Wednesday, August 1, 2012 -- Week of Proper 12, Year Two
Joseph of Arimathea
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 977)
Psalms 72 (morning) 119:73-96
[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today's scripture readings.]
As I thought about these four readings today and about Joseph of Arimathea whom we commemorate, it seems we have a series of snapshots with both spiritual and political significance.
Jesus speaks his last words of abandonment from the cross and then breathes his last. The centurion, the soldier who has maintained the order of the state during this political execution declares, "Truly this man was God's Son!" The Empire's puppet governor has rid Rome of an enemy, and Matthew says the earth shakes in response. Another execution. A day's headline. What can the meek do in the face of raw power?
One gentleman will simply do the right thing. Joseph of Arimathea will use some of his power to provide for a proper burial for the condemned criminal. He will use some of his wealth to provide for a tomb. It is the humane and decent thing to do, though one wonders at what cost to Joseph's dignity and his standing in the community. It takes courage and character for a highly placed man like Joseph to exercise his power on behalf of one such as Jesus, a religious blasphemer and political pariah. Joseph's is a noble act.
Our reading from Judges glorifies an assassin. To the Moabites, Ehud is a terrorist and murderer. To Israel he is a hero and liberator. It is dirty business sneaking a short sword completely into the obese belly of King Eglon and locking him in the toilet as "the dirt came out." Then the region is ethnically cleansed, as all of the Moabites are killed, and the land has rest for eighty years. A great nationalist story for Israel. The story doesn't read quite the same way in the history books of Moab.
The Acts of the Apostles opens with the disciples' experience of Jesus' resurrection. Their first question is a political one: "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" They might have been hoping for another great triumph like they remembered from the days of Ehud and King Eglon. Yet, it is not for them to know. They will be given power. Power from on high. Spiritual power. Different from the power of a sword or a cross.
Executions, assassinations, dreams of power, a noble act. These are all things we hear about today. We hope for resurrection; for noble acts in awful situations. Will an assassination bring rest or revenge? Will we exercise spiritual power as we yearn for restoration?
But let's look at today's psalm. Psalm 72 expects justice and righteousness from a ruler. "He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor."
The biblical dream for the ideal leader repeatedly calls for a government that will care for and protect the poor and needy. Historically it seems that the interests of the wealthy and powerful usually get taken care of first by the authorities, and the needs of the poor are often a reluctant secondary priority.
As I was reading the psalm, my imagination wondered what our nation might be like if our government fulfilled the dream of the psalmist. At first the psalm reads like this ideal ruler would be another "kick butt and take names" leader, dealing with foreign enemies -- "His foes shall bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust." The psalm expects tribute and gifts from foreign rulers. "All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service." But here is where the psalm surprises. All of these foreigners shall offer their respects to this ideal king, "For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, and the oppressed who has no helper. He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; he shall preserve the lives of the needy. He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, and dear shall their blood be in his sight. Long may he live! and may there be given to him gold from Arabia; may prayer be made for him always; and may they bless him all the day long."
That's a different kind of ruler. The nations honor this ruler because of his generosity and justice, not just his military prowess. These foreign lands are praying for him and blessing him, and even Arabia is generously cooperating with his agenda. Why? Because of his goodness and commitment to the poor.
I wonder. What if our leaders were like this? What if the needs of the poor and needy were at the top of our national interest? What if our leaders had pity on the lowly and poor and redeemed those living under oppression and violence? That's a different kind of political agenda. That's a different kind of ruler. That's the kind of ruler who would be remembered with honor by all nations. Somebody a little like Joseph of Arimathaea. Somebody a little like Jesus. "May his Name remain for ever and be established as long as the sun endures; may all the nations bless themselves in him and call him blessed."
The psalmist prays longingly for such a leader. Me too.