Listening to the scriptures requires a gentle determination to remove the filters that tend, in our religious culture, to allow in only what serves individual solace or personal edification. The scriptures probe the realities of power, how it is cornered, monopolized, deployed, lost, and regained at every level—in societies, in institutions, in families—as well as in the dynamics of our own lives. Even the best Bible study groups and sermons often surrender to the bias exerted unconsciously by our own individual neediness. Perhaps a conscious policy is needed to heed the word of God as it dissects the social body, lays bare its anatomy, and reveals its diseases. This approach may have a greater impact on our personal lives than conventional piety.
Far from reducing the spirituality of our engagement with scripture, learning its hermeneutic of power is likely to intensify our appreciation of its relevance to our own immediate issues and needs. As persons, we internalize and encapsulate the forces at work on a larger scale in a struggling world. God is wholly present as redemptive, suffering, hope-engendering love at every level of existence—from the inner dynamics of the soul to couples, families, neighborhoods, nations, the planet, and the entire universe. One of the most ancient religious instincts of humanity gave rise to the concept of the human person as a microcosm, a world in miniature. Scripture’s word is addressed to us in our unique personhood, and to the churches, communities, and nations in which we are embedded.
Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.
[ July 1 ]
'Thou Shalt Share'
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 30;
2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
In this election year, certain passages of scripture become touchstones for testing political claims. Imagine how this maxim, quoted by Paul in this passage from 2 Corinthians, would draw fire in current debates—“The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little!” (verse 15). We can hear the cry go up: Socialism!
In our system, those who have amassed vast wealth, and the political power it can buy, make sure they invest a lot of it in propaganda insisting that there is no such thing as having too much, that the best thing for the body politic is to ensure that they get even more. In contrast, scripture underscores our God-mandated mutual responsibility for making certain that everyone gets their basic human needs met, and sharing as the very basis of society.
To those with ears attuned to the evangelist’s use of symbolism, the fact that Jairus’ daughter was 12 years old, and that the woman cured of a hemorrhage has suffered for 12 years, is no mere coincidence. With these subtle hints Mark reminds us that Jesus has come not to revive and heal individuals alone. He has come for all 12 tribes, the whole people, and for us today, our whole society, which is hemorrhaging and sick in so many ways.
[ July 8 ]
Playing the Fool?
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; Psalm 123;
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Paul must have been a frequent theatergoer. His sardonic asides about speaking like “a fool” in his letters to the Corinthians refer to the performances of clowns who appeared on stage in the intermissions, spouting ludicrous speeches that parodied the smug attitudes of the local grandees in the expensive seats. Paul pokes fun at the “superapostles” (verse 11) who congratulated themselves on spiritual gifts and talents, which they were sure entitled them to leadership roles in the church.
What has Paul to boast of? A vision—but he can’t describe it! Mighty prayer to be healed of a chronic ailment—but he hasn’t been cured! So what is the real qualification for apostleship? Vulnerability. And the willingness to accept the reality that all is grace: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (verse 10). Mark’s gospel passage, with instructions for the 12, is equally clear: Those who bear the good news must embrace their vulnerability to being rejected by those who won’t hear of the kingdom. They must let these setbacks go, shake off the dust, and simply move on, without wasting their energies in futile self-doubt.
[ July 15 ]
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19; Psalm 85:8-13;
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
There are only two birthday celebrations mentioned in canonical scripture, both of them thrown by paranoid rulers with blood on their hands. Pharaoh marks his birthday by hanging his chief baker (Genesis 40:20-22). In Mark’s gospel story of a royal birthday bash, Herod’s hideous blend of religiosity, grandiosity, and savagery led to the beheading of John the Baptist. Birthdays are no better in the Apocrypha! The tyrant Antiochus insists on a public birthday celebration every month, and makes them occasions for forcing Jews to take part in the cult of Dionysus and torturing some to death (2 Maccabees 6:1-11). Paranoia, narcissism, sadism ... scripture won’t let us turn away our faces from the morbid pathology that has always fueled dictatorship, as it does in today’s world.
The majestic poetry that opens the letter to the Ephesians provides a total contrast. Here we are invited to celebrate our own lives—but not as individuals turned in on ourselves.
We glory in our adoption as children in God’s great and universal family, with our lives originating not in the accidents of mere human parentage, but in God’s original “plan for the fullness of time” (verse 10). God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world” (verse 4), and our destiny is to be caught up in the current of irresistible love that will never rest until everything is drawn into the divine embrace. God intends to “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (verse 10).
[ July 22 ]
Power in the Provisional
2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 23;
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
If scripture deploys such dangerously anthropomorphic metaphors as the “wrath of God,” perhaps we should dare to coin new ones that are equally risky: How about the “ambivalence of God”? Scripture depicts a God struggling with the dilemma of working with a people who, sooner or later, are going to demand a temple. Humanity can’t seem to do without shrines. These passages from 2 Samuel illustrate the ambivalence of God, as God shares with Nathan nostalgia for the old days of a mobile sanctuary—the tabernacle—a way for God to travel light with a pilgrim people. The temple will inevitably come, with the transition to Solomon in all his glory. But God prefers the “power inherent in the provisional,” or as Taizé founder Brother Roger called it, le dynamique du provisoire.
Mixed, unstable metaphors in the Ephesians passage (for instance, the collapsing “dividing wall” in verse 14) aptly express God’s ambivalence about sacred structures. The writer daren’t use the metaphor of the church as God’s temple without blending in organic movement and growth and the metaphor of the living Body of Christ. The temple whose doom Jesus predicted was supposed to be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7), but it had become a shrine for nationalism, expressing in its very structure the exclusion of the Gentiles. Jesus’ cross destroyed that barrier. Now we must find ways of expressing God-willed oneness in our institutions today—and stay tuned to God’s ambivalence about our structures, reckoning with their potential for being both sacramental and detrimental.
[ July 29 ]
A Fourth Temptation of Christ?
2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 145:10-18;
Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
“They were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). John’s comment throws a flood of light on the feeding of the 5,000. The gospels of Mark and Luke suggest that they were all men, and had been marshaled in formations of 50 and 100. Jewish agitation peaked every Passover, and if Roman legionaries had spied on the gathering, they would have recognized instantly that this was another attempt to rally a Jewish resistance force. Jesus is being tested in the wilderness again. Will he yield to the power struggle where violence triggers counterviolence? The miracle within the wonder of the mysterious meal is that Jesus is able to defuse this crisis. He won’t swerve from the way of nonviolence, however much it seems to the majority to be futile, unpatriotic, and cowardly.
The Ephesians passage, one of scripture’s profoundest prayers, takes us straight to the mystical core of the gospel. We pray to intensify our awareness of Christ dwelling in our hearts, to deepen the roots that are being thrust down into the boundless love of God, and to stretch our capacities for passion and empathy in every dimension of experience. Thomas Merton interprets it beautifully. “In prayer we discover what we already have through the indwelling Spirit of God and our incorporation through baptism into Christ. You start where you are and deepen what you already have ... All we need is to experience what we already possess.”
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word