Thursday, October 31, 2019

November 17, 2019 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                              [631]

Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12;  II Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19. 
People of faith hear about paradise on earth, but also about watchfulness before the great time.  
Lectionary Overview.  This is the last set of readings in the long “Common Time” period that started with Pentecost of Year C.  It has surveyed the great prophetic tradition, from Elijah's awesome revolution for the Lord to the visions of end times in Joel and the late Isaiah.  Only the special Sunday concerning the Reign of Christ remains before a new liturgical year begins. 
The readings for this Sunday reflect this “finality” of the time, focusing on the glorious future that will be introduced by the judgment of God.  That judgment begins the “good news” of the chosen but humble folks who are God’s servants, but those folks must also hear the warnings about false starts and persecutions that come before that glorious paradise arrives.  

Isaiah 65:17-25. 

The prophetic reading proclaims God’s making the world new for the remnant of God’s chosen and suffering people.  
It begins with God’s own joy, 
…for look, I am creating Jerusalem to be ‘Joy’ 
and my people to be ‘Gladness.’ 
I shall be joyful in Jerusalem 
and I shall rejoice in my people. 
      (Verses 18-19, New Jerusalem Bible Version.)  
The visionary who speaks here pictures a restoration of paradise for God’s joyful people.  Infant mortality will disappear, and all will live to enjoy a blessed seniority, with life expectancy well over a hundred years.  
It will not be a world without work and constructive activity, but what is built will remain and be useful, what is planted will grow and be fully productive.  No invaders will seize the goods and produce, no impersonal agencies will foreclose or repossess.  
…For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, 
      and my chosen ones will themselves use what they have made. 
(Verse 22, NJBV.)  
The comparison of human life with the life of a tree is very favorable, for a tree can grow again from a stump.  So the sages understood it:  
There is always hope for a tree:  
      when felled, it can start its life again;
      its shoots continue to sprout.  
Its roots may have grown old in the earth,
      its stump rotting in the ground, 
but let it scent of water, and it buds, 
      and puts out branches like a plant newly set.  
      (Job 14:7-9; NJBV)  
The Egyptian Judeans who translated Isaiah into Greek also saw hope in the comparison to the tree.  Here's how they read the Isaiah text:  “for the days of my people will be like the days of the tree of life.”  They saw here the tree of which the first couple could eat when they lived in God’s garden, exempt from the power of death (Genesis 2:9).  
The coming conditions of paradise will include blessings for future generations (verse 23), and even the animal world will become peaceful and no longer carnivorous – except for that wicked serpent who disrupted the first paradise; his diet will be dust (verse 25).  
Repeating words of an earlier prophecy of paradise, the vision here concludes in peace:  “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord” (verse 25b, NRSV, quoting Isaiah 11:9).  
Isaiah 12 (as a Psalm reading).    
This second Isaiah reading is a liturgy, with different voices complementing each other in a thanksgiving and hymning of salvation beheld.  The liturgy presents a glorious salvation suddenly at hand!  
In the first scene, a single voice speaks (“Israel,” in the person of the Anointed king), expressing a straightforward thanksgiving:  
Speaking to Yahweh:  
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, 
      for though you were angry with me, 
your anger turned away, 
      and you comforted me.  

