September 17, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging Into the Text:
Jesus and the disciples are “on the road again,” headed for Jerusalem. But Jesus didn’t want anyone to know. He didn’t want any more disturbances or interruptions because he was teaching the disciples, preparing them for what lay ahead. Now, for the second time he tells them exactly what it is that lies ahead.
Strangely, whenever Jesus talks about his impending death in Mark, it’s with a certain obliqueness; it’s all in the third person. It’s about what will happen to the “Son of Man,” who Jesus refers to as “he,” not “I.” Terrible things will happen to the Son of Man.
Why does Jesus refer to his impending suffering in this way? Scholars call this the “Messianic secret.” I wonder if the reason is that Jesus himself us uncomfortable talking about it in so direct a way. Yes, the Son of Man will undergo suffering, but that is still one short step removed from saying that he will be the victim.
I wonder if, in this strange locution, we are faced with the reality of Jesus’s human nature. He is like us in every way, including the fear of suffering and death. We too, find it easier to talk about death abstractly, but are much less comfortable talking about our own death.
On the one hand Jesus understands that he is the one that the Father has called to give himself for the life of the world. On the other, he is still struggling with that call. That comes to light especially in the Garden of Gethsemane when events are quickly moving toward the cross. He still prays that he will not have the drink this bitter cup.
Not many preachers may choose to look closely on this strange, third-person way Jesus refers to his death. However, I think it is important that we sometimes emphasize Jesus’ real humanity. It is as a human just like us that he chooses obedience to the Father’s will. As Hebrews makes clear, Jesus’s obedience to the Father does not come naturally. “He learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5: 8) This, of course, is not to question Jesus’s divine nature, but to preserve the reality of his human nature, and to hallow the mystery of his divine/human personhood.
Jesus uses a particular Greek word in this passage, and in the third prediction in Mark 10:32-34: paradidomai. Interestingly, in the NRSV it’s translated here as “betrayed,” but in the later passage as “handed over.” Of course, “handed over” and “betrayed” both have the sense of helplessness and passivity, but, as we will see, I think that in this passage the reference to children a little later may make the idea of being handed over more appropriate.
One of the most amazing things about the gospels, especially Mark, is that they do not hesitate to present the disciples as blockheads. These men are later to be apostles, sent out by Jesus to proclaim the gospel. They held places of honor and respect, and several of them died as martyrs. If the gospels were written to impress, the disciples would certainly have been presented in a different light.
But they were blockheads. Mark says that they didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, but they also didn’t dare to ask him any questions about it. Does that sound familiar? Ever been in a situation in which a discussion was going on that was over your head, but you didn’t dare to ask what it was all about? They all wanted to look like good students to Jesus. Asking him some basic questions would betray their stupidity.
But that’s not the end of it. As they are walking along, ignorant as they are of what Jesus really means, they begin to argue about who is the greatest. Which one is really Jesus’s right hand man? Which one stands out as the most worthy and devoted disciple? I wish I were privy to that discussion.
But then, maybe I have been, many times. Not, of course, that I would actually assert my greatness to others, but I may have let drop a few instances of personal success. It could be anything from a remarkably prescient stock pick to the pick-up in attendance since I came to the church. Let’s face it, most of us know quite well where we might stand on the scale of “greatness” and find subtle ways to signal that to people around us.
Of course, it was all done in private. They knew Jesus, their Master, frowned on that sort of thing. But Jesus was not fooled. “Hey, there was a lot of excitement back there on the road, what were you guys talking about?” No answer. They knew they were caught with their pride on display.
Jesus’ response is to set them down for a time of instruction. In rabbinic Judaism of the time, the rabbi always sat down with his students around him. The teaching takes two forms. One is a pronouncement and the other is a demonstration.
The pronouncement takes the form of a pithy saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That is decidedly not the way things work in the world. People do not get ahead by making sure they are last in line. People do not rise to the top of the heap by making sure they have served everyone else first. This is not a pronouncement about human wisdom, it’s a pronouncement about the up-side down Kingdom of God.
However many times we may have heard that statement, it’s impossible not to find it impractical and perhaps even offensive. Things just don’t work that way in the real world. It’s a prescription for being left behind and taken advantage of.
But it’s important to look at the one who is saying this audacious thing. He was no push-over. He was not always a nice man. Time and again he stood up to the Jewish leaders, sometimes with cutting remarks and fierce judgements. He called the scribes and Pharisees “whited sepulchers” and hypocrites. He emptied the temple on a rampage.
So, taking the last place and being a servant of all is not being a milquetoast. It has more to do with strength than weakness. The attitude of servanthood is the mark of a person who knows who he or she is. Such a person is not ignorant of their worth, but knows their true worth. It comes from the heart of a person who knows she is loved and valued, who is deeply aware of his identity. The more we become identified with Jesus Christ and sure of God’s love, the more we will be able to drop the pretense of greatness and assume the role of servanthood.
Jesus was not a guru for modern corporate leadership theory, but it’s interesting how his concept of servanthood has been been picked up in some leadership circles. Servant leaders lead by putting other ahead of themselves. Their authority is the bi-product of their love for others. Others follow them because they know that in doing so they will not be abused or abandoned, but because they know their welfare, success, and wellbeing are the focus of their leaders concern.
In the context of corporate leadership, Robert Greenleaf, author of the best-selling book Servant Leadership writes,
It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?
It’s important to note that Jesus’ statements on servanthood are not true because they happen to be popular with certain corporate types. They are true because Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Putting others first is not just wise leadership advice, it is the truth about human life from the one who embodied it.
But Jesus doesn’t just say it, he acts it out in a dramatic parable. He takes a little child who happened to be hanging around the house, picks the child up (the pronoun is neuter, so we don’t know it if was a boy of girl), and embraces him or her in his arms. From our vantage point, this act seems cute. “Aaawh, Jesus picks up and hugs a child.” But it was not likely cute to Jesus’s disciples. In his day, children were definitely “seen but not heard.” Children weren’t worth much until they grew up and proved themselves. They were considered nobodies. Their worth was tied up in their potential as adults, not in their being children. One Rabbi, a contemporary of Jesus, said, “Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with child, and lingering in the places of the common people destroy a man.”
But here Jesus places a child in the center of the disciples’ attention and says, “Whoever welcome one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
What does Jesus mean by welcoming one such child in my name.” “In my name” means something like because of me, or having learned it from me. Here we might go back to the Greek word I highlighted above, paradidomai, handed over. This is one of the key characteristics of children, they are not so much actors as those who are acted upon. They do not hold the place of power, but are acted upon by the powerful.
This is, perhaps, what ties the first part of this reading with the last. First, in his oblique way, Jesus said that he will be handed over to the authorities and will be acted upon. He will be powerless before the combined authority of the Jewish religious authorities and the all-powerful Roman state in the person of Pontius Pilate. Now he hugs a child and tells the disciples and us, whoever welcome the powerless welcomes me and the one who sent me. Welcoming the powerless we welcome God because God has chosen this way to show his redeeming love to the world.
The way of discipleship is not seeking personal greatness, but servanthood. The way of discipleship is not seeking power over others, but accepting servanthood and giving up power for the sake of others. The way of discipleship is the willingness to be acted upon rather than being the actor. It is the way of love.
This is what Mark picked up from Jesus’ great kingdom teaching, the Sermon on the Mount–turning the other cheek, praying for enemies, forgiving other’s sins, and going the extra mile.
Preaching the Text:
1). Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel, The Road is the story of a father and son constantly on the move through a post-apocalyptic landscape. They face constant hunger, menacing, dangerous people, and a survival mentality in others that will stop at nothing, even cannibalism, for self-preservation. The Father is constantly teaching the boy that they must not sink to that level of existence, no matter what. One of the principle themes throughout the novel is that the father keeps telling his son to keep carrying the fire. It becomes clear that the fire is not actual fire, so they can cook their food. It is the fire of love which the boy must keep alive in his heart so that even in this severely diminished existence he can maintain his humanity.
2). Not everyone will dare to do this, and it depends on your congregation. You might choose the clearest example of the disciple’s argument about who is the greatest. Our President often points to his own greatness, whether it’s the success of his policies, his political achievements, or the size of his inauguration audience. Ask whether he actually achieves greatness by his boasting, or whether he reveals his weakness in having to point to his own greatness?
