The Promise and the Promised.

The Propers for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Please note: an entry in the People’s Missal Project

Missa Respice Domine in testamentum tuum

JMJ

ABRAHAM IS THE FATHER, in faith, of all God’s people. God’s covenant with Abraham was to bless all people through his line. This promise is fulfilled in Christ. Traditional Dispensationalist theology sees a series of covenants proceeding between God and Man in different dispensations: Adam (which was broken by us), then Noah (which was broken by us), then Abraham. The Torah given on Sinai, in this mistaken theology, is kind of a sidestep that God took, a dispensation that has nothing to do with the Church. When Jesus comes, the Torah goes away and we “get back” to the Covenant with Abraham, now fulfilled in Christ. This line of reasoning is rightly rejected for its anti-Jewish tack.

Another way to read history is to see God leading humanity back to the place where we were supposed to be – but lost in Eden. Eden is not the place we’re supposed to be: we were only beginning there. In Christ, yes, the promises are fulfilled, but all parts of the life of faith – including Sinai – have been bringing humanity to that final stage (we’re clearly not there yet).

The Collect for today begs God for the three Theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. This is our clue to what the place is. These three virtues are linked with the four Cardinal virtues:prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. These may be thought of as the four cardinal points of a compass in circle, north, east, south, and west, with the three theological virtues as a pillar rising in the center: faith as a foundation, hope as the energizing center, and charity or love at the crown. The seven points thus describe a sphere, the traditional image of a cosmos in balance. Without this central pillar, the four points of the compass devolve into legalism.

The final destination is also clearly seen in today’s propers, the Postcommunion begs God that by the grace of the sacraments we may “steadily advance towards eternal redemption”. This final state, redeemed, is where we should have been. We would have grown from the Garden to a final state we do not yet know, but by the Grace of God, we are being returned to it (by a longer route).

In this teaching the promise of God to Abraham was manifested in the Law of Sinai. The entire Torah being a human instantiation of the divine law, not only for how to relate to God (couched in language and symbols easily understood by a people freed from Egyptian slavery and living among the neighboring tribes) but also how to relate to each other. God’s Torah provided clear rules, “worship me like this” and “live together like this.” It created, on parchment, the design of a perfect society as it could then be understood. It also drew the people forward, aspirationally, toward a goal they could not achieve: the point was not to follow each individual law (automatons could do that better) but to live them, to reform the human heart. We see this in later wisdom literature where God makes fun of the sacrifices, “do you think I eat bulls or drink goats’ blood?” but mankind, without God’s grace, could not live this law. We still needed our “heart of stone” be replaced by a “heart of flesh”.

The Introit opens with our lament: Remember your covenant, Lord. Don’t forget us or shrug us off. We are seeking you. This is repeated in the Gradual. But although it is the continual cry of the People of God – from Abraham til now – we find our hope expressed in the Alleluia: Thou hast been our refuge in every generation. Both the aspiration and the hope are true: for we cannot seek God without his grace. A sign that we are in the process of being saved is that we are actively seeking our salvation. Not despairing of our salvation we cry out to God in hope – this cry itself is part of our salvation being worked out in our lives.

The Epistle from Saint Paul explains the relationship of Sinai to the promise. God’s promise was made to Abraham and then, 450 years later, the Covenant at Sinai was given by God. This does not annul the Promise which was received by faith. Rather, says Paul, the law was given because of sin. One way to read this would be that Israel was so evil that they needed law. Again, this falls into anti-semitism. Another way to read this is that God gave us – all of us – Israel living in Covenant with God to show us what his rule for a just society would be like. Yes the law was the Covenant with Israel but Israel-in-Covenant-with-God was a gift to all of us: as God promised Abraham in his seed the world would be blessed. The promise was fulfilled in Christ but the moral law was not done away with, rather the grace needed to live in the Just Society described by the Law was given to the nations to correct, to reform, to radically destroy and rebuild the social order after the image of the Kingdom.

