You Meant Evil: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 11 September 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 11 September 2011 (13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A)

Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21  • Genesis 50:15-21 and Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13  • Romans 14:1-12  • Matthew 18:21-35

Most lectionaries of which I’m aware follow the Christian liturgical year rather than the calendar set by American nationalism and multinational consumerism, and on Sundays like the one coming I appreciate that more than usual.  Those preachers disciplined by the tradition of Lectionary will not have to deal with the temptations to find box-cutters or airplanes in the Bible or to say something “important” on the tenth anniversary of an event already being memorialized by the cable news corporations as the events unfolded ten years ago.  Instead, a preacher might just find something about the kingdom of God, the righteousness of God’s providence, and have all those things added as well.

When I taught a special-topics intro-to-literature course on the Hebrew Bible, the Joseph narrative was always the first text we dug into.  Among Old Testament texts, it’s got a strong sense of character, a plot that’s more continuous than episodic, and enough moral ambiguity that I can usually convince even a self-described atheist student (I always wonder what it means to be an atheist–or a Christian–when one is nineteen) that there’s enough of literary interest in the Bible that one can enjoy the text even as one forsakes the community.  (I should note that I never encouraged anyone to forsake Church or Synagogue, but sometimes that’s how they came to me.)  When we wrapped up our unit on Joseph, we almost always focused on this passage, noting that, although God only shows up indirectly in Genesis 37-50, yet Joseph, as a deeply flawed but central character, still pronounces perhaps the most sophisticated theological statement of the whole book of Genesis: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20, ESV).

It’s not the grandest claim; it’s nothing on the order of a b’reshith bara elohim eth-hashamayyim we-eth-ha’aretz (That’s Genesis 1:1 in badly transliterated Hebrew.)  And certainly it’s not as scandalous as the grand declaration that an itinerant exile from Ur will be the vehicle by which God blesses all nations.  Nonetheless, it’s a bit of theological equipment that many a reductionist ought to learn from.  To those who would exonerate Pontius Pilate and make him into some fated figure in the drama of the crucifixion, Genesis 50:20 says that God indeed intended good, but Pilate was still an amoral brute.  To those who would regard traditional Christian theology of atonement as “divine child abuse,” Genesis 5:20 says that God indeed intended good,  but the events happening “on the ground” seemed to run entirely out of control.  (Can’t think of anyone who actually says that sort of thing off hand, but the response would still work.)  The point is that the subtle but powerful transition in Genesis 50:20 is the core of what the Bible has to say about Providence: the evil of mortals is evil, and nobody is going to make it anything but evil.  Nevertheless, God uses that evil to bring forth good in the world.

And that, I think, might bring the preacher actually to say something helpful about terrorism and American responses to terrorism.  There’s nothing wrong with the Christian who at once says that what the criminals with box-cutters did ten years ago was evil, yet the moment of awareness, the sight of our own mortality, might have brought us to the sort of repentance through which God saves.  There’s nothing wrong with the Christian who says that American responses to those events, whether the passage of Statist security measures or invasions of foreign countries, were evil, yet the individuals who were and are fighting in those battles and working in those government agencies are beloved of God.  To eliminate one side of this famous sentence is to pass into uncritical nationalism or ingratitude towards the divine institution of human cities.  To keep them in tension is a perpetual task but perhaps might allow us to see both the grace and the sin that characterizes all of our complex human existence.

May the acumen of Genesis inspire our own eyes as we look out on the world.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *