December 5, 2010
Commentary by Jeanyne B. Slettom
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
This Sunday’s texts again invite criticism of the status quo—what Crossan and Borg call the “domination system”—by describing an alternate vision of creation. They raise the question of true authority, and how to recognize it, and return to the theme of repentance, interpreted as turning away from one path—the path of kings and nations, Caesar and empire—and taking another—the path of God, Christ, and Creation.
In Ezekiel 34:1-10, the prophet offers a stunning indictment of the “bad shepherd” of his people. Here, Isaiah describes the ideal king. He begins with a reference to “the stock of Jesse,” in other words, the house of David, which is to say, one with authority to rule. By placing the “spirit of the Lord” upon him, Isaiah signifies that these are the qualities God prefers in a leader. As with last week’s text, the rhetorical strategy is for readers to infer what’s wrong with contemporary rulers by seeing the contrast between those rulers and Isaiah’s vision of the righteous leader. This one leads by wisdom and understanding, knowledge and fear of the Lord. He judges the poor—the better word here might be adjudges, which includes the idea of awarding damages—and “decides with equity for the meek of the world.” What kind of world is this? One where the poor and the meek have rights, and included in those rights is the idea of equity. By inference, bad leaders, those favored by the domination system, rule by self-interest and exploitation of the powerless. Again, we are being presented with two ways of being in the world.
For Jews, this passage is the promise of a king from the Davidic line; for Christians, it is the messianic prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. However, verses 6-9 offer a possible interpretation that contradicts neither faith tradition. Obviously, this is poetic language. What if the author is using the same rhetorical strategy as above, using metaphors from which one can infer what’s wrong with the world of the status quo? The verses could then be read not as prophecy but as continuing the description of the righteous king who rules, as God desires, for the well-being of all.
If we follow this strategy, the overwhelming conclusion is that this describes a non-predatory world where the principle injunction is against hurting or destroying. This can apply as readily to individuals and nations as to animals.
The idea of the wolf and lamb together is so impossible for us to imagine that it is not surprising the verses are usually interpreted eschatologically. The problem is that we assume this kind of world can only exist in the great beyond. But suppose the wolf and the lamb are metaphors for hostile groups, say, Israelis and Palestinians. Would we really be content to wait until everyone is dead for there to be peace? There is great enmity between some people, nations, and ethnicities. I for one would like to envision a world where people could maintain their differences without killing each other or poisoning their children with the bite of racism or homophobia. I don’t want to assume it’s impossible to bring about here, in this world.
Again, it’s a choice. What do we want in our leaders? Those who lead by predation against the poor and marginalized, who advance their interests by warring with other nations? Or those who rule with wisdom and understanding, achieving peace through justice?
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
If we didn’t get the point in the previous reading, it’s laid out here again: this is how kings should rule: with justice for the poor, deliverance to the needy, and no quarter given to oppressors. The vision of God is for a world where righteousness flourishes and peace abounds. The vision of the oppressor is exploitation of the poor, corrupt systems that favor the rich, a world where injustice flourishes and war abounds. Which world do you want? Will you, through conscious intentionality, pursue peace, or through inattention perpetuate the status quo?
Here Paul claims authority for Christ among the Gentiles (read: Roman Empire) as well as Jews. But this passage also makes a bold claim. See here, he writes, the vision of God for justice and peace that permeates Judaism (“written in former days”) is not just for Jews. The description of a righteous king does not apply only to Jewish kings. God’s instruction to the Jews about the treatment of widows and orphans, about economic justice, about not taking everything for oneself, but always leaving some for those less fortunate—guess what? It applies to Rome, too. And God’s description of a righteous ruler? It applies to Caesar, too!
This passage introduces a central theme of Jesus’ ministry: repent. Before continuing, however, we need to do a little work to reclaim this word, “repent.” It is so out of sync with modern life that we’ve turned it into a joke—the cartoon guy with the long robes and the long beard, wearing sandwich boards that read “Repent, the end is near!”
Typically, we think of repentance as referring to regret, guilt, or remorse—a real downer. But the word has another dimension to it. The word is translated from the Greek metanoia. Meta means after, or beyond, and noia refers to knowing, perceiving. Put together, it refers to the change in our thinking that happens as a result of what we observe or perceive; in other words, it signifies a change of mind.
A metanoia is a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook that includes how we see ourselves and how we see the world. And because to repent is to change the way we think, ultimately, it means to change the way we act. Metanoia—repentance—is that kind of transformation: an inner change that results in outer deeds. When John and Jesus ask us to repent, they are talking about that kind of change—from the way of imperial Rome to “the way of the Lord.”
The need for repentance is underscored in the verses about the Pharisees and Sadducees who come for baptism. These groups represent people with vested interests in specific political and religious ideologies. Matthew uses them as representative of people who think they can be baptized without first repenting. If we put together the idea of metanoia with baptizō—in its broadest meaning, to wash or cleanse—then the logical inconsistency becomes clear. One cannot expect to be cleansed without first taking the step of washing. One cannot claim to be a follower of John without the change of heart and mind represented by repentance. One cannot claim to be following a new path while still traveling the old one. Brood of vipers, indeed.
It is interesting to note, after all the passages about a righteous king, that John the Baptist appears on the scene wearing camel’s hair clothing and eating locusts and honey. If John is preparing people for the “king” who is coming, his manner signifies this: prepare yourselves for an uncommon leader, one who will be a stark contrast to Rome. The Roman governors and their puppet kings would never wear such clothing or eat such food. They would be clothed in rich fabrics and dine on the best cuisine of the day. Yet the people are coming to John, recognizing him as a religious authority. It is as though Matthew is saying, you accepted John’s decidedly non-royal person—get ready to accept another!
Process theology and the texts
The call of Jesus to repent—to change one’s heart and mind and deeds—is also a promise that this is possible. It is, as well, an assurance that God is always present in the process, evoking, guiding, correcting, welcoming. A process theologian’s understanding is that is something that occurs every moment, which means God’s extravagant offer of transformation is presented to us over and over again. A new life, a new way, a metanoia and a baptizō are always possible.
For this reason, among others, process theologians are more apt to look at texts typically interpreted as eschatological and seek a this-worldly understanding. A God who is active in every moment of creation is interested in the quality of this life, in the flourishing of creatures living and breathing now, on this planet. Therefore our choices should aim for value in this world. We literally prepare the way of the Lord when by our choices we open possibilities for God’s creative, transforming love.
Jeanyne B. Slettom is the director of Process & Faith and co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ. She is the editor of The Process Perspective (Chalice Press), by John B. Cobb, Jr., and the forthcoming Process Perspective II.
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