Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"May God have pity on us": Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Responsorial Psalm sums up a key lesson that runs like a golden thread throughout this Sunday's lectionary readings:
May God have pity on us and bless us;may he let his face shine upon us.So may your way be known upon earth;among all nations, your salvation. (Ps 67:2-3)
The psalm asks the Lord to show his compassion on all nations and to bring them his salvation. 

From the perspective of ancient Israel, this would have seemed bizarre. The gentiles were the enemies of God and his people in books such as Joshua. They persecuted Israel. They killed Israel's sons and daughters. They had vile practices? 

Could they really be invited to the banquet of salvation? 

Romans? You mean the guys who decimated their enemies? The ones known for leaving baby girls to die of exposure to the elements? 

You mean Assyrians? The guys who savagely raped and pillaged their way through the land of promise?

You mean Canaanites? The ones known for sacrificing their children to gods?

While the prospect of the salvation of the gentiles obviously doesn't strike us Christians today as much as a surprise, we must remember the essential truth this Sunday's readings wants to affirm: all people are invited to the feast. No one is beyond the mercy of God. 

Let me put it in slightly more contemporary terms. No one is excluded from God's kingdom. . . not even those Islamic radicals we are reading about in the news who are raping and killing young women and children. 

Yeah. . . It was that shocking. 

The message of this Sunday's readings is, yes, God wants all of these people--all nations!--back in the covenant family. 

Make no mistake, repentance is not optional. Still, the lesson is no less astonishing: God's grace can transform anyone. 

And we are, like the psalmist, to pray that it does. 

With that, let me offer some brief reflections on the readings.

FIRST READING: Isa 56:1, 6-7
Thus says the LORD:Observe what is right, do what is just;for my salvation is about to come,my justice, about to be revealed. 
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,ministering to him,loving the name of the LORD,and becoming his servants—all who keep the sabbath free from profanationand hold to my covenant,them I will bring to my holy mountainand make joyful in my house of prayer;their burnt offerings and sacrificeswill be acceptable on my altar,for my house shall be calleda house of prayer for all peoples
The first reading presents a view of the age to come (i.e., when God regathers his people) that would have been completely baffling to Jewish audiences. Specifically, the statement that foreigners will “minister (šārat) to God is nothing short of stunning. The word translated "minister" here (šārat) is used for priestly duties throughout the Old Testament.[1] 

In fact, this verse is entirely omitted in a version of Isaiah found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Why was it left out? Scholars explain: the notion that gentiles would serve as priests may just have been too offensive.[2]

A similar situation is suggested, however, by Isaiah 66: 

And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord. (Isa 66:20–21)
The language explaining that God will “take” some “for priests and Levites” in Isaiah 66 also is suggestive; it sounds like God is going to make some persons who would otherwise be disqualified from the priesthood as priests.

That the future age would involve gentile priests is also attested in the Testament of Levi
Levi, your posterity shall be divided into three offices as a sign of the glory of the Lord who is coming. The first lot shall be great; no other shall be greater than it. The second shall be in the priestly role. But the third shall be granted a new name, because from Judah a king will arise and shall found a new priesthood in accord with the gentile model and for all nations. His presence is beloved, as a prophet of the Most High, a descendant of Abraham, our father. (T. Levi 8:11–15; OTP 1:791)[1]
One final thing worth mentioning about Isaiah 56: this is the passage Jesus quotes in the report of his temple action in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark explains that during this incident, 
. . . he taught, and said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ [Isa 56:7]? But you have made it a den of robbers [Jer 7:11].” (Mark 11:17)
In other words, Jesus cites a passage quoting from the prophetic hope for a new temple (=Isa 56), and then condemns the Jerusalem temple citing Jeremiah's announcement of the coming destruction of the temple in his day (Jer 7:11). What happened to the original temple of Solomon, is about to happen again to the Herodian temple--it will be left in ruins. Jesus seems to be saying, "You know that new temple you've read about? Well, this temple--the temple of Herod--won't be it."

Although I don't have the space to develop this here, for the Synoptic Gospels, the new temple seems to be identified with Christ and the Church. This is most clearly seen in Jesus' quotation of Psalm 118--"the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone". The language most likely has "temple building" in view. In short, Christ is presented as the cornerstone of the new temple, i.e., the church. For more on that, see my article, "The New Temple, the New Priesthood, and the New Cult in Luke-Acts," Letter & Spirit 8: 2013): 109-14.

