Category: Ordinary Time

The Perfect High Priest – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22B (Hebrews 7)

Hebrews
7:23-28 New Revised Standard Version

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.

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                When we arrive at chapter seven of Hebrews, we again encounter a conversation about the priesthood of Jesus. As in chapter 5, so in chapter 7 we are told that Jesus, the Son of God, holds a priesthood different from that of the Levitical/Aaronic priesthood. Instead, he is a priest like Melchizedek, the mysterious priest/king of Salem who receives tithes from Abraham after Abraham’s military victory (Heb. 7:15-17). Now, Jesus takes that same priesthood, and unlike the Levitical priests, death is not an impediment to his continuation in office. Instead, he will hold this office forever, making intercession for those who approach God through him. That is, Jesus serves as the mediator between humanity and God. Thus, he mediates for us, as our high priest, salvation.

            The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have left out the preceding verses that contrast the new and the old covenants. Unfortunately, this contrast between the two covenants has led to the assumption that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism as God’s covenant people. The old priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is set aside because it cannot do what Jesus as a priest according to the priesthood of Melchizedek can do. That is because Jesus has been declared a priest forever. It’s understandable that the lectionary creators skipped over the verses that give rise to supersessionism, but they provide the foundation for our reading. Therefore, we must wrestle with them, even if we reject the implications.

            The reading for the day is rooted in the author’s reinterpretation/midrash of Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The assumption is that Melchizedek is superior to Abraham, from whom he receives tithes, as well as Moses and Aaron, through whom God makes a covenant with Israel at Sinai. The difference between Jesus and his predecessors is that his appointment is everlasting. It is not affected by death, so he does not have a successor.

            These verses chosen for this reading by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary focus more specifically on the longevity of a priest. Because the Levitical priests are human, and as a result, they sin they must offer sacrifices on their own behalf. Additionally, due to their human state and thus affected by sin, they also die. That’s just the way things work in the world. But Jesus is different and his priesthood is unique. That is why he has taken up the priesthood of Melchizedek, which doesn’t appear to have any successor. Melchizedek appears and then disappears (Genesis 14). With this priesthood open, Jesus receives his appointment to this priesthood, which is an expression of a divine oath as revealed in Psalm 110:4.

            Hebrews raises an interesting question about the priesthood. Formerly, there were many priests because death took them away from their posts. Now, we have this perfect, sinless, high priest, who lives forever and who can mediate our salvation before God forever. The Jewish answer to this assertion would likely be that they understand that the priests were many and would be taken in death, but priests are mediators, not saviors. Their authority is not inherent in their person but in the office itself. Hebrews suggests that it is not just the office but the person who mediates salvation. Is one really superior to the other, or just different? What distinguishes the two is that Jesus’ priesthood is undertaken not in an earthly Temple, but a heavenly one. For a first-century reader, who viewed reality in terms of a three-storied universe, this made perfect sense. But we no longer live with that worldview. We may continue to use that language in worship, but I’m assuming most of us, at least those reading this post don’t view the world in that way. So, whether we like it or not, we have engaged in a bit of demythologization. But, if we work with the passage theologically, then we can envision Jesus’ heavenly ministry of mediation.

            Although it is spelled out more clearly in 1 John (1 Jn. 2:21), Hebrews also embraces the idea that Jesus is the advocate with the Father is the promise that we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous. Therefore, unlike other priests, Jesus doesn’t have to offer sacrifices for himself. That is because he is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). For the author of this homily, this should give us confidence in Jesus’ ability to intercede on our behalf. In fact, Jesus’ priestly offering comes once and for all, as he offered himself up to God. That is because he is the Son who has become the priest forever. In this, there is good news!

            As I pondered the message of this passage, I began thinking about how we speak of priesthood within the Christian community. Some parts of the community have clergy who are called priests. They are called upon to officiate at the altar. They are priests because they mediate the relationship between God and humanity through the sacraments. The question that has arisen through time is whether the efficacy of the sacraments is dependent on the holiness of the priest. Hebrews would suggest that this is true. The offerings of the Levitical priesthood are deemed insufficient because they, like us, are sinners. But Jesus’ offering is effective because of his holiness.

            In the early centuries, when persecution was rampant, questions emerged about the efficacy of sacraments administered by priests and bishops who had saved themselves by offering sacrifices to the emperor or turning over scriptures to the authorities, or simply signing affidavits that acknowledged the divinity of the emperor. There were those in the church who concluded that any sacraments, including baptisms, performed by such priests were, invalid. In fact, ordinations of priests by bishops who had saved themselves in this way were invalid. Thus, any sacraments administered by these priests were invalid. The reasoning was similar to what we see here. The validity of Jesus’ offering is rooted in his holiness. Augustine answered those who argued in this way (the primary group he addressed are known as the Donatists), by suggesting that the validity of the sacraments was due to the holiness of God present in the church, not in the holiness of the individual priest. For those of us who are members of traditions that do not speak of their clergy as priests, but instead speak of the priesthood of all believers, how might understand this word about the priesthood of Jesus speak to our priestly calling? We might even ask what this passage says to us about leadership in the church.

            When it comes to leadership, none of us are “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” In other words, we’re not divine beings. Perhaps we ought to leave the priestly duties to Jesus, who is properly equipped to intercede on our behalf. As Roger Ferlo notes: “In effect, the passage declares, priests and ministers come and go, but Christ holds his priesthood permanently.” Therefore, “Christ holds title to the word ‘priest.’ He holds the true priestly authority—and authority characterized not by power but by humility—offering a sacrifice to God on our behalf ‘once and for all’ (v. 27) when he offered himself.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 208]. Perhaps if we clergy understand this word, then we will better understand our own calling. Christ is the only true head of the church.   

            Christ’s calling to the priesthood is rooted in his status as the Son (that is, the Son of God) who has been made perfect forever through his sufferings. As the Son of God, who lives forever, there is continuity in his priestly ministry. Because of this continuity, we don’t have to worry about whether we have a priest to mediate the relationship between us and God, because as the author will later add, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  

            So, while recognizing the possibility of supersessionism in the passage, might we contemplate the promise that Christ has been, is, and always will be with us. Yes, Priests and pastors come and go, but Jesus is always there for us. 

Jesus: Priest Forever – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21B (Hebrews 5)

Abraham Meets Melchizedek  (Mosaic in Basilica di San Marco)

Hebrews 5:1-10 — New Revised Standard Version

Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was. 

So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son, 
    today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
    according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

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                Priests were ubiquitous in the ancient religious world. Every nation and tribe had priests who were tasked with mediating the divine-human relationship. As Paul noted regarding the Athenians, they were extremely religious with idols to just about every god under the sun, including an altar to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:22-24). This priestly work often included offering sacrifices, sometimes to appease the gods and at others to give thanks for the blessings provided to the people. Every religion and deity had its own requirements. What was true more broadly was true of the Jewish people. Jewish life, at least theoretically, centered on the Temple (though many, perhaps a majority of Jews, lived far from Jerusalem, and so they found other ways to connect with what was centered in Jerusalem). Thus, the Jews had priests who mediated that divine-human relationship, with the priestly responsibilities spelled out for the most part in the Torah (especially the Book of Leviticus). Since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, it should not surprise us that early Christians envisioned Jesus taking on a priestly role. The tricky thing was that Jesus was not of priestly descent, and Judaism was pretty explicit about who could be a priest and who could not. Jesus didn’t fit the bill. So how might Jesus be a priest while not being of the priestly line? The answer to the question is found here in the Book of Hebrews.

