Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Zechariah 12:1-10; Psalm 129; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 19:1-10
This oracle concerning Judah, Jerusalem and “the nations,” makes the point that, though small among the surrounding powers that control the land, Judah and Jerusalem will become a “cup of reeling,” for all who surround her. On that day she will be a “heavy stone” that harms all who try to lift her so that they “grievously hurt themselves,” even though all the nations of the earth come against it. The repetition of “on that day,” keeps the oracle future in its orientation, rather than a comment on current circumstances. So, too, on that day, the Lord will make the clans of Judah like a blazing pot and a flaming torch, consuming those who surround them, while Jerusalem will stand. And lest the people of Jerusalem become self-aggrandizing in all of this, the Lord will save the tents of Judah first (the dwellings of it soldiers, not its clans). Thereafter, even Jerusalem’s most feeble citizens will be like David, and David’s house like God—an astonishing assertion that is quickly modified by, “like the angel of the Lord,” as David is described in 2 Samuel 19:27. Again, “on that day,” pushes all this onto the horizon as the Lord promises to set out to destroy (the NRSV “seek to destroy” is too weak for the context), all the nations that come against Jerusalem. God will pour out a humane spirit of compassion and consolation on the people (Ezekiel 36:26, as opposed to “my Spirit” in Ezekiel 39:29 and Joel 2:28-29). What follows is one of those troubling verses that can be translated two ways. Will the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem look upon God whom they have pierced (notice the footnote “me”) or, is it a reference to one of a number of renowned instances in which children were sacrificed to preserve the reign of other Judean kings? The text was later given Christological significance through its use in John 19:37, in reference to the Roman soldiers piercing the body of Jesus on the cross to assure that he is dead.
Psalm 129 is a pilgrim’s song, the tenth of fifteen “songs of ascent” in the collection (see psalms 120-134) and is cast in the form of an individual lament. It was probably used by pilgrims communally, as they made their way to Jerusalem for one of the three festivals in which they were required to “appear before the Lord”—Passover, Weeks and the Festival of Booths. It remembers Israel’s many enemies and how they mistreated Israel, attacking it from its youth, plowing its back deeply, making within it long furrows of pain and suffering. Yet, the Lord is righteous (notice the present tense in the rehearsal of the past), and has cut the cords of the wicked—they cannot bind or hold Israel in bondage nor can their tents stand. Then, a curse is invoked on all who hate Zion, God’s dwelling place. Let them be put to shame and turned back. Let them become like the grass that grows on rooftops; without deep root it withers in the sun and does not produce a crop worth reaping. Those who pass by the enemy attempting to reap such a harvest, offer no words of blessing. The psalm ends with the liturgical greeting offered to pilgrims on their way to and at their entrance to the temple: “We bless you in the name of the Lord.”
This is one of the most lyric and glorious passages in the New Testament. After a standard greeting, Ephesians breaks into one long, eleven-verse, sentence citing the blessings of God in Christ and laying forth the theological convictions of the book. It is totally Trinitarian in its structure, blessing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, in the heavenly places—this latter being a phrase frequently used to describe the entire cosmos—with the promise of it all guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. What God has done, God has done throughout and for the entire created order. The text then moves to the theme of election: God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world and destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ. Election is not a privilege, but for a purpose: to be holy and blameless before him in love. The themes of redemption through Jesus’ blood, the forgiveness of our “false steps” (the meaning of the word translated here “trespasses’) according to the riches of grace lavished on us. It announces the mystery of God’s will: to gather all things up in Christ—God is doing this for the world, not just a singular religious movement or sect. God has given us an inheritance in Christ so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. Again, election, adoption, predestination—whatever one calls it—is for God’s purposes, not ours, though we are the beneficiaries of it. When hearing the word of truth—the good news of our salvation—and when we had believed in him, we were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people; again, to the praise of God’s glory.
