The scriptures for today are suggested by The Revised Common Lectionary, used by most mainline Christian churches, including the Catholics. I want to look at these scriptures in two contexts. The first context is the Christian story. The second context is the the scriptures themselves, because the Revised Common Lectionary cherry-picks certain verses to reinforce traditional Christian belief.
Let’s see if we can make sense of these readings for a 21st Century Christ-centered, liberal religious faith.
Let’s start with Job. The Book of Job explores the problem of evil and capricious injustice. It was probably a tale from the oral tradition, written down about the time of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century, BCE. John Shelby Spong proposes that it is protest literature. Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism (Harper SanFrancisco, 1991) pp. 64-49. That means the story takes issue with the prevailing idea that whatever happens to someone is an indication of God’s favor or disfavor. That each individual is solely to blame for good or bad fortune. As many 21st century folks might say – generally on the right side of the political spectrum – you alone are responsible for what happens to you. If bad things happen, it’s because you are bad. There is no room for circumstance of birth, gender, genetics, or opportunity.
You have probably realized that these verses from Job were used by G.F. Handel in his beloved aria from his oratorio, The Messiah, “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.” It is a hymn to faith in the resurrected savior. I have sung it often for Easter services and funeral services.
But according to Biblical scholars, the “Redeemer” Job invokes may be a reference to the Canaanite god Baal, who dies and rises again with the agricultural seasons of the year. Job may be hoping Baal will intercede for Job with the High God who has apparently abandoned him. The “Redeemer” may also be the “avenger of blood,”from Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Redeemer’s responsibility is to pursue a killer and kill him, even if the death to be avenged was accidental. At this point in Job’s story, Job has abandoned any notion of justice. Job is just like many of us who revert to fundamentalism when times get bad. Job expects the “Redeemer,” the avenger of blood, to come after God himself.
In orthodox Christian theology, Job’s “faith” in his “redeemer” is the same faith Christians find in the death and resurrection of the savior Christ Jesus. But this works only if the meaning of Job’s frustrated cry for retribution is deliberately mis-read.
Next is the reading from the prophet Hagai. Haggai saw a great hope in the remnant of the Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE. They had begun rebuilding the temple, which had been destroyed by the conquering Babylonians 50 years earlier. But the building project had come to a halt. The prophet is encouraging the leaders to finish. He says, “The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity.” Coupled with the verses snipped out of Job, that the Redeemer lives, and at the last day shall stand upon the earth, the Christian implication is that Jesus is the one who has come, and therefore Christian times will be greater than Jewish times. As these commentaries have cautioned, anti-Semitism is often embedded in such Christian assumptions.
Christians who follow the Revised Common Lectionary never read the rest of the book of Haggai. At the end, the prophet assures the King, Zerubbbabel, who is a descendent of King David, that because the Temple has been restored, God has chosen him to act on behalf of God ‘like a signet ring” – or in 21st century language, like a rubber stamp. The King will have the power to defeat Israel’s enemies, and bring God’s justice-compassion and prosperity to the people and the land.
This begins to bring us to a very different kind of wholistic understanding of Jewish scriptures and the Christian story.
The Book of Job might be reinterpreted as an allegory for Christian spiritual life if we include the end of Job’s story (also – conveniently – left out of the Revised Common Lectionary). After some time of false accusation by his friends, and ultimately blaming God for the evil that has befallen him, Job has an epiphany. He comes to an experience of God that is transforming: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” Job says to God, “but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” Job 42:5-6. Because of his transformation – his realization of a different experience of God that is outside the orthodox belief system and beyond the magical fundamentalism of his tribal faith – God tells Job that God will listen to Job’s prayer on behalf of the friends who had so misunderstood the nature of God, and had therefore seriously misled Job.
Before I go any farther with this, it is important to know that for Jews, God is just, and the world belongs to God. But when we look around at the world, we notice that something is wrong with this picture. There is little or no real justice anywhere. Therefore, because God is just, and God’s kingdom is one of justice-compassion, if God is really God, then God must act to restore justice to the world. The prophet Haggai – and others – were convinced that rebuilding the Temple on Mount Zion – that is Jerusalem – would begin the process of God’s action in restoring God’s justice-compassion. God would restore the Davidic line, and bring the Messiah, an Anointed – designated – redeemer and savior from injustice.
The problem with that is that all those people who died in the service of justice-compassion before God acted to restore God’s rule would miss out. It would be unjust. So about 150 or so years before Jesus was born, the Pharisees – and later the Apostle Paul – developed the idea that once God restored God’s rule, and justice prevailed on the Earth once more, the dead would be raised from Sheol – that is from the place of the dead – to be with God. That is what the Pharisees and Paul meant when they talked about resurrection.
Plato was the one who proposed that God’s justice required that good souls be rewarded and evil souls be punished. But Paul was a Jew, not a Greek. Further, Paul was a well-educated Pharisee, and a master of theology and argument. He was also a mystic, not a literalist. For Paul and the Jews, when God acted to restore God’s justice-compassion, no one who had died in the cause of justice would be left out.
What has happened is that we in the Western world have been side-tracked by Greek ideas about the nature of souls, death, heaven, and hell.