                We’ve already encountered a reference to Jesus’ priestly role in the previous lectionary reading from Hebrews 4:12-16. In that reading, we’re told that “we have a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God.” Jesus, acting as our high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses,” because just like us he has been tested. Though tested, he did not sin. Therefore, he provides the way for us to go boldly before the throne of God and receive grace and mercy. Our reading for the week picks up where we left off the week before. In this passage, the author (we do not know the identity of the author or the recipients of the book) takes us deeper into a conversation about what it means for Jesus to be our high priest.

                 As we will see, according to the Book of Hebrews Jesus is a “priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” This is the answer to the question of how Jesus can be our high priest despite not having the expected pedigree for a priest within Judaism. Before we get to Jesus’ priesthood, we must first understand the nature and roles that describe and define the Jewish priesthood. The first thing to note is that high priests are chosen from among humans. As such they are “put in charge of things pertaining to God,” acting on behalf of the people of God.

                The first responsibility given to the priests is offering gifts to God and making sacrifices for sins. This is important because as we move further into Hebrews, it is Jesus’ role in dealing with our sins that takes center stage. Here, we’re focused on the Aaronic priesthood. These priests can deal “gently with the ignorant and wayward since he himself is subject to weakness. Now, remember that Jesus, acting as a priest, can sympathize with our weaknesses, but unlike this priest, he doesn’t sin. Because this priest is liable to sin, he must offer sacrifices on his own behalf. It’s important to note here that the sacrifices did their job. They brought things back into balance. The problem is that they have to be repeated regularly. It’s a bit like medicine I take. If I stop taking it, I’ll go back to where I was. So, the priests offer the sacrifices regularly. But what if there was a sacrifice that was offered once and for all. It would be like taking a pill that solved my problem once and for all.

                We have a contrast between the normal priestly duty and the one taken up by Jesus. In addition to that information, we are reminded that one doesn’t decide to become a priest of one’s own accord. This is not just any job. It is open only to those whom God has called. This is what happened with Aaron and his descendants. God appointed Aaron as high priest and gave to his tribe (Levites) responsibility for the religious life of the people. In time, according to the Old Testament records, the political authority would be given to another family, that is, until the monarchy fell with the Babylonian captivity. In Second Temple Judaism, the priesthood took on more political authority, especially during the Maccabean period.

                Of  course, the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Judah, by way of David (thus marking his kingly role). Not being of the Aaronic or Levitical line, Jesus didn’t have a natural path to becoming a priest. So, if he were to serve in this position, he would need to claim a different kind of priesthood from that of Aaron, which was tied to the Jerusalem Temple (before 70 CE). With that in mind, Hebrews offers a different path that draws on references to a mysterious figure who appears only briefly in Genesis and one of the Psalms.

                Before we get to that priestly line, we need to hear again the word about vocation. Hebrews notes that “Jesus didn’t glorify himself in becoming a high priest.” Instead, it was the one (God) who sent him who glorifies him. Thus, Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that the priestly status is a high one. Therefore, a person has to be appointed/called, just as Aaron was.

                Hebrews tells us how Jesus was called to the priesthood. In making the case for this unique form of priesthood that has similarities to the Aaronic priesthood, but is different, the author quotes first from Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Heb. 5:5). In other words, he has divine status.  Taking note of the divine acknowledgment of Jesus’ status as Son of God, the author continues by quoting from Psalm 110:4. That passage declares of Jesus: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who is Melchizedek? He is the mysterious priest-king of Salem (Jerusalem), who comes out and meets Abraham after a military victory and to whom Abraham offers tithes in gratitude for the victory (Gen. 14:17-21). We should note that this priesthood is older, according to the biblical story, than the Aaronic priesthood. Thus, in the mind of the author, it is superior. Though not mentioned by the author, by connecting Jesus’ priesthood to Melchizedek, we are told that Jesus is both king and priest (as was true of the mysterious Melchizedek).

                While the author affirms Jesus’ divine status as Son of God, the author also affirms Jesus’ humanity, inviting us to reflect on the “days of his flesh” when he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Here is a reminder that Jesus did his priestly work from the cross, where he offered prayers to the one who could save him from death but chose not to do so. That is because he learned obedience amid suffering. This is a difficult passage to deal with because it suggests that God subjected the Son to suffering. Even if the Son freely chose to accept the assignment, was it necessary for him to suffer on the cross to be made perfect and achieve salvation for those who obey God? To the author, the answer is yes, and it undergirds his calling as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. In other words, the offering made by the priest holding the Melchizedek order is to offer himself (once and for all) to reconcile God and humanity.  As such, Jesus holds the distinction of being our high priest, not for a moment, but forever!

Naked Before God – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 20B (Hebrews 4)

Hebrews 4:12-16  New Revised Standard Version

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.

 14 Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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                Jesper Svartvik writes in a critical essay published in the Christian Century  that the Book of Hebrews is the most dangerous book in the New Testament for Jews. That danger is due to the way in which it has been used down through time to elevate Christianity at the expense of Judaism, whose covenant relationship is said to be obsolete. When read this way, Hebrews suggests that a superior covenant is now in place. That which is obsolete is of little or no value. Thus, Judaism has been placed on the dust heap of history. God has moved on to Christianity. This message of obsolescence and Christian superiority serves as the foundation for supersessionism and it has given rise to all manner of anti-Jewish efforts down through history, culminating in the Holocaust/Shoah. So if we do not wish to embrace supersessionism but wish to profitably read, teach, and preach from this book it does seem that we will need to tread carefully.

                This reading from Hebrews 4 that has been chosen for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost appears to be less susceptible to supersessionism, but we will need to keep a close eye on how we interpret and use this passage. What we do see here is an elevated view of Jesus’ personhood. He is the  “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” who can sympathize with our weaknesses since he too has been tested but without sinning. Therefore, we can go before the throne of grace with boldness so we can receive God’s grace and mercy. While the second part of the reading speaks directly to the ministry of Jesus, our high priest, the first part can be read in this way as well. Though it has often been read in reference to the Bible, I’m not sure that this is the most appropriate reading.

                In the first paragraph, we read that the “word of God is living and active,” and it judges our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts. Thus, we stand naked before this word, so that we are laid bare before the one who judges us. The message here is that we can’t hide from God. God sees us as we are, that can be a bit scary if you ask me. I like to pretend that I can hide from God’s eyes, though I know I can’t. That’s the first message, but the second one offers a bit of relief from the rather scary message present in the first paragraph. You see, Jesus is our high priest who understands our predicament. He’s been tested also even though he didn’t give in to the temptations we all face as human beings. Nevertheless, he understands!