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” This children’s Sunday school rhyme captures the event perfectly. Jesus is entering Jericho where Zacchaeus, a rich tax collector, lives. Being short of stature, Zacchaeus cannot see through the crowd and so climbs up into a sycamore tree. (If you visit Jericho today, your guide will show you the very tree at a fork in the road!) When Jesus gets to that place, he stops, looks up in the tree and commands Zacchaeus to come down; Jesus plans to stay at his house this day. Zacchaeus hurries down and is happy to welcome Jesus. And, of course, all who see it grumble—not just the religious establishment, but all who see it—because Jesus has gone off to be the guest of a notorious sinner. Tax collectors were hated, not only because of their collaboration with Rome, but because they were infamous for fraud, adding huge personal commissions to the tax bill in order to enrich themselves at the people’s expense. But upon Jesus’ arrival in Zacchaeus’ house, a remarkable thing happens: Zaccheaus has a change of heart. He promises to give half of his possessions to the poor, and “if [he has] defrauded anyone of anything [he] will pay back four times as much.” Jesus announces to Zaccheaus, “Today salvation has come to this house….” But then, the pronoun moves to third person, meaning Jesus turns from talking to Zaccheaus to addressing the crowed that despises Zacchaeus, saying: “… because he, too, is a son of Abraham.” John the Baptist, in calling the people to repentance, had warned against relying on their ethnic heritage as their means of security, saying “God is able from these stones to raise up for himself children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8-9). Zacchaeus’ behavior reveals not only his repentance but his true identity. Notice that the concept of salvation here has to do with a change of heart that results in wholeness in life for both Zacchaeus and those around him. Still turned to his critics Jesus says, “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” A lost son of Abraham has been found and has become the blessing Abraham’s children are meant to be (Genesis 12:3).
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Zechariah 11:4-17; Psalm 124; 1 Corinthians 3:10-23; Luke 18:31-43
Following upon the oracle of restoration, there is this chapter with its decided change. Following three verses warning of the destruction of the forest and the wail of the shepherds who are leaders of the people, today’s lesson is, what some call, as difficult a passage in scripture that exists. In the second half of Zechariah, “shepherd” usually means a political figure, as formerly, it meant “king.” But here the prophet himself is told to be shepherd of a flock “doomed to slaughter.” Those who buy them kill them without punishment, and those who sell them become rich in profit. Their shepherds have no pity on the sheep because the Lord has given up pity for the inhabitants of the earth. Each will fall into the hand of the neighbor. So, Zechariah becomes the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter and takes two shepherd’s staffs, one he names “favor,” (or “delight”) and the other he names “unity,” (or “concord’). He breaks the first in prophetic action to reveal the fact that God is annulling the covenant made with the people—they are no longer favored and God’s delight. As the sheep merchants watch, they know it is the word of the Lord. The prophet then requests payment for the sheep from the merchants, who pay him thirty shekels of silver, the amount in Exodus 21:32 that is paid to the owner when his slave is gored by another’s ox. The Lord tells the prophet to throw the money into the treasury in the house of the Lord. At that, the prophet breaks the second staff. The unity of Israel is destroyed, symbolizing the breech between Israel and Judah. Then, God speaks again of worthless shepherds who are corrupt and care nothing for the perishing or the wandering sheep, shepherds not interested in healing the maimed, much less nourishing the healthy. Their only interest is to devour the flesh of those who are fat. The text ends on a plea that the worthless shepherd, whether a religious or political leader, loses his strength and sight—the only optimistic words in the text.
Psalm 124 gives thanks for the Lord’s deliverance saying, “Had not the Lord been on our side—now let Israel say—had it not been the Lord who was with us when our enemies rose up against us, we would not have survived.” This is a communal psalm of thanksgiving, following a war that was just barely won, in which Israel survived in spite of its lack of strength or might, and now gives thanks where it understands thanks is due. The Lord is blessed for not giving them into the enemies’ teeth as prey. Israel escaped destruction as the bird escapes the fowler’s broken snare. The psalm ends with the theme recurrent, not only in the psalms, but throughout the Bible: “Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.” A paraphrase of this psalm was sung in Coventry Cathedral in England, at the conclusion of World War II, as recognition of the country’s own deliverance.
