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The Last Word (2016-0724)

. 8 min read
Joel
Shuman
Tenth
Sunday after Pentecost
I.
Whether
you’ve been following the weekly lectionary readings or the national political
scene, you’ll probably agree we could all use a bit of comic relief. These are
difficult times, and the national news is dominated by the multiplication of so-called
“natural” disasters, senseless tragic violence, racial strife such as we have
not seen since the 1960s, and public name calling that recently sank to the
level of an elected official calling for the public execution of one of the
presidential candidates. The lectionary texts, where some of us sometimes look
for good news, have hardly been a bowl of cherries; the Old Testament readings
have come recently from the prophets, who are not exactly known to be
good-humored, and in last week’s blistering and apparently final judgment on
the people of God from Amos chapter 8, the prophet compared the people Israel,
whom he said were guilty of greed, violence, and the systematic oppression of
the poor, to a basket of summer fruit—totally rotten summer fruit. Hardly good news, is it?
But
this week is different—at least in the lectionary—because this week we get
comedy. Comedy, in fact, is what the two texts read this morning have in
common.
You
are probably perplexed to hear me characterize the words of Hosea and Paul as
comedy, and rightly so, for in neither is there any mention of a guy walking
into a bar, any story involving a priest, a minister, and a rabbi, or any hint
of a “knock-knock.” The comedy in these texts is of a different sort.

The
English word “comedy,” you see, derives from classical Latin, and before that,
classical Greek. In both of those cultures, comedy had less to do with naming
something superficially or trivially funny than with describing a certain kind
of story—often a theatrical drama—that honestly addresses the difficulties of
the human predicament but ends surprisingly well, which is to say that comedy is
the opposite of tragedy. In this sense Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the narrator is plunged into the darkest
depths of Hell but finally emerges to climb the mountain of Purgatory and
ascend ultimately into Paradise, is quintessentially comic.
In
comedy there is often an ironic twist in the last part of the story, an
unanticipated surprise that opens to the reader or hearer new possibilities for
seeing and living. Many of Jesus’s parables are comic. Ultimately, comedy is
life-and-Creation-affirming, allowing that even those elements of our lives
that tend to get us into trouble are, seen rightly, worthy of joyful
celebration. But how are the scriptures we’ve read here this morning comic?
II.
The
passage from Hosea is the familiar story of the prophet’s commissioning. The L
ORD tells Hosea to
marry a prostitute and have children with her; their marriage is to be a
metaphor for Israel’s infidelity to God, which in that day came in the form of
their idolatrous worship of the Canaanite god Baal. God declares to Hosea, “The
land commits great whoredom [that is, promiscuity] by forsaking the L
ORD.”
The
names given to the three children made by the marriage are all indicative of
God’s impending judgment on Israel: The name of the first son, Jezreel (“God sows”),
evokes memories of God’s judgment on the house of Ahab and Jezebel, which came
in the form of an extremely bloody coup d’etat which began in the valley of
Jezreel, where the warrior Jehu slaughtered Ahab and Jezebel’s son King Joram
of Israel along with his armies. The author of 2 Kings tells us that as Jehu
approached Jezreel and Joram rode out to meet him, asking “Is it peace, Jehu?”,
Jehu replied, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and
sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?”
The
second child, a daughter named Lo-ruhamah (whose name means “not pitied”)
suggests the withdrawal of God’s mercy from Israel; no longer may the
Israelites expect to be protected from the larger, more powerful nations
surrounding them. This is affirmed when another son, Lo-ammi (meaning “not my
people”) is born; this name portends not simply the L
ORD’s withdrawal of
mercy, but his outright abandonment of the covenant—“for,” as God informs them,
“you are not my people and I am not your God.”
Judgment,
however, is not the last word in the passage. Beginning in verse 10 there is a
remarkable shift in tenor, marked by the word “Yet.” This paragraph offers a
promise of restoration in which Israel and Judah are reunited and restored to
the land, their ranks swell, and they go from being “not my people” to being
called “children of the living God.” This shift is not to be understood as
God’s looking the other way, as if saying “Ah, what’s a little idolatry among
friends, after all?”—One need not read much further in Hosea to see that there
are plenty more pronouncements of judgment. Rather, it is a reminder that in
spite of all explicable and inexplicable appearances to the contrary, in spite
of seeing and knowing us at our worst, God’s steadfast love abides, and history
is moving in the direction of redemption.
III.
It
is precisely appearances and their potential to mislead that concern Paul in
his letter to the Colossians. The fact that Colossians is among Paul’s “prison
epistles,” written in the early 60s from house arrest in Rome, should help
remind us just how political early Christianity was; not red state-blue state
political, nor conservative-liberal political, but political in the more
significant sense of naming a way for people to live together and treat one
another. The politics of Paul’s gospel, like the gospel of the kingdom
proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, is rooted and grounded in love. It is radically
countercultural, radically different from every imagined worldly alternative.
Many of the Apostle’s most commonly used words—words like “gospel,” “savior,”
and “lord”—were not strictly speaking religious, but language he coopted from
Rome and gave new meaning that directly challenged Caesar’s claims to
supremacy. The earliest and most basic Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is
Lord,” was less a religious claim than an in-your-face political statement that
Caesar was and is not Lord.
Just
so, there is a radical political subtext here in Colossians through which the
author contrasts the empty “human tradition” represented by a certain variant of
Judaism or the ersatz, violent “gospel” of Rome with the real deal, the genuine
good news of the kingdom of God. Having asserted in chapter one that the Jesus
to whom readers have been joined through baptism is the eikōn, the exact image and embodied presence of the God who spoke
Creation into existence, Paul turns in chapter two to exhorting readers to live
lives conformed to “Christ Jesus the Lord,” who, because the “fullness of deity
dwells in him bodily,” is in fact the rightful ruler of all Creation and the head
of those rulers and authorities like Caesar who wrongly demand from the
Colossians complete obedience and ultimate allegiance.

