffering, and ultimately death.
While the specifics of what it means to be faithful vary for different individuals, for each of us faithfulness involves laying aside our own agenda for the sake of others, a willingness to make sacrifices to do the right thing. It’s safe to assume that if something is easy, we’re not asking the right questions. Lucky for us, we’re not alone in this pursuit. We’ve been offered living waters that sustain and nourish us on our journey of faith.
An Unnamed Hero
Psalm 30; 2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Hidden in the nooks and crannies of Naaman’s story is the unnamed "young girl" taken captive from the land of Israel. Imagine the horror and fear she must have felt as she was hauled away from her homeland, subject to unspeakable degradation at the hands of her captors. She eventually ends up as a servant to the wife of Naaman—for one of her lot, a position of relative prominence and comfort, working in the home of such a prestigious and powerful man.
One can almost hear this unnamed person crying out to God from her lonely exile in Aram, echoing the prayer of thanksgiving found in today’s psalm. She remembers the anguish and travail of her abduction, and extols God’s mercy and might for unexpectedly redeeming her captivity. She recalls the weeping that "lingers for the night," the times when in despair "I cried to you for help," the lowest moments when her soul was relegated to Sheol, and her life "among those gone down to the Pit." But she also, it seems, maintains her faithfulness in God’s redeeming power, perhaps holding on to the psalmist’s hope: "You have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me"; "you have healed me....restored me to life...and clothed me with joy."
This anonymous prisoner of war, like so many others seen as insignificant in the world’s eyes, ends up playing an important role in biblical history. Her faithfulness serves as the vehicle for Naaman’s salvation. Acting on her suggestion, he travels to Israel, seeks out Elisha, and is cured after bathing in the river Jordan.
As is often the case with such characters, we don’t hear any more of the servant’s fate. All we know is that because she did not hide her faith, even after her forcible removal to a foreign land, healing power was unleashed, giving cause to "sing praises to the Lord, and give thanks to his holy name."
Psalm 82; Amos 7:7-17; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
A plumb line is a deceptively simple tool, nothing more than a stone tied to a piece of string. Yet its message is clear and unmistakable, its measure sure and reliable. Regardless of how out-of-square or atilt an edifice has become, thanks to gravity’s persistent and unwavering tug a plumb line provides an accurate and reliable guide to restoring right relationship to all parts of the structure.
It’s obvious, then, why such a tool would stand as a metaphor for Amos’ task of calling Israel back to the straight and narrow—in fact, as a metaphor for the whole prophetic vocation. Use of the plumb line does not require extraordinary skill or extensive training; the simple fact that the line is vertical and true makes obvious any adjacent discrepancies. Amos didn’t have to say much for his indictment of Jeroboam—and all Israel—to be clear.
But what he did say cut to the core of the theocracy’s very being: "Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land" (7:17). The land, of course, was the foundation and ground of both the state and religion of Israel, so the words of Amos were understood not only as rebellious but as blasphemous. Amaziah’s entreaty and warning to Amos—"Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac" (7:16)—is directly contrasted with Amos’ sacred mandate—"The Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel’" (7:15). The message of the prophets cannot be timeless ideas or religious generalities. Rather, the prophetic vocation is to deliver a particular word relevant to a particular hour in history—and to specific men and women in that historical moment. When told, "Don’t preach against Israel," Amos replied, in effect, "Here I stand. I can do no other."
That much, at least, has not changed. Even today, if we preach the gospel in all aspects except the issues that deal specifically with our time, we are not preaching the gospel at all (as Martin Luther put it). Uncomfortable as it may make us, that applies not only to "prophets" but to all those who would stand as witnesses to the power of God among us—"plumb lines" to the world.
The Better Part
Psalm 52; Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42
At times Jesus very directly confronted the conventions of his day or the traditions of his people when they stood in the way of true faith and real justice. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, healed on the Sabbath, and condemned the scribes who "swallow the property of widows" (Mark 12:40). At other times, however, his actions served as a more subtle rebuke to deeply entrenched institutions and ways of being. In fact, without a careful read we risk glossing over the significance of his more understated lessons.
Today’s gospel is a case in point. Jesus doesn’t so much denounce the old ways, but rather he gently models and affirms the new. The story is familiar. As one translation puts it, "Because much work fell to Martha, her agitation flared up," and she complained that Mary sat and listened at the feet of Jesus. Behind Martha’s complaint—whether she intended it or not—was the force not only of thousands of years of tradition, but of law. Women were prohibited from receiving religious instruction—even from touching the Torah. There Mary sat, at the foot of the rabbi, in the company of men, drinking up the words of Jesus. When called to task, Jesus affirms Mary for choosing the "better part," the "one thing needed": to listen, learn, and be changed by the Word of God.
