The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, 24 February 2018

February 24, 2019 | by Robert Gnuse

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50 Luke 6:27-38

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
In this emotional scene Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. We speak of his kindness in forgiving his brothers after the evil things they did to him years before when they considered killing him and finally sold him into slavery. What we do not often emphasize is the clever cruelty he demonstrates by playing with them throughout so much of the plot line.

In this narrative Joseph speaks repeatedly of how all of this was God’s plan to save not only the family of Jacob but also the Egyptians. “God sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5). “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors” (v. 7). “So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (v. 8). In another part of the narrative Joseph says that his brothers intended evil, but God turned it into good. This is one of the themes of the Joseph Novella in Genesis 37, 39-50. One of the other themes is that Jews should serve foreign leaders well, for in so doing they will help not only the foreigners but also their own people. Scholars suspect that the Joseph Novella may have been written between 450 BCE and 200 BCE, when that would have been good advice. After the Maccabean War (167-164 BCE) Jewish novels call upon Jews to stand up for their faith, be willing to suffer persecution (Daniel 3, 6), and be willing to defend their faith militarily (Esther, Judith). That positive view toward foreigners would not appear as readily.

This little excerpt from the Joseph story speaks of how people may intend evil but God turns it into good. I am reminded of Whitehead’s paradigm of how we are offered choices in the flow of existence, in the constant “moment of becoming.” The graciousness of God consists in that God will offer new choices to us, if we have made a bad choice. In that way, God leads the process onward, even though we have freedom at each moment of decision. This paradigm strikes me as a good description of how life works, for it preserves human free will in a universe that appears to be so predictable at times and historically determined. The Joseph story (as well as the entire Apocryphal book of Sirach) implies there is indeed human freedom in our individual choices, but that overall God leads people toward a good future. Joseph’s brothers intended evil, but God kept leading the process onward until good things finally came of the entire family experience. Joseph made a good choice in refusing the sexual advances of Potipher’s wife, and even though it landed him in prison, he would not have translated pharaoh’s dreams and saved people from famine had that not happened. In subtle fashion God leads us onward with continued choices in our lives.

Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
This is sometimes described as a wisdom psalm because of the similarity of the language with the sayings in the book of Proverbs,  and because it deals with the issue of theodicy, that is, justice in the world. The entire psalm proclaims that ultimately the righteous will be blessed, and that ultimately the wicked will get their just desserts. Well, the world does not work that way. The biblical author who wrote this psalm also knew that, and probably had harsh life experiences more so than do we. He knew that too often the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. But this hymn is a statement of faith that the world should work that way. This hymn is a prayer to God that God would make the world work that way, at least, at times. When the psalm was crafted, Jews were a province in someone else’s empire, they were poor and oppressed. The author of our psalm was not an optimistic idealist. He knew tragedy. The psalm is an utterance of hope that God would make the world work well for the faithful and righteous believers. It is a statement of hope and faith.

The psalm offers good advice, “Do not fret because of the wicked” (v. 1), “Do not be envious because of evildoers” (v. 1), “Trust in the Lord, and do good” (v. 2), “Take delight in the Lord” (v. 4), “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him” (v. 5), “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him” (v. 7)—really good advice, “Do not fret over those who prosper . . . over those who carry out evil devices” (v. 7), “Refrain from anger” (v. 8), and “Do not fret—it only leads to evil” (v. 8). This all sounds like good advice to relieve stress. This psalm appears to be a wisdom psalm because it provides advice as you would find it in the book of Proverbs.

1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
This section is the heart of Paul’s great discourse on the resurrection of the body. Herein he gives utterance to his view of the resurrected body. But he has left biblical commentators and theologians with more questions than answers.

Paul begins by using the metaphor of a seed. A seed, once planted in the ground, actually rots so that the new little plant may come forth and give rise to a new plant. It is a wondrous event that occurs billions of times every day on our planet. It is the ultimately symbol of how life comes out of death. For Paul and for us it is the perfect metaphor for the portrayal of the resurrected body which arises out of the old body that dies. It stresses continuity between the old and the new body.

Then beginning with verse 42 Paul waxes poetic about the resurrected body. It is imperishable, raised in power, a spiritual body, and it is of heaven. He describes the resurrected body as a new and glorious thing, quite in contrast to the old body which died, which is perishable. He then says in verse 50, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” That puzzles us, for it makes it appear as though the resurrected body is not physical, but spiritual, and it makes it appear as though Paul is a Gnostic. This portrayal appears to contrast with the gospels of Luke and John, which portray Jesus’ body as eating food and showing the scars of the crucifixion.

What are we to say? We have a tension here, and we cannot really understand what Paul is describing, especially when Paul earlier spoke so dramatically about how Jesus is really raised from the dead. I suspect that Paul is actually struggling to describe the resurrected body when he (and we) may not really understand what that body may look like, and he (and we) may not be capable of understanding what the resurrected body is like. Thus, he seems to say that the resurrected body is a physical body, keeping the seed metaphor in mind, yet it is also a transformed body that is glorious, not merely a resuscitated corpse (like Lazarus in the gospel of John).

I would back up even farther and say that Paul is using a metaphor, as were all the early Christians, in order to describe the incomprehensible. We affirm the resurrection of the body in order to affirm the goodness of God’s creation, which God affirmed by the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus. The metaphor of the resurrected body may actually be simply a metaphor to describe the completely indescribable.

Christians have sensed this over the years and have offered up many different visions of the afterlife. Teilhard de Chardin spoke of a future evolutionary process that will link all human minds together in the Omega Point, or Jesus, and that we will become eternally one in the mind of God. Process theologians speak of how all things will be remembered in the mind of God, and that is immortality. We simply do not know what to say, other than it is beyond our understanding. Perhaps Kierkegaard said it best, “When we die, we jump through a black curtain, believing that there are gracious arms to catch us.”

Luke 6:27-38
Contained in this reading are more sayings from the “Sermon on the Plain” in the gospel of Luke, which corresponds to the “Sermon on the Mount” in the gospel of Matthew. These may have been sayings that Jesus uttered variously at many different times in his teaching ministry. The oral tradition has gathered them together somewhat in the form that we observe in the gospels, and then the gospel writers have edited them, leaving out some, including others, and occasionally changing the words. In so doing, they were faithful to what Jesus had taught them about getting the point of his teachings and not being mere literalists.

“Love your enemies” is a powerful statement that Jesus actually meant to be observed in serious fashion. Sometimes if you love your enemies you can gradually win them as your friends (early Christians accomplished that). You also remove hatred from your heart, which so often eats away at your psyche and causes you to emotionally and psychologically deteriorate.

“Turn the other cheek” likewise is meant to be seriously kept. A quiet but firm response like turning the other cheek (and not cowering on the ground), will sometimes defuse the other person’s anger. Responding in anger just starts a serious fight. Again, you may ultimately win their respect and friendship by this firm but non-aggressive response. These two sayings inspired Gandhi’s philosophy of “non-violent” resistance. He taught his followers not to be afraid and not to fight back, but to stand quietly and firmly when hit by your enemies. It ultimately brought independence to India without a war that would have cost millions of lives.

Furthermore, there may be a bit of humor in turning the other cheek. If a person strikes someone who is not a slave in the Mediterranean world, they must slap them with an open palm, using their right hand against the person’s left cheek. If that person turns their head to expose the other cheek, then the striker must use the back of his right hand (or fist) to strike the person’s right cheek. That is a blow that can only be used on slaves; to use it on a free person is a dishonorable act by the striker. Thus, the striker will have to pause and recognize the cleverness of the person being hit who is tempting him to do something dishonorable. He might then respect his victim and his anger would be defused. Maybe that would never happen, but Jesus’ audience would have realized the image and perhaps chuckled a little at the cleverness of the person being hit.

Jesus concludes by pointing out that it is nothing really special to love your friends and family, but loving your enemy or a stranger is a greater act of love. It was this philosophy that probably enabled Christianity to grow so effectively in the ancient world. They helped strangers. They showed kindness to people in need, Christians and pagans alike. Emperor Julian of Rome (361-363 CE) hated Christians, but said their “sentimentality” (the Latin word meant the same as the Greek word “agape”) to everyone caused their wretched religion to spread so rapidly. That’s worth remembering today.

Robert Gnuse (Ph.D., M.A., 1978-80, Vanderbilt; M.Div., S.T.M., 1974-75, Concordia Seminary in Exile) teaches Old Testament at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he is the James C. Carter, S.J./Chase Bank Distinguished Professor of the Humanities. He also serves as part-time pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church  in Marrero, LA (since 1989).