Faithfulness and Adultery

Friday, November 9, 2012 — Week of Proper 26, Year 2

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 991)

Psalm 69:1-23(24-30)31-38 (morning) // 73 (evening)

Ecclesiasticus 50:1, 11-24 (found in the Apocrypha; also called Sirach)

Revelation 17:1-18

Luke 13:31-35

One of the many meanings of the very multivalent word “faith” is “faithful.” To be faithful is to cast one’s lot with another and to be with and for that one in a dependable, loyal and affectionate way. The opposite of this kind of faith is unfaithfulness, or adultery. Several of the prophets speak of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God using this kind of language, especially Hosea, who used the metaphor of his own wife’s adultery as an accusation against God’s unfaithful people.

Today John uses that prophetic tradition to introduce a new character, the great whore. We learn that she is identified with “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” — Rome. She wears the colors of the Roman senatorial class. Like Babylon, Rome destroyed Jerusalem. We read descriptions of such destruction and violence in this chapter. It may be that the whore also represents the adultery of Jerusalem, for the beast attacks and destroys her as well. It is the kind of violence that the Empire dishes out, violence similar to the visions of destruction that are the fate of the Empire because “It is what they deserve!” as we read in chapter 16.

The beast who “was, and is not and is to come” is often interpreted to be Nero, who was renowned for his tyranny and extravagance. After his suicide the legend spread that he was not actually dead and would return to Rome. We know of at least three Nero imposters who led unsuccessful rebellions. The description “was, and is not and is to come” could also refer to the Empire and its succession of Ceasars. The satiric blasphemy of the statement shines in contrast to the vision of the triumphant Jesus as the heavenly Son of Man in chapter one, who speaks, “I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever, and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.”

The numbering of the kings — seven kings, of whom five have fallen, one is living, and the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain only a little while — means that the number of the present emperor is always six. (The number of mark of the beast — 666 — can be calculated as the Greek name for Nero, Kaisar Neron, transposed into Hebrew.) Six is a number of incompletion and imperfection, contrasted with seven, the sum of three (the spiritual order) and four (the created order).

The beast and the kings “will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

God’s people are those who are not adulterous, but faithful. They will triumph, but not by violence. The victory is the victory of the Lamb.

We are called to be faithful lovers — to show steadfast love and attention to our God, and not to allow ourselves to be tempted by the lures of that which would distract our love. The description of the whore is pretty cinematic. It is an apt metaphor for the lure of wealth, fame, celebrity, power, extravagance and luxury. These are the things of spiritual adultery. These are great temptations in our own empire.

Jesus said it more simply, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Who, or what, do we treasure? There our heart is drawn. Faithfully or unfaithfully.

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