The Adventurous Lectionary – October 20, 2019 – The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-14; 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.
The Hebraic tradition sees life as the interplay of order and chaos, providence and agency, and alignment with divinity and turning toward self-interest. While ultimately God’s moral arc will prevail in the historical adventure, in the meantime the dynamic call and response regularly tilts toward and away from God’s vision, imagined in terms of the creative and just order of the universe.
God calls and we respond, opening and closing new possibilities for the God-world relationship and the moral arc of history. Today’s passages reflect on the nature of divine order and human responsiveness and invite us to ask: How shall we understand the divine order of the universe? Is there a divine law that undergirds the universe and human life? Is this law inflexible or relational? Are the laws of nature and the laws of human life oppressive – as most legalistic interpretations of natural law suggest – or liberating, encouraging creativity and care for each other – and real freedom and agency – as the heart of our relationship with God?
The passages from Jeremiah 31 and Psalm 119 affirm the transformative power of divine law. God’s law is intimate and personal, written on our hearts. Divine law is present as our deepest reality. Aligned with divine law, we experience the blessings of divine providence moving through our lives. When we turn away from God’s moral law, as Israel did, God appears to be absent and punitive. We experience spiritual deprivation which is reflected in political, economic, and communal destruction. The prophet even suggests, in patriarchal terms, that God has a right to destroy an unfaithful nation in the same way as a husband can dispose of an unfaithful wife. Surely, we must liberate this text from oppressive patriarchy and marital legalism to discover its deeper meaning and role in healing persons and institutions.
Jeremiah provides words of hope after a time of desolation. In a time of darkness, God promises a new beginning. People will once more experience God’s presence and have a clear sense of God’s guidance. God is doing a new thing – making a new covenant – in the peoples’ inner lives that will be reflected in a transformed social order. God initiates, but the people must open to divine wisdom emerging from within their lives. This wisdom is not so much statutory – an inflexible external law or undeviating natural law –but an inner relationship similar to the love of parent and child. This divine infusion of wisdom leads to a sense of love for the law, as Psalm 119 articulates. For those who open to divine order, the law of God is sweet, trustworthy, and nourishing. While directives may be present in divine law, it is ultimately about relationship – God’s nearness and our response.
Still, it is challenging to imagine in our pluralist society a nation that directly experiences God. Which vision of God’s law will prevail, which experiences of God would be normative? Still, we can seek the ways of justice – the universally applicable golden or silver rules – in governmental policies that respect religious and cultural diversity.
Paul Tillich once spoke of three types of law – autonomy, self-rule, “I will do what I want or think right” epitomized by the American individualistic ethos; heteronomy, the rule of others, reflected in the behavior of authoritarian regimes and family situations, “You will do what I tell you” or “because I said so”; and theonomy, alignment of God and humankind, “God is calling with love and I respond lovingly, recognizing that God’s way brings joy and reflects my own well-being and the well-being of the planet.” I believe that Jeremiah guides us toward a theonomous understanding of law and ethics, reflective of what is best for us, our neighbor, and our planet, and recognizing the interplay of self-affirmation, love for the neighbor, and love of God in creative and liberating ways.The words of 2 Timothy describe spiritual authority that comes from beyond us and that nevertheless brings fulfillment to our inner lives and relationships. In a pluralistic culture, the author counsels this young Christian to “hold fast to your Christian identity, don’t be led astray by popular movements, take seriously the wisdom of tradition in growing your faith and staying on the right path.” Timothy’s faith was nurtured in by his mother and grandmother, his community, and his scriptural studies. Relationship, scripture, experience, and tradition are sources of authority. In a passage often misunderstood, the author asserts that “all scripture is inspired.”
This passage has often been cited to undergird fundamentalist or literalist understandings of scripture or subservience to ecclesiastical authorities who interpret scriptures, but I think the meaning is deeper than merely paper authority or rigid doctrine. First, taken literally, this passage only pertains to the Old or First Testament – the New Testament scriptures had not yet been written. Second, in the spirit of the Hebraic and early Christian understandings of scripture, scripture was intended to be part of a lively dialogue, a life-giving and dynamic midrash, with commentaries emerging to respond to changing times, rather than as an unchanging and infallible document. Finally, God-breathed scriptures are inspiring, not imprisoning. They guide our paths but don’t determine woodenly every step we take. Like deep breaths, they energize and motivate rather than imprison and suffocate.
Authority is essential in the life of faith. We clearly need guidance in a pluralistic and relativistic age, and scripture’s stories and counsel are guideposts for the journey. While God’s mercies are new every morning, we need to join tradition, scripture, experience, reason, and cultural insights in understanding God’s call in our time. Salvation doesn’t come from workshops or best sellers – or biblical study guides – but from the interplay of contemplation and action, community and reflection, and tradition and novelty.
The parable of the Widow and the Uninterested or Apathetic Judge affirms the importance of persistence in prayer. The widow comes to the judge day after day, petitioning him to decide on her behalf, and despite his indifference to the justice of her cause, he relents simply to get her off his back. In contrast to the judge’s apathy, God is empathetic: God cares and God wants us to receive blessings.
The problem Jesus raises is that God’s blessings are often deferred or appear to be. God apparently does not wave an almighty hand, solve all our problems, cure all diseases, or make governments just. There seems to be a gap between our prayers and God’s responses. While this parable doesn’t go into the metaphysics of prayer – answered and unanswered prayer – the implication is that God’s love will be revealed and though it may emerge in ways different than we have imagined, we need to continue to pray and look for divine responses. God is always faithful and wants us to have abundant life despite appearances to the contrary. We need to look at the long view, keep opening to God in prayer, and wait for God’s guidance. Still, people who lose faith as a result of trauma and tragedy should not be judged as lesser Christians than those who invoke “praise the Lord anyway” slogans. Struggle is at the heart of faith, and certain seasons may test us beyond our current endurance. God’s faith in us is more important than faith in God, and God will not abandon us.
Bruce Epperly is Senior Pastor of South Congregational, UCC, Centerville, MA, and author of over 50 books, including “Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry,” “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.”