All Saints – November 6, 2016
Let’s just put it out there. Daniel is a crazy book. Full of apocalyptic visions of multi-headed beasts and end-times scenarios. However, rarely does apocalyptic writing have to do with predicting future events. Instead, apocalyptic writing addresses this hopes and desires of a particular community, usually under duress, with a semi-secret language of images and tropes. Everyone in Daniel’s community understood the meaning of the images. They are more mysterious to us today. Historical context, however, makes all the difference.
While the literary setting of Daniel appears to be the Sixth century BCE exile in Babylon, references within the book make it clear that it was written during the dominion if the Seleucid empire in or around 167 BCE. The Jewish community, particularly those that remained faithful, upholding the Jewish law and opposing any Seleucid royal imagery on coins and particularly in the temple, were the audience for this book. Chapter 7 begins a book of visions, while the previous chapters focused on tales (Daniel in the Lion’s den, Sadrach, Meshach, and Abedego, etc.). These tales read like children’s stories but are preserved here in order to encourage the faithful under persecution.
The visions beginning in chapter seven are of a dream by our hero, Daniel. The dream consists first of four beasts. Each likely represents a different dominion or empire that held the Hebrew people under subjection. First a lion with eagles wings, an obvious allusion to the Babylonian Empire, the second a bear, the Median empire (an empire that never took control but did threaten the Babylonian empire). The third, a leopard, representing the Persian empire. Finally a terrifying, almost unimaginable beast, arises representing Alexander the Great and the ten different emperors that ruled the Seleucid Empire, the current ruler for Daniel;s audience. The imagery also makes fun of the courtly intrigue that plagued these Seleucid rulers.
The vision continues with a more poetic and cryptic section describing a future heavenly realm in which God takes the throne and culminating in a court of Judgement over the dominions destroying the final beast. Then a new dominion ruled over by a “son of man” arises, a heavenly kingdom is described. Daniel, however, is terrified of what he has seen and asks one of those attending him in the vision (an angel) to explain. The visions are briefly explained as the four beasts representing four kings that arise out of the earth, but then there shall be a kingdom of heaven, which will be ruled by the “holy ones of the most high.” Now, it is likely that the writer intended these “holy ones” as heavenly beings, but as this text is in use for All Saints, the lectionary connects these “Holy ones” with Saints. One could twist the text in such a way that these Holy ones could be interpreted as the Maccabees or those resisting the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes. But “Holy ones of the Most High” generally refers to angelic heavenly beings. It is All Saints, however, so I guess we go with the weaker interpretation.
Again, This is a text chosen because of its reference to Saints in v.15, for Paul, “Saints” refers not to a bunch of dead people, but to the living people of the church. His salutation in v. 1 makes this clear. The selection picks up in v. 11 in the middle of Paul’s prayer for the church in Ephesus. The prayer is theologically sophisticated and seems to reference conversion experience and baptism. But it also speaks of promise and God’s providence in purposing them for God’s glory. The sense of election or favor permeate the text and would have encouraged a community that may not have been so certain of their specialness. Today we are uneasy with the idea of being chosen because it implies that someone else was not chosen. However, being chosen by God does not mean that God makes one’s life better or that one is any more blessed, but one is chosen in order to bless the world.
The second half of the reading seems to suggest that the community in Ephesus may have found themselves at odds with local rulers and the wealthy. Paul emphasizes that when they believe they are provided the riches of God’s glory and that faith in Christ places power in Christ who is above all earthly dominions and powers.
The takeaway for All Saints might be that a saint is one who is chosen for the sake of the world even when they find themselves at odds with the powers and dominions of the world.
This is the crux of Jesus’ teaching in Luke. Sometimes referred to as the “sermon on the mount” (cf. Mt 5:1-12), in Luke it is actually “the sermon on the plain” (cf. 6.17) Jesus has just chosen the twelve apostles and, other than a series of healings, not much else has occurred in Jesus ministry. So, in some regard, this is the beginning of his public ministry. In the sermon on the mount/plain, Jesus first public words describe the qualities of those to whom the “kingdom of heaven” belongs. Each of these is counter intuitive to their culture and perhaps to ours. Pronouncing the poor, the hungry, the oppressed as blessed would go against every expectation. After all, the rich, the well-fed, the free are the blessed ones by most cultural standards. But Jesus says, these have received their reward and they will miss the greater reward of the Kingdom of Heaven. The teaching continues, and Jesus holds up more counterintuitive behavior, that you pray for those that persecute you, love your enemies, if someone strikes you, offer the other side of your face that they may strike that also. Give away even the shirt off you back if asked.
This is chosen for All Saints because these are the qualities that should be embodied in the person of a saint (living or dead).