Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
This week’s lectionary readings invite a nuanced continuation of the theme developed last week by Jessie Larkins, who juxtaposed God’s blistering and apparently final judgment upon Judah from Amos 8 (vv. 1-12) with the very different message of Colossians 1:15-28, where judgment is leveled not so much against a people as an idolatrous way of life that the Cross of Jesus makes it possible to abandon. Again this week we are offered a word of prophetic judgment (from Hosea) and a reiteration of the author of Colossians’ account of what transpires in the cross. However, in both texts we discover a delightful comedic turn that opens to us the possibility of seeing ourselves and our world in surprising new ways.
The passage from Hosea is the familiar story of the prophet’s commissioning. Hosea is told by the LORD to marry a prostitute and have children with her; their marriage is to be a metaphor for Israel’s relationship to God, inasmuch as “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.”
The names given to the three children made by the marriage are all indicative of God’s impending judgment on Israel: The name of the first son, Jezreel (“God sows”), is evocative of God’s judgment on the house of Ahab and Jezebel, which came in the form of an extremely bloody coup d’etat which began in the valley of Jezreel. The second child, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah (“not pitied”) suggests God’s mercy toward Israel is being withdrawn. This is affirmed when another son, Lo-ammi (“not my people”) is born; this name portends not simply the LORD’s withdrawal of mercy, but his outright abandonment of the covenant—“for you are not my people and I am not your God.”
Judgment, however, is not the last word in the passage.
Beginning in verse 10 there is a remarkable shift in tenor, marked by the word “yet.” This paragraph offers a promise of restoration in which Israel’s ranks swell and they go from being “not my people” to being called “children of the living God.” This shift is not to be understood as God’s looking the other way, as if saying “ah, what’s a little idolatry among friends, after all?”—One need not read much further in Hosea to see that there are plenty more pronouncements of judgment. Rather, it is a reminder that in spite of all explicable and inexplicable appearances to the contrary, God’s steadfast love abides and history is moving in the direction of redemption.
And it is precisely appearances and their potential to mislead that concern the author of Colossians. As is the case with much of the Pauline corpus, there is a radical political subtext here through which the author contrasts the ersatz “gospel” of Rome with the good news of the kingdom of God. Having asserted in chapter one that the Jesus to whom readers have been joined through baptism is the eikōn, the embodied presence of the God who spoke Creation into existence, the author turns in chapter two to exhorting readers to consider the practical significance of who they have become in Christ, who, because the “fullness of deity dwells in him bodily,” is in fact the rightful ruler of all Creation and the head of those rulers and authorities who wrongly demand complete obedience and ultimate allegiance.
The deliciously ironic literary climax comes in verse 15, where the author asserts that in the cross Jesus has “disarmed the rulers and authorities, making a public example (or spectacle) of them, triumphing over them in it.” The language here is explicitly martial, alluding to the ritual humiliation of Caesar’s defeated enemies, who were publicly stripped of their arms and insignia and marched through the streets in a grand spectacle that served simultaneously as a warning to those who would dare to oppose the imperium and a victory parade that entertained the people and showed off the capabilities of Caesar’s armies.
Elements of this ritual became part of the practice of crucifixion in the provinces, where seditionists were stripped of their clothing, beaten, and then marched through the streets to the place of their execution. Like the defeated armies of Rome’s enemies, they were made a “public example” (practically a technical term), the primary purpose of which was to terrorize any would-be revolutionaries in the crowds.
It is therefore ironic to an extreme that through the very ritual through which the Romans thought they were ridding themselves of what they believed to be nothing other than another annoying disaffected Jew, Jesus was in fact making a spectacle of Rome, unveiling its pretensions for what they were and demonstrating, in the words of John Howard Yoder, “that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history.”
This is gospel, for it offers us hope in the face of seemingly intractable powers aligned against the hope that God’s peaceable kingdom will come, whether in the form of systemic discrimination, retaliatory violence, inflammatory rhetoric, or the ever-expanding corporate governance of life. Against all of these monstrosities before which our efforts seem so insignificant, this week’s readings remind us that the last word belongs to a merciful God who has already disarmed them.