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Reflections on the Sunday lectionary readings

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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Persistence

Jeremiah 31:27-34 and Psalm 119:97-104  •  Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 121  •  2 Timothy 3:14-4:5  •  Luke 18:1-8

 

    Today's story from Luke takes a little unpacking. What's happening is an unjust judge, one who could care less about justice. The way justice worked in Hebrew culture at the time was that people had to bring their own case against their opponents: there was no local district attorney's office keeping the law. To be justified in this world meant that the judge saw things according to one side: here, according to the widow's view.

 

    Widows in the time of Jesus were a vulnerable group. Whether this particular widow was bringing up a legitimate matter, however, Jesus does not say. She might have had a serious worry; on the other hand, she might have been the kind of person who saw everything as a problem, quickly raising an alarm whenever there was the slightest suggestion of a threat to her. Whatever the case, the judge was vexed by her persistence and apparently a little afraid of what might happen next.

 

    The Genesis reading, part of a longer story, provides a story of a person who definitely has something to worry about. At this point in the narrative, Jacob is sleepless, knowing that in the morning he will face his twin brother, Esau, from whom he had earlier stolen a huge inheritance. His brother is across the river with 400 men bearing arms. Jacob has his wives, children, slaves, oxen, donkeys, camels and sheep with him. Up all night, wrestling with a mysterious figure and also presumably with what he had done in his life, by dawn Jacob finds himself blessed and ready to reconcile with his brother.

 

    Although these are very different stories, they have a couple of things in common. The first is a common thread of the complexity of justice. Jacob had used deceit to take from a brother who, for his part, could not be bothered to care about the family's fortune – who had been more interested in grabbing lunch than in attending to the future (Genesis 25:29). Jesus does not even bother to set up the Luke story in a way that lets us know whether the widow's request was in the right, suggesting that the point of the story had nothing to do with assigning blame. Both stories reflect the complexity of life, the necessity of getting beyond finding a scapegoat to understand the patterns happening around us.

 

    Secondly, both stories are about being persistent. The widow and Jacob had identified what mattered to them. Jacob would not let the mysterious figure go. The widow would not let the judge off the hook. Both were willing to put themselves on the line for what they thought was important. 

 

Reflections

Morning:   What am I worried about today? Where would I like to be less fretful and more persistent? When does blame get in the way?

Evening: How did I manage my worries today? How can I put them aside at the end of the day?

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