This past Sunday, our readings taught about the connection between turning to God and lamenting our sin.
The first reading was from the prophet Zechariah. The prophets are a hard read, and this reading is typical.
At first glance it seems a jumble of unconnected ideas. “I will pour out on the house of David . . . a spirit of grace and petition.” “They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” “The mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido.” “A fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.”
Four, or more, heavy ideas. Sometimes we need a moment to let them come into focus and fit together.
First, we see the connection between grace and petition. Our asking is itself God’s gift. It is his pouring out on us that leads us to ask – and we ask him to pour out more of that same spirit.
Next, we look to the Cross. The spirit of grace turns our eyes to Jesus, the one whom we have pierced. In the Cross we see both our misery and his love for us. From this vision comes our spirit of petition.
In the third line, we get a “type,” an Old Testament partial image, of Jesus. Hadadrimmon in the plain of Meggido is where the good king Josiah lost his life to the Egyptians. Josiah was a reformer; he restored the Temple and the observance of Old Testament ritual, and put an end to idols. (The modern scholars who like such claims even say that he invented much of the ritual – because he was such a great Restorer.)
Like Jesus, he brought people back to God. And like Jesus, he was slain (by the Egyptians). He is the original one whom they have pierced, this is the original lamentation for the destruction of the Restorer. He gives more shape to our mourning at the Cross: here was the one who brought us back to God, and our sin has attacked him.
And from the pierced side of Christ – and from the ground where Josiah was slain – springs forth “a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” In our mourning is our conversion.
The Gospel was Luke’s version of Peter’s confession: “But who do you say that I am?” “The Christ of God.” Luke does not give us Peter’s denial. He just gives us the juxtaposition in all its horror:
As soon as Peter identifies Jesus, Jesus tells them he “must suffer greatly . . . and be killed and on the third day be raised.” There is consolation in the Resurrection – but it comes only through the Crucifixion.
And lest that seem too easy, Jesus then applies it to us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
The key is in our reading from Zechariah. We have to deny ourselves because our desires are not right; we are sinners. We have to deny ourselves because we have pierced the Redeemer.
Peter has recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Savior. But to know him as Savior he must know his own need for salvation. We must look on him whom we by our sins have pierced, and lament.
The second reading, from Galatians, like Zechariah, is challenging. It’s at first hard to see what it is saying – and even harder to see how it fits with the others. I point out this difficulty to encourage us to undertake a kind of liturgical lectio divina by juxtaposition. Sometimes the richest insights come from putting two seemingly unrelated passages next to one another, and gazing on them until their connection comes into focus.
In this reading, Paul says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
It is the classic passage where grace seems to destroy nature. It works from extrinsic to intrinsic. Jew or Greek is a matter of nationality; so frivolous to think that one nation is holier than another. Slave or free at least hints at individual differences – the ancient world, well aware that slavery was mostly based on unjust historical accidents, debated whether there at least might in theory be some reason that one man would be lord over another.
And then comes gender itself. We follow the same debate today: if racism is wrong, shouldn’t we outlaw gender, too? If grace transcends nationality, doesn’t it also eliminate sexual differences?
Paul’s answer is subtle.
He does not think nature, or biology, is irrelevant. Less than two chapters later in Galatians, he will put “sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality” alongside “idolatry, strife, and jealousies” as exemplary rejections of the Spirit. God’s Spirit does not make us forget that we are woman and man – God teaches us to live our identities more truly.
And yet in this week’s passage, Paul warns us against mentalities of privilege. Yes, nationality and gender remain – but they are no reason to look down on one another, no reason not to love. Deeper than our natural differences, we are all “heirs according to the promise,” “children of God through faith.”
Paired with our other readings, this passage in Galatians reminds us to beware our tendency to fall into earthly ways of thinking – the ways of thinking that crucify Christ and deny our own crosses. Instead, let us lament our lack of love and cry out again to him who loves us.
How does your sense of privilege stand in the way of true conversion?