Speaking to the world:  
Surely God is my salvation; 
      I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might; 
      he has become my salvation.  (Verses 1-2, NRSV.)  
In the second scene (verses 3-5), a group is summoned to draw water from the “wells of salvation” – plentiful water, available as if access to wells was now possible after a siege.  They will call on others to thank God for the victory.  “Give thanks to the Lord / … make known his deeds among the nations …” (verse 4).  
Finally, the last word of the liturgy (verse 6) is addressed to the mother city:  
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion
      for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. 
God is in your midst.  This message is a fitting climax to the joy of the victorious figure who gave thanks at the beginning (verses 1-2) and of the grateful drawers of victory water who responded (verses 3-5).  
As a part of this set of readings, this psalm-like liturgy is a vision of salvation ahead – salvation of a people finding its joy in a delivered figure (king) and a holy city.  
II Thessalonians 3:6-13.  
This reading is not directly about the coming salvation (as are the prophetic readings), but makes urgently clear what people of faith should do while they wait for the glory.  They should WORK.  The apostle has learned that some folks at Thessalonica have been living in idleness, which he insists is quite unacceptable.  
The context of the letter suggests that they do this because they expect the world to end any day and there is no need to exert lots of effort.  Paul insists that he has given them a different example:  “With toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you” (verse 8, NRSV).  
The apostle comes on a little tougher than usual.  No work, no food.  He insists that the rest of the community should make the idlers follow this principle, and “commands” (verse 6) them to shun these idlers until they straighten up.  
The judgment of God may be at hand, but in the meantime the work goes on!  
Luke 21:5-19.  
The Gospel reading introduces Luke’s version of Jesus’ last teaching in Jerusalem before the Passion.  The whole chapter (except the Widow’s mites) is about the (final) judgment of God, though our selection deals only with the early stages of trouble and persecution.  The climax of the Second Coming remains for other readings.  
Early Christian tradition reported that Jesus delivered a discourse about the end times to the disciples.  This final “apocalyptic” discourse of Jesus, delivered just before the crucifixion, is itself an important part of the meaning of Jesus’ death.  (The Son of Man who dies on the cross is also the one who will come in glory at the end of the age.)  
The three synoptic Gospels report this discourse somewhat differently.  Mark gives the most flat-out apocalyptic version (Mark 13), Matthew expands it with following parables (Matthew 24-25), and Luke divides it into segments, one delivered in the “Journey to Jerusalem” section (Luke 17:20-37) and a second segment delivered in Jerusalem (21:5-36), as in Mark and Matthew.  
Luke also changes the setting of the discourse:  Mark has Jesus give the discourse to four close disciples as they sit on the Mount of Olives looking across the valley at the temple; Luke has the whole discourse delivered in the temple precincts, with an audience wider than just the disciples.  
Our reading includes only the first two parts of the whole speech.  
Watch out for false alarms (verses 8-11).  Jesus warns his followers that there will be many alarming and false signs before the real show comes.  Some will come who say, “I am he,” and “the time is at hand,” which is what Jesus himself said at the beginning, according to Mark (1:15 ) and Matthew (4:17).  But be warned, these are deceivers or deceived; do not follow them.  
Uprisings and wars will come and go, but the faithful must wait.  There will be many opportunities to misread the times, and this is part of the challenge of living in the latter days!  
You will be persecuted (verses 12-19).  But even while all these false leads are appearing in the world, the followers will be abused and mistreated, because they are identified by Jesus’ name.  In the face of persecution, the followers can be assured that Jesus himself will give them speech and wisdom to respond well and give a good “witness.”  
This concern about “witness” or “testimony” by persecuted followers reflects the later setting in which the Gospel traditions were shaped.  Witnessing to the name of Jesus was to become the primary mark of the faithful Jesus followers.  (See especially the “Name” theology presented in Peter's speeches in Acts 3-5.)  
But they WILL survive!  While “some” of them will be killed, not a hair of their heads will perish (verses 16 and 18) – a paradox possible if they “endure” into the (qualitatively different) age to come.  “By your endurance you will gain your souls” (verse 19, NRSV).  
The judgment of God – which the peoples could not recognize in the death of the criminal on the cross – will finally include victory over oppression and death, a great joy for all the peoples to see and sing about (as in the prophetic readings!).    


Thursday, October 24, 2019

November 10, 2019 - 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                                [630]

Haggai 2:1-9; Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38. 

A new temple and a new life call the faithful to work. 