The same is true of the slogan, “Make America great again.” Does this mantra actually make America great in the eyes of the world or does it point to our doubts about our own greatness?
3). Jesus’s statement that when we welcome children we welcome him can seem trite to many of us today. There is a deep upper middle-class infatuation with children, but it is probably more shallow than we might think. Millions of children we profess to care about so much are warehoused in inferior schools, malnourished, stalked by diseases we could easily cure, and more or less swept under the rug of social amnesia. Politicians talk a lot about how important “our children” are. But in our society, generally speaking, tax breaks and military spending seem to hold a lot higher priority than children do.
Note: CEP Director Scott Hoezee is on sabbatical during the Fall semester 2018, but will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters in December.
Author: Stan Mast
Given the current climate in the church, I suspect that most preachers will steer a wide berth around this (in)famous text. At the funeral of a great woman who embodied this text, I wondered aloud to the younger women in her life whether this might be a fitting text to be used as a reading. These were all women with impeccable conservative credentials, and they reacted with a vociferous, “NO, no way!” That highlighted for me how carefully we must treat this text.
That experience reminded me that we males often don’t get it. As a male writer who undoubtedly has implicit biases I’m not even aware of, I need to be specially carefully as I offer a few (hopefully) helpful comments on this text. Indeed, as I scanned the recent literature on this text, written mostly by women, I found myself saying over and over, “I never thought of that, but I can see it now.” But I do have some observations. So here goes.
The first thing I noticed about this description of “a wife of noble character” is that it came from a woman. Proverbs 31:1 says these are the oracles of King Lemuel that were taught to him by his mother. A Jewish comedienne could get away with saying, “Isn’t that like a Jewish mother, telling her son whom he should marry.” But, we don’t know if Lemuel was Jewish; he isn’t found in any list of Jewish kings. Maybe this is one of those pieces of wisdom borrowed from the surrounding culture. Scholars have identified numerous examples of ancient Near Eastern wisdom in Proverbs. Quite apart from that issue, however, it is interesting that this is not a piece of male wisdom.
Further, I noticed that this is the third reading out four in September that deals with women. On the first Sunday, we listened to a passionate young woman talk about romance and sex (Song of Songs 2). On the second, we heard the bold and confrontational Wisdom Woman call us forcefully to a life of wisdom (Proverbs 1). Next Sunday, the lesson is from the book of Esther where a beauty queen who became favorite wife of an oriental potentate wisely saves her people from genocide. Now, here a king’s mother advises her son about the ideal queen for him. Because of the selections of the Lectionary, we could designate September “the month of women” as diverse as they can be.
My final introductory comment is that I was a bit surprised by the character of this “good wife.” I know that many feminist readers dislike this text because this woman seems to be defined by her relation to her husband and her housework. But in a quick first read, she doesn’t seem like “the little woman” who is seen but not heard, who lives under her husband’s thumb, imprisoned at home, barefoot and pregnant, the model of a subservient second-class citizen. In fact, it seemed to me that such a reading of Proverbs 31 is a male chauvinistic abuse of the text.
So, let’s take a closer look. The older translation that says, “A good wife who can find,” misses the import of the word translated “noble character” in the NIV. That word in the Hebrew has about it the sense of dignity and strength. Indeed, it is often translated “valiant,” as in a “valiant warrior” filled with courage. As verse 30 will say later, this is a woman noted not for her charm and beauty, but for her dignity, her courage, her strength (even her physical strength, cf. verses 17 and 25). She is a brave warrior in many ways.
Let me count the ways. The writer took great pains to give a comprehensive description of this noble woman. Indeed, he/she uses the ABC’s of the Hebrew alphabet to shape this poem. It is, in other words, an acrostic poem, a literary device often used in Hebrew poetry to assure that we cover the whole subject under discussion (think of Psalm 119 and its treatment of the Torah). Here is everything we’d want to know about a wife of noble character, everything from A to Z.
Subject A is her relationship with her husband. Though one writer I consulted was confident that she is under the authority of her husband, that seems more of an importation of an idea from elsewhere in Scripture. There is not a word about authority here. Indeed, their relationship seems more like what Timothy Keller calls “managing partners.”
