Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Discipleship

Wednesday, April 12

“The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
 It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
(Isaiah 50:4-9a).

Translators struggle with the first verse of this Song: is the Servant given the “tongue of a teacher” (NRSV), a “skilled tongue” (JPSV), an “instructed tongue” (NIV), or perhaps the “tongue of the learned” (KJV)? Yet, when the same word, limmudim, appears later in the verse, it causes little controversy: “Morning by morning he wakens — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught (Isa 50:4; emphasis mine). That, I propose, should also be the translation the first time this word appears: the Servant is given “the tongue of those who are taught”: that is, the tongue of a disciple. Confirmation comes from the purpose of this gift: “that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (50:4). Surely, a word of comfort comes most effectively from a fellow disciple, who shares my sorrow, feels my pain, and offers solace as a fellow sufferer.

In this Song, the Servant does not claim authority over others. Indeed, the Servant identifies with the outcast and humiliated, to the point of sharing their humiliation and suffering:

I gave my back to those who struck me,

                        and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

            I did not hide my face

                        from insult and spitting (50:6).

The Servant’s suffering is not accidental, but purposeful. The Servant suffers deliberately, in solidarity with others, so that the vindication of the Servant becomes their vindication, too.

Unfortunately, today’s lectionary reading ends in the middle of verse 9, leaving the unfortunate implication that trust in God removes all our difficulties. The Servant relies upon the Lord, but that does not make his path clear, or easy. Instead, the Servant

walks in darkness

                        and has no light,

            yet trusts in the name of the LORD

                        and relies upon his God (Isa 50:10).

Certainly, in this week, no Christian reader can consider this passage without remembering how Jesus bared his back to the smiters, and offered his cheek “to those who pulled out the beard” (50:6). What might it mean for us to follow him as his disciples on the way of the Servant, to surrender authority and privilege, and stand with the suffering and oppressed?

Prayer: Jesus, in just a few days we will rejoice in the celebration of Easter. But don’t let us hurry to the empty tomb too quickly. Help us stay with the cross awhile, and ask how we may follow you, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In your own holy name, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Obedience

Tuesday, April 11 

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
 He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
 And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
 But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
 he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

 Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
(Isaiah 49:1-7)

In the second Servant Song, the Servant of the Lord declares, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” (49:1). This sounds very like God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). A revelatory, prophetic role is also shown by the power of the Servant’s words: the Lord “made my mouth like a sharp sword” (Isa 49:2; in Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21, the word of the risen Christ is expressed in this same way).

Yet, having made the Servant’s mouth “like a sharp sword,” the Lord hid him away “in the shadow of [God’s] hand” (49:2). Though the Lord had fashioned him “like a polished arrow,” the Servant found himself hidden in God’s quiver (49:2), so that the Servant cries, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (49:4). So too Jesus would cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46//Mk 15:34; cf. Ps 22:1). Not only is the Servant’s destiny hidden from the world, it is even hidden from the Servant himself!

The way of the Servant is hard—as it must be. How, otherwise, could the Servant truly stand with the abandoned, forgotten, God-forsaken ones? But God declares that the Servant will transform the world: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). Although we cannot see to its end, the way of the Servant leads through sorrow into joy, through darkness into light, through death into life. May the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speak for us as well: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice” (Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” in The Collected Works of Theodore Parker 2, 37-57 [London: Trubner, 1879], 48).

Prayer: Help us, O God, to follow you faithfully, even though the end of our road is not visible to us. Help us to trust you, and to follow you obediently, knowing that you do see our way clear. Through Jesus our Christ who set his face toward Jerusalem, Amen.

 

 

 

 

Apr
2017

Week 7: Holy Week “The Way of the Servant”: The Way of Humility

Monday, April 10

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
     to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them
(Isaiah 42:1-9).

Sometimes in this first Song, the Servant seems like a king. After all, God calls the Servant “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (42:1). The Servant brings forth justice (42:1, 3-4), a kingly task in the Hebrew Bible (see Pss 72:1; 99:4; Isa 9:7; Jer 22:15; 23:5; 33:15; Ezek 45:9). Indeed, the Servant “will bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1), and “the coastlands wait for his teaching” (42:4); he is not only “a covenant to the people” (presumably, Israel), but also “a light to the nations” (42:6). The image is not merely regal, but imperial; the Servant is the ruler of the world.

Yet, on the other hand, the Servant’s task is accomplished quietly, without kingly pomp: “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (42:2). Royal power operates by force, or the threat of force. Yet the Servant acts so gently and quietly that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). In our harsh and violent world, the way of gentleness and humility may seem doomed to failure. Yet it is the world’s Creator (42:5) who guarantees that the Servant’s mission, “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7), will be accomplished. True peace and authentic transformation cannot be imposed by force. They come as astonishing gifts of God’s grace, made real in our midst by God’s Servant.

