Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2,9-19;
God judges his own choice
vineyard, and pilgrims struggle on their way to a better time.
The reading from
the Prophets is the second passage from Isaiah of Jerusalem, a passage often
called the Song of the Vineyard.
The drama of this
song should be appreciated: it is an
imitation of the complaint of a disappointed lover. (In the lounges and inns of Jerusalem
the “vineyard” would be understood as a sought-after woman.)
It begins, “Let me
tell you a love story.” My friend
planted his vineyard, a long-term investment with lots of infrastructure – site selection, land-clearing, plantings that
take years to yield well, a watchtower built in the center, and a wall and a
hedge around the cultivated area. My
friend provided everything a first-rate vineyard needs. But my friend was disappointed; the vineyard
produced only sour grapes.
The singer appeals
to his audience, the people of Jerusalem
and Judah, to
judge the friend’s case. He has done
everything; why these sour grapes?
The appeal is to
the justice of his further action.
It is only fair
that he tear down the wall and the hedge and let the vineyard be overrun by
animals and wanderers. He will no longer
cultivate and prune it; it will go to waste.
And he will – but here a new dimension is introduced – command the
clouds that they no longer rain on this vineyard.
the clouds breaks the convention of the song. This is not an ordinary lover of vineyards;
this is a God who shepherds the clouds of heaven.
And with that the
allegory is dropped and the indictment declared directly.
The vineyard is the
house of Israel,
and the planting is the people of Judah. These should have produced the good grapes of
Justice and Righteousness, but instead they produced Bloodshed and a
Scream. The word translated “Bloodshed”
occurs only here and is vague in meaning, but the “scream” or “outcry” is used
to describe oppressed people, crying out to God and evoking a strong act of
deliverance for them – Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 3:7 and 9) or Israelites
oppressed by Philistines (I Samuel 9:16).
Here it is God’s people, the “poor,” who scream because they are
oppressed by their leaders.
The Lord enters
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who
have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you
mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?
says the Lord God of hosts. (Isaiah 3:14-15, NRSV)
indictment of the leaders is the plain prose meaning embodied in the poetry of
the Song of the Vineyard.
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19.
The Psalm reading
sustains the image of the vine planted in a vineyard by God.
Here the vine
brought out of Egypt
and planted in a good land. However, in
this song, the judgment that the prophetic song viewed as still in the future
has already been carried out. The
vineyard has been overrun, the walls broken down, wild animals ravage it, the
vine has been burnt and cut off (verses 12-16).
judgment, the purpose of the psalm is to appeal for a restoration. The climax is a direct appeal for a strong
king – “the one at [God’s] right hand” (verse 17, NRSV). Such an Anointed One will not turn back in
defeat (verse 18).
All through the
psalm a refrain has run like a drum beat, which in its fullest form is the
concluding word of the communal lament:
“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; / let your face shine, that we may be
saved” (verse 19).
In the Epistle
reading we continue to hear the names of the “cloud of witnesses” who
lived by faith down through the ages of Israel’s
prophets, kings, and martyrs.
There are brief
allusions to those who followed their faith through the Red Sea and then
through all the ups and downs of Israel’s life in the promised land, down to
the severe sufferings of the martyrs of the Maccabean times who were crushed by
their opponents (the stories of II Maccabees 6-7 are alluded to in verses 36-37). By faith Jericho
fell and judges and kings conquered Israel’s
enemies, but “Rahab the prostitute” is also remembered as a heroine of faith, as
are the widows whose sons were raised from the dead by Elijah and Elisha (verse
35). The pilgrimage of faith is peopled
by many who were not native Israelites.
The writer of the
Letter sees present-day Christians in continuity with these past witnesses,
except now the goal they all lived and died for has come into view.
champions of faith did not receive their rewards in their own times, “since God
had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made
perfect” (verse 40, NRSV). It is the appearing of that Anointed One at
God’s right hand that inaugurates the fulfillment of the promises to the past
worthies. Jesus became “the pioneer and
perfecter of our faith” (12:2).
That does not
mean the pilgrimage to the city of God
is yet complete. The trip continues,
but now all know where they came from and where they are going. The trials and challenges of the pilgrimage
can be met with joy and renewed faith in the final rest, which is now promised
to us as well as to all the worthy ancestors of yore.
opposition for the pilgrims who follow Jesus is reinforced by the Gospel
Here there are
three statements by Jesus about his own mission, statements that implicate the
disciples in the strife and violence that Jesus himself faces.
I came to bring [literally “cast, hurl”]
fire to the earth …
I have a baptism [= violent death, in
this case] with which to be baptized …
Do you think that I have come to bring
peace to the earth? No, I tell you,
but rather division [the Matthew parallel reads “a sword”]! (Verses 49-51, NRSV.)
The “division” to
come is illustrated by divided families, father against son, etc. (Luke
wordier version of the saying given in Matthew 10:35-36).
