Setting God Before Our Eyes: Reflections on the Sunday Readings

by Rebecca Curtin

Usually when I look through or listen to the Sunday readings one particular reading or verse stands out to me. However, this week the way in which the readings feel connected is impossible to ignore. The Liturgy of the Word truly acts as one unit, a liturgical dialog. It seems to me that I am witness to a great moral and metaphysical conversation that leaps across biblical books, centuries, and traditions. And, which all begins with Wisdom:

“The wicked say:

Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us…Let us see whether his words be true…With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test that we may have proof of his gentleness…”

I shudder at these words. The word “wicked” has a sharpness that sounds as bad as its definition implies. The entire First Reading speaks as if from the voice of people who are so dreadful that they are part of the collective “wicked”. Could there be people this terrible? Perhaps these wicked are simply misunderstood, like the Wicked Witch of the West in the musical Wicked. They grew up, maybe living a tough life, catching tough breaks, falling in with the wrong crowd. And then their anger towards the others they feel have rejected them bubbles, seethes, becomes malice, malignity, wickedness. They plot the downfall of people who reproach them, people who seem to be blessed by God.

And, it seems, the just hear what the wicked intend to do to them. Fearing the wicked, the just call out to God for his protection. In the Psalm they say as we sing:

“The Lord upholds my life

Oh God, by your name save me,

and by your might defend my cause…

For the haughty men have risen up against me,

the ruthless seek my life;

they set not God before their eyes.”

Sung by a congregation “The Lord upholds my life” is repeated emphatically, even desperately, so that psalmist seems to cry, “Please Lord, uphold my life! Do not give me up to the whims of the wicked! Do not let me give up!”

But here, at what seems like a climax, the controversial James interjects and in the Second Reading appears to both uphold and condemn us all:

“Beloved:

Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,

There is disorder and every foul practice…

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure…” (Jas 3:16-17)

James does not condemn those who are “wicked.” He calls all who listen “beloved,” and by doing so changes the game. The human race, no longer divided into “wicked” and “just,” is as a flawed collective body now contrasted with divine perfection, purity and goodness.

Humbled by James words I move toward the Gospel of Mark, joining Jesus and his disciples on their journey through Galilee. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and they do not understand what he teaches. Instead, ironically, they argue among themselves about who is the greatest. In response, Jesus brings a child before them and says:

“Whoever received one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

My mind flies back to the Psalm: “the haughty men…the ruthless…set not God before their eyes.” The disciples are not setting God before their eyes, so Jesus does it for them. Even those blessed by God, the disciples, followers of God’s son, literally must bring the answer before them. Low in status, a child seems powerless, not great, and yet it must be received by the faithful – its weakness embraced – as a symbolic internalization of God’s perfection and goodness.

I too am weak, sometimes just and sometimes wicked, but thus the Lord upholds my life.

Rebecca Curtin hopes she really isn’t all that wicked. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, she works, lives, and writes in Cambridge, MA, and right now mostly watches the leaves change.

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