The Lectionary readings for For Sunday, July 14, 2019 (5th Sunday of Pentecost, Year C) are: OT - Amos 7:7–17; Psalm 82; NT - Colossians 1:1–14; Gospel - Luke 10:25–37 (biblical citations are from the NIV, unless otherwise noted)
The Amos reading begins a series of lections from the so-called "minor prophets" over the next four weeks, and then some from the "major prophets" after that. The first part of the reading is the third of four visions Amos has of God's coming judgment on Israel. Amos is resigned to the fact that Israel will not acknowledge the seriousness of their sin and repent of it and that God's judgment, therefore, will inevitably come. This is confirmed in the second half of our reading for today which records the negative reaction to Amos's preaching by the religious and civil powers (Amazaiah, priest of Bethel, and Jeroboam, king of Israel). Despite being commanded in the king's name (by Amazaiah) to stop his prophesying against the house of Israel (v.12), Amos doubles down on his prophecy and announces that Israel will go into exile and Amazaiah will die there. His call to prophesy comes directly from God, who gave him a new vocation and word for Israel from God, not from human authorities.
Psalm 82 opens with God presiding over the pagan council of the gods of Israel's surrounding neighbors – literally the text says that "God stands in the assembly of El" (v.1; NETBible). As noted in the notes to the NETBible, this text refers to the Canaanite high god El, who presided over the Canaanite divine assembly. (See Isa 14:13, where El’s assembly is called “the stars of El.”) So in this psalm we are drawn into the worldview of the ancient Near East, which is markedly different from the way we imagine ourselves and the world around us since the Enlightenment. The NETBible further notes that, "In the Ugaritic myths the phrase ʿdt ʾilm refers to the 'assembly of the gods,' who congregate in King Kirtu’s house, where Baal asks El to bless Kirtu's house (see G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends, 91)." So, "If the Canaanite divine assembly is referred to here in Ps 82:1, then the psalm must be understood as a bold polemic against Canaanite religion." In this text, then, the God of Israel invades El's assembly, denounces its gods as failing to uphold justice – and worse, perpetrating injustice – and pronounces judgment on them. The psalmist, then, asserts that all the Canaanite gods are false gods (in the sense that they are not ultimate and do not deserve honor, praise, or worship) and who exploit the weak and foster unjust relationships and engender oppressive social systems. God calls on them instead to "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the needy and deliver them from the wicked" (vv. 3-4). In addition to being morally inferior to the God of Israel, the gods are also ontologically inferior, as they all "will die like mere men" (v. 7).
The Gospel reading contains what often is referred to as the parable of “The Good Samaritan,” which I prefer to call the parable of The Man Who Fell Among Thieves. What often is overlooked in treating this story is that this parable is set in the context of a question. Jesus tells this story in response to an evasive question of an “expert in the law.” Jesus, responding to a challenge from the lawyer, has just told him that to inherit eternal life he must love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and love his neighbor as himself. The legal expert, wanting to justify himself, so the text reads, asks Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10.29). The parable of The Man Who Fell Among Thieves, then, is an extended response to this question. But, more importantly, it is designed to undercut the evasion of the core issue by the lawyer. It is utterly significant, as I read it, that Jesus ends the parable by turning the tables on the lawyer, putting a question back to him: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (36). In other words, Jesus (performatively) is saying to the lawyer: the question – which gets to the heart of the issue of the law, which gets at the core concern of salvation, which positions one so that one can actually receive eternal life – is not who is my neighbor, but to whom do I show myself to be a neighbour! The layers of meaning to the parable, however, is potentially inexhaustible – precisely because of its form as parable. And one particularly telling reading points to Christ as Samaritan, the rejected outsider to whom we owe everything.
