July, 10 2016- Proper 10 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)
July 1, 2016 | by Robert Gnuse
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This passage contains a signficant text from the Amos collection of oracles. Amaziah, the high priest of the royal shrine at Bethel and servant of king Jeroboam II of Israel, confronts Amos, who has spoken judgment oracles at the shrine. (The account is somehow related to the very similar story of how the “man of God” confronted Jeroboam I at Bethel in I Kings 13, which occurred 150 years earlier according to biblical chronology.) Amaziah accuses Amos of being a professionally trained court prophet from Judah sent north to Israel for the purpose of sowing dissention in the northern state. Amos declares that he is not a prophet, or at least not a trained prophet. Ironically, Amos eventually will be seen as the first of the great classical prophets.
Amaziah does not accuse Amos of being wrong; rather, the northern nation of Israel cannot “bear his words.” Does Amaziah admit the truth of what Amos says, but then chastises Amos out of his own personal fear of Jeroboam II? Does Amaziah lack the courage to stand up for the truth as Amos has done. If this is true about Amaziah, then certainly he is not like bishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a sniper while he was presiding over mass by the government in El Salvador for speaking out against the oppression of the peasants in that country a generation ago.
Our story in Amos is about courage. Amos had the courage to criticize the state sponsored economic oppression of the poor highland peasants in Israel in 750 BCE. Amaziah sided with the political establishment, perhaps out of fear for his life or for his own financial well-being. Too often the institutional church and its spokespersons have sided with the oppressive rulers; too seldom has the church spoken out against the tyrants. Too seldom have we seen the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero.
A footnote to the discussion: plumb lines were used to observe if the city walls in the ancient world were sufficiently straight to withstand a siege and the battering effects of a siege machine. If not, a segment of wall would be knocked down and rebuilt. In our biblical text the prophet is saying that Israel must be knocked down because the nation is crooked (vv. 7-9). Hopefully, we today can pass God’s “plumb-line” test as a society because we are a just and fair society that does not oppress our poor people. Can we pass that test?
In these concluding passages of Deuteronomy the author speaks of how the Israelites should keep the laws proclaimed in Deuteronomy 12-26. These were reform oriented laws designed to protect the weaker members of society. They often developed the earlier laws found in the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 21-23 to further protect the rights of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner in the land, as the refrain in Deuteronomy so often declares. There laws were an incredibly idealistic attempt to bring about social justice in the land of Judah perhaps in the years after 622 BCE (according to one of our major scholarly theories).
According to the text, people are called upon to turn to God “with all your heart and with all your soul” (v. 10), and the law “is not too hard for you” (v. 11), and the word should be “in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe” (v. 14). Inotherwords, out of love for God, the people of Judah should want to keep these guidelines. This is the same understanding that Christians have; we also respond in love to those around us out of love for God, who has done so much for us. Obedience to God’s wishes is joyous service, not an onerous burden.
As process theologians we stress how God takes the life journey with us. God is in our world, and more importantly, God is in each us, sharing our existence and developing with us. How much greater our service of love should be when we sense that the divine is within us and not in some distant heaven, as too often people envision God. As Deuteronomy 30:11-4 says about the Law, “. . . nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven . . . the word is very near to you . . .” God is very near to us. If we can feel the presence of the divine, we can act as though we are a symbol of the divine presence in the world.
Modern commentators are divided as to whether Paul wrote the letter of Colossians or whether it was written by one of his disciples after his death. The letter to the Ephesians was modeled after Colossians and was written with a much more sophisticated vocabulary than we think Paul would have used. (I had to look up many of the greek words in that letter when I was a student.) The authorship of Colossians, by contrast, is debated. Regardless of who wrote it, this letter contains many meaningful messages from a great and inspired theologian of the first century CE.
In the prologue Paul applauds his audience for their Christian behavior. The section that we read makes the author appear almost as a cheerleader praising his audience and hoping that their Christian lives will continue to grow under the unconditional love of God and divine guidance (vv. 11-14).
There is a message here for clergy. Do not be afraid to applaud your congregants when they do something good. Praise will encourage people more than criticism; carrots are much better than sticks. Those of us raised in a conservative Protestant tradition (that would be me!), are so often tempted to talk about human sin, followed by talk about divine forgiveness. This was a model taught to us in seminary. However, it tempts us to talk too much about sin and human shortcomings as our prelude to speaking about forgiveness. The introduction to the letter of Colossians strongly reminds us that often times it might be better to praise people for their good actions and so motivate them to continue the development of their Christians lives. We must realize that God is in all of us moving us forward in our Christian lives, and that may be best affirmed in positive language not in words of judgment.
The parable of the Good Samaritan stands forth as one of the most representative of the parables in characterizing Jesus’ portrayal of the Kingdom of God. We must begin by observing that for Jews the Samaritans were considered half-breed scum, people half Israelite and half Mesopotamian. They were created when the Assyrian Empire forcibly settled Mesopotamian prisoners of war in the northern state of Israel in the eighth century BCE. (Actually, there was probably very little Mesopotamian DNA in the Samaritans, since the importees were few in number.) Jews in the days of Jesus hated Samaritans and would have expected a Samaritan to kill a wounded Jew in the road simply to steal his loincloth. The hatred between both groups was great.
The priest is on his way to Jerusalem where he will participate in Temple sacrifice. The linen robe he wears must be pure upon entry into the Temple precincts. If blood from the injured Jew is on his robe, he will be turned away in Jerusalem, and his family will suffer a significant loss of income. Jewish social laws demand that he help the victim in the road, but ritual laws demand that he maintain his purity. He opts to keep ritual law and passes by on the other side of the road. The same guidelines apply to the Levite who likewise avoids impurity.
The audience anticipates that in the story Jesus will portray the third person as a Pharisee. Pharisees were teachers, like Jesus, who interpreted the sacred texts to obtain moral guidelines for life and cared little for cult and ritual. The Pharisee would follow Jewish social law and help the victim. But Jesus shocks his audience by having a Samaritan come down the road, a person expected to kill the injured Jew. The audience wonders what kind of ghoulish ending Jesus will propose. Instead, Jesus stuns his audience by having the Samaritan help the wounded Jew. The Jewish audience is overwhelmed by his radical message. Jesus’ point is that when the Kingdom of God comes, foreigners, like the Samaritan and maybe even the hated Gentiles (that would be us), will live by the new law of love, just as Jewish Christian will do.
We, today, who are the Gentiles brought in by Paul, are the symbolic Samaritan in that story. We are the foreigners brought into the Kingdom, who now show the love of God, like the Samaritan did. I hope we do! We must, in turn, be open to the stranger, the outsider, the foreigner, the Samaritan, who may come into the Kingdom today and likewise demonstrate the love of the Father. Christianity and Christian growth is a process, an ever expanding movement bringing people in, as we are led by the presence of God in our midst.