Counter the Culture: Palm Sunday 2011

Romans 12; Matthew 10:37-11:1

The Elves won’t get around to considering specific verses from Romans 12 until late summer (propers 16 and 17), and then they are paired with Matthew 16: 13-28 (considered in last week’s blog, along with Philemon and Romans 6.  So far as scholarship has been able to determine, Paul either did not know about the sayings of Jesus that were orally preserved by the Q people, or if he did, he did not quote them directly.  Paul was the contemporary of Jesus and the first followers who mourned his death and did their best to make sense of it.  The gospel writers presented their interpretations 20, 50, possibly as long as 125 years after Paul (according to some scholars concerning Luke/Acts and John).  When Paul’s pastoral letters are considered first, what the gospel writers created may be heard as an echo of Paul’s insight into an oral tradition.

What Paul is talking about in 12:1-8 has traditionally been understood to be “sacrifice.”  He appeals to his Roman community to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  These words have meant martyrdom – a perfect topic for the traditional fasting and sacrifice of the Lenten season.  They have conjured images of saints burning at the stake, and missionaries slaughtered in the wilderness.  The NRSV goes on with the all too familiar words: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

“Living sacrifice,” connotes an impossible commitment to self-destruction.  But in the Scholars Version of Romans 12 Paul says, “I appeal to you, friends, as recipients of the wondrous mercy of God, to dedicate every fiber of your being to a life that is consecrated and pleasing to God, which is what enlightened worship ought to be.”  This follows, of course, Paul’s transformational declaration in 8:39: “I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life . . . that can separate us from the love of God that has been made known to us through the Anointed Jesus, our lord.”  The “mercy of God” is a free gift.  We don’t have to do anything to receive it.  Usually this is understood as “grace” – which is often interpreted to mean a “get out of jail free card.”  But Paul is talking about a commitment to a transformed life.  He says, “Don’t accept the life of this age as your model, but let yourselves be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind, so that you can discern what is consistent with God’s purposes – what is good, worthwhile, and completely genuine.”

The “true mind” is the “mind of the Anointed, Jesus,” which gives access to God’s imperial rule, not Ceasar’s (or Moses’) law.  But we don’t know that unless we have considered Paul’s argument, which begins with 1 Thessalonians, progresses through Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philemon, and finally Romans.

Paul’s words are meant to encourage subversion, the same kind of subversion that Moses’ mother set in motion with her little reed basket.  Growing up in the midst of imperial privilege was a tiny spark of God’s justice-compassion, a subtle and unsuspected link to Abraham’s Covenant.  These biblical links in the great chain that is the story of the Jewish people (and by adoption, followers of Jesus’s way as well) are all individuals.  The Apostle Paul is calling for a collective shift in consciousness.  “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” from Living Sacrifice:  Year A Proper 16.

The Scholars Version of Romans 12:9-21 removes the familiar, pietistic gloss from the NRSV, and provides what might be a link to Jesus’ own words, as later presented in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31-46.

. . . Take hospitality seriously.  Ask for God’s blessing on those who harass you; ask for God’s blessing, not God’s curse on them.  Celebrate with those who have something to be happy about; commiserate with those who are in sorrow.  Treat one another as equals.  Don’t entertain notions of your superiority; on the contrary, associate with ordinary people.  Don’t become wise in your own eyes.  Don’t repay anyone who has injured you by injuring them; instead, focus on what is honorable in the eyes of all people.  Don’t try to retaliate on your own, dear friends, but leave that to God’s just indignation, because scripture says, “Justice is my business; I will put things right,” says the Lord.  But (so far as you are concerned) as scripture says, “if your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; because if you do this, you will pile red hot coals [of shame] on his head.”  So don’t let yourselves be defeated by what is evil, but defeat what is evil with what is good.  SV p. 239.

In 10:32 to 11:1, Matthew’s Jesus says family ties and loyalty are to be secondary to taking up a cross and following him.  But the imagery of taking up one’s cross is identified with an exclusive Christianity, that has changed the meaning from radical, non-violent action for distributive justice to self-righteous martyrdom on behalf of religious ideology.  Preachers agonize over the “harshness” of the directive to “hate” your mother, father, sister, brother, even life itself.  How could Jesus ever have said such a thing?  But how could Jesus not have said it?  Conditions for life in the 1st century under Roman rule could hardly be made better by abiding by the social or religious conventions.

The same is true in the 21st century.  Social and religious convention allows for ignoring conditions that hardly contribute to sustainable life on the planet.  Whether we consider social and economic injustice or the disasters that are the consequence of decisions that fly in the face of scientifically proven danger, the usual rules and regulations for moral or economic life provide either a false sense of security and well-being or a fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable.  No matter where these sayings appear – whether in the synoptic gospels or Thomas (or John, in the case of losing your life to find it) – they insist that in order to follow Jesus, or to be a disciple, a radical reversal of lifestyle and values is either required or assumed to be the result.

So the marks of a true Christian, as spelled out in Romans 12:9-21 are about as far from conventional piety as one can get.  Instead of unquestioning compliance with the law, Paul is saying, pick your fights with deliberation.  Instead of lashing out in search of revenge, leave the consequences of evil action to take their own course, and practice that non-violent resistance that “will heap burning coals on their heads.” . . . Matthew’s Jesus calls for all who would be followers to radically abandon self-interest. . . . Taking up your cross is not the struggle to stop smoking, give up chocolate, or tolerate your pushy sister–in-law.  It is a call to participate in the ongoing program of restoring God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion.  From Call and Response: Year A Proper 17.

Followers are to be welcomed with the same kind of hospitality as an emissary of Rome, or a prophet.  If the one welcomed is a child and follower of Jesus, then the host will be rewarded.  Matthew’s Jesus does not specify the kind of reward.  The implication from the point of view of 21st century piety is that the reward is a seat on the right hand of God at the last days.  From Matthew’s point of view, followers of Jesus are the only ones who will have hospitality extended to them.  But Paul, possibly remembering the original teachings of Jesus, is much more inclusive.  Because of God’s radical acceptance of a condemned and executed criminal as his anointed representative, the reward – the free gift of adoption into the family of God – has already been extended to anyone who trusts God.  Therefore, “Take hospitality seriously,” says Paul (12:13, SV); or, as the familiar NRSV puts it, “extend hospitality to strangers.”

Such hospitality has nothing to do with a hotel concierge who knows where to find whatever you might want in the middle of the night.  Such hospitality goes far beyond hosting a “wine and cheese” for prospective church members.  This is at once a radical act, demanded by God on pain of destruction (Genesis 19:1-29), and the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 10:19).  Hospitality extends to the stranger and sojourner, to the slave, to the one who is indebted to you.  The sabbath rest, the sabbatical year, and the jubilee cannot be denied to those who are caught in the normal systems of injustice that arise wherever humanity attempts to organize a civilization. To take hospitality seriously is to radically abandon self-interest; to see no difference between host and guest, where the roles of each are like pitchers of water that pour from one into the other.

The counter-cultural message is well hidden by the writer of Matthew, but the radical hospitality is still there: “The one who accepts you accepts me,” Jesus says, “and the one who accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”

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