A couple of thoughts on today's Scripture readings from the Lectionary:
- Today we read from the books of Leviticus, the Psalms, and Matthew's Gospel. Leviticus is much maligned as of late - a reminder that it's best not only to read a line in the context of the book it originates from - or even a book with its series of books - but also to read a text within its fuller context. In this case I'm referring to its historical context and its communal context (whether that is Israelite religion/nascent Judaism or the Church).
- In the Church we've spent the last week reading from the book of Exodus. The locus point has been the giving of God's Law, which clarified Israel's identity in terms of morality, penal laws, and rituals. For Israel, the giving of the Law begins their self-identity as freed persons. After leaving Egypt they had only what they carried and their identity was a mishmash of vague cultural memories that were then hundreds of years old and, most recently, the experience of Egypt. They were slaves subject to Egypt's laws and worship. The giving of the Law is the beginning of their self-governance, allowing them to embrace their own destiny.
- The Law is a gift from God that prevents them from social collapse. In the Bible's narrative, forgetting the Law is more serious than just breaking one of those laws. To forget the Law is to forget the Giver of the Law. The Giver of that Law isn't just the lofty conception of God but Yahweh, their own God who delivered them from the bondage of slavery, who protected them from their enemies, who gave them their sustenance in their decades wandering the wilderness, and who gave them a Promised Land to live in. There was a direct correlation between societal harmony and keeping the Law. The Law is considered a law of life. It's still this way for believing Jewish communities which says something of the resiliency of the Jewish culture that has endured far longer than any other.
- A good window into the goodness of that Law is today's reading from Leviticus. It deals with the Jubilee Year. In a Jubilee Year, all debts were forgiven among the people, slaves were freed, the land was given rest as to not overwork it, and ancestral lands were returned to families. It was a way of restoring order, to allow those families who had lost much to recover what they had and to prevent the exploitation of those in need.
It was also a tangible reminder of what it means to be set free. We live in a society that takes large debts for granted. On one hand there is the need for personal responsibility and we have a duty to pay our debts. On the other hand, what happens when that debt becomes too much to bear? Does the justice of debt repayment supersede human dignity? The Jubilee Year places a responsibility on both the debt-laden as well as the debtor. It makes forgiveness a principal of society. In this case, forgiveness is not an emotional release but one that is expressed tangibly in society. Those who hold on will let go and all who have lost will regain. It's a reminder that life's situations can change, that those laden with debt may one day have someone indebted to them. Likewise, those who are owed may one day owe. In this case, justice is not about power but peace and the restoration of balance in society. Balance and a clean slate achieves a more lasting justice than a perpetual cycle of debt collection.
It says something that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have a similar principal within their traditions with regards to establishing a fair way to reckon with debts or interest and that all have been tempted throughout history to find a way of working around the difficulty of the forgiveness of debts. Temporal debts are often tangled into emotional debts and social debts. When we feel someone owes us something, we become frustrated and angry when we are not repaid. Those kind of existential quandaries eventually work themselves out in ways that are usually terrible and, eventually, regrettable.
"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those indebted to us" (Luke 11:4).
- Lastly, this is a great set up for the Gospel reading which is the death of John the Baptist. In short, John the Baptist is in prison after Herod Antipas arrests John for having preached against him for marrying his brother's wife. The Gospels portray Herod as having liked to listen to John but not taking his words to heart. By today's reading, Herod wants John dead but fears the response it will elicit. At a party, his wife's daughter dances and her dance seduces him to promising her anything she asks for. At her mother's prompting she asks for the head of John the Baptist. Ironically, while his fear of the people prevented him from having John executed in the past, now it is the fear of his reputation among his dinner guests that move him to follow through with her wishes. Herod relents and John is beheaded.
It is a strange image of justice. Herod wants to be a man of integrity in keeping his word and yet proves himself as having no integrity in killing a righteous prophet. He breaks off his duty to his brother Phillip by marrying his wife yet keeps that duty in granting his step-daughter's murderous desire. Instead of making things right, the order of things is radically disrupted.
The book of Leviticus says this about oaths:
"...when any of you utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose, whatever people utter in an oath, and are unaware of it, when you come to know it, you shall in any of these be guilty" (Leviticus 5:4).
Both the Book of Judges and the Book of First Samuel illustrates the tragedy of rash oaths when Jephthah's oath leads to the death of his daughter and Samuel's oath curses his son Jonathan.
Jesus also warned against taking oaths, likely for this very purpose (Matthew 5:33-37). He sees the absurdity of binding your honor to things you cannot possibly control. In all of the above cases, the need to maintain an image of righteousness supersedes actual justice. It upsets the social order and are tragic guideposts that remind us of the vanity involved in maintaining a reputation that ultimately proves one undeserving of a good reputation.
All in all, today's readings are a great excuse to reflect on the nature of right and wrong and how severing the connection between our personal sense of right and wrong to deeper universal principals is ultimately an exercise in futility. We are not moral vagabonds who are left to contextualize right and wrong based on a radically personal definition of values. We are not tribes of people who organize on either ends of false dichotomies like class, political party, or ideology. We are human and we've always been our best when we reach beyond ourselves. That desire is not a collective mental projection or an imaginary brass ring. It's real and it matters. As the stars and their constellations allowed humanity the ability to navigate and, therefore, to explore and discover beyond the narrowness of our personal life situation so it is with right and wrong.