All Saint’s Day (November)

October 7, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Psalm 149 Ephesians 1:11-23 Luke 6:20-31

For the Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, see my commentary for November 6, 2016.

Very early, Christians commemorated the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. By the 4th century, the Sunday after Pentecost was set aside as a common day for the commemoration of all Christian martyrs. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III (731–741) set November 1st as the day for the commemoration of the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world” (All Saint’s Day Wikipedia). In most Protestant churches today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated between October 30 and the first Sunday in November. Some Lutheran churches celebrate it the Sunday after Reformation Sunday.

In the Pauline letters, all whose lives are centered “in Christ” are called “saints.” Therefore, on All Saints’ Day, many Protestants remember all Christians, both past and present, especially members of the local congregation who have died in the past year.

Central to All Saints’ Day is the celebration of Christ’s victory over death in general, but especially as those whose lives exemplified “the Christian life” are remembered. It is also a day to proclaim God’s saving grace is for everyone.

(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)

Daniel 7:1-3 & 15-18

As a whole, the Book of Daniel encourages and consoles Jews [Judeans] facing persecution in the reign of Antiochus [IV Epiphanes (the Seleucid ruler from Syria, 175-164 BCE)]. In chs. 1–6, it provides them with heroic role models who thrive because they remain faithful to Jewish law while serving a foreign king. Chs. 7–12 hold out the promise of deliverance in the new kingdom of God and individual resurrection and exaltation for those who remain faithful in the face of persecution. Throughout the book insists on the sovereignty of the God of Israel.
[Pamela J. Milne and John J. Collins, “Daniel,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV, rev. ed., edited by Harold W. Attridge (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 1169.]

The book’s visions present past events as predictions from the 6th century BCE—that is, as prophecies after the fact (Milne/Collins, 1182). For the book’s author, writing at the end of the successful Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE), the liberation of Judah/Judea from four successive empires (Dan 7.2-3 and 17)—the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the Median, the Persian, and finally the Greco-Syrian (7.4, 5, 6, and 7)—was supposed to bring an end to foreign imperial occupation. The “kingdom” was to be established “forever—forever and ever” (7.18)! However, “forever” lasted only a little more than a century. At the end of the first century BCE, the territories of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah came under Roman administration, which lasted until the Byzantine Empire took over the Roman Empire in the fourth century CE. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire ended and the Ottoman Empire took over—until it too dissolved in 1922, as a result of its fateful alliance with German in WWI. So much for the promise that “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever” (Dan 7.18)!

This apocalyptic book is a cautionary tale both for nations that aspire to global imperial control and for peoples who stake their faith, hope, and trust on promises of nationhood “forever and ever.” [For a fuller treatment of this theme, see André LaCocque, “Daniel,” in the Global Bible Commentary, edited by Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 253-57.]

 How is this passage in Daniel relevant to All Saints’ Day? Perhaps this kind of trans-historical reading of Daniel reminds us what all the “saints”—the “holy ones of the Most High,” whether they are God’s hosts of angels or God’s faithful people among the living and dead— knew: only God is worthy of faith, hope, and trust; and the only “kingdom” that is “forever and ever” is the one that is in the everlasting embrace of God’s love.

Psalm 149

Of all the “virtues” we might attribute to “the saints,” dead or alive, the highest is “faithfulness.” Being “faithful” (see vv. 1, 5, and 9) is more than an inner attitude of trust or confidence. It is also more than loyalty or fidelity. To say that it is more than trust or fidelity implies that they are part of what “being faithful” means. More than these, being faithful is a way of living.

In these verses, instead of “faithful” (e.g., the NRSV), some translations (e.g., the NET) have “godly,” which expresses a way of living that conforms to God’s will. “Godliness” might call to mind petty manners, like “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Or, “the godly” might call to mind people who are scrupulously legalistic in their adherence to a moral code.

In the Bible, “the godly” (“saints”) are people whose lives are formed by God’s way of being. For example, according to v. 4, God “takes pleasure” (NRSV) or “delights” (NET) in people, and “adorns the humble with victory” (NRSV) or “exalts the oppressed by delivering them” (NET). The “faithful” or “godly” rejoice in the “victory” or “deliverance” that comes from and is in God, instead of victories won by military power and other forms of violence. Being formed by God’s way of being makes them “sing for joy” always, even when they are asleep “on their couches” or “beds” (v. 5, NRSV and NET).

