Weird Justice

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I write the rest of this meditation. I think it is imperative that we see ourselves as the tenants in the vineyard Jesus describes. It is clear at the end of the gospel that Jesus is addressing the Pharisees and scribes of his day – the ones who saw themselves as righteous and holy. I think that we Christians in the 21st century are now often the ones who see ourselves as righteous and holy. We mostly presume we are good people trying to do the right thing – and that can get in the way of hearing Jesus’ message to us in today’s parable.

With that in mind, let us consider this vineyard that the landowner has created. It is a carefully-planted vineyard with a tower, wine presses, and a fence around it. The owner has done as much preparation as he could to dedicate this space. Read more

More Righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 58:1-12
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

In a world where ever more people think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” one may be suspicious of any serious concern with and reflection on ritual observance. That suspicion may draw some energy from this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah 58. The people of God to whom Isaiah shouts out like a trumpet seem genuinely baffled by the criticisms lodged against them. Their ritual observance seems to have been devout. They seek God. They “delight to know [God’s] ways.” They fast, humble themselves, and observe the Sabbath.

As we read further in this passage, it is clear that all of this ritual devotion is completely disconnected from the common life of their society. There is rampant injustice in their commercial dealings. They are indifferent and inattentive to the needs of the poor. They neglect their own family members. As the LORD makes clear, these are the activities that form the basis of worship that pleases God.

It would be a mistake, however, to see ritual devotion and social justice as mutually exclusive. Read more

Where Mercy and Justice Meet

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 2:18-24 OR Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

The readings this Sunday are thickly planted with pastoral land mines. Even the revised common lectionary, which typically supplies a kinder, gentler Old Testament alternative to the Catholic selection, offers a passage from Job with a theologically problematic encounter between God and Satan and an unkind reference to women. You decide if that’s safer to preach on than God’s fashioning the woman from the man’s rib. Happy is the preacher observing World Communion Sunday this week.

God knows – and we take as a matter of faith – that Scripture is meant to help and unite, not hinder and divide, but these selections have often been sources of discord. They are hard readings some have used as weapons, particularly against women. They are interpreted differently between and within churches and denominations, dividing the Body of Christ into a host of fractious camps and labels: liberal from conservative, progressive from traditionalist, “accommodators” from “fundamentalists.” Dangerous texts, indeed.

What makes them dangerous is that they touch bedrock aspects of our personhood: bodies, gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships. Many current (and former) Christians conclude that the Church has selectively misinterpreted such passages across the centuries, mercilessly enforcing literalist readings of scattered passages while ignoring behaviors the scriptures more forcefully and consistently condemn: ignoring the poor, harming a neighbor, withholding hospitality from strangers. Agree or disagree, the challenging task remains: how do we, as a Christian community, read these texts together? Read more

The Unfairness of God’s Justice

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

The twentieth century political philosopher, John Rawls, summarily restated his most famous work, A Theory of Justice, as “Justice as Fairness.” Many who know little of his learned, complex argument may have heard of his “Original Position,” the thought experiment that serves as creation myth for Rawls’ social contract.

Rawls asks his reader to imagine a meeting where all parties choose a common social structure from behind a “veil of ignorance.” No one knows his/her/its origin, history, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, talents, abilities, or conception of the Good. This artifice, Rawls believes, forces participants to choose the basic rights and duties of citizens impartially, rationally, and fairly — and Rawls confidently tells us what they will decide.

Many of Rawls’ subsequent conclusions are appealing, but his starting point strikes me as a progressive “just so” story. For Rawls, it seems, people emptied of nearly every personal quality will nevertheless share his late twentieth century bourgeois liberal values.

This week’s lectionary readings envision a radically different universe. Read more

Trusting the Way

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Gathered together in an upper room with Jesus, the disciples give Jesus their full attention. They’ve just shared this meal with him and watched him kneel and wash everyone’s feet. They’re shocked to hear that one of them is a betrayer and they’re highly aware that outside the doors of their small room, the powers are organizing to put a stop to their small movement that only a few days before looked like it might become a successful revolution. Now, things look dire. To top it all, Jesus tells them that he is leaving them and they can’t go with him. So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” it is because their hearts are troubled. Read more