“He Raises the Poor from the Dust”Dr. David Rutledge Jeremiah 8.18 – 9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 113; Amos 8.4-7; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13 Year C: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
“Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high,
Who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash-heap,
To make them sit with princes….” (Psalm 113.5-8)
The scripture readings appointed for this Sunday contain powerful images that remind us how important it is that we pay attention to the language of scripture, as well as its content, for the two can never be completely separated. And since most of these passages are in poetic form, we have an opportunity to see how the language of faith is often much closer to poetry than to prose.
Consider for a moment the harsh words of Psalm 79, describing how Israel’s enemies have destroyed the country:
“O God, the heathen have come into thy inheritance…
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of thy servants
to the birds of the air for food….
They have poured out their blood like water….” (Psalm 79.1-3)
You do not have to have witnessed 9/11 to understand this passage, but it helps, for isn’t this what the psalmist is describing – the almost incomprehensible violation of the nation’s safety and security? When the twin towers in New York were attacked, violence beyond our experience in its brutality and scale left us searching for words to express our horror, our fear, our sudden feeling of vulnerability, and this is the message of the psalmist.
“Jerusalem in ruins…,” “the bodies of thy servants…,” “poured out their blood like water….” The images are concrete, but not particular — it could be any beloved city, the bodies of anyone’s family or friends. This is the power of poetic language: it allows the reader to feel his own life in the experience of the writer long ago.
There are prose narratives in the Bible, of course – we can think of the accounts of David’s reign in the books of Samuel, or the accounts of Paul’s travels in the Acts of the Apostles, or the record of Judaism in the book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha. Even these narratives, however, are quite different from the historical narratives we are familiar with today, as the record of events is overlaid with the religious significance of those events.
An example is the beginning of the gospel of Luke, which lays out Luke’s purpose and method in giving his account of the life of Jesus the Christ. Most scholars believe Luke was also the author of the history of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles, and his prologue to the gospel shows his careful nature: many others have tried to “compile a narrative” of Christ’s life, “just as they were delivered to us by those who…were eyewitnesses;”
Luke himself has “followed all things closely for some time,” and aims to write “an orderly account…that his reader “may know the truth” about these events. This sounds like a modern historian preparing to write.
Luke begins to explain Jesus’ background with an account of John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, who served as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. But no sooner does this narrative begin when “an angel of the Lord” appeared to Zechariah, filling him with fear.
The angel, Gabriel, has a conversation with Zechariah, and then strikes him dumb for doubting the angel’s promise that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth will have a child, despite their advanced age and her barrenness. So, this ‘history’ tells us of a private vision of an angel, his taking away Zechariah’s speech, and his promise of a miracle for them.
Luke doesn’t tell us how he learned of these events, and doesn’t attempt to explain them – he just asserts that “this is what happened.” This is hardly how we expect a contemporary historian to tell a story!
A further sign of the odd character of this religious narrative is that Luke’s first chapter contains four poems, where the angel Gabriel (twice), Mary, and Zechariah break into song in order to deliver a great, divine message of blessings that will come to the people of Israel through the birth of Jesus.
The poems are similar in form to psalms or prophetic oracles, and full of references to Israel’s past, and of pronouncements of future events:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever…” (1.32-33)
Thus, even in a prose narrative, the poetic and religious character of the biblical text continually breaks through, alerting us to a way of thinking that is distinctly different from most of our modern ways of making sense of life. Nurtured as we are on the language of science and its near-relations technology and mathematics, we unconsciously assume that knowledge and truth must have the form of these disciplines, that is, an exact, objective form whose meaning is clear to everyone.
The Bible, with its focus on spiritual realities expressed in poetic imagery and metaphor, does not fare well in this climate, despite the fact that it brought meaning and cohesion to human communities for thousands of years.
In the words of Psalm 79 with which we began, we heard words of sorrow that described the destruction of Jerusalem, as well, we suggested, as the fall of the twin towers on 9/11. There is an important element, however, of the prophetic oracles of Jeremiah and Amos that distinguish them from contemporary news accounts of 9/11.
