Liberal Christian Commentary
This is a weekly Blog on the readings of the Christian Common Lectionary,
hopefully published mid-week, but always at least one day in advance of the current Sunday or "Proper"

Call and Response: Year A Proper 17

Exodus 3:1-15; Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

For an election year, when the people are calling for leadership and deliverance from unjust systems of war and greed, the Elves’ common lectionary readings for Proper 17 are spot-on.  First comes the story of Moses and the burning bush.  God calls Moses into leadership, ready or not.  God also assures Moses that “I am who I am, and I will be what I will be.”  The Covenant with Moses’s ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is reaffirmed.  The alternative reading from the prophet Jeremiah – writing from the remnant community left behind by the marauding Babylonians – has the same message: “. . . I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord.  I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.”  

The Covenant is renewed in the Christian community founded by Paul in Rome.  “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” God’s “wrath” is not human anger or revenge, but is God’s response to human injustice.  God’s Covenant assumes non-violent distributive justice, not violent retribution.  God’s justice is not revenge, but is the consequence of unjust behavior, and will be meted out, sooner or later.  Meanwhile, Paul says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Finally, Matthew’s group of Jewish Christians, under siege by the surrounding communities of Romans and members of local synagogues who did not accept the Christian’s claim that Jesus was the Messiah, found inspiration in Jesus’s words: “Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow me.”

While the passage from Matthew ends with a threat (“. . . the son of Adam is going to come . . . and he will reward everyone according to their deeds”), these readings are not about judgment.  They are about call and response.

Twenty-first century people are no more cynical than their first century counterparts.  Anyone called to national leadership (then or now) runs the risk of corruption by corporate power, special interests, and the traps set by the normal human inability to distinguish between ego-driven power-hunger and the genuine compassion that propels some of us into action.  What would the opposition party of today do with the fact that long ago, before he was called by God to lead the people to freedom, Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew?   (See Exodus 2:11-22.)  What kind of “flip-flopping” politician was Moses?  First he claims a heritage with the dominant Egyptians, then he aligns himself with the oppressed Hebrews?  Who is this man anyway?  He is a stranger in a strange land, a “resident alien” who has to prove his credentials as one of the people before the people will trust him enough to follow him out of bondage.

But what may be more important than individual national leaders is the ability of the people themselves to raise up leaders among their own local communities.  Too often world history has illustrated that the normalcy of civilization always devolves from covenant to empire.  The civilization may begin with a charismatic, visionary leader who embodies distributive justice-compassion, but so long as the people look to strong leaders and not to themselves, the danger is great that the civilization will develop the theology of empirepiety, war, victory, and uneasy peace.

“Piety” means that those values (biblical, family) that sustain civilization are primary.  In ancient Rome, the Emperor and his family were worshiped as gods; in the families of ordinary citizens, the man had absolute power of life and death over his wife, his children, his servants, slaves, and animals.  Relationships among people and between levels of society were strictly controlled by the rules of religion, which leached into civil relationships, both commercial and private.  In 21st Century United States, worship of country has replaced the Emperor and his family in a patriotism that presidential candidates ignore at their political peril; right-wing religious beliefs determine the rules governing marriage, childbirth, the criminal justice system, the medical system, economics  – in short, all matters of life and death.  Such piety has already resulted in various wars, both foreign and domestic:  the war on drugs, terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Wars must be won, according to conventional piety, making victory a prerequisite to peace.  But that peace can never be true peace because piety – the worship of patriotism and conventionality – demands constant war against the adversaries:  other countries, other ways of life, points of view in conflict with the prevailing civil religion, and this constant war – a pious, holy war – demands strong leadership.

In the great story of the Jewish people, God is the one who restores the Covenant after the people have fallen out of God’s distributive justice-compassion.  As we have seen in this Year A cycle, the Covenant was declared to Noah in the form of the rainbow after the flood; reiterated and codified to Abraham, and promised to his descendants.  So long as the people live in justice-compassion, all is well.  As soon as the people turn away from God’s program, calamity strikes.  

The secret to re-establishing and maintaining the Covenant lies in the empowerment of each member of the community – which is what Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about.  Paul reminds his readers/listeners “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Romans 12:3); and “do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:16b).  Instead, he says, follow the example of Jesus: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  

When we stand together, tyranny – whether of the majority or the minority – is overthrown.  But individuals cannot allow themselves to be swayed by promises of first victory, then peace.  Once again, the Elves have left out an important part of Paul’s argument, which appears in the first seven verses of Chapter 13.  Perhaps they do so because those skipped verses seem to contradict Paul’s entire polemic about how “the strength of sin is the law.”  What is going on here?  For a clue, see John Dominic Crossan’s complete discussion in In Search of Paul (pp. 409-411).  For now, however, consider what Paul is actually saying.  “Therefore, one must be subject [to the representatives of the law – the authorities] not only because of wrath [the proper response to injustice] but also because of conscience.”  In other words, be subject to the law not only because of God’s inevitable action in response to injustice, but because of individual conscience.  He continues, “Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”  Behind these words is the call to resistance against unjust taxes, unearned and undeserved riches; resistance to those to whom no respect or honor is due because their actions do not command respect or honor.

So the marks of a true Christian, as spelled out in Romans 12:9-21 are about as far from conventional piety as one can get.  Instead of unquestioning compliance with the law, Paul is saying, pick your fights with deliberation.  Instead of lashing out in search of revenge, leave the consequences of evil action to take their own course, and practice that non-violent resistance that “will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Despite the all-too-human certainty in Matthew 16:27 and 28 that judgment will arrive on the wings of God’s avenging angels, Matthew’s Jesus calls for all who would be followers to radically abandon self-interest.  “What good will it do if you acquire the whole world but forfeit your life” Jesus asks.  “Or what will you give in exchange for your life?”  Taking up your cross is not the struggle to stop smoking, give up chocolate, or tolerate your pushy sister–in-law.  It is a call to participate in the ongoing program of restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.

The imagery of taking up one’s cross is identified with en exclusive Christianity, that has changed the meaning from radical, non-violent action for distributive justice to self-righteous martyrdom on behalf of religious ideology.  But as the continuing story tells us, no one who answers the call and does the work is left out of the kingdom.  “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” says the Psalmist.  

What is your response?