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Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 AND Psalm 125:1-5 OR Isaiah 35:4-7a AND Psalm 146:1-10, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

As I write, the Democratic Convention is beginning. We’ve just been through the Republican Convention. I’m not sure how important the platforms of each party are, but there seem to be stark contrasts between the messages the candidates are putting out there.

What if they based their platforms on this week’s lectionary readings? Too often politicians seem to be playing to an assumption that we all want to get richer—and, perhaps unfortunately, they may not be too far from the mark. At best, the promise is that everybody will get richer; at worst, there is an undertone of the rich getting richer, or at least protecting what they have. Often there’s an appeal to the “middle class.” Rarely does anyone promise that the poor will be better off. If anyone ran explicitly on a platform that advocated redistribution of wealth, they probably wouldn’t get elected.

If this week’s readings reflect anything of God’s platform, it seems far from what we’re hearing in this season of political silliness. Unfortunately, the silliness has serious consequences. I don’t know how the Democratic Convention will end the week. Let’s hope its platform contains at least hints that someone has read this week’s lectionary readings.

There are plenty of themes that could be incorporated into political platforms.

The reading from Proverbs downplays the importance of riches, saying, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches . . . The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” (Proverbs 22:1-2) We are warned against sowing injustice. (vs. 8) “Do not rob the poor . . . for the Lord pleads their cause . . .” (vss. 22-23)

Psalm 146 tells us to put our trust in the Lord, “who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind . . . The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” (Psalm 146:5-9)

James warns against acts of favoritism, contrasting “a person with gold rings” and “a poor person in dirty clothes.” How differently do we treat such contrasts? (James 2:1-4) “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (vs. 5) “ . . . if you show partiality, you commit sin.” (vs. 9) “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?” (vss. 15-16)

Humans through the ages have dreamed of a time when everything is made right and we all dwell together in harmony, peace, and justice. In Jewish history, the dream was often restated at the coronation of each king, not unlike our hoping that each new president will bring a new day. The dream became incorporated into the hope for a coming Messiah, just as, in our following of political campaigns, it sometimes seems like we’re hoping for another Messiah. The hope is there in the reading from Isaiah, chapter 35. The blind shall see and the deaf hear, “the lame shall leap like a dear” (Isaiah 35:5-6). The early hearers of these words would have been aware that they were often used in connection with a general reign of justice (as they are in the reading from Psalm 146), with a turning of things upside down and setting all things right.

In Psalm 146, though, we are warned against our “trust in princes . . . in whom there is no help. When their death departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3-4) It sounds like the cry of many today who have lost all hope in the political process. Although there are days when I get pretty discouraged, I’m not quite that pessimistic, but the caution is noted. The election of the next president of the United States will not bring a millennium of peace and justice. It would be encouraging, though, to feel that whoever is elected—and those who serve in the next administration and in congress—have read the lectionary readings before us this week—not only read them but taken them seriously. They are, I believe, part of God’s platform. James reminds us that unless we act on such beliefs, our faith is dead. (James 2:17)

The Bible is often explicit, sometimes to our discomfort, about the consequences of our actions. Action for justice is no exception. “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, and to those who are upright in their hearts. But those who turn aside to their own crooked ways the Lord will lead away with evildoers.” (Psalm 125:4) “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity . . .” (Proverbs 2:8) “ . . . if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:9)

While we may not believe in a God who zaps us every time we fall short, what would a world look like in which the checklists we used to evaluate candidates and political leaders asked about their attitudes toward and treatment of the poor? What if our courts were guided by the principles in this week’s readings? What if we were hauled to court for showing partiality in our dealings and relationships?

Before turning to the Gospel reading for the coming Sunday, I want to note a puzzling couple of verses in the middle of the reading from James. James 2:12 mentions “the law of liberty.” If we go back to James 1:25, we also find these words: “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” No commentary I have offers a definitive interpretation, but the phrase is likely connected with the summarization the Law into loving our neighbor. It affirms our ability, our freedom, our liberty to choose to do the right thing, to choose to love. Loving, after all, is the only “law” that matters. I find it significant also that the very next verse in the reading before us emphasizes mercy and declares that “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) Every political platform contains obscure, almost indecipherable, sections. Maybe this one is no different. The theme of impartiality, however, is quite clear.

Although I believe the Gospel lesson for this Sunday also offers the same theme, we could get tangled up in the way the story is presented. Mark 7:27-37 actually contains two stories. It is the first that has caused more than one person to scratch his or her head. A woman “whose little daughter has an unclean spirit” comes to Jesus and asks him to cast the spirit out. (vss. 25-26) The woman is a Gentile. Jesus offers what seems to be a fairly harsh response: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s good and throw it to the dogs.” (vs. 27)

It seems like he is comparing her to a dog. Many have noted that it was common for Jews to refer to Gentiles as dogs. When the same story is recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus is more explicit, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) The version in Mark, without that reference, is probably more consistent with the earliest manuscripts.

It’s more important, however, to note that the word “dogs” is the word used to describe the beloved family pet who hovers under the table hoping a scrap will fall on the floor. When Gentiles were referred to as “dogs” the word used was the one which described wild dogs which roamed about scavenging. Some suggest that Jesus was joking with the woman, comparing her to a beloved pet.

However the story has come to us, for whatever reason, the woman has a ready retort. She is the one who declares the Gospel of inclusion in this case. “Sir,” she says to Jesus, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) In today’s world, with so much spent on the care of pets, it might well be a legitimate concern that pets are being fed at the cost of children. That’s not what the story is about. Nor is it a text in support of trickle-down economics. It’s about there being plenty of food, plenty of love, plenty of healing to go around. Those who have been defined as outside the circle, or hidden beneath the table, are included—and the truth comes to us because a woman spoke up in response to Jesus—whether he was joking or not.

The punch line of the second story, about a man who could neither hear nor speak being healed (Mark 7:32-35), reminds us again of that messianic vision which is God’s platform. “ . . . he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” (vs. 37) Just as there are code words in today’s political discourse, these few words are enough to stir the hearts of those who hope and work for peace and justice in this world.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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