As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
Today is the third Sunday of Easter. And yes, even though you will no longer find chocolate bunnies for sale at Safeway, it’s still Easter! And it will continue to be Easter till we reach the feast of Pentecost on May 20. As you may have noticed, there are various ways that we mark this joyous season in our worship. We use vestments of white, which in Western culture are considered festive. We burn a very large white candle. We read the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Hebrew scriptures for the first reading. We include extra Alleluias at various places in the service. And finally, the Confession of Sin is optionally omitted. During this joyous season, we pause for 50 days to ponder a single day, the Day of Resurrection, and to consider its consequences for us as disciples of Jesus.
That explains why, for the third Sunday in a row, we hear a story from that first Easter Day. It’s kind of like the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character experiences the same day over and over again till he learns his lesson. Likewise, we will move on from Easter Day only when we have learned all that we need to learn from that eventful day.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
Today’s Gospel starts out with Jesus’ appointing precisely 70 evangelists to go out ahead of him preaching the Good News, for Jesus knows that he can’t do it all alone. Why 70, you might ask? Well, it turns out that in the book of Genesis, 70 is given as the number of Gentile nations in the world. So, there is a symbolic and prophetic reason for Jesus’ picking this exact number of evangelists; it represents the extension of his mission to the Gentiles—in other words, to people like most of us! I say it was an extension of Jesus’ mission, because in Luke 9, Jesus had already sent out the twelve apostles to spread the Good News among the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke tells us that Jesus sends out his evangelists to the Gentiles in pairs. And there are several possible reasons for this. One obvious reason would be mutual support. But another might have to do with the fact that in Jewish law, valid testimony requires two witnesses. And these evangelists, we are told, will be testifying for the Kingdom of God, as well as testifying against those towns that refuse to accept the Good News of God’s Kingdom. (As an aside, the Episcopal Church also encourages sending out home visitors two by two, but in this case it is to prevent misbehavior during home visitations.)
As you know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News, as is the reading from the Old Testament. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of Good News. So let me say a few words about the First Reading and the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
The story from 2 Samuel is the story of a problematic procession, of a liturgy gone wrong. However, due to the editing of the authors of our lectionary, you would be hard-pressed to know that! They have removed two paragraphs that change the entire meaning of this excerpt from King David’s bio. The first deleted paragraph explains how the procession went to Hell in a handbasket when the ark of the covenant began to fall out of the cart. Uzzah, one of two brothers from a priestly family who had been tasked with leading the procession, notices that the ark of God is slipping. Without thinking, he reaches his hand out to push the ark back in place. And he is struck dead for his efforts. The implication is that God was angry at the man for having touched the ark with his bare hands, something that was taboo. I don’t think that Uzzah’s death was fair. And King David didn’t think that it was fair. The Bible tells us that David was angry at God for killing Uzzah, and consequently, ruining his great procession. But David is not just angry, he is also fearful. So the procession of the ark stops for three months to see if God is going to kill anyone else. When David is finally satisfied that it is safe, the procession proceeds.
But there is yet another problem at the conclusion of the procession, a serious marital dispute. We are told that King David dressed in a linen ephod, a sort of loincloth, and danced ecstatically with all his might before God, and before a crowd of many thousands. His wife, Michal, objected. Given what we heard in today’s highly edited account, we can’t quite figure out why Michal objected so strenuously to David’s dance, why she “despised him in her heart.” The answer comes in the second deleted paragraph. There the Bible explains that King David danced in a scanty loincloth, with no underwear, and had exposed himself to the crowd. Not surprisingly, his wife, who was the daughter of a king, was scandalized. King David’s response to her criticism was to vow never again to sleep with his wife and to condemn her to a life of childlessness. When we know the whole story, King David comes across as both vulgar and vengeful. And even God himself is portrayed as somewhat capricious. All in all, it’s a disturbing and uninspiring story.