At this time we may see a chance to eradicate one such sin – racism – and reform ourselves closer to the kingdom. But the law of Israel described economic justice, social justice, and right relations between people as well. All of these need to be worked into our modern living out of Christendom in the world. We are still intended to be a blessing to the world as children of Abraham. Instead, we fall into partisan bickering over liturgical forms and secular powers.

As Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Teh Ching:

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is kindness.
When kindness is lost, there is justice.
When justice is lost, there is ritual.
Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.

Chapter 38

This Samaritan arrives in the story a few chapters after the “Good Samaritan” story from last week. The continued use of Samaritan as “Good Guy” highlights Luke’s focus on including the Gentiles. The sign of the Ten Lepers Cleansed can be read as either anti-Semitic or not; further, the anti-Semitism can be very subtle or else very overt. Let us avoid both options as we read the Gospel for today. It is tempting to see the nine men who were cleansed of leprosy as going their own way and not thanking God. Yet, they are doing exactly as Jesus directed them: they are going to the Temple, as required by the Torah, to show themselves to the priest and be declared free of leprosy. This is an issue of ritual purity, not sin. The tenth man, the Samaritan, would not go to the Temple. In fact, he could not go to a Jewish priest at all. We are not told what the other nine men did after this story, but we do not need to assume that only the Samaritan was finally healed. Jesus says, “Ten were cleansed”. For all ten, their faith has saved them. When one came back and Jesus seems to call out the other nine for doing exactly what he told them to do, and also exactly what was required by the law.

Before they could interact with the public pious Jews needed to be declared clean by the priest. The Levitical rules for the cleansing of lepers are quite complex: involving 8 days, bathing, multiple sacrifices. The Samaritan was under no such stricture. Or if he was, it was not at the hands of the Jewish priests, but with his own clergy. Jesus is not commenting on the Jewish Rules (from which “one jot or one tittle shall in nowise pass until all is fulfilled”).

The entirety of the story then must be a sign. From the first time all ten calling Jesus as “Master” to the closing scene with the Samaritan is one action in Luke’s story. Luke, working with St Paul, is mindful of the inclusion of non-Jews in the Christian community. Here those might be represented by the Samaritan. A Jew believing Jesus to be the Messiah might hear a call to bypass the older system because of Jesus: this story can also be read as to highlight the importance of thanksgiving (eucharist) over and above the older rules. The purity rules are not part of the moral teaching of the Torah. So the Samaritan (the Gentile, as it were) comes back to give God glory – here, at the feet of Jesus.

We imagine that we must do something ourselves to fix things, forgetting that God is in control. The full text of the Offertory speaks to us of this: In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped; I said: Thou art my God, my times are in Thy hands. Our times are in God’s hands. It’s not up to us to control the times or even fix the times: it’s up to us how we react or move through them, however.

All things – including the social change of Christianity – flow from Thanksgiving, all things flow from the Mass. The Eucharist, as the Communion says, is bread from heaven, having in it all that is delicious, and the sweetness of every taste. The Eucharist is the promise carried to each of us personally: what we do with it, however, is up to us. We are not saved because of the Euacharist but rather by the Eucharist if we let the motion of Thanksgiving and offering carry through to the rest of our lives. We are not offering limited, human resources to God: we are offering God, himself: unlimited, eternal, and omnipotent.

The arc of action for Missa Respice Domine in testamentum tuum goes from “Why is this all sucky and why does God not fix it” to God fixing it through our action of thanksgiving and our response to that repair. We too can be lost in ritual, which is only the husk of faith. We can be like the nine who did exactly what they should do… and somehow missed the boat. Or we can be like the tenth, who suddenly discovered that God was acting and turned down a different path to his own salvation. When the promise is fulfilled, the promise passes away.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

One thought on “The Promise and the Promised.”

  1. wow, excellent timing, although you would have no way of knowing it. all these years later, still trying to unlearn some things, like “the dispensations”
    this is good news:
    “A sign that we are in the process of being saved is that we are actively seeking our salvation. Not despairing of our salvation we cry out to God in hope – this cry itself is part of our salvation being worked out in our lives.”

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