August 18, 2013
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)
First Isaiah Chapters 1-39 are generally attributed to the mid eighth-century prophet Isaiah, who witnessed a rise in Assyrian aggression toward Syria, Israel and Judah that resulted in military invasions through the end of the century and the downfall of Israel (the northern kingdom). In this text, Isaiah is asserting that Israel’s disobedience will lead to a divine rebuke in the form of the Assyrian army. The words “justice” and “bloodshed,” as well as the words “righteousness” and “cry,” sound similar in Hebrew. See Isaiah 27:2-6 for an intertextual response that anticipates the Lord’s restoration of care for the beloved’s vineyard.
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
The psalmist’s words immediately call to mind Isaiah’s vineyard imagery, while referring to a current state of desolation. The destruction the prophet promised has occurred, most likely by the hand of the Babylonians in the early sixth century. Now many of Jerusalem’s elite – royal officials, priests, scribes and the wealthy – are in exile and trying to make sense of their new lives in Babylon. They struggle to understand what the purpose was of the Lord’s deliverance of their people from Egyptian slavery and their possession of the promised land if the story would suddenly end in divine abandonment and foreign misery. Their call for restoration includes a plea to return to their homeland as well as a renewed spirit so that they “may never turn away” from the Lord again.
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
This is an astonishing, and even horrific, listing of the trials endured by Israel’s judges, kings and prophets, made possible by their faith in God. And “yet all these … did not receive what was promised.” What a breathtaking remark! It recalls the show-stopping ending of Moses’ life on a peak in view of the promised land after all his travails to lead his people home.
Surely our faith and actions wilt in comparison to these saintly figures – so where does that leave us? For the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, it leaves Christians in sore need of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
The Greek word for “witness” is the origin of the English word “martyr.” Christians’ cloud of saints crowds around us to support our often-feeble attempts to continue along the road before us. The Christian life is a marathon that cannot be sprinted for long, nor even run constantly by most. God calls then to perseverance in walking toward our heavenly home.
The theme of judgment that ran through the Old Testament reading and psalm for today continues in this gospel passage. Jesus’ tone is hard, determined, angry and sorrowful. Inevitably, we read (as Luke wrote) these lines in light of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and so it appears reasonable to understand Jesus’ “baptism” as that of the Passion. But this self-referential statement does not easily release the wider world from the fire and division to come. Verse 53 alludes to Micah 7:6, in which the prophet upbraids the people for their perversion of justice so that even one’s household is the site of conflict.
How do we interpret the present time? How is Jesus calling each of us, the church, and the world to repentance?