Today is one of those days where the compilers of the lectionary have, whether intentionally or not, paired together two passages from the New Testament that I find—because of their pairing— unexpectedly arresting.
At first glance, this pairing of epistle and gospel may strike us as a bit lopsided. We hear a dense admonition from St Paul, some of his harshest words, as he decries the inclination of the community at Corinth to pursue one another with lawsuits. In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?
And then there is this bit from the Gospel According to Luke, a good seventy percent of which is but a list of names, names familiar to us now, names so familiar we might wonder what could possibly edifying about them. Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
It may be difficult to imagine the Savior of the World being a mischievous tease, but there may be evidence of this in these very strange words. The disciples have asked a perfectly good question about what would later be referred to as the “rapture”. When some are taken, where will they be taken? His answer: “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” A bizarre non sequitur. A weird thought.
Commentaries struggle to make sense of this, offering a range of not very convincing interpretations. I think it’s possible that Jesus was being intentionally obscure, even mischievous or playful. We don’t know for sure what these words mean–which may be the point. We may need to be comfortable with some level of obscurity in religion—and be wary of religion that is too tidy, too wrapped in neat packages, too sensible, too domesticated, too useful.