The images of the prophets do not simply describe, they also accuse; they do not simply say, ‘How terrible it is that we have suffered destruction!’ but also list the moral failings of Israel that caused this suffering, as the prophets speak for God:
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their graven images, and with their foreign idols?” (Jeremiah 8.19c)
The first commandment to Israel was faithfulness to God alone, to the God of the covenant (Ex. 20.3), which is a shorthand way of saying ‘You must remain faithful to the moral principles and way of life that has been revealed to you.’ Surrounded by polytheistic cultures which employed colorful images (or “idols”) of their gods, the Israelites found the high, transcendent supernaturalism of the Lord of Israel difficult to follow, and so abandoned the second commandment: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image….’ (Exodus 20.4)
These theological commands, however, may be easy to dismiss, for they can seem abstract and vague. With the prophet Amos, however, we get a list of Israel’s failures that is hard to ignore:
“Then the Lord said to me,
‘The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass by them….
the dead bodies shall be many.” (8.2-3)
And why should God’s chosen people suffer so?
“Hear this, you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end….” (8.4)
They have abused the needy, and oppressed the poor, thus denying the bonds of community that God has ordained – that their nation, their forefathers and foremothers, have taught for hundreds of years (Ex. 20.13, 15, 17). Human beings do not come from the womb caring for others; they arrive caring for themselves alone, and sustained concern for others must be taught, and practiced, and internalized if society is not to become “nasty, brutish, and short,” a “war of all against all.”
Do we walk by beggars on the street? Do we look the other way at a traffic light when someone out of work stands there with a sign, “will work for food”? Yes, and that is why we need the words of the prophets, as much as the ancient Israelites.
It is not just that we allow the poor to suffer when we could help them; we are eager to make more money, and to do it in whatever way we can get away with:
“When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and sell the refuse of the wheat?” (8.5-6)
When I was a boy, Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, was a day of rest in which virtually all stores were closed, and normal commerce suspended. The Jewish and Christian convention of Sabbath observance had been practiced, more or less, for hundreds if not thousands of years, marking a value, an attitude, a perspective in society that recognized the existence of the sacred.
In my own lifetime, that convention has disappeared, swallowed up by the consumerism that has become the real object of our devotion. We have been as eager for the Sabbath to end so that we can engage in trade as anyone listening to Amos in ancient Israel. What does this mean for our society, and for each of us?
Scripture does not give us an economic, political, or sociological treatise on the status of those who are officially “poor” in Israel, or suggest policy initiatives that might reduce the number of the homeless. It simply points, over and over again, to the simple truths of our common life together:
“Give to everyone who begs from you… And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?….
And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?….
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6.30-36)
In scripture we find beauty and wisdom, inspiration and rebuke, and there is no end to the benefit we gain from its careful study. May we take advantage of this priceless gift.
About the Writer:
Dr. David Rutledge retired from teaching at Furman University as the Reuben B. Pitts Professor of Religion. He is an elder in Westminster Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCUSA), and a former board member of the Phillis Wheatley Association, and the Interfaith Forum of Greenville. Rutledge received his A.B. in philosophy from the College of William and Mary, his M.Div. from Duke Divinity School, and his Ph.D. from Rice University.
He is the author of Humans and the Earth: Toward a Personal Ecology(Peter Lang), numerous journal articles, and chapters in books. He is past President of The Polanyi Society, an international scholarly organization. His religious interests are in religion and science, religion and ecology, classics of spiritual devotion, and the work of Michael Polanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Soren Kierkegaard, and Dante.
Scripture and Music:
1 Timothy 2:1-7
We Believe in One True God
More Love to Thee, O Christ
I Surrender All
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
There Is A Balm in Gilead
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
There Is A Balm in Gilead (William Dawson)
Be Thou My Vision (Alice Parker)
More Love to Thee, O Christ (Lanford or Burroughs)
Prayer of St. Francis (Allen Pote)
You’re the Only Jesus Some Will Ever See
Make Me A Servant
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go