                The passage that the lectionary offers us is relatively brief. It’s just five verses. Though it is brief it does pack a lot into these sentences. As I noted above, the reading begins with a statement concerning the word of God, which “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” While I have often seen this used to speak of the Bible—and it could speak of Scripture (at least the Old Testament)—I believe it might be better read in reference to Jesus, who according to John 1 is the word of God (Jn 1:1-14).

                Now, reading Scripture can open our hearts and minds to challenging messages that may have the feel of a sword piercing into our inner being, so that we are laid naked before God. We call that being convicted by the message of Scripture. However, when read in the larger context, it seems to me that the author of Hebrews has in mind something like what John speaks of in chapter one of the Gospel. When read this way, the reference to the word of God takes on life in the person of Jesus. It becomes not just words on a page but a living and active person. In his words and his actions, he becomes that two-edged sword that cuts to the quick. While Hebrews uses the word sword here, might a scalpel be an even better image? In either case, this sharp instrument divides soul and spirit and judges the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” No matter how hard you try, you cannot hide from him. In fact, we are all “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

                As we ponder this word, we might think back to the Garden. Although in the beginning Adam and Eve were naked and unashamed (Genesis 2:25), once sin opened their eyes to their situation, they realized they were naked so when God came to the Garden they hid (Gen 3:8-10). Now in Genesis 3, when God entered the Garden, it appears that not only did they hide, but God couldn’t see them. That’s not the case here. No matter how hard we try, we can’t hide from the word of God (Jesus) who as our judge cuts to the quick.

                Yes, God sees. In fact, Hagar discovered that truth after she was exiled from the household of Abraham and Sarah. When God came looking for her after she cried out for help, she gave God the name “El-Roi,” which means “God sees” (Genesis16:7-13). Adam and Eve tried to hide from the eyes of God, but Hagar welcomed God’s eyes. That’s because God saw her predicament and responded. So, as Jennifer Kaalund writes, “Like Hagar, the audience of this homily is experiencing trials that are testing their faith. God sees and responds. Recognizing the God sees us should not be met solely with fear and trepidation. One should also have a sense of eager anticipation, knowing that the God who sees is also the God who reveals Godself and responds with mercy and grace” [Connections, p. 382].

                While judgment is the message of the first paragraph in this brief reading, grace and mercy is the message that comes through in the second paragraph. The word of God may be sharper than a two-edged sword cutting between joint and marrow so that everything is laid bare before God, but when Jesus acts as High Priest and intercedes on our behalf the result is grace and mercy. The author makes a comparison here to the Temple system in which priests offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. The difference, according to Hebrews (and where the danger of supersessionism lurks) is that Jesus both understands our situation because he was tested like us, but at the same time he did not sin. He understands but didn’t give in. The same can’t be said for us or the Temple priests. Nevertheless, an offering is made that allows us to go before the throne of God to seek God’s forgiveness. We can do this boldly because of Jesus’ priestly intercessions. The result is grace and mercy. In other words, God invites us to speak openly and honestly about whatever is on our minds and hearts. We don’t have to hold back. After all, God already can see us warts and all. As a result, we will receive mercy from God and the grace that we need in our time of need. For the original recipients, who appear to be struggling against stiff opposition this is good news. They are not alone. They have a priest who not only understands their situation but is ready to go to bat for them. The same can be true for us. We can go boldly before the throne of God because we have a high priest who is ready to stand with us, even as he lays us bare before God.         

   

Revelation of God and Pioneer of Salvation – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19B (Hebrews 1-2)

 

 

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 New Revised Standard Version

1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2:5Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
   subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

 
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                God once spoke through prophets, but now God speaks through the Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory and the “exact imprint of God’s very being.” This is the one through whom God created all things and who is the pioneer of our salvation. That is the starting point in the lectionary’s invitation to explore the message of the Book of Hebrews. This book, which has the look of a sermon or perhaps a circular letter is one of the more challenging and at times problematic books in the New Testament. It is problematic because it seems to carry a supersessionist message. That is, it emphasizes the Christian message at the expense of Judaism so that Christianity now replaces the Jewish people in God’s plans. Therefore, the Temple and the priesthood offer prefigurements of the work of Christ. For instance, in Hebrews, Jesus is identified with the priest-king Melchizedek. Though somewhat obscure today, except perhaps the famous definition of faith in chapter eleven, it has been a favorite of many down through the centuries.

                Once upon a time tradition attributed authorship to Paul, even though this book is very different from anything that Paul wrote. The book itself does not carry any hint as to its authorship, though the many references to Old Testament figures and practices have led to the assumption that the author and audience were Jewish Christians. The Platonic elements suggest a similarity to the writings of Philo, which might suggest that the origins of the book are to be found in Alexandria. Though that suggestion is contradicted by the reference in Hebrews 13:24, which reads: “those from Italy send you greetings.” Ultimately, we do not know who wrote the book or where it originated. As for the date, the references to sacrificial practices in the present tense could suggest a date before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. However, the suggestion that Jesus’ sacrifice supersedes the Temple sacrifices might suggest a date after the destruction of the Temple, though if the Temple had been destroyed would not be a clear reference to that event helped support the idea that Jesus supersedes the Temple. Again, we don’t know how to date the book.  So, who might have written this text if Paul didn’t (and if the author was writing from Italy/Rome)? Some of the figures to whom this intriguing but sometimes dangerous text has been attributed include Barnabas, Silas, Epaphras, Luke, Apollos, or my favorite Priscilla. But, as Origin noted, only God knows for sure. [Stephen Farris, “Hebrews,” The Preacher’s Bible Handbook, pp. 328-329; Pamela Eisenbaum, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 1st ed., p. 406]. As to the genre of the book, while it is often spoken of as a letter, it has more the feel of a sermon. Why was it written? Perhaps as a word of encouragement to a community struggling to hold things together. What we do know is that it is a thoroughly Christological document. As Stephen Farris notes, the sermon reminds the reader/hearer that “Jesus has traveled the journey before us, and therefore we can take the next step with confidence” [Farris, “Hebrews,” p. 331]. That is, he is both superior to angels and the pioneer of our salvation, and as we will see he is the high priest who acts on our behalf.

            In this first of seven readings from Hebrews, taking us through chapter ten, the author of Hebrews introduces us to the primary subject of this book, the Son of God. This Son is the heir of all things and the one through whom God has chosen to speak in these last days. In this, the Son succeeds the prophets, through whom God once spoke. In making this declaration, Hebrews is telling us that Jesus brings us the final word from God. As we’ll see, Jesus is very different from his predecessors who were humans just like us. This spokesperson for God is the heir of all things and is the one through whom God created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory, which suggests a connection to the embodiment of divine wisdom, as we see in the Wisdom of Solomon  “For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. 26 For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (Wis. 7:25-26). Not only is Jesus a reflection of God’s glory, but he is the “exact imprint of God’s very being” who “sustains all things by his powerful word.” This is a very high Christology, suggesting divinity. Hebrews goes further to inform us that when he had finished making purification for sins (the subject of much that follows) he sat down at the right hand of God, “having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” This word comes in the last days, the new age that Jesus has introduced. The message, therefore, has an eschatological element to it.  

