“If Not Now – – When?”
Deuteronomy 21:10 – 14
Isaiah 60: 1- 3
Chilmark Community Church
October 16, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
It is a powerful and liberating tradition in this country that we observe the separation of church and state. We do not preach from the pulpit in favor or against any particular candidate for election. The pulpit is not to be used to sway opinion one way or another. That being said, though, as people of faith, we do have the responsibility for allowing our sacred texts to inform and guide us as we seek to bring into balance what we hear and see. And if we read the Bible with attention to its historical context, we soon discover that it is one of the most political books ever compiled. It holds at its center the witness to an Unseen God who demands justice for the oppressed, mercy and compassion for the poor, kindness and hospitality to the stranger, and equal treatment under the law for all people and consummate respect for one another as persons created in the image of God. These principles are stated repeatedly in the first 5 books of the bible which form the blueprint for all that follows. The prophets, the Psalmist, and the Jesus of the gospels all keep repeating the same great themes. We belong to an ancient and much larger tradition than our current electoral process. So it is worth taking a closer look at how the ancient texts speak to our contemporary situation.
In our political forums today there are a couple of major and fundamental ways in which political promises differ. There is the politics of change and there is the politics of incremental, step by step, progress over time. While these ways of approaching the social and political changes that are needed are often seen as oppositional, both have their merits and their place in our political process. In the best of all possible worlds, these two ways of looking at how to bring about a transformed society would be complimentary and would work hand in hand – each informing the other.
In the verses we read from Deuteronomy, we find a description of how a desirable female captive, taken in war, is to be treated if the winning general decides to make her his wife. She is to be allowed a month’s time to mourn the family she has lost in the battle. She is to cut her hair and trim her nails as a sign, perhaps of that mourning. She is to remove her captive’s garments in favor of clean clothes. When these requirements have been met, then the general may take her as a wife. If the general decides at some point that he no longer wants her as a wife, he must set her free – he may not sell her and he may not enslave her.
To our minds, all of this is difficult to accept. The woman has no rights and no say in the matter. She is a captive of war, a piece of property. She ends up the wife of a stranger. She has no assurance that her life will be whole and happy.
A closer look, though, reveals that this is one of those places in scripture where incremental reforms have taken place. In other places in the scripture, in accordance with the laws concerning the victims of war, the woman could have been slaughtered outright with the rest of the captives or she could have been abused and enslaved by her captor. Over the course of passing generations, the laws and customs of earlier years were modified and gradually moved toward being more humane – – even though there was still little freedom for women to exercise the power of choice over their lives.
A little further on, we read about inheritance rights. There are two wives in a family sharing the same husband, one wife, beloved, and the other not so well loved. The not-so-well-loved wife gives birth to the first born son of the shared husband. A little later, the beloved wife also gives birth to a son who is her firstborn – but not the firstborn to the husband. The law in Deuteronomy states that due consideration must be given to the firstborn son of the unloved wife because he is the older son. The father cannot play favorites or ignore the birth order. There is no mention here of the pros and cons and injustices of polygamy as this was the accepted norm. If you will recall from the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that Hagar could conceive a child with Abraham since Sarah seemed to be barren in her old age.
Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, making Ishmael Abraham’s first born and eldest son. But Sarah was the beloved wife and eventually she did become pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. In this story, the family inheritance and blessing went to Isaac – the son of the beloved wife – – leaving Ishmael, the first born son of Abraham and the unloved wife, Hagar, without the benefit of a blessing and inheritance from Abraham.
The law that we just read from Deuteronomy is part of the incremental changes that happened where family inheritance laws were at issue. They moved gradually toward a more just system.
The incremental changes that we see in the laws of inheritance in Deuteronomy move toward greater justice even though the bigger picture still seems fraught with problems to our modern eyes. Incremental change takes time and patience. It happens, sometimes over generations and we can’t always see a satisfying progress.
On the other hand, there is the kind of change that looks for dramatic transformation that is quickly measurable – – that satisfies the human yearning for something better – – something visible that assures a positive step ahead. Our political rhetoric is often filled with promises for rapid change that will satisfy the hopes of so many people for a better future.
There are voices in our ancestral lineage who give utterance to the politics of change. The great prophets were often the voice of transformative vision. They were able to stand outside their respective cultures and societies and notice what was wrong. They could see clearly where change needed to happen in order for the Divine vision of holiness for all of God’s people to become a reality. They gave voice to the Divine longing for God’s people to pay attention to issues of justice and compassion. Unlike our contemporary politics of change, however, the prophets stridently called for changed behavior on the part of the people. They called for repentance – – for the people to return to greater faithfulness to the Ultimate Concerns of God for God’s people. The biblical politics of change was not magical – – and social change did not come simply because someone decreed that it would. It required a change of heart of the people – first and foremost.
