Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 15:1:

The whole question of faith and works has been hopelessly muddied by centuries of Protestant and Catholic polemic. Two points are worth keeping in mind, however.

First, in the main, the Reformers endorsed Abraham’s lament as spiritually legitimate. All the Reformation talk of forensic and imputed righteousness was meant to clarify the source of the possibility of good works, which comes from the grace of God alone. We do not give birth to the promise that creates an alternative to sin. The promise comes from God; it is imputed.

But the Reformers also agreed that we rightly expect God to make good on his promise of new life in Christ. On this point they were on common ground with their Catholic adversaries, who tended to think that the emphasis on grace alone had the effect of denying any actual human capacity for righteous deeds. In spite of polemical distortions that can lead us to think otherwise, according to both, if the promises of God are true, then faith must make a difference.

The second point is to remember that Genesis gives a great deal of space to the extraordinary delays and complications that emerge in God’s response to Abraham’s lament. Isaac is a long time coming, and the child disrupts Abraham’s household, bringing as much pain as joy. Thus, to return to the terms of James and the Reformation debates, we should not expect faith to produce good works immediately, and when faith does, we should not expect the righteous deeds of the true servants of Christ to be aglow with a pleasant, easy sanctity.

 

 

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 2:18-24:

All of us feel the divine pronouncement “it is not good.” We can walk a beautiful beach or hike a stunning wilderness path, but even as we rejoice in the natural beauty, the canker of unmet desires and unfulfilled hopes irritates and intervenes.

People make mountains of money and surround themselves with every good thing, and still the human heart will not rest. Our children are charming and successful, but we nonetheless pine for what they are not. We look at our no doubt imperfect society, but instead of sober criticism, we rise up in moral indignation and denounce it as corrupt.

At every point, we come up against the limitations of reality, and rather than appreciate the finite goods we truly enjoy, we rebel. The lure of something greater, the attractive possibility of more, the shadows of things not only set right but fulfilled—we gaze upon that which God creates with a dissatisfaction that we cannot understand and cannot justify, but nonetheless feel too strongly to deny or set aside.

The atmosphere of felt incompleteness is not unique to the Gen. 2 creation account. It runs throughout scripture. The sense of incompleteness is a function of the substantial purpose of self-donation that God has in mind “in the beginning.” Things exist for the purpose of being brought into the Sabbath rest of fellowship with God. For this reason, the scriptural witness is structured by a movement from very good to better still. All finite existence is complete and good on its own.

But when that existence is brought into relation to the infinite existence of God, it becomes supernaturally incomplete; it becomes palpably “not God.” For this reason, creation yearns to be more than itself—to be no longer itself, alone, and without fellowship with God. This is especially true for human beings. The most teachable of animals, and therefore the most plastic and changeable of creatures, we feel the alluring possibility of moving from what is very good to something better still. Because we sense what we can become, we regret what we are not.

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 3:8-15:

God creates for a purpose, and when the original choices of the man and woman go against his purpose, God does not wash his hands of creation. “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden” (3:8).

He speaks to the man and woman: “I will question you, and you shall declare to me” ( Job 38:3). Both respond, “I ate” (Gen. 3:12–13). Now the initiative returns to God, and he fulfills their choices. The man and woman chose sentient life, the realm of physical pleasures and the project of natural survival. Their punishment is to have what they have chosen.

As Chrysostom says, imagining God speaking directly to the man and woman, “Lo, you have become what you expected—or rather, not what you expected but what you deserved to become” (Homilies on Genesis 18.6 in FC 82.7). Divine justice is not only incorruptible and beneficent (“the Lord reproves him whom he loves”; Prov. 3:12); it is also fitting. According to Augustine, “The retribution for disobedience is simply disobedience itself. For man’s wretchedness is nothing but his own disobedience to himself ” (City of God 14.15, quoted from Bettenson 1972: 575).

We try to live according to Satan’s lie, as if the material world were sufficient for life. But just as the restless loneliness that Adam experienced extends beyond the bodily union of man and woman, so also do we twist and turn in order to extract more than survival from our innerworldly projects. We tie ourselves into knots of self-contradiction in our efforts to use finite goods to satisfy our infinite longing.

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday in Lent

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 9:8-17:

Aside from the ark, the flood story has all the features of decreation and a return to the beginning of creation. Yet the ark would seem to be the main point, and it introduces the dominant pattern in the rest of scripture: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isa. 54:7).

Floods of trial, slavery, exile, persecution, and even the flood of death on the cross—all these winnowing and purging episodes of suffering are for the sake of finding our way into the future of fellowship with God. In this sense, the flood sets out patterns of divine loyalty to his creatures: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song 8:7).

The covenant with Noah, however, is the ambiguous first stage in the divine project of realizing this loyalty in the flesh and blood of human life. It does not so much move history forward as stay the destructive effects of sin. For this reason, the flood is best understood as the covenant of God’s patience. The protecting mark of Cain stays the hand of those who seek to kill him. The covenant with Noah has similar effect.

