Thursday, July 19, 2012
Relegated to the Fringes: Proper 11, Year B [Revisited]
2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 89:20-37; Psalm 23;
Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
With this week’s readings, the nature of the detour from the Way first chronicled by the writer of Mark’s Gospel comes into focus. The orthodox conclusion that Jesus is the ultimate ancestor of David who saves and shepherds the lost flock of Israel is nearly impossible to counter or avoid. From Nathan’s Oracle through Jeremiah’s prophecy of the coming of the legitimate branch of David, to pseudo-Paul’s declaration that “Christ Jesus himself” is the cornerstone of the holy temple, bolstered by Psalms 23 and 89, the supercessionary hegemony of Christianity is clearly and graphically affirmed. Indeed, dealing with the Elves’ selections from the Christian Bible is like riding a rubber raft down the Upper Youghioghenny. The nearly 2,000-year, Anti-Semitic, blood-soaked, crusading history of the Christian church finds its rationale in such combinations of lectionary readings. Unfortunately, this is not the only example, as we have discovered over the past three years of study.
Let’s start the reclaiming process from the top: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a. Since Pentecost, the readings from 1st and 2nd Samuel have chronicled the foundational saga of the great king David. Like the later legend of King Arthur of Britain, David united the northern and southern tribes under one banner. David’s power and importance and significance to the spiritual and political history of the Jewish people is unquestioned. The story should be allowed its own integrity, so that its wisdom can be heard through the millennia.
That wisdom lies in the ongoing conflict between Covenant and Empire. The people wanted a King, so God reluctantly gave them a King. The story lays out the strengths and weaknesses of royalty, and the political pitfalls that constantly undermine the normal course of human civilization as people learn to live together in justice and peace. Nathan’s Oracle assures us that regardless of what David’s shortcomings may turn out to be, his line and his legacy are settled. Because we already know what is coming, we are not surprised when God tells Nathan to decline David’s offer to build God a temple. That task is deferred to a later son of David. We know why, because we have been told the story since Sunday School.
But suppose we did not know the whole legend. Then we would have to look for its meaning not just in Nathan’s Oracle, but in David’s response – which is not included in the readings. Does David object to God’s decision to remain in a tent while David and his family are housed in royal Cedar? Does he insist that he owes it to God because of God’s favor to him? Does God demand a temple in exchange for a kingdom? The answer on both sides is “no.” A Covenant with God is not a commercial or even political arrangement. The Covenant with God – or with the Universe, or with the natural order as we know it – is far tougher than any commercial or political contract. Whether it is with a personal God, as understood by pre-modern and much of contemporary humanity, or with a kenotic god of post-modern, non-theistic understanding, the Covenant means that so long as we govern ourselves with distributive justice-compassion, so long as we live in radical abandonment of self-interest, we dwell in a realm where even the lion and lamb co-exist. When we break the Covenant – when we act with injustice, revenge, or selfishness; when we disturb the balance of the natural order – there are consequences. Sometimes those consequences are life-threatening, such as global warming, pandemics, or, classically, “war, famine, disease, and death.” David’s Prayer reflects this understanding (2 Samuel 7:18-29): “For you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”
The writings of the prophet Jeremiah have been applied so often to the human condition that the word “jeremiad” was coined to characterize similar laments against social and political injustice. Jeremiah – as we well know – spent his career warning 6th Century B.C.E. Israelites of the dire consequences of ignoring God’s Covenant, and of collaborating with foreign values. But in the verses chosen for Proper 11 of Year B, Jeremiah’s original intent has been corrupted by its juxtaposition with the other selections. Jeremiah himself would be justified in applying his charges against the false prophets of Jerusalem directly to present-day creators of the Revised Common Lectionary: “they . . . led my people Israel astray . . . they . . . walk in lies; they strengthen the hand of evildoers” (23:13-14).
This assertion may be heretical to orthodox tradition, but to use Jeremiah’s impassioned prophetic warning to prove the foreordination of Jesus as the Messiah is worse than heresy. When Jeremiah accuses the leadership of 6th Century B.C.E. Jerusalem of collaboration with the invading Babylonians (“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep”), and then says that God will “gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them” he is not talking about how “in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Further, without judicious use of paddles and ballast, the rushing scriptural torrent let loose by the Elves could carry our lectionary raft into even more dangerous theological waters: Jeremiah is most certainly not referring to the theories of Zionist fundamentalism.
When we read beyond verse 6 in Jeremiah’s chapter 23, we see that there is hope for those in exile, but only if the false prophets of that same hope are held accountable for their words and actions. Whether we apply Jeremiah’s cherry-picked words to Christianity’s judgment against the Jews, or to our present-day political and social situation, we do so to our peril. Indeed, if we read to the end of chapter 23, God has some pointed things to say about that very thing: “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings. . . . Am I a God nearby . . . and not a God far off? . . . Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” And what is that word? It is faithfulness to the Covenant. It is the restoration of God’s imperial rule, which is distributive justice-compassion. It is following the Way.
The Elves have assigned the letter to the Ephesians for the next five weeks. If studied in its entirety, keeping it divorced from any association with the other readings, then it may be found to have its own particular relevance. Certainly it is relevant to an understanding of the earliest gentile Christian communities who had little if any connection with Jewish spiritual practice. In the portion selected for this week, the writer is explaining how the life and death of Jesus has brought about a reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” That household stands on the foundation of the prophets and apostles, and Jesus the Christ is the cornerstone of that household. According to the writer’s metaphor, that household has become a holy temple, and a dwelling place for God.
The letter was written by a disciple of Paul, in Paul’s name, some 20 to 40 years after Paul’s death. Throughout the letter, Paul’s original theology has been subtly changed. The second coming of the Christ that Paul expected momentarily has still not occurred. Accommodation to that fact had to have been made by the early Christian communities. The letter seems to be a gentle pastoral letter with no transformational fireworks such as are found in the letters Paul actually wrote. An enterprising Adult Sunday School leader might want to compare Ephesians with Romans, or Corinthians, and explore Paul’s theology in some depth. But to imply that the Temple built by the son of David and destroyed by the Romans has been replaced with “the one body” of Christians as “a holy temple to the Lord” (as the Elves do) misrepresents the writer’s point.
The point of the portion of Ephesians chosen for this Sunday is non-violent reconciliation and peace. The death of Jesus the Christ “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us . . . thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body . . . So [Jesus] came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Standing on its own, the letter contains no supercessionary violence; but the letter is not allowed to stand and speak for itself. It is continually interpreted in the misdirected light of spooky Old Testament “prophecy” and miraculous New Testament “gospel.”
The gutted remains of Mark’s powerful parable of the preference of humanity for magic and miracle over the hard work of distributive justice have the last word: “. . . they would lay out the sick in the marketplaces and beg him to let them touch the fringe of his cloak. And all those who managed to touch it were cured!”