The NT reading brings us to the first of several readings from Colossians over the next few weeks, and I will focus more on this text than the others and, hopefully, will be focusing my sermons in this direction over the coming weeks. I will be paying especially attention to Keesmaat and Walsh's reading of this letter in Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP, 2004 – hereafter referred to as CR) – which they call an " anti-commentary" (because it doesn't limit itself to the conventions of the commentary genre, they ask different questions than commentaries typically do, and they aren’t writing for professional religious people). I want to explore their idea that "Colossians is a subversive tract for subversive living" (CR 9). They're interested in reading Colossians for its relevance for us today; to make sense of it today in such a way to allow it to make sense of us today. They “seek to hear Colossians in our cultural context” (CR 8). Colossians is a particularly apt text for us today, they believe, because, like us, the Colossians lived in “a time of Empire” (CR 38) and Paul writes this letter to the beleaguered Christian community at Colossae to encourage them in their resistance to Empire. As such, it provides resources for us to live Christian lives in a “postmodern culture” such as ours, which is characterized predominantly by “Globalization.” By globalization they do not mean to refer just to “an aggressive stage in the history of capitalism,” but are thinking of it in terms of a “religious movement” in which progress is its founding myth, unlimited economic growth is its foundational faith, shopping is its act of worship, and its overriding ethos is consumerism (CR 30). This is the nature of Empire in our times and this Empire is“totalizing”: it is “built on systemic centralizations of power and secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control." For us, this Empire of Globalization is wrapped in a postmodern patina that understands humans primarily “as units of consumption for whom choice is the defining characteristic” (CR 32).
Paul opens the letter with a typical greeting that establishes his credentials as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He then launches (in vv. 3-8, which, in Greek, is one, long sentence) into a beautiful statement of thanksgiving for the Colossians that emphasizes the fruit of the gospel in the Colossian community – "the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for [them] in heaven" (Col 1.5). Paul then morphs this into a prayer for the Colossians (v.9) that God would “fill [them] with the knowledge of his will though all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” The key to all this is, as Paul describes in vv. 13-14, that God has acted for them in Jesus Christ: “[God the Father] has rescued us from the dominion [or power] of darkness and brought us into [literally: transferred us to] the kingdom of the Son he loves,” which is, Paul says, “the kingdom of light” (v. 12), “in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This cosmic transfer – from one kingdom to another, one set of allegiances to another, from being subjects to one set of powers to a new sovereign – has qualified the Colossians to be inheritors of all the benefits and rights of members of that kingdom, including “being strengthened with all power.” In a targum on this text, so that it speaks directly to our situation, Keesmaat and Walsh describe what Paul is saying as something like this:
“You see friends, because we are not subservient to the empire but subjects of this kingdom of God’s beloved Son, we have the audacity to say to the darkness, ‘We beg to differ!’ We will not be a pawn to the darkness any longer, because we owe him no allegiance, and by God’s grace, through our redemption and forgiveness, our imaginations have been set free” (CR 40-41).
The insidious thing about Empire is, as we have noted, that it is “totalizing,” by definition (CR 30). That is, it dominates and determines every aspect of human life of those within it. Literally, it makes us subjects; we are subjected, made subservient to, and given identity by, the dominion of Empire. This feature of Empire, in my opinion, is what lends it to ideology (I would say, in fact, that Empire depends on the exploitation of ideology) – which, though much more complex than this, is always an oversimplification of the world in order to organize people around a course of action to be followed or way of life to be lived. Ideologies, in other words, define for us our horizons and tell us – in shorthand – who we are, where we are, what the problem is, and what we should do about it. In this sense, Empire dominates our imaginations. And what Paul is saying to the community of Christians in Colossae, according to Keesmaat and Walsh, is that their trust in the Gospel of Jesus Messiah has freed them to imagine the world in completely different terms. This setting free of our imaginations, this freedom from having our relationships broken and bent by the powers that shape us, is what Paul has in mind when he uses the language of “knowledge,” “spiritual wisdom,” and “understanding” (v.9) in his prayer for the Colossians. We must read, then, the opening prayer of Colossians 1.3-8 “as a prayer that the Colossian community will have a knowledge that will transform their community” (CR 48).