Strangers in a Strange Land
As we ponder the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday, the first word we hear comes from Isaiah. This word of the prophet calls for the people to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. The second text, a word from the letter to the Hebrews, brings with it a call to faith using as its basis the witness of Abraham and his descendants, who remained true to God’s promises, even though they didn’t see the fruit in their own day. Indeed, this people of God remained faithful, even though they dwelt in the land as strangers and foreigners, always seeking a better land, the heavenly city. Finally we hear Jesus say that God is pleased to give us the kingdom of God. However, if we want to receive this gift then it will require of us finding treasure in heaven, something that is accomplished by selling our possessions, giving alms, and somewhat enigmatically making purses that don’t wear out.
As I read these three texts in tandem, thinking ahead to Sunday, I’m struck by several things. First, despite what you have heard coming from some quarters, God is concerned about justice for those living on the margins of society. Indeed, while some use the Sodom and Gomorrah story to disenfranchise some in our midst because they happen to be gay or lesbian, in the prophet’s view of things Sodom and Gomorrah stand out for their resistance to justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow. Even though Judah and Israel offer all manner of sacrifices, from bulls to incense, none of this matters. Indeed, the eyes of God are averted to their hands as they reach out toward heaven, and the ears of God are shut to their prayers. This isn’t how we’ve learned the Sodom and Gomorrah story, but here it is, and the fingers point toward the pious who neglect justice in the name of religion.
Then you have the well-known story of Abraham (and Sarah). This couple exemplifies the life of faith, which is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). We know this so well we might pass over an interesting element of the story. If you look closely at the description of Abraham you’ll discover that he is a foreigner, a stranger, one who is living in tents – together with his descendants. All died without seeing the benefits of their faith, living generation after generation as “strangers and foreigners on earth.” Again, my mind drifts of to the news, where I hear word that in this country, the country of my birth, the foreigner and the stranger are no longer welcome. Could it be that Abraham and his descendants are among those who are living in our land, looking forward to a better land – the heavenly city? Yes, I know, I’m playing with the text, teasing out possibilities that might not have “literal” support. But what does it mean to be an immigrant looking for a better land, a better life? In what way is this an expression of faith – “the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen”?
Finally, we come to the gospel lesson. Jesus offers a word of assurance – God has given you the kingdom – but you have to be ready. You need to be dressed and have your lamps lit, because you don’t know when the master will come? Yes, the one whom Abraham and his descendants had waited for all these generations might come at any moment – so be ready. And how might one prepare for the coming of the master? According to Jesus it involves selling your possessions and giving alms, so that by doing this, one will make purses that don’t wear out.
Once again we find the text of scripture offering a discomforting message. It challenges our capitalist identities. It challenges our loyalties. It reminds us that piety is not enough, for God isn’t impressed by our offerings or our prayers if we treat our neighbor in an ungodly manner.
Isaiah, speaking for God, puts forth the challenge – “come now, let us argue it out.” We’re used to the KJV rendering — “Come now, and let us reason together” – but as much as I like a dispassionate, reasoned conversation, the NRSV rendering provides more conviction – so you think you’re on the right track, well let’s have it out – verbally that is! But the promise is one of redemption – “your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.” There is a promise here, one full of grace, but it is also one that requires of us a true accounting of our love of neighbor – even the neighbor who lives on the margins, who has been denied justice, and who might, as was true of Abraham, live in our midst as a foreigner and a stranger.
By Bob Cornwall
Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November. Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.