                If the focus of the opening verses of this lectionary reading focuses on Jesus’ identity as Son of God, the second portion, taken from chapter 2, affirms his humanity, though exalted humanity. This passage draws from Psalm 8:4-6 (LXX). In Hebrews 1:4, the author proposes that the Son is superior to the angels and that he has inherited a name greater than theirs. The angels are servants of God, but “God did not submit the coming world, about which we are speaking to the angels” (Heb. 2:5). In support of this premise, the author turns to Psalm 8, a song that declares that while human beings might be made a little lower than the angels, God has crowned humanity with glory and honor and subjected all things under their feet. Hebrews takes this Psalm and applies it to Jesus, who according to our reading was made for a little while lower than the angels but is now crowned with glory. What was originally intended to speak of humans, in general, is now applied to Jesus, who is crowned with glory through his death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death for us all. In other words, through his sacrifice of himself, Jesus attains the status supposedly given to humanity. He does this on our behalf. All of this is fleshed out in great detail as we move through the book. All that we read concerning this work of Jesus, is rooted in the connection between his actions and those present in the Temple sacrifices. In this, he makes purification for our sins. So that what was enacted on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on an annual basis, is done once and for all by Jesus. As the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus goes ahead of us, preparing the way by tasting death for us, so that we might share in God’s glory.

                Hebrews tells us that it was fitting that God would bring many children to glory through the work of the pioneer of our salvation through his sufferings. As a result, we become his siblings— “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” It is as his siblings that we share in the glory of God.   

 

Image attribution: God reigning in majesty, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55258 [retrieved September 26, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pantocr%C3%A0tor_de_Ta%C3%BCll.jpg.

  

The Power of Prayer – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18B (James 5)

 

 

 

James 5:13-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

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                James invites us to consider the power of prayer. Everything we’ve explored to this point, this word of wisdom, according to James is rooted in a relationship with God. The people of God, the church of Jesus Christ, can and should do good things in the world, but that work should be rooted in worship and prayer. James does say that faith without works is dead, but here we learn that the work we do is rooted not in our own strength, but our relationship with God. That is, the work we do is in partnership with God (but not without God). Thus, the church is not just another social service agency or advocacy group. It is a community deeply rooted in the presence of God who is love.

                In a series of questions, James invites the readers to consider various forms of prayer. Prayer is a form of speech, but in contrast to the negative forms that James spoke of in chapter 3, this is a positive form. This word about prayer comes immediately after James’ prohibition against swearing in verse 12. In that word from James, we’re told not to “swear either by heaven or by earth or by any oath, but let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.” It is good to remember that James doesn’t have cussing in mind, but things like oaths of allegiance. Consider how this verse pairs with our practice of swearing on the Bible in court or to take an oath of office. What James says here is close to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:33-37). With this word in mind, in verse 13 James picks up the question of prayer. As Marsha Moore-Keish points out, “unlike the destructive power of speech to harm others and betray God, prayer offers an example of positive and powerfully upbuilding power of speech.” [James: Belief, p. 187].

                Beginning in verse 13, James picks up the question of prayer, asking first if any are suffering. If they are, then they should pray. I need to add a caveat here because in recent years we’ve heard politicians and others address all manner of suffering with the offer of “thoughts and prayers.” By this, they simply mean, we’re not going to do anything, so you’re on your own. Hopefully, God will take care of what we are not going to take care of. That may be true in the public sphere, but for us who are believers and followers of Jesus, the first step is prayer. Prayer starts with the one who suffers, as one places one’s trust in God. If, as is possible, this suffering is the result of oppression on the part of the rich, then the prayer must be accompanied by an appropriate response by the followers of Jesus. One of those responses, will be the prayer for endurance and perhaps the expectation that the oppressors will face judgment (Jms. 5:1-6). Now, James, understanding the situation, advises patience until the coming of the Lord to set things right (Jms. 5:7-11). But, as we’ve learned from James that prayer for endurance will be accompanied by some form of action since faith without works is dead (Jms.2:14).  

                James asks a second question: “Are any cheerful?” If so, they should sing songs of praise. When good things happen in our midst, it is appropriate for us to celebrate those good things. The Psalms are filled with calls to share words of praise and thanksgiving to God. Worship stands at the heart of our life together. But, as we know from James and the Psalms, worship is not just for happy moments. Worship is the foundation for the life of the community. It is worship that enables us to endure in hope.

                James asks a third question: “Are any among you sick?” Interestingly, in this case, the call is not to personal prayer, but a call to the Elders, to the leaders of the congregation, to come and pray. These leaders are to pray and to anoint with oil in the name of the Lord. With this action comes a promise, “the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” We’ll leave the question of sins, forgiveness, and confession, for a moment so we can focus on the call to the Elders.  The prayers spoken of here are intercessory. The faith that is required here is not that of the one being prayed for, but the faith of the Elders who are praying. While we often think of healing in terms of curing, that is not always the case. In fact, as Osvaldo Vena writes, “healing in this context means social restoration and not so much individual well-being. The elders, figures of authority in the community, rather than doctors (see Mark 5:26), are called to enact the healing” [Connections, p. 345]. As for the anointing with oil, it is often assumed that this is understood to be medicinal, but that is unlikely here. Remember, if the point here is social restoration, it is a sign of blessing. Now, the Gospels do record that Jesus healed persons, even raising some from the dead, as did his disciples, so might a cure be in order here? Perhaps, but healing is the broader category and might be meant here. 

                James writes that the prayer of faith will save the sick. That word “save” could have a double meaning here. It could refer to the restoration of a relationship to God and healing of the body. This is where the question of forgiveness of sins comes into play. James writes that the prayer of faith will lead to the forgiveness of sins. That is, James encourages the readers to confess their sins to one another and pray for one another. This is interesting, in that it suggests the restoration of intra-congregational restoration. By praying for one another they might be healed.

                Having spoken of three forms of prayer, James writes that the “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” and as an example, he points to Elijah. James reminds us that Elijah is not a superhero or a demi-god. He was a human being, just like us, and yet when he “prayed fervently that it might not rain,” it didn’t rain. In fact, it didn’t rain for three and a half years. Then, when Elijah prayed for rain, the rain fell (if only that worked in the American West as it deals with horrific drought). Is not the message here “you can do this too”? This is a powerful word, but a dangerous one as well. This is a theme present in the “Prosperity Gospel.” There is power in prayer, but perhaps not the
kind of power some have read into this message. 