Prayer: We confess, O God, that sometimes we want to make a splash! We long to make a difference in our world, a difference that we can see. Remind us that you aim, not to make a splash, but to remake the world—and us too. That is slow, quiet, careful work, Abba. Grant us the humility to fit ourselves to that task. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7), Amen.

AFTERWORD:

Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, all deal with the Servant of the Lord, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world. Christian readers have long seen the Servant of the Lord as foreshadowing Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), an understanding that may well go back to Jesus himself. But this does not mean that the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people—or that they do not address us as well.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229).  The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering; the way of selfless, sacrificial love (Heb 9:12) which led Jesus inexorably to the cross. But the way of the Servant is not Jesus’ path alone. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This week, we will consider how we, too, are called to walk in the way of the servant of the Lord.

Apr
2017

Palm Sunday

 

Palm Sunday, April 9

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”  This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;  they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matthew 21:1-11).

Apr
2017

Week 6–“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: The Sin of Sodom—Inhospitality

Saturday, April 8: The Sin of Sodom

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground.  He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.”  But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.  But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”  Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly.  Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”  But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down.  But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door.  And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door (Genesis 19:1-11).

In Genesis 19, the messengers from God come to Sodom as gerim—as “sojourners,” outsiders, strangers.  Sodom, however, is not kind to strangers.  When the messengers tell Lot that they intend to sleep in the town square, he is horrified—he begs them not to do so, but to come into his house, and under his protection, instead (Gen 19:2-3).  Lot knows all too well what happens to strangers found in Sodom after dark. Sure enough, once the strangers are discovered, a lynch mob assembles outside of Lot’s home.  What the mob wants to do to the strangers has nothing to do with anyone’s idea of consensual, sexual intimacy.  This is about mob violence: rape and humiliation.  That homosexuality is not the issue is made clear by Lot’s terrible attempted bargain: to save the lives of his guests, he offers to send out his daughters (Gen 19:7-8)!  But Lot’s defense of the strangers only serves to remind the mob that, although he has lived in Sodom among them for years, Lot is a foreigner himself: “This fellow came here as an alien [Hebrew lagur, related to the noun ger; KJV “to sojourn”], and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them” (Gen 19:9).

Remember the shameful photographs of Iraqi P.O.W.s, stripped naked and forced into humiliating poses, from the American prison at Abu Ghraib? They tragically demonstrate that the way of the men of Sodom, the way of the lynch mob, is with us still.  The Sodom story, like Abu Ghraib, is about the humiliation and dehumanization of the stranger. The contrast between the abuse visited on strangers by the people of Sodom and the hospitality shown to strangers by Abraham and by Lot surely make the point: God calls us to treat the ger—the immigrant, the refugee—with kindness. God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah demonstrates that this is a command, not an option.

Prayer: Tomorrow, O Christ, Holy Week begins. We remember how you were rejected by the people of your city, condemned, stripped, humiliated, tortured, and killed. Forgive us, we pray, our complicity in the violence of our own times, if only through our silence. Help us to stand, as you stood, with the “sojourner.” In your own holy name, Amen.

AFTERWORD:

Four of the Old Testament readings for Holy Week are poems from Isaiah 40—55: a portion of this prophetic book commonly called Second Isaiah, set in the Babylonian exile. These four passages, Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-7; 50:4-11; and 52:13—53:12, all deal with the Servant of the Lord, a mysterious figure whose mission involves not only the deliverance of Israel, but also the transformation of the world. Christian readers have long seen the Servant of the Lord as foreshadowing Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor 15:3; Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:22-25), an understanding that may well go back to Jesus himself. But this does not mean that the prophet’s words had no meaning for his own time or people—or that they do not address us as well.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the Servant Songs do not describe one particular person, but rather set forth the way of the Servant, a new understanding of Israel’s past and future particularly as revealed through suffering. The Servant’s way is “the work born out of affliction,” culminating in “the liberation of the subject peoples, laid upon the servant, the divine order of the expiated world of the nations, which the purified servant as its ‘light’ has to bring in, the covenant of the people of the human beings with God, the human center of which is the servant” (Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith, trans. Carlyle Witton-Davies [New York: Macmillan, 1949], 229).  The way of the Servant is the path of redemptive suffering; the way of selfless, sacrificial love (Heb 9:12) which led Jesus inexorably to the cross. But the way of the Servant is not Jesus’ path alone. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). This week, we will consider how we, too, are called to walk in the way of the servant of the Lord.