Haggai 2:1-9. 
The prophetic reading is from one of the two prophets who helped rouse the people to begin the building of the Second Temple. 
This temple was completed (in 515 BCE, Ezra 6:15) around seventy years after the destruction of the first (Solomonic) temple (586 BCE, II Kings 25:8).  This Second temple lasted, with many renovations and expansions, until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE.  The beginning of its rebuilding after the exile was a major challenge to the small restored Judean community, and Haggai (with his colleague Zechariah) brought urgent messages from the Lord to get the work done. 
The divine command to get to work is accompanied by an oracle about the new holy place.  Haggai gathers the leaders and people at the building site, still in shambles, and appeals to anyone still living who had seen the old temple to compare it to this heap of nothing.  (There could not be many folks around well past seventy years old.)  
In any case, this shabby rubble heap is about to have a world-class revival, declares God through the prophet.  The wealth of the nations will begin to flow to this place of international renown, once it is going full tilt under new management.  (This theme is emphasized even more in Epiphany season with texts from Isaiah 60-62.)  
The modest little Judean settlement is more than it seems.  It is really the chosen people of the God who is truly God of all the nations – whatever those unenlightened peoples might think.  This is the one (and only) God, to whom, of course, all the resources of the globe belong, if truth were known.  Understood this way, it is not so fantastic for the prophet to hear God declare, “The silver is mine, and the gold is mine” (verse 8, NRSV).  
Once the old days of judgment are past, God can summon a new glory for God’s holy place in the earth.  The new glory of the temple will be greater even than the glory of Solomon’s temple, and “in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (verse 9).  
Long before Daniel Burnham, God told the folks who were rebuilding their city to “make no small plans!”  
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21. 
The Psalm reading is a response to God’s glorification within the world, as if certifying that the prophecy of Haggai would be fulfilled.  (The psalm is another alphabetic acrostic – lines beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.)  The speaker breaks out in exultant praise of God, which will be repeated from generation to generation, declaring the majesty of God’s wondrous works (verses 1-5). 
The last part of the psalm (verses 17-20) is a set of declarations about God.  In what amounts to an elaborate call to worship, the speaker proclaims for all peoples the world-class benefits of this God – to be found at the newly-opened Temple in the hill town of Jerusalem.  The language is very comprehensive and inclusive, as indicated by the frequently repeated word “all.”  The Lord is just in all his ways, kind in all his doings, near to all who call, all who call on him in truth …fulfills the desire of all who fear him.  The Lord watches over all who love him, and will punish all the wicked.  
News about the one God who really has power over all peoples needs to be broadcast from the place of God’s unsearchable greatness (verse 3).  
II Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17. 
The question of working – literally hard labor – for God’s establishment on earth, addressed in Haggai’s prophecy, appears in a different guise in the Epistle reading.  
The Thessalonian community has taken the message of Jesus’ imminent return very much to heart and many have decided to lean back and leave the driving to God.  They think work has now become optional.  Their attitude is directly denounced by Paul in 3:6-13 [not in the reading], where other believers are instructed “to do their work quietly and earn their own living” (3:12, NRSV).  
The belief, or excuse, that work is no longer necessary seems to be the result of the belief that “the day of the Lord is already here” (verse 2).  Paul insists that this is completely in error.  To support his opposition to the idlers he goes into some detail about the end times of Jesus’ coming, specifically about some public events that must precede the consummation.  
His brief statement (of evil things yet to come before the glorious consummation) has offered students of Bible prophecy intriguing and mysterious signs to decipher and reinterpret through the centuries.  
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion [apostasy] comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction [literally, the son of destruction, almost a play on the title son of man, suggesting the role of a fake Messiah].  He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.  (Verses 3-4, NRSV.) 
In the time of the apostle and the young churches of Greece and Asia Minor, a sign of the coming climax of the great tribulations will be some evil figure setting up his throne in God’s own temple – the temple of Jerusalem.  
However the details of this apocalyptic drama are to be sorted out, the apostle is very clear – just as the prophet had been very clear – that work remained to be done and God’s chosen folks were elected to do it.  The glory will come, perhaps after some considerable misery and chaos, but much hard work lies between here and there.  
Thus the prophet, thus the apostle. 
Luke 20:27-38. 
The Gospel reading also takes us to the temple in Jerusalem, reporting one of the controversies there in Jesus’ last days.  Jesus’ usual opponents in the Gospels are the Pharisees.  Here, however, it is the Sadducees, themselves intense opponents of the Pharisees, who challenge Jesus – his only run-in with them in our records.  
The controversy is about the resurrection.  Though the Pharisees have believed in the resurrection of the righteous for a couple of centuries (see Daniel 12:2 and II Maccabees 7), the Sadducees have always denied it. 
The challenge they pose to Jesus is a scholastic how-many-angels-on-the-point-of-a-needle sort of question.  A woman who never had any children but married seven brothers in succession, each husband dying after marrying her – whose wife will she be in the resurrection?  
This is hardly a question just thought up to challenge Jesus.  It’s obviously an old canard the Sadducees had been using on the Pharisees for 150 years.  Sadducees believed only in the written law of Moses, and no resurrection is taught in the Torah of Moses.  They also rejected the kind of angelology taught by the Pharisees and in some Judean writings of Persian and Greek times (e.g., the book of Daniel).  
The Sadducees were very much the custodians of the Jerusalem temple and the aristocratic rulers of the land of Judah, no matter which empire currently held power over it.  They and the Pharisees had been hard-nosed opponents since they slaughtered each other in civil wars during the reigns of the later Maccabean rulers (103-63 BCE).  If Jesus actually had such a controversy with them, it would have been an old pro forma discussion, pulled out because he sounded like a Pharisee.  
Similarly, Jesus’ answers to the Sadducee challenge look like responses taught by Pharisees in Religious Rhetoric 101.  Since the Pharisees had long believed in the after life, they had to have discussed these conundrums, which a belief in individual resurrection raised for common sense.  
Thus, the Pharisees must have argued that certain things of “this age” do not apply to “that age” (verses 34-35).  Marriage, procreation, and especially the Levirate brother-in-law-must-get-me-a-son institution, are all irrelevant to the blessed life of those who rest in the bosom of Abraham.  After the resurrection the good folks become like angels (verse 36) – another reason the Sadducees weren’t having any of either the resurrection or the angels. 
The last reason Jesus gives to support the resurrection from scripture (from the Torah, to meet Sadducee requirements) is that God says to Moses (in the scene at the burning bush) that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Since God is God of the living and not of the dead, those sainted patriarchs are obviously alive in the resurrection.  This argument is the product of heavy scribal labor, a great stretch to make a point.  It reeks of midnight oil consumed (by Pharisees) in the counting of every jot and tittle. 
So what is this episode about?  
It insists that Jesus took a stand, in the temple precincts, affirming that the faithful have waiting for them a fullness of life provided by God’s own self.  That future life will transcend the cruder limitations of “this age,” and is reached through the coming of that reign of God that Jesus proclaimed from the beginning.  The wealthy and self-satisfied aristocrats who were called Sadducees had their rewards in this age, and would perish along with the temple that embodied their best efforts and aspirations.  
The silver and the gold belong to God (Haggai), and the Sadducees have had their share.  Greater things await the poor and humble who follow Jesus to a greater temple.  

