The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 16, 2013
I Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3
Lively Grace and Difficult Justice
Grace abounds, but grace doesn’t nullify the consequences of our personal or corporate actions. What we do matters and although grace can change the meaning of the past and awaken us to alternative futures, it cannot erase the impact of our actions. Justice and mercy leave seeds of creative transformation that contribute health and wholeness, while injustice and hard-heartedness leave seeds of destruction that lead to alienation and disease, personally and corporately. Although the past does not define us personally or corporately, God’s grace and our repentance must contend with the inexorable impact of our actions. Still, as the philosopher Whitehead suggests, within the limitations are possibilities. We must, however, let go of our attachment to the past and previous values, repent and redress negativity and injustice, and open to new courses of behavior.
There is little comfort, and much realism, in the words of I Kings 21. On the one hand, the passage is descriptive of the process of eminent domain, the ability of governments, often motivated by powerful special interests, to obtain private property in a compulsory fashion. Even though the owner is compensated – and Ahab is seeking to compensate Naboth for his vineyard – the owner has little option but to acquiesce to the greater power of the state, in this case represented by Ahab. The problem in this passage is occasioned by how Ahab appropriates the property. He abdicates his leadership function, allowing the “arch-villainess” Jezebel to achieve his goals, albeit by violent and unlawful means. Naboth refuses to sell and he is unjustly tried and executed. Both Ahab and Jezebel are equally guilty here and the Elijah, in an even-handed and gender neutral way condemns both them. King Ahab’s passivity and failure to render justice is as evil in result and intent as Queen Jezebel’s active pursuit of evil to achieve her ends, a lovely vista and garden.
Actions have consequences and Elijah warns Ahab that he will reap what he has sown. There is blood on his hands and eventually he will be the victim of his own violence.
Today’s preacher might ask the congregation the following question: Where do you see the powerful exploiting the powerless? Where do you see power – governmental or corporate – used to confiscate property for harmful ends? The preacher needs to remind his congregants that the fact that an action is legal or that the legal system is employed to achieve a result does not necessarily imply that this same action is moral or beneficial to the public good. As we look in the mirror of this passage, we may not like what we see. We may see ourselves reaping consumerism in global climate change and severe weather events and greed in foreclosures, economic uncertainty, and challenging retirements. Whom would Elijah confront today? How might we change our ways to be more faithful to God and, frankly, given the reality of self-interest, avoid reaping destruction from the impact of past actions?
The words of Psalm 5 affirm the righteousness and justice of God. The Psalmist counts on God to make her or his way straight in a world in injustice. God is seen as the inspiration and arbiter of justice and the support of all who are oppressed by powers greater than themselves.
Paul’s words to the Galatians are not a denunciation of law and morality. They do not justify the popular maxim, “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven” (while others are not!) or suggest that Christians should excuse themselves from passivity in the public square, economic relationships, or the quest for personal integrity and responsibility. Rather, one’s adherence to the Torah, the Mosaic law, cannot be seen as a form of spiritual imperialism or superiority in relationship to others, nor can it be the basis of creating first and second class members of the emerging Christian community. Paul is not denouncing the law, but challenging the use of the law to separate the community and, accordingly, diminish the faith of Gentile Christians. “Separate but equal” is, by definition, exclusionary and unjust whether in public policy or congregational life. The ability of Gentiles to receive the fullness of God’s grace must not be based on extra “works” on their part, nor does doing particular “works” place others in a superior position in relationship to God.
Grace does not diminish our quest for holiness; grace simply places all of us in the care of a loving God, who does not discriminate based on the world’s ethnic, social, sexual, and economic distinctions. A holistic gospel embraces the orientations of both Paul and James. Grace is the gift of God and can’t be earned, but it must also be accompanied by works. In this case, grace requires the full acceptance of Gentile Christians and their gifts to the community. Grace involves letting go of any ritual standards that separate and diminish. Jewish Christians may still follow the holiness codes of the Torah, but their adherence to Jewish law is affirmative of their unique faith not a negation of the faith of others.
The apostle of grace does not avoid the impact of actions in the past and present. The theology of grace is cheap if it suggests that an evil doer who makes a deathbed confession of faith is saved while a moral and generous agnostic is damned. A repentant Hitler may find solace in the afterlife, but he must share his salvation with countless victims of genocide who never accepted Christ as their savior. Yes, we are all captured in sin, but Paul’s hyperbolic rhetoric, chosen to make his point of the ubiquity of imperfection and alienation, should not blind us to the fact that some behaviors, sins, are more heinous than others. Even among those who call themselves Christians and those who do not, sins are not equal and we must be clear about this. The sin of an unemployed single parent who fudges on an application to find housing and food for her family cannot be compared with Christian business people who knowingly contribute to environmental destruction or value profits over persons, knowing the disastrous impact of unemployment of social structures and family life. Sadly, we often punish the first and admire the second. God forgive us!
The gospel account of the woman with the alabaster jar widens the circle of grace beyond the powerful and pure to embrace outsiders and sinners. We don’t know the nature of this woman’s “sinful” status. We need to recall that sin, in first century Judaism, was seen as a social and religious disease – based on birth, health, occupation – and not always a moral fault. Jesus embraces this generous woman and challenges the pharisaic claim to superiority. Pharisee and sinner alike depend of God’s love. No one is pure or successful on their own: all live within an intricate web of interdependence, the source of benefits as well as challenges. The Pharisee’s faith is completed not through ritual actions but gratitude and hospitality, both of which the sinful woman exemplifies. His sense of righteousness blinds him to his own imperfection and his vocation to provide hospitality to the sinner.
We are all standing in the need of grace. We have all left a trail of tears, even small tears of children and innocents, and repentance is necessary. We are all wounded and have closed our hearts to higher possibilities and now need God’s creative transformation. Jew and Gentile, believer and unbeliever, active churchgoer and active agnostic, all need God’s reconciling touch to begin again and commit to bringing greater beauty and justice to the world. Grace abounds and love wins, but in the midst of life we need to strive toward a life of confession, repentance, holiness, and care. Such a life opens us to joyful interdependence and loving responsibility for the world around us. Thanks be to God who provides us with the chance to amend our lives and discover grace even as we live with the impact of past decisions.