Amos reminds us of the nature of that Word. The Lord, he writes, shall never forget the trampling on the needy and the bringing to ruin of the poor. How does this oppression occur? In the small deceits and injustices carried out in the name of maximizing profits; "buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals," ransoming lives for the material benefit of the few. The Lord will not forget these actions by those who "trusted in abundant riches and sought refuge in wealth" (Psalm 52:7). But for those who seek the one true thing at the foot of the Lord—the Marys among us—the better part will not be taken away.
Psalm 85; Hosea 1:2-10; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13
Today’s readings all deal with the theme of God’s steadfast love and redeeming forgiveness of an undeserving people. The psalmist says it plainly: "You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin. You withdrew all your wrath; you turned from your hot anger." It’s not as if God ignored the people’s sin. God’s response to iniquity are "wrath" and "hot anger." In fact, the behavior of the nation of Israel has resulted in the forfeit of the covenant promised at Sinai (Exodus 19:5-6), the most dreadful and extreme curse possible: "You are not my people and I am not your God" (Hosea 1:9).
The word that follows, though, carries the full weight of Israel’s hopes and dreams and aspirations: Yet. Despite all this, despite the unforgivable acts of "whoredom," despite the turning away from God, yet...Israel remains the "children of the Living God." Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? God answers with forgiveness, with steadfast love, with salvation.
That pattern of sin answered by forgiveness, iniquity met with salvation, continues in the person of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Colossians, "You were dead because you were sinners; God has brought you to life, forgiven us all our sins...and canceled every record of the debt that we had to pay...by nailing it to the cross" (Colossians 2:13-14). It’s worth noting that in doing so, God also "disarmed the rulers and authorities"—or, as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, "got rid of the Sovereignties and the Powers" (2:15). Salvation and redemption are never merely personal or pietistic acts; God’s steadfast love doesn’t stop with individual forgiveness but extends to the banishment of the unseen principalities and powers that lurk behind and incite individual unfaithfulness. We are healed and made whole as the people of God. And as the people of God we pray, "Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation."
Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Hosea 11:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
Passages like today’s gospel are often called the "hard sayings" of Jesus. Hard sayings, it seems, are any that call us to do something we’d rather not do. In this case, Jesus is rebuking those who "store up treasures for themselves." How easily his followers today ignore or rationalize his teaching! So many of us think nothing of saving money—storing up treasures—for retirement, for a college fund, for "the future." Why, it’s just good stewardship! And Jesus was talking about the rich, not about us.
But we can’t get off so easy. Jesus’ warning rings as true today as ever, and it applies to our wealthy culture perhaps even more aptly than it did to first-century Palestine.
His point, then and now, is about priorities. As Paul put it in today’s epistle, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." The focus on material things is especially dangerous because it causes us to lose sight of what really matters. The rich man in the parable plans to use his abundance to "eat, drink, and be merry"—apparently without regard to neighbors in need or concern for God. Jesus makes unmistakably clear God’s judgment of such behavior: "You fool!"
But Jesus doesn’t leave us only with judgment. In the succeeding verses (12:22-34), he offers reassurance and solace for those who seek to be "rich toward God"—or "rich from God’s point of view," as Today’s English Version puts it. The proper place to store up "treasures," as we will see in next week’s lection, is heaven, and to do so we are to "sell your possessions, and give alms" to those in need (12:33). A hard saying, but we must trust that being rich in God’s eyes is its own reward. "Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord" (Psalm 107:43).
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
The end of the world is nigh! That’s been an oft-recurring cry throughout human history (and perhaps a more understandable one on this, the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki). Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth rode its predictions of apocalypse to all-time best-seller lists, and other end-times screeds reach a wide and apparently receptive audience as well. At the end of each century the cries grow louder—as the year 1000 approached the premillennial din reached an uproar. We can expect little less as the next millennium draws near.
Jesus condemned such preoccupation with the end times, saying that we cannot predict the timing of such events: "The Chosen One is coming at an unexpected hour" (Luke 12:40; see also Mark 13:32, Matthew 24:36 and 25:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 3:3, etc.). Jesus warned against false messiahs and false prophets—"If anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’—do not believe it" (Matthew 24:23).
Despite the clear and much-repeated warning, we can’t seem to escape the unbiblical insistence that we can predict, and therefore control, Christ’s return. Yet the essence of faith, as defined in today’s Hebrews passage, is "the conviction of things not seen." If we can see indisputable evidence with our eyes, if we can predict outcomes with certainty, then faith is superfluous. Abraham was the exemplar of faith when he "set out, not knowing where he was going."