Rather than her being under his thumb, he has complete confidence in her ability to take care of business. In fact, rather than her being represented in society by him, she seems to be the source of much of his public respect. After listing all of her abilities and accomplishments, verse 23 says, “Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders.” That doesn’t sound like “behind every good man there is a good woman.” It sounds more like she deserves a good deal of the credit for his place in society.
But that does bring us to Subject B, which is her domestic resume. In a society of stay-at-home dads and dual income/no kids couples and both parents working with the kids under the care of a nanny, this part of Proverbs 31 will go down a bit hard for many folks. There is no doubt that this woman is in charge of the house. She goes to the grocery store and she cooks and she sews and she decorates the home—all the things traditionally assigned to “housewives.” She does all this not with reluctance, but “with eager hands” or, as another translation puts it, “with the delight of her hands.” She sees all this housework not as drudgery, but as her delighted contribution to the welfare of her husband and children and even servants (verse 15c). She is at it from early morning until her candle burns down. This woman has stamina.
It is easy to see how this part of Proverbs has been misused by chauvinistic preachers and patriarchal husbands to turn women into domestic servants. So, it is important to remind your listeners of the context here. The book of Proverbs was written 3000 years ago not as a set of commands for all times, but as wise observations about how life worked best in that time, which was, clearly, patriarchal. In another time, domestic life might be shaped very differently. The over-riding point here is that a wife of noble character cares deeply about her husband and children and does everything she can to provide for them.
That doesn’t mean that her husband has no responsibility for his wife and children. They are “managing co-partners,” after all. But it does mean that she should not abandon her home and family for the public square and her career, any more than her husband should. Not all women will be wives and not all wives will be stay-at-home moms and not all couples will distribute domestic duties in the same way. But if someone chooses to be married, there is unavoidably a corporate responsibility for home and family. That’s the enduring message of Proverbs about domesticity.
But that is not the whole picture of a “wife of noble character.” We now come to Subject C. This strong warrior is not just a stay at home mom. She deals in real estate, from the surveying of prospects to the closing of the deal (verse 16). She earns money by manufacturing clothing and home décor (verse 24) and selling them to merchants. She uses her hard-earned profit to become a vintner, planting her own vineyard (verse 16). She gives some of her money to the poor (verse 20), joining the ranks of the philanthropists (a mark of wisdom in Proverbs). She is a wise counselor, imparting torat hesed (faithful teaching) not only to her children, but to family, friends, and the wider public (verse 26). She is, in other words, a formidable woman of great strength, capable of multi-tasking with the best of them.
I know that many women will read this as a classic description of a modern woman who wants to have it all and is wearing herself to a frazzle, while her husband goes to work and expects to come home to a pair of slippers, a cold martini, a home cooked meal, and a night of football on TV. But that’s not the picture we get here. This woman is not being taken advantage of. Nor is her husband a subtle abuser. She is strong, dignified, unafraid of old age (verse 25), fully in charge of her life, even as she is devoted to her family and her activities in the public domain. With good reason, her children and her husband love and respect her, proclaiming her “blessed” and “praising” (the Hebrew word hallah usually reserved for praising God) her.
All of which may well prompt this exasperated response. “She is too good to be true. She is so idealized that no real woman could possibly live up to all this.” This delightful picture of a noble wife is a recipe for frustration and defeat for women of the 21st century. There is a point in that exasperated response. So we have to think hard about how we can preach this text as Good News? Here are three suggestions.
First, we must point out that the most distinguishing feature of this woman is mentioned last in the text. This is a woman who fears the Lord. That’s the secret to her noble character. Her life is centered on Yahweh; that’s the real meaning of “fears the Lord.” Rather than finding her center in her husband or her family or her friends or her career, she finds it in the God who has covenanted with her. She knows that she walks through life with God, who has taken her by the hand and promised to be her God in all of life’s situations. He will bless her and make her great. Everything else is fleeting. Her relationship with God is eternal. That faith gives her a stability and fearlessness and dignity that will see her through everything. That is as true of men as it is of women.
