Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

Summer time may be when “the livin’ is easy” for a lot of folk. Even in the church year, summer is a pause between high holy days. So what are these ... low holy days? The lectionary readings suggest it’s a time for the church to rethink and reconsider its identity and vocation for the daily practice of emancipated obedience.

Christians are now placed in a society where the substance of every doctrinal commitment is both valuable and placed deeply in question. Thus, concerning the environment, is the world God’s creation? Is the greed around health care a form of idolatry? Is the vulnerable, transformative power of Jesus still salvific? Is there an end that will exhibit God’s intransigent love for the world? Is there a call to turn the world upside down? Is there a wind blowing that could manifest “the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body”?
The texts will fuel our thought about these big questions that touch down so specifically in our society. I am struck by how these old texts are alarmingly contemporary. The livin’ may be easy, but the deciding and the acting are not easy, never were. They are, however, joyous in a way the old world can never permit or acknowledge. The undercurrent of the texts is the gifted liberty that comes from following. We may be glad that the old communities of Israel and church left us these texts. Now they are ours to study and pray over ... all summer!
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
[ August 1 ]
Foolish Self-Sufficiency
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-12; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21
These texts concern the foolish destructiveness of self-sufficiency. Luke’s parable portrays a “fool” who is a great accumulator and who imagines that his vast possessiveness adds to his well-being. In the end a) he talks only to himself in his isolation, and b) his self-preoccupation is interrupted by death.
The parable exposits Psalm 49, a meditation on the futility of a self-aggrandizing life. The culminating verse 12 (repeated as a refrain in verse 20), recognizes that life has boundaries that cannot be outflanked by wealth, power, or wisdom. True wisdom (see verse 3) is to live in the limits of life given by God.
Colossians echoes the same conviction with the telling phrase, “greed which is idolatry” (3:5). Greed is a way of worshipping wrong gods. Colossians, however, goes further. It not only warns against such self-destructiveness, but commends a “new self”—the one baptized into Christ, who centers life not on self, but on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness” (verses 12-13). There is a genuine alternative!
This teaching is urgent in our society. Not only because of the perennial seduction of greed, but because we live in a society of bad tax law, bad credit arrangements, and bad advertising, all of which seek to make greed into a civic virtue. We know better! We may choose against such foolishness for a life of neighborliness.
[ August 8 ]
Alert to the Good News
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
It is easy enough, given modern affluence, to imagine that “it doesn’t get any better than this.” It’s tempting, in our complacency, to judge that things will continue as they are. It is persuasive, in our despair, to conclude that the world is a closed system with no gifts yet to be given.
Against those ready seductions of affluence, complacency, or despair, the gospel news is that God can and does enact newness in the world. Indeed it is peculiarly God’s work to make new when it is thought not possible. Gospel folk are alert to the newness from God that is always about to break in.
The gospel reading summons to readiness like a slave who alertly awaits the return of the master. Psalm 33 celebrates the world as God’s world and invites us to “hope in God’s steadfast love” (verse 18), to “wait for the Lord” (20). The index of “hopers” in Hebrews 11 takes as its champion father Abraham. Three times in these verses it is “by faith” (8, 9, 11). In trust Abraham traveled, lived in a foreign land, and bore a son. The Genesis narrative fills out the details of Abraham the hoper.
“Sojourners” in the gospel refuse both complacency and despair. They commit to the subversive act of alert hope, not doubting that God “delivers” and “keeps alive in famine” (Psalm 33:19).
[ August 15 ]
Which Side Are You On?
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29 - 12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Jesus announces that it is “crunch time.” It’s time to decide, to take sides at some risk, to be with Jesus or against him. He chides his listeners for their inability to notice that, in his very person, the world comes to a dangerous moment to decide for or against God’s rule. Jesus calls his listeners beyond their casual conversation about the weather to face the grand drama of the world being played out before their eyes.
In Hebrews 11, the church recites the roster of those who have decided for the rule of God and have suffered for their faith. Finally, the text reminds present listeners that those remembered crunch times now boil down to our own crunch and our decision for the rule of God.
Psalm 82 provides some content for the crunch time. Even the gods face crunch time. They must “give justice to the orphan” and “rescue the needy.” Crunch time—in heaven or on earth—is about doing economic justice. Isaiah’s poetry attests to what God expects of God’s people: “justice and righteousness,” not violence and exploitation.
In the covenant of Israel and in the person of Jesus we are given a heads up on what time it is, what decisions have to be made, and what actions must be taken. All that in a world that prefers to discuss the weather!
[ August 22 ]
Erring for Generosity
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
The God of the gospel is one who heals. Israel, in its psalms, never tired of celebrating the God who “forgives, heals, redeems, crowns, and satisfies” (see Psalm 103:3-5). The healing narrative in Luke is a case study in the claims of the psalm. Jesus does the healing work of God for “a daughter of Abraham,” thus evidencing God’s abiding fidelity to the old Abrahamic promises. It is only a surprise that the disabled woman counts among the family of Abraham.
The opposition to Jesus can’t reach beyond their “sacred duty” of Sabbath to the transformative generosity exhibited by Jesus. They reckon their Sabbath observance to take priority over urgent human need. But Jesus, with an illustration about animal care (verse 15), inverts the order of things. Healing takes priority over observance. No wonder they left the meeting embarrassed over their punctilious requirements.
The juxtaposition of healing and Sabbath in Isaiah is dominated by the repeated conditional “if.” The community is urged to look beyond “pursuing your own interests on my holy day” (verse 13). Jesus is always looking beyond his own interests to the interests of the needy. The issue is a reordering of religious priorities. In Hebrews 12 the issue in dispute is cast as Mount Zion (site of joy) and Mount Sinai (site of obligatory scruple). These texts imagine a gospel freedom for those who open their faith to the disability of the world.
[ August 29 ]
Outside the Safety Zone
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Gospel faith concerns reordering the world according to God’s purpose. Jesus is under surveillance by the power people to see if he will conform to their regime. He uses a social occasion to show that what the world honors is not what is valued in the new order of God—an order engaged on behalf of the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those whom the world devalues (Luke 14:13).
That same reordering is evident in Hebrews 13. The imperative is to reach outside the zone of social safety to the “others,” “strangers,” and “prisoners,” exactly those whom we might think defiled. Real defilement is in the violation of promises of fidelity and love of money. The ground for the new order is the assurance of God, who is “my helper” (see Deuteronomy 31:6). God is faithful; one need not hustle, for either love or money.
These texts suggest a radical either/or, a generous following of Jesus or a resistance to his mandate to generosity. That contrast is clear in the two readings from the Hebrew scriptures. Psalm 112 characterizes a righteous person who is generous and cares for the poor, whereas Jeremiah delineates a community that has forgotten its identity and mandate. This teaching is urgent, now as always, in a society that wants to hunker down in a refusal of the new social reality where God has placed us.
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