There is a dispute brewing among the Corinthians concerning their leaders, in which a significant group is highly critical of Paul and his teaching and behavior among them. Some look to Paul, some look to Apollos and some to Peter (Cephas) as the “real” leader of the community. Paul writes back that he did what he did among them according to the grace God gave him for his task. He then goes on to cite principles of church leadership: each builds on the work of the other, and must choose with care how one builds, since the foundation that has been laid is Christ himself. Those who build with precious resources and workmanship will find that in the test of fire their work will stand and they will receive a reward. Those who build with wood, hay and straw will find their work consumed in the fire and left in ashes and only they will survive. Just verses before, Paul has said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Paul then leaves the subject of leaders to speak to the congregation: do they not realize that they are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God dwells in them (the “you” here is plural—Paul is speaking about the church, not believers individually). If any of them destroys God’s temple, God will destroy them, for God’s temple is holy. They are not to deceive themselves in their wisdom, it can lead to destruction. Rather they should seek the foolishness of God, who catches the wise in their craftiness (Job 5:13) and knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile. So, let them not boast about their human leaders, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas, much less their wisdom or any other gift, for that matter, save that they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.
Jesus takes the twelve aside from the crowd and tells them what is to happen to him once they reach Jerusalem. The adulation of the crowd and the esteem in which they currently hold him will change and he will become their enemy. The religious establishment, of whom he has been so critical, will rise up against him and hand him over to the Romans for flogging and crucifixion, and on the third day he will rise again. If the former things seem hard to understand, the latter is absolutely incomprehensible to them, and Luke tells us, “They did not grasp what he said.” But as they approach Jericho, a blind man sitting at the roadside begging hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by, and the man begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Others may be blind to who Jesus is but this blind man sees! The crowd sternly orders the man to be quiet; who does he think he is? But, he will not remain silent and repeats what he has said. Jesus stops, this is precisely who he has been saying are heirs of the kingdom. He turns toward the man and orders him to be brought to him. When the man is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man says, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus says, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately, the man regains his sight and follows Jesus, glorifying God. When the people see it, they praise God as well.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Zechariah 10:1-12; Psalm 106:19-48; Galatians 6:1-10; Luke 18:15-30
Though there has been a partial return of the people to Judah, God will bring all of them home, even those disbursed to the farthest places. When they are home, they are to ask the Lord for rain in due season; it is he that gives it and all the vegetation that comes forth from it. It is in vain that they serve the teraphim (household god)—they utter nonsense. Worse, they seek diviners, who only see lies, and dreamers whose visions are false and give empty consolation. It is for this reason that God’s people wander like sheep and suffer for lack of a shepherd. God’s anger is turned on their false shepherds. Instead, the Lord will care for his sheep, the house of Judah. He will make them proud warriors and fight among them on their behalf, trampling the foe in the mud of the streets, for the Lord is with them. God will strengthen Judah and Joseph (the former northern tribes) and bring them back because of the Lord’s compassion, to show that he has not rejected them. When God calls the people of Ephraim, who formerly had rejected battle calls, they will become warriors. Their children shall see it and rejoice and their hearts exalt in the Lord. The lesson ends with the promise of restoration. God will gather them in from the far places he has scattered them among the nations. God will bring them home from Egypt and from Assyria, to the land of Gilead and Lebanon, so much so that there will be no room for them. They shall pass through the sea of distress in a new exodus, but the sea shall be struck down and the depths of the Nile left dry. The sovereignty of Assyria and Egypt shall be no more for the Lord will make them strong in his name and they shall walk in it.
