Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
This week’s texts share, at least implicitly, the common theme of captivity. From Jeremiah’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem and the hard life of servitude facing those exiled to Babylon, to the exiled Psalmist’s wondering about the very possibility of faithfulness for the remnant of God’s people living in a pagan land, to Paul’s words of encouragement to his young friend Timothy even as he (Paul) sits in prison awaiting execution, to Jesus (even Jesus!) reminding us that even when we do genuine good we are merely performing the duties of a bondservant who expects no adulation, we are reminded that whatever freedom we imagine ourselves having is always qualified by the fact of our allegiances or debts to persons or forces beyond ourselves. We are all, in some sense, captives. The question is, to whom or what are we captive?
In the now-classic The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann speaks clearly of our (that is, us Christians) being captive to forces and institutions that are at cross purposes with God’s ongoing work of cosmic healing. Generally, he says, God’s people require prophets who will speak truth to “the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation coopted and domesticated” (p. 3).
The particular form this co-option and domestication take in our day is our uncritical participation in a political economy structured completely around the potential bottomlessness of self-interested desire. “The contemporary American church,” he says, “is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act… Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric” (p. 1).
Among the manifestations of this captivity, as Jessie Larkins wrote in last week’s commentary on the story of Lazarus and the rich man, is a self-deception taking the form of perpetually deferring faithful participation in the work of God – until we’ve passed the next milestone, whether career, family, educational, or otherwise. To steal a line from Robert Earl Keene, that’s a road that goes on forever, and a party that never ends. The good news is that liberation from bondage to success in whatever form is available to us now:
What power there is in preaching this word from Paul to Timothy that reminds our folks caught up in the pursuit of the good life that in Christ they already have everything they need to experience full and abundant life right here, right now; that it’s not after the next raise; not after the kitchen remodel, not once the loans are paid off. It is here. It is now. It is God’s gift to us in Christ. (Jessie Larkins, “Fear of Beggars”)
The gospel is that Jesus invites us now into a whole other kind of captivity, a captivity to himself, to bearing witness by loving God and our neighbor. In his helpful book Church and Israel after Christendom: The Politics of Election, Scott Bader-Saye follows the Jewish theologian David Novak in suggesting that in the post-Christendom we now inhabit, Christians and Jews together form the people of God, that both communities exist in a kind of figurative exile, and that both should be compelled to ask the Psalmist’s question: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:4)”
Novak’s reference to Psalm 137… recalls the context the context of exile as a context of threat, a context in which Israel struggled to live faithfully on foreign soil, to embody the polity of Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon… Even more so than the Jews, who continue to live the tension between land and landlessness, Christians are a displaced people… Such dispossession not only names a certain kind of freedom… but it also maps the pass to peace. For without the dominion, the domain, of Christendom, the church is set free for peace, since it need no longer defend a place in order to be a people (p. 117).
Bader-Saye goes on to echo Brueggemann by noting that from the beginning of God’s saving work in covenanting with Abraham, being God’s people entails a distinct political identity underwritten by a distinct way of life. Surely in this time of exile, living in a land defined by acquisition, one of the essential traits of that identity is a life of habitual, just generosity. Surely such a life is among the ways we can find our voice and sing the Lord’s song, even in the strange land of shiny new things.