                Having spoken here of prayer, James closes with a call to restore members of the community who have wandered from the truth. This is a fitting close to a “letter” that focuses on “pure and undefiled religion” (Jms. 1:27). James has written this letter to guide the community back to the right path so that their religion is reflective of God’s wisdom. The good news for those who work to restore sinners who have taken the wrong path is that they will have helped save the sinner from death (spiritual?) and then cover a multitude of sins. James reminds us that the path of faith is not an individual journey, but rather is a communal one. In seeking out those who wander and restoring them to the flock, we do so in partnership with God who is always seeking us out. So, as we go on this journey together, lifting each up in prayer, we participate in the work of God in the world. In this, we join together in a form of religion that is pure and undefiled before God. Or, as Marsha Moore-Keish writes, quoting from Dale Allison’s commentary on James, “James seeks to empower his brothers and sisters to see out the wanders and bring them home. They (and we) are the main actors. ‘God is not named, and there is not even a divine passive here. So James concludes characteristically by emphasizing the importance of human beings doing what is right.’ God, the giver of all good gifts has ‘given us birth by the word of truth’ (1:18); now we are to bear fruit through rescuing, saving, forgiving” [James, p. 203]

                The message James has delivered here is an important one. He has been speaking throughout the “letter” about broken relationships. That is the message here as  well. It might involve interpersonal ones. It could even involve the relationship of mind and body. It certainly involves the divine-human relationship. Whatever it is, James offers us a path to healing that brokenness through prayer and worship. This is the foundation for all that we do as the people of God. So, let us pray for ourselves and one another, that we might know wholeness in Christ.

 

               Image Attribution: Dürer, Albrecht, 1471-1528. Praying Hands, or Study of the Hands of an Apostle, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57523 [retrieved September 19, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_Durer.png.

Embodying Divine Wisdom – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17B (James 3-4)

James 3:13-4:8 New Revised Standard Version

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

“God opposes the proud,
    but gives grace to the humble.”

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

(Verses omitted by lectionary are in italics)

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                The Letter of James is widely considered to be an expression of Jewish wisdom literature (there is a similarity in style to the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon). Of course, this is a Christianized form, but it is rooted in the larger Jewish wisdom tradition. As such, James focuses on how we live out the life of faith. He asks the question, “who is wise and understanding among you?” (vs. 13). Then he offers his word of advice, if you are wise then live accordingly. You might say that James is concerned about orthopraxis. Now, according to James, there is more than one kind of wisdom. Different forms of wisdom relate to their point of origin. That is a primary concern in this passage. There is a divine form of wisdom and one that is earthly and unspiritual. The call here then is to embrace the wisdom from above which is marked by works of gentleness rather than being inspired by envy and selfish ambition.

                One thing we learn from James is that he understands the world in which we live. He knows that it is filled with challenges and temptations that can lead us away from what God would have us do and be. So, here in our reading for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost James contrasts these two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly. What we read here is an extension of what we read for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, where we hear James ask: “Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can saltwater yield fresh” (Jms. 3:12). This helps us understand James’ view of “works” in the Christian life. Works are, for him, the ethical life. This life is rooted in faith/wisdom. So, the form of faith/wisdom we embrace will determine the direction of our lives. The choice, apparently, is ours.

                According to James, the way of divine wisdom includes these qualities: purity, peaceableness, gentleness, a willingness to yield, is full of mercy and good works, no partiality (that is a topic of chapter 2), and no hypocrisy. You can see some overlap with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). For those who embrace this wisdom, which is expressed by peace, they will see a harvest of righteousness.

                So far all is good, but peace might not be the dominant experience in James’ churches. As we open chapter 4, James asks the reader about the conflicts present amongst them. We already know from chapter 2 that the congregations were dealing with issues of partiality for the wealthy and against the poor. Then in chapter 3, he addresses the dangerous use of the tongue. Now, having raised the question of the two forms of wisdom, one divine and the other earthly, he asks the reader where all of these conflicts come from. Now, for James, this is a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer. It is the “earthly” wisdom marked by envy and selfish ambition that leads them astray. These “qualities” lead to cravings that are at war within them. In making that comment, James seems to recognize that the members of these congregations are wrestling with these two forms of wisdom, with the earthly wisdom seemingly winning out. Thus, because they don’t get what they desire, they commit murder. When I read this I begin to wonder about the state of the early church. What is going on here? I understand a bit of envy and gossip and maybe partiality, but murder?  At a minimum, their desire for things they cannot have leads to conflict and dissension within the ranks. Then James takes an interesting turn. He tells them that they do not have because they do not ask. What does James have in mind here? Is this a reference to prayer? Or simply a reminder that if we ask for something our spiritual siblings might be willing to share? Or could both be in play? Ultimately, they do not receive what they ask for because they ask wrongly, determined to spend on pleasure. Do you get the sense that this community is enticed by a hedonistic culture to join in its ways? Instead of following the ways of Jesus, do they follow the ways of some other god?

                The lectionary invites us to skip over verses 4-6, which picks up the image of God being jealous of the affections of the people, or so it seems. We might not like this image, but if taken in context is it not understandable. That is, God cares enough to want to be in a monogamous relationship with the people of God. What James does here is draw on the concept of the marriage covenant, and in doing so he suggests that if God is faithful to the covenant, then should not the other part, whom he calls adulterers. James draws a firm line between God and the world. To be a friend with the world is to be at enmity with God. That is, if you want to be a friend of the world then you are an enemy of God. This sounds rather drastic. After all, doesn’t God love the world (Jn. 3:16)? So, what does God want from us?  Should we, like the Amish, separate ourselves from the world? I don’t know many Christians who take that step. I haven’t. I live a pretty normal life in the world. Yes, I’m a Christian and seek to follow the ways of Jesus but I haven’t gone off into the desert to live as a hermit. Nevertheless, James draws on this image of God, the jealous husband to call the people back to living according to divine wisdom. This involves, so James tells us, by submitting ourselves to God, for as Scripture says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Prov.3:34). Perhaps it’s the image of God being jealous, but these verses are omitted by the lectionary creators, but maybe we need to take note of them.

                The reading closes out with verses 7 and 8a. Here we are asked to submit ourselves to God. I’m reminded here that the word Muslim refers to one who submits to God. So, James is inviting us to be Muslims, ones who submit to God. If we do this then we can resist the devil who will flee from us, if we submit to God and therefore stand firm. Yes, if we draw near to God (another way of saying submitting ourselves God) then God will draw near to us. As I read this, I sense that in James’ mind, God gives us room to choose our own, without coercion. We can submit to God and draw near, or we can keep God at a distance. The choice is ours. If we do not choose the ways of God, there will be consequences, as we see here in James’ letter. Now, if you like, you can stop here or continue with verse 8, which says something about washing our hands. In a time of COVID, it might be worth mentioning the value of cleansing hands as a sign of a pure heart. Ultimately, what James would have us do is embody Divine wisdom in the way we live our lives.

Dangerous Words – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (James 3)

James 3:1-12 New Revised Standard Version

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

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                The tongue is a dangerous organ. If we’re not careful our tongues can do a lot of damage. By that, I mean, the words we speak. Growing up I learned the adage that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” I will confess that it never gave me much comfort. Of course, if I’m honest I could give as well as take in this matter. As I look back across my life, I’m horrified by things I’ve said, whether jokes or just mean statements. To my embarrassment, it is often my family who have borne the brunt of my statements. I wish I could say I no longer say things that hurt, but that would be dishonest. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in an age when in reaction to calls for sensitivity people seem to feel empowered to say whatever, whenever, they want. If it hurts, all the better. The saddest thing is that many Christians feel empowered to engage in such efforts. Apparently, they have never read the Letter of James (or they have taken to heart Luther’s dictum that it is an epistle of straw).