 

Apr
2017

Week 6–“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: The Sin of Sodom—The Cry

Friday, April 7

Then the Lord said, ‘How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin!  I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know’” (Gen 18:20-21).

The destruction of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-28) is often regarded as proof of God’s anger against homosexuals.  In the Bible, however, Sodom does not appear to be understood in this way.  “Sodom” is mentioned in 47 verses; most commonly (in 21 verses) it is used as an example of total destruction brought by divine wrath, with nothing specifically said about the reason for Sodom’s destruction (for example, Deut 29:23; Matt 11:24; Luke 10:12). But Ezekiel 16:49-50 is quite specific: This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy.  They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.”

The Lord’s word to Abraham concerning Sodom and Gomorrah in today’s passage supports Ezekiel’s charge. The Hebrew word rendered “outcry” is za’aqah (sometimes spelled tsa’aqah). It is typically used for the cry of the oppressed for help: indeed, in the CEB, this word is translated “cries of injustice.”  For example, in Exodus 22:21-24, our devotional passage for Monday, the Lord says of the ger, the widow, and the orphan, “I will surely heed their cry [Hebrew tsa’aqah].”

The lesson of the Sodom story is not that God is moved to uncontrollable anger at the thought of men having sex with other men.  God’s anger is poured out on the inhospitable: on those who respond to the stranger and the needy, not with compassion, but with contempt—even violence and abuse.  That is why Sodom was destroyed.

Prayer: O God, give us ears to hear, and hearts to repent of our own inhospitality. We pray in the name of Jesus, who freely gave his hospitality to all, even sinners, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 6–“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: The Sin of Sodom—Angels Unawares

Thursday, April 6

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground.  He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.  Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said’” (Gen 18:1-5).

There is no specific word in biblical Hebrew for hospitality.  But in Greek, the word is philoxenia—that is, love for the stranger!  This word appears twice in the New Testament. In Romans 12:13, Paul commands his audience, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”  Hebrews 13:2 deliberately alludes to the story of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 18—19: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I hear this passage in my head in the KJV: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Abraham did not know that the Lord was present in these three passers-by. He went out of his way to serve them because Abraham saw such hospitality as his calling and responsibility. In his sermon on Romans 12:13, the great early Christian preacher St. John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) praised Abraham and Lot as examples of radical hospitality:

Thus did Lot, thus Abraham. For he spent the whole day upon it, waiting for this goodly prey, and when he saw it, leaped upon it, and ran to meet them, and worshipped upon the ground, and said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in Thy sight, pass not away from Thy servant.” [Gen 18:3] Not as we do, if we happen to see a stranger or a poor man, knitting our brows, and not deigning even to speak to them. And if after thousands of entreaties we are softened, and bid the servant give them a trifle, we think we have quite done our duty. But he did not so, but assumed the fashion of a suppliant and a servant, though he did not know who he was going to take under his roof. . . . as did Abraham also, whom beside his largeness and ready mind it is just especially to admire, on this ground, that when he had no knowledge who they were that had come, yet he so acted. Do not thou then be curious either: since for Christ thou dost receive him. And if thou art always so scrupulous, many a time wilt thou pass by a man of esteem, and lose thy reward from him.      . . . Do not then busy thyself with men’s lives and doings. For this is the very extreme of niggardliness, for one loaf to be exact about a man’s entire life. For if this person be a murderer, if a robber, or what not, does he therefore seem to thee not to deserve a loaf and a few pence? And yet thy Master causeth even the sun to rise upon him! And dost thou judge him unworthy of food even for a day? (Homilies on Romans 21).

Surely, this is a vital word for our own time! May we, like Abraham, seek our own “goodly prey” in the places where God has put us, not being curious as to whether the one we seek to serve is “worthy” in our own eyes, “since for Christ thou dost receive him.”

Prayer: Grant, O God, that our churches would indeed be known for “Open hearts, open minds, open doors.” But do not let us sit inside and wait for folk to come in! Send us out, we pray, to show your radical hospitality in our world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 6–“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: Remember!

Wednesday, April 5

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:18-19).

Deuteronomy continually calls upon the people Israel to remember who they are, and who God is. Indeed, those two calls are inextricably intertwined: Israel is the people who were made a people by the Lord who delivered them from bondage. In other words, Israel has direct and personal knowledge of what it means to say that God “is not partial,” because had God shown partiality for the wisest, the strongest, the most prosperous, the best, God would never have chosen this rag-tag band of slaves and outlaws as God’s own! Likewise, Israel knows personally that the Lord  “loves the strangers [Hebrew ger], providing them with food and clothing,” because, as God reminds them, “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Indeed, in each of the passages regarding the ger we have examined so far God has given Israel this reminder (see Exod 22:21; Lev 19:34). This gives added punch to the commands to love one’s neighbor—including the ger—as oneself; knowing that they have themselves been immigrants and refugees, by loving the gerim, the people of Israel are loving themselves.

With the exception of our Native American brothers and sisters, all of us are here because our ancestors came here from somewhere else. Some, like the famous Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, came fleeing religious persecution. Some, like my Scottish-Irish forebears, came because of hardship and political oppression at home. Some of us came here in chains. As Americans, a nation of immigrants, it behooves us, too, to remember who we are. Those of us who claim the name Christian need also to remember whose we are, and what it means to be the people of the God “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”

Prayer: O Jesus, your prayer for us was “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Thank you for making us your own people. Forgive us for the exclusion and disunity that have instead prevented the world from seeing you in us. Heal us, we pray, through Jesus our Christ, Amen.

Apr
2017

Week 6–“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: Love Your Neighbor

Tuesday, April 4

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. . . . When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:18, 33-34).

Jesus’ teaching on the Greatest Commandment is found in Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28.  These accounts differ on small points: in all three, however, the whole of God’s law hangs on two essential prescriptions: love for God, and love for neighbor. Jesus’ first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” His second commandment comes from today’s passage in Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Some interpreters have proposed that this was an in-house commandment: “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite.” But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. Here, love is commanded toward “the alien who resides with you” (the Hebrew term, as in yesterday’s passage, is ger) in the same language used in 19:18 for the neighbor: “you shall love the alien as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “shall be to you as a citizen among you.”

We may not like this commandment—particularly if we are persuaded that immigrants and refugees pose a threat to us either economically, by taking our jobs and resources, or more fundamentally, through crime or terrorism. We could perhaps say that these words of Scripture address the community of faith, not the nation, and that national policy needs to be mindful of the security of our borders. But for the church and for the individual Christian, there is no passing this particular buck. We cannot even use the tired “Old Testament laws don’t apply to us” excuse, because Jesus has made eminently clear that this particular law does apply to us—second only to the command to love God. Certainly, unemployment, crime, and terrorism are real concerns (although we may legitimately ask if there is any evidence connecting those concerns to immigrants or refugees).  But whether we like it or not, if we want to be followers of the Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbors—including immigrants and refugees—as we love ourselves.

Prayer:

“Thou who art over us,

Thou who art one of us,

Thou who art:

Give me a pure heart, that I may see thee;

a humble heart, that I may hear thee;

a heart of love, that I may serve thee;

a heart of faith, that I may abide in thee.”

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

(Dag Hammerskjöld, Markings, 1964)

Apr
2017

Week 6,“Who is ‘the Sojourner’”?: A “Stained-Glass” Word

Monday, April 3

“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.  If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exod 22:21-24).

In this passage, we know of course who the widow and the orphan are. We can understand why a special command might be needed to ensure their just treatment: in the clan-based economy of ancient Israel, a women without a husband to ensure her access to property, or a child without a parent’s protection, could well fall through the cracks.  However, who is the ger (“resident alien” in the NRSV)? The old King James often uses “sojourner” for ger and related terms. At one time, “sojourner” meant something in our culture—consider the nineteenth-century heroine, escaped slave, abolitionist, freedom fighter, and feminist who called herself Sojourner Truth (pictured above). But in our day, “sojourner” is used in hymns, prayers, or Bible readings, but never found outside our sanctuaries, making it difficult to say what it means. It has become a “stained-glass” word.

To find the best contemporary translation for ger, it may help to consider how this word is used in our Old Testament. The ger is a person of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status. That is why the ger is so often listed together with the widow and the orphan: like widows and orphans, the gerim are vulnerable: they have no one to look out for their rights. This is why a special command is needed to ensure their just treatment, and why generosity to the ger is a consistent biblical principle.

So, who is the ger in our own time and context? The NRSV “resident alien” is accurate, but bookish and stodgy; far more vigorous, and no less accurate, is the Common English Bible rendering “immigrant”—particularly if we include those sometimes vilified as “illegal immigrants,” and those we call “refugees.” As the political rhetoric of the recent campaign has made tragically apparent, these “sojourners” are perhaps more vulnerable and at risk now than ever before—making these passages of Scripture more relevant than ever before. As today’s passage demonstrates, the ultimate guarantor of rights for the ger in Scripture is the Lord, who assures us, “If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword”—which should, to say the least, give us pause.

Prayer: Vilifying the outsider has always been far too easy for us, O God. Open our eyes and hearts and hands to the “sojourners” in our midst, we pray, through Jesus Christ, who said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40), Amen.