Psalm 106:19-48, continues the confession of sin, recounting Israel’s apostasy at Mt. Horab, making and worshiping the golden calf, exchanging the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass, and forgetting that it is the God who is their savior. For that, God was ready to destroy them all. Had it not been for Moses’ intercession, God’s wrath would have been poured out upon them. But still, they despised the pleasant land that was reported to them by their spies, and having no faith in God’s promise, they grumbled in their tents and disobeyed God’s voice. Consequently, God consigned that generation to the wilderness, there to wander and die, and only then placed their descendents in the land of promise. But even in their wanderings, they attached themselves to foreign gods, and sacrificed to the dead. God’s anger was stoked, and plagues broke out among them until Phinehas interceded on their behalf and the plague was stopped (Numbers 25). The people argued with the Lord at Meribah to the point that even Moses was implicated, became rash and spoke bitter words. Upon entering the land, the Israelites failed to destroy the nations, as God had commanded, and, instead, mingled with them, taking up their religious practices, sacrificing their own children to demons and the idols of Canaan so that the land was polluted with their children’s blood. Thus, the people became unclean and prostituted themselves. Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against them and he gave them into the hand of the nations who ruled over them. Many times the Lord raised up judges to liberate them, but the people remained rebellious in their iniquity. Nevertheless, God remembered his covenant and showed compassion and steadfast love so that those who held them captive pitied them. The psalm of confession ends with a plea for redemption and salvation: “Gather us from among the nations that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” After a final blessing of the Lord as their God from everlasting to everlasting, the people say “Amen!” The psalm ends with a final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
This time of year, we seem beset with stewardship texts. But, before getting to that, hear what Paul says about dealing with a member who is failing morally. Those who have received the Spirit should restore such a one, but in gentleness not anger. Remember, “There but for the grace of God go I!” So be gentle with those who transgress, and take care yourselves, lest you too are so tempted. Bear one another’s burdens. In this way you fulfill the law of Christ. In other words, forgive one another as you have been forgiven! Even those who are nothing but think they are something (those who judge) deceive themselves. Each must test one’s own work; then that work, rather than that of the neighbor can be a cause for pride. Let each carry their own burden. (And remember, everyone carries a burden!). Now the subject turns to stewardship. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with the teachers. It should not come as a surprise that even in the church of the New Testament, there were those complaining that they should have to be financially responsible for the support of the church and its leadership. But what may be surprising is how Paul links this complaint directly to mocking God, and the warning that whatever you sow you will reap. If you sow to your own flesh (your own pleasures, rather than needs) you will reap corruption. But if you sow to the Spirit and the things of the Spirit, you will reap eternal life. This thing called the gospel is consummately practical and physical. So, let us not grow weary in doing what is right, so that at harvest time, we may reap a harvest of righteousness. Whenever you have an opportunity, work for the good of all, especially those in your family of faith.
Jesus’ insistence that the infants be brought to him must not be romanticized by 21st century sensibilities. Children were, in Jesus’ day, a burden and possessed few rights. They were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. It is these latter, of any age, which Jesus is calling to himself. Then, the rich ruler asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. After reprimanding the ruler for calling him “good,” and reminding him that no one is good but God alone, Jesus refers him to the commandments (the table of the law dealing with human relationships.) But the ruler says he has kept all these since his bar mitzvah. When Jesus hears this he says, “One thing you still lack. Sell all you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” The rich man goes away sad, for he is very rich and obviously is unwilling to part with it! Jesus responds, “How hard it will be for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God. It is much easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” (Do not listen to those who try to symbolically do away with this absurdity. Jesus is talking about the power of wealth to distract and keep us from living as his disciples.) The disciples understand and ask, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replies that with mortals it is impossible—full stop! We cannot save ourselves even by giving everything away. But what is impossible for mortals is possible with God. At that, Peter reminds Jesus of all they have left to follow him. Jesus’ response is an affirming reply, not only to Peter and the other disciples, but to all who hear this lesson, especially the church in which it was first read, where people had risked family relationships and wealth to follow Jesus. No one who has done so will fail to get back much more in this age, and in the age to come, even more—eternal life.
Sunday, November 23, 2014
Zechariah 9:9-16; Psalm 145; 1 Peter 3:13-22; Matthew 21:1-13
Zechariah is a complex book—two distinct works—made up of many authors. The first written at a time when return from exile was taking place and prior to the building and dedication of the second temple in 515 BCE, and the second from about 450 BCE during the Greco-Persian wars when Israel was a vassal of Persia, the same time when Malachi was written. Today’s lesson comes from the second part of Zechariah and falls on the heels of an oracle from the Lord that obviously is from an earlier, pre-exilic time when Israel’s enemies were those surrounding her. Our lesson opens with what is the best known text from Zechariah and calls on the daughters of Zion to rejoice for her king is coming to her. (Handel used this for the magnificent soprano aria “Rejoice” from Messiah.) The image is of a triumphant Messiah who, in spite of being victorious, comes in humility, which is symbolized in the animal he is mounted upon. With his arrival, God will rescue Israel and restore her to full autonomy and power. Israel is addressed as “prisoners of hope,” and told to return to her stronghold, for God is going to restore her doubly and be her constant guardian. “On that day...;” reminds us that this is still a prophetic oracle; it has yet to happen. It reminds us that the return from Babylon to Israel, when Cyrus set the Jews free, was not a mass exodus, but a slow process, and it took considerable time for the returning people to re-establish their lives, their economy and religious life.