The blessing that changes human relations to animals and establishes the basic duty to punish transgression lays the foundations for human survival. The family tribe, held together by rough justice, enters the flow of history. This human-centered change is mirrored in the divine-centered promise never again to unleash the primal forces of nature against humanity.

Water will return as a remedy for sin in the history of the covenant, but it will be the irrigating, life-giving water of Gen. 2 rather than the primal waters of Gen. 1 that overwhelm the world in Gen. 7: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek. 36:25).

Looking back on the flood episode, therefore, we can see that the massive project of worldwide cleansing does not create a new future for humanity. It hits the pause button on the doleful, destructive thrust of sin and brings a modicum of stability to human history.

 

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 32:22-31:

The struggle and its inconclusive outcome are highly ambiguous. Jacob’s opponent, at first an unknown man, seems to recapitulate Esau, against whom Jacob struggled in Rebekah’s womb. The opponent also echoes Isaac, against whom Jacob struggled by way of subterfuge in order to secure the patriarchal blessing.

The strange man may even evoke Laban, with whom Jacob strove to marry Rachel and gain worldly wealth. Yet, in the end the opponent blesses Jacob—as did Isaac unwittingly.

Jacob’s description of the contest uses a biblical image that is a standard trope for salvation: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30). This evocation of danger and blessing, life-threatening peril and divine encounter, seems to sum up the trajectory of Jacob’s life.

Does the wrestling match set Jacob against an enemy, or does it bring Jacob into intimate contact with a friend? Is the life of the chosen a curse, or is it a blessing and gift? Does the covenant bring heavy burdens and deep suffering, or will it bring peace and prosperity?

The interpretation of Jacob’s struggle in Hos. 12:4–6 suggests a view of God as both enemy and friend. The context is a prophetic pronouncement of divine lament over the faithlessness of Israel.

In the prophecy, Jacob’s wrestling match becomes an image of Israel’s disastrous sinful struggle against God’s promised future: “He strove with the angel and prevailed” (12:4). This is not good news, for it means that faithless, prostitute Israel succeeds in shaking off her divine vocation. She will not be a willing covenant partner with the Lord.

Yet, the prophetic use of Jacob’s wrestling match does not end there. Hosea continues, portraying Jacob/Israel as weeping with regret over his unnecessary struggle with God—one that he has unfortunately won!

Jacob/Israel petitions God for favor. The sanctity and power of God’s name is invoked, and then the prophecy turns to speak to the reader, conveying the moral of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (12:6).

 

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 25:19-34:

This episode is rich with irony. The elder brother has been chosen to serve the younger, and yet, with his bowl of soup, the younger brother is poised to serve the hungry elder. And precisely because ready to serve, Jacob finds himself at an advantage: the mighty elder brother is about to be put down from his throne (Luke 1:52).

Yet, more than a pattern of reversal is at work. God’s prophecies are not mechanically fulfilled. Human reality corresponds to what God ordains. In this case, Esau seems culpably negligent. Perhaps he has failed to make provisions for an unsuccessful hunt, or perhaps his account of his hunger is hyperbolic. In any event, Jacob’s bargain should strike him as ridiculous: a bowl of soup for Abraham’s birthright!

But Esau’s hunger makes him feel as though he is on the brink of death, so he readily takes an oath to hand over his rights as the firstborn son. Esau seems a man so controlled by his bodily desires that the precious things of God are of no moment to him.

Other passages in scripture seem to support this reading. In Obad. 10 and Amos 1:11, the children of Esau are depicted as rightly punished by God because of the sins of their forefather. Hebrews 12:16 portrays Esau as an immoral and irreligious man and uses his example to warn against the perils of a lax, undisciplined faith. Yet it is important to recognize that Esau’s wickedness flows from the choice of election rather than motivating or triggering it. God’s intervention into history forces the issue of sin.

Esau is drawn into the ever intensifying drama of antagonism between good and evil, between truth and the lie. God invades space and time through the particularity of his chosen people, and this action brings forth the spirit of resistance. Elected to serve the younger, Esau no more willingly plays his role in God’s purposes than Adam and Eve wished obediently to play their roles. The powers of the world coil around him and draw him into their purposes. Unable to participate in the divine plan on his own terms, he falls more deeply into the counterplan of the devil. There is no third way.

Human sinfulness has a role in the divine plan. Esau is wrong to bargain away the blessings of God, but because of his sinful fixation on his bodily hunger the way is clear for the promise to flow toward Jacob.

This is one of many moments throughout Genesis when human sins are quite real but nonetheless providential. It is a felix culpa, a happy fault. Foreshadowing the story of Joseph and his brothers, Esau does evil, but God puts it to good use.

 

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 22:1-14:

God’s provision follows an economy that we can see developing in Genesis and throughout scripture. It begins after Cain’s murder of Abel. Adam enters into his wife. She bears a son, Seth, and Eve explains his name: “‘For God,’ said she, ‘hath appointed me another seed in stead of Abel, whom Cain slew’” (4:25 AV). The son is not restored, but instead replaced.

When Abraham lifts his eyes and sees the ram caught in the nearby thicket, he offers the animal “instead of his son” (22:13). Although we can see in the background a general commandment to offer the firstborn son to God (Exod. 22:29), in the immediate context, the specific commandment to sacrifice Isaac has no explicit purpose other than to try Abraham.

