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Monday, November 7, 2011

Contradictions: Year A, Ordinary 33

This Week's Lectionary Texts

This Week's Reflection
"What's the meaning of life?," she asked me, as we sat eating our lunch. "That is what I struggle with. I know that God exists. I know that God loves me, but what is the purpose of all the [bad stuff] in the world?" She went on to talk about the contradictions in life that she experiences, contradictions between the all-loving and wonderful God and this God who allows good people to suffer again and again and again. She mentioned the contradictions of the same that are found in the Holy Scriptures. And, I immediately thought of the lectionary texts for this week.

Judges 4 in which the writer says, "So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan." The Psalmist who cries out, "Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud." and "For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed." I thought about the prophet in Zephaniah 1 writing, "That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness." I thought of these verses listed along side 1 Thessalonians, "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ," and Matthew 25 ending the parable with "As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

I thought about these verses and the ways in which we humans are so incredibly uncomfortable with contradiction. I should clarify because I imagine this is not necessarily common to all humans, but common to we westerners. Eastern religions seem perfectly comfortable with the fact that contradiction exists in this world. My friend mentioned above and myself, though, not so much.

I've written in this blog about the Matthew text once before. This parable was not the parable from the lectionary that week, but I used it to make a point. The point was about how we should ask ourselves what it would mean for us if it is not a parable about preparing ourselves for eternity, but instead a parable about the ways in which those in power abuse the powerless. I owe this thinking to Dr. Aliou Niang, former professor at Memphis Theological Seminary and current professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I'll recap.

Starting in verse 24, the slave says to the lord, "Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." This occurs in the gospel just before the bit about judgement and how those being judged will be told, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink." You know the rest . . . Keep that in your mind.

Presumably, if we are to read this parable the way that the Harper Collins Study Bible would have us read it, we are to believe that the master in the parable is God, well, Jesus. We are those given the talents (that is money to keep) and some of us do well with those talents and others do nothing with them. Those of us that do nothing will be thrown into the outer darkness. The folks who created the lectionary must have interpreted this text in this way when we compare it with the Hebrew passages and Epistle they chose to accompany it. The theme seems to be about being prepared because we do not know the hour or the day.  And, if we are not ready, we will find ourselves gettin' a hurtin'.

Dr. Niang's interpretation, from the viewpoint of a man raised in an African nation, was that we have attributed words to Jesus that are actually the words of the master within the story that Jesus is telling. In a time when those with power and money used that to take advantage of those without (oh, isn't it wonderful that times have changed?) Jesus is telling a story about a man with little power standing up to the powerful and being willing to risk his life to do it. Did you keep in mind the whole "I was hungry and you gave me food" thing? Looking at the context of the parable supports these ideas. Are we truly supposed to believe that Jesus would tell us a story that has "the God character" referred to as "a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow"? Even the harshness found in the Hebrew texts for this week do not include an image of God as a thief! It is as if Jesus says, "Listen, the way of the world is harsh and ugly and you should stand up to it. It will be hard, but it will be right."

It feels contradictory in a world that promises us new, easy, and feel-good. And, I'm not real keen on the image of God "selling Israelites into the hands of a king." Be ready. I get that. But, am I really supposed to stand up and preach to the congregation that if they are not ready, then they are going to burn for it? I know many preachers will preach that very thing. And, for many reasons, I'm just not willing to do it. I'd rather sit with the contradictions a while. I'd rather remind folks that we can't possibly understand it all. I like Dr. Niang's interpretation of the Matthew text. In fact, I find it to be much more powerful than "Be good. Do good. And, then you'll have good." But, I don't know that it covers the whole truth either. I'm not willing to simply ignore Zephaniah's warnings. Nor am I willing ignore Paul's reminder that God does not destine us for wrath.

We can attempt to simplify the works of God all we want. And, God's works and ways and Word will continue to baffle us - if we have our eyes open and our listening ears on, that is. What's the meaning of this life? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that it is an unanswerable question.