The King’s Business:  Year A Proper 7

Genesis 21:8-21; Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Psalm 69:7-18; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

A friend of mine quotes his Oberlin seminary Old Testament professor, Herbert Gordon May, regarding the meaning and interpretation of scripture: “context, context, context.”  The readings for Proper 7 are all lifted wholesale out of context, and cobbled together like medieval motley.  Even conventional dogmatic themes fail to form recognizable patterns in this “incongruous mixture” (as the Oxford Dictionary of American Language defines “motley”).  Not to pursue this metaphor too far, but “playing the fool” by wearing motley implies astute criticism of the King’s business.  The Elves have not only missed the point of the King’s business; they have failed to present any point at all.  All bets are off this week.  Pick a reading and preach on it.

Taken out of context, the reading from Genesis picks up at the end of the feud between Abraham’s wife Sarah and Abraham’s mistress, or second wife, or slave, or concubine – choose  your epithet – Hagar.  Ishmael was not really a bastard, but definitely not the fruit of the first womb.  In order not to derail God’s plan for Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are thrown out into the desert.  What a rich soup of themes for the 21st Century: Patriarchy; women’s liberation; selfishness; stupidity; exploitation; breach of trust.  But the story leaves us with too many questions:  Did Ishmael really become the ancestor of Islam?  Why did God intervene to save Hagar in the desert, but not in time to preserve family relationships in Abraham’s camp?  What is the connection with the Egyptians? Why are we reading this text of terror?

In the alternative Old Testament reading, Jeremiah is caught between what God demands that he say, and the social and personal consequences of saying it.  He blames God for enticing him into the prophetic life, then abandoning him to the persecution of his enemies.  Nevertheless, by the end of the reading, Jeremiah has to rely on God’s promise of deliverance.

The portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans is plucked out of the midst of Paul’s argument about grace – the free gift from God that renders everyone just.  The unwary may find themselves floundering in the waters that equate baptism with death and burial, and resurrection with a heavenly afterlife.

Finally, Matthew, the liturgist, strings together sayings of Jesus like a litany, designed to bolster the courage of believers under the constant barrage of criticism and persecution – much like Jeremiah.  But Matthew ups the ante: “Whoever loves father or mother . . . son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  Judgment of unbelieving sinners is the name of Matthew’s cherry-picking game.

For my purposes here, Professor May’s “context, context, context” has two parts.  The first is the political, social, and spiritual conditions that gave rise to the original writings.

If we look at the circumstances within which each of these readings was created, we find that they were all written within a context of alienation and exile.  The Abrahamic saga is part of the foundational myth of the Jewish nation and religion.  Defining who is legitimately part of the authentic Hebrew people was vitally important to both the remnant exiled to 6th Century B.C.E. Babylon, and those left behind in an alienated Jerusalem.  The prophet Jeremiah was a living witness and interpreter of that time and place.  Several hundred years later, the fledgling community of Christians in sacked Jerusalem faced the same kinds of issues: Who are we?  Who was our spiritual leader and guide?  What is our purpose?  Who is part of our community, and who is not, and how do we decide?  

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is a bit different.  Written perhaps 10-15 years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Paul thoroughly debates the definition of who is a Christian and what it means to follow Jesus.  But even though Paul has chosen his mission to the Pagan/non-Jewish Roman world, he too is a political and religious exile.  What can be more inflammatory to the Empire and to established religious tradition than to claim that “no human being will be acquitted in God’s sight by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin”?  What greater threat to an economic and political system based on patronage than a community where everything is shared in common, and no one possesses more than anyone else?

The second aspect of “context” is the internal integrity of the story or argument.  John Dominic Crossan makes it clear that the first order of business in scriptural interpretation is to “know the story and get it right.”  God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (HarperSanFrancisco 2007), pp. 128-131.  I have pointed out before that it is vastly unfair – if not unconscionable – to cherry-pick Paul’s words from Romans (or anywhere else) in order to perpetuate an institutional theological misinterpretation.  (See Repent for the Kingdom 5)  It is equally unconscionable to mis-use portions of foundational myths to the same end.  When those myths are further bastardized to perpetuate present-day global political empire, Paul’s assertion that “the strength of sin is the law” takes on particular and tragic importance.

