August 12, 2008

Ethics After Pentecost

by Tobias Winright
According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are now gathering to worship on Sundays during the Season after Pentecost, which is also often referred to as Ordinary Time even though the Scriptures for Sunday, August 17th (Roman Catholic lectionary) are full of extraordinary, even quite surprising, tidings. Another name for this season is Kingdomtide, and I would like to suggest that these Scripture passages are about the kin-dom that God desires to happen on earth as it is in heaven. That is, the common thread running throughout these readings is that God's salvation essentially involves hospitality, compassion, and justice for all peoples--including, unexpectedly, those who are "other." The story of salvation is not only Israel's story; rather, the ongoing narrative seeks to gather others into it as well. Put differently, these passages of the Bible show how God is at work in the world, through the people of Israel and through the church, gathering the scattered—a sort of a reversal of what happened at Babel.

The passage from Isaiah refers to the restoration of the people of Israel after years of exile in Babylon and how the new era of shalom will include the foreigner. God's holy mountain is to be a place where all peoples are gathered to pray and worship God, but as Isaiah and other prophets also noted, such sacrifices are to be accompanied by doing what is right and just in daily personal and social life--especially for the anawim (the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers in our midst). Psalm 67 further highlights how the good news for Israel is to be good news for all nations to the ends of the earth. This major theme carries over into the New Testament, as well.

The community for whom the author of Matthew's Gospel wrote probably consisted primarily of Jews who had become Christians, but who were also becoming distinguished from their fellow Jews at the time by including non-Jews, or Gentiles, who were regarded by many Jews at the time as "unclean" and beyond the pale of God's salvation, among their number. Thus the story of the Canaanite woman who persistently implored Jesus to heal her daughter aimed at affirming what the early church was doing. In granting her request and praising her great faith, Jesus was making what was said in the passages from Isaiah and Psalms become a reality in their midst. Likewise, St. Paul, "the apostle to the Gentiles," writes to the Romans reassuring them that while Israel remains dear to God, they too are included in God's endeavor to gather the scattered. Thus the church is called to continue what Jesus had done and what the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures had pointed to: our worship and, correspondingly, our personal and social lives after we are sent forth to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord" (“the liturgy after the liturgy”) should reflect how the ongoing story of God's salvation includes not only "us" but also all others, in particular those we perhaps least expect.

That is, rather than an ethics after Babel (the title of a wonderful book from several years back by Princeton’s Jeffrey Stout), the church ought to be practicing and embodying ethics after Pentecost. One of the highlights of the Mass at our inner city parish for our three-year-old daughter, Clare, is the passing of the peace. Indeed, she has been known to greet others outside of Mass and during the week with “Peace” when they extend their hand to her in greeting. No matter what toy she is playing with, or what snack she is eating, she will suddenly become an active participant in the liturgy when she shares Christ’s peace with others—and by “others” I mean any others: young or old, black or white, male or female, gay or straight—in our general pew vicinity. I am thankful that she already believes that what she experiences of God’s inclusive hospitality during worship at our parish is the norm, or how things are and how they are supposed to be there and everywhere. Because of this, she will hopefully not have to unlearn many of the prejudices that I’m still working on unlearning. Who are today's "Gentiles" that we ought to be welcoming and treating with justice and compassion?

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