Pentecost 14 B: Virtues for Pandemic Times

The readings for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost are…

Old Testament      Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–9

Psalm                    Psalm 15

New Testament     James 1:17–27

Gospel                   Mark 7:1–8, 14–15, 21–23

Our lessons this Sunday should inform the church so that it can be the world’s school of virtue for times of pandemic.

The Deuteronomy reading is the warning of Moses for the Hebrew people as they ready themselves for entering the land. He says that they need to develop the virtue of respect for law and government. Wake up America! Our trust in government and the rule of law is at an all time low, and that’s why we are on the verge of becoming a failed state. Look at the gates of the Kabul airport and you will see what failed state means. Those who risk being trampled in the hope of flying off to a place where justice is enforced should teach you that Ronald Reagan was wrong (and disingenuous?) when he said government is not the solution, it’s the problem. Reagan himself went on to increase government’s size and budget; and we must realize that when government fails, we correct it—we don’t trash it. And the only way we, as a species, will survive this and coming pandemics, is if we trust one another and our common efforts to wisely and compassionately govern ourselves. Here we Lutherans are reminded that the Law of God is not opposed to the Gospel of God’s grace – it can be an instrument of that grace. See how good God can be to us, to give us good government and just laws!

Psalm 15 teaches us about the virtue of radical commitment. These are days of flux. The climate is changing, and along with it we feel the flood waters, hurricane winds, and flash fires. The Covid advice is changing, and along with it the quick-sands of politics. The economy is changing as we fear the loss of jobs, then the loss of people willing to do the jobs, then too little then too much liquidity. Anxious about these changes the Psalmist says, “To be able to stand and not be moved, practice the virtue of steadfastness. Don’t look for loopholes, but walk blamelessly. And stand by your commitments and pledges even when it hurts!” And don’t be merely “woke” for a day when it comes to racism and inequality, but actively resist the wickedness that you see around you.

James expounds on the virtue of the active life, but adds texture to the psalmist’s call for commitment. He says the only committed and active life that is worth living is one that flows from the commitment and action of God. Our generosity must flow from God’s. Our action must not be knee-jerk. Rage and zeal are destructive if they are not God’s rage for what is right. James also calls us to the virtue of slowness. Be slow to speak and slow to anger, but quick to listen and understand. If this age we are living in is one where the trust in government is at its nadir, so is our collective ability to truly converse with each other. We prefer trolling. We prefer umbrage and outrage. But acting this way is a form of forgetfulness—we forget what we look like and that we need repair every day of our lives if the world we live in is to be repaired.  

And Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, calls us to a complex but essential virtue: the ability to distinguish the ultimate from the penultimate. The teaching of Jesus is set up by one of the many instances of judgment. Pharisees and scribes—people who should be experts in God’s commandments, criticize Jesus’ disciples for eating with unwashed hands. But Jesus points out that they critique is born of a greater insult to God than any violation of a tradition. They have used their religion to create barriers—to divide themselves from others. “Cleanliness is next to godliness” can become a rationale to keep those who do our “dirty work” for us at a distance. It can become a device for avoidance of our own responsibility for things that more truly defile. And Jesus then points us to the true character of those binding commandments that God has given us. They are for us to be constructively self-critical—to take care not to judge others, but to tend to what we are saying and doing to make our world a better place. So, Luther was right to say that the first and truest “use of the Law” is as a mirror. This also ties into  the reading from James who says that looking at ourselves in a mirror and remembering what we look like, is the best way to not only hearers of God’s word, but doers.

This pandemic is a global and existential threat. But what is a far more ominous threat is the way we fight each other about the pandemic. We have politicized just about everything that we could have overcome if we had exercised these virtues: Treasure and preserve good government, stand fast on commitments and responsibilities even when it hurts, be in conversation with those you disagree with, be constructively self-critical, and let the Law of God bring you together with others, not drive you further apart.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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