Pentecost 2 (Proper 4/Ordinary 9): Year B

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Last week, we examined the case of King Uzziah of Judah, and how he was struck down for an act of intrusive impiety that was itself a consequence of his hubris: his attempt to make an insence offering to YHWH that was the sole prerogative of the priestly cast. This week, Jesus uses the example of David eating the bread of the Presence, which only the priests could eat, when he and his companions were hungry, as a defence against the Pharisees criticism. What is going on here? Is this an example of biblical double standards?

The context is Jesus and his disciples moving through a grainfield on a Sabbath day and picking the heads of grain off the stalks to eat because they are hungry. Now, the Pharisees are not objecting to this activity because it constitutes theft in the sense in which we understand that word today, but because as “activity” on the Sabbath it constitutes “work” – and work on the Sabbath is forbidden.

The Pharisees were strict observers of the Sabbath – so strict, in fact, that they would become involved in heated debates over questions such as how far a person could walk on the Sabbath before violating its status as a day of rest. But as with so much else, their legalism blinded them to the reality the Sabbath was meant to serve: not just the human need for rest, but for human existence to be patterned and ordered, subject to a framework in which work is only one aspect of human existence and not its totality.

Because, of course, in order to eat on the Sabbath, the work of food preparation needs to be performed. Usually, this work was done the day before the Sabbath (or else people just engaged the Sabbath day as a day of fasting) – but not everyone had that option, especially if they were forced to work for most or all of the day before Sabbath just to stay alive. So the idea of the Sabbath as a day of rest in which “rest” is defined within narrow bounds in fact makes it oppressive.

Which is why Jesus uses the example of David entering the house of God in order to eat the bread of the Presence. Because the critical difference between the two examples is that whereas Uzziah’s actions stem from his hubris and conceit, David’s actions take the form of a coming to God out of human need – they express the reality that the religious institutions of the Hebrew people serve the relationship between God and humankind, not some oppressive hierarchy that separates God from the people. In other words, they are a means to an end, and not an end in themselves.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is a condemnation of the kind of hard heartedness that would rather see people go hungry than have them engage in technical violations of the Sabbath as a day of rest. But this did not mean Jesus thought that rest was unimportant, or that the idea of the Sabbath was outmoded. On the contrary, the concept of Sabbath as “the Lord’s day” goes to the heart of its meaning as a day of rest: the Sabbath was a day in which the relational intimacy between God and humankind was concretised and embodied. Thus, any who seek to use this reading as a justification for the 24/7 economy, on the grounds that Jesus “permits” work on the Sabbath, is seriously misreading this passage. This is the same kind of distortion as that practiced by the Pharisees, albeit at the opposite extreme: it is seeking to make human reality an end in itself (endless production and consumption) as distinct from a means to an end (covenantal life with God and with each other).

Jesus’ rejection of both extremes – and his assertion of the Sabbath as a day giving expression to the relational intimacy of God and humankind – is articulated in the second half of today’s reading. Entering a synagogue, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand. The fact that Jesus is immediately placed under scrutiny to see how he responds indicates the man’s presence may be part of a trap – an ambush of which the man himself may have had no knowledge. Jesus certainly seems aware of the reality: he immediately challenges the Pharisees with a question of what actions are lawful of a Sabbath – those that help, or those that harm. Faced with their intransigent silence he acts, and heals the man.

The man with the withered hand is the personification of all those who have been harmed and marginalised as a consequence of their suffering. In the age of the 24/7 economy, he is also representative of those whose humanity is dismissed or disregarded because they are unable to “work” in the conventional sense: the intellectually and physically disabled, the chronically ill, those suffering from mental illness, the aged, the retired, children and teenagers, the unemployed, the homeless. But he is also the personification of all those who have been harmed by their experience of work – and by a “rehabilitation” system whose legalism, rules of procedure and evidence, and emphasis on getting people “back to work” as distinct from attending to their human need, further victimises and marginalises them. Jesus’ act of healing on the day of Sabbath is a rejection, both of the legalism that refuses to help, and of the idolatrous valuing of endless “productive” activity. The Sabbath was made for humanity precisely because human beings are not robots or strictly rational agents – we are vulnerable and breakable, and we need the solidarity of family, friends and community, as well as the “down time” of rest and recreation, in order to live a fully human life.

