Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What Makes Good News Good?

Anytime I read a lectionary text like this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20) and see that verses are missing, I want to go and read what has been cut out to see why. Sometimes the missing verses pertain either to a following or preceding story and need to be cut out for the isolated text to make sense. Sometimes the lines that have been left out change the focus of the passage and have been omitted to shape the reading to fit with a theme for a particular Sunday. Sometimes parts of stories deemed less important are skipped over simply because the reading is too long. But, on Sundays like this one, verses are cut out for reasons I can’t (or don’t want to) understand.

            10:12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.
13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. (Luke 10:12-15, ESV)

It seems like the lectionary scholars who pieced together the RCL wanted to avoid wagging fingers at a modern Chorazin or Bethsaida. Recently, a friend and parishioner pointed out to me that the RCL often omits the “hard verses” that the 1979 BCP Lectionary included, so I went and looked in the back of my old prayer book. This time, that’s half-right: the BCP readings call for verse 12 (“It will be more bearable…”) but leave out the rest (“Woe to you…”). Still, though, it’s worth asking why the proclamation of woe is skipped this Sunday. Is summer a bad time for congregations to hear about repentance?

Since I was reading around the gospel text for Sunday, I decided to check out the neighboring verses in Isaiah 66. Funny enough, there’s a pattern. On both sides of this rejoicing passage, we read the prophet’s condemnatory words directed toward those who refuse to hear God’s word.

            66:15 “For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
and by his sword, with all flesh;
and those slain by the Lord shall be many. (Isaiah 66:15-16, ESV)

Both passages are set in the context of reward to those who hear God’s word and punishment for those who don’t. The hope expressed to those who turn to God and keep his commandments is delivered in explicit contrast to the destruction prophesied to those who don’t. Jesus makes it clear that those who refuse to hear the words of the seventy whom he sends ahead of him are in trouble—worse even than what happened to Sodom. Isaiah makes it clear that those who make unclean sacrifices will be judged and slain by the Lord himself. Part of what makes the good news good is the promise that bad things are coming to those who are bad.

Until I read the neighboring texts, I wanted to preach a happy sermon. I wanted to focus on the baby who is bounced on its mother’s knees. I wanted to talk about the joy of carrying the kingdom’s message to new towns where it is received gladly. But these accompanying verses make me wonder whether we can preach good news without at least acknowledging the bad.

Is the promise of salvation sweetened by the threat of damnation? That doesn’t sound like grace to me. That’s not something I normally would preach, but maybe I should.

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