The difficult part of this psalm is its approval of violence as the means to execute justice: The faithful “hold a two-edged sword in their hand” (v. 6 NET), “in order to take revenge [or, in the NRSV, “execute vengeance”] on the nations, and punish foreigners” (v. 7 NET), to hold their kings and nobles captive (v. 8), “to execute on them the judgment decreed” (v. 9). “This is glory for all God’s faithful ones…” (v. 9 NRSV); or “All God’s loyal followers will be vindicated” (v. 9 NET); or “That will be an honor for all God’s faithful people” (v. 9 CEB).

To say the least, this theme is not helpful today, given the penchant of nations to seek to resolve their differences through military conflict. Today’s world is marked by seemingly endless wars in the Middle East and, in the United States, a culture of gun violence (see John Cobb, “American Gun Culture,” Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism). As we celebrate “saints” (“the godly”), let’s celebrate the victory of faith, hope, and love over fear and hate.

Ephesians 1:11-23

“Saints,” and everyone “in Christ,” set their hope in Christ, so that they “might live for the praise of God’s glory” (v. 12). “Saints,” and everyone “in Christ,” are promised “redemption” (v. 14). For God’s “great power” (v. 19) was at work in Christ, when God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (vv. 20-21). On All Saints’ Day, let’s proclaim God’s victory over death—and over all rulers, authorities, powers, and domination systems that are instruments of death.

Luke 6:20-31

A popular belief is that, although scriptures speak, in the first instance, to an original, ancient audience, they also speak to us today (compare Rom 4.23-24; 15.4; 1 Cor 9.9-10; and 2 Tim 3.15-16). That means that, in addition to subjecting the text to the best historical skills, our task is also to subject ourselves and our historical situation to the text.

Luke’s Beatitudes appear to be more “material” than Matthew’s more “spiritual” Beatitudes (5.1-12). On the one hand, Luke refers to the materially “poor” and “hungry,” but Matthew refers to the “poor in spirit,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and the “pure in heart.” However, Matthew’s “poor in spirit” are either the “pious” who live lives of material poverty or “the hopeless” (in the CEB); in addition, the “meek” seem to refer to those who have no land of their own, the “merciful” are those who show compassion to persons in need, and “peacemakers” are those who seek to create peace in situations of conflict. So, the contrast between Matthew and Luke is not as great as we might think.

Nevertheless, the point is that Luke’s (and some of Matthew’s) Beatitudes refer to the materially poor and hungry, and to their opposites, the materially wealthy and well-fed. Of the former, Jesus says they are blessed with divine favor. Of the latter, Jesus says they are objects of divine displeasure.

The poor were excluded from the benefits of the Roman Empire, just as today the poor everywhere are excluded from the global growth economy. That’s thematerial dimension. The spiritual is the promise that the poor receive the benefits of God’s beloved community (“kingdom”). Stated in the present tense, this pronouncement is not about a future reality; rather, it is already a reality. Jesus’ speech is performative. His saying so makes it so!

The problem is how to translate this spiritual message into political, social, and economic realities. Perhaps we should say that belonging to God’s beloved community is enough—that, if the poor and hungry possess God’s kingdom “in heaven,” that is enough. Although there is some merit in this view, that is not what Jesus taught us to pray! He taught us to pray that God’s beloved community (“kingdom”) might become a reality “on earth, as it is in heaven.” A rigged capitalist system, with its income inequality, which excludes the poor and hungry, is incompatible with Jesus’ teaching about God’s beloved community!

Jesus pronounces God’s displeasure on the wealthy and well-fed: “Woe to you”! That’s meant not just for Jesus’ original audience. It’s meant also for us: for me and, I dare say, most, if not all, of you, my dear readers! We are among the wealthy, in comparison with the poor and hungry. We are benefiting from a rigged capitalist system, even if we are not the “1%.” We did not create this system and, by ourselves, we cannot significantly change it. But Jesus’ blessings and woes call us to do all we can do to become agents of God’s beloved community “on earth” (see vv. 27-31).

All Saints’ Day is a good time to remember and celebrate advocates for the poor and hungry, those who mourn and are without land of their own, those who show compassion to persons in need and seek to create peace where there is conflict. May our words and deeds—indeed, our very hearts—be formed by all the saints who lived Jesus vision of God’s beloved community.

David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).