This Sunday we get some great readings. Up first, the Prophet Isaiah has a word for people being oppressed by earthly rulers:
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Isaiah is a book that unfolds in the shadows of Israel's domination by great regional powers. And here the words of God through the prophet take a vast, even cosmic perspective. The rulers of the earth may seem to be dominant, even permanently so, right now, but they are frail plants, no sooner planted than plucked up.
For Americans, who are favored citizens of an imperial power, this may not sound like an oracle of hope. If anything, we have come to over-identify with our elected leaders. It is not hard to attribute the wrong kind of religious significance to our own rulers, good and bad. The words of the prophet here are meant to encourage people who believe themselves to be overwhelmed by the forces of history:
Why do you say, O Jacob,
Our second lesson for Sunday continues Paul's address to the church in Corinth. Paul can be a bit defensive about his credentials and career as an apostle and evangelist. He explains himself rather poignantly and eloquently this week:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Martin Luther borrowed from this passage in his famous treatise "On Christian Liberty," in which he says that the Christian is a perfectly free ruler of all and a perfectly obedient slave to all. This is a central theme for Luther, but I suspect Paul is making a more modest claim. He writes here of his apostolic mission. He has approached people, so to say, on their own terms. He addresses them from a place of solidarity. He speaks as an insider and an outsider. He comes in weakness to the weak. "I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some." This can sound manipulative or inauthentic to our ears, as if Paul were engaging in some kind of subterfuge, like Steve Buscemi's character on 30 Rock:
But I don't think that's the right way to read this. Charity and piety forbid us to simply assume that Paul is impersonating people. Rather, we might look to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to address everyone wherever they may be, and whoever they may be. The apostle has to meet them, as we might say today, "where they are" to show that this message is really for them.
And while the Gospel passage each week is thematically connected to the Old Testament rather than the New Testament reading, maybe we can hear some of this in the story of Jesus in Capernaum:
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Jesus can barely get a few hours' respite from the demands of his community. The people need healing, the casting out of demons, and the preaching of hope. And Jesus could retreat to the deserted places. He could stay in Capernaum and become a respected local holy man, no doubt drawing visitors from all Galilee and Judea, if not beyond. But instead he goes out to where the people are, in the villages and towns, to meet them on their own turf and their own terms. Paul becomes all things to all people for the sake of saving some. Jesus remains one thing to all people, for the sake of saving all.
I'm not sure what I'm going to preach about all this, but I hope you'll join me in person or online to hear what God has to say to us this week.
God's Work. Our hands.