Friday, October 28, 2011 — Week of Proper 25, Year One
Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Apostles
Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer)
EITHER the readings for Friday of Proper 25, p. 990
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)
Revelation 6:12 – 7:4
OR the readings for SS. Simon & Jude, p. 1000
Morning Prayer: Psalm 66; Isaiah 28:9-16; Ephesians 4:1-16
Evening Prayer: Psalms 116, 117; Isaiah 4:2-6; John 14:15-31
I used the readings for Friday of Proper 25
All of the readings today include some expression of judgment between “God’s people” and the “others.” The readings address these issues in very different ways, however.
Nehemiah tells of his commission from the Persian King Ataxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He is sent in 445 BCE, about thirteen years after Ezra’s mission. The wider context concerns the contemporary conflict between Persia and Egypt. A fortified Jerusalem could provide a military base for Persia. Ataxerxes sends soldiers with Nehemiah to underline his strategic intent.
There is a second aspect of Persian policy that is important. The Persian Empire controlled its occupied regions by controlling access to the land. The Empire exercised absolute control of land, thereby exercising their control of agriculture and decreasing ethnic conflicts. Persian strategy mandated a strict tribal autonomy over traditional land. Persia maintained that authority by creating strong boundaries between neighboring tribes. Intermarriage was forbidden because it tended to blur property rights. Persia encouraged each occupied region to maintain their traditional worship and to include prayers for the Persian King and Empire in their liturgies. The ties of worship also helped maintain tribal unity and purity, strengthening the attachments between people and land. It is Nehemiah’s charge to carry out this Persian policy in Jerusalem. He seeks to completely separate the Jews from their regional neighbors.
Nehemiah will face opposition. Neighboring tribes will be jealous of the refortification because this imperial preference will bring new money and prestige to Jerusalem, supposedly at the neighbors’ expense. Also, many of the Jews who had lived in Judah during the exile, and some who had returned, were married to members of the neighboring tribes. They had deep family relationships with their neighbors, some covering several generations. Nehemiah’s plan for ethnic cleansing will rip those families apart. The building of the wall is a symbol and instrument of this plan of cultural separation. It will be controversial. It will create an enduring enmity between Jews and Samaritans.
The book of Ruth was written as protest literature against this separatist tradition. The hero Ruth is a faithful Moabite, married to a Hebrew. She becomes an ancestor of David. In later years, Jesus will reach past the resentments of centuries of history to offer living water to a Samaritan woman and to make a Samaritan man his eternal image of the meaning of being a neighbor.
In the book of Revelation, the opening of the sixth seal imagines the consequences of human destructiveness and the justice of God. Although no act of judgment is actually portrayed, we see the anxiety of the judged. Their fear is contrasted with the sealing of the foreheads of God’s people. The forehead is a symbol of human will and worship. The symbolic number 144,000 is built on the number 12 (God’s people) and the number 10 (all). All of God’s people are gathered from the four corners of the earth. The vision culminates in tomorrow’s reading when an innumerable multitude from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will appear before the Lamb, joyfully joining the song of heaven. It is a remarkably inclusive image.
In Matthew’s gospel the church is told to leave judgment to God. In our world and in the church, good and evil exist together, the good seed and the weeds grow together. If we were to try to uproot the weeds, we would inevitably damage or even uproot some of the good plants. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest,” Jesus says. Some have cited this passage to oppose warfare, for in every war the number of civilian casualties is greater than military causalities.
These readings have echoes today. Modern Israel has built a wall that not only separates Jewish territory from Palestinian, but also breaks off access between Palestine territories. The Wall is deeply offensive to Palestinians, and it impedes them from their relatives and confines them from the world in ways that damage their economy, their relationships and their dignity, not unlike the Soviet Iron Curtain. In the U.S., some Americans have called for a wall between our country and Mexico. American anti-immigration sentiment has a flavor of ethic cleansing to it.
So many international conflicts are energized by tribal and ethnic resentments.
The New Testament readings offer realistic images about the damage that human division, oppression and violence brings. The readings also offer a more non-violent, non-divisive solution, and an image of healing — tolerance and inclusion, grounded in a vision of union.
Let the wheat and weeds grow together. Let God sort out the good and evil. We are not wise enough to separate justly. Let our imaginations be filled by the image of God’s final resolution in the scene tomorrow from Revelation. There we see people from every human family in a remarkably inclusive vision of universal reconciliation.