This picture of
the families torn by conflict most likely comes from meditating on Micah’s
prophecy of the last days before God’s final judgment. Micah 7:1-7
portrays a literally God-forsaken society in which everyone consumes those near
them and no one can be trusted.
Put no trust in
have no confidence in a loved one;
guard the doors
of your mouth
from her who lies in your embrace;
for the son
treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
your enemies are members of your own
household. (Micah 7:5-6)
This is followed
in Micah by Zion’s expression of
confidence that her Lord will deliver her, and then by prophecies of return
from exile and rehabilitation of the holy city.
The social chaos
is followed by the urban utopia.
dissolution of society is the darkness before the dawn. It is standard procedure in apocalyptic
writings that things must get worse before they can get better. In later traditions this time of severe trial
was called “the birth-pangs of the Messiah.”
announcement of coming conflict and enmity, right down to the family level, is
part of the announcement that things are going to get worse before they
Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, a journey toward rejection, abuse, and death. In that view the pilgrim’s journey by faith
threatens the security one feels “at home,” and is weighted with sadness for
those who will be lost. However, the end
they labor toward will be a transformed life and a new family of faith in that
city whose architect and builder is God.
What does God really
want? Justice, mercy, and pilgrims who
live by faith.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.
and Mercy – The eighth-century prophets declared these more important to
God than sacrifice and religious ceremonies.
Especially in three famous passages in Amos, Micah, and this Sunday’s
reading in Isaiah.
·Amos voiced God’s outburst, “I
hate, I despise your festivals… But let justice roll down like waters, and
righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos -24, NRSV).
·Micah of Moresheth gave
instruction concerning proper service of God:
“Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of
rivers of oil? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the
Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly
with your God?” (Micah 6:7-8).
In our Isaiah
passage, the prophet proclaims the “teaching [torah] of our God” to
the notorious sinners of Jerusalem
is an instruction by priests about what God requires of those seeking
access to the holy place. We hear the
original life-situation of such a torah in the Micah passage referred to
what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? (Micah 6:6)
instruction about how to approach a God who is holy and powerful enough to
bring better crops, to provide healthy offspring, and to keep away – or bring
in judgment – the armies of a mighty Assyria. “What must I do …?” The business of the priest’s torah was
to tell you what to do to be saved at this place at this time.
in this Isaiah passage, as in the Amos and Micah passages, is that God
does not require abundant sacrifices and awesome religious ceremonials – God
even hates such things. At least, God
hates them when they are the doings of a deceitful people.
endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13).
religious action, even personal prayer before God, becomes intolerable when the
hands spread out in prayer have blood on them (verse 15)! Whether visible to everyone or not, God sees
the blood, and the presence of such a person is a desecration.
there is more to God’s word: God also
says, it is not too late. No
matter how scarlet or crimson your hands are (verse 18), a complete renewal is
possible on the condition that you radically change.
What must I
yourselves; make yourselves clean;
… cease to
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
plead for the widow (verses 16-17).
With such a
conversion of your habitual ways, you may still be able to “eat the good of the
land” (verse 19).
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23.
reading presents the coming of God to assemble the covenant partners for
and glorious power out of Zion is
this Lord with devouring fire and tempest (verses 1-2). The “faithful ones” who made covenant with
God by sacrifices are gathered to hear the righteous judgment of God witnessed
by the heavens – that is, by infallible witnesses to all human deeds (verses
declaration to those under judgment is that their sacrifices have been duly
noted; these things “are continually before” God (verse 8). Our reading skips over one declaration of God
that prepares for the psalm’s conclusion.
Instead of the flesh of bulls and blood of goats, what God wants is “a
sacrifice of thanksgiving” (verse 14).
Then, the conclusion.
bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way
I will show the salvation of God (verse
too, delivers the torah concerning true religious service to God.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.
One of the
most famous passages about faith in all of scripture is from the Letter to the
Hebrews, the opening of our reading.
the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (verse 1,
The rest of
this chapter identifies and celebrates certain heroines and heroes of faith in
the Hebrew scriptures, though our reading is confined to Abraham and his
immediate family – after a brief comment on faith in the creation of the world
by the word of God (verse 3).
reading, the showcase example of faith is Abraham. Abraham is the archetype of those who live in
the world as pilgrims. They live
“in tents,” trusting in the promise that ultimately they will reach “the city
that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10).
There is a
recognition that fulfillment of hope may be distant. “All of these died in faith without having
received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…. If they
had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had
opportunity to return. But as it is,
they desire a better country…” (verses 13-16).
of Christian life as a pilgrimage from a past degenerate world toward a future
of God’s making in God’s time is steadily reinforced in the rest of this
Letter. This model also played a long
role in later Christian life, particularly famous in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s
requirement of justice and mercy was what led ultimately to the pronouncement
of God’s coming judgment. Jesus,
following the older prophets and his mentor John the Baptist, repeated that
preaching assumed that his hearers stand immediately before that judgment. For some – the poor, the oppressed, the meek
– the coming of God’s judgment was good news:
Relief at last! For others (the many?),
it was threatening news. Their whole
past was about to catch up with them.