Psalm 145 is the last of eight alphabetic, acrostic psalms, and is a masterful hymn of praise that extols the Lord as God and King, focusing on all that God has done. Its emphasis is individual in nature rather than corporate, remembering less God’s acts of salvation for the nation, than God’s interventions and providence in personal life. The psalmist promises to bless God every day and praise his name forever and ever. It is filled with some of the most memorable phrases of praise in all of scripture. “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.” One generation after another shall praise God’s name and celebrate his awesome deeds and his abundant goodness. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;” good to all. “His compassion is over all that he has made.” All God’s works give thanks and praise him; all the faithful shall bless him. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and his dominion endures throughout all generations. As the psalm moves to its conclusion, it identifies what it is the Lord does that makes God faithful in all his works and gracious in all his deeds: God upholds those who are falling, raises up all who are bowed down, gives food in due season, satisfies the desire of every living thing, is just in all his doings, near to all who call on him, fulfills the desires of all who fear him, hears their cries and saves them, watches over all who love him, while “all the wicked he will destroy.” The psalm ends like it began, promising to speak the praise of the Lord and announcing that “all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.”
1st Peter is among the most lyric and encouraging books in the New Testament. Though written in the apostle’s name, for a number of reasons, scholars think it the work of one from a circle of Peter’s protégés who is writing from Rome to churches in northern Asia Minor, doing so in the last quarter of the first century after Peter’s martyrdom. Because of the references to persecution and suffering, it may well have been written during the reigns of Domitian (80-96 CE) or Trajan (97-117 CE). Today’s lesson focuses on how the community is to live in the midst of such suffering. “Do not fear what they fear (their threats of death) and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord”—worship Christ not Caesar. It was their refusal to burn incense in worship of Caesar that brought them their persecution. “Always be prepared to make a defense of the hope that is within you, but do it in gentleness and reverence.” This is less about evangelism than it is about self-defense when being tried for being Christian. One wonders how much more effective evangelism would be if it were offered humbly as a word of hope, rather than triumphantly from a stance of superior spirituality. Keep your conscience clear and your conduct good so that Christ is not put to shame. “It is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.” Christ’s suffering is offered as the model, and reveals the church’s theology of the saving nature of such suffering and death. It also includes the unique words of what the church calls “the descent into hell,” where, upon his death, Jesus was “made alive in the spirit” and went to make a proclamation of the gospel to those who were in death’s prison because, in their life, they were disobedient. The reference is to the time of Noah in which a few were saved in the ark through water. The image of water immediately draws the author to baptism, which is not the removal of dirt from the body (as the earlier purification baths that prefigure baptism did) but is an appeal to God, through which the baptized experience the benefits of the risen Christ—a good conscience—who is now in heaven at the right hand of God with all authorities and powers subject to him—even Caesar is subject to Christ!
