The Adventurous Lectionary: The 15th Sunday After Pentecost

Lectionary  Reflections for September 9, 2012

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-10, 14-17; Mark 7:24-27

Today’s lectionary readings break down the barriers of rich and poor, insider and outsider, and body and spirit.  The quest for healing and wholeness embraces all of life, and healing in one place contributes to healing in other places.  We cannot separate injustice from physical distress or racism from infant mortality rates and accessibility to health care and healthy diet.  The church’s healing ministry must take on global proportions, excluding nothing in our quest to be faithful to God’s vision of Shalom.

The aphorisms from Proverbs 22 describe the nature of character and the impact of our actions on our spiritual growth.  God is not partial in process of creativity: rich and poor alike owe their existence to divine artistry.  The rich cannot claim to be God’s special people, nor do they have a divine right to their largesse.  In fact, God is partial ethically: God has preferential option for the poor and, according to the author of Proverbs, the well-being of the wealthy depends on their care for the vulnerable.

Injustice leads to calamity.  While it clear that the wealthy still flourish in this lifetime and the gap between the wealthy .5% and the middle class and poor is widening, injustice leads to spiritual disaster for the wealthy.   They may, Amos says, experience a famine of hearing the word of God. (Amos 8:11) While causation is never linear – and the just and unjust alike suffer from illness and accident – there is a deeper order to the universe in which just actions open us to divine creativity and insight and unjust actions close us from the best divine possibilities.  We may gain the world financially and attain celebrity status but be essentially soulless.

Psalm 125 continues the identification of justice with flourishing and injustice with punishment.  While we know that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people, the Psalmist suggests that ultimately good things will happen to good people!  Perhaps the abundance of which the Psalmist speaks is beauty of character that brings joy to our lives regardless of life’s circumstances.  While it is imperative that we work for justice, we must recognize that inner peace and communion with God and our neighbor is the greatest gift.

Our journey through James continues our reflections on justice and injustice.  God welcomes all – rich and poor – and so should we.  James presents us with a provocative possibility: What type of persons would be unwelcome in our church?  Whose presence might elicit immediate surprise, discomfort, or the judgment that such people don’t belong in our church?  Who are our outcasts?

“God has chosen the poor of the world to be rich in faith.”  Such a statement is not empirically verifiable although studies have found that after a certain level, wealth does not bring greater happiness.  This statement – advocating the virtues of simplicity and humility – should not blind us to the realities of injustice that truly crush the spirits as well as bodies of the poor.

James is entering the political realm in this passage and the preacher must acknowledge it.   This is James’ “occupy the world” polemic!  Today, James’ words would evoke protests of class warfare in his accurate portray of the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy and the realities of preferences for the wealthy in the justice system.

Faith is fulfilled in works and the primary locus of faith-action is care for the vulnerable.  While we might wish to individualize this statement, implying that it has nothing to do with politics and economics, James would beg to disagree.  Christians must be aware of the impact of their decisions, personally and politically, on the marginalized and impoverished.  We must constantly ask ourselves:  Does this decision support the well-being of persons at society’s edges?  Is this legislation going to increase the gap between the rich and poor, regardless of its overall economic benefits?  Following James leads to a radical overall of church life, but also the political realm.  James, ultimately, calls us to see the connection between physical well-being, political access, and spiritual maturity.  As Walter Rauschenbusch once asserted, “Hell’s Kitchen is not a safe place for saved souls.”  If there is any wisdom from Gladwell’s recent book Outliers, it is that circumstances – both cultural and economic – are as important as hard work in our achievements.  “We did not build [that company or business or our wealth] by ourselves.” It emerges from an interdependent network in which some are favored and others neglected.  The accidents of birth and economy need to be ameliorated by equally significant actions of equal opportunity, universal health care, and excellent education for all.

Mark 7 juxtaposes two healing stories – the healing of the Syrophonecian’s daughter and the healing of a hearing and speech impaired man.  Both stories are multivalent.  On the one hand, the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter is an example of distant healing.  In the spirit of Bell’s Theorum, healing is a non-local phenomenon.  Our prayers, intentions, and healing energy radiate across the universe and touch people whom we have never met.  On the other hand, this story portrays another kind of distant healing: healing that goes beyond ethnicity to embrace the whole earth in its diversity.  Healing and consideration are not just for the Jews or for our people but for everyone.

This story, at first glance, paints Jesus as ethically and ethnically insensitive.  He appears to insult this woman simply because she and her daughter fall outside of the circle of God’s chosen ones.  Is Jesus is simply mirroring the racism characteristic of his time? There are two other options: 1) Jesus is testing her, and will reward her if she is willing to persist regardless of his insult.  This interpretation makes the healing contingent on her faith, but worse makes Jesus’ sympathy contingent on her jumping through behavioral hoops and ultimately allowing herself to be demeaned for the sake of her daughter’s well-being; 2) Jesus is presenting a living parable to his listeners: he has every intention of healing her, but wants to test and teach his followers.  As he demeans this woman, insulting her ethnic and religious background, they nod their heads in approval.  He has authenticated their racism.  But, then, he pulls the rug out from under them by healing her daughter and honoring her faith.  The healing parable points out the depth of her faith and commitment, and proclaims God’s love for the outsider.  However we view this narrative, it is clear that God’s healing now embraces everyone regardless of difference.  All are touched by God.

The healing of the hearing and speech-impaired man presents a miniature healing liturgy.  Jesus touches the man, anoints him with spittle, and calls out for divine assistance and energy.  Jesus transforms touch into healing power and spittle into a sacrament.  There is no fanfare, no theatrics, just the simple joining of two people in quest of God’s energy of love.

Healing cuts across boundaries and takes many forms.  We need to expand rather than contract our vision of healing to embrace the healing of the planet’s atmosphere, endangered species, economic injustice, ethnic exclusion, as well as the healing of bodies, emotions, and spirits. Healing is truly global and indivisible.  Any healing act contributes to the well-being of the part as well as the whole and reflects our commitment to be God’s global healing partners.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.  His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He is currently Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

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