That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

Category: Writings

Exegeting the Hexateuch (Gesundheit!)

The great commentator and Biblical scholar Gerhard von Rad wrote the following words at the end of the Introduction to his commentary on Genesis [emphases added]:

Franz Rosenzweig once remarked wittily that the sign “R” (for the redactor of the Hexateuch documents, so lowly esteemed in Protestant research) should be interpreted as Rabbenu, “our master,” because basically we are dependent only on him, on his great work of compilation and his theology, and we receive the Hexateuch at all only from his hands. From the standpoint of Judaism, that is consistent. But for us, in respect to hermeneutics, even the redactor is not “our master.” We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ, and therefore all exegesis of the Old Testament depends on whom one thinks Jesus Christ to be. If one sees in him the bringer of a new religion, then one will consistently examine the chief figures of the patriarchal narratives for their inward religious disposition and by, say, drawing religious “pictures from life” will bring into the foreground what comes close to Christianity or even corresponds with it. But this “pious” view is unsatisfactory because the principal subject of the account in the Genesis story is not the religious characteristics of the patriarchs at all. Any mention of them is almost an aside. The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh’s guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. In all the variety of the story, can we perhaps recognize some things that are typical of the action of God towards men? Then we must go on to raise the chief question: can we not recognize a common link even between the revelation of God in the old covenant and that in the new, a “type”? The patriarchal narratives include experiences which Israel had of a God who revealed himself and at the same time on occasions hid himself more deeply. In this very respect we can see a continuity between the Old Testament and the New. In the patriarchal narratives, which know so well how God can conceal himself, we see a revelation of God which precedes his manifestation in Jesus Christ. What we are told here of the trials of a God who hides himself and whose promise is delayed, and yet of his comfort and support, can readily be read into God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.

A New Call

Yesterday, the news went out to Christ Church Greenwich that I have accepted a call to serve as Canon for Adult Christian Formation at Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. My last Sunday in Greenwich will be June 15, and I will take up my new duties in Columbia the following week.

This is profoundly bittersweet news. Debby and I are so excited by this new opportunity, but are so sorry to leave the place that has become our home. We have been blessed beyond telling by our three years in Greenwich. We leave behind many treasured friends, and carry with us many cherished memories. Our daughter took her first steps here. I was ordained a priest here at Christ Church (on Debby’s birthday, no less!). Our son was born in Greenwich Hospital this winter, and was baptized at Christ Church just a few weeks ago. And so, at our leave taking, we are overwhelmed by an enormous sense of gratitude to this parish and this community for all that you have been and will be to us.

My priesthood will forever bear the imprint of our time here. Indeed, it was the opportunity to explore and develop my passion for teaching and Christian formation at Christ Church that has prepared me for the work I am now called to do at Trinity. No one element of my life as a priest thus far has been so thrilling, challenging, and satisfying as the opportunity to study God’s Word with so many wonderful companions. Over the last two years, it has been my great privilege to study the entire New Testament (with the exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, though that omission was not by design!) with over sixty-five parishioners and friends of Christ Church. I am grateful to those who made it to only one session, and I am grateful to those who have come week in and week out, growing in the knowledge and the love of Holy Scripture and one another through our weekly gatherings. You have continually renewed and strengthened my love for the Bible, and for the Incarnate Word, Jesus our Lord, who manifests himself in and through the written Word. In your company, God has been gracious to show me, again and again, that his Word is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.”

This gift–the gift of God’s powerful Word shared in loving community–energizes and excites me for what will come next. I am convinced that the work of Christian formation is the critical task facing the Church today. We can no longer rely on a kind of residual cultural Christianity to form our people through spiritual osmosis. (Whether this approach ever really worked is open to debate. The fact that it is no longer viable is beyond dispute.) Rather, in this age we must be deliberate and bold: continually holding before the eyes of the Church the earth-shaking announcement of Christ’s Cross, engaging with the Holy Scriptures, living and breathing the worship of God, and allowing ourselves to be impelled outward, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, to serve God’s beautiful, broken world. We must find new ways to engage the gifts of all the baptized, “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, and for building up the whole Body of Christ.”

But most importantly, we must understand that our strength alone shall never accomplish these tasks. Christian formation is not the work of a priest, a parish, or even the whole Church universal. It is the work of the Holy Spirit through priests, parishes, all God’s people, and Christ’s Holy Church throughout the world. So it is that as I look to undertake the work of Christian formation in a new way, my constant prayer for myself and my colleagues is for the grace of God’s mighty Spirit, that we might be drawn into the work that the Lord is accomplishing already, and that we might be faithful stewards of the gifts he so abundantly pours out upon us.