Gospel reading is about how people are supposed to live as they wait for the
imminent judgment of God.
are told to give their goods to charity.
“Sell your possessions, and give alms” (verse 33, NRSV). This instruction is straightforward and
unqualified. It is addressed, of course,
to people who have just been told that theirs is the Kingdom
“Do not be
afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the
kingdom” (verse 32).
treasure is (verse 34) is the acid test for the faith of a disciple. Put in the cruder language of later times,
“Follow the money,” and you will know the secrets of the hearts, not only of
the pilgrims following their Lord but of the land-owners and merchants of the
settled land (see the parable in -21).
The rest of
the passage is not directly about possessions but about watchfulness for the
Son of Man’s coming. The transition
is not strange, “for detachment from possessions and worries is an important
part of preparation for the Lord’s coming” (Robert Tannehill, Luke,
Abingdon, 1996, p. 210).
The one who
lives by faith is called (verses 35-40) not only to give up personal possessions,
but also to live on the edge, with no long-range planning, no
commitments that involve a long future.
(No life insurance payments for the disciple.) Your Lord may return tonight. That is the stance of the Jesus
follower. Live today as if it is your
last day on earth. No homeowner knows
when the burglar has scheduled a break-in (verse 39); no disciple knows when
the Lord’s return will be sounded by a knock on the door.
journey to Jerusalem, these
instructions seem to be for the committed band that has known for a while that
Jesus is the Anointed One – and perhaps also known that the journey leads to
death. However, as part of the Gospel
known to the churches of the second generation, they are also instructions for
the band of witnesses who will eventually infiltrate lands far beyond Judea.
Those churches had gradually evolved a new way of
life, a life lived day by day in expectation of being visited by their heavenly
Lord. As more time passed, they realized
that that Way of Life was, in fact, the “kingdom” which was being given to
God’s “little flock”!
Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43;
God’s love may temper even
God’s justice, but the new life excludes the idolatry of greed.
The second reading
from the prophet Hosea is one of the most remarkable passages in
scripture. It interprets God in terms of
human emotions carried to their most extreme.
Most of Hosea
4-14 (quite separate from chapters 1-3)
are words of denunciation and predicted destruction for the people and places
of the northern kingdom. But after that
barrage of judgment has gone on some time (through chapter 10), our passage
gives it a climax, and then a violent reversal.
A comment on
Hosea’s language and text. The book
of Hosea is only partly legible. The
historical Hosea spoke his poetry in a dialect of the northern kingdom, though
his words have been preserved in Judean dialects. The text also is one of the oldest in the
Israelite scriptures, being recited and re-copied many times before becoming
standardized. These uncertainties affect
the translations, and this is a particularly good place to compare other
translations with the NRSV,
such as the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Jewish Publication Society, and the
Revised English Bible versions. These
others are translations of the same Hebrew text, but are independent of the
English tradition continued by the NRSV. Some rather different renderings, given by
the ancient Greek translators, can be seen in the translation in The
Orthodox Study Bible (Nelson, 2008) or A New Translation of the Septuagint, ed. Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright(Oxford, 2007).
The human emotions
by which God is interpreted are especially those of a father for his
children, or for his one special son.
Favorite sons have been loved since birth.
was a child, I loved him…
·It was I who taught Ephraim to
walk, I took them in my arms;…
·I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love; …
(Verses 1-4, NRSV.)
this love the sons were ungrateful and disobedient.
The more I called them, the more they went
they did not know [did not acknowledge] that I healed them…
seemed to them as one who imposed a yoke on their jaws,
though I was offering them food
[this line follows NJPS translation].
The punishment for
such continued disloyalty is a reversal of the salvation. If Israel
was brought out of Egypt
to be given good things, they will be sent back into slavery, not only in Egypt
but under the new great power, Assyria (verses 5-6,
especially in the NRSV).
So far this is the
expected word of God’s judgment through a prophet.
Now however we get
a personal outburst by God.
(Fortunately, the text and language are relatively clear here.)
How can I give you
How can I hand you over, O Israel? …
My heart recoils
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute
my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim; …”
(verses 8-9a, NRSV)
And now the
encompassing declaration that shapes the cosmos:
…for I am God [’El]
and no mortal [’īsh],
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath (verse 9b, NRSV).
emotion of loss over the beloved son(s) becomes the dominant motive of the
Almighty. What is not possible for
humans will nevertheless be done by God. A way will be found to both execute judgment
and to continue in caring love for the disobedient and judged beloved
Psalm 107:1-9, 43.
The Psalm reading is
an excerpt from a long psalm that calls on many groups of people to give thanks
and praise to God for deliverance. It is
“the redeemed of the Lord” who are called on to join the praise, and their
various experiences will be held up as examples in the course of the full
The first group
whose experience is described are those who were lost, wandering and in danger
of thirst and hunger, in the wilderness (verses 4-9). This is a fitting response to the Hosea
passage because it can be applied to Israel’s
experience when brought out of Egypt.
