By David Grant Smith
The book of Isaiah contains many sections with contrasting images of what the prophet and God see as being a potential future for ancient Israel. There are visions of destruction alongside visions of what is often called the peaceable kingdom. These visions of the future for ancient Israel are not meant to be in conflict with one another, but are an invitation for the ancient Israelites to consider how to live in the present moment in order to shape their future.
Though the whole of Isaiah, like Gaul, is usually divided into three parts, an overarching theme contained in the entire collection of writings is that of God’s ongoing lure. God lures us to live in intentional relationship with God, with each other, with neighbors and strangers, and with all creation. This week’s lectionary begins with a beautiful lure in which the prophet tells us that God is “ready to be sought… to be found…” The verses which follow unpack the context of that from which God is luring Israel — their participation in spiritual practices which are not part of their true spiritual identity, and which do not reflect their relationship with God. They are, of course, spiritual practices of other ancient Near East religions from other countries and peoples. The lure being offered is not unlike that of a lover whose beloved has been “seeing other people” and the lover wants the beloved to remember just how beautiful their relationship can be when they are both faithful to one another.
There seems to be a bit of a change in God’s feelings at verse 6, when the language talks about how God will “repay” the Israelites for their infidelity. Again, this can be likened to the emotional vocabulary of a jilted lover — not so much as the jilted one violently pursuing the beloved (after all, the lover loves the beloved!), but more like the jilted one telling the beloved that the choices being made will result in something less healthy and fulfilling than what they could have together. It’s a warning and a caution offered from the one who can see that the other is making a mistake, and wants to encourage the other to make better choices and decisions. It’s all part of God’s ongoing lure toward those things which are better for Israel and everyone else.
This passage then moves into a beautiful reflection on God’s dilemma — of how to be the lover to the beloved when the beloved isn’t completely faithful. Through the prophet’s words, our imaginations are invited to see into God’s assessment of the reality that, though much of Israel had wandered away from intentional relationship with God, there were those who were still loyal and living in healthy relationship with God. The image of wine being found in a cluster of grapes is an affirmation of the potential which still lies within the people of ancient Israel. In order for grapes to be transformed into wine, they have to be crushed and strained. The juice is retained for fermentation, but the skins, stems, and seeds are all discarded. Yet the whole cluster — stems and all — is needed in order to yield the wine. “Do not destroy it, for there is a blessing in it” is an affirmation of God’s belief that, despite Israel’s infidelity, there is found in them great potential for bringing blessings to the world. Jon Berquist suggests that this text is saying that ancient Israel’s “past and present evils don’t determine or limit their future value.” God’s will and desire is for them to thrive, to grow, and to be a blessing to each other and the world. And, of course, that is God’s will and desire for all of us, too! The potential future which is being imagined can come into fruition by responding to God’s lure to live in a state of intentional relational interbeing (to borrow a word from Thich Nhat Hanh).
Though Psalm 22 begins with a wailing lament (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), the portion appointed for this week’s lectionary begins with an appeal for God’s close companionship (Be not far away, O Lord). The verses assigned for this week are from near the end of a larger hymn of lament — a lament which culminates in praise for the God who does not abandon us, forsake us, or leave our presence, no matter our circumstance or lot. In many ways, these verses work to underscore the notion of an omnipresent God.
One of the features of the book of Psalms in general is the way that the text shifts from addressing one subject to another. Much of this psalm is addressed to God, but in these verses the psalmist is also addressing the community of ancient Israel and, by extension, those of us who read, hear, and sing these verses in our own contexts. One such moment is where the poet writes, “Praise the Lord, you who fear God” (v. 22 in The Book of Common Prayer’s versification). The ancient Israelite concept of “fearing” God is less about being afraid (though there is an element of awe involved, mixed with a healthy dose of knowing one’s place in the grander scheme of the cosmos), and is more about being in right relationship — with God, with self, with family, with neighbors, with the stranger/foreigner, and even with the earth itself (and all creation).
The psalm goes on to describe that God doesn’t reject the poor, but hears them, and listens to them. The implication is that we who praise and “fear God” (i.e., we who are in right relational living) should do the same. We shouldn’t ignore the poor; we should listen to them; we should put ourselves in right relationship with them. Even as the whole of the psalm is a lament of the poet’s condition which has brought about great suffering (described in great detail in the preceding verses), the psalmist is aware of the fact that there are those whose suffering is greater, and that God is present with them. One horizon of mindfulness which could be brought forth from this text is that of liberation theologies, which asserts God’s “preferential option” for the poor (and others who suffer and/or are marginalized).
Then the poet offers a vision of a potential future which is related to living in right relational living. This is a vision in which the poor eat and are satisfied — a vision in which all humanity’s intentional relational living brings about an end to all poverty and hunger. The vision goes on to describe how the people of the whole earth and in all nations will be seeking and praising God, and remembering and returning to God. This aspect of the vision is related to the elimination of poverty and hunger, because to eliminate suffering is to live in right relationship with God. To help the vulnerable and to feed the hungry is to seek and praise God. God’s presence is always with us; but we can become increasingly aware of God’s presence by increasing our awareness of (and assistance of) those who are the most vulnerable among us.
Through much of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he has been railing against those who have tried to convince them that they need to become observant of Jewish laws and rituals before they can become “authentic” followers of Jesus. His argument all along has been that we are reconciled to God (and each other) through faith — that is, through living in intentional relationality — and not through anything else.