                James clues us in on the target of his message—the teachers. He tells them those who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Mistakes will happen, but mistakes made when speaking can have unfortunate consequences. It would seem that James is not too confident that teachers and preachers can keep their speech appropriate. But, if they can bridle the tongue they can keep the whole body in check. The tongue might be small, but it is mighty. We’ve seen this play out through history. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but demagogues have always taken the cake when it comes to such things. Eloquence can be used for good or for ill. We think of great orators who have called forth the people to do great things. Think of Franklin Roosevelt whose messages whether in person or on the radio gave a nation confidence that it could conquer the depression and its enemies overseas. But Hitler was quite the speaker as well and look what happened with him.

                So, the tongue is small, but like the rudder of a large ship, it can steer the body and the community where it desires. So be careful with what you say. In the second half of verse 5, which in the NRSV opens a new paragraph, James speaks of a forest fire set by a small fire. Growing up in the west, where forest fires were common, the message of Smokey the Bear was simple:  Only you can prevent forest fires. A campfire might look as if it’s out, but a small ember can, with a bit of breeze stir and if something flammable is near can quickly grow. The same with a cigarette butt thrown out of a car window into a bit of dry grass. Most of the fires I grew up with were challenging but rarely got too far out of hand. But things have changed with drought and increased heat, the forests are dry and brittle and can easily catch fire and spread. I no longer live out west, but I understand the dangers. That, says James, is the power of the tongue. This fire, says James, has been set by hell itself.

                James isn’t finished illustrating his point regarding the power of the tongue. It is like a rudder that directs a ship. It is like a spark that lights a forest fire. Finally, James draws on the image of a domesticated animal. According to James any animal, bird, or reptile can be tamed, but the same is not true of the tongue. This brings us full circle to the opening illustration of a horse that is kept in check with a bridle in its mouth. In that opening illustration, James suggested that the people of God need to bridle their tongues so that their bodies can be brought under control. Here, in this final image, we are reminded that animals can be tamed/domesticated, so why not the tongue?

                As for the tongue, not only is it seemingly untamable, but it is also “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Remember that it is also like a fire set by hell. This seems to be parallel that image. Now for a more definitive word about the tongue. It can be used to bless God. Yes, we can use it in the church to sing songs of praise and offer prayers to God. However, it can also be used to curse those who are made in the image of God. How true is this! How often do we go from church, having sung God’s praises, and then afterward cursed our neighbor or even a family member?

                Part of the message here concerns self-control. It is a message that would seem to be appropriate for our age. Especially in an age of social media where we can “speak our minds” without having to face the persons we are speaking of; this becomes even more imperative. We have seen all manner of hate speech, bullying, and misinformation being spread with few if any consequences. This is often dangerous. I’m thinking here of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through various channels, we’ve heard vaccines misrepresented, even as unproven and often dangerous remedies are bandied about. For those who get their news and information from social media, this can prove deadly to themselves and to others. When it comes to hateful speech, we might want to ask ourselves if we would say the same thing to a persons’ face. As James puts it, from the same mouth can come blessings and curses, but this should not be so. Indeed!

                What is said here reiterates what we heard James share in chapter 1: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (Jms. 1:26). It is true that none of us is perfect, and we will find ourselves cursing those whom God has created in God’s likeness, but unless we wish to indulge in a worthless religion, James’ word of wisdom is to bridle the tongue. That is, engage in a bit of self-control. That especially goes for those called to teach. So, remember James the question James asks of his readers (us): “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? (vs. 11). The answer is, of course, no. Just to make sure we get the point, does a fig tree produce olives, or does a grapevine produce figs? The answer is, of course, no to both! So, watch what you say! Words do hurt and they destroy. As the Book of Proverbs reminds us: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech” (Prov. 10:19).

Jesus Doesn’t Play Favorites – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 15B (James 2:1-17)

Diego Rivera Mural, Detroit Institute of Art

James 2:1-17 New Revised Standard Version

                2 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

                        8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

                        14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

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                If we’re honest, we all play favorites. There are some people we really don’t enjoy being around and others we really want to be with. I remember when church growth theory was all the rage, with its message of homogeneity. In other words, churches grow when we target specific groups of people because “birds of a feather flock together.” There is truth to this observation. But, apparently, that’s not the way it works with Jesus, who does play favorites. Though, he does seem to prefer bringing Peter, James, and John with him when he goes off by himself. At least that’s what I’ve noticed when reading the Gospels. Nevertheless, according to James, Jesus doesn’t want us to show favoritism.

                Here in James 2, Jesus begins with a word about favoritism and then our reading ends with a word about faith being dead if it’s not accompanied by works. Once again, we see why Luther preferred Paul to James. Paul indeed focuses on grace and faith rather than works, but I’m not sure Paul would disagree with what James writes in this letter. After all, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for their classist behavior.  But, we’re not focused here on Paul. Instead, we need to listen to what James has to say about wealth, partiality, murder and adultery, and more (the lectionary creators put verses 11-13, where we read the word about murder and adultery, in parentheses. So if you don’t like those verses you can skip over them). Behavior, in James’ estimation, is the best expression of one’s faith in Jesus.

                At first sight, this is a word about egalitarianism that targets the wealthy, whom James warns the church against favoring over the poor. However, James not only warns against favoring the wealthy, who could be benefactors to the life of the church (what church wouldn’t like to have a few wealthy donors to endow the budget), but he also speaks of God’s decision to favor the poor. Much like the Magnificat, in which God brings down the rich and powerful and lifts up the poor and lowly (Lk. 1:46-55), James affirms God’s “preferential option for the poor.” What James does here in chapter 2 is contrast the way the rich and poor are often treated by society (including the church). It is to their shame as the church if they welcome with open arms the person with gold rings and fine clothes and then ignore the one who is poor and wearing dirty clothes.  The persons James has in mind here are probably field hands and other workers who come to church after work, tired, hungry, and yes dirty. Whether slave or free, they likely weren’t paid well. Thus, they make up the working poor who are taken advantage of by the wealthy whom the church leaders may have wanted to honor by letting them take the seat of honor, while the poor are pushed to the side where they must either stand or sit on the floor. So, by showing partiality and making distinctions in this way, they become judges with evil thoughts. What should a preacher do with a passage like this? [A note here, in 2021 (when this reflection first appears), the text is due to be read on Labor Day, making this an interesting conversation for that day.] 

                One takeaway is that James provides the foundation for claiming God’s “preferential option for the poor.” In making his point here concerning the poor, James reflects the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus declares: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.5:3). God takes the side of the underdog, the one who is marginalized. The wealthy, well, they know how to take care of themselves. As for the poor, they are oppressed by the rich. In fact, James suggests that readers of this letter  are themselves the subject of abuse on the part of the rich who drag them into court. So, in honoring the rich and powerful who oppress they give honor to those who blaspheme the God who welcomes the poor. Thus, maybe Jesus does play favorites!