Monday, October 14, 2019

November 3, 2019 - 21st Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                             [629]
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10.  
The righteous survive by their faith, and wealthy sinners may get a second chance.
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4. 
As the Lectionary continues its selective survey of Israelite prophets, we come to the small book of Habakkuk, chosen for its famous saying about justification by faith. 
Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah and the dialogue between him and the Lord in 1:2-2:5 took place in the same period (609 to 598 BCE) when Jeremiah was trying to convince King Jehoiakim that God was bringing the Chaldeans (Babylonians) against Judah as the punishment for sin (Jeremiah 36). 
The main part of our reading is 2:1-4.  Prior to that Habakkuk had complained about the injustice and violence prevailing in his society (1:2-4).  God had answered that “the Chaldeans are coming” to punish and destroy all the evil-doers.  Then, however, the violence of the conquerors is worse than the previous local chaos, and the prophet complains even more loudly. 
Habakkuk declares himself a watchman (2:1), on the lookout for God’s answer to the problem – the seeming new injustice caused by God’s judgment.  God’s answer to the prophet’s complaint is that there is a “vision” of the justice yet to come, and the prophet should write this vision on publicly displayed tablets for all to read. 
            For there is still a vision for the appointed time; 
                  it speaks of the end, and does not lie (2:3, NRSV).  
The content of this vision – or the first part of it – is given in verse 2:4.  This answer contains the famous quote, “the just shall live by his faith” (King James Version, quoted in Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; and Hebrews 10:37-38 – the last a rather free translation).  
This key verse is pretty difficult to interpret in its Hebrew version, especially the first half of the verse.  (See the discussion by Ted Hiebert in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII [Abingdon Press, 1996], pp. 641-42.)  
It is clear that two persons are being contrasted, one is proud (or, on another reading, faint-hearted) and the other is the righteous or “just” one.  Survival is the issue.  The “proud” one will not be upright, or will not stand straight – that is, will not endure.  The righteous one, on the other hand, will live – that is, will survive – because of his faith in God’s promise of justice.  That survival of the righteous one is the “end” to which the vision refers, which is an end that must be waited for.  “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; / it will surely come, it will not delay” (verse 3, NRSV).  
Ted Hiebert summarizes the broader meaning.  “At a time when the wicked are in control, when the vision describing God’s intention to reestablish justice has not yet become a reality, Habakkuk is called in the interim to trust God’s assurances and to remain faithful.”  (Ibid., p. 642.) 
The Lectionary reading stops with verse 4.  However, the NRSV translation (and also the NIV) invites us to read verse 5 as the continuation of God’s answer to the complaint, an answer that further describes the proud or arrogant one who will not survive.  He is a ravenous monster (presumably characterizing the all-consuming Chaldean empire).  Accepting the NRSV correction of the opening phrase, we read, 
Moreover, wealth is treacherous; 
      the arrogant do not endure.  
They open their throats wide as Sheol; 
      like Death they never have enough.  
They gather all nations for themselves,  
      and collect all peoples as their own (verse 5).  
The arrogant empire, which has been the instrument of God’s judgment, has become a terror to the nations.  
Psalm 119:137-144. 
The Psalm reading is another stanza from the great acrostic psalm devoted to praise of God’s instruction (torah).  (The technique and devotion of this Psalm were discussed in the Psalm reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 20th, two Sundays ago.) 
This stanza, in which all lines begin with the Hebrew letter tsādēh (18th in the alphabet), especially praises the righteousness (a word beginning with tsādēh) of God’s commandments and rule.  “You are righteous, O Lord, / and your judgments are right”  (verse 137, NRSV).  This is precisely the affirmation contained in the vision Habakkuk is commanded to write in large letters.  The key term “faith(fullness)” from Habakkuk 2:4 appears in the next verse of the psalm:  “You have appointed your decrees in righteousness / and in all faithfulness (trustworthiness).”  
The circle of Torah pietists who praised God in this psalm were dedicated to waiting, as the prophet had been commanded, until their faith in God’s justice is openly or secretly revealed in due time.  
II Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12.  
The opening of this letter, written in Paul’s name, contains the standard items:  the writers are Paul and his assistants Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy, they address the church of the Thessalonians in the name of God and Jesus, and they pray for grace and peace upon the church.  The “thanksgiving” then is used to selectively praise aspects of that church’s life.  We “boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (verse 4, NRSV).  Steadfastness in faith under persecution – for that the Apostle gives thanks to God. 
Our reading skips to what the apostles pray for, which is basically that the Thessalonians keep on keeping on – and by doing so keep attracting new converts to their novel way of living in the world.  
What Paul, Silas, and Timothy pray for is that God will work through the faithful, more than that the faithful will exert themselves.  They pray “that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith…” (verse 11).  If the Thessalonians make “good resolves” and plan “works of faith,” it will be God who determines how they go, whether they are acceptable and thus successful.  Life in this congregation, where everyone is newly converted, is directed by God’s activity moving through the intentions and best efforts of the people.  
For these new folks there are no old religious formalities to divert the pious from justice and mercy.  This is a God-intoxicated community – that is even, perhaps, too much engrossed in the divine to fully care for day-to-day responsibilities (see 3:6-13). 
Luke 19:1-10.  
The Gospel reading is the delightful story of stature-challenged but rich Zacchaeus.  He was the Chairman and CEO of Tax Collectors, Inc. of Jericho.  (This story has to be a utopian fantasy for every fundraiser for a faith-based organization!)  
Zacchaeus wanted to see who this new celebrity, Jesus, might be.  Since his view was blocked by the crowds, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to view Jesus as he passed.  Jesus spotted him up the tree and, we may speculate, decided that there must be a project in this energetic guy.  In any case, Jesus calls Zacchaeus out of the tree and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for a banquet that night – thereby changing Zacchaeus’ life forever.  
Zacchaeus’ neighbors in Jericho – probably good observant Judeans who avoided contact with unclean people and the disgraceful tax collectors – grumbled, not about Zacchaeus but about Jesus, who had “gone to be the guest of a sinner” (verse 7, NRSV).  
At the gathering at Zacchaeus’ house, the host stands and makes a marvelous public declaration in response to his acceptance by Jesus.  He vows to give half his possessions to the poor – the critical neighbors, most likely, receiving none of this generosity – and also to repay any fraudulent business transactions by 400 percent of the amounts involved.  This latter vow might well have benefited some of the critical neighbors who had suffered from the computations of the tax collector!  Outcast or not, they would relish a 400% return on their involuntary investments in his enterprises.  
Zacchaeus is a striking case of one who turned from his evil ways and began to seek justice – all because the Lord summoned him in the midst of his opulent life.  In a remarkable way, the judgment of the Lord had come unexpectedly upon Zacchaeus, and he responded generously, bringing blessings to the poor and bonuses to many of the carping but hopefully softened citizens of Jericho.  
Jesus’ pronouncement declared that, “Today salvation has come to this house,” because this stature-challenged little outcast is also a son of Abraham, and thus an heir to the promises of blessing to the peoples.  