They cried to the
Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a
until they reached an inhabited town.
(verses 6-7, NRSV)
generation qualified supremely as the “redeemed of the Lord”; from day one,
they were journeying from a place of deliverance toward the place of God’s
The writer of
Colossians also speaks of a great reversal – one that has already
happened. It is the believer’s
death: “for you have died, and your life
is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3, NRSV).
into Jesus have died to the destructive and enslaving forces of the world and
are freed to live empowered from above, in Christ – equal across all social and
religious barriers. The image of the
heavenly Christ exercising rule over the earth, an image known to the
baptized, defines the believer’s way of life.
That is the image that discredits the superstitions and demonic powers
that surround the Lycus valley people in their daily lives.
In our passage it
is the things to avoid, the things that are excluded by the heavenly
image of the Christ, that are mainly listed.
We have two lists of negative traits: (1) sexual immorality,
etc., ending with greed, in verse 5, and (2) anger, malice, etc. in verse
It is recognized
that avoiding these things requires some effort. “Put to death whatever in you is earthly”
The new life
requires rigorous honesty with fellow believers in caring mutuality. “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you
have stripped off the old self with its practices, and have clothed yourselves
with the new self” (verses 9-10).
Baptism was the
stripping off; one now lives in the new garments – those of the reborn (which
are described more fully in -14,
following our passage).
reading contained an incidental identification of greed with idolatry – “Put to
death…greed (which is idolatry),” Colossians
The Gospel concentrates even more on greed, suggesting also that love
of possessions becomes idolatrous.
The episode begins
with a request from someone in the crowd asking Jesus to serve as arbiter in a
dispute over an inheritance. Jesus’
response is to decline becoming an arbitrator of the Mosaic law. He declines getting into the business of the
Pharisees, which would in later times produce such compilations of rabbinic law
as the Mishnah and Tosefta. Instead,
Jesus tells a parable putting all devotion to material goods under an intense
describes a man wealthy from his agri-business enterprises. He is determined to keep investing and
expanding, no doubt absorbing many smaller and marginal farm operations along
the way. At a critical juncture, he has
a dialogue with his soul and decides to make the great break, to tear down the
old infrastructure and replace it with new super-capacity facilities. How very modern and progressive! Think of the new jobs created for the
“journey” in Luke, however, is about living in a time of urgent judgment, when
priorities must be radically altered.
This man’s preoccupation with capitalist expansion leads him into
hubris, into forgetting that he stands on a daily basis as a humble mortal
before the instant judgment of God.
In today’s world
he would have an excessive cholesterol count, be over-weight, and have high
blood pressure. We know what form the
judgment of God takes in such cases.
Greed may make a capitalist economy heat up, but it leaves the barns of
the soul empty before God.
The journey to judgment that Jesus leads makes poverty
the way to wealth-that-really-matters.
Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15,
(16-19); Luke 11:1-13.
Fathers and children may
symbolize God’s disciplining and love, with prayers freeing the children from
fears and want.
continues its selective survey of Israel’s
prophetic books by turning to the book of Hosea.
The books of
Amos and Hosea differ significantly in style and basic theme: Amos gives us the Justice of God determining Israel’s
life; Hosea gives us the Love of God determining Israel’s
Background. Hosea was a contemporary of Amos (around 750 BCE), but,
uniquely among the Biblical prophets, Hosea was a native of the northern
kingdom of Israel. His prophetic messages are passionate
condemnations of Israel’s
turning away from the Lord Yahweh. Israelites
were attributing the cyclical works of nature to the baals, Hosea insists,
instead of to the one God in Israel’s
life, Yahweh. (Hosea 2:5, 8; 11:2; 13:1.)
going on here, and had been going on before Hosea’s time, is a great
demythologizing of the millennia-long essence of Canaanite religion.
As we see
Canaanite mythology in its Ugaritic epics (from the 14th century
BCE), the cosmic world was shaped by the interplay of the gods Ba‘al (lord or
master), Yamm (cosmic Sea), Mot (Death), and Anath (virgin-sister-consort who
avenges Ba‘al’s death by slaughtering Mot).
In this mythic cycle Ba‘al fights intensely against the lord of chaos,
Yamm, and having defeated him establishes a great temple for himself with the
consent of the high god ’El. The power
of Death (Mot), however, overcomes Ba‘al, who dies as the season of drought and
barrenness prevails in the world. Anath
pursues Mot, threshes him into small pieces (like grain) which are sown over
the fields, and makes possible the gospel of the new season: Ba‘al lives!
(See, among many discussions, John Day, “Baal
(Deity),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday 1992, Vol. I, pp.
thing about Hosea is the way the language of Canaan has
been taken into the Israelite tradition.
