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

It Can’t Come Soon Enough

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

In the undergraduate Christian Ethics course I teach just about every semester, we are talking this week about a notion many of my students seem to regard as quaint, if not downright archaic, namely sin. Among the more important points I have tried to highlight is one well-worn in many strands of Christian tradition; sin is self-destructive, in that it separates us from our true ultimate end and therefore from the possibility of genuine flourishing as women and men made in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Insofar as it is self-destructive, moreover, sin is by and large its own punishment, for it entails forever restlessly seeking happiness in places it doesn’t exist, except as the palest simulacra, which are bound always to disappoint. Read more

Enter Into the Lord’s Joy

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

Our Gospel reading for today comes from Matt 25. Paired as it is with the passages from Zephaniah and 1Thessalonians, it seems to paint a rather stark and uncomfortable picture of judgment. This is the sort of thing that is easily caricatured by those throughout the ages who have thought of Christianity as little more than a religion whose adherents’ faith is based on the fearful desire to avoid some future judgment by God.

Although Christians have from time to time evangelized the world by calling people to believe in order to be saved from God’s coming judgment, these passages cannot easily be enlisted in such a project. Strikingly, the readings from Zephaniah and Matthew speak about God’s judgment of believers, not unbelievers.

In fact, the gospel reading for this Sunday is part of a series of parables that Jesus tells in quick succession. Each one builds upon the theme of God’s coming judgment of believers at the end of the ages. These three stories themselves build on Jesus’ response to a question from his followers about when God’s coming judgment will happen. Jesus’ answer takes up all of Matthew 24 and is filled with a wide variety of confusing images and symbols. These do little to answer the disciples’ question. In fact, they seem designed to short circuit this question of when all these things will happen. Instead they focus on being ready at all times. 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

The Quality of Mercy

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 16:2-15 OR Jonah 3:10-4:11
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

There are Sundays when it seems that God simply can’t catch a break. In one Old Testament reading, the people of God grumble and complain because they don’t have enough; they are worried about where their next meal will come from; they do not believe that Moses or God can provide; they are uncomfortable with having to rely on God.

Alternatively, if you opt for the reading from Jonah, God gets slammed by Jonah for being merciful to the Ninevites; for treating them better than they deserve; for being steadfast in love: Complaints for not providing enough, complaints for providing too much. Jonah is probably tied more directly to the gospel reading, but before that, we should talk about Paul.

From the depths of a Roman prison Paul writes to his friends in Philippi. His friends are under some pressure from hostile forces because of their faith in Christ. Later in the epistle he worries that this hostility may lead them to start grumbling against God and each other. He subtly notes that this is not the first time that that people of God had “grumbled,” and he urges them to avoid this (Phil 2:12-14).

Grumbling, however, is not Paul’s primary focus. The thing he is most concerned with, the thing is asks them to do first and foremost is this: “Order your life together in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Paul’s plea is not directed to individuals, but to a whole community. Ordering a community’s life together is, at its most basic level, the work of politics. The politics Paul urges on the Philippians is one that is worthy of the gospel of Christ. Read more