SECOND READING: Rom 11:13-15, 29-32
Brothers and sisters:I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealousand thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world,what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you once disobeyed Godbut have now received mercy because of their disobedience,so they have now disobeyed in order that,by virtue of the mercy shown to you,they too may now receive mercy. For God delivered all to disobedience,that he might have mercy upon all.
This passage is taken from what is arguably the most difficult section to interpret in the entire New Testament: Romans 9-11. 

Without getting into a long discussion of this passage--it's difficult for me not to--let's just say that I agree with Jason Staples' outstanding treatment [1], which makes essentially the same case Scott Hahn made in a paper presented to the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. For the gist of that argument, go here.  

Suffice it to say, the general point made in Romans 11 is that God has shown mercy to the Gentiles. 

A key line that I'd highlight here is Romans 11:14, where Paul explains that he seeks to make his own race (i.e., Israel) "jealous" by preaching the Gospel to the nations. You might be asking, What is this all about? Why is Paul trying to make his own people "jealous"?

The besetting sin of Israel in the Old Testament is nothing less than wanting to "be like the nations", something typically linked to idolatry. By bringing the Gospel to the nations and introducing them to the worship of the true God in Christ, the Lord has essentially made it safe for his people to now be "jealous" of the nations. 

"You want to be like the gentiles?," God appears to ask. "Fine," he says, "let them receive the Gospel. Now, go knock yourself out." 

God is the perfect Father. I think we who are fathers can learn some important lessons about parenting our children from this. Love to get your thoughts on that in the comment box. 

At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”He said in reply,“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.”
He said in reply,“It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.”
She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsthat fall from the table of their masters.”
Then Jesus said to her in reply,“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”
And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
Here we see the gentile mission of the church anticipated in Jesus' ministry. That Jesus is identified as "son of David" by the Canaanite woman is no coincidence. As we have explained, the Davidic covenant was, unlike the Mosaic covenant, particularly inclusive.

Under Moses, Israel was commanded to defeat the gentiles (especially "Canaanites"!) and remain essentially quarantined from their influence. The Mosaic covenant emphasizes separation from the nations.

The Davidic covenant represented a real advance beyond the nationalistic emphasis of the Mosaic covenant. Indeed, right after God establishes his covenant with David the king responds by speaking about how God has shown him a “a torah for adam”, a "law" for "humanity" (2 Sam 7:19).

Not surprisingly, then, under David and Solomon, the kingdom involved the surrounding nations acknowledging the authority of the Davidic king (2 Sam 8:11-12; 10:19; 12:30; 1 Kgs 4:20-21; 10:15). Nowhere, perhaps, is this seen more clearly than in the story of the queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, who comes to hear Solomon’s wisdom and leaves praising the God of Israel (1 Kgs 10:1-13).

If you were a gentile and you wanted to approach Jesus and ask him for a favor, appealing to his role as the Son of David would definitely make sense.

There are two difficult questions about this reading that should be addressed. 

First, Jesus insists that he was sent only to "lost sheep of the house of Israel". Did Jesus not care for the inclusion of the gentiles? Michael Bird's excellent book, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, does a fine job addressing this [3]. In short, Bird shows that there is ample evidence that Jesus envisioned the inclusion of the gentiles. Most importantly, Jesus cited passages from Isaiah (e.g., like the one in our first reading), which clearly articulated such hopes. 

So why does Jesus say he was sent only to Israel? In his commentary on Matthew, Thomas Aquinas answers this way:
Is it not written: “I have given thee to be the light of the Gentiles, that thou mayst be my salvation even to the farthest part of the earth” (Is. 49:6)? Therefore, He was sent not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

It ought to be said that He was sent to all men, but He was sent firstly to the Jews, so that He might bring the Jews to the Gentiles; “For I say that Christ Jesus was minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” (Rom. 15:8).
Second, we might ask why Jesus appears to harsh--he calls her a "dog" after all! (Actually, literally, he speaks of "little dogs" or "puppies"--yet still an insult in that ancient context.) 

The woman, of course, from the perspective of the Jewish law, would have been seen as "unclean" since she was a gentile. The language of "dog" probably relates to this status. Dogs were unclean--mostly scavengers in Jesus' day. 

