The Adventurous Lectionary – Pentecost 15 – September 5, 2021
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Today’s readings reflect the concern for hospitality and affirmation as essential to faithful living. Despite our struggles to be welcoming, God’s realm breaks down the barriers of friend and stranger and rich and poor and invites us to do likewise. All of God’s children deserve our reverence and respect, regardless of nation of origin, gender and sexual identity, age, race, etc., and this is revealed in our political advocacy and personal relationships. Following God’s way challenges us to question our cultural values, sense of propriety, and ethnic and religious boundaries. It challenges us to confront anything that keeps us or others from achieving their full humanity.
Wisdom literature, as exemplified in the passage from Proverbs, is grounded in the discovery of God in the ordinary affairs of daily life. As I tell my elementary school grandchildren, words have consequences. Our outer behaviors expand or limit our possibilities and God’s presence in our lives.
The author of Proverbs gives good advice. A good name, fairness, and justice are not abstractions but lived out in each day’s adventures. Having a good name, a reputation for trustworthiness and fairness, suggests the interplay of the inner life and external behaviors. As we cultivate holiness in the spirit, the natural fruits are consideration for all people regardless of their social standing and economic situation. Rich and poor alike deserve respect, and to shun the poor leads to alienation and diminishment of the soul, not just the souls of the poor but our own.
As I pondered the reading from Proverbs, I was reminded of John Lennon’s tune, “Instant Karma,” the sense that we what we sow we will also reap. While we may not affirm the strict act-consequences theology of cause and effect suggested in the Proverbs passage, we can connect blessedness with justice and compassion at least as it relates to our inner life and most immediate relationships. Generosity expands the spirit and frees us from the prison of self-interest. Injustice may very well lead to calamity on a personal and national level. But sadly, and not addressed by the writer of Proverbs, the impact of injustice falls disproportionately on the marginalized and vulnerable. The wealthy appear to get away with murder by asserting “it’s just business” or “it’s all about the bottom line.” Still, Socrates’ notion that committing injustice is the greatest evil and that is better to suffer injustice than perpetrate it is insightful. Those who commit injustice diminish their ethical stature and shrink their spirits and may experience a famine of hearing God’s word, as the prophet Amos asserts. Their world shrinks to the size of their personal well-being; their spirits atrophy rather than grow. Certainly, we see this in a nation whose primarily governmental priorities are financial, while jettisoning any moral compass to guide the nation’s spirit.
Psalm 125 connects trust in God with personal endurance. Trust in God or another suggests a reliance on grace and a willingness to follow God’s pathways regardless of immediate reward. Like the attitude of a young child toward its parent or grandparent, trust roots us in relationship to the source of safety and blessing. We can endure trials because our interest embraces God’s vision and not just our own idiosyncratic and narrow self-interest. Walking God’s path leads to the joy of a clear conscience and the comfort of knowing that God will supply our deepest needs, including our need to sacrifice for the well-being of our community and the planet.
The Psalm has social implications. What does it mean to trust God in a pluralistic society? What does it mean for our leaders to place their spirituality at the heart of their decision-making? In the scrum of local or national politics, in the confrontation of various power centers, what does it mean to trust God and not only challenge injustice but also protect the nation from its enemies?
The Epistle of James invites us to an embodied and egalitarian faith. Our vision of God as the lover of all creation inspires us to welcome the stranger and uplift the impoverished. Beneath the exteriors of wealth and poverty and power and weakness, God’s Spirit lives. In the spirit of Matthew 25, we treat the poor with grace and hospitality – with equality – because our care for the creature and the Creator are one and same reality. As we have done unto the least of these, we have done unto Christ. So, with the Benedictines, we seek to treat everyone as Christ, experiencing God in all of God’s varied and sometimes distressing disguises. This passage also challenges our cultural values, placing those at the bottom end of society at the center of God’s love and our care. Privilege is given to the poor, not just wealthy benefactors. Christian charity is about compassion and fidelity, not reward. (For more on the Letter of James, see Bruce Epperly, Holistic Spirituality: Life-transforming Wisdom from the Letter of James.)
Jesus’ miraculous power is revealed in a distant healing. First, Jesus heals the alienation between Jews and Gentiles. All are deserving of God’s grace. There are no outsiders in God’s healing realm. Second, Jesus heals the child at a physical distance. Prayer is not limited to those beside us, but shapes the lives of whom we pray, regardless of distance, creating a field of force that enables God to be more effective and energetic in their lives.
Still, this passage leaves us feeling uncomfortable. Jesus appears to be both inhospitable and xenophobic. What’s going on here? Why does the text appear to put Jesus in such a bad light? His mistreatment of the Syrophoenician woman cannot be easily explained away. Was Jesus being a Jewish exceptionalist, focusing only on Jews in his healing ministry? Was he xenophobic? Was he just tired? Or is this passage a parable, a theological bait and switch, in which Jesus mimics the racism of his companions and then pulls the rug out from under them to heal the foreigner’s daughter?
In the subsequent passage, the healing of a man with a speech and hearing impairment, Jesus uses a common medical procedure (spit) to achieve a cure. Accordingly, we can use medicine – including vaccines – as a prayer practice, as a way of trusting God in our healing practices. (For more on Jesus’ healing ministry, see Bruce Epperly, Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice.)
Our faith can transform the world and challenge us to leave our comfort zones behind. The stranger also deserves reverence and is entitled to the same well-being as we seek. God wants us to embrace the joy of a good name cultivating the inner and outer journeys and seeking for others what we must desire for ourselves. (For more on the healing stories in Mark’s Gospel, see Bruce Epperly, Healing Marks: Spirituality and Healing in Mark’s Gospel and Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel for Year B)
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books, including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; AND 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR HEALING AND WHOLENESS.