October 27, 2019 - 20th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                                   [628]
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65;  II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14. 
The spirit of the Lord crosses boundaries of age, class, and gender, humbling the proud and accepting the repentant.  
Joel 2:23-32. 
After the age of Jeremiah, prophecy became a less focused force in Israel’s life, in both the Diaspora and the re-settled homeland. 
(There was one towering exception:  the exilic prophet – “Second Isaiah,” Isaiah 40-55) – who proclaimed in a new way God’s world sovereignty and new saving intervention for Israel. )  
For the rest, the mixture of moods and messages in Isaiah 56-66, for example, shows a mélange of prophetic themes and impulses, but no sustained vision or consistent thrust.  Among the diverse prophetic flights that appeared in the three hundred years after Jeremiah was the book of Joel.  This was a collection of visions and exclamations over domestic crises seen as the work of the Lord.  
The early part of this book is occupied with interpreting a near-cosmic plague of locusts as the awesome appearance of the Day of the Lord.  The moods of this section are visionary, but also liturgical, with attention to fasting and rituals. 
In the latter sections of the book, from which our reading comes, the book is hopeful.  It is hopeful first because God is sending abundant rains to replenish the land that was devastated in the plagues (verses 23-27), and then the hope soars into charismatic and even apocalyptic proclamations (verses 28-32 [3:1-5 in Hebrew]).  
Our reading.  The charisma is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all sorts of folks.  We hear an astonishing proclamation:  “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…” (verse 28) – upon ALL flesh.  
[Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophecy, 
      your old men shall dream dreams, 
      and your young men shall see visions (NRSV).  
Social differences based on gender will be eliminated, and slaves as well as masters will be anointed by the spirit:  
Even on the male and female slaves, 
      in those days, I will pour out my spirit (verse 29).    
The perspective is universal.  There is nothing said of any special status of Israel or Judah.  The spirit of the Lord is a blessing dispersed over humans in a radically leveling manner.  
This was visionary indeed!  This is a long stretch from the exclusionary policies of Ezra in the small province of Judah around this same general period.  In time, Ezra’s program acquired fixed institutional embodiment; Jewish people separated themselves from foreigners in their own neighborhood – especially separated themselves from foreign wives (see Ezra 9-10).  The Joel vision, on the other hand, was ethereal and idealistic in its own time.  
Much later, however, a handful of Jerusalem pilgrims broke into charismatic activity and found the Joel prophecy fulfilled in their experience – and realized, in fact, that the prophecy was intended for all the nations of the earth (Acts 2:1-21).  
Psalm 65.  
While the Joel passage has its visionary, almost other-worldly, aspects, part of it stays close to the land, rejoicing over the rains and the abundance of the watered fields.  Both aspects are sustained in the Psalm reading.  
The psalm begins with a liturgical prelude.  God is praised as a God who answers prayer and “brings near” God’s favored ones to the holy courts (verses 1-4).  Then there is an acclamation of God’s great cosmic works in the seas and “at the earth’s furthest bounds.”  In these sections the perspective remains universal.  “To you all flesh shall come” (verse 2).  “…You are the hope of all the ends of the earth” (verse 5, NRSV). 
The psalm then moves to a celebration of the blessings of water upon the land – God’s gift for a forgiven and delivered people.  The vision even gets quite earthy:  “your wagon tracks overflow with richness,” and the conclusion personifies the landscape so that the hills “gird themselves with joy,” the meadows “clothe themselves with flocks,” and the valleys “deck themselves with grain” (verses 12-13). 
An exuberant and abundant agrarian world flourishes for God as God’s gift to many expectant peoples. 
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. 
These moods of celebrating abundance and expecting startling divine outpourings are partly in contrast and partly in harmony with the Epistle reading.  
This passage from the Apostle to Timothy is perhaps the most poignant section in the Pastoral epistles, if not in all of the Pauline letters.  A weary, exhausted, and perhaps lonely Apostle knows he has reached the end of his assigned course.  His service has been a drink offering presented to the Lord, and now the pouring out of the libation is completed:  “…the time of my departure has come.”  From a ritual metaphor he turns to athletic ones:  “I have fought the good fight.  I have finished the race.  I have kept the faith” (verse 7, NRSV). 
The mood is not only that of termination, however.  There is a grandeur ahead also.  “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.”  And having focused for a bit on his own coming acceptance as a faithful servant, his thought passes on to the communion of the many who share the same consummation:  “…and not only to me [will the Lord give the crown], but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (verse 8). 
For a little while – in the section not included in our reading – the Apostle goes into details about his companions (who have mostly left him) and other minor personal interests.  Then he returns to his trials and speaks of his end with some equanimity.  At the time of his “first” trial, “all deserted me.  May it not be counted against them” (verse 16).   Nevertheless, “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth” – perhaps quite literally, if Paul actually escaped death at his first trial. 
But his last word about his own fate is one of confidence and faith:  “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” (verse 18). 
Luke 18:9-14. 
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable about two who pray – and their sharply contrasting attitudes.  He presents the well-established Pharisee on one side, who has status, abundance, religious prominence, and – not a little pride and arrogance.  On the other side is a tax collector, a man who might or might not have substantial wealth, but who was viewed as a social outcast and a hopeless sinner. 
The parable gets a little heavy-handed in its treatment of the Pharisee.  He is quoted as informing God that he fasts twice a week and is careful to tithe his income correctly.  (Other standard acts of piety, such as Sabbath observance, can be taken for granted.)  What we are really hearing from the Pharisee is not so much a prayer as a recitation of what he wants all people to know about him.  He is, indeed, getting his reward as he speaks.  He will not get it later – in the form he hopes for. 
The tax collector accepts much of the world’s opprobrium toward him.  He feels profoundly the burden of “sinner” that others attach to him, but the big difference between him and the Pharisee is – that the tax collector brings his lowliness before God.  He laments his miserable condition, confesses his sin, and dares not even to look upward toward God as he begs for mercy.  Rather than lowliness, the Pharisee brings his worthiness before God, and – as the name “Pharisee” denotes – separates himself from other humans who indeed occupy lowly places in their world. 
Jesus’ concluding word is that the humble sinner goes down to his home as the righteous man (“justified,” verse 14).  The Pharisee has declared himself before people in the sanctuary – though apparently he is not “justified.”  Jesus comments, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled.” 
The scene in the parable is a far cry from the leveling spirit of the prophecy in Joel.  A time will soon come, however, when the humble followers of Jesus will be exalted by the ecstasy of that divine Spirit foreseen by the prophet.  (It will happen at Pentecost.) 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

