Week of Last Epiphany: Monday, Year 1   9 comments

Above:  The Wicked Husbandmen, by Jan Luyken

Holiness, Actual and Imagined

FEBRUARY 27, 2017

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Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.

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Tobit 1:1-2 and 2:1-8 (Revised English Bible):

This is the story of Tobit son of Tobiel, son of Hananiel, son of Aduel, son of Gaguel, of the family of Asiel, of the tribe of Naphtali.  In the time of King Shalmaneser of Assyria he was taken captive from Thisbe which is south of Kedesh-naphtali in Upper Galilee above Hazor, beyond the road to the west, north of Peor.

During the reign of Esarhaddon, I retuned to my house, and my wife Anna and my son Tobias were restored to me.  At our festival of Pentecost, that is the feast of Weeks, a fine meal was prepared for me and I took my place.  The table being laid and food in plenty put before me, I said to Tobias,

My son, go out and, if you find among our people captive here in Nineveh some poor man who is wholeheartedly mindful of God, bring him back to share my meal.  I shall wait for you, son, till you return.

Tobias went to look for a poor man of our people, but came straight back and cried,

Father!

I replied,

Yes, my son.

He answered,

Father, one of our nation has been murdered!  His body is lying in the market-place; he has just been strangled.

I jumped up and left my meal untasted.  I took the body from the square and put it in one of the outbuildings until sunset when I could bury it; then I went indoors, duly bathed myself, and ate my food in sorrow.  I recalled the words of the prophet Amos in the passage about Bethel:

Your festivals shall be turned into mourning,

and all your songs into lamentation,

and I wept.  When the sun had gone down, I went and dug a grave and buried the body.  My neighbours jeered.

Is he no longer afraid?

they said.

He ran away last time, when they were hunting him to put him to death for this very offence; and here he is again burying the dead!

Psalm 112:1-6 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 Hallelujah!

Happy are they who fear the Lord

and have great delight in his commandments!

2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land;

the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches will be in their house,

and their righteousness will last for ever.

4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright;

the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

5 It is good for them to be generous in lending

and to manage their affairs with justice.

6 For they will never be shaken;

the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

Mark 12:1-12 (Revised English Bible):

He went on to speak to them in parables:

A man planted a vineyard and put a wall round it, hewed out a winepress, and built a watch-tower; then he let it out to the wine-growers and went abroad.  When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce.  But they seized him, thrashed him, and sent him away empty-handed.  Again, he sent them another servant, whom they beat about the head and treated outrageously, and then another, whom they killed.  He sent many others and they thrashed and killed the rest.  He had now no one left to send except his beloved son, and in the end he sent him.  “They will respect my son,” he said; but the tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come on, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”  So they seized him and killed him, and flung his body out of the vineyard.  What will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and put the tenants to death and give the vineyard to others.

Have you never read this text:  “The stone which the builders rejected has become the main corner-stone.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes”?

They saw that the parable was aimed at them and wanted to arrest him; but they were afraid of the people, so they left him alone and went away.

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The Collect:

O God, who before the passion of your only­begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The Book of Tobit, part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of scripture, is, like Jonah, religious fiction.  Tobit is a pious Jew living in exile in the Assyrian Empire.  He loves God, his wife, Anna, and his son, Tobias.  And Tobit observes the Jewish faith as much as possible, given the circumstances.  He cannot, for example, observe the harvest festival of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but he does seek to share his Pentecost meal with a less fortunate Jew.  One year Tobit’s son informs his father that the body of a recently murdered Jew is on public display, not buried.  So, in violation of civic law but in accordance with Jewish law, Tobit takes and buries the body.  And he bathes himself ritually afterward, for touching a corpse made one unclean.

Thus Tobit sets in motion the action of the book bearing his name.  I will get to that in subsequent posts, but it is sufficed to say here that Tobit is a model of sincere Jewish piety, and that this holiness brings about both suffering and rewards.  Real life is like that, and the Book of Tobit, although a work of fiction, teaches this lesson.

Now, for the other side…..

Let us ground ourselves in the narrative within the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus is in Holy Week.  He is also engaged in a series of confrontations with Jewish religious leaders headquartered at the Temple at Jerusalem.  The “them” in Mark 12:1 consists of chief priests, scribes, and elders.  Jesus tells them a parable about an absentee landlord (YHWH), a vineyard (the Jewish people), murdered servants (prophets), wicked, selfish tenants (chief priests, scribes and elders) who hope to become heirs by killing the son, and the son (Jesus) of the absentee landlord.  The son will die, but he will become the chief cornerstone, and the God will win despite the best efforts of the wicked tenants, who will lose their position in the vineyard.

Brendan Byrne, S.J., in A Costly Freedom:  A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, 2008), describes this parable as an encapsulation of the Gospel of Mark.  This makes sense:  Jesus lives, suffers, dies, and still triumphs.

The piety of these religious leaders served to build them up and set them apart from the “great unwashed,” who lacked the financial resources to achieve the standards of holiness the religious elite held up as the goal.  This was self-serving religion, not true seeking after God and identifying with the poor.  The fictional Tobit personified true holiness, and, by grace, so can we.  The religious elite Jesus stared down in the telling of the parable could have repented and come to personify true holiness, but they entrenched themselves in defensive positions.

May God reckon us as being more like Tobit than these chief priests, scribes, and elders, who lost their stake in the vineyard when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., during the First Jewish War.

KRT

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