This background helps us see the deliciously ironic literary climax that comes
in verse 15, where the author asserts that in the cross, Jesus has “disarmed
the rulers and authorities, making a public example of them, triumphing over
them in it.” The language here is explicitly martial, or military, and is
practically technical. The Greek word translated “example” here is the verb deigmatízō, meaning “to make a show of.”
Its Latin equivalent is spectaculum,
from which we take our word “spectacle”; that word is sometimes translated into
English as “circus,” the kind of often violent public show held in arenas like
the Coliseum.
Here
in Colossians, the word alludes to the way the Romans ritually humiliated
Caesar’s conquered enemies, who were often brought to Rome, publicly stripped
of their weapons and insignia, and marched through the streets and into the
arena in a grand spectacle that served simultaneously as a victory parade, entertained
the people, and allowed them to glory in the power of Caesar’s armies.
Elements
of this ritual eventually became part of the practice of crucifixion in the
provinces of the empire, where enemies of the empire were stripped of their
clothing, beaten, and then marched naked through the streets to the place of
their execution. Like the defeated armies of Rome’s enemies, they were made a
“public example,” the primary purpose of which was to terrorize any would-be
revolutionaries in the crowds, reminding them that this is what happens when
you mess with Caesar.
It
is therefore ironic to an extreme that through the very ritual by which the
Romans thought they were ridding themselves of Jesus, whom they believed to be
nothing more than another annoyingly disaffected Jew, Jesus was in fact making
a spectacle of Rome and its leaders, unveiling their pretensions to sovereignty
for what they were and demonstrating, in the words of John Howard Yoder, “that
the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the
meaning of history.” Thus, he goes on to say, “The relationship between the
obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship
of cause and effect, but one of cross and resurrection.” Resurrection, you see,
is what happens when you mess with God.
IV.
Although
there is nothing superficially funny about this, it is comedic in the purest
sense, and because of this, it is occasion for joy. Most of all, it is gospel,
for it offers us hope in the face of seemingly intractable powers aligned
against the hope, whether in the form of systemic discrimination, retaliatory
violence, inflammatory rhetoric, or the ever-expanding domination of our lives
by corporations, that God’s peaceable kingdom is coming, has come, will come. It
means we are free; free from fear, from greed, from the need to trust violence
to secure our places in the world, for our enemies have already been
vanquished. And this, finally, means we are free to love; to love God, to love
one another, to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies.

As
we go into the world again this week, sent forth to love God and neighbor in
all we say and do, let us accept the challenge to see the world and live in it
differently. So this week, do one thing differently, one thing based on love
rather than fear, for this week’s readings remind us that against all of those
monstrosities before which our efforts to bear faithful witness to the way of
Jesus seem so insignificant, the last word belongs to a merciful God who has
already disarmed them. Thanks be to God.


Hosea 1:2-10
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”
She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”
When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”
Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.”
Colossians 2:6-15
As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.