You are a Christian Community leader.
I suggest we all pay more than usual attention this Sunday to the psalm we sing after the first reading. Psalm 72 was a prayer for a new king, someone in the line of David. The first petition is that God endow the king with judgment, and in the repetitive, rhythmic way of this literature, petition 1A is that God give the king's son divine justice ("king's son" because the new king is the scion of the just-deceased king). The psalm goes on to limn the world-spanning greatness of the king, and then insists that the justice be directed to the lowly and the poor.
This psalm broke through to my consciousness during the early 1970's, when movements for justice and peace were thriving. It seemed to unite my tradition with contemporary hopes and struggles, which were not always easily united. So it's dear to me. Maybe to you, too. The psalm's favoring of the poor and lowly takes the praying community outside itself. Which, in view of the purpose of this message series, endears it to me, too.
Saint Paul asks God to grant that his Roman audience "think in harmony with one another." Why did he have to pray for that and tell his audience so? Scholar John Pilch reminds us that the ancient Mediterranean culture was an agonistic one. That is, the people habitually struggled with each other, and were quick to argue. We've seen how they enjoyed public disputes and contests of wit, and how Jesus won honor in that arena. Kinship was a supreme value, and even kinsfolk at odds with each would rally to defend family honor. But the possibility that Jesus might have been God's Messiah split some Jewish families. For the converts to Christ, the community of converts became a substitute family. But it was still a human family, a "fictive kinship group" of individuals formed in an agonistic culture. And among them in Rome, Paul's words suggest there were some "strong in faith" and others "weak in faith." Paul urges them to unify.
The Apostle says to welcome one another "for the glory of God." Expressions like this mean "to enhance the credibility of our God," or "to make our gospel, our evangelizing, more believable."
Then Paul says Jesus worked to give God a good name with both Jews and Gentiles: "For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [i.e., a servant of the Jews] on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy." (NRSVA translation). The last clause assumes that Gentiles joined to Christ would feel they had caught an eschatological break, escaping punishment for their prior pagan ways. (Paul is extremely rough on pagans in Romans 1:18-32. They should have discerned that there was just one God, but they failed, willfully.)
Even had they not had the cultural disposition to dispute everything, the Jewish community in Rome had two major things to argue about. The obvious one, that split the whole Jewish community, was the claim that Jesus was God's Messiah. Messiah, remember, meant king-restorer in the mold of King David. To a limited extent, Jesus was that: early disciple of firebrand John the Baptist, proclaimer of the Reign of God (implying a reign other than Caesar's), gatherer of large crowds of followers. He had also called for some non-messianic changes that had attractive power, like mercy, care for the poor, respect even for enemies. This is where Paul would say, "See, thus did Jesus confirm God's promises given to the Jewish patriarchs." But for most Jews, any Messiah-credibility of Jesus was lost in his shameful death. The claims that he had been raised from the dead persuaded only a few.
But a segment of the Jewish community became followers of Jesus, having opened up their understanding of what to expect from the Messiah. Then that segment itself split when Gentiles came calling. Some Jewish Christians insisted the Gentile Christians should keep the Law of Moses. Paul and others did not. The letter to the Romans holds only Paul's most eloquent argument about how to resolve that. In Galatians 2, Paul recounts arguing with Peter about it, and Acts 15 shows the apostles and elders convoking a Council to settle it. The letter to the Philippians also mentions the controversy. Paul is adamant that the advent of the Gentiles was inevitable "in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy," and adamant that no expired requirements from Moses should stand in their way.
(Paul spends chapters 9-11 of Romans puzzling out how God could let the Jews forfeit the fulfillment of their divine promises. It's a magnificent extended argument, with a surprise ending. Paul caps it off with the exclamation, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are God's judgments and how unsearchable God's ways!" Indeed. That's in our liturgical calendar for summer, 2023.)
Questions raised for our communities
We are going to disagree among ourselves, and argue, even if not in Mediterranean style. How can we do that with charity?
What do we stand for, outside of our intramural interests and controversies, that bring credit to our God, our Christ, our gospel, our church?
Are the things we argue about big enough to justify the effort? Were you, too, embarrassed that we spent 2010 arguing about liturgical language while the world was going to hell in a collection-basket?
What struggles are we not engaging, what elephants in what rooms are we trying to ignore?
Jews of messianic hope had to revise their theology a whole lot to be able to embrace Jesus. Do we hold positions that might need revision, positions that we could faithfully change?
Erratum: I've habitually said the ancient Judeans loved their Temple and the hill in Jerusalem where it stood. "We shall go up with joy to the house of the Lord," they sang. I've always said the Temple was on Mount Zion.
My old friend Tom Poelker pointed out recently that the Temple-on-Zion motif needs some more nuance. Tom was citing Wikipedia, and I concur. So:
Zion originally designated the Jebusite (natives of Canaan by the time the Israelites returned) stronghold that David defeated and on which David built his palace. As the locus of kingship and national pride, Zion drew the people's devotion.
When Solomon built a temple elsewhere and its cult earned a later people's devotion, they began calling its location Zion. Both were on what is known as Jerusalem's Eastern Hill.
A much later generation of Jerusalemites felt that the more imposing Western Hill was a more appropriate site where David's palace should have been (since they didn't really know), so that became the third hill known as Zion.
Along the way, the name Zion was applied to all Jerusalem.
Other sources of commentary
on this Sunday's readings:
- Lector's Notes for this Sunday,
- Joris Heise (on his new website)
- Fritz Bauerschmidt, 2013
- The Text This Week,
- Saint Louis U.,
- Karban, 1998,
- Karban, 2001,
- Karban, 2004,
- Karban, 2007,
- Karban, 2010,
- Karban, 2013,
- Karban, 2016,
- Karban, current
Introduction to this Message Series
I'm Greg Warnusz, of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, Saint Louis, Missouri, USA, since the church's founding in 2005; author of Lector's Notes at https://lectorprep.org since 1999; and web steward for FOSIL since about 2011.
This, the 135th message in a (mostly) weekly series, aims to help you apply the Bible readings you'll hear in church (or would hear if your church weren't locked down) to the life of the parish (or other Christian community) that you hold dear.
These are not devotionals (which are widely available). I'm offering what I learned in the seminary, this intellectually honest way to read the Bible:
Step 1), above, is the hardest. I offer this because I'm grateful for the seminary education I received and the continuing education I enjoy. Step 2) is my passion because my beloved parish community faces serious demographic challenges and will soon face ecclesiastical ones.
- Learn what the writer of the Bible passage was trying to help his or her ancient community cope with (my specialty).
- Ask how your own community today is dealing with something like that (your specialty).
- Suggest the connections, craft a biblical approach to your community's mission.
- Remember Bible passages were composed for whole communities, not just for individuals.
- Then the rest is up to you (readers / listeners), your communities, and the Holy Spirit.
This is a new endeavor, likely to improve with age. Next week's may be shorter. It takes 3 years for Catholic and most Protestant churches to complete their Sunday surveys of the whole bible. Stick with me. Thank you.