The language of love and conflict between gods has become the
language of love and betrayal between Yahweh and Yahweh’s people.
reading. In our passage, we have a
report of Hosea being told by God to enact in the social life of his city a
parable of God’s love and discipline.
Go find a woman who has the qualities and perhaps the established
practice of a professional whore. (See
the details of such a life when Tamar temporarily adopts the life of a zōnāh
in Genesis 38:12-23.) Such a woman, by the nature of her social
status, does not maintain a single relationship in her sexual activities. She lives by the payments of many
lovers. Hosea is to take such a woman,
marry her – thus setting up a single relationship for her – and have children
point of the enacted prophecy is not the woman; the point is the names given
to the three children. The names
announce progressive devastation for the northern kingdom. The first child, “Jezreel,” means defeat in
war: “I will break the bow of Israel
in the valley of Jezreel”
(verse 5, NRSV). The second child, “Lo-ruhamah”
[not-compassioned], means lack of compassion in a time of distress (verse 6). And the third child, “Lo-ammi”
[not-my-people], means a complete denial of the covenant relationship, “for you
are not my people and I am not your God” (verse 9). The parable demonstrates that up to this
point the love of God is only disappointed and defeated. God’s partner is a whore, and the children’s
names symbolize the alienation between them.
in the old Canaanite ethos, death and alienation are not the last word. It is clear that some words of hope were
inserted by later Judeans who preserved the Hosea tradition (so verse 7), but
elsewhere in this book Hosea experiences God as disciplining, not totally
destroying, Israel. We will see this especially in next week’s
reading, but here (verse 10), the transmitters of Hosea’s words were compelled
to look beyond total alienation between God and Israel.
The reversal will come. “Not my
people” will again be called “Children of the living God.”
reading is a liturgy for those waiting for the great reversal – the
reversal that Hosea’s followers added to his enacted prophecy (Hosea ).
word of the liturgy recalls the past reversals from God’s anger to God’s
graciousness, when God “restored the fortunes of Jacob” (verses 1-3). Thus there is precedent from the past for
God’s gracious restoration of the people.
word is a prayer in the present calling upon God to “Restore us again! … Will
you be angry with us forever?” (verses
hear a speaker in the first person concentrating full attention on the divine
word of salvation which is about to be uttered from the sanctuary (verses
the liturgy culminates in the glowing prospect of what can be expected when God
does speak the word of salvation (verses 10-13).
In this final
exuberant dance, the covenant qualities are personified. “Steadfast love” (hesed),
“faithfulness” (’emeth), and “righteousness” (sedeq) interact
like independent powers, meeting, kissing, growing from the ground, descending
from heaven. Their blessings are
summarized, “the Lord will give what is good,” and all will know that God’s
people are restored.
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19).
shows the love of a supreme God who displaces all former local powers, the Epistle
reading carries a similar message about the heavenly reign of the Risen
The second big
scholarly discussion about Colossians (after the “Christ hymn” in Chapter 1) is
the “heresy” or false teaching that seems to be referred to in our
There is no
clear description of the teaching and practice, so scholars have had to
“reconstruct” it from the hints in Colossians 2. This is a topic that has fascinated scholars,
and there are many reconstructions, with similarities but differences in
details. Broadly, they disagree about
whether the Colossian teaching was mainly Greek cosmic and mystery religion
lore or more heavily Judean-style doctrines and practices. Personally, I doubt that there was any
“system” to the Colossian lore. I think
the allusions in the letter are to many different ideas, theories, ritual
practices, etc., that never added up to any single consistent body of doctrine
or practice. (Some other scholars have
recognized this.) Thus, the following
is not another letter to the Galatians.
There is no panic, no great urgency that the Colossians are in dire
crisis, as there is in Galatians about the issue of circumcision of
about the false teaching are a conglomeration:
The hearers are warned against “philosophy” and “empty deceit;
“elemental spirits of the universe”; perhaps something about circumcision
(verses 11-13); cosmic “rulers and authorities”; matters of food, drink, and
festivals; self-abasement; worship of angels; visions (serially in verses 8-18,
Most of us
have observed that any community of faith that has been around for some time
attracts a fringe of “religious hobbyists” (my term). These folks have some secret or little-known interpretation
or ritual to share with those really “in the know.” While they will talk to you endlessly, if you
allow, they have no real substance; only repetitions of old ideas newly offered
and inside practices they’re prepared to share.
Colossians were a settled Jesus community, probably in their second generation. The great fire of the early commitment had
become too familiar, and the enticements of new and novel religious curiosities
were attracting many, perhaps especially the educated and the young. (There is much emphasis on knowledge and
understanding in this letter.)
