Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Monday, November 18, 2013

Why do the wicked prosper? 11.17.13

Psalm 73:1-18
1Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.
2But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped.
3For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
4For they have no pain; their bodies are sound and sleek.
5They are not in trouble as others are; they are not plagued like other people.
6Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them like a garment.
7Their eyes swell out with fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.
8They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.
9They set their mouths against heaven, and their tongues range over the earth.
10Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.
11And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
12Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches.
13All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.
14For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.

15If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,”
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
18Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.

John 12:23-33
23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

John 16:1-10, 33
”I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.

7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned… 33I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” 
            I think we’ve all been in the psalmist’s situation. He describes looking at other people, especially selfish, arrogant people, and seeing that they have it easy. Sometimes it seems like everyone has it better than we do. Sometimes it seems like doing things the right way is a disadvantage because people who cut corners seem to have more time free and less stress in their lives. Sometimes it seems like the rules of the game aren’t fair and the only ones who get ahead are cheaters.

            We see corrupt Wall Street folks making millions on questionable deals. Even when they get caught, the penalty doesn’t seem very high. We’ve had coworkers who somehow skate by doing a shoddy job and letting others pick up their slack. We see sleek and strong professional athletes only getting more famous as they pile up episodes of bad behavior.

            In a world like ours it sometimes feels like you need to cheat just to keep up. It’s tempting to fall into a take what you can mentality, to envy those folks who are visibly successful and strive for success like theirs.

            Jesus is honest about the challenges that face us. He warns his disciples that they won’t only face trouble like everyone does; they are going to be persecuted because of their faith. It’s not just our perception: the world is actually out of whack. Greed is rewarded and compassion has an uphill battle.

            Jesus even suggests that evil is in charge in the world as we know it. We see the same idea when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. Satan tells Jesus he will give him all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus worships him. Satan says all the world’s power is his to give away as he chooses, and Jesus doesn’t contradict him. There’s no doubt about it, evil is powerful in the world.

            That makes it harder to be good, harder to make the right choice. The more twisted things get, the easier it is to fit in and the more we adjust ourselves to an unjust reality. For instance, our politicians may have gone to Washington or Albany to work for justice, to improve our political life. But once they are there the power of the polarized environment makes it almost impossible to treat opponents like humans. The constant deceit of the campaign rhetoric makes any kind of compromise sound like weakness.

            That attitude filters down to regular voters too. We hear so much venom on the airwaves that it shapes the way we think about politics and people deeply. Words like “bigot” or “illegal” start rolling off our tongue and before long we start thinking of people who disagree with us as enemies instead of fellow children of God.

            When Jesus talks about the persecution his disciples are going to face, he is much fairer than we usually are. He says things are going to get so bad that people who kill Christians will think they are serving God. We know that’s how Jesus’ opponents thought about him too. Many of the religious leaders who worried about Jesus were afraid he was leading people away from the traditions given to them by God. They weren’t trying to be evil; they were just trying to protect their faith in a situation where the stakes were so high that disagreement seemed threatening.

            Our world, like theirs, feels threatening. The economy is fragile, so we think of human beings crossing a border to escape poverty as a threat to us. Relationships are challenging, so we close ourselves off from others. Faith and politics are full of important, difficult questions, so people with different opinions make us feel threatened. Money is tight, so we pursue it with hard work and clutch it tightly when it comes in. The world is tough and we become hard to protect ourselves.

            Jesus calls us to a better way. Thinking about his approaching death and the coming of the Holy Spirit, he claims that the ruler of this world is cast out. In other words, in Jesus’ ultimate love on the cross and his triumphant resurrection, God’s love conquers Satan’s power. Even though it doesn’t look like it, even though it still often seems like Satan rules the world, he does not. Even though love looks weak against the hard “facts” and callous actions we see every day, love will have the last word.

            The psalmist has a similar revelation when he goes into God’s temple. I’m sure it wasn’t the first or last time he went into the sanctuary, but for whatever reason, one day he saw things differently. Maybe today will be the day we see things differently; maybe today will be the way we see things from God’s perspective like the psalmist.

            Even though it looks like wicked people have it all; even though success seems so assured for them; the truth is quite different. He says he sees that God has set their feet in slippery places. When people put their trust in money or success or popularity or power, their feet are in a slippery place. In a second all of those things can disappear because they are things. A stock market crash can make a huge fortune disappear in a day. An illness can take away looks and popularity overnight. One picture on a website can bring power crashing down. Nothing we have is going to last.

            That means people who have built their lives around pursuing things have no real foundation. When things go wrong, they will fall, and since their focus has been on things and on themselves, they will not have the relationships and faith to sustain them through hardship.

            Is money a bad thing? Not unless it becomes our god. Likewise with all the other “good things” in life. It’s fine to enjoy good food, a comfortable home, and a rewarding career. But those things are not ultimate; they are not what life is about.

            The psalmist doesn’t say what it was in the sanctuary that revealed the truth to him, but I wonder if it was the community at prayer. There’s something amazing, transformative and sacred about a community of faith. When we really open ourselves up and pay attention to each other it’s hard to stay trapped in the world’s oppressive definition. When I sat with Sue Dargavel on Thursday I couldn’t help but think how fragile life is, how easy it is to let time slip away without visiting, how quickly someone can go from being independent to the border of life.

            When we spend time eating and talking and praying with people whose whole financial life is different from ours we see both how important and how unimportant money is. Everyone feels stress about money sometimes, but that means different things to different people. When folks who are fairly comfortable financially become close with those for whom a tank of gas can make or break the month, they are reminded of how much they really have and invited to clutch it less tightly and fearfully. When those who worry about how they are going to pay the heating bill spend time with folks who drive a newer car they see that more money doesn’t solve all their problems. It doesn’t create more time, it doesn’t solve family stress, it doesn’t eliminate fear.

            When we commit to life in a diverse community of faith we have brothers who never touch a drink and others who can’t put the bottle down. We have sisters who long for a husband and those who have escaped unimaginable abuse. We have family who have been here all their lives and those who grew up somewhere very different. We know people who can’t imagine life without a computer and others who remember life before TV.

When we really get deeply involved in a community we see life from so many different perspectives that we see the limits of our experience and the breadth of God’s grace. We learn from each other and realize that we have a lot in common despite our differences. We know that we all suffer; we share many fears and joys. We are all human, all God’s children and we all have something to share. That breaks us free from the rat race of measuring ourselves and each other by outward things and being captive to the powers of this world.

When going into the sanctuary changes us, when being with our brothers and sisters and hearing the word of God transforms our hearts, we see suffering and prosperity differently. We not only see that the wicked are not really secure, we also see that they aren’t really happy. And when we’ve practice loving a wide range of people through the community of faith, we can have compassion for those we used to envy.

Being part of God’s amazing community doesn’t give us a better job, or help us afford a bigger house. It won’t cure our physical diseases either. Christians suffer like everyone else. Jesus says it as clearly as possible: he tells the disciples that the faithful path will be hard. He also says that if they follow him, they’ll find a deeper peace, a deeper satisfaction that comes from trusting God, not things or situations. “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

In suffering and in joy, in celebration and sorrow we have peace in Christ. We offer and receive that peace from others through a caring community of faith. Suffering is real; evil is powerful, but love has the last word.

Thanks be to God.

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