The Saints we celebrate today are the ones who gave their lives for justice-compassion. Of course we all want to be Saints – as the old Sunday School song goes:
“I sing a song of the saints of God, faithful and brave and true
Who bravely labored and lived and died for the God they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor and one was a queen and another a shepherd in pastures green;
They were saints of God if you know what I mean.
God help me to be one too.”
But if I’m reading the gospel as Jesus meant it, we first have to decide whether or not to take Crucifixion 101. Signng onto the Covenant with God’s justice-compassion is dangerous work.
Paul expected that God’s realm of distributive justice-compassion would be established on earth within his lifetime, not at some future time. He also realized that the restoration of God’s realm was an ongoing, present reality, caused by – made possible by – Jesus’s death and resurrection.
For Paul, the resurrection did not mean a resuscitated corpse, walking around among us like a zombie. The resurrection was a transformation. Jesus, the Anointed, designated redeemer from injustice was raised from Sheol, where God is absent, to God’s eternal presence. And therefore humanity was raised from the normal requirements of civil society, and the corruption of injustice, into God’s justice. For Jewish, Pharisaic Paul, as John Dominic Crossan puts it, “divine justice was necessarily about transfirgured bodies upon a transfigured earth.” Crossann and Reed, In Search of Paul (Harper SanFrancisco 2004) p. 345. Crossan suggests that what Paul meant by “Death” was the normal human life-style of violence, economic and political corruption, and injustice.
Luke missed this point completely.
In Luke’s scene with the Sadducees, who did not believe any of this, they ask a “gotcha” kind of question: “So if this woman married 7 men in her lifetime, to whom will she be married in heaven?”
Luke’s Jesus seems to echo Paul, who did tell the church in Corinth that “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion (1st Cor. 7:9). But Luke’s Jesus is arguing that “those who are considered worthy of participating in the coming age . . . do not marry. They can no longer die, because they are [angels]. . . So this is not the God of the dead, only of the living, since to him they are all alive.”
Not only is this is a convoluted argument on Luke’s part. Luke’s idea that some are “considered worthy” implies that some are not. And this contradicts what we know about what Jesus himself taught: No one is unworthy of coming into the realm of God.
Luke also blows a crucial and radical point when he has Jesus declare that “this is not the God of the dead, only of the living.” Luke probably did not get it because he was a Greek, writing for a Greek audience. Luke has Jesus explain that God considers the dead to be alive because they have become angels in God’s heaven. But that is not what Paul is talking about.
The Scholars Version of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians puts it like this: “For just as all who share Adam’s humanity die, so also all who share the humanity of the Anointed will be brought to life.”
What this means, according to the Jesus Seminar scholars, is that, “Unlike neo-Platonists Paul does not see the body’s animating force as immortal in itself. . . . Paul regards both the first and second humans – the first Adam and the second Adam [meaning the first human and Jesus the Anointed one] – as prototypes: the first of their kind and the model for all who follow them.” The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge Press, Salem OR, 2010) fn p. 105.
As I would put it, in 21st century speech, we all die – that is the nature of the Universe. But all those who share in the humanity of Jesus, who work to create a world where justice-compassion holds sway, find real life. We leave death and corruption behind us. This is what is meant by the archaic and very familiar words, again from Handel’s Messiah: “For as in Adam all die, even so, in Christ shall all be made alive.” It has nothing to do with heaven and hell. It has everything to do with life here and now, and creating a world that works for those who come after us. Just as the Saints who went before us did their best to create a just world for us.
Perhaps if Paul were writing today, he might propose that if we achieve some kind of critical mass of justice-compassion on the Planet, then “We are not all going to die, rather we are all going to be transformed, in an instant, in the blink of an eye at the sound of the last trumpet signal. The trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we too will be transformed.” But it is not a transfiguration that happens in an instant. It happens over time, as people begin to participate in establishing God’s non-violent justice-compassion as the way of life for all humanity on Planet Earth.
But then Paul’s ecstatic mysticism kicks in, and no matter how modern the translation, it still almost defies comprehension: “Because this perishable man must be clothed with the imperishable, and this mortal man must be clothed with immortality.” But what is perishable? Injustice and the corruption of normal human social systems. What is imperishable? Justice-compassion. What is mortal and subject to death? People who are caught up in unjust systems. What is immortal? God’s justice-compassion.
He goes on to the crux of Christian faith: “And when the perishable is clothed with the imperishable and the mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been engulfed by victory. Where O Death, has your victory gone? What’s happened, O Death, to your fatal sting?’” Scholars Version translation.
It’s not about living and dying. It’s about the restoration of God’s justice-compassion. Paul finishes his argument: “The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal.” In other words, the systems of human society are a trap that is nearly impossible to get out of. “But thanks be to God,” Paul says, “for giving us the victory over corruption and death through our lord Jesus the Anointed.”
Instead of interpreting these readings as a precursor of messianic salvation from Hell, culminating in the exclusive Body of Christ and the imperial violence of the Church Triumphant, perhaps the exiles from the traditional orthodoxy of the Christian church can use these metaphors to realize the radicality in Jesus’s original message, and join the struggle to find the courage to live it out in covenant, non-violence, justice-compassion, and the deep peace that passes all understanding.