Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2001

It's Sunday, so a sermon seems appropriate. And, appropriately, I've come just now to the sermon I gave on the 16th Sunday after Pentecost in 2001, or a week after the sermon below. Sadly, you can tell I prepared this for presentation, not publication, and in haste. There are some quotes here that I don't believe are originally mine, and I don't have the attribution for them now.

TEXT: JEREMIAH 8:18-19:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 TIMOTHY 2:1-7; LUKE 16:1-13

It isn't the days immediately after the event that are the hardest. The shock and grief are hard. Accepting the world as it has become, accepting the violent but irrevocable change, is hard. But the days of shock and grief are not the hardest. The hardest days are deciding when the days of shock and rage and disbelief are over. Andnow comes the time of the healing, the days of deciding what to do next. How do we respond? Whom do we punish? Why should we punish them? Cui bono, the old Latin phrase asks, who benefits? When you begin an investigation into a criminal action, when you are faced with mass destruction and murder on the scale inflicted on this country recently, you start your investigation with a question, and find the culprits with its answer: cui bono? Who benefits? Who would make this effort, and what would be in it for them? But we have to ask a corollary question: cui pene? Who is punished?

For all of the images we have of a bloodthirsty and ~arrior God of the Hebrews, a God who smites the enemies of Israel and threatens the kingdoms around Judah, God never actually punishes another nation. Israel might win a war with God's help, Israel might be led into victorious battle behind God's guidance, but God never actually punishes another nation the way God punishes Israel. There is a reason for this. Israel is the only nation that calls on God by name. Israel is the only nation with a covenant with God. Israel is the only nation that ever hurts God. You always hurt the one you love. And Israel gets punished for it. But cui bono? And cui pene? Who benefits? And who is punished?

The psalm today calls for punishment on the nations: "Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name," it asks. And for good reason: "They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us." Does this begin to sound familiar? Does this begin to sound at all like what we are hearing around our nation, today? But there is a curious thing about this call for vengeance: God never answered it. This Psalm was clearly written after the destruction of the Temple, after the fall of Jerusalem. Last week Jeremiah saw devastation: the fertile ground turned into wilderness, the towns razed to the ground. This Psalm is a response to that destruction, but it's not a lament; it's a cry for vengeance. And God never answered it. God didn't destroy Babylon. A generation or so later, they let the Israelites go home. Nobody wanted Jerusalem anymore, and they slowly rebuilt it. And then the Ptolemys came; and then Alexander the Great; and then the Romans. And so it continued, until the fall of the temple again in 70 C.E., about 35 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. So God did not pour out anger; if anything, God wept.

"Would that my head were a spring of water, my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of my people I am wounded by my people's wound; I go about in mourning, overcome with horror. Is there no balm in Gilead, no physician there? Why has no new skin grown over their wound?..There is no cure for my grief; I am sick at heart." That isn't Jeremiah talking this time. That's God. God has punished Israel. But cui bono? Who benefits? And cui pene? Who is punished? The talk now is of retribution, of "infinite justice" and prolonged military campaigns. But who benefits? And who is punished? Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth. They are enduring a three year drought. A family might have not more than a flat piece of bread to eat, and count themselves lucky. People are eating
grass; those who can move are fleeing the country, massing at the borders, fearful of the rain of bombs they are sure will come. And now come the days of healing; or do they? What if we did something different? What if we bombed them instead "with butter and flour, with rice, bread, clothing and medicine." It would cost less than conventional arms, pose no threat of casualties, and maybe even get the people thinking we aren't really monsters. Let's offer them full stomachs rather than a blighted future. Let's bomb them with information. Video players and cassettes of world leaders, particularly Islamic leaders, condemning terrorism. Carpet the country with magazines and newspapers showing the horror of terrorism committed by their "guest". Blitz them with laptop computers and VCR's filled with a perspective that is denied them by their government. Saturation bombing with hope will mean that some of it gets through. Send so much that the Taliban can't collect and hide it all." We are the greatest media capital in the world. Why don't we put that to use for something good? "The Taliban are telling their people to prepare for Jihad", for holy war. "Instead, let's give the Afghani people their first good meal in years."

Why not? Cui bono? We do, and they do? Cui pene? Only the evildoers. Because the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than the children of the light. If we act as children of the light, we will outwit them. Think about the parable of the good steward. He is an account manager; he has what we lawyers call a "fiduciary duty." He has to take better care of his master's property than he does of his own. We are just like him, Jesus says. "Anyone who can be trusted in small matters can also be trusted in great." But can we be trusted? What
do we have that is our own? What do we have that we don't confess every Sunday is a blessing from God. "We give Thee but Thine own." Do we really mean it, or do we just sing the words out of habit after the offering? What do we have that is not God's? What have we been given, except the stewardship of the whole creation? God set us up over everything, to tend it, to care for it, to make it fruitful and wonderful. We have a duty, but our duty is to God.

And the master of the parable is not God. He is a child of this world. Because the servant is shrewd, and takes care of himself. His sin is selfishness, and he wallows in it. Do you owe my master 100 jugs of oil? Change your account to show you only owe 50. Do you owe 100 measures of wheat? Lower it to 80. Who benefits? The debtors, and presumably the steward. Maybe they will scratch his back, since he has scratched theirs. Who is punished? The master, who meant to punish his steward; but the master appreciates the irony. He understands: it's money that matters.

That's the real end of the story, the real meaning, the real purpose: for the children of this world, it's money that matters. Not God, not faith, not trust that everything comes from God and God will always provide what you need. It's money that matters. If you have that, you have everything. And of course, when money passes away, your friends who only valued money will welcome you into the eternal homes.

Won't they? But what about the retribution? What about the infinite justice? Why does the steward seem to get away with it? And why is God weeping over what God has done? Cui bono? And cui pene? We all stand inside an economic circle. We all make exchanges, our money for their food, our time for their money. And we all understand how the circle works, that what goes around, is what comes around. Well, if you send around nothing, then in the end there is nothing left for you. If all you ask is "Cui bono?" there is nothing left for you when the cycle finally comes to an end. No money, and no friends to receive you into an eternal home. But the same is true of punishment. If you want to hurt someone, if you want to punish someone, if you want to strike back at someone for what they have done, cui pene? Who is punished?

Because punishment is part of the system of exchange, too. In an economic circle, the money just goes round and round: 'twas mine, 'tis yours, 'twill be hers. Punishment moves in the same circle, and it comes back to you. You punish me, I will punish you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and the cycle can go on for generations. God stopped punishing Israel after the Exile; because even God stood inside the circle. The punishment came back around to God, because of God's love for Israel. Who is punished? Everyone who tries to punish someone else. Who benefits? No one who stands inside the circle.

How, then, do we defeat it? How do we evade this trap? By changing the question. By asking not: "who benefits, but by asking: who can I benefit? And now at last comes the time of the healing, the days of deciding what to do next. Because when you ask "who benefits," you always ask for yourself. But only when you ask: "who can I benefit?" do you begin to leave yourself out of the question. Only when you ask: "who can I benefit?" do you truly start serving God, and not some other master. Only when you ask: "who can I benefit?" do you begin to step outside the circle. And only then, even if you seem to lose, do you truly gain; only then do you go unpunished, even if you seem to be the most persecuted person on earth. And only then the hard work of the healing begins.


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