The point for Jesus, though, was not so much the not-knowing as it was the question of what we do in the meantime. Today’s gospel offers two images in answer to that question: Like servants, we are to keep our lamps lit because the master may return at any time. And like the owner of a house, since we cannot know at what hour a thief might come, we are to stay prepared. In other words, our task is not to worry about the morrow, but to be about the daily work of faithfulness. To those who thus honor God is shown salvation (Psalm 50:23).
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Isaiah 5:1-7; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
In today’s gospel we get a sense how deeply Jesus longed for the fulfillment of his mission. "I have come to bring fire," he said. "How I wish it were already kindled!" Or as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, "How I wish it were blazing already!"
The fire he refers to here is not, strictly speaking, the Holy Spirit (although Luke certainly uses that image for the Spirit in Acts 2:3). The context suggests that he’s referring to the fire of purification, of inspiration, and of judgment. John the Baptist had promised that Jesus would "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire," that he would "gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:16-17).
To bring the fire, though, there is a "baptism" Jesus must still receive (Luke 12:50). Jesus knows that he is to be immersed (baptizein) in suffering (see also Mark 10:38), and that this is not mere fate or an accident, but necessary for the fulfillment of his destiny. "What stress I am under," he says, "until it is completed"—the Greek word translated "stress" (or more commonly, "distress") means to be totally dominated by a thought. In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples that he will be completely focused on this until it is finally accomplished—even knowing the cup of which he is about to drink, nothing can divert him from his proper end.
The fulfillment of his mission, however, does not lead to peace, but to division. As one translation puts it, "I came to make people choose sides" (12:51). The writer of Hebrews offers the same choice: "Let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely" and choose instead to follow Jesus. What else more aptly describes those who form that great cloud of witnesses, but that they chose sides, they chose with their lives to follow the "perfecter of our faith" for the sake of the joy set before them?
Lord of the Sabbath
Psalm 71:1-6; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
While Jesus was undoubtedly aware that healing on the Sabbath would likely lead to confrontation with authorities, that doesn’t seem to be his motive for doing so. On another occasion (at the Pool of Bethesda), only after Jesus cured the man was it mentioned that "that day happened to be the Sabbath" (John 5:10). His healing action, in both cases, seems to be a spontaneous act of compassion for a suffering person.
In the case of the woman in today’s reading, the Jews may well have seen her as undeserving of his kindness. After all, she was a woman, and therefore seen as less worthy, and her long ailment may have been understood by them as a sign of sinfulness. But Jesus affirms her as a "daughter of Abraham" and condemns the hypocrisy of those who would take care of cattle, but not a child of God.
For Jesus, meeting someone’s need is perhaps even more fitting on the Sabbath; by doing so the true spirit of the Sabbath is honored. As he said after another such incident, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?" (Luke 6:9). Indeed, Jesus saw a positive responsibility to take such action: "Ought not this woman... to be set free?" (13:16). The word translated "ought" (edei) denotes an obligation. Even his "enemies" recognized the rightness of his stance, as his answer made them ashamed of themselves (13:17).
The burden of the prophet is "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow" (Jeremiah 1:10). Jesus takes on that role as he chastises the religious leaders for their petty legalisms and destructive obsession with regulations. The ultimate prophetic purpose, however, is "to build and to plant," to act with true compassion and mercy. Jesus came not to throw out tradition, but to show us that it can never replace—and should never be allowed to hinder—the expression of genuine love for one another.
Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
The contrast between a fountain of living water and cracked, leaking cisterns was especially vivid for those living in semi-arid regions like Palestine. Jeremiah proclaims God’s warning that "my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water" (2:13). The priests, those who handle the law, the rulers, even the prophets have forsaken God because they did not remember "the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt" (2:6).
Their sin, their unfaithfulness, was to forget their identity as the people of God, to forget their roots. They lost sight of the source of the living water. As a result, they sought to dig their own cisterns. Such attempts ultimately prove futile, the pursuit of "worthless things" (or "vanity," as King James puts it—a favorite word of Ecclesiastes), because there finally is only one source of living water.
What does it mean to drink of this living water? The litany in Hebrews points to the answer: Let mutual love continue. Show hospitality to strangers. Remember those in prison. Let marriage be held in honor. Keep your lives free from the love of money. Be content with what you have.
The author of Hebrews makes no distinction between what modern Christians call "social" and "personal" sins. Welcoming strangers, visiting prisoners, fidelity in relationships, material unattachment—all are part of lives "pleasing to God." When we reach out to others in need, we are to do so "as though you yourselves" were in the same situation.
This transformed way of living is made possible simply because "the Lord is my helper" and has promised "I will never leave you or forsake you." It is the invitation and the gift for all those who drink of the fountain of living water.
Reflections on the complete, three-year lectionary cycle can be found in Living the Word, available from Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474).