This week’s editorial by David Brooks, titled “The Dark Century” examined issues of human nature and governance. Brooks postulates that early constitutional policy and 20th century political trends were motivated by a general understanding of human nature as fallen, resulting in laws that were designed to reign in our lesser motivations. The emergent culture of narcissism in the late 20th century and early 21st centuries has inspired policies that allow individuals to decide how to proceed on their own, resulting in both selfish behavior and the ascendance of ambitious demagogues. Brooks is hardly a liberal, and his thoughts were sobering.
I am not sure that human nature has evolved much since the time of Jesus. As we observe Epiphany as the season of Light, we focus on how to live connected with the light of Christ as our guide. In the scriptures, and in ordinary life in Coronatide, we encounter stories of people who are intelligent, respectable, or successful, and at the same time, they are disconnected from God. Our lessons reflect the deep wisdom that develops from a relationship with God. Wisdom is a unique quality. Unlike knowledge, wisdom does not rely on accumulation of facts and making associations between them. Unlike social respectability, wisdom does not focus on building a good reputation or keeping up appearances. Success may or may not reflect one’s wisdom. One can be a successful thief (as Zacchaeus and B. Madoff), and one can be a successful disciple (as were Mary of Bethany and Desmond Tutu). I suspect that we might assign the quality of wisdom to Mary and D Tutu.
Wisdom conveys power to do the work of discernment, to figure out what we should do as friends and lovers of God. In a spiritual life, wisdom is the tangible fruit of connection with the mind of God, and the path to that connection is a life of spiritual practice. Spiritual practice is different from indoctrination, which teaches a person to accept a set of beliefs without any critical examination of them. Spiritual practice is a regular, cumulative process through which a person encounters God and experiences personal transformation. Traditionally, spiritual practice has focused on regular experiences of prayer, self-denial, and generosity, which are the exercises that build a resilient soul.
Today’s lessons give us a picture of what it is to pursue the path of discipleship, seeking wisdom. Joseph is the eleventh son of Jacob, borne by his second wife Rachel. Joseph has a special relationship with God, and he can interpret dreams. In a shocking story of sibling jealousy, Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to Midianite traders. In Egypt, the enslaved Joseph rises within the ranks of the Pharaoh, becoming the vizier, or Pharaoh’s closest adviser. Today we hear the short passage in which Joseph articulates his forgiveness of his brothers’ unforgivable action. This was not his immediate response when he encounters his brothers, who have traveled to Egypt to obtain food during a famine. The process toward this forgiveness takes over 15 years and many chapters of Genesis. As a prayerful, thoughtful man, Joseph comes to see how God has worked good through his terrible experience, and chooses to forgive and reconcile with his family. It is wisdom borne of faith that enables Joseph to do this.
Psalm 37 is a collection of wisdom sayings in a Hebrew alphabet acrostic. The sayings point to the abiding presence and comfort of the Almighty for those who faithfully pursue a relationship, especially in difficult and oppressive circumstances. The function of the promises is to locate God with those who “do good” (vv 3, 27), who live simply (v 16), who practice generosity (vv 21, 26), and who both proclaim and embody God’s will for justice (vv 30-31). These practices are their own reward, for they embody our connection to God and conformity to the ways of God. Furthermore, they constitute life as God intends life to be, because they have the potential to shape the world in the directions that God intends, including the elimination of poverty and hunger.
Paul writes to the fractious Christian community in Corinth, reminding them that the teaching about the resurrection of Jesus commands a new way of living. He does not deny the reality of the physical nature of our life, and at the same time repeats his teaching that a risen life will be very different. Today’s passage follows the segment often read for weddings: love is patient and kind. Paul is not romantic; he is a stern teacher writing to contentious Christians, and for him, a life lived in honor of the tremendous love of God and the sacrifice of Jesus demands spiritual transformation. We have inherited the blessing of the reign of God. The resurrection is a reality in present time, and we need to live into that now.
The passage from Luke’s gospel is a beautiful description of how disciples live as if we are part of the Reign of God. When we hear this as a command, it is a hard teaching. Love my enemies? Some days I can hardly bear my friends! How would this change if we can hear it as an invitation to a new way of being? Jesus invites his followers to adopt the spiritual disciplines of love, generosity, and selflessness as tangible signs that we are the people of God on earth, even when our context is one of conflict and oppression. The irenic response to injustice is neither simplistic nor passive. Nor is it the equivalent of being “nice.” It is instead the kindness of wishing grace upon another person, who is as imperfect as we are. In fact, the word for “kind” (chrestos) is related to the word for grace (charis).
How can we cultivate these responses in a Coronatide world that seems to be so messy, so unjust, so confrontational? Only through a continual striving for connection to the God of Love, through a spiritual practice that infuses us with grace.
What is it to be wise because we have come to know the love of God?
To be wise is to be kind.
To be wise is to be open to others.
To be wise is to go out of our way to show love to others.
May it be so.
- Clinton McGann. Commentary on Psalm 37. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3969