This week’s passage continues that same discourse, but Paul takes it a step further by declaring that faith and reconciliation are not only a function of faith/relationality, but that relationality calls us to be done with any other distinctions which humans make to divide us. In the ancient Roman Empire, and from Paul’s perspective, those distinguishing divisions were Jew/Gentile (or Greek), slave/free, male/female. But in other contexts, there could easily be other ways that humans might choose to articulate divisions: rich/poor, LGBT/straight, housed/homeless, fed/hungry, Christian/non-Christian — the possible dichotomies are countless. But the principle that drives the shunning of such divisions is intended to be universal in the gospel Paul preached.
Another way of approaching this text could be to look at the concept which Paul uses frequently in his writings; and that is the concept of being “in/with Christ” as a means of identifying how it is that our faith reconciles us to God and each other. The word “Christ” is taken from the Greek word for oil (chrism), and is a reference to the Hebrew word for being anointed (meshiach, rendered “messiah” in English). The theological context of this reference is a recollection of how Jesus was beloved of God and anointed for sharing good news. The Gospel narratives tell us that Jesus most clearly experienced this idea of being beloved of God in his baptism. It’s no small surprise that Paul uses the language of baptism to articulate our interrelated unity, over and against any kind of division.
Paul was articulating the idea that Christ is something more than the person of Jesus; it is an event of relationality which reconciles all humanity to God and all humanity to each other. It is the moment in which that reconciliation finds concrescence in our lives as well, in our daily work to live relationally and intentionally. Paul wrote that “as many of [us] were baptized into Christ have clothed [ourselves] with Christ.” If we are submerged into relational living, we become clothed with relational living; if we are submerged in God’s love for us, we express that love for all others. We are all children of God; we are all beloved of God. Our mindful living in ways that celebrate our interrelatedness leaves no room for anything but to give thanks for and celebrate the ways that we are connected to one another, and to celebrate the diversity in our unity.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” This question, asked by a tormented soul, begging to not be tormented any further, is a key question in approaching this story. In fact, it has a lot to do with a central theme in the entire Gospel of Luke! “What have you to do with me?” is the question which could easily be placed on the lips of anyone who was on the receiving end of Jesus’ compassion and solidarity in the Lucan narrative. The Lucan Jesus, perhaps more than the other three canonical gospels, portrays a Jesus willing to go to the margins of the margins of society, seeking to gather into the community everyone who had ever been estranged from it by their experience of the human condition. Anyone who was an outcast whom Jesus approached could have asked the same question of him: “What have you to do with me?”
This man from whom Jesus cast out the unclean spirits had so many things going against him in the eyes of Jesus’ Jewish context. He was a foreigner. He was naked. He lived among the dead in their tombs. He had seizures. He was probably suffering from some kind of mental illness which caused him to behave erratically. And he kept close proximity to pigs! These were the multiple layers of things which might have been considered reason enough for any devout Jew of Jesus’ day to stay far away from this man. But Jesus decided, instead, to do what he could to help bring him back into community, so that he would no longer suffer from isolation.
When we encounter someone who has so many things which are foreign to us and our experience, we are tempted to distance ourselves from that individual. Often this is because of something which has happened in our past to make us want to avoid encountering such an individual in an up-close-and-personal sort of way. More often than not, this is due more to some bias we have been taught rather than it relating to our actual experiences. Nonetheless, in our collective and individual past we have been somehow conditioned to carry a negative idea about “fill-in-the-blank” kinds of people, and that past conditioning stays with us. But, as we know in process-relational thinking, the past is nondeterministic — though it is with us in the present, it need not be a shaper of the present or the future. We have the power to choose whether or not we will allow those negative biases to find concrescence in the ways we choose to treat others.
The divine lure of God is always inviting us to participate in beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, and love — and that same lure invites us to recognize those same qualities in others. There is no beauty, truth, adventure, zest, peace, or love in the deliberate isolation of a troubled soul. But there is an abundance of those qualities when we learn to set aside our preconceived notions about others, and bridge the gap of isolation. This is how Jesus chose to act toward this troubled man in the country of the Gerasenes. Jesus was able to sense the man’s vulnerability, and was able to enter into it with him. He chose to associate with, and converse with, this man who (in so many peoples’ eyes) wasn’t worth the effort.
The fact that the people of this region met this kind of bridge-building with fear is not too terribly surprising. Jesus had helped them see that this man was not all that different than they were. Or — perhaps more to the point — Jesus helped them see that they were not all that different from this man who was running around naked among the tombs! Whichever way they saw it, they didn’t much appreciate having the information brought to their attention, so they told Jesus to be on his way.
The Gerasenes didn’t much like Jesus’ ability to transform the status quo into something new and unfamiliar; they much preferred to keep things as they once had been. Creative transformation is a threat to the status quo. Those who like things to stay just the way they are tend to be those who work against progress, inclusion, and anything which calls for any kind of evolution. Living in the status quo is another way of letting the past shape the present and the future in a negative way. To live in this way is to live in fear.
Have we ever let fears block our acceptance of other people? How often do we let fear block our progress? How might our fears block the way for others to be drawn into the circle of community? Is our sense of community based on identifying characteristics of same/different, or on the radical notion that all people are created in the image of God as co-creators with God?
This story invites all of us to open our eyes to see the variety of diversity in the human experience as being a blessing, rather than a liability. This story invites us to open our ears to hear the cries of all people at the margins as simply asking us “What have you to do with me?” The message and example of Jesus is to always widen our circle of acceptance, and to celebrate the diversity of the human experience with a heart of compassion and solidarity.
The Rev. David Grant Smith is the Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester. Prior to his ordination to the priesthood in 2008, David had a career as a lay professional in church music. In addition to his interests in weaving process theology into parish ministry through preaching, liturgy, teaching, and pastoral care, David enjoys travel, writing, and showing family & friends around the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate NY.