Christians were tempted to include horoscopes, astrological readings, and
various hallucinatory rituals in their religious life to enhance what Christ
did for them. The writer insists that
the Christ who was the fullness of divine reality (verse 9), who took on the
flesh of circumcision and death, this Christ who died and rose again, now
reigns over all such superstitious powers.
believer needs is the baptism that is a dying to the worldly powers and the
rising to a new life in God’s power, free from all the demons and spirits of a
misguided universe. “He [Christ]
disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing
over them in [his triumphal procession]” (verse 15).
reading offers the life of prayer as the answer to the ongoing needs of
the Lord’s disciples. The whole passage Luke
11:1-13 is about prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s
version, at its head.
is bracketed by expressions describing God’s fatherly character, the
Father addressed in the model prayer (verse 2) and the human father who knows
how to give good gifts to his children (verses 11-13; verse 11 reads literally,
“what father among you…”). Most of what
is between the brackets is about persistence in asking the father for what is
needed, especially bread or other food.
The prayer taught to the disciples, then, asks
·that this family head be honored
and esteemed at his true worth by all others (hallowed be his name),
·that his plan for everyone’s
welfare may succeed (his kingdom come),
·that his children, who accompany
him on his campaign (daily bread = daily rations), may have food as needed,
·that they be forgiven their
·that the trials they encounter not
teaching about asking and receiving builds on examples of common human
expectations. The “friend” asked for
bread in the middle of the night cannot be expected to respond simply out of
friendship, but will respond to a neighbor in need. (The previous chapter just told about the Good
were made not only to keep people out, but for knocking on. Keep on knocking, is the wisdom here.
And in the
business of giving, trust the giver, perhaps a fatherly type, to know what to
give. It won’t be a snake instead of a
fish. This theme suggests that WE may
not know what we most need, but can trust the fatherly giver to provide it,
allowing us to then recognize what our need truly is.
Finally, the supreme gift that the heavenly Father
knows we need is the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 13). That will be provided for those who continue
the “journey” of Jesus right on to Jerusalem – and beyond.
Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians
For some people prophets have
words of doom; others are urged to keep their priorities straight.
Our second reading
from the prophet Amos is part of a series of brief visions he received
from the Lord. There are five visions
7:1-3, the locust
7:4-6, the fire
7:7-9, the plumb
8:1-3, summer fruit;
9:1, destruction of
reading included the third of these.)
There was a
definite strategy in the first three visions, all of which threatened disaster
for poor, small Jacob. When God showed
the prophet an explicit disaster, like a locust plague or the outbreak of great
fire, the prophet jumped in and begged God to relent. “O Lord, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (7:2 and 5, NRSV). For the third vision, however, God changed
tactics and showed the prophet something that wasn’t a disaster already in
progress. It was only an ominous sign of
In that third vision
God shows the prophet a plumb line, the device for determining when
crooked walls have to be torn down. Then
God said, “Amos, what do you see?” Now
the prophet has to answer the question – instead of immediately pleading for
Jacob. When he reports what he sees, it
is God’s turn to speak, and God then explains the judgment on Israel
that the plumb line represents.
circumvented the prophet’s determination to intercede for poor little Jacob!
That was the
divine strategy with the plumb line, and it is the strategy here in this
Sunday’s reading with the vision of the basket of summer fruit (verses 1-3). As the translators’ footnotes in NRSV
explain, there is a wordplay. You see a
basket of summer fruit, a qaitz?
That sounds like a qetz – an End.
For you Amos there is a message in this, for “the end has come upon my
I will never again pass them by [= exclude them from disaster].” The rest of the divine judgment elaborates on
the dead bodies lying in the streets, and concludes with an awesome command for
silence, in Hebrew hās! The total
silence of complete desolation and emptiness.
And why is Israel
coming to its End? The reasons are given
in verses 4-6, once again selling the poor for silver, trampling the needy, and
in general ruining the poor. The
culmination of punishment will be the elimination of any hope for divine
relief. There will be a famine of
the words of the Lord; there will be no divine guidance that might reverse the
disasters (verses 11-12). Israel
We have the book
of Amos, not because Israel
survived the judgment, but because Judah
After the northern
kingdom was destroyed by Assyria, Judah
attempted to reform its own religious and social order, particularly under King
Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. At that
time the example of the northern kingdom was mulled over extensively, and the
stories of Elijah-Elisha and the prophetic books of Amos and Hosea (in early
versions) were preserved as parts of a new vision of Judah’s
place in history. In this new vision
Judah would continue to be the holy city God had chosen and would continue to
have a king descended from David the great anointed king, but it would also
adhere firmly to the lessons of Yahweh’s exclusiveness learned from the
prophets and the disastrous history of the northern kingdom.
adoption of northern traditions about Yahweh’s work in history was the
beginning of the prophetic books as part of a larger complex of God’s
Word. These were prophesies that had
been fulfilled; their messages had been verified by God’s own actions. Israel
had died because it was unfaithful to Yahweh – and Yahweh’s justice.
still had a chance!