The import of the sacrifice of substituted ram remains obscure. Isaac’s life is at stake, but the countercommand, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him” (Gen. 22:12), comes before and not after the sacrifice of the substitute. No clear link is established between sacrifice, substitution, and the covenant promise of life. The son is simply restored by an act of God, and then the substitute appears, and the sacrifice is offered.

Although the use of goat’s blood by Joseph’s brothers to deceive Jacob foreshadows a unity of sacrifice and substitution in the divine gift of new life, it is only in the Passover lamb that this unity becomes the crucial instrument for forward movement into the future promised to Abraham. The punitive death of the firstborn passes over the households that sacrifice the substituted lamb. The Israelite sons live because the lamb dies, and this differs from the scene on Mount Moriah. Isaac is saved by divine decree, and then a substitute is offered; the Israelite sons are saved from death by the substitute.

What is important about the subsequent history of Israel and the New Testament is the way in which the beloved son and the ram/lamb merge together. In Isaiah’s vision, the descendants of Abraham become sacrificial victims. Personified in the Suffering Servant depicted in Isaiah, Israel “was despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). She “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4) as she went forward into exile “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7). But Israel does not suffer in vain. She shall be raised from her political death to become a light to all the nations; in new life Israel shall be the redemptive center for the divine plan for all humanity (60:3).

In the New Testament, Jesus stands in the place of Israel. He is both the substituted lamb of sacrifice and the beloved son of the promise. His death provides “the new and living way” into the inner sanctuary of the house of God (Heb. 10:20). The son dies as the substitute so that all might be saved from death.

 

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

The Weekly Hit List: March 1, 2013

Kicking at the Darkness by Brian J. Walsh was reviewed by The Christian Century.

Kicking at the Darkness

“Some of us owe a large part of whatever prophetic imagination we have to the creative powers of Bruce Cockburn. For pop-music-loving Bible readers of my generation, chances are he came to us via U2 of the late 1980s.

“In “God Part II,” from Rattle and Hum(1988), Bono tells of a late-night radio singer announcing his resolve to “kick the darkness / Till it bleeds daylight.” Liner-note readers like myself found next to this devastatingly evocative phrase a footnote introducing Cockburn, from whose “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” the line was purloined. From there I’m guessing sales of the Canadian bard’s albums—he’d been putting them out since 1970—spiked more than a little.”

The full text of the review is available to subscribers.

 

Quick Hits:

Our Spring 2013 academic catalog is now available.

Of Games and God by Kevin Schut was recommended by Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds books.

Of Games and God was also recommended by PRISM Magazine.

Genesis (BTCB) by R. Reno was recommended by Mark Braye.

Who Is My Enemy? by Lee C. Camp was referenced by Craig D. Katzenmiller.

 

Goodreads Giveaways:

Two forthcoming Brazos Press titles are now available as giveaways on Goodreads:

Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids by Nicole Baker Fulgham

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good by Jim Wallis

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

From Genesis (BTCB) by R. R. Reno, commenting on Genesis 7:12 (alternative for Church of England):

The first feature of the flood is that divine intervention prevents sin from spiraling to its conclusion. The destructive power of the water turns back the corruptive power of evil, and in this way the flood prevents sin from descending all the way into nothingness. In an important sense, therefore, just as the garments of skin and expulsion from the garden are punishments that protect human beings from the full force of their sinful decisions, so also does the flood block the realization of the future promised in the covenant of Satan’s lie.

Furthermore, as the use of forty days (or years) throughout scripture suggests, the rains sent by God last for the standard period for purgation and purification: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). This link between purgative destruction and salvation culminates in the saving death of Jesus Christ. Written in a context of persecution, the author of 1 Peter describes the trials of the faithful as tests of fire that purify the soul (1 Pet. 1:7, 22). In these trials, the suffering of Christ serves as an example (2:21). He is the one who, “when he was reviled, . . . did not revile in return” (2:23). The application is clear: the faithful are to resist the temptation to return evil for evil. Like Noah in the ark and Jesus in the wilderness, they should patiently endure affliction for the sake of righteousness.

Yet, there is a decisive twist that distinguishes Jesus from Noah and his ark. Jesus Christ does not endure death simply as a trial; his death brings life. For “by his wounds,” writes the author of 1 Peter, echoing Isa. 53, “you have been healed.” His death took place so “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:24). Christ even “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water” (3:19–20).

It is as if, when the waters begin to rise, Christ leaps from the ark and dives into the destroying flood of death so that he can reach all the way to the bottom and rescue those drowning in the covenant of the lie. Perhaps the imagery breaks down at this point, because Christ and the church are the ark into which the faithful are incorporated. The author if 1 Peter presumes this shift: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (3:21)—although this assertion of allegorical correspondence is itself complex and plays across different aspects of Noah’s story. Baptism is both immersion in Christ’s death (a recapitulation of his dive into the waters of destruction) and incorporation into his risen life (a first draught of the water of life).

©2010 by R. R. Reno. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.