Lectionary Reflections for September 15, 2013
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Pardon and Punishment
Today’s readings contrast punishment and grace. The Hebraic scriptures describe God annihilating an unfaithful nation. God is the agent of national catastrophe, aiming at punishing the unjust wealthy for their abuse of the poor. Those who deny God’s existence, as the Psalm notes, will suffer the consequences of their misbehavior. The Psalmist identifies belief in God with relational and economic justice. The Epistle and Gospel highlight God’s graceful care, which encompasses the lost and sinful. In light of the New Testament readings, do the unjust wealthy receive a second chance to repent? If God’s grace welcomes back the apostle Paul, despite his persecution of early Christians, will it welcome back the wealthy whose largess has come at the expense of the poor?
Jeremiah pronounces words of judgment. The people are stupid and foolish: they don’t know the difference between right and wrong; moreover, they destroy the common people. Their injustice is obvious, but it will be their undoing. God will wreak havoc with humankind and nature.
Psalm 14 connects godlessness with injustice. Those who turn from God also turn from their neighbors, eating and confounding the poor. In contrast, God sides with the poor; God is their only refuge from the onslaught of the unjust. Their injustice may appear to bring them their heart’s desires, but eventually they will experience the terror of being Godforsaken. Moreover, injustice leads to punishment and destruction. The poor will be raised up; the wealthy laid low.
Today’s Hebraic scriptures affirm that we reap what we sow. God is the remorseless agent of retribution, balancing the scales of justice, punishing the unjust, and lifting up the oppressed. But, is God the agent of retribution or is justice meted out in the dynamic interplay of social, economic, and political relationships? Surely injustice changes our relationship to God: if we focus on power, possessions, consumption, and materialism at the expense of others we limit God’s presence in our lives. We gain the world but may lose our souls, and become deaf to God’s still, small voice.
Clearly the scales of justice are not balanced by God or the interdependence of life in this lifetime. The gap between the wealthy and poor continues to increase, and CEOs get enormous bonuses for profitability and cost-cutting, quite often by laying off employees and plunging them into poverty. Corporations make huge profits from overseas child labor and unsafe working conditions. The skeptic is justified in saying “Where is your God?” Will God somehow right the wrongs in the next life, if not this one?
The words of I Timothy speak of the grace of God for sinners. The author, often seen as Paul, receives divine favor in spite of actions done in ignorance. Based on his experience, he affirms the wondrous truth that “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Even the foremost sinner can find salvation. The words of I Timothy beg the following questions: What constitutes “ignorance,” especially since in Paul’s case, ignorance led to intentionality? Would Jesus’ words on the Cross – “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” refer to the wealthy oppressors described in Jeremiah and Psalm 14? Is their sense of priorities the result of their inability to understand God’s quest for justice? Is there hope for the “lost” rich as well as the “lost” poor?
Luke 15 describes God’s joy at homecoming of sinners. The trilogy of Luke describes three states of being lost: wandering off ignorantly, being lost in the shuffle, and choosing to go astray. None of these states is beyond God’s redemption. At any moment we can turn around to awaken to God’s grace.
The context of this passage involves the righteous’ judgments on sinners and outsiders. Certain of their goodness, they assume others fall outside the circle of salvation. Jesus makes clear that everyone falls within the shadow of salvation, regardless of their past behavior and place in society.
The Jewish mystical tradition proclaims that when you save one soul, you save the world. This wisdom provides a creative lens through which to read the parable of the lost sheep. The shepherd risks the flock, to some degree, by leaving them to find the lost sheep. But, perhaps more importantly, the ninety nine cannot be fully saved apart from the lost sheep. They will remain ninety nine and not experience the wholeness of the perfect number, one hundred. Salvation is relational; our salvation is connected to the well-being of others. We cannot be complete without the salvation of others. The joy of heaven is found in the welcoming home of every soul.
There is both pardon and punishment in God’s realm. Yet, pardon and grace are circles within which responsibility falls. Grace transforms the past, and opens us to become new creations. We still may have to face the consequences of the past; but grace leads to new behaviors and openness to expanded divine possibilities for ourselves and the good Earth.