1 Samuel 3:1-10

The account of the calling of Samuel comes from the pre-Kingdom period in the history of the Hebrew people. At this time, there was no consolidated “kingdom” or “nation” of Israel: it was, rather, a loose confederation of tribal and family groups inhabiting the uplands and parts of the coastal plain of what is now modern Israel. The leadership would have consisted of the heads or elders of these groupings, while the general population may have been a mixture of Hebrews, remnant Canaanites, and others. This confederation was often in conflict with the powerful and more advanced cultures inhabiting the coastal cities, especially those of the Philistines.

Eli is the High Priest of Shiloh. In the days before the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Shiloh was one of the main centres for the worship of YHWH, and so the position of High Priest carried considerable moral authority within the Hebrew confederation. However, Eli’s sons are corrupt, and Eli apparently lacks the capacity to restrain or correct them; his efforts to rebuke them for their behaviour are lacklustre and ineffectual. The text says that the “word of the LORD” was rare at that time; visions were uncommon; and even Eli’s eyesight was growing dim. This last may just be a comment on Eli’s advancing age; but in combination with the other two observations, it may be a metaphor for the “darkness” of the time: the people are not just under military pressure from the Philistines, their relationship with God is threadbare – and this parlous state of affairs is reflected in the condition of their society and the corruption of their religious institutions.

The thinness of this relationship is reflected in the confusion surrounding the call to Samuel. Even though he serves Eli the High Priest in the important temple at Shiloh, Samuel “(does) not yet know the LORD”. Samuel has been dedicated to God’s service by his grateful parents; but Eli’s formation of Samuel into that service has been as apparently lacklustre as his own attempts at disciplining his sons. For while Samuel may have been “trained” to undertake certain rituals or carry out certain functions, it appears he does not even understand enough for it to occur to him that, if he sleeps in a place consecrated to God, and hears a voice calling him in that place, that it may very well be God who is calling him!

Whether or not, from the perspective of the 21st century, we accept the idea of God literally calling to someone, is actually irrelevant. What this passage draws our attention to is the all-too-frequent paucity of formation within the Church about understanding what it means to be a person of faith – and how that understanding impacts upon our relationship with God, our discernment of the movement of God’s Spirit in our hearts, and how that movement enjoins us to be active in the affairs of the world. In other words, the lack – or absence altogether – of “discipling”, of enabling people to grow into a mature and robust faith that enables them to make that faith a lived reality.

To begin with, it is a common experience among ministerial candidates that the theological colleges that form them rarely form them for the reality of the church and world as it stands in the present and is likely to stand in the future. Ministry candidates are formed by an ossified conception of ministry that may once have spoken into a past reality – or, perhaps, only an idealised version of a past reality – but which leaves them woefully unequipped to minister in present and emerging circumstances.

And one of the most catastrophic manifestations of this lack of relevant formation is the almost universal inability of ministers in congregational and other pastoral settings to speak into, and minister to, the experience of work. The joys and sorrows of work, its fulfilments and frustrations, the profound and often terrible place which work holds in shaping human identity and a sense of integrity and worth – most ministers are entirely unequipped to deal with this reality, preferring instead to refer those who come to them to counsellors, lawyers, and other therapeutic and industrial “professionals”. This despite the fact that waged labour now forms the primary reality for most people aged between 18 and 65. Even for “retired” people, the very fact of retirement can hold deep and disturbing implications for their sense of self and well-being…implications very few ministers are able to address.

A second catastrophic consequence of this lack of ministerial formation is that it in turn prevents spiritual formation among the wider Christian population, one that enables Christians to experience their faith – and the presence and “speaking” Spirit of God – as a lived reality in their daily working lives. This spiritual poverty manifests as both prophetic poverty – the inability to critique modernity’s construction of work and economy from the point-of-view of the Kingdom – as well as an integrative poverty: the creation of a split, a fissure between the “private” world of faith and the “public” world of work. Through its lack of ministerial formation, the Church encourages a spiritual poverty among Christians generally that amounts to an accommodation of the post-Enlightenment bifurcation of human life into separate domains of “private” and “public”, “secular” and “sacred”.