The lesson from Matthew is Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem in which Matthew quotes our lesson today from Zechariah as prophetic witness to the event. Jesus comes on a colt, “the foal of a colt” not a second animal but simply the way Hebrew poetry uses parallelisms (saying the same thing a second way as a rhyming device). The disciples do as they are told, produce the colt and Jesus mounts it. As the procession makes its way to the city, people throw their cloaks in the road and place cut branches there, and follow him shouting Psalm 118:25, which celebrates God’s victory over the nations, singing, “Hosanna,” which means “save us.” When bystanders ask who he is, Jesus’ followers in the crowd respond, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Jesus immediately enters the temple and drives out those who are engaged in commerce associated with the temple worship. What is supposed to be a house of prayer has been turned into a den of robbers. It is not only Jesus’ attack on the religious establishment, but a demonstration of what his followers have said about him being a prophet as he quotes Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Malachi 3:13-4:6; Psalm 108:1-6(7-13); James 5:13-20; Luke 18:9-14
“What’s the use of trying to serve God; what profit is there in keeping his commands? Look and see how the arrogant are happy and those who do evil prosper, and those who put God to the test escape.” These are the people’s complaint and, as God says, are harsh words against him. There follows a shift in the text, from dialogue between God and the people, to a historical observation that those who have taken note and listened to the Lord are named in his book of remembrance. God then says, “They shall be mine, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.” Then, the difference between those who serve God and those who serve only themselves will be obvious. For the day is coming, burning like a hot oven, when all arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble thrown into fire and consumed to the point that they have no remembrance—neither root nor branch. But, for those who revere God’s name, “the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” They shall skip like a calf breaking out of the confines of its stall, and shall tread down the wicked who will be ashes under their feet. All of this will happen on the day when the Lord acts. Thus ends Malachi’s message. What follows appears to have been added to the book once it was placed at the conclusion of the collection of prophetic books, and its design is to link the prophets back to Torah. It also promises yet another prophet—Elijah—who will return “before the great and terrible day of the Lord’s coming.” He turns out to be the unidentified messenger of the Lord from 3:1, and will overcome the chaos that comes from the fundamental breakdown of the covenant. Such breakdown is expressed in the conflict endemic to families as children and parents struggle with one another. His coming will avert the threat of curse that lies close at hand throughout Malachi’s writings. Yet, notice, there is no mention of a messianic age, only the return of Elijah to set things straight. The final words, “So I will not come and strike the land with a curse,” on that “great and terrible day of the Lord,” is the fulfillment of how Malachi began this book with God saying to the people, “I love you.” God’s love is, as the psalmist constantly reminds us, steadfast and can be trusted, even in the midst of God's discipline.
Psalm 108 is actually a compilation of two other psalms (Psalm 57:7-11 and Psalm 60:5-12) sewn together into this new setting, which is both a psalm of praise and a psalm of lament. It is attributed to David. It speaks of waking the dawn with his harp and lyre in praise of the Lord, because God’s loving kindness is great above the heavens and his truth reaches the skies. Then, the psalm lists the lands that were Israel’s enemies—Moab, Edom, Philistia—that have become subservient to David. But suddenly, this psalm of praise turns to lament. David is besieged and feels that the Lord may have rejected him and the people. In reaching out to God, he confesses God’s faithfulness to him. It is God who has granted him military success, but it seems God no longer goes out with the armies against their foes. After a plea for God’s help against the foe, and a confession that human help is worthless, there is the affirmation that with God “we shall do valiantly; it is the Lord who will tread down our foes.”
James comes to a close with instructions for the whole community. Are any suffering? Let them pray. Are any cheerful? Let them sing songs of praise. Are any sick? Call on the elders of the church (the first time the word “church” has appeared in this letter) to pray over them and anoint them in the name of the Lord. “The prayer of faith”—the faith Jesus regularly speaks of in the gospels that is associated with his healings—will save them, and the Lord himself will raise them up. And if they have committed sins, they will be forgiven. This leads to the injunction to mutual correction. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so you may be healed. It is the very opposite of the slander, manipulation, cynicism and mistrust James warns against just verses ago. For the prayer of the righteous—like the prayer of faith—is powerful and effective. James turns to Elijah as an illustration of a righteous one whose prayers of faith did astonishing things. Finally, if there are any among them who wander from the truth and are brought back by another, know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering saves the sinner’s soul from death and covers a multitude of sins. Do for each other what has been done for you. There is far more gospel in this letter than Luther ever surmised!
A second parable unique to Luke quickly follows the one urging persistence in prayer, and it involves two opposites: the Pharisee (model of religious propriety) and the tax collector (the lowest of the low in Jewish circles of the day—despised not only for their flagrant dishonesty but also because they were collaborators with Rome). The two go to the temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing aloof from the crowd, reminds God of his acts of piety—fasting twice a week and tithing all of his income. He thanks God that he is not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even as “this tax collector,” who he holds in contempt. The tax collector, who will not even enter the assembly nor dare to look up to heaven, simply beats his breast and pleads, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus says that this man went home justified rather than the other, and adds, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The question is: which of the two acted in faith? In terms of the James reading, which of the two offered the prayer of faith? Which of the two was willing to live out of the grace and mercy of God?
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.