Thursday, November 8, 2012

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 11, 2012:

1 Kings 17:8-16

Psalm 146

The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down. (Ps. 146:7)

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

The Gospel reading for this week gives us a tough vision of God's expectations, especially for those of us of wealth in the West; or perhaps it's more appropriate to adopt the world vision of Philip Jenkins, and talk about Christians in the affluent, but shrinking in Christian numbers, North, and the poorer, but richer in Christian population, South.

Most of us can convince ourselves that Jesus doesn't speak of us in the first part of the passage--but is this true? Perhaps we should look again.

Most of us don't pray in public, where people will be sure to see us and remark on our piety. But here's a tougher question. Look at the part of the passage about the people of privilege and recognition who "devour widows' houses"; in the time of Jesus, the widow would be the universal symbol of the most economically helpless member of society.

Again, most of us would be sure that Jesus isn't describing us. We think we don't really have all that much prestige. But most of us in suburban churches really do--we drive decent cars and live in decent neighborhoods and have plenty to eat. Many of us give offerings to support the poor. Does Jesus suggest that we should do something more extreme than that? Even if we deny ourselves so as not to be that person that devours the widow, how does that help the poor?

Years ago, I went to hear one of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, and he said that we come to know much of what we know about God as Jesus reveals God's character to us. From reading the Gospel, it becomes clear that "God's character is compassion, and God's passion is justice" (Borg's words).

Note that the word is justice, and not charity. Look at the example of the poor widow in the end of the Gospel for today. She gives all that she has. She doesn't tithe. She gives it all. Borg points out that the concept of justice in the Bible is primarily about economic justice; everybody should have enough--not equal portions, necessarily, but enough. Borg points out that justice is far less comfortable for those of us of privilege than charity. Charity lets us tithe and thus, keep our surplus. Justice demands more.

The Gospel lesson makes it clear what God expects. God wants everything we have to give. I'm not sure we should take the end of this Gospel too literally, in economic terms, although the more I read, the more I'm thinking that perhaps God does want us to give away all that we own, if we really want the full Christian experience. God expects more from us than many of us might be prepared to give.

We've just celebrated All Saints Day, which many of us might brush off as saying that normal people just can't accomplish what those saints accomplished. And yet, perhaps we don't take ourselves seriously enough when we say that. Marcus Borg says that Jesus shows us what can be seen of God in a human life; there's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows us what can be seen. Marcus Borg says that Jesus wasn't different from us--perhaps different in degree, but not in kind. He said that Jesus was like St. Francis of Assisi with an exclamation point--and just think of all that St. Francis managed to accomplish. The Gospel lesson reinforces that teaching and makes it clear that no less is expected of us.

What if we decided to require more of ourselves? What would it mean to really use Christ as your example of how we are supposed to act in the world? Not just during special events, but every day, day after day, during each hour of the day? It's a goal worth struggling towards.

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