October 20, 2019 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost


                                                            Biblical Words                                           [627]

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.  

Hearts inscribed with torah, the murmurings of unrelenting prayer – these are the marks of the faithful.  
Jeremiah 31:27-34. 
The prophetic readings of the past two months, taken from Jeremiah, reach a  climax in the prophecy of the new covenant.  
We have heard, 
  • the indictments of the sinful city and people,
  • the agonies over the devastation that is the punishment of the sin,
  • the counsel to accept exile as God’s new direction for a people of the Diaspora,
  • and a transaction symbolic of new life on the promised land – 
all these have been dramatically portrayed in Jeremiah’s words and actions.  What remains is the question of the humanity who will be included in the new form of God’s venture with a chosen people.  
Our passage says the people of the new time will be individually responsible and will have a compelling inward guidance to fulfill God’s will.  
But first, Jeremiah reminds us of the Federal deficit.  
The parents have eaten sour grapes, 
      and the children’s teeth are set on edge.  (Verse 29, NRSV.) 
This is an old proverb, which is also quoted and applied to the same situation by Ezekiel, who devotes a whole chapter to its interpretation for the exiles (Ezekiel 18).  
The previous generation has brought disastrous consequences upon their children and grandchildren.  This has been the way of the world, but in God’s eyes it will be so no longer.  Sin will not be inherited, its consequences will no longer be passed on to those who could not avoid it.  “All shall die for their own sins” (verse 30), not those of someone else.  
This doctrine can be sustained, however, only for a people who have known exile, a people whose former society has been dissolved.  
The second part of the passage promises a cure for the cause of the disaster, the disaster that led to the exile.  
The sinful people were indicted because “they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will [literally “their bad heart”], they walked in their own counsels, and looked backward rather than forward” (Jeremiah 7:24).  They guided their lives by the stubbornness of their hearts.  The heart was the problem – the heart, the organ of personal motivation.  The heart would not obey the instruction of God.  
The new covenant passage (Jeremiah 31:31-34) says God will give each person a new heart, one with God’s instruction (torah) written upon it.  People will no longer need to teach each other to know God, for “they shall all know me [says the Lord], from the least of them to the greatest,” that is, everyone individually will have the knowledge to be responsible. 
My teacher in old days at Hebrew Union College felt that this passage expressed a divine determinism – God doing it entirely for each person rather than making each person responsible to choose God’s will – a view that would not have come from Jeremiah himself.  (Sheldon H. Blank, Jeremiah Man and Prophet, Hebrew Union College Press, 1961, pp. 208-213.)  
Prof. Blank expresses Judaism’s age-old conviction that the Torah is God’s gift that can be obeyed.  The passage as it stands expresses Jeremiah’s despair, after forty years of constant stubbornness, that this people could meet God’s requirements.  Later Christians would, of course, see this new covenant as a revelation that God’s Grace would initiate the process by which followers would find lives that would be acceptable to God.  
In any case, the issue of personal motivation to do God’s will loomed larger and larger for a people who had accepted exile and become the Diaspora.  
Psalm 119:97-103.  
A new way of responding to God’s will was created by the psalmists and sages who devoted their hearts to cherishing God’s torah, God’s instruction. 
The Psalm reading is one stanza from one of the most remarkable compositions in all Biblical literature.  The 119th psalm, all 176 verses of it, is a kind of on-going polyphonic fugue.  It is an alphabetic acrostic, each line of each eight-verse stanza beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet – from aleph to taw.  The twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, each receiving eight lines of verse, produce the 176 verses of the psalm.  (Our reading is the Mem stanza, every line beginning with the Hebrew consonant corresponding to M in the Roman alphabet.)  