                James brings the Law into the conversation, and that is the Royal Law, that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18). If you show partiality—toward the rich—then you transgress that law. This is on the same level as adultery and murder. So, the passage concludes with a reminder that faith without works is dead. It does nothing to say to a brother or sister who is naked and lacks daily food to “go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill.”  Such faith is dead. It has no value. As Robert Wall points out, for James “the mere profession of orthodox faith does not save anyone if it is not demonstrated by works of mercy” [Connections,  p. 292]. Those who wish the preacher would stick to the “Gospel” and not engage in politics, probably won’t appreciate this word from James. Nevertheless, what sounds a lot like what some call the “Social Gospel,” if we take James seriously should we not say that this is the Gospel? That is, unless the Gospel is simply a matter of getting to heaven when we die, then surely the Gospel has something to say about how we live together in this world, in the here and now. That includes recognizing that Jesus doesn’t play favorites, except in lifting up those who are poor and marginalized, while bringing down those who are high and mighty!

Pure Religion – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14B (James 1)

James 1:17-27 New Revised Standard Version

17 Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

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                The word purity has become problematic. This is due in large part to the “purity” culture present in some parts of the Christian community. That culture is focused largely on keeping young women “pure” so they can become good wives (virgins). That’s not what James has in mind when writes in his letter to the“Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion” about “pure and undefiled religion.” What James is interested in is relationships that reflect God’s wisdom. We see this concern present throughout the letter.

                Having worked our way through the Ephesian letter, we will spend the next five weeks with James. Not everyone has appreciated James’ words of wisdom. Consider that Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw” because, in his mind, it didn’t preach Christ. Luther preferred Paul’s emphasis on grace to James’ message that “faith without works” being dead (Jms. 2:17). I’m not sure that Paul and James were as far apart in their thinking as we usually presume, but his message that is rooted in the Wisdom tradition seems appropriate to our times. In fact, if we followed his lead, we might find an antidote to much that ails us in this twenty-first century.

                So who is this letter writer who calls himself “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?” That’s a question that needs some attention since this is the first of five reflections on lectionary readings from James. So, I will begin with an introduction to the letter. As I noted, the author introduces himself simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jms.1:1). He addresses the letter to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Although this would appear to suggest that James is writing to Jews, we don’t know who James is targeting. Jewish Christians would have been a receptive audience since James is drawing on Wisdom traditions. It’s impossible to precisely identify the author, though Tradition suggests that the author is James, the Lord’s brother, who was a primary leader of the church in Jerusalem. The author doesn’t make that claim, but it seems like a good possibility If this is true, then the letter is rather early because Josephus records that James was martyred in 62 CE. The only other viable option is someone writing in the name of James, which would allow for a later date of authorship. There are arguments on both sides, but for our purposes, I will stick with Tradition. As for the destination, that’s unclear as well. What is clear is that this is an example of wisdom literature with a special focus on ethics. We might call James’ focus one of “orthopraxis” over “orthodoxy.”

                Our reading begins in verse 17 with an acknowledgment that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” God is the source of every perfect gift because God is not fickle or capricious. Of the “Father of Lights,” James tells us that there “is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jms. 1:17). That doesn’t necessarily mean that God is “immutable” or “impassible,” to use two Greek philosophical terms that have found a home within Christianity. God can and does respond, adapting to situations, giving us options. Besides, the universe isn’t static, so how could God be static? Nevertheless, according to James God is faithful. That’s a message deeply rooted in the covenant that defines God’s relationship with Israel, a covenant that James surely has in mind as he writes
this word.

                Having been given birth by the word of truth, the readers (we are secondary readers) are the first fruits of this new work of God. As such, James gives words of guidance as we live into this word of truth. First of all, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Later in the letter, James will speak to the destructive power of the tongue, but for now, the word is to listen first, then speak if necessary. Don’t be quick in your anger. Don’t overreact and scream and yell. After all, anger is doesn’t produce divine righteousness. Therefore, get rid of the “stuff” that soils your life, that is all forms of wickedness and sordidness. If this was written to Gentiles, as Paul’s letters were, James might be focused on their former “pagan” lifestyle. But, assuming the audience is made up of Jewish Christians, it is a recognition that we are all liable to such disabilities! Instead, of allowing such wickedness to define your life, welcome “with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

                James envisions God planting the word that saves us in our hearts, even as a farmer or gardener plants a seed in the ground so that it might take root and produce good fruit. We can compare this word with that of Jeremiah who speaks of the new covenant in which the law is written on the heart rather than stone (Jer.31:33). James goes on to speak of the law of liberty, so he likely has Jeremiah in mind.

                This message concerning the implantation of the word is followed by an imperative. “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jms. 1:22). This is no “once saved, always saved” vision of the Christian life in which one is now free to do as one pleases because they’re on the team without any chance of being cut. When the word is implanted in us, it is expected that it will bear fruit in our lives. James understands faith to be active, not passive. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t initiate the process. After all, the word is implanted, but that should lead somewhere.

                Those who hear but don’t do, are like people who look in a mirror and walk away forgetting who they are. Those who look at the perfect law, which is the mirror, and persevere, don’t forget and as a result, they are blessed. Remember that this is a law that liberates. This does sound a bit different from what Paul had to say, but remember the audiences are different. In Galatians, the issue is circumcision as a prerequisite for membership in the community. Here the issue is behavior that reflects well the word of God implanted in us.

                In verse 26, James returns to the use of the tongue. Having already told us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, James tells the reader that if they think they’re religious but don’t bridle their tongues they deceive themselves. Indeed, their “religion is worthless.” As I read this, I look at myself and the way I speak, especially I speak out of anger. Living as we do in an “anti-PC” age when so many in our culture feel they are entitled to say whatever they please, whenever they please, James has a point here. That’s especially true when the people who feel entitled to say what they please also claim to be people of faith.

                Having laid bare this negative issue that has plagued the church from the beginning, James turns to a positive. This is what pure and undefiled religion should look like. It takes care of widows and orphans in their distress, as well as keeping oneself unstained from the world.

                I’ll first take up the word about widows and orphans. We know from history that early Christians were known for their care of widows and orphans. They would take in abandoned children who were left to die. As I write this, thousands of Afghan citizens are seeking asylum as the Taliban takes over. At the same time, I hear voices that supposedly defend “Christian values” in the United States calling them terrorists who should be abandoned. It doesn’t make sense to me. This isn’t pure and undefiled religion.

                After speaking of widows and orphans James calls on the readers to keep themselves unstained from the world. This sounds about “comeoutism,” which is a pattern in some quarters of the Christian world. Keep to yourself as a community so you don’t get contaminated by the broader culture. Perhaps a better way for us to read this passage is to think in terms of how our culture forms us. What values does our culture seek to implant in us that stand opposed to the “law of liberty”? After all, Paul recognized that even all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial (1 Cor. 10:23).

                For many in our world today the word “religion” has negative connotations. People prefer to be “spiritual” rather than “religious.” That’s because religion is understood in institutional terms, and institutional religion has a lot of problems. In fact, for many, Christianity as a religion, is defined by hypocrisy. So, who wants to be religious?