Having abandoned the world of work and economy to the technocrats and the politicians, the Church has essentially abandoned the primary human reality within modernity. Far from the complaint that is often made these days that the world has abandoned the Church, the truth is that the Church has abandoned the world. Thus, like Samuel, we “do not know the LORD” in our daily lives, and are confused by what even the notion of a “call by God” on our lives might entail.

Eli, though weak and ineffectual, is still faithful, and ultimately is able to point Samuel toward God. The Church, though weak and ineffectual, can still, by faithfulness, point not only those who work, but the whole world of work and economics, toward God; and in doing so, begin a rebuilding of those severed connections that might ultimately lead to the fullness of life which Christ proclaimed.

Deuteronomy 5: 6-21

Deuteronomy is one of the “law books” of the Hebrew Scriptures. Attributed to Moses, it sets out various regulations governing the religious and social practices of the Hebrew people. Such regulations were intended to facilitate the covenant between YHWH and the Hebrews; they were less about telling the people “what to do” than they were about articulating what a life lived in covenant relationship with God might look like. Many of these regulations strike modern audiences as strange, grotesque, or even oppressive; but we need to keep in mind, not only the enormous distance in time, history, and cultural practice that separates modernity from the ancient world in which these practices emerged, but the fact that “law” in this context is not so much “legal code” as it is “way of life or living”. Deuteronomy and other texts that make up the Mosaic Law were focused on what form an integrative or whole of life approach to covenant relationship with God and other people might take.

The relational emphasis of Deuteronomy is highlighted by such phrases as “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”, and “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand”. These are not mere reminders of God’s delivery of the Hebrews from Egyptian domination, as though by reminding them of this favour God seeks to induce a guilt ridden sense of obligation that keeps the people in line. Rather, they are a reminder of why God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt: because they were God’s “Chosen People”, the very ones who were to be a revelation of God to the whole world. In other words, through relationship with the Hebrews, God sought to reveal God’s-self to, and enter into relationship with, all of humankind.

But this is also a reminder that covenant is not some kind of exclusivity agreement, one that includes only God and the Hebrews and shuts everyone else out. Nor is covenant merely a matter of private religious observance: it applies to the whole of human existence. The divisions of “us” and “them”, “private” and “public”, “religious” and “secular” do not apply. One does not separate what one does in/through worship and participation in the community of faith from what one does in the world at large; neither does one draw distinctions between how one conducts oneself with fellow believers, and the “rules of engagement” that apply to “everyone else”.

In this context, it is interesting to note that modernity normally reads the ban on having other gods “before” YHWH as a claim for exclusivity – a claim that to the pluralist mind comes across as both intolerant and oppressive.  But note that the ban occurs in the context of a prohibition on idolatry, on the worship of the “false images” that were a product of human imagination and co-option of the divine. The worship of YHWH was unique for its refusal to reduce God to human dimensions. Not only was this saying that God was not whatever it is that humans imagined God to be; it was also a declaration that humans could not ascribe to their own reality prerogatives that belonged exclusively to God.

Thus, like covenant, idolatry as a concept covers more than the merely religious dimensions of human life. It applies to the totality of human reality; it is an integrative concept that defies attempts to categorise or silo human existence into mutually exclusive domains.

Thus, the pronouncement of the Sabbath day as a day of rest cuts across any attempt by human beings to elevate work into an exclusive reality that defines the boundaries of human existence, or which arbitrarily determines the existential or social legitimacy of individual human beings. That in modernity humans have made waged labour an idolatrous construct that has consumed the totality of human life reinforces the point: like all other forms of idolatry, the idolatry of work as it has been manufactured by corporatist capitalism dehumanises people, cuts us off from “right relationship” with God and one another, and impoverishes the scope of our lived experience. And like other forms of idolatry, the idolatry of work will have – and has – its consequences: social inequality, environmental degradation, political unrest. These consequences may lead to the radical re-shaping – or even collapse – of our present societies.