The Psalm reading is
probably one of the least familiar of the psalms. It doesn’t fit the usual categories for the
psalms: hymn, lament, thanksgiving,
etc. It is more like a reproach speech
from a prophet, like Isaiah’s pronouncement against Shebna, the mayor of Jerusalem
The heading of the
psalm, added later, relates it to an incident in the time of David and Saul
when Doeg the Edomite was a competitor and betrayer of David, an outlaw
at the time (I Samuel 21:1-8; 22:6-19).
re-colonized (“post-Exilic”) period, the Judeans greatly resented the Edomites,
who had taken advantage of Judah’s
defeat and depopulation. A prominent Edomite
warrior (gibbor, the term translated “mighty one” in verse 1 of our
psalm) was viewed as a tyrant epitomizing evil conduct. In the psalm, the righteous ones will view
with awe the punishment and destruction of this bully, who trusts in his
wealth, his power to buy his way to whatever he wants.
In contrast to
this Edomite gangland boss, the speaker compares himself to the evergreen,
long-lived olive tree in the precincts of the Temple. Tyrants come and go; the strength of the Lord
Apart from the
question of authorship – whether Paul wrote Colossians (see last week’s
discussion) – modern scholars have occupied themselves mainly with two topics
in this epistle: (1) the “Christ hymn”
in 1:15-20, which is so unique in its presentation of the “Cosmic Christ,” and
(2) the “heresy” or false teaching going on at Colossae. These two topics are presented in the
Lectionary Epistle readings for this Sunday and the next.
On both these
topics, I have gradually concluded that modern scholarship has seriously misplaced
its emphasis. (“The Christ hymn is the
bulwark of the Letter,” J. Paul Sampley, HarperCollins Study Bible, 1st
ed., p. 2211.)
discussions of Colossians 1, I gave Andrew Lincoln’s reconstruction of the
Christ hymn in -20 in some detail,
along with his interpretation of its background in Judean wisdom
tradition. Part of the argument that
Paul is here quoting a preexisting hymn to divine wisdom is that it stands out
in the letter; it does NOT fit its context.
The theory is that Paul quoted it here because he needs it later in his
argument that Christ is supreme over the other powers of the universe.
On one point I
think the scholars are right: the “hymn”
is an intrusion! The letter reads better
if you OMIT the “hymn”!
of 1:9-14, just before the Christ hymn, has concluded by citing God’s work to
include the believers in the “kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son,” saving them from
the dark doom hanging over the rest of the world (1:13). Verse 21 (immediately after the “Christ
hymn”) continues to describe this saving action, “…you…he has now reconciled…so
as to present you holy and blameless…before him.” The letter is addressed to those who know they
have already been included in the elect group of Jesus people.
significant challenge faced by this community of faith is to keep on
keeping on. You are in Jesus’ kingdom,
“provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith,
without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard” ().
The writer is
addressing a community that has been around for some time. They are being tempted (as we will hear next
week) to accept some fads advocated by local religious hobbyists. But they have previously bet their lives on
the apocalyptic message that Jesus was God’s Son, now exalted to heaven, who
will soon return to judge the world.
They have been assured of being on the right side of that judgment! What is required of them now is to hold that
faith and continue to live the marvelous new life it requires.
That’s what verses
21-23 are about. The “Cosmic Christ” of
the Christ hymn (verses 15-20) has no particular bearing on that core
message. The Christ hymn, with its much
vaster perspective, is relevant to religious issues that arose in the second
generation of the Jesus assemblies – perhaps especially in the Phrygian region
of the Lycus valley (where the ancient Greek Great Mother had her home!).
The main message
of Colossians 1 is to Keep the Faith!
You already have what is decisive.
When people want to talk about the universe and its many “elemental
spirits,” we also have a lore about the absolute supremacy of Christ, but the
real challenge is to keep what we have and live a rigorous life acceptable to
God (which is the subject of the final Lectionary reading from this
(I have ignored
here the fact that Colossians 1:9-23 is one of the most convoluted and
stream-of-consciousness passages in the entire New Testament, just as bad as
Ephesians 1:3-14. In most current
editions of the Greek text, verses 9-20 are one sentence! For intelligibility, the NRSV breaks it into
Compared to some previous readings, the Gospel text is remarkably straightforward – though not
necessarily easier to live with.
“journey” (9:51-19:44) continues, he is hosted by a householder named Martha. (The story is told mainly from her viewpoint.)
Martha has a sister Mary who becomes
absorbed in Jesus’ teaching and “sits at his feet” (a phrase used of disciples,
see Luke )
rather than helping with the hostessing.
Martha resents this, and resents it enough to go into the seminar room
and make a major case of it (verse 40)!
seems to commiserate with Martha’s many worries and management tasks (verse
41), but as usual he recasts things by radically altering the priorities. Too many distractions are not good; “there is
need of only one thing” (verse 42, NRSV;
there are several variant readings in this verse.) And he adds, somewhat cruelly it seems to us,
that Mary (rather than Martha) has chosen that one thing (verse 42).
