Lectionary Commentary

November 8, 2009
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proper 27

Commentary by Bruce G. Epperly

See also: [Year B Archive]

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127 (focus v.1-2)
Hebrew 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Today’s scriptures focus on security, relationship, and judgment. Within this week’s lectionary readings, however, there are a handful of theological minefields that the preacher may need to address explicitly, or omit the scriptures altogether, in order to challenge potentially destructive theological positions. I believe that when preachers allow theologically or ethically problematic passages to be read in worship without serious commentary they are doing harm to their congregants and confirming in many of their congregant’s minds often simplistic or harmful “popular” theological interpretations.

The passage from Ruth is about courtship, perhaps even seduction, but more than that, it is about security for the economically vulnerable. In light of Ruth’s precarious economic situation as an unmarried woman and foreigner, Naomi gives her advice on how to get Boaz’ romantic attention: “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” When night falls and Boaz has taken to his bed after a good meal and a few drinks, Naomi advises Ruth to lie down beside him, and then do whatever Boaz asks her to do.

Naomi’s counsel is successful; Boaz and Ruth are married and eventually have a child. While there is a hint of romantic love in the story, there is also the recognition that stable relationships are central to the economic security and safety of women at that time. No doubt, we live in a somewhat similar situation: although marriage and gender role mores have changed, stable and healthy relationships are the essential for the security of couples, single parents, senior adults, and children. Healthy societies blend the right kinds of novelty and stability: while relationships are full of surprises, they are built upon the foundation of trust, stability, and security. From toddlerhood, we venture forth because we have an emotional home to which to return. As adults, we need enough relational fidelity in order to feel safe during times of relational and professional innovation and challenge. The novelty, prized by process theologians, is built on the bedrock of the deeper trustworthiness of life. The ever-changing God is also ever-faithful in God’s care for the well-being of creation, part and whole. In a world of process, we need to recall (as Whitehead did in the final chapter of Process and Reality) the importance of faithfulness, captured in the words of a well-known hymn, “abide with me, fast falls the eventide.”

There are two back stories in the reading from Ruth. The first involves the relationship between God and the birth of children. The sensitive pastor, who challenged in last week’s lectionary Naomi’s identification of divine withdrawal with the death of her sons, will also challenge the identification of divine blessing with the conception of a child. While we may appropriately thank God in response to the conceiving of a child, we would do well to avoid any one-to-one correspondence between divine activity and human conception. Taken literally, these passages “punish” couples who are childless or unable to conceive apart from medical interventions; they also assume unilateral divine activity. Just today, I received a forwarded e-mail, noting the relationship between persons who made criticized orthodox Christianity and died shortly thereafter. Such unilateral theological understandings portray God as graceless, vindictive, and ultimately unreliable in relationship to fallible mortals. They also assume a one-to-one correspondence between divine activity or human responsibility in terms of what happens in our world.

Second, this passage insightfully explores the role of divine activity among marginalized people. Recently, I heard Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, preach about God’s activity on the “B-side,” that is, the forgotten side of life. Using the example of “singles” or 45’s in an earlier era, Moss invoked the B-side of singles in the 1960’s, the side that producers assumed would be less popular than the A-side. Yet, sometimes the B-side becomes the hit: a good example is Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” In a similar fashion, David comes from the B-side of town; from foreign descent. What is marginal may, in fact, be the frontier of divine activity. What is seen as unimportant may, in fact, be the center point of God’s vision for our lives. If God is omnipresent and omni-active, then any moment than awaken us to a new vision of ourselves and the world; any moment can be decisive in our life’s journey.

Psalm 127 also comes with a “handle with care” notation. The Psalm begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness and the recognition that if God is not part of our plans, we will find ourselves anxious and uncertain. God “gives sleep to God’s beloved,” that is, those who trust God can face the challenges of life with equanimity. The sensitive liturgist will only include Psalm 127:1-2, and omit verses 3-4, unless he or she is planning to speak on the theology of Psalm 127. Verse 3 continues with the judgment that “sons are a heritage from God, the fruit of the womb a reward.” One has to ask, “Where are the daughters? Don’t’ women count as God’s beloved and prized children?” and also, “How will childless couples hear this passage?”

While we are not routinely to deny, or pick and choose lectionary passages in accordance with our theological viewpoint, we cannot let patriarchal, violent, sexist, and theologically harmful passages be read in church without critical commentary. Fidelity to divine inspiration calls us to challenge passages that we believe are unworthy of the graceful God embodied in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The sensitive pastor might use the Psalm’s obvious patriarchy as the open door to reflect on God’s love for all God’s children in their gender variety, and the church’s responsibility to be a place of affirmation for children in all their diversity, regardless of gender, gifts, talents, intelligence, and sexual-identity. The passage on Ruth calls pastors to consider issues of economic and health care security in our time and place.