Second, some scholars point out that the book of Proverbs begins with a woman inviting us to seek wisdom more than anything else. And it ends with a woman who personifies that wisdom perfectly. Everything the intervening chapters have said about living wisely is found in this woman. And that suggests that Proverbs 31 is not about a literal woman, but about Wisdom Woman (see my piece last week). In other words, it is not meant to teach women how to be good wives. It is meant to show both women and men how to live. Proverbs 1-9 urge the young man to pursue Lady Wisdom/Wisdom Woman. Now, here he has found her. As one author put it, this is not patriarchal; it is sapiential. It is not pre-marriage counselling for young men; it is life counselling for all people.
Third, in answer to the accusation that this is all too idealized to be helpful for real people, consider this comment by the ever- wise Timothy Keller. “Is this woman idealized, such that she doesn’t exist? Yes, but in the same way as the truly loving person (I Cor. 13:4-8a) and the godly person (Gal. 5:22-23a) don’t exist. Those who are saved by Christ love these texts as guides to pleasing and resembling the One who saved us. The Gospel produces people who are eager to obey those patterns and not be crushed by them.”
Donald Bloesch places Proverbs 31 in the wider framework of how various cultures have thought about women. “The model of women in tribal patriarchalism is the broodmare; in hedonistic naturalism, she is the bunny or the play thing; in feminist ideology, she is the self-sufficient career woman; in romanticism she is the fairy princess or the maiden waiting to be rescued; in biblical faith, she is the partner in ministry.”
A recent issue of Time magazine had a fascinating piece on Serena Williams. She is arguably the greatest tennis player of all time (male or female), a creator and displayer of fashion, a public figure and outspoken woman. And she has just become a wife and mother. Her description of her struggles to be perfect is moving. Across a picture of her on the front cover are the words, “Nothing about me right now is perfect. But I’m perfectly Serena.” In the article, she says, “I still have to learn the balance of being there for her, and being there for me. I’m working on it. I never understood women before, when they put themselves in second place or third place. And it’s so easy to do.” The stress of juggling family and career has brought out the same insecurities in Serena as other parents feel. “I don’t think I’m doing it right.” One wonders how Serena would react to Proverbs 31 and the comments above about “fearing the Lord” and about reading this description of a noble wife in the light of the Gospel.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Psalm 1 didn’t just happen to be placed at the beginning of the book of Psalms. After all, Psalms is perhaps the most obviously and carefully edited of all the books of the Bible. It’s the forward to the book, the opening inscription, the epigram on the first page. Which means this is the best expression of truth they could find to sum up the meaning of life. It’s a Psalm worth some time and thought and one that your congregation needs to know and understand.
It has always seemed somewhat strange to me that it begins by saying that we achieve happiness, blessedness by not doing certain things, rather than by doing things. Right away it strikes a negative tone. If you want a happy and blessed life, make sure you don’t follow the advice of people you know are dishonest of crooked. Don’t walk the path and spend time in the places sinful folks frequent. Don’t hang around with cynics and scoffers who can’t take anything seriously.
Wouldn’t it have been better to start on a positive note, emphasizing the good life of the righteous rather than starting out with the no-no’s? I suspect that most of us would have chosen to “accentuate the positive” as the old song says.
But there’s an ageless wisdom to the approach of the Psalmist. We are social animals who are easily influenced by our environment. While our doctrine of original sin tends to emphasize the endemic quality of evil, the Bible is also clear about its social contagion. We aren’t just born sinful, we learn it.
So, the Psalm is telling us that if we want to enjoy the blessedness of a righteous life, it’s not a good idea to spend a lot of time in the places and with the people whose life is exactly the opposite. It’s like the old saying about computer programming, “garbage in, garbage out.” We can’t expect that when we flood our minds with evil and spend our time in the company of people who are devious, resentful, and just plain wicked, we are going to grow in goodness. It just doesn’t work that way.
The Psalm suggests that, perhaps the first step in living a blessed life is to watch out for what’s influencing or minds and hearts. What books are we reading, what movies do we watch? Where do we find our entertainment, or what kind of activity gives us the greatest joy? Who do we most like to spend time with, or what kind of people do we really admire?
Does that mean that we take the “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to life? That we ban books and movies, never spend time with unbelievers, and live an abstemious life of avoidance and fear? No, there is no way we can expunge all evil influences or wall our lives off from the evils of the world. Years ago, in the denomination I grew up in, we were warned away from the big three bad influences, movies, card-playing (of the face card sort), and dancing. It didn’t work very well. Sometimes pressure toward avoidance alone can lead to attraction, at least it did with me.
