Saturday, November 10, 2007

Proper 27, Year C (RCL) notes / reflections

[Haggai 1:15:b-2:9]
[2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17]
[Luke 20:27-38]


Haggai 1:15:b-2:9

Take courage; for I am with you.

Haggai, like Zechariah, was a post-exilic prophet who encouraged Israelites who returned from Exile in Babylon to resettle the land and rebuild the temple. After Cyrus the Persion conquered Babylon in 539, he instituted a policy of allowing subject peoples to return to their homelands and resettle. After nearly 70 years of exile, the Israelites were allowed to return home in 538. In those 70 years, tales and stories of the former splendor of the Temple would have grown to almost mythic proportions, and Israel would have been remembered as the legendary promised land, rich with milk and honey.

The situation greeting the returning exiles was far from glorious, however, and enthusiasm quickly waned. Many Jews remained behind in Babylon, where they had lives and families. Those returning faced a Jerusalem in ruins, its walls and Temple destroyed. After an initial push to rebuild the Temple, the effort fizzled out, and there was a lapse of almost 20 years. Only the foundation of the Second Temple had been laid. Hostility from those surrounding peoples, and those who had remained on the land, seems to have plagued the returning exiles, and severe drought caused food shortages.

Given this context, Haggai's opening words in today's reading may seem rather odd. In what is essentially a message of encouragement, he begins by bluntly naming the frustration and dissatisfaction facing the returning Exiles.
"Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?"

This seems too blunt, too curt; almost cruel. It's a real downer. But Haggai is only telling the truth, naming what everyone is already thinking. It cuts through denial or a "stiff upper lip," forcing the listener to admit to their feelings of despair or disappointment.

(By the way, it's significant that he addresses the Persian-appointed governor, the High Priest, and the "remnant of the people"/"people of the land" with this message. It shows that all levels of society are feeling this despair and sense of failure. Not only the poor, but those in positions of leadership feel like things are hopeless or off track.)

Only once their sense of fear and desolation is admitted, faced head-on, can they hear the message of hope Haggai offers. Three times, "take courage" is repeated, like a refrain or a mantra:
"Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, say the LORD."

And why are they to "take courage," in the face of seeming failure? It is because "I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts." God has not abandoned the people. The current bleak situation does not mean that God's favor or presence is no longer with them. "My spirit abides with you; do not fear."

Although the Temple, the symbol of God among God's people, is not yet rebuilt, the LORD is with them even now. Armed with this reassurance, Haggai can exhort the people: "Work, for I am with you." Keep up the effort to rebuild the Temple. Although the Temple is not yet rebuilt, the whole earth, all the gold and silver and riches of the whole earth, belong to God. God's presence can be assured even before the symbolic seat of the faith is reestablished.

In the face of ruin, desolation, and hopelessness, Haggai offers a word of hope and assurance. In the worst of times, it seems that not only has the world turned against us; it seems that God too has abandoned us. Not so, says the Lord. Take courage, and believe that I am with you even in the worst of times; work, even when it seems against common sense, for restoration. I am not only with us in your efforts, but at work myself for the realization of restoration.


2 Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17

Stand firm and hold fast.

The situation underlying this passage from 2 Thessalonians is somewhat unclear, but implied is some sort of threat to the community. Something ominous is going on: either persecutions, or fears about the authorities (notice references to "the rebellion" and "the lawless one"), and there are false epistles floating around "as though from us." We know the Thessalonian Christians were also concerned when the coming of Christ seemed delayed, and worried about what would happen to those who died before his coming.

In the letter, Paul (or perhaps a disciple of Paul writing in his tradition) warns the Church in Thessalonica not to be "quickly shaken in mind or alarmed" at these upheavals.

In the face of such fearful goings-on, the author offers Godly comfort: "God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit." The listeners are marked for salvation, despite whatever problems besieged them. Armed with this reassurance, Paul can command them:
"Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter."

They are to cling fast to the content of the faith, not swerving due to new teachings or threat of persecution.

"Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word."

What emphasis on comfort and assurance! And yet the overall tone is not only pastoral, but empowering: "Eternal comfort and good hope" leads to present comfort-- ("comfort your hearts") that allows the saints to "strengthen them in every good work and word." Paul offers comfort and assurance so that the saints may not be shaken from the good path, from their good work.

No ominous rumblings, no threat of persecution, no fears of death or concerns about the afterlife, no apocalyptic "lawless one... who declares himself to be God" can separate the saints from the presence of their God. Their comfort is current, and it is eternal. Therefore, they can be strengthened in every good work, now and always.


Luke 20:27-38

The Sadducees had all sorts of savvy arguments to show the foolishness of belief in the resurrection. One rather amusing example uses on Jewish purity codes to propose a conundrum: After the bodily resurrection, would those raised have to purify themselves after having come into contact with a corpse? But they themselves were the corpse! How could they ever be ritually clean again? But what kind of Godly resurrection would it be, to never be clean?

In this Gospel passage, the Sadducees again use rather sly arguments to try to expose hope in the resurrection as foolish. As in the example above, they appeal to Jewish law, here as handed down by Moses, to propose a conundrum or paradox that the resurrection presents: Whose wife would the woman be in the afterlife, "for the seven [brothers] had married her?"

Notice that the word "dies/died" occurs 4 times in their question, and the "no children/childless" occurs 3 times. Death, family, and lineage are the driving semantic motifs of their question.

Let's also notice their tone of voice. This question narrates seven brothers passing a wife down the family line like players passing a football-- then dying like wooden cutouts. It is absurd. The tone is mocking, sly, and sarcastic. It is essentially making fun of Jesus, or anyone, for believing in the resurrection. It is making fun of hope.

In response to their wry, sarcastic, question, Jesus is direct, blunt even. He says that marriage is a "this life" thing; it is of this world, this life, and the question of progeny to carry on the family name is the same. In the resurrection, such concerns will no longer be so all-consuming; for they will be "like angels, and are children of God."

The two primary semantic concerns of the Sadducees question, death and children, are both addressed.

1) Opposing their fixation on "death," Jesus affirms, "Indeed, they cannot die anymore," "He is God not of the dead, but of the living." The God of Israel is no Egyptian God of death, nor a Greek God like Hades, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and "to him, all of them are alive."

2) Against the Sadducees fixation on progeny and children, Jesus affirms that those resurrection are "children of God," and "children of the resurrection." The human concern for preserving a line no longer matters in the resurrection, for these children cannot die, and are all children of God. Our primary relationship in the afterlife, then, will not be between us and our former spouses or earthly children -- although we will be fellow-saints and children of God amongst them -- but between us and God.

To a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek yarn about seven dying brothers and the hand-me-down wife, Jesus flatly reaffirms the truth of the resurrection. Jesus has no patience for those who mock hope, especially in ways that are meant to show their own cleverness. In other Gospels' versions of this tale, he mocks them right back, "Is it not because you do not know the scriptures that you say this?" and "You are quite wrong."

Jesus' tone and affirmation encourage us to ignore all those sophisticated voices of doubt or sarcasm which denigrate our faith, or would put us down for hoping in the future. True discussion is one thing; mockery is another. The world is full of those sly, wry, witty commentators who would reduce hope to naivete, religious faith to a droll joke.

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