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
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
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
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.