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?
Friday, November 21, 2014
Malachi 3:1-12; Psalm 107; James 5:7-12; Luke 18:1-8
God announces that he is sending a messenger (remember, this is the meaning of Malachi’s name) to purify the priests, so that their offering may again be acceptable to the Lord. He will function like a refiner’s fire burning out the dross until the priesthood is pure. This text was picked up by Mark and used in combination with Isaiah 40:30 as a prophecy concerning the coming of John the Baptist, who is identified as that messenger. (This text is also famous because it was used in Handel’s Messiah, and, there, is treated as a foretelling of the coming of the Messiah, though here in Malachi it is hardly messianic.) God then condemns the people for robbing from him. They ask how they are stealing from God and God replies: “In your tithes and offerings.” There follows one of the Old Testament’s fullest stewardship texts: “Bring the full tithe—ten percent of all their produce—to fill the temple storehouse (Lev 27:30; Numbers 18:21). Notice that the sole function of the tithe was to maintain the temple’s administrative operations, especially the Levites (Neh. 13:10-13). The command is also an astonishing challenge to “test the Lord,”—the only place such a notion appears in the Bible, which is filled with warnings not to test the Lord (Deut. 6:16; Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12). God promises to rebuke those things that devour crops and to make their vines abundant. Evidently, this is written in a time of scarcity—perhaps a failed crop or a scourge of locusts that devoured it—and people have been holding back, as they do today in times of financial trouble. God calls that nothing less than robbing from him and challenges the people to full responsibility with their resources, trusting that God is able to fulfill all their needs. God is, after all, a God of abundance not scarcity. Notice also God’s judgment on those who push aside the aliens among them.
Psalm 107:1-32 opens the fifth and last section of the psalter and is, suitably, a song of thanksgiving for the way God has delivered the people in times of trouble. It begins with the classic and oft-repeated phrase: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” It then calls on the redeemed of the Lord to say so. The psalm then turns to describing those who have been so redeemed. It does not recount God’s saving history with the nation. Rather, it focuses on God’s redeeming actions with people in distress: the wandering hungry and thirsty with no place to rest; all those in prisons’ darkness, gloom and depravity; those beset with illness, who could not eat and were near the gates of death; and those who were caught at sea during storms. Each section names God’s saving action, and then sings, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love for his wonderful works to humankind.” It then challenges them to extol the Lord’s work among the people, tell of God’s saving deeds in the congregation, and offer thanksgiving sacrifices and songs of joy in the assembly of the elders.
James now turns to practical advice for the churches to which he is writing who are concerned over the Lord’s delay in return. Patience is the watchword: learn from the farmer who knows how to wait for the earth’s yield. As they are patient, so the faithful must be patient. They are to strengthen their hearts for the Lord is near. In the meantime, they must not grumble against one another lest they be judged. The Judge is standing at the door. The prophets are invoked as examples of patient endurance in suffering (the word in Greek, makrothumia, means more than “patience” but also means “long-suffering”) and Job is cited as the example of faithful endurance that is long suffering and ultimately answered by the Lord’s compassion and mercy in appearing to him in blessing. James now adds what may be one of Jesus’ original sayings, but does not attribute it as such, a warning against taking oaths. Let a simple “yes” or “no” be enough. It is similar to Jesus’ more elaborate words in Matthew 5:34-37. Because it is more direct and simple here, scholars think it might represent the stage of the injunction within the Christian tradition before Matthew incorporated it into his gospel. The point is this: simplicity of speech is fundamental to the soundness of a community of faith, otherwise its language becomes manipulative and competitive. James is forbidding oaths because he knows the churches must be places of mutual trust where such oaths are not necessary. Where trust is gone in a community, all becomes manipulation, suspicion and cynicism and nothing else is accomplished.
The parable of the unjust judge, falling as it does on the heels of Jesus’ words about the end, reinforcing the importance of remaining tenaciously faithful in hope and trust in the midst of hardship, never losing heart in God’s faithfulness. It is a parable unique to Luke and is told as an illustration of prayer as well as the need to do it continually. If a corrupt judge will finally cave in under the poor widows’ insistent demands, how much more can we trust God to grant us justice as his chosen ones? Yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith as tenacious as the woman’s insistence?
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Malachi 2:1-16; Psalm 105:23-45; James 4:13-5:6; Luke 17:20-37
God continues to condemn the priests, first for not taking to heart what has been said about their faulty sacrifices and, now, for their false instruction to the people. God will send—has sent—a curse upon their blessings, rebukes their offerings and puts them out of his presence. All of this comes because the Lord is trying to maintain the covenant he made with Levi. That covenant of life and well-being requires reverence, which Levi observed standing in awe of God’s name. His instructions were true and he walked with integrity and uprightness and turned many away from iniquity. The priests are, after all, the guardians of knowledge and instruction (Rabbis have yet to emerge as the interpreters’ of Torah), and the messengers of the Lord. But they have turned aside and caused many to stumble by their instruction. They have corrupted the covenant by failing to keep God’s ways themselves, and by showing partiality in their instruction. Consequently, the Lord makes them despised and abased before all the people. Judah has profaned the covenant of their ancestors in their faithlessness and committed abominations in Jerusalem. They have profaned the sanctuary of the Lord and have married daughters of a foreign god. At this point, the text can begin to be read two ways—literally and metaphorically. Metaphorically, “married daughters of a foreign god” can mean the worship of other gods, especially a goddess instead of the Lord. The phrase “wife of your youth” has been used by other prophets to describe the initial covenant relationship between God and Israel—wherein the Lord took Israel as his wife (Isa 54:6; Jer 2:2, Ezekiel 16:60; Hos 2:15). At a literal level, this can be read as a condemnation of the Judean men for divorcing their Judean wives in order to marry foreign women. God is outraged at what has been done to the wives and how the husbands have been faithless. The wives were their companions by covenant (note the reference to marriage as covenant not contract). Did not the same God who made the husbands make the wives? Both spirit and flesh belong to him. And, what does God desire but godly offspring. (The children born to foreign wives, more often than not, followed the religious practices of the mother. Often, those practices were taken up by the husbands as well, mixing them with the worship of the Lord. This is why marrying foreign wives was such an abomination. It brought religious syncretism into the household and thereby into the whole community as well.) What follows is the strongest condemnation of divorce in the Old Testament. In all probability, the text should be read both ways: as a condemnation of the practice of divorcing the wife of one’s youth to marry a foreign, and probably younger, wife, as well as the “abomination” it became to God for how it polluted Judah’s worship and allegiance to the Lord.
