Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, June 12, 2016
The second king of ancient Israel, David, committed adultery, deceit and murder. His court prophet Nathan chastises the king by recounting God's favors, then naming David's sins. Nathan pronounces condemnation, then David repents.
Some early Christians insisted that all Christians had to keep the law of Moses. Saint Paul argued that we are justified, that is, made right with God, because of the self-gift of Christ, not by keeping the law.
A leading Jew invited Jesus to dine with him, but withheld several of the expected courtesies. A woman known as a sinner supplies the generosities. Jesus contrasts the two in his teaching about forgiveness.
Our Liturgical Setting: We resume liturgical year C's journey through Saint Luke's gospel. Today's gospel is a well-known story about forgiveness, so the lectionary chooses a first reading with a similar theme.
The Historical Situation: So just how serious is the forgiveness in the first reading? The literary context is late Israel's need to retell its story of the cycle of fidelity to God, prosperity, infidelity, disaster, repentance, forgiveness, fidelity, prosperity, ... The vignette from history is a powerful one: the reign of the early king David. Things were so good under David, or at least remembered as being so good, that David was for ever after the model of leadership in Israel. Before Jesus, when Israel's fortunes were much worse, the hoped-for messiah ("anointed one," that is, king), who would restore the nation's fortunes, was modeled only on David.
Several aspects of the David story, though, show that God was the real sovereign controller of national affairs. First is how unlikely a candidate for king was David. He was a youth, and a shepherd, the least of his brethren, when the prophet/judge Samuel secretly anoints him. Thus his reign began in secret, for Saul was still the visible king. Another facet of David's story that highlights the frailty of human kingship is the context of today's reading. David lusted after the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of David's officer, Uriah the Hittite. While Uriah is on a military campaign for David, the king sleeps with the soldier's wife and impregnates her. David summons Uriah home and encourages him to sleep with his wife, to disguise the true paternity of Bathsheba's child. Uriah declines, out of loyalty to his troops, who are still fighting, and to the Ark of the Covenant, which is currently in enemy hands. David abuses his royal power even further, and arranges for Uriah to be exposed, unprotected, in battle. Uriah dies, and David takes his widow into his house, as one of his wives. Second Samuel 11:27 says tersely, "But what David had done displeased the Lord."
Proclaiming It: That's what's behind the few verses you are to proclaim. Nathan is a court prophet who cleverly tells David a story about a rich man who steals a poor man's only lamb. When David demands that the wicked man be brought to him for justice, Nathan says "That man is you!" Today's lectionary selection is part of Nathan's fiery condemnation of King David's wickedness.
So make Nathan sound outraged. He first ticks off God's favors to the ungrateful David:
Curious about verses 11 & 12, omitted by the lectionary? They threaten David with an unspeakably terrible retribution for his secret appropriation of another man's wife. David's own wives will be appropriated by others in public. It's a passage too indelicate for liturgical proclamation. But that threat of humiliation speaks volumes. In Middle Eastern society, with its codes of honor (or codes of shame) nothing would humiliate a man more. The verses might not belong in your verbal proclamation, but let it inform the way you condemn David's sin in proclaiming the prior verses.
The Historical and Theological Background: The earliest Christians believed they were believing in the utltimate fulfillment of Judaism. It was a big shock when Gentiles, who had had little taste for things Jewish, joined them as believers in Jesus. It was none too comfortable for the Gentile Christians, either. Working out how to integrate these groups, long antagonists, was the early church's great controversy.
After Paul had made converts among Gentiles in Galatia, Christians of Jewish origin came there, questioned Paul's standing as an apostle, and told the Gentile Christians that the gospel required that they observe Jewish law and religious practice. The letter to the Galatians is Paul's vigorous (to put it mildly) corrective to this error:
This reference to the cross is part of the kernel of Paul's argument: That what God wrought for us in Christ is so thorough that there's no need for old observances. Faith is accepting that God wants to give us what we couldn't earn by legal observance. Living in the flesh, here, means trying to justify oneself before God by keeping laws. Living in the spirit is living by the faith described above.
That's why Paul can say in today's passage that no one is justified (made right with God, "rightwised") by keeping the law.
Proclaiming It: As often in Paul, this passage is about contrasts between two ways of life. These two have become, for Paul, opposites. You can beat your brains out trying to justify yourself before God by keeping laws, or you can accept the gracious (undeserved) gift of justification in Christ, and get on with life in Christ. These are starkly different to Paul, and you should make them sound so in your proclamation.
Square Leon-Serpollet, Paris (detail), watercolor on paper, 2016, by the American artist Martha Kelly, used with permission. See the complete work here (scroll to mid-page), and visit her website here. This image complements the one gracing last week's Lector's Notes, where I wrote a little more about this prolific artist.
Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.
This page updated May 16, 2016