The Psalm is telling us to be vigilant about the influences in our lives. Take an honest look at what we find attractive, where we spend our time, what really excites us. Often, those places in our lives where we find ourselves falling into sin can be traced back to the where we are spending our time, and the people or activities that we come back to over and over.
But the Psalm quickly turns toward the positive. What are the places, the people, the activities that prod us toward goodness, righteousness, and love? The Psalmist summarizes this by advocating delight in and meditation on the law of God. The” law of God” is the Torah, which Israel understood as the books of Moses, the Pentateuch, which was the Jewish gospel. For Christians, meditating on the law of God includes the whole Scripture.
The more we are steeped in the Scriptures, the more likely we will be able to discern good from evil, and the more we will grasp how to live well, which is what righteousness looks like. Grounded in the sweep of the biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation, we will know what life in this world means, what we are here for, and where we are headed. The more we ground our lives in that story, the more we will be part of that story.
But Paul reminds us that it’s even wider than that. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8) Perhaps constantly reading pulp novels, watching TV, and stalking the Mall is not the best way to find the blessedness the Psalm promises.
The Psalm offers another wonderful image that pictures the blessed life of the righteous that is repeated elsewhere in the Psalms. They are grounded.
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
There’s the old saying, “bloom where you are planted.” But it matters where we are planted. Perhaps we don’t bloom well planted in the arid desert of popular culture.
Notice that the Psalm does not say that we are like trees that plant themselves by streams of water. It’s not just what we do, it’s what has been done for us. One way of thinking about this is to consider how we raise our children to live a blessed life.
Some parents resist the idea that they should raise their children by giving them a religious grounding, plant them in the church. They argue that we need to let our children choose their own way, find their own beliefs. Of course, people eventually do, but they will have a harder time finding a blessed life if they have not been grounded in one.
When we plant our children in the community of God’s people and immerse them in the Christian faith, we are not robbing them of choice, but giving them a grounding in good soil, next to a refreshing and life-giving stream of God’s grace and truth.
“The wicked are not so….” Now the Psalm turns its attention to the alternative lifestyle. Who are the “wicked?” They are not necessarily those whose lives are bent on evil, hatred, and violence. In the world of the Psalm, the wicked are those who refuse to live by God’s law, whose lives have no grounding in the Creator God, who wander through life with no real goal or purpose beyond their immediate needs or happiness.
The Psalm doesn’t bother to give us a graphic picture of wickedness, but focuses on its end. They are “like chaff that the wind drives away,” and who “will not stand in the judgment.” Life apart from God, life in the desert of a godless world, is weightless, like the chaff that blows away. It has no grounding, no lasting source of nourishment. The opposite of blessedness is nothingness, meaninglessness.
The bottom line of all this is that “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Living the blessed life means that we do not have a God who is constantly pointing the finger of judgement at us, condemning our behavior. We have a God who loves us, watches over us, and guides us.
As Christians, we know that this blessed life is not something we achieve, it is a gift of grace in Jesus Christ. He is the one true and good human being, the one righteous man. It is in his righteousness, not our own, that we find the blessedness we want. He is our savior from sin by his death and resurrection, and he is the power by which we can live a blessed life by the gift of his Spirit.
Preaching the Text:
1). James K. A. Smith has written a series of books on what he calls “cultural liturgies.” Much of his thought is accessibly summed up in “You Are What You Love.” It may seem strange to talk about cultural influences on our lives as “liturgies,” but Smith shows how many attractions in our culture act on us like liturgies, shaping our lives. He colorfully describes the liturgy of the Mall and the liturgy of the sports stadium. He shows how these liturgies act as stories that form us in often unconscious ways.
But Smith also describes how the worship of the church acts as a kind of counter-liturgy to the liturgies of the world. The church’s liturgy, its worship, draws us into the story of God, and calls us into living in that story. He also urges the church to pay attention to its worship so that it doesn’t just mimic the liturgies of the world.