Grateful for those gifts made manifest in our lives over the last three years and eager for the good work that lies ahead, our prayer for our friends in Greenwich and our new friends in Columbia is Paul’s prayer for his beloved Philippians: “that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, that ye may approve things that are excellent, that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”

“He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” AMEN.

“It’s just not fair!”

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ 

 –Matthew 20:1-16

“It’s just not fair.” That phrase rises from playgrounds and penthouses; from nursery schools and national capitals; from classrooms and boardrooms and everywhere in between. Whether spoken with a child’s sense of outrage and astonishment or with a worldly-wise, done-it-all-seen-it-all sense of sorrow and weariness, “It’s just not fair” is less a complaint and more a statement of fact common to all humankind.

But if it’s a fact common to all humankind, yet it is not common to all people all the time. The clearly culpable criminal who gets off on a technicality doesn’t stand in the courtroom and shout, “It’s not fair!” The obviously corrupt politician whose comeuppance is postponed by a national crisis doesn’t call a press conference to announce, “It’s not fair!” The schoolyard bully who slyly provokes his victim into rule-breaking retaliation doesn’t stop the punishing teacher and protest, “It’s not fair!”

No, that great expression of grievance and frustration is voiced, not by those who benefit from unfairness but by those who suffer from it. “It’s just not fair,” says the old man defrauded out of his pension by a CEO floating away from a corporation’s wreckage on a golden parachute. “It’s just not fair,” weeps the young woman victimized by sexual assault when her college community rallies to defend her accused attacker. “It’s just not fair,” cries the child who finds his world utterly overturned by his parents’ bitter divorce.

So it is in today’s story. The people who are paid a day’s wage for an hour’s work aren’t the ones who cry out “It’s not fair!” Rather, it’s those who have borne the heat of the day; those who have labored hardest; those who have worked the longest and done their time. When they see they get no more than the eleventh-hour workers, they grumble against the landowner: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us. It’s just not fair!”

We can sympathize with their frustration. We know what it is to be among the victims of unfairness. But what happens when we find we’ve drawn the lines wrong? What happens when we recognize that we are not, in fact, always victims but are sometimes—perhaps even frequently—victimizers? What happens when it turns out that we—in spite of our excellent credentials, our impeccable manners, our generous giving, and our devoted service—are the eleventh-hour workers? What if we are not actually the good guys by God’s measure, but are counted instead with the transgressors, the slips-ups, the failures and the faulty?

It is there that we find the great Good News of God’s unfairness. Not the unfairness of this warped, wicked, unjust old world, but the unfairness described in our Gospel reading: the astonishing unfairness of God’s grace. It is an unfairness rooted, not in the actions of victimizers or the wails of victims, but in God’s gift of himself to an unworthy race. It is an unfairness found, not in the exploiting strength of some and the wounded weakness of others, but in the amazing paradox of a mighty God who empties himself, and takes the form of a slave, and dies a death of shame—for us all.

In the final days of this holy season of Lent, may you be overwhelmed by the unfairness of what God in Christ has done. It may not be fair, O victimizer, but God has given you time to repent. It may not be fair, O victim, but God has given you grace to forgive. It may not be fair, O weary world, but God has drawn you to himself. So yield up your sufferings and turn from your sins. Then join the anthem that the forgiven and the free sing with grateful tears from the foot of Christ’s Cross: “It’s just not fair! Thanks be to God!”

“For mortals it is impossible…”

Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

 –Matthew 19:16-26

The first thing we must understand is what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say “For mortals it is difficult.” He doesn’t say, “For mortals it is really, really hard.” He doesn’t even say, “For mortals it will require enormous displays of humility and devotion—piety and purpose.” No, when the disciples marvel and wonder and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” he looks right at them and answers, “For mortals it is impossible.”

The second thing we must understand is what Jesus’ disciples are asking. Theirs is a reasonable question. Isn’t a wealthy person placed in a uniquely advantageous position for pursuing the spiritual life? Isn’t a rich man a man blessed with leisure for prayer and study, means for giving alms and aiding the poor, and power and status within his community to “do justice and love kindness”? If someone with all this going for him can’t get through the pearly gates, then who can?

The third thing we must understand is what Jesus is talking about. His statement is not about rich people getting into heaven. (Or rather, not getting into heaven.) The “Kingdom of God” of which Jesus speaks means as much in the here-and-now as it does in the hereafter. Jesus tells his disciples that wealth and all its trappings pose a spiritual hazard in this life, as well as in the life of the world to come. Wealth weds us to the status quo. Wealth aligns our interests and our hearts with a world that has grown old and corrupt and is passing away. Wealth can leave us longing for the fleeting dreams of the fleeing darkness, unwilling and afraid to turn our faces to the rising sun of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The fourth thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are for us too. Is your plan to buy your way into God’s good graces by means of your great wealth—to endow and finance and pledge and purchase your passage to eternal life? Jesus voids your exchange and pronounces that path “Impossible.” Is your plan to work your fingers to the bone—to pour out your heart and soul in acts of charity and mercy so that you might gain a glimpse of the Kingdom of God in this life? Jesus frustrates your designs and declares your efforts “Impossible.” Is your plan to throw yourself wholly and completely into the spiritual life—to bathe each moment in prayer and contemplation, to make the soundtrack of your life the great hymns of the faith and the rhythms of your heart the chanted mantras of the saints, all in the hope of finding God’s Kingdom within you? Jesus breaks into your piety and bluntly announces, “Impossible.”

But the last and greatest thing we must understand is that Jesus’ words are Good News. “For mortals it is impossible.” We cannot break ourselves free from the powers that bind us: wealth, work, wine, women, whatever. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot buy or earn or pray our way into the Kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible…but for God all things are possible.” What we could never do, God has come to do. That is the meaning of the great events of Holy Week, soon to be upon us. That is the astonishing declaration written in the blood of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. That is the earth-shaking announcement illumined by the inextinguishable brightness of Christ’s Resurrection. And as you contemplate with awe the mighty acts by which God won for us life and salvation, let these words be your heart’s song and your soul’s prayer:

“For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Forgiven

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 –Matthew 18:21-35

On March 28, 2010, a young man named Conor McBride shot his fiancée, Ann Grosmaire, in the head. The ordinary bickering of a teenage couple had escalated wildly out of control, and a fight pursued for thirty-eight hours over telephone and text message ended with Ann staring down the barrel of a gun.

The tragic tale of this incident is told with feeling and power by Paul Tullis in a January 4, 2013 article for The New York Times Magazine. But Mr Tullis’s piece is not a crime drama. He spends only a few brief paragraphs describing the terrible violence at the root of the story. Rather, the theme that really animates Mr Tullis’s story—and makes it startlingly relevant to today’s Gospel reading—can be gleaned from the title his article bore when it first appeared in print: “Forgiven.”

You see, Ann did not immediately die from the wounds she sustained. For four days she lingered in the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, her face and hands (she had raised her arms to block the blast) swathed in bandages. For four days, her parents remained by her bedside in prayer. And though she never regained consciousness and could not speak, nevertheless her father Andy Grosmaire later said that in those four terrible days he repeatedly heard his daughter’s voice urging: “Forgive him. Forgive [Conor].”

Forgive the young man who had murdered his daughter? Inconceivable. How could anyone ever do that? And then, on the day Ann was taken off life support, Andy had a realization. As Mr Tullis tells it, Andy “was in the hospital room praying when he felt a connection between his daughter and Christ; like Jesus on the cross, she had wounds on her head and hand…Ann’s parents strive to model their lives on those of Jesus and St. Augustine, and forgiveness is deep in their creed. ‘I realized it was not just Ann asking me to forgive Conor, it was Jesus Christ,’ Andy recalls. ‘And I hadn’t said no to him before, and I wasn’t going to start then. It was just a wave of joy, and I told Ann: “I will. I will.”’“

Did you notice the utterly unexpected word that came in the middle of Andy Grosmaire’s quotation? I had to read it twice the first time I encountered Mr Tullis’s piece. As Andy heard Ann’s plea—as he heard his Lord’s command—to forgive Conor, he felt “just a wave of joy” [emphasis added]. Not bitterness, not rage, not grudging acquiescence. Joy! Joy is what Andy Grosmaire felt as he promised to forgive his daughter’s killer. The Grosmaires and the McBrides face a long road ahead. But in that joyful forgiveness, something happened to break the endless cycle of violence and retribution that mires so much of our world in darkness. Light broke into their lives, even in an hour of great grief.

Beloved, forgiveness is not easy. It does not mean pretending that the hurt never happened, or talking as if “everything will work out ok,” or acting like pain and loss are illusory. Instead, true forgiveness is costly. True forgiveness goes into the depths of our pain and loss, for the locus and focus of true Christian forgiveness is always the Cross. On the Cross, God takes to himself all of our wounds: the wounds we have dealt and the wounds we have sustained. On the Cross, God bears the full price of our pain: the pain we have caused and the pain we have endured. On the Cross, God shows us the ultimate cost of forgiveness: the sinless One becomes sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Forgiveness is not easy. But it is possible because of what Christ Jesus has accomplished for us on Calvary’s tree. So it is that the Church on Good Friday dares to proclaim: “We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection; for by virtue or your cross joy has come to the whole world.” As we enter these final days before Holy Week, may you learn the hard joy of forgiveness at the foot of Christ’s Cross.