The Abrahamic story winds its way through the first five books of the Christian Old Testament.  To get the entire story straight, and explore its meaning for 21st Century political realities, is beyond the scope of this Commentary.  Perhaps this is the best argument for not following the Revised Common Lectionary, and instead concentrating on entire threads over a series of Sunday mornings.  An alternative is certainly extended Bible study for all levels of church members, from pre-school to senior adults.  The problem of course is curriculum.  The straight story needs to be told from the cradle onwards, and without the dogmatic gloss that the New Testament supersedes the Old.

The prophets are no less prone to misinterpretation out of context, but their truncated stories are more easily dealt with in one sermon.  Jeremiah wants the people to return to the old ways of the Covenant, and he is apparently willing to compromise with the Babylonians in order to avoid national destruction.  This gets him in trouble with those who want to establish Judah as a kingdom in its own right.  Jeremiah’s dilemma is familiar to everyone confronted with the conundrums that accompany living in God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  He is compelled to speak truth to power, and we catch him at a weak moment – or would if the Elves allowed us to read on past the momentary relief Jeremiah finds in reminding himself that “[the Lord] has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.”  But in the very next verse, “Cursed be the day on which I was born!” Jeremiah sobs.  “Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ . . . Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?”

What Jeremiah prays for is deliverance.  What the Apostle Paul promises in Romans 6:1-11 is transformation.  For Proper 7, that transformation happens in the act of baptism: We are then dead and buried to the old life, which was defined by adherence to the law, and we are raised just as the Christ was raised to “walk in newness of life.”  The key words here are “death” and “life,” not “crucifixion” and “resurrection.”  “Crucifixion” and “resurrection” are political terms, which Paul does not hesitate to use elsewhere.  Jesus’s death is not just a death.  It happened in the context of Roman injustice.  Jesus’ resurrection is God’s action in the world, continuing to counter imperial  injustice.  But using the words “death” and “life” confronts Christians with the day-to-day reality of participation with God in that same continuing action.  

Returning to the opening metaphor, this day-to-day participation is indeed the King’s business, which the Elves and the writer of Matthew miss.  Once we know the political and spiritual context that Matthew was addressing, we cannot fault him for this; nevertheless, the aphorisms recorded by Matthew cannot be taken literally and applied uncritically to 21st Century issues.  Two of the aphorisms were agreed by the Jesus Seminar scholars as authentically going back to the historical Jesus.  These are: “After all, there is nothing veiled that won’t be unveiled, or hidden that won’t be made known”; and “What do sparrows cost?  A penny apiece?  Yet not one of them will fall to the earth without the consent of your Father.  As for you, even the hairs on your head have all been counted.  So don’t be so timid; you’re worth more than a flock of sparrows.”  However, the original context for either of them has been long lost, and their position in Matthew’s litany seems arbitrary – whatever Jesus meant when he said them, they have been reduced to non-sequiturs, and their intent compromised.

Continuing the metaphor, and seriously playing the fool, the rest of the aphorisms listed by Matthew are clearly out of character with a Jesus who taught distributive justice-compassion.  They are full of retributive judgment, and hints of violence against non-believers, and it is highly likely that Jesus never said any of them.  They were essential to the survival of the early Christian community.  But are they essential to a 21st Century Christianity?

I close with another quote from Crossan’s In Search of Paul, from the chapter in which he thoroughly discusses Paul’s theology, and specifically the letter to the Romans: “Christ’s ‘death’ always meant for Paul the terrible death of an unjust execution, the horrible death of a shameful crucifixion.  It did not mean death as the normal end of life.  His theology was not actually built on Christ’s death and resurrection as if Christ had died at home in Nazareth and rose there on the third day.  That death meant injustice and violence.  Here then, after two thousand years and especially as the twenty-first century’s terrorism replaces the twentieth century’s totalitarianism, we ask this question: Is it death or is it violence that is the last enemy of God?  Or better, is it unjust and violent death that is the last enemy of God?” p. 389.

Here is the astute criticism the King’s Business demands.