Spiritual Responsibility   1 comment

Zedekiah

Above:  King Zedekiah of Judah

Image in the Public Domain

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The Collect:

Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world

through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son.

Help us to hear your word and obey it,

and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 28

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The Assigned Readings:

Jeremiah 11:1-17 (Monday)

Ezekiel 17:1-10 (Tuesday)

Psalm 39 (Both Days)

Romans 2:1-11 (Monday)

Romans 2:12-16 (Tuesday)

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You chastise mortals in punishment for sin,

consuming like a moth what is dear to them;

surely everyone is a mere breath.

–Psalm 39:11, The Book of Worship of North India (1995)

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The judgment of God is righteous, the readings for these days tell us.

Ezekiel 17:1-10 requires explanation, for it uses metaphorical language.  The references involving the cedar, the vine, and the eagles refer to international relations from 598 to 588 B.C.E.  In verses 3-6 the meaning is that King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian Empire had taken many prominent people of Judah, including King Jehoiachin (reigned in 597 B.C.E.), into exile, after which King Zedekiah (reigned 597-586 B.C.E.), who was initially loyal to Nebuchadnezzar II, came to the throne of Judah.  The eagle in verses 7-8 is the Pharaoh of Egypt, to whom Zedekiah transferred his loyalty.  The pericope concludes that the survival of Zedekiah and Judah is impossible.

Part of the background of the assigned passage from Ezekiel is the position that pursuing those alliances with dangerous foreign leaders was not only foolish but faithless.  Obey and trust in God instead, prophets said.  Theological interpretation in the context of the Babylonian Exile reinforced that position.  The people and bad kings of Judah reaped what they sowed, the final versions of certain books of the Hebrew Bible argued.  (There were, of course, good kings of Judah.)

God is angry with Judah in Jeremiah 11:1-17.  The people, having generally (with some notable exceptions) refused to obey the covenant with God, will suffer the punishments for noncompliance which the covenant contains.  Among the accusations is rampant idolatry.

The first word of Romans 2 is “therefore,” which leads me back into chapter 1.  The essence of Romans 1 is that Gentiles have no excuse for persistent unrighteousness, including idolatry.  Divine punishment for them for these offenses is therefore justified.  Then, in Romans 2, St. Paul the Apostle tells his Jewish audience not to be spiritually complacent.

The very fact that the Jew agrees so entirely with Paul’s charge against the Gentile shows that he himself is without excuse and subject to the wrath of God.

–Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans (1944); Translated by Carl C. Rasmussen (Philadelphia, PA:  Muhlenberg Press, 1949), page 113

Furthermore, some Gentiles have the law of God inscribed on their hearts, when even some Jews do not.  Doing is better than merely hearing, according to the Apostle.

Three thoughts come to my mind at this point.  The first is that St. Paul was correct.  He echoed Jeremiah 31:31f (the inner law), but expanded the text to include Gentiles.  St. Paul also sounded much like Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5.

Do not judge, and you will not be judged.  For as you judge others, so will yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out will be dealt to you.

–Matthew 7:1-2, The Revised English Bible (1989)

The Gospel of Matthew did not exist during St. Paul’s lifetime, but the Apostle did have some familiarity with oral traditions and perhaps some written sayings of Jesus, from which the author of the Gospel of Matthew drew.

My second thought is that St. Paul’s challenge to question one’s assumptions and prejudices is timeless.  Who are those we define as spiritual outsiders?  Some of them might be closer to God than we are, and we might not be as close to God as we think we are.

My final thought in this collection is that St. Paul sounds very much like the perhaps later Letter of James.

Exhibit A:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

–Romans 2:13, The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

The emphasis here is on active faith.  The Pauline definition of faith was confidence, in the absence of evidence for or against, which leads to actions.  Thus, later in the epistle, St. Paul argued:

Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ….

–Romans 5:1, The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

Romans 2:13 and 5:1 stand as portions of a unified, steadily building case in a theological treatise.

Exhibit B:

What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it?  Can faith save him?…So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing.

–James 2:14, 17, The Revised English Bible (1989)

Exhibit C:

Do you have to be told, you fool, that faith divorced from action is futile?…You see then it is by action and not by faith alone that a man is justified.

–James 2:20, 24, The Revised English Bible (1989)

Faith, in the Letter of James, is intellectual, hence the necessity of pairing it with deeds.  On the surface the theologies of justification in the Letter of James and the Letter to the Romans might seem mutually contradictory, but they are not.  No, they arrive at the same point from different destinations.

The judgment of God exists alongside divine mercy.  The balance of the two factor resides solely in the purview of God.  Our actions influence divine judgment and mercy in our cases, however.  One can find that teaching in several places in the Bible, including Ezekiel 18, Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 2:6f, and James 2:8f.  Yes, the legacies of ancestors influence us, but our spiritual responsibility for ourselves remains intact.  May we exercise it properly.

Related to one’s spiritual responsibility for oneself is one’s spiritual responsibility for others, as in Romans 2:17-24.  That, however, is a topic for another post.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

NOVEMBER 19, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF JOHANN HERMANN SCHEIN, GERMAN LUTHERAN COMPOSER

THE FEAST OF F. BLAND TUCKER, EPISCOPAL PRIEST

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Adapted from this post:

https://lenteaster.wordpress.com/2015/11/19/devotion-for-monday-and-tuesday-after-the-third-sunday-in-lent-year-c-elca-daily-lectionary/

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  1. Pingback: Devotion for Monday and Tuesday After the Third Sunday in Lent, Year C (ELCA Daily Lectionary) | LENTEN AND EASTER DEVOTIONS

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