The New Testament readings bring up the subject of judgment. Hebrews proclaims: “it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment.” Mark notes that those who don’t “walk the talk,” especially in relationship to the foreclosure of vulnerable widows’ houses will receive “the greater condemnation.” What we do matters not just to others, but to the formation of our character and our ultimate destiny. While Christianity does not affirm unilateral cause and effect relationship or an automatic doctrine of karma (the belief you reap what you sow in this life and the next), good theology asserts that our actions have consequences, some of which may follow us throughout our lives and possibly into the afterlife. Infidelity can ruin relationships not only with spouses and partners, but also friends and children. Greed leads to economic collapse, the loss of financial security among the middle classes and the economically vulnerable, and home foreclosures. Rugged individualism and unbending relational attitudes lead to alienation in families and among economic classes.

While liberals and progressives may want to avoid the images of some forms of post-mortem judgment, I believe that any vision of personal immortality, or everlasting life, that preserves our identity, requires that we face the consequences of our actions on others and our own spiritual lives. This can be “bad news,” because “all have fallen short,” but Hebrews also notes that Christ the High Priest has place judgment in the context grace. As “near death experiences” suggest, judgment may involve the uncomfortable question, “What have you done with your life?” In a blink of an eye, we may discover where we have harmed as well as helped others, causing us to grieve as well as rejoice. “What kind of impact we leave on the future, especially on the vulnerable” is a key question for us, whether or not we affirm a doctrine of personal everlasting life.

Judgment is real, whether among families, nations, or persons. But, judgment is part of a more graceful process of healing and transformation. While we cannot take full credit for our goodness and achievement, we can seldom take full responsibility or blame for our errors. This is the wisdom of contemporary psychology, family systems theory, and research on the impact of physiology, DNA, and environment on moral and relational development. In an interdependent world, neither God nor we are fully responsible for what happens in our lives. Still, we can take confidence in the affirmation that God’s grace is always more embracing and persistent than our own moral failures.

Mark’s passage concludes with an interlude on stewardship that is both inspiring and problematic. As one who works regularly with foundations, I appreciate the generosity of wealthy persons and corporations. I am grateful for their support of our seminary’s work with pastors, congregations, and laypersons. In Jesus’ time, the generosity of wealthy persons kept the Temple going. Nevertheless, their generosity – and ours – is often characterized by prudence. Our tithe still leaves us with 90% left for necessary and discretionary expenses (minus taxes). The widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has, depending only on God for her future. Living at the lowest end of the economic spectrum, she has no visible support except from God.

In many churches, the coming of the Fall often brings stewardship campaigns. Few pastors will ask their congregants to give everything they have to the church. We recognize, after all, that there are many other charities worth supporting. Further, we recognize our obligations to provide sufficient sustenance for spouses, partners, children, and other family members as well as to plan for our economic futures beyond retirement.

So, how shall we read this passage? How do we preach it in ways that encourage generosity, but not debilitating or alienating guilt? How do we balance abandoning ourselves to God’s grace with prudent behavior? After all, few of us depend on God to supply us directly with everything we need. Prudent persons in our world invest in retirement plans and purchase life insurance to secure our own well-being and the well-being of our loved ones! We know of moments when our financial largesse has enabled us to flourish in otherwise difficult situations. We also know of families who have spiritually and relationally collapsed as a result of home foreclosures and natural calamities. Conversely, we know of persons who live simply, giving away virtually all of their discretionary income. These persons often have a sense of inner peace and joy that enables them to weather the storms of life. As we honor the widow, we must honor those who faithfully save for their children’s education, to pay medical bills, or to leave a financial legacy to their church and other charities.

While we can easily criticize the “prosperity gospel” and “your best life now theologies” as self-interested and superficial, as I believe they are, we need to find our own creative ways of living generously toward God and others. There is enough to go around if we live by abundance rather than hording. The widow gives her whole life to God, and discovers great abundance in what others see as scarcity. Her wealth is not in her possessions but in her relatedness to God. This passage is not an apology for poverty or a declaration of the unimportance of economic well-being. Rather, it challenges persons of at every level of the economic spectrum to recognize the interdependence of life and the importance of generosity in well-being of our communities.

Today’s passages require theological subtlety. The goal of the preacher should not be to deliver us from discomfort regarding these passages related to judgment and generosity, but to raise questions about our commitments and the impact of our personal and corporate decisions on our lives and the lives of others. Further, they call us to ponder issues of patriarchy as well as what constitutes minimal security in terms of health care and income for persons in our society. Finally, the pastor once more must challenge people to take scripture seriously enough to wrestle with difficult passages rather than passively accepting what they cannot morally or scientifically affirm simply because it’s in the Bible. The Bible is a living document, calling us to write our own midrashes, or commentaries in light of our own experiences of God, the world, and culture.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor with Kate Epperly of Disciples United Community Church, a progressive, process-oriented, open and affirming congregation in Lancaster, PA. Bruce is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (a spiritual alternative for group and personal spiritual formation to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life) and the trilogy on ministerial spirituality and faithful excellence, Feeding the Fire: Avoiding Clergy Burnout, Four Seasons of Ministry: Gathering a Harvest of Righteousness, and  Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Kate Epperly.

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