We seem to have a
classic conflict between the doers and the dreamers! We are tempted to work at this text until we
can get a more comfortable result, something other than Jesus siding
unequivocally with the dreamers.
But the background
of apocalyptic urgency (“only one thing”) that informs Jesus’
requirements of those who would follow him (-62)
seems to shape the response to Martha also.
The imminence of a whole new order for the world upsets routine agendas
for ordinary household duties!
We want to say,
“The world must also be managed on a day-to-day basis! Give us more Marthas!” Then there could be more hosting of
traveling sages, and the members of the devotional seminar could have something
to eat at their break times. And so it
To us advocates of the Marthas of the world, the Reign
of God seems too far off to allow its visiting representatives to seriously
disrupt our management agendas.
Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14;
The judgment of God can mean
the death of a nation, though God’s will is for the compassion of the Good
weeks on Elijah and Elisha, the Lectionary selections from the prophets move to
Amos and Hosea.These prophets
spoke the word of God against Israel
about a hundred years after the times of Elijah and Elisha.The words they brought were the judgment of
God upon a mercenary and faithless nation.
Sunday’s Amos reading begins with an announcement of doom on the kingdom
of Israel, and specifically on the dynasty of Jehu, now headed by Jehu’s
great-grandson, Jeroboam II (reigned over the northern kingdom approximately
786-746 BCE).This announcement of doom is delivered at a
major sanctuary of the northern kingdom, Bethel,
called “the king’s sanctuary” (verse 13), and was probably delivered at the
time of a great festival-assembly at that ancient holy place.
to get the attention of masses of people from all over the kingdom.When he began to succeed, the head priest of Bethel,
Amaziah, pronounced that “the land is not able to bear all [Amos’s] words”
(verse 10, NRSV).After reporting Amos’ treasonable oracles to
the king, the royal priest commanded the prophet to return to his provincial
town in Judah
and never approach the royal sanctuary again (verses 12-13).
had delivered God’s condemnation of Israel.If there is a prophet anywhere who is truly
a doom prophet, with only words of condemnation and disaster, it is
Amos.There is one add-on passage at the
end of the scroll that portrays a glorious future for David and the land (Amos -15), but otherwise the scroll is
unrelenting doom for Israel.Amos in his own time, announced, in several
powerful speeches, the death of Israel.(We will look more closely at this death
announcement next week.)
of enormous importance may be simply stated, without much development.
Amos itemizes at length the reasons for God’s condemning Israel
to death.The reasons are the
repeated and ingrained violations of social justice.Israel
will die because they “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair
of sandals” (Amos 2:6).It is a time of
prosperity and the well-to-do are engrossed in luxuries, busy denying justice
to the less powerful, and ignoring the plight of the truly poor.The existence of a nation is weighed in the
divine scales of justice and found wanting.The nation will go.
Amos is the earliest voice in a world-wide development of human
spirituality.By insisting that Yahweh,
the God of Israel, can cast away this chosen people, the God who spoke through
Amos rose above a religious life based on racial, ethnic, and geographical
delivers the first affirmation of a God who transcends the tribal and
national orders of the human world.
delivers the first word of what some historians and philosophers call “the
Axial Age,” the historical period (roughly 800 to 200 BCE)
in which there emerged the great universalist religions and wisdom traditions
that still define the main global communities of faith.(See more in the discussion of the Gospel
course, is not Amos’ way of expressing it.He was a man who, in the wilderness of Tekoa,
saw visions, heard words, and found himself sent from behind the flock to
deliver God’s overwhelming word of justice to Israel
intensity for justice was driving toward a vaster vision for humankind.
reading also has to do with divine judgment.
Psalm 82 is
set in the heavenly council of the gods, the standard religious cosmos of
Mesopotamian and Canaanite religious institutions and traditions.God the Lord is in fact delivering judgment
upon the divine council itself!(Later
Jewish and Christian traditions understood these to be angels, or even earthly
princes and judges.)
the lesser divinities, the members of the Cabinet, if you will.
will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
they be using their heavenly powers instead?
to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the
weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.(Verses 2-4, NRSV.)
The word of
judgment that Amos delivered to the prosperous in Bethel,
God delivers in person to the other mighty powers of the heavenly world, who
are understood to influence and direct the affairs of their favorites on
And what is
the conclusion of this judgment?
You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.(Verses 6-7.)
Just as the
elect people Israel
may be condemned to death on earth, so God the Lord can do without these
unreliable heavenly beings.This psalm
virtually announces the death of all heavenly powers except God the Lord.(These powers would, of course, return later
as various kinds of angels and those “elemental spirits” to be heard of in this
month’s Epistle reading.)
absolute scale on which heavenly beings also would be weighed was justice and
compassion, for the poor and powerless.These, the poor and powerless, are truly the people of God.
prophetic readings have shifted to different books, so the Epistle readings for
the next four weeks are from a different letter of Paul – or, perhaps, a letter
written under Paul’s name.
is one of the letters that many historical scholars