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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

All in the Family

Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12  •  Malachi 4:1-2a and Psalm 98  •  2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  •  Luke 21:5-19

 

This week's readings, taken as a whole, are all about family: gone right and gone wrong. Isaiah 65, for instance, talks about the coming age where no infant will die (v. 20) – all families will enjoy full and prosperous lives. Then there is Malachi 4, which promises not only a fire to burn the arrogant (v. 1), but also a time of mercy, when parents' hearts will be turned towards their children and children's towards their parents (v. 6). Moving on to the reading from Second Thessalonians, there is a warning not to take advantage of hard-working siblings; in a twist of human fate, the same patterns of in-fighting among siblings who in that time usually worked together for the economic good of the family had emerged between 'brothers and sisters' in the community. Finally, in Luke, Jesus is predicting a time of great destruction when people would be betrayed by their closest family and friends.

 

It seems that the worst betrayals come from people that one had trusted. A terrible story from North Korea comes to mind, of a night at a party when one of the Kim rulers accused a woman of a crime against the state. Her husband asked to be the one to shoot her – doing so right then. I wonder if this is the sort of thing that Jesus was talking about when he is saying that "you will be hated by all because of my name" (v. 17). Not that she was a Christian – living in North Korea, she may never have heard of Jesus. But let us say that she had somehow stood up to that cruel regime: in effect, hated because she was being true to her best and bravest self. Her character was what Jesus himself accomplished: the ability to stay true to one's own principles in the most difficult of circumstances.  

 

While being true to self, it has also been important for humans to join together for the good of the group, cooperating against a relatively hostile world to hunt or farm or dwell together. If we can, in this early part of the 21st century, beginning with our families, turn our hearts towards one another rather than away from one another, perhaps we have a chance to work together, so that our species (and many others) can survive. I believe this is the beginning of social justice. If a person can be engaged with family members in life-giving ways – clear about one's own thoughts and listening to another without becoming reactive or shutting down or agreeing without question –then one has more capacity to speak one's mind to the world.

 

Staying connected with family members while taking a position for oneself is deceptively difficult. In North Korea, apparently family members don't talk amongst themselves about the Kim regime, except when agreeing with the regime's views. In the U.S., it seems that when it comes to politics, family members often either totally agree or agree not to discuss their differences. It's not that surprising. Human beings are, after all, just mammals – and mammals live in small groups, dedicated to the survival of the group, not the species. Under pressure, group loyalties run high while the capacity to think independently runs low. Whether one is living around 30 BCE in a Jewish community under Roman rule, or in the current era of increasing population and climate upheaval, anxiety and pressures to conform run high.  Maybe humans are up to the challenge. Maybe not. It may begin with being a distinct person within that first tribe, one's family.

 

For reflection

Morning: Where are my chances to work on my own reactivity with family members?

Evening: In conversations with family members, where was I able to be myself?

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The Age to Come

Haggai 1:15b-2:9 and Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98  •  Job 19:23-27a and Psalm 17:1-9  •  2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17  •  Luke 20:27-38

 

In this Sunday's readings, Jesus is confronted by the Sadducees, a Jewish religious sect known for their skepticism about a next life, or resurrection. They put forth a hypothetical involving a woman married seven times to seven brothers, in accordance with Jewish law as each died. Then they asked Jesus: who will be her husband in the next life?

 

Who indeed? Jesus seems to take their question seriously. Perhaps he was himself tired of hackneyed understandings of eternity – perhaps he had himself puzzled over various teachings about a next life. The reading itself is an invitation to consider life's larger points. If the present moment is, as C.S. Lewis said, the place where time touches eternity; that is, if the present moment is the place where one has the best chance to experience the fullness of life in all its possibilities, what can we learn from this text?

 

Jesus begins by saying that while people marry in this world, in the age to come, they will not. Now this is interesting. If there is no marriage, then, by extension, there are no families. All of us continue as children of the same God (v. 36) but that is our only loyalty. Imagining such a future is a stretch. It means putting aside all of our family roles as a thing of the past. No longer the child of one's parents, sister or brother, older or younger, cousin, grandchild, husband or wife, aunt or uncle, mother or father… the list can go on and on, of how one identifies as part of a family system. By extension, one's role in work settings and friend groups is also left behind, along with allegiance to or competition between any groups. In the age to come, we are no longer defined by our relationships.

 

What then will life look like? Who am I, in the world to come? Who are you? In that world, it's my guess that  we will still recognize each other. Somehow the freedom of that space might allow us to know each other more fully than is possible in this world, where so much gets in the way. In this hypothetical age to come, it seems that each of us would be connected to and respectful of every other person. After all, we would all have the same status as 'children of God;' in essence forming a totally egalitarian society where everyone would be our brothers and sisters. Blaming and criticizing each other would no longer an option! Further, there would be no more leaning on another, nor having them lean on you: both ways of losing oneself. In this world, each person follows the dance teacher's advice: put weight in your own feet, and stand.

 

Could a person live as though already in this age to come? Is it really possible to experience each moment as a place where time touches eternity? We still have one foot in this world – and along with it, the opportunity for deep relationships. At the same time, the challenge is to live as though we're aware of another way of being: already there, as the country song tells us. Perhaps all of our relationships can be enhanced by the picture Jesus is painting for the Sadducees and other doubters.

 

For reflection:

Morning: When in my day can I stop and notice the present moment where time touches eternity? What might be different?

Evening: When did I put weight in my own feet, and stand?

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The golden rule

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 and Psalm 149  •  Ephesians 1:11-23  •  Luke 6:20-31; Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 and Psalm 119:137-144  •  Isaiah 1:10-18 and Psalm 32:1-7  •  2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12  •  Luke 19:1-10

 

    This Sunday the church has two options: celebrate All Saint's Day, which is officially observed on November 1, or use the readings for the 31st Sunday of this year. Both sets of readings are listed above. The Luke 6 passage ends with the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And the Luke 19 passage shows how Jesus applies the rule in the life of a most unlikely other, for the passage is about his kindness to Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector.

 

    A chief tax collector was the worst of the worst, a very public figure actively engaged in defrauding others, playing politics and coming out ahead. To put this in perspective, think of the political person whom you and your community despise the most. This is the Zacchaeus character: probably among the richest and the loneliest men in town. Jesus sees him in a tree, where he has scrambled up to get a view. And Jesus selects Zacchaeus, of all the people in the crowd gathered that day, as today's recipient of the golden rule.

 

   The golden rule may be the most misunderstood directive of all time. And it is a directive, given in the imperative voice, meant for action. And yet we so often don't seem to get it. Take the charitable act of visiting a sick person who has lost a lot of weight. The visitor may be alarmed about the patient's weight loss. It may make the visitor anxious to see such frailty, especially if this person is a close friend or family member. But is it useful to spend twenty minutes talking with him about his diet, telling him what he might eat? To what extent does this 'well-meaning' advice calm the visitor down, rather than the sick person? Going back to the golden rule, is this what the visitor would want, if the visitor were the patient? For the brilliance of the directive itself is that it begins with taking a minute to consider what you would want, if you were the person upon whom you are about to unleash your doing unto others.

 

    Doing unto others "as you would have others do unto you" is complicated. What would you have others do unto you? Most of us, I guess, might want something different depending on the time of day! In our worst moments, we want nothing more than to let others be responsible for us. But doing unto others is utterly different from doing for others: the opposite of infantilizing.

 

   Jesus seemed to have a capacity to appeal to the mature side of folks. When Jesus applied the golden rule, he defined himself by his respect for the inherent dignity of each person he met. When he saw Zacchaeus in the tree, he saw a human being. He began there, connecting with him and inviting a shared meal together. By the end of the day, Zacchaeus was a new man, determined to go a different way with his life.

 

    Perhaps when Jesus first saw Zacchaeus, he saw what he was up against. Perhaps he could guess the lifetime of torment that he might have endured: shorter than everyone, bullied from childhood, the kid the family worried about, with absolutely no respect shown from any quarter. The observance of All Saint's Day is a reminder that all of us are saints. What each person is up against is grist for the mill of the redemptive process of life itself.   

 

For reflection

Morning:  What do I want others to 'do unto me'? How can I lead my community in doing unto others?

Evening: When did I find ways to practice the golden rule? Who was generous to me today?

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Punchline

Joel 2:23-32 and Psalm 65  •  Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 and Psalm 84:1-7  •  2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18  •  Luke 18:9-14

 

    In this week's Luke reading, Jesus is telling a story beginning something like this: one time a Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple… It is almost joke-like in its parody of the two positions. The Pharisee, the penultimate self-righteous person, is comparing himself to – and besting – all others. The tax-collector, a despised person in Jesus' time, is comparing himself to no one, hanging his head and calling himself the sinner. To get the joke, so to speak, for the Pharisee, substitute an upright person from your community, a leader who is always present, serving on many committees, and whose giving to charities exceed all others. Next substitute a businessperson, whose wealth comes from a potent combination of cruelty and stinginess, for the tax collector. And yet Jesus is concluding with the punchline that the tax collector – not the Pharisee – went home justified.

 

    What then, does it mean to be justified? If the tax collector is the model of a person who goes home having been judged as all right and the Pharisee as all wrong, what can we learn? To begin, it seems that much of what the church teaches can be tossed. No more worrying about the rules; no more trying to tithe or fast or do any other devotional work for their own sake. The spiritual world, as we see it, is turned upside down. No more following religious practices without our hearts being in it. This is quite a punchline.

 

    Jesus has seen through the Pharisee and all of us in one sweep: pointing to our use of rules to manage our fears. the Pharisee wanted the attention of the room and wanted everyone there to appreciate all he had done. The Pharisee, it seems, gained energy from the praise of others as he fulfilled the requirements of the law. The tax collector, on the other hand, was uninterested in what others were thinking of him.

 

    Part of being human is caring about the expectations of others. But trying to please everyone else – and being afraid of disappointing others – are traps. As a person continually works to impress others, he or she loses her own sense of what matters. Along with the need to impress comes an additional need to compare: did I do it better than others? Not everyone is as blatant as the Pharisee. Some can hide their need for approval. Some can disguise their desperate desire to be better than others – their siblings, perhaps, or their peers, or their colleagues. But the internal damage is done. The constant attention to the approval of others keeps many from realizing the persons they are capable of becoming.

 

    What about the rules then? What about the devotional practices that one, while not completely sure of, or very good at, may think are a good idea? Does a person toss them entirely? Turning to the tax collector, it seems that he does indeed drop them all, for a while. Then, it seems that somewhere on the way toward finding himself, he begins to pray in earnest. Perhaps this is how doubt works, bringing us in the end closer to truth than where we began. In any case, for the tax collector, it is his honesty with himself, his inner focus, as juxtaposed with the Pharisee's emphasis on outward appearances, that make his efforts genuine.  

 

    At the end of the day, the person who went home with a clean slate was the tax collector. Was it because he really beat himself up for what he had done? Is it necessary to feel bad about oneself to be justified? My guess is no. My guess is that humbling oneself involves facing reality about the world, one's small place in it, and where one has fallen short: becoming more and more aware of one's debt to others and the grace of life itself.

 

Reflections

Morning: When am I likely to look for appreciation and praise from others today? Where are my doubts leading me?   

Evening: When did I play the Pharisee today? How can I end this day humbly?

 

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