Each group of eight verses also presents its praise of and devotion to God’s instruction, torah, by using a set of synonyms for torah that are repeated throughout the psalm.  Each one of the twenty-two stanzas uses most of these words for God’s will or instruction – the terms (in NRSV translation) are law, commandment, decrees, precepts, word (dabar), ordinances, and words (’imrah, also translated promise, e.g., verse 38).  These seven are used, in this order, in our reading, verses 97 through 103.  Other stanzas include an eighth synonym, statutes.  
Whoever composed this psalm was saturated in these words.  They are combined and re-combined in cycles of devotion, declarations, and prayers.  The divine instruction that is pointed to by all these terms is written deeply on the mind, heart, and emotions of this speaker.  The circles of poets and sages who composed and relished this psalm and others like it – Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalms 111 and 112 – had truly made God’s law reign over their wills and their confessions.  These are the psalms of the “torah piety,” of the devotion that became virtually mystical about the revelation, mystery, and profundity of God’s gift of the law.  
There is no mention of Sinai, or Moses, or of prophetic reforms based on law.  There is only love and unqualified devotion to the instruction and wisdom God has given for the human heart.  
II Timothy 3:14-4:5.  
The Epistle reading is also profoundly committed to God’s revelation as a transforming power for God’s servants.  
The Apostle recalls that  Timothy has known from childhood “the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation” (verse 15, NRSV).  These writings are, of course, the law, the prophets, and the psalms – the numerous scrolls that a well-educated Judean became accustomed to handling easily.  (Some “handling” was indeed required!  The Law, Prophets, and Writings, even in Hebrew, consisted of at least twenty-two separate scrolls, and even more in Greek translations.  There was no such thing as "the Bible.")  
Our passage continues with that other 3:16 text, so beloved by Bible Christians.  “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”  
Again, this is said about the Judean holy writings, which Paul and Timothy saw as pointing to the whole saving appearance and work of Christ Jesus.  There were no Christian scriptures at this time; only Judean scriptures, and these it was that should instruct Jesus followers into righteousness and “every good work” (verse 17).  
Since Timothy knows and believes the scriptures, he is equipped for service to the Lord, and the Apostle delivers an ordination sermon to him (4:1-2).  He sees trials ahead that will lead people to fall away and to walk in the stubbornness of their own hearts and minds.  “…[T]he time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (verses 3-4, intimations of our own times?).  
The Apostle is warning Timothy of the opposition he will face, virtually as God warned Jeremiah at the early stage of the mission to which he was called (Jeremiah 1:17-19).  To face the challenge, Timothy is armed with the scriptures and the example of the Apostle who suffers in the service of the Lord Jesus (see 3:10-12, just before our reading).  
Luke 18:1-8. 
In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable of the judge and the widow.  
This judge certainly did not saturate himself in the instruction of the Lord, nor even burden himself with the opinions of men.  And yet this independent and thoroughly autonomous magistrate was confronted with a murmuring day and night, a pleading for justice from this unrelenting widow. 
The parallel to this widow’s activity is the person referred to in Psalm 1, who murmurs (the literal meaning of “meditates” in 1:3) day and night, constantly reciting God’s instruction back to God (i.e., repeating Psalm 1) – that instruction about the blessed way of the righteous and the way of the wicked who will get lost. 
Jesus’ instruction is about prayer, and the single, unqualified motif emphasized here is persistence.  Wear him down!  Make him do the right thing, not because he wants to do good, but to get rid of you!  Fill the magistrate’s surroundings with the buzz and business of righteous ones pleading the cases of the powerless, the needy, and the neglected.  
That’s how to pray, says Jesus – like the ḥasîdîm who never cease chanting torah so that one day God will finally relent and send the Messiah! 

Monday, September 23, 2019

October 13, 2019 - 18th Sunday after Pentecost


                                                            Biblical Words                                             [626] 

