Two Sides of Obedience

17 Pentecost

Today’s readings from the Old Testament and their alternates testify to the diversity of wisdom in Scripture. Proverbs 31 and Psalm 1 describe the peace of soul that can result from a combination of obeying God and not eating any “bread of idleness.” However many Old Testament passages may cause 21st-century readers to worry about ancient cultures’ understanding of women, only a very determined hermeneutic of suspicion could perceive Proverbs 31 as anything other than a paean to a righteous wife.

Psalm 1 offers a recurring theme throughout wisdom literature: those who take counsel from God and his servants will find truth, while those who seek their wisdom from the ungodly will suffer folly.

First reading and psalm: Prov. 31:10-31Ps. 1

Alternate: Wis. 1:16-2:1,12-22
or Jer. 11:18-20Ps. 54
James 3:13-4:3,7-8aMark 9:30-37

But the alternate Old Testament readings show the other side of obedience: it often attracts the wrath of the ungodly. Those who reject God, or consider any thoughts of God simply delusional, can easily allow their hostile thoughts to become cruel actions. The prophets of old and the saints of today pose a threat to others. Ponder the basic facts of life in a fallen world: people make idols for themselves, whether of beauty, ideology, lust, power, wealth, or more unusual fixations. The mere presence of a godly person threatens those idols, because here is a fellow human being whose life contradicts all that the idolater has declared as central to a fulfilled life.

The result is an effort to destroy the threat. A guilt-ridden parishioner spreads a vile rumor about his rector; a gadfly journalist depicts Mother Teresa as a fraud; a bitter sociopath assassinates Martin Luther King; a mob of sinners (all of us, across time) call for Jesus to be nailed to the cross.

This week’s New Testament readings point Christians toward the goal: wisdom and righteousness emerge if we resist our tendencies toward envy and ungodly ambition. Both the letter of James and the Gospel of Mark express astonishment that Christians would treat each other as competitors in a zero-sum game, as if any of us could gain the kingdom of God by dying with the most conquered territory or purloined objects of wealth.

There is no zero-sum economy in the kingdom of God. There are God’s good gifts, given through common grace and through the mysteries of God’s will, and there is our stewardship of the gifts that are all around us.

Without a childlike trust in God we have little hope of escaping the corrupting influence of this world’s shiny treasures. With that childlike trust, we can hold everything with an open hand, just as we are held in God’s hand, his wonders to perform.

Look It Up
Read Job 1 for a picture of a righteous man who suffers mightily but remains faithful.

Think About It

How many blessings do we take for granted amid the daily grind of life? Freedom, health, peace, wisdom. Do we convince ourselves that they are our birthrights or rewards for good behavior?

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