Psalm 105:23-45 follows on the litany, praising God for all that God has done among the children of Israel beginning with Abraham, through Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s chief officer and lord of his household. That portion of the psalm remembers that because of Joseph’s success (and the famine), Israel came to Egypt and lived there as aliens. It was there that the Lord made the people very fruitful and strong—so much so that the Egyptians came to hate them. Our reading today remembers that God sent them Moses and Aaron and the plagues in Egypt to free the people. Remembering the ultimate woe—the striking down of all first born—God brought Israel out of Egypt with its silver and gold, so glad were the Egyptians to be rid of them, for dread of the Jews had spread across Egypt. God spread the covering of fire by night and cloud by day to lead them. When asked, God fed them with quail and gave them bread from heaven, opened the rock to produce water in the wilderness, and did so because God remembered the covenant he had made with Abraham. The psalm concludes, remembering that God has brought the people out with joy and into the lands of the nations in Canaan. God gave them these lands and the wealth of all of their inhabitants so that they might be a people who kept his statutes and observed his laws. The psalm ends with one final word of praise: “Hallelujah!”
James warns those in the Christian community engaged in commerce against the arrogance that comes with commercial success. For all of their business planning, they have no reason to believe that such a tomorrow might come. Better that they should say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” Boasting is evil in all of its forms, and assuming that we have a “tomorrow” is itself a boast. Then, James adds a proverb about the sinfulness of knowing what to do but not doing it. The next section sounds as though it might be directed against the wealthy in general and not simply Christian merchants, in part, because James offers no alternative behavior, save the judgment he issues on what they are doing. The rich weep over their miseries as their possessions dwindle and rot before them. The fact that they do is evidence enough against them. They are busy laying up treasure for their last days rather than a treasure of right behavior. Their treasure will be the means of their destruction on that day. They have indulged in corrupt business practices, cheating their workers out of what is their due, and the cries of the abused have reached the ears of the Lord. They have lived on the earth in luxury and pleasure, fattened their hearts in a day of slaughter, and condemned and murdered the righteous one(s) who does not resist. (Though the Church Father’s equated “righteous one” with Jesus, this is really the righteous ones the rich have persecuted and taken to courts through fraudulent lawsuits—see James 2:6). James considers fraud nothing less than legalized violence and murder. The final phrase can be translated two ways: “who does not resist you” to refer to those being defrauded, or, as a question, “does he [God] not resist you?” This latter sense is consistent with what James has been saying about God resisting the arrogant and proud while giving grace to the righteous lowly.
Luke segues to a time when the Pharisees come asking Jesus when the kingdom of God will come, probably referring to the end of time, and probably as much to mock Jesus as to get an answer. Jesus, who has been announcing the kingdom’s presence in his preaching and healing, responds that the kingdom does not come by the scrutiny the Pharisees are indulging in, but rather it is already among and around them, though they cannot see it, because they are not participating in it. The kingdom is not an interior spiritual realm but as real as the healings in which Jesus is engaged. Turning from the Pharisees to his disciples, Jesus tells them that the day is coming when he will be removed from them. They will long to see him and have a repeat of his ministry among them, revealing the kingdom in its fullness, but, they will have to wait. Though some will tell them it is “here” or “there,” they are not to go off in pursuit of it. For when it comes, it will light up the sky like lightning and no one will be able to miss it. But, before that time, he must endure much suffering and be rejected by this generation. Three illustrations follow. Each speaks of the unexpected nature of the kingdom’s ultimate coming and the need to be ready for that day. As those around Noah were clueless, so shall most be. So too, when judgment fell on Sodom and Gomorrah and it was destroyed; it was unexpected and instantaneous. So will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. If on a housetop, do not go down to retrieve your possessions lest, in its destruction, the house should fall on you and you lose your life. So too, for those in the field—do not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife: she turned back and lost her life in the process. Those who try to make their lives secure with what they have will lose them, and those who lose them, by leaving them behind, will preserve their lives. To heighten the mystery and further confuse such kingdom scrutiny, Jesus adds, “On that night, two will be in bed sleeping and one taken and the other left. Two will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” The disciples asked him, “Where, Lord?” We might expect them to ask, “When, Lord?” However, that is entirely inappropriate because the kingdom is already here, among us. The reign of God is neither a time nor a place, but a way of living—discipleship. And so, Jesus answers with a curious parable: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures gather.” There are several ways to interpret this latter saying. If the concern is seeing the Son of Man when he comes, the parable can mean, “Just as the presence of rotting flesh can be located by the circling of vultures, so will his presence be so easily identified.” But if this is heard in the context of being read to the church for which is it is written, it can have an entirely different meaning: “The kingdom is present and clearly manifest wherever God’s people gather around God’s word.”
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.