But note also how the Sabbath injunction does not reserve the Sabbath day for an elite, or even just for the Hebrew people: it incorporates all people living in the land in which the Hebrews themselves live. This not only speaks to the need for rest, and for a balanced, patterned existence in human life; it specifically gainsays any system of economic, social, or political organisation that excludes anyone from this balance and pattern. The fruits of economic activity and human labour are not the sole or even principal preserve of any given sector of society; or, indeed, of one society over another. And any system that enables rest, refreshment, entertainment, and recreation for some, while others are shackled with unending labour, is a system that violates God’s call into covenant relationship. Likewise, any system that enables a few to access the kind of rest and recreation that deepens and enriches life, while the many are required to accept those forms which provide mere entertainment, similarly fails the test of covenant relationship.

This passage from Deuteronomy demonstrates how the Mosaic Law was less a “legal code” than it was a pattern for covenant life with God and other people. As a pattern it was integrative and spanned the whole of human reality: it reminds us that there is no such thing as a “work and life balance”; rather, that there is a balanced life of which work is a part and not the totality, and in which all the other necessities of abundant human existence are the covenantal birthright of all and not just the few.

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18

This passage from Psalm 139 recalls two other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. Verse 4 recalls Jeremiah 1:9 when the LORD, commissioning Jeremiah to be a prophet, declares Now I have put my words in your mouth. Verses 13-16 recalls Jeremiah 1:5, when God declares that Jeremiah was known to God even before the prophet was formed in his mother’s womb.

Verse 5 recalls Job 3:23, when Job complains of the oppressive sense of being “fenced in” by God; whereas, in Job 1:10, the Satan complains that God has but a protective fence around Job. In both cases, the omnipresence of the LORD is emphasised. Verse 6 recalls Job 42:3, when he declares that he will remain silent in the face of the knowledge which God has revealed to him, a disclosure of mystery “too wonderful” for him to comprehend.

These passages from the Psalm, and their corresponding equivalents in Jeremiah and Job, speak to the absolute sovereignty of God. Omnipotence and omnipresence are metaphors for the reality that God simply cannot be reduced to human proportions, to the kinds of images and idols and anthropomorphisms that characterised the typical cultic religions of the day – and which, arguably, continue to taint popular piety into the present. God is not a benevolent grandparent, or kindly neighbour, or cool best friend; God is God, and there is a whole order of magnitude difference between God and humankind.

The word awesome is one that tends to get overused today. In its present usage, it has become a bland synonym for “great” or “fantastic”, an unthinkingly positive phrase to describe our own enthusiasms. But in its original sense, awesome contained two elements: fear and wonder.

The fear which is here described is not the same as dread or terror. The phrase – so commonly misquoted and misunderstood today – fear of the LORD, is not a quailing obeisance to an overwhelming power. It is a recognition that God, being utterly other, cannot be treated with in the same manner with which we deal with our fellow humans. As already noted, God is God; and the sheer difference between God and humankind warrants both our attention and our respect.

The wonder comes in the form of recognising that this One who is utterly other, and who – as it were – holds all the forces and powers of the universe in their hands, seeks relationship with humankind. There is nothing about humanity that requires or compels God’s attention; rather, God elects, out of the sheer sovereignty of God’s will, to know and engage us, to issue an invitation into relationship and to seek our response to that invitation.  Moreover, this is not a power relationship, of masters and subjects; rather, it is a relationship of giving, in which God in God’s own sovereignty lays aside that sovereignty for the sake of genuine engagement with human beings.

This relational dynamic contrasts sharply to the power dynamic most people experience in work, and through the structure of the global economy. While the omnipotence and omnipotence of God is sometimes experienced as oppressive or daunting in the Hebrew Scriptures, this is usually a result of the inadequate understanding and pride of humans (Job), or the more understandable baulking by humans at the implications with which the possibility of God in human life confronts us (Jeremiah).

This, however, is entirely different from the oppressive dynamics of power experienced in modernity. The control which employers exercise over employees is, with very few exceptions, characterised by punitive lines of command and control, in which responsibility flows with increasing weight down the chain of command, while authority is withheld to a very limited few occupying the top of that chain. Moreover, the consequences for failure and malfeasance are very different, according to your place within the hierarchy. Employees dismissed for incompetence may receive little more than any applicable statutory entitlements, while executives frequently depart with “golden handshakes” often valued in the millions. Likewise, employees who steal money from their employer or their customers are subject to the sanctions of the criminal law, while employers who underpay staff or withhold entitlements such as superannuation face, at most, the unlikely prospect of civil action.

