The Good and the Enemy
Friday, October 30, 2009 -- Week of Proper 25, Year One
John Wyclif, Priest and Prophetic Witness, 1384
Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p.990)
Psalms 40, 54 (morning) 51 (evening)
Revelation 6:12 - 7:4
All of the readings today have some expression of judgment between the righteous and the evil, between God's people and God's enemies. The readings address the issues in different ways.
The psalms are personal prayers which ask God to defend and uphold the psalmist in a time of trouble and threat. The psalmist asks God to intervene to save and to punish those who oppress and oppose him.
Nehemiah tells of his commission from the Persian King Ataxerxes to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He is sent in 445 BCE, about thirteen years after Ezra's mission. This was a time of conflict between Persia and Egypt, so a fortified Jerusalem could provide a military base for Persia. Ataxerxes sends soldiers with Nehemiah to underline the strategic intent.
There is a second aspect of Persian policy that is important. The Empire controlled its occupied regions by controlling access to the land. Persian strategy mandated a strict tribal autonomy over traditional lands, and maintained that authority by creating strong boundaries between neighboring tribes. Intermarriage was forbidden because it tended to blur property rights. Persia encouraged each occupied region to maintain their traditional worship and to include prayers for the Persian King and Empire in their liturgies. The ties of worship also helped maintain tribal unity and purity, strengthening the attachments between people and land. It is Nehemiah's charge to carry out this policy in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah will face opposition. Neighboring tribes will be jealous of the refortification because this imperial preference will bring new money and prestige to Jerusalem, supposedly at their expense. But many of the Jews who had lived in Judah during the exile, and some who had returned, were married to members of the neighboring tribes and had family relationships with them. Nehemiah's plan for ethnic cleansing will rip their families apart. The building of the wall is a symbol of this plan of cultural separation. It will be controversial. (The book of Ruth was written as protest literature against this separatist tradition. The hero Ruth is a Moabite who is an ancestor of David.)
In the book of Revelation, the opening of the sixth seal imagines the consequences of human destructiveness and the justice of God. Although no act of judgment is portrayed, we see the anxiety of the judged. Their fear is contrasted with the sealing of the foreheads of God's people. The forehead is a symbol of human will and worship. The symbolic number 144,000 is built on the number 12 (God's people) and the number 10 (all). All of God's people are gathered from the four corners of the earth. In tomorrow's reading an innumerable multitude from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" will appear before the Lamb, joyfully joining the song of heaven. It is a remarkably inclusive image.
And in Matthew's gospel the church is told to leave judgment to God. In our world and in the church, good and evil exist together, the good seed and the weeds grow together. If we were to try to uproot the weeds, we would inevitably damage or even uproot some of the good plants. "Let both of them grow together until the harvest," Jesus says. Some have cited this passage to oppose warfare, for in every war the number of civilian casualties is greater than military causalities.
These readings have echoes today. Israel is building a wall that not only separates Jewish territory from Palestinian, but also breaks off access from one area of Palestine to another. Some Americans have called for a wall between our country and Mexico. Anti-immigration sentiment has a flavor of ethic cleansing to it, and many international conflicts are energized by tribal and ethnic resentments.
The New Testament readings offer realistic images about the damage that human division, oppression and violence brings. But they also offer a more non-violent, non-divisive solution. Let God sort out the good and evil. We are not wise enough. And when we see the image of God's resolution, we see people from every human family in a remarkably inclusive vision of universal reconciliation.
A note about our new feast today:
Wyclif, John [c. 1329-December 31, 1384] Later called "The Morning Star of the Reformation," he believed all pious people have the right to read and interpret Scripture for themselves. His teaching influenced two early translations of the Bible into English (from the Vulgate Latin Bible). The popular legend that he was their translator is discredited. (Oct. 30)
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About Morning Reflections
Morning Reflections is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at www.missionstclare.com
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site www.ExploreFaith.org at this location -- http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/index.html
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