The Preacher will find many good examples here of the ways in which we unknowingly follow the advice of the wicked, walk the path of sinners and sit in the seat of scoffers. But you will also find ways to urge your people to see the church’s worship as a crucial antidote to the domination of various cultural liturgies in our lives.
2). Speaking of liturgies, I recently decided to take a look at John McCain’s funeral at Washington Cathedral, not really intending to watch the whole thing. But I was captivated and watched the whole service. In a culture increasingly marked by tribalism, division, and enmity, the McCain funeral was a strong counter-liturgy. It urged a return to bi-partisanship, cooperation, and unity of purpose. It told a different story about America than the story of fear, division, and and animosity so prevalent today.
Amazingly, the funeral was shown on almost all the networks simultaneously. There was a shared feeling that this was something we needed to reshape ourselves and our nation. And surprisingly to me, this was not merely a cultural liturgy, it was set in the context of the Christian liturgy, the hymns, prayers, and Scriptures of which told a different story, called us to live in a different drama.
3). I would not recommend watching TV series as an activity akin to being planted like a tree by the water. It’s interesting, however, that a series like Mad Men, or The Sopranos that focus the on the life of wicked people, have a deeper message. After watching these programs week after week, the effect was not that I would like to emulate Tony Soprano or Don Draper or their cohorts, but just the opposite. It revealed how empty, meaningless, and ultimately destructive such a life really is. Evil, when seen in all its sordid reality is seldom attractive.
4). It is fascinating to trace the image of trees in the Bible. From the trees planted in the garden of Eden, to the fruit tree-lined boulevard in Revelation 22, trees are often used as a symbol for vitality and growth.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor. (Isaiah 61:3)
But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)
James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a
Author: Doug Bratt
The scope of this Sunday’s Lectionary Epistle makes the lesson somewhat awkward. It, after all, spans parts of at least five paragraphs and two subject headings in most English Bible translations. This lesson also simply omits most translations’ second half of verse 8.
That awkwardness will leave at least some of us searching hard to discern one theme that overarches the lesson. Certainly both wisdom and division are prominent themes. But I’d suggest another central theme of this Sunday’s Lectionary lesson is “submission to God” (4:7).
Of course, preachers and teachers may want to be a bit cautious about publicizing that theme. I, for one, after all, can’t remember the last time I heard anyone use the term “submission” in any kind of positive way. At least some 21st century’s citizens think of submission as a barbaric practice that we wisely abandoned at least 40 year ago. We often connect submission to the kind of subservience that white males for all too long imposed on people who are female and/or black and/or materially poor.
That’s why it’s so important for those who proclaim this Lectionary Epistle to immediately emphasize the voluntary nature of the submission to which it summons us. The God whom we worship in Jesus Christ is not like some rich white man who imposes submission on us. Nor is God inviting us to do something that’s only good for God or God’s cronies.
The God who creates and cares for us graciously calls us to submit to the Lord because it’s the way of life that most closely mirrors that for which God creates us. Our first parents chose to submit to the evil one rather than God. Yet voluntary submission to God is the straightest and shortest path to the shalom that God intends for both our neighbors and us.
That voluntary submission to God is part of the “wisdom” (3:14, 17) that God shares with God’s adopted sons and daughters. Such wisdom is, as we’ve noted before, not the “intelligence” to which our culture generally links it. It isn’t even, as one scholar notes, sitting around thinking wise thoughts and saying smart things. Wisdom is, instead, God’s gift of looking at God, the world and our neighbors in a way that God looks at them. Such wisdom, in turn, prompts a certain way of living that includes submission to God.
Yet those who preach this week’s lesson from James will want to explore with hearers just what it means to “submit … to God” (4:7). We may want to note that it at least includes submitting the way we act, talk and think to God’s loving inspection. We might think about wisdom as somehow “running past God” every idea we have for an action, word and thought. Instead of asking what’s best for us, those who submit to God consider what God says is best for our neighbors and us.
Of course, submitting to God requires adopting a counter-cultural posture towards both God and our neighbors. We, after all, naturally assume that we’re our own gods. We don’t naturally bow ourselves before or submit to anyone but ourselves. We also naturally assume that we’re our neighbors’ superiors. Figuratively bowing before God requires the death of our feelings of superiority and the resurrection of our view of our neighbors as those whom God has created in God’s image just as much as God created us in that image.
