Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Pentecost 5: "God Did Not Make Death"

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24 

Psalm 30
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5:21-43

It can be difficult to take seriously the words from the Wisdom of Solomon: “God did not make death….[T]he generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth”.  (Wisdom 1:13-14)  In fact, how often have you heard the common opinion that hell is here on earth itself?  Certainly, for anyone suffering from a chronic illness or facing the death of a child such a passage begs the question, “If God does not create death, if the generative forces of the world are wholesome, then why is this happening to me or to those I love, or to anyone?”   Yet, oddly enough, it is these sorts of questions which the passage is attempting to address.  The writer is hoping to remind those who read or listen to his words that the death, decay and turmoil we often experience around us are not God’s plan or purpose for creation or for his creatures. 

While attributed to the wise king Solomon who ruled Israel in the 10th century BC, the book was actually written much later; scholars believe somewhere in the 1st or 2nd centuries before the birth of Christ.  While the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures is in fact written in Hebrew, this book is written in Greek, and most probably in Egypt during the time when Rome was beginning her domination of the area.  Living in such a place and under such conditions, the author knew all too well that there is wickedness, darkness and destruction in the world.  Yet in the midst of all this, the author is still willing to point out to his hearers or readers that overriding tenet of the Jewish tradition, the belief that God is good, and how at the beginning of creation God declared all things good: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)   At the same time, the writer wants to point out how through our own actions – exemplified by the disobedience of our first parents – we invite into God’s world wickedness and deceit, unkindness and sorrow, which lead to all sorts of deaths.  In other places in the first chapter of Wisdom, the author specifically warns those who will listen: “Do not invite death by the error of your life or bring on destruction by the works of your hands” (Wisdom 1:12); and that “the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death...and made a covenant with him”. (Wisdom 1:16)  Yes, there is certainly death in the world, but it is not God’s doing or God intent.  God’s intent is for life and the creation’s purpose is to engender and support it.  The author indirectly asks those who read or hear his words to ponder upon the ways in which they have courted death rather than life in their dealings and actions.  All people of faith, all people of integrity are called to live in such a way that the inherent goodness of God’s creation is revealed, and that the forces of destruction are kept at bay or destroyed themselves.  We are all called to work for – and indeed demand – life out of the suffering, pain and chaos which so often confronts us.  We are called to be signs and makes signs, signs that tell people God is re-creating the world according to his original purposes.  It’s important to remember that the Greek word in the synoptic Gospels which we translate into “miracle”, is actually “sign” – the miracles are signs that God is putting the world back together.  A tradition in Judaism sees the world – from the time of the disobedience in the Garden of Eden – as literally falling apart; signs of its decay are illness, injustice, poverty, among the other and various evils which face human beings along with the rest of creation.  This view is accompanied by the idea of tikkun olam.  It means “repairing the world” or “healing and restoring the world”.  Tikkun olam proposes that perhaps human beings are to work in partnership with God to return creation to God’s original plan – life and wholeness.  In some sense tikkun olam is not too far from the Christian idea of “the kingdom of God” which each Christian is called to usher in and to reveal by their lives and actions.  Both affirm that “God did not make death and [that] the generative forces of the world are wholesome” (Wisdom 1:13, 14), and both demand human cooperation with God to bring God’s vision and purposes to fruition.

Jesus’ life and ministry is all about this.  The miracles are not some bits of wonder-working, but signs that God is inaugurating something new, that the world is bring repaired and that the kingdom of God is already among us.  Jesus heals the sick, signaling the life and wholeness which is God’s will, for “[God] created all things so that they might exist”. (Wisdom 1:14)  Jesus touches the bleeding and the dead, and signals the end of de-humanizing purity laws – all God’s creation is clean, for  “There is no destructive poison in” the generative forces of the world. (cf. Wisdom 1:14)  Jesus raises the dead as sign of God’s restoring the entire created order to new life for “the dominion of Hades is not on earth”.  And by these signs he encouraged others to make them too.  Like the woman with the hemorrhages who reaches out for healing.  She demands the wholeness which is God’s promise and that too is a sign of repair and renewal.  Like Jairus who is heartened by Jesus’ other signs and falls at his feet, begging him repeatedly to make his daughter well, that she might live.  He makes a sign of solidarity with the sick and defenseless, and that also is a sign of restoration.  Not Jesus, not the woman with the hemorrhages, not Jairus, none accept that death or disfigurement or hopelessness are part of God’s plan for creation or for their lives.  Certainly there are others around them who, like the writer of Wisdom says, consider death a friend and have made a covenant with him: those quacks whose ministrations that poor woman suffered for 12 years, or those friends and neighbors of Jairus who laugh at the possibility of life about to made manifest.  There are always those who in the midst of crisis or chaos speak the word of death, of disillusionment. 

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that affirmation of life means every sick person will be cured, or that no one will die.  However, the writer of Wisdom and what Jesus’ life witnesses to is the reality that life in all its many forms is the real narrative of the world, no matter what the death-dealers may say or think.  As Christians we are a people of life – that means that we are part of God’s putting things back together – and as such we always have to speak the word of life and demand life out of the darkest and most death-dealing corners of the world.  How often do we demand life in any one of its forms from the structures of our society, from our bankers or politicians?  How often do we demand life in the name of the most vulnerable in our world, those who find themselves for ever living in darkness and in the shadow of death.  How often do we demand life for our own selves?.  We willingly aand too often buy into the language of death, the language of poverty, the language of impossible, language of unnecessary limitations, instead of reaching out to the truth of life, abundance, possibility.  In the Book of Deuteronomy and shortly before he leaves them to enter the promised land, Moses said to the Israelites, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”   (Deuteronomy 30:19)  In all the events of our lives, this what we are called to do also – to choose life, to make signs of the kingdom, to repair the world’s brokenness, and lighten its darkest places.  We are called to reveal in our lives the inherent goodness in creation, and God’s plan and good purposes for it.

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