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12;  II Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19.
Exile (Diaspora) carries God’s blessing to the nations, but not all who are blessed give praise to God.  
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7.  
The reading from the prophet Jeremiah is an instruction to Judean exiles on how to live as the Diaspora.  
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians involved several deportations.  The city was besieged for three months and then surrendered in 597.  The previous King Jehoiakim had just died, but the main branch of the ruling family, including new King Jehoiachin (18 years old) and his mother, and many elite and skilled people, totaling perhaps 10,000, were deported to Babylon at that time (II Kings 24:12-16). 
Another branch of the royal family was installed on the throne of the vassal kingdom, headed by King Zedekiah.  After nine years, Zedekiah also rebelled against Babylon, and held out in a bitter siege for eighteen months, ending in 586.  That led to the physical destruction of the city and another deportation of perhaps 3,000 people. 
There was yet another deportation of around 2,500 people five years later, after the Judean governor for Babylon had been assassinated.  (See Jeremiah 52:28-30, where the numbers are probably of able-bodied men, making the total number of persons over three times as high.) 
With the main line of the royal family, including the previously reigning king, and major leading families of Judah in Babylon, plans were developed there for an imminent recovery and restoration.  Prophets and fortune-tellers thrived among the exiles by fostering such hopes.  It is against such fomenters of false expectations that Jeremiah wrote his letter in chapter 29, from which our reading is an excerpt. 
Jeremiah has been assured that God has given up on the rotten figs still fermenting in Judah (see Jeremiah 24).  And just as certainly God has no plans for a quick return of the good figs now in exile.  Thus, Jeremiah instructs the people in Babylon to dig in for a long stay.  Build houses, plant long-term crops (the “gardens” presumably contain fruit trees, taking many years to be productive), and plan on multiple generations of children and grandchildren. 
Furthermore, they should not look only to their own welfare, but also to that of their host society.  They must not live in grudging resistance to their captors, but pray for them.  “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile…for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (verse 7, NRSV).  “Welfare” translates shālōm, and the verb “seek” (dārash) is a strong and active word.  They are instructed to actively advance whatever makes for good in their larger community. 
The ethics of the Diaspora were being initiated by God’s prophetic message. 
Psalm 66:1-12. 
The Psalm reading acquires a special power if we hear it as the faithful response of the people in exile to the prophet’s instruction. 
The psalm is a hymn of praise, but with strong emphasis on the universality of God’s power and marvelous deeds. 
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth… 
All the earth worships you; 
      they sing praises to you, 
      sing praises to your name (verses 1, 4, NRSV).  
The folks in exile have a special reason to praise this God; they were saved because of God’s power to turn the sea to dry land.  But all peoples are also called to bless “our God.”  And though the Israelites may be captives in a strange land, it is only a “testing” that God is putting them through.  God is refining them, making them pass through fire and through water. 
However, from these experiences of the elect people, even the mighty nations and peoples are to learn.  The God of this people sent them through trials and great distress, but also “has kept us among the living” and “brought us out to a spacious place” (verses 9 and 12).  The spacious place represents salvation and “welfare” for the disciplined people. 
Other peoples are called to bless such a God (verse 8), and the people in exile are prompted to see the prophet’s instructions for the Diaspora as the fulfillment of their greater mission. 
II Timothy 2:8-15. 
The Epistle reading is also a voice speaking from captivity. 
The Apostle is in chains for the sake of the gospel he spreads.  He is bound in captivity, but the word of salvation is not!  It thrives among the nations, calling forth the “elect,” that they might share in the salvation in Christ Jesus. 
This passage is loaded with comprehensive terms and declarations.  There is, for example, a succinct statement of the gospel, that Jesus was a descendant of David and that he was raised from the dead (verse 8; compare Romans 1:3-4).  Especially for Judean believers, these two points were the essence of the gospel. 
As the prophet (and the psalm) had told the suffering exiles that they were there to bless the host nations, so the Apostle sees his suffering as part of the message of salvation itself.  As James D. G. Dunn comments, “in Pauline theology suffering is not just a consequence of the gospel, but is itself part of the gospel – sharing in Christ’s sufferings as the way in which and the means by which the resurrection from the dead comes to its full realization…” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI [Abingdon Press, 2000], p. 843). 
Luke 17:11-19. 
The Journey.  The Gospel reading presents Jesus still on his journey to Jerusalem, but now out in territory “between Galilee and Samaria.”  That is a little like saying “in no man’s land,” because you can’t find it on the map.  There was no other territory between Galilee and Samaria; there was only a border, only a vague administrative line.  This may not be exile, but it is certainly unfamiliar terrain, traversed by pilgrims! 
The Lepers.  A band of people shows up, a group bound together by their social banishment because that society called them “lepers.”  These folks heard about Jesus passing through and gathered themselves near a village on the main road, as close as the restrictions on their contact with healthy people would allow.  There they call out for Jesus to have mercy on them, and he calls back that they should set out on their journey to the priests to present themselves as clean. 
As they trudge on their separate way toward Jerusalem, their skin conditions dramatically improve and they realize that they are cleansed.  (Presumably, if they had not believed that this would happen, they would not have set out on their trip.)  Later, one of the group of ten, the only Samaritan among them apparently, returns to Jesus and thanks him ecstatically, praising God for the cleansing, as was proper. 
Now, only after all this action has transpired, Jesus speaks. 
He speaks – but who is he talking to?  “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?”  This may be said in the hearing of the tenth leper, the Samaritan, but its thrust can hardly be aimed at him.  He is the only one not to be reprimanded! 
There is an audience in the background here that has not been named. 
One suspects it may be the same arrogant masters who were addressed in the previous episode (last Sunday’s Gospel text).  “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Ten persons had suffered and all ten had received the mercy of God and relief.  A witness of the universal God’s work was given among the peoples, but only one out of the saved raised the proper praise and thanksgiving to God.  This grateful Samaritan had gotten the message, and was proclaiming it gladly. 
For every ten who benefit from God’s grace, only one praises the Lord for all to hear.