The rest of this Lectionary Epistle helps shape that. It insists that submission is not some ethereal principle. Those who proclaim James 3 & 4 will want to quickly note that submitting ourselves to God especially concretely affects the way we talk to, act toward and think about our neighbors.
For example, there is, insists the apostle, no room in submission to God for “bitter envy and selfish ambition” as well as boasting or denying the truth (3:13). Those, after all, are the priorities of the evil one. They reflect a kind of “wisdom” that our culture and society sometimes embraces, but is actually foolish in its “disorder and … evil practice” (3:16). Nor is there room in submission to God for the kind of killing, coveting, quarreling and fighting that James grieves in chapter 4:2. Rather than building the kind of community for which God longs, things like envy, selfish ambition and boasting break down relationships.
Those who preach and teach this week’s lesson from James may want to consider and explore with their hearers how submission to God involves a kind of submission to our neighbors. Those who submit to God don’t do things that harm our neighbors. Nor do we long to have what our neighbors have that we don’t. Those who submit to God in one sense learn to be more and more content with both our well-to-do neighbors and what they have.
Of course, preachers and teachers’ relentless fight against moralizing marches right through this week’s lesson. It is, after all, very tempting to add James 3 and 4’s marks of wisdom and submission to Jesus’ followers’ laundry list of “shoulds” and “oughts.” So those who preach and teach this lesson will want to relentlessly ground their proclamation in the nature of both the God who gives it and the well-being of those who receive it.
That grounding becomes even more necessary when we read, study and proclaim the positive signs of submission to God. After all, the list of those attributes is even longer than our text’s list of acts of foolish rebellion against God and our neighbors. James 3:17 alone lists eight characteristics of those who submit to God. They’re “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere [and] peacemakers who sow in peace.” Add to that 3:13 and 4:6’s calls to humility, as well as 4:2b-3’s invitations to proper prayer, and you have a moral laundry list that’s long enough to keep even the godliest person both hopping and feeling guilty.
Those who proclaim this week’s epistolary lesson won’t likely have enough time to extensively address each facet of submission to God that James lists in it. However, we might note some things about a few characteristics.
Among the most intriguing of James’ insights is “humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13). Those who are wise stand humbly before both God and our neighbors. We recognize that we are God’s creatures and that our neighbors also bear the precious image of God. Such humility leads to a life of service to God that in part manifests itself in service to our neighbors.
In chapter 3:18 James also gives particular prominence to the submission to God that is “peacemaking.” It’s one of God’s attributes that’s certainly desperately needed in a world that’s riven by so many conflicts. But 3:18’s allusion to “sowing” peace suggests that our work for peace may take a long time to provide a harvest. Those who are wise learn that peace generally comes only after much prayerful patience and work.
James ends this lesson on submission to God by asserting, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8a). Neither assertion is particularly easy to understand. Satan and his henchmen, after all, relentlessly chase and tempt God’s children until the day God draws them into God’s eternal presence. The devil’s “flight” often seems temporary at best.
Nor is it particularly easy to know what James means when he says, “Come near to God and his will come near to you.” The Scriptures, after all, offer consistent testimony to God’s refusal to abandon God’s adopted sons and daughters for even a moment. But perhaps nearness, in light of what James say, refers to the kind of nearness that is the sense of both God’s joy over us and God’s closeness that submitting to God’s will makes us more aware of.
In his fascinating book, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose writes about Thomas Jefferson’s uneasy relationship with slavery. Among other things, America’s second president seems to worry about the effect the demand for slaves’ submission would have on the children of their owners.
Ambrose notes that while Jefferson owned slaves, “no man knew better than Jefferson the price Virginia paid for slavery, most of all in what the system did to young [white] men. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote: ‘The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and the most degrading submissions on the other.
‘Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave [whipping was generally accompanied by shouting and cursing and rage, all of it aiding the whipper in thinking that the slave deserved whatever he was getting], it should always be a sufficient motive that his children are present. But generally it is not sufficient.
‘The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.’ Jefferson knew whereof he wrote, and he knew no prodigies in this matter.”
Yet Jefferson didn’t live long enough to learn to submit to God in a way that allowed him to stop making slaves submit to him.