Ordinary 11

The Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
2018 – Cycle B
Ezekiel 17: 22-24; Psalm 92; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Mark 4:26-34

I found it quite disturbing this past week when the Attorney General of the United States used a passage from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans to counter and suppress the voices of various religious leaders in regard to separating immigrant families.  The particular passage is, “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.  Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves.”  [Romans 13: 1-2]  In the cited passage Paul urges the early Christian community to obey the laws of the government because God has established and ordained the imperial government.

Though a seemingly straight forward teaching from Saint Paul to Christians in the 1st century Roman Empire and imperial city, it is very dangerous to quote scripture out of context.  That is why biblical scholarship and the study of and reflection on the texts of the bible are important.  They reveal the original historical context of a prophecy, a letter or a passage.  Archeology, the study of Semitic languages, the knowledge of cultural traditions such as farming and herding methods or marriage rites open up richer understandings of sacred scripture for us.  They allow us to hear the bible, the prophets, the parables, the letters as the original peoples heard it.  And only then can we make connections to our own times and culture which are very different than say, 3rd century BC Israel.

The Pauline quote from scripture which was also used to uphold slavery in our country makes sense in an ancient Roman culture which believed that imperial authority was interwoven with devotion to the Roman gods.  Even the biblical Book of Wisdom says that kings and magistrates rule by the consent of God [See Wisdom 6:1-3].  We are more familiar with the term “divine right of kings” which was developed and used in Britain and France right up to the 17th century and the Modern Period.  Yet do any of us today believe that any world leader derives their authority directly from God and therefore is to be obeyed without question?  Do we believe that resistance to any form of government or its decisions is resistance against God?

I would counter the misappropriated Pauline passage from Romans with today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel.  Ezekiel was a priest at the time of the Babylonian Captivity.  In 598 BC the Babylonian Empire attacked and devastated Jerusalem; deporting its leadership which included Ezekiel.

In the midst of such violence and destruction when all seemed lost, Ezekiel offered hope.

“Thus says the Lord God:
I will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot and plant it…”

In a country of great wealth, privilege and power, we hear this passage today very differently than the people of Israel did.  They had experienced invasion, the end of their civilization, their religious traditions and temple trampled and forced exile.  “I will…tear off a tender shoot and plant it…” 

God’s word through the prophet Ezekiel is today being proclaimed and heard across our planet.  Consider for a moment the multitude of human situations personal and communal that God is addressing.  How do immigrants and refugees hear this passage?  How does a refugee mother whose infant was taken from her while breast feeding hear this passage?  How do the people of devastated Puerto Rico or volcanic ravaged Guatemala hear Ezekiel’s words today?  How is this passage heard by women and men incarcerated in prison?  How do the homeless and hungry in soup kitchens across our nation hear this passage?  How might a parent whose child has died or is struggling with an addiction, a tender shoot torn off, hear this passage?   How does a Syrian, a Nigerian, a Swede, an Australian, a Vietnamese, a South African, a Chilean hear,  I will take from the crest of the cedar, from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot and plant it…”  How did you hear those words of God?

Ezekiel and Jesus, who speaks of the small mustard plant, tell us of a God who freely chooses for special care and attention people who are insignificant in the grand scheme of things as we humans measure life.  We forget time and time again that our God is in the business of upsetting normal expectations.  The last are first and the first are last.  One is more important than ninety–nine.  Every labourer gets paid the same amount at the end of the day whether they worked twelve hours or one hour.  To gain your life you must lose your life.  To be the master you must first be the servant.  The smallest, the crest of the cedar, the tender shoot, is chosen.

The bible is a complex book.  It is a collection of seventy–two documents including poetry, story, letters, history, gospels, fables, prophecy and teachings that dialogue with each other, with humanity and now the church in its array of personal and historical situations.  But Ezekiel’s words were first spoken to a people whose lives were destroyed; pawns in an imperial power play.  It was spoken to people torn from their homeland and led into exile.

The words of Saint Paul this week were taken out of context and used against people.  The prophet Ezekiel comes among us to speak words of hope for people who are exiled.  And exile takes many forms.

There are those among us who are exiled from their very selves by self–hatred, anger, and self–perceptions that bind them to a past they cannot escape.  People are exiled from their homelands by natural disasters and the power plays of modern nation states.  Individuals exiled from their family and friends due to addictions, mental illness and forms of dementia.  The child exiled by the bully with no one to speak up and defend them.  People forced to choose exile from their homelands because of religious and political persecution, war, and famine.  The home-bound senior who is exiled from ordinary life and activities due to infirmity, age and sickness.  Do we not all go into exile from God every time you and I choose to sin?

 

Thus says the Lord God:
I will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot and plant it…”

How do you hear these words of God?

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