However, the woman persists, humbly accepting her status. Again, to quote Aquinas' commentary on this passage:
Here the woman’s marvelous humility and wisdom are mentioned. He seemed to despise her nation, but it is a mark of her humility that she overlooks the insult that was spoken. Hence, she says, Yea, Lord. . . Similarly, the Lord had called the Jews children, but she calls them masters: hence, she says, That fall from the table of their masters. And she knew how to humbly compel the Lord in this way; it is as though she were to say, ‘I do not ask, Lord, that Thou confer so many benefits upon us as Thou didst confer upon the Jews, but only that you give to us of the crumbs’.
Thomas then cites the Vulgate of Psalm 101:18: "[The Lord] hath regard for the prayer of the humble." 

For our purposes here then let me highlight two lessons from this Gospel reading. 

First, God's mercy knows no limits. No matter who you are, God is inviting you into the kingdom. It doesn't matter what your past looks like. It doesn't matter what your status. God's mercy is to all. 

Second, humility must be our response to this mercy. We should not presume upon it. However, if we preserver in humility--recognizing our weaknesses and sins and confessing them--we will indeed eat from the master's table. 

[1] See, e.g., Exod 28:35; Num 3:6; 8:26; 18:2; Deut 10:8; 17:12; 1 Kgs 8:11; 2 Chr 5:14; Jer 33:21. For the cultic implication of šārat see BDB, 1058, which links Isa 56:7 to the idea “of foreigners admitted to priesthood”. Likewise, see G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 262 n. 29: “Is. 56:6 even says that Gentiles will ‘minister’ to the Lord in the temple as priests, which Is. 66:18–21 makes clearer.”

[2] See Dwight W. Van Winkle, “An Inclusive Authoritative Text in Exclusive Communities,” in Writing and Reading the Scroll of Isaiah (eds. C. C. Broyles and C. A. Evans; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 425.

[3] Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins ofthe Gentile Mission (Library of New Testament Studies 331; London: T&T Clark, 2007).


Susan Moore said...

Great blog, a lot to chew on, thanks Dr. Barber!

1.I’m still not sure what your thinking is on each child of God being a priest, a prayerful and repentant person (1Peter 2:9, Rev. 20:6), because we are each a vessel of clay who holds inside our vessel the Spirit of the living God, and because of that, we no longer conform to the pattern of this world but, in view of God’s mercy, are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices…(Romans 11:25-12:1-2): the capstone’s living stones who are being built into a spiritual house (1Pt.2:4-5).

2. I read your article cited in the blog. Due to my exposure to a cult as a 5 year old, I’m having difficulty understanding your use of the word ‘cult’ or ‘cultic’. Could you please elaborate on the meaning you give that word?

3. In reflecting on the events of these times as noted in the last few blogs, and also now reflecting on this blog – the violent conflicts between people groups, and the rebellion against our merciful and gracious God- the living Word that keep playing in my head, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isaiah 52:7, Romans 10:11-15): Let us never tire of doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal. 6:7-10).

Susan Moore said...

Even though school doesn’t start for a couple more weeks, I have begun to read my textbooks. Wow. Reading the textbook about how the Old Testament came to be, and its intended historical references and contexts, is like squinting at hieroglyphics; so unaccustomed I am to understanding the Bible that way.

But, nevertheless, if I am understanding what I am reading, then what we now call the OT was produced over perhaps 1300 years by various authors, who wrote what they did decades or centuries after the events they were actually writing about, histories and stories that had been passed down through the generations by oral tradition.

But then at some point (I haven’t gotten to that part yet), and by someone else, the OT was put in the order of writings that we have today; which all makes the way Jesus taught me to study the Bible even juicer. Because it is only when the writing of the Bible are put into the chronological order based on the events being written about (not based on when the writings were originally produced), that the linguistic metalanguage is revealed.

When I was miraculously healed and therefore able to join the community of believers after a 30 year absence, not one of the various Protestant denominations I came to know and love had any idea what I was talking about when I attempted to describe the linguistic metalanguage. I came to think that was because they were protesting God by rebelling against Him. So, when He led me back home to the Catholic Church last October, I concluded that the Catholics were then the ones who studied the Bible this way, and would understand what I am describing and know what it is called. Because, obviously it seems, we arranged the Bible accordingly so it would be easier to study in this linguistic way (because the patterns of His linguistic metalanguage begin in Genesis and complete in Revelation).

What are the names of the books about studying the Bible that way, what is that linguistic way called?