The overall witness of the Bible attests to the fact that both perspectives are required in order for humankind to continue to move toward a more just and humane and compassionate society.
Listen to a few verses of the transformative vision of the prophet Isaiah preached to a people yearning with hope for what life might be like after their exile ended:
Raise your eyes and look about:
They have all gathered and come to you.
Your sons shall be brought from afar,
Your daughters like babes on shoulders.
And behold, you shall glow;
Your heart will throb and thrill –
For the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you,
Dust clouds of camels shall cover you,
Dromedaries of Midian and Ephah.
They shall all come from Sheba;
They shall bear gold and frankincense,
and shall herald the glories of the Lord.
Bowing before you shall come
the children of those who tormented you;
prostrate at the soles of your feet
shall be those who reviled you;
I the mighty one of Jacob am your redeemer.
Instead of copper I will bring gold,
instead of iron, I will bring silver;
Instead of wood, copper;
instead of stone, iron,
and I will appoint Well-being as your government
Prosperity as your officials.
The cry “Violence” shall no more be heard in your land,
nor “wrack and ruin!” within your borders.
And you shall name your walls “Victory”
and your gates “Renown.”
This is a transformative vision for change. If Isaiah had been running for public office around 500 BCE, he would have won hands down. He preached God’s promise that Israel would be restored to greatness, that her wealth would be returned to her, that her scattered children would return home, that violence would no longer reign in the land – – that well-being and prosperity would reign. He brought the people great hope and vision.
2500 years later, we live in a world still waiting for that great transformative vision to come in all its fullness. We still wait, often in anguish, at the slowness of its coming.
While thousands of people continue to suffer and die, the UN has interminable discussions about how to re-settle refugees from Aleppo. Nations around the world struggle with developing policies that will lead to the resettlement of immigrants in a safe and just way. The lumbering slowness of response is maddening.
Our country continues to wrestle with the legacy of slavery and the resulting civil rights issues and racial inequality that continue to plague us.
Unimaginable wealth and unspeakable poverty exist side by side and we are slow to find ways to bring economic justice into reality.
Our young and sometimes not so young people suffer and die from opiate addiction in increasing numbers.
Our tradition has always embraced the paradoxical vision of the ” just about to happen” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God. One of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings is in the gospel of Luke when he was asked by a Pharisee when the kingdom of God was coming? Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say “Look here it is!” or “There it is! For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)
John the Baptist preached “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The literal translation is the kingdom “has come near.” He and Jesus both proclaimed the nearness of God’s kingdom.
Just consider for a moment what the response would have been like if Jesus and John had preached, “The kingdom of God is 2,000 years away.” This would not have been news, nor would it have been perceived as all that good. The message would have been almost irrelevant, and public response would have been disappointment.
However, John and Jesus preached a kingdom that was near in time to their audiences. The message said something about what people should do now; it had immediate relevance and urgency. It aroused interest. The message challenged the status quo and implied that changes were needed in civil government, in religious understanding, and in personal behavior – and they were needed now – -even though, in real time, a long, arduous process would be needed to bring about the social change that the Kingdom of God implies.
The fact that our scriptures seem to be able to hold together the great vision of a transformed society and the need for small incremental steps toward fulfilling the vision may help us to live with the ambiguity of the loud and strident arguments circling around us today.
The Bible helps us to understand that while the urgent vision – the promise of change and a sense of immediacy are necessary for us in order to sustain our hope and energy for the future – – we also have to be prepared for the long haul of working toward that envisioned future in sometimes agonizingly slow and laborious increments.
It is in the day by day working toward the vision that we, as people of God, are able to harmonize the paradox when Jesus says “The kingdom of God is coming and is now among you.” It is in the day by day work that we do together that the kingdom becomes real now.
So – as we move forward – as we listen and try to make sense of what we hear, perhaps we can let the scriptures guide us – – and even reassure us. Perhaps, we may find a bit of rest in knowing that for centuries the divine promise of a holy future is within our grasp – – if we are willing to patiently do our part to make it real now by how we create harmony and compassion and justice and well-being right where we are – -and to know that what we do NOW affects the future in ways that are not apparent to us as we labor on. May we be blessed with the urgency of the vision and with the patience we need for the long haul. AMEN