Jackals and Owls and the Poor: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 21 March 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 21 March 2010 (Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C)

Isaiah 43:16-21 •  Psalm 126 •  Philippians 3:4b-14 •  John 12:1-8

What do jackals and owls and dragons and ostriches have in common?  They’re all translators’ attempts to translate some of the animal names in this week’s Isaiah reading.  The problem that translators run into is that the ancient Israelites really didn’t leave behind any bestiaries, though Solomon, according to 1 Kings, did write about animals.  So in these sorts of passages, translators have to choose between attempts at paleo-zoology and attempts to render the passage compelling to modern readers, and the results vary wildly (and sometimes with the potential to make readers laugh out loud).  Among the other critters that have appeared in English translations of Isaiah 43:20 are coyotes, buzzards, wild dogs, and daughters of an Ostrich (I love that one).

The bottom line, of course, is fairly evident from the context: in the coming age that the prophet’s oracle announces, the peace of YHWH will be so prevalent and the changes so radical that visions of ideal human justice aren’t good enough: the oracle extends beyond the city of humanity and goes right to the wildest of animals, holding forth a vision of restored goodness in which even the dumb animals will join in, praising the God who provides now for the chosen people and in that day, perhaps as an extension of the same grace, for all of creation.  As Augustine picks up on centuries later, the ultimate consummation of God’s grace in the world will leave no more strife, no more struggle: human will and human body will be in accord, and human beings and other animal beings will be in accord, all because Creation as a whole and Creator will be in accord, and all of this owing to Christ.

When we Christians care for the poor in the times between, it’s always this sort of vision that animates our action.  Because we believe in a Christ who is present in “the least of these,” we know that Christians’ care for the poor can never be mere policy calculation, though those who run things certainly must calculate, and Christians’ relationships with our enemies can never be merely prudential as the world reckons prudence, though the magistrate, the one who bears the sword, must bear that sword prudently.

When I’ve taught the gospel of John in church settings that the famous “the poor you always have with you” could be rendered as a present tense (though that doesn’t make much sense of “always”) or as the “historical present” that Bible college students learn about in their first semester of Greek (and which is relatively common in John) but doesn’t really allow for the future tense “you will always have.”  What I’ve not really spent much time thinking about is the fact that “the poor” are in some ways like the animal names in Isaiah: although we can do some historical research to see how other period writers wrote about “the poor,” or we could use the occasion to pronounce about “the poor” in our own moment to make this an exhortation for those to whom we preach, anything we say about “the poor” in the Bible is going to be an interpretive act since various books use that phrase in different moments to talk about the destitute as opposed to the wealthy; about the unlucky as opposed to the lucky; and the righteous as opposed to the wicked.

Such is not to say that Christians have nothing to say about government policy, individual charity, structural cycles of poverty and illiteracy, relationships between human prosperity and ecological sustainability, or any of the other pressing questions of our own day.  Such is to say that, beyond an Enlightenment-style (and by Enlightenment I mainly mean Adam Smith and David Hume here) education in the proper sentiments that inform good action, the Bible isn’t going to have much to say when Capitalists and Socialists argue about how to help the poor or when the elders and deacons in a local congregational setting deliberate about which sorts of poor to assist with church funds.

The booger about such things, of course, is that a Capitalist or a Socialist could just as easily as the other wield such passages as weapons to club the other and establish stupidity, the apathy, or both in the other.  If there are any preachers reading these weekly musings on the Lectionary readings, please heed one call from this English teacher and sometimes preacher: when you’re faced with an opportunity to wield Scriptures with intent to stimulate guilt, proceed with caution.  I know that Reformed and Lutheran theories of preaching say that the only proper sorts of preaching are those that leave the listeners feeling wretched so that grace may abound, but I still enjoin preachers to remember the moment in which we preach, one in which folks tend to be more suspicious than trusting of formally educated clergy and in which one must earn trust before an audience will even believe that your exposition of “the law” is anything but your own pet peeve.  I also know that certain strands of liberal/progressive preaching, concerned as they are with social justice, take sermons to be occasions to let people know just how harmful their everyday activities are in the local and global ecosystems, but again, I’d call on those folks to remember that nonsense can be just as “inconvenient” as truth, and most audiences in our moment need to trust before they can repent.

Knowing the Reformed and the Environmentalists as I do, I fear that my own attempts to enjoin are falling on hardened eyes.  But such is the peril of preaching, I suppose.

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