               When James uses the word religion, he has something different in mind. For him, true religion calls for guarding the tongue, caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan. As for keeping oneself separate from the world, it would be wise not to get caught up in the schemes of this world that are destructive to creation and people. As Martha
Moore-Keish writes: “To be a ‘word-doer’ is simply to love those whom the world has treated as unlovable. It is to look for the ones who are the most crushed by systems of power and oppression (widows and orphans in James’s day) and care for them. Rather than following the cyclical and power-hungry ways of the world, to be word-doers who embody ‘pure religion’ is to place ourselves as beacons of light in the darkness, even as God has shone light into the weary darkness of the world.” [James: Belief, pp. 77-78]. That is true religion!

Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13B (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Ephesians 6:10-20 New Revised Standard Version

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth  around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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                Two hymns stand out from my early years growing up in the Episcopal Church. The reading from Ephesians 6 brings them to memory. They may or may not be recognizable to everyone because they don’t appear in most Mainline Protestant hymnals published over the past few decades. These hymns are “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” These hymns pick up aspects of the biblical message, including the one we find here in Ephesians 6.  And as the second verse of “Onward Christian Soldiers” declares:

At the sign of triumph, Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers, On to victory.
Hell’s foundations quiver, At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices, Loud your anthems raise.
Onward, Christian soldiers! 
Marching as to war, 
Looking unto Jesus, who is gone before. 

These hymns have disappeared from most of our hymnals as Mainline Protestants have rightfully tried to step away from the militaristic dimensions of our former commitment to the expansion of Christendom. But you can see why they might resonate with a church that saw itself as the vanguard of God’s saving work in the world.

                As our exploration of the Ephesian letter, which has been featured in the post-Pentecost season, comes to an end, we encounter this call to put on the whole armor of God. The author of the letter (we’ll once again call him Paul for the sake of tradition) envisions the church in a battle with the devil. If you’re in a battle you will need protection and weapons so you can stand against the “wiles of the devil.” For early Christians who lived as a religious minority within an often hostile culture, this call to arms seems appropriate. The same is true for Christians living today in places where survival as Christians is always under threat. For middle-class Mainline Protestants living in suburban North America or Europe, such a message might seem out of place. But is there a message here that speaks to our situation without embracing the militarism that seems to be tied up in the metaphor? As my Muslim friends remind me, jihad can be conceived as a form of spiritual struggle rather than holy war.  Might we understand the passage here in the same way?

                As for this passage, the author makes use of an image that would be immediately recognizable by any reader living in the Roman Empire.  With the call to put on the whole armor of God issued, we need to take an inventory of that armor that will be used not in physical warfare but spiritual warfare. Paul begins with the belt of truth. The belt might seem irrelevant, but it holds everything together. From there we move to the breastplate of righteousness. That piece of armor is much more prominent as it is the key piece of protective body armor. From there we go to the shoes (military grade), shield, helmet, and finally the sword. Now Paul gives each of these armaments a spiritual definition. Thus, the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness are foundational elements for the definition of the Christian identity. Christians by definition should be committed to truth and righteousness (justice. From there we move to the shoes, which enable the legionnaire to march across the empire imposing Rome’s vision of good news/peace. For early Christians, this image is a reminder that theirs is a missionary movement. They have good news to share as well, and they likely will be traversing the Roman roads, which requires sturdy shoes. So, be ready when the call comes. Recognizing that not everyone will receive their message with open arms, but might shoot flaming arrows, a good shield is required. Of course, every soldier needs a helmet, and here the helmet represents salvation, the ultimate protection. With all of this protective equipment, the soldier for Christ is ready to go on the offensive with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. That is, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Paul seems to recognize that this evangelistic work of proclaiming the peace of God could be dangerous. So, it’s good to be prepared for opposition.

                Paul’s use of this imagery is rooted in his cosmic vision. For him, to proclaim the good news of Jesus is to engage in spiritual warfare. He might be using imagery taken from the Roman legions that were ubiquitous across the empire, especially in more restive provinces, but he’s not envisioning forced conversions. While this is a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the enemy is Satan who has taken control of the world situation. This battle to deliver the people from Satan’s control is not a battle against flesh and blood. It is instead a spiritual battle. Unfortunately, it’s easy to move from spiritual to actual battle. This is especially true when non-Christian religions and traditions with the gods of the other traditions being conceived as demons. Thus, Christianity is good, the other religions are evil. Therefore, they must be destroyed (together with their adherents). We’ve seen this take place down through the centuries. As Miguel de la Torre and Albert Hernández write: “Over the next two thousand years, this exclusive understanding, coupled with the historical process of conquest and colonization, will lead to much suffering, misery, and death between Christians and the people of other faiths and cultures” [The Quest for the Historical Satan, p. 79]. So, whatever we say about this passage, we must be careful not to use it to justify oppression, conquest, and more.

                I should say something here about the mythological imagery here (I should note that I’ve been reading a bit of Rudolph Bultmann lately). Paul’s vision reflects a particular worldview that we moderns may have set aside, but the language of myth is designed to communicate deeper truths. For Bultmann, this imagery needed to be set aside through the process of “demythologization,” so that it could be more accessible to moderns. I’m not so sure we can completely remove the mythological elements from the conversation, because there is a growing feeling that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. So, maybe the language here is filled with mythological elements, but at the same time, it reflects cosmic realities that lay behind the evils present in this world. One way to look at this passage and conceive of our work as Christians is to recognize the reality that structural evil exists and that these structures take on a life of their own that envelope us. So, the work of God involves resistance to those cosmic forces that seek to enslave us.

                This is a war of resistance, but the question is the nature of our response. Paul doesn’t mention love here, but it probably should be brought into the conversation. Richard Beck has written an insightful book titled Reviving Old Scratch. Old Scratch is a nickname for Satan that Beck encountered as he taught a bible study in a maximum-security prison. He writes that what he learned at the prison was that “there are forces in the world satanically opposed to love. So, if love is going to invade and establish a beachhead in our lives, we’re going to have to fight for it. That is what I mean by spiritual warfare.” It is a path that took Jesus to the cross [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 97]. In the book, Beck reminds us that social justice is itself a form of spiritual warfare, and therefore needs to be engaged in with spiritual weapons lest we make people the enemy rather than Old Scratch.

                The work of spiritual warfare as outlined here includes the proclamation of the good news of God’s peace (as opposed to the Roman peace) and prayer. The closing paragraph of our passage calls on the readers to “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” This requires alertness and perseverance as they pray for the saints of God, including Paul and his companions. In fact, Paul (or whoever the author is) asks that they pray for him specifically asking that he might have boldness as he proclaims the “mystery of the gospel.” Why? Because he is an “ambassador in chains.” Tradition suggests that Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison, perhaps in Rome. Yes, even in prison he continues his work of proclamation. Therefore, he asks for boldness. Yes, knowing that the churches are praying for him gives him boldness. The question then for us as modern Christians who likely aren’t sitting in prison is what does boldness look like?

                We live in challenging times. Churches are struggling to survive. In North America and Europe, it’s not a matter of persecution and oppression, but the world is not as receptive to the message. To be honest, Christians have been part of the problem. But there is also something spiritual out there that requires our attention. It requires boldness. But standing firm for what is true and just requires boldness also requires grace and love so that we might be peacemakers, not spiritual warmongers.

                For more background on the passage see my Ephesians: A Participatory StudyGuide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 85-97.