To Consuming Moderns I Become…?

Today’s Lectionary Epistle is from 1st Corinthians 9:

19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

I was instant messaging with a friend today who said this: “… it’s kinda weird when all ur worlds start to intersect and somehow they find their way onto your facebook.” We then wound up in an interesting “discussion” (I put discussion in quotes because Instant Messaging seems like something a bit different than conversation) about how the modern (or postmodern or hypermodern depending on your preferred nomenclature) condition is one of rootlessness and disintegration. We’re always on the move, both daily and in life. We are, most of us anyway, mobile all the time. We work one place, play in another, worship in another, meet potential life partners in another, connect with family in yet another, and so forth. And then many of us will uproot and move to another part of the country, or perhaps even another country altogether, and find a whole other set of places and networks and relationships and start the whole process again. We are forever putting on and taking off different selves. Our work selves, our play selves, our dating selves, our family selves. This is perhaps why boundary language is such a part of our culture. We’re always trying to figure out when and where one self ought to end and where and when another should begin. Then comes a website like Facebook where we can look at all our selves and the networks they inhabit all at once, and it can be downright arresting. This is so different from the existential situation of so many of the people who have ever lived, who by and large lived, worked, worshiped and died with the same people in the same place.

This led to my thinking about what the Gospel speaks into this situation. My guess is that most people in Center City Philadelphia where I work and live aren’t deeply driven by the question of how they might possibly be reconciled to a righteous and holy God. This probably was a dilemma in 16th century Europe, but not now, not for most urbanites anyway. What does it mean to become “all things to all people” in the here and now?

My guess is it has something to do with the promise of a God who wants to know the whole us and create a place and space where we can know and be known. The trap of modernity is that we are always constructing ourselves. Our identities are always in flux. Identity is the last and ultimate consumer good. More like a consumer project actually. This is why advertising so seldom sells a product, but an identity. If you buy this car, or these clothes, or consume this convivial beverage then you will enter into the world and scene that comes with them. Our consumer choices become bound up not merely with our material needs, but with our desire to construct that self that will end the sense of longing that leads to senseless spending. But this is false hope. The failure of each consumer constructed identity leads to a more gaping hole than previously existed. So many of us find our selves longing to create a self that gives us peace at the same time being caught in the midst of our selves and all the contexts in which mere segments of us are known at any given time. In the Gospel we meet a God from whom we cannot hide, a God before whom we can stop the quest for the consumer self. For this God knows us in Christ better than we can know ourselves and the gift of his grace is the gift of our true selves that we can never create but only receive and live into in the Spirit. This God journeys with us in our nomadic state, uniting us with other modern nomads who have received the promise of membership in an Eternal City where everybody knows our name, and more than our name, our deepest truest selves.

Scheming Grace

In his book Messengers of God, Eli Wiesel describes the Joseph narrative as a slow-paced, monotonous, overdetailed, overwritten story that can put the reader to sleep. I’d prefer to see it as textured, rich and earthy. It’s certainly been the highlight of the daily lectionary for me of late. And usually I find it’s the grace, not the devil, that’s in the details.

Yesterday we read the story of Joseph’s encounter with Benjamin, whom the other brother’s have to bring before Joseph if they are to return to Egypt for more grain in the midst of the famine. The meeting is so emotional that Joseph must retire. Robert Alter notes that the literal translation of the Hebrew in 43:30 is something akin to “his mercy burned hot.” He withdraws to gather himself and then returns to dine with his brothers. He seats them in accordance with their ages, from firstborn to youngest. This may seem like one of the “overwritten” parts of the narrative. But it’s telling. It reveals Joseph’s knowledge and his brother’s ignorance. They do not know who he is, but he knows who they are, intimately so. And now Benjamin sits in the place that Joseph would have sat. And he does take Joseph’s place indeed, literally. For Joseph shows the sort of gratuitous favor to Benjamin that Jacob showed to Joseph so many years before. Joseph recreates the set of circumstances that led to his own demise. He favors the youngest brother, perhaps wondering if the same jealousy and enmity would develop.

In today’s reading the plot thickens. Joseph has the sacks of all his brothers loaded up with silver. Here is where the irony becomes thick. In chapter 37 Joseph’s brothers receive silver in exchange for their brother who they sell into slavery in Egypt. Now, hard as they try, they cannot leave the silver in Egypt. It follows them relentlessly and seems on multiple occasions as if it will lead them into bondage (or worse) as well. But the brothers do not stand accused when Joseph’s servant comes upon them. It is only Benjamin who will suffer harsh consequences, for in his bag is found Joseph’s own silver cup. Joseph has gone to great lengths to recreate the situation of his own betrayal. His brothers again have the opportunity to betray their youngest brother, the favorite son of their father, and to leave Egypt with sacks full of silver.