Moreover, the global nature of the economy has made more and more people feel helpless and powerless, without any kind of say in a largely invisible but oppressively omnipresent paradigm, in which the scale of returns for the wealthy investor class take precedence over the standards of living of the working class, or the cohesion of communities and the provision of social infrastructure. This is not a relationship in which power willingly forgoes its own power for the sake of meaningful engagement; it is, rather, the brutal exercise of power for the sake of maximising gains for those by whom such abusive power is wielded.

This reading from Psalm 139 reminds us that, although God is indeed God, and cannot be regarded as “just another autonomous agent” to be dealt with like all other such agents, the sovereignty and power of God exist in order to make relationship and not subjugation possible. That God in God’s own freedom seeks relationship with humankind involves both a setting aside of power, and a willingness to be vulnerable to the brokenness of the human condition. It reminds us that the power relationships that emerge from modernity’s construction of work and economy are not inevitabilities reflecting a “natural order” – they are deviations from the fully human life into which relationship with God calls all humankind.

2 Corinthians 4: 5-12

This passage declares one of the central tenets of the Christian faith: that it is to Jesus whom God has given lordship of the world, and it is Jesus who is therefore Lord of all things under the sovereignty of God. This includes the notion of Jesus as Lord and Head of the Church: irrespective of what structures or lines of authority particular Christian traditions recognise, Jesus stands over all these things as ultimate sovereign and holder of authority.

Thus it is that everything Christians are called to do in life is to reflect the glory of God in Christ as Lord over creation and fulfilment of God’s promise of consummation of all life into the life of God. Mission and ministry and worship and every movement and activity of the Church and the individual Christians by whom it is composed is meant to point away from the Church and toward God. The Church does not exist for its own sake but to serve the Gospel.

This, of course has – and, in history, often has had – consequences. Those whose ultimate loyalty lies not with whatever the prevailing cultural context determines to be legitimate and authoritative, but with the Gospel and the claim to human dignity inscribed therein, are viewed with suspicion and hostility. Such persons cannot be trusted; they are subversive and a potential threat to existing power structures. Christians have – and continue to be – persecuted precisely because their commitment to the Gospel calls them to challenge sources of power that presume to a God-like status.

But the opposite is also true. In the desperate attempt to be successful or appear relevant or even just survive, many Christians may be tempted to allow themselves to be co-opted by the norms of culture, linking the spirit of Christianity with the prevailing spirit of the times. Thus, in ages when particular forms of political, social, or economic organisation appear to be both successful and enduring, the pressure to assume these forms in order to be likewise successful and enduring may be great indeed.

This is especially the case in modernity, in which the so-called “crisis of the Church” in the industrialised West (falling attendance, tightening budgets, social and political marginalisation) often results in attempts to “solve” the “crisis” and “save” the Church that amount to nothing less than the wholesale adoption by segments of the Church of the standards, norms, and practices of the surrounding economic, social, and political milieu.

Throughout its history, the Christian faith has drawn on elements of the surrounding culture to explain itself to that culture. Indeed, one of the reasons for the spread of Christianity across the globe has been its capacity to speak into widely divergent cultural contexts, and enable the life of a worshipping community within the cultural identity of its members. But this is not the same as the wholesale adoption of – or, rather, co-option by – culture. The prophetic emphasis within Christian faith, which critiques culture and its assumptions and prescriptions, stands independent of any power that seeks to bend the prophetic force toward its own ends. Co-option of Christianity by culture impoverishes Christian life by shackling the Gospel proclamation to the prerogatives of embedded power, thereby diluting the Church’s capacity to minister to, and prophetically critique, the culture by which it is surrounded.

This reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians reminds Christians everywhere that it cannot and must not link the spirit of the Gospel to the spirit of any human system of economic, political, and social organisation. That the Church has often done so is undeniable; and the consequences have always been catastrophic. But a Christian theology of work and economy cannot be a disguised system of apologetics for human constructions of work and economics, even if it borrows elements from, or uses the language of, those systems in order to speak into them and critique their failures. As with every other aspect of the Church’s life, we are reminded that, in the field of work and economy, we are required to point to God in all we do and say – and to the reconciling and healing Lordship of Christ as ruler of the world and ultimate arbiter of human worth and dignity.

 

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