Categories
Writings

“Love Your Enemies” Missing from the Lectionary for Ten Years

A dramatic example of missing texts relates to the placement of texts in the lectionary itself.  It is commonly understood by lectionary preachers that some of the texts at the end of the season of Epiphany are skipped some years, because the date of Easter changes each year. [1] The texts for the last two possible Sundays after the Epiphany, the Eighth (Proper 3, Lectionary 8) and Ninth (Proper 4, Lectionary 9), often shift to the beginning of the season after Pentecost when there is no room for them in Epiphany.  The Sixth (Proper 1, Lectionary 6) and Seventh (Proper 2, Lectionary 7) Sundays after Epiphany, however, do not shift; therefore, in some years, the texts for Lectionary 6 and 7 are skipped altogether.  This is made more likely by the fact that in many congregations the last Sunday in Epiphany is celebrated as Transfiguration Sunday, with its own set of texts.

In itself, this is unsurprising, indeed inevitable.  But what texts have been assigned for these Sundays?  We will focus here on the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, since it is the day most commonly skipped by the Lectionary.  In Year A, the texts include Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, which contains important commandments about leaving food in the fields for “the poor and the alien,” and Matthew 5:38-48, the part of the Sermon on the Mount which includes Jesus’ commands “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and “Do not resist an evildoer.”  In Year B, the texts include the only instance in the Lectionary of Psalm 41 (“Happy are those who consider the poor; the LORD delivers them in the day of trouble”) and the only instance of the story of Jesus healing the paralytic in Capernaum (Mark 2; the parallels in Matthew and Luke are not included in the Lectionary).  In Year C, the texts for Lectionary 7 include the only instance of Psalm 37:11 (“But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity), as well as the only instance in the Lectionary of the one parallel to Matthew 5:38-48, which is Luke 6:27-38, and also focuses on Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.”

Surprisingly, both passages about loving one’s enemies are found in the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (Years A and C).  For the 21 years from 1980 until 2011, for example, the occurrence of Lectionary A in Years A and C was sporadic.

 

Year Lect. Year 7 Epiphany? Transfiguration Ash Wednesday Easter
1980 C No 2/17/1980 2/20/1980 4/6/1980
1981 A 2/22/1981 3/1/1981 3/4/1981 4/19/1981
1983 C No 2/13/1983 2/16/1983 4/3/1983
1984 A 2/19/1984 3/4/1984 3/7/1984 4/22/1984
1986 C No 2/9/1986 2/12/1986 3/30/1986
1987 A 2/22/1987 3/1/1987 3/4/1987 4/19/1987
1989 C No 2/5/1989 2/8/1989 3/26/1989
1990 A 2/18/1990 2/25/1990 2/28/1990 4/15/1990
1992 C 2/23/1992 3/1/1992 3/4/1992 4/19/1992
1993 A No-Transfig. 2/21/1993 2/24/1993 4/11/1993
1995 C 2/19/1995 2/26/1995 3/1/1995 4/16/1995
1996 A No-Transfig. 2/18/1996 2/21/1996 4/7/1996
1998 C No-Transfig. 2/22/1998 2/25/1998 4/12/1998
1999 A No 2/14/1999 2/17/1999 4/4/1999
2001 C 2/18/2001 2/25/2001 2/28/2001 4/15/2001
2002 A No 2/10/2002 2/13/2002 3/31/2002
2004 C No-Transfig. 2/22/2004 2/25/2004 4/11/2004
2005 A No 2/6/2005 2/9/2005 3/27/2005
2007 C No-Transfig. 2/18/2007 2/21/2004 4/8/2004
2008 A No 2/3/2005 2/6/2008 3/23/2008
2010 C No 2/14/2010 2/17/2010 4/4/2010
2011 A 2/20/2011 3/6/2011 3/9/2011 4/24/2011

 

The texts came up rather frequently from 1980 until 1995, at least once every three years.  But then, for the many churches that substitute Transfiguration Sunday for the last Sunday in Epiphany, “Love your enemies” disappears from Sunday Scripture readings for the five years between 1995 and 2001.  Even more striking, “Love your enemies” disappears from Sunday readings for churches that celebrate Transfiguration between February 18, 2001 and February 20, 2011: a ten year absence, starting seven months before 9/11 and continuing for over nine years after.

Hopefully, church members heard and read Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” during that time, both in worship, in Bible study, and in other forms.  But it is tragic that “love your enemies” was absent from the major curriculum of worship for many Christian churches in the United States for ten crucial years, from 2001-2011.  In over 500 readings from the Gospels during that time of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, “love your enemies” was never heard on a Sunday in strictly lectionary based churches in the United States.  While the serendipitous nature of lectionary readings is often (and rightly) mentioned, this is an example of the anti-serendipitous nature of the lectionary.  Why were these Gospel texts (and the other texts) placed on the Sunday most likely to be omitted in any given year?  How are disciples of Jesus Christ shaped by a lectionary that can omit “love your enemies” for ten years in a row?

The situation of Lectionary 7 can be mitigated to some extent by a local rubric not to use the Transfiguration texts when they would take the place of Lectionary 7 texts: in this time period, that would cut the longest absence of “love your enemies” down to four years, between 2007 and 2011.   It is worth asking, however, why many churches read the Transfiguration story every year, but not “love your enemies;” indeed, why do we capitalize Transfiguration Sunday, but we do not have a capitalized Love Your Enemies Sunday?  Even though the lectionary takes us through Jesus’ basic story each year from one of the Synoptics (plus passages from John), it passes over challenging but essential texts.  This raises again Lowry’s charge of “improper use of Hebrew scripture” and expands that charge into the New Testament textual choices: the RCL minimizes major biblical themes of justice and liberation, especially for those on the margins.  It is experienced as a Christendom lectionary, a lectionary from above, rather than a lectionary of and for the people.  How else can one explain the absence of John 7:53-8:11?[3]


[1] In the West, Easter is “celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon;” the Paschal Full Moon is “the first Ecclesiastical Full Moon date after March 20”: Mary Fairchild, “Paschal Full Moon,” About.com,  http://christianity.about.com/od/easter/qt/paschalfullmoon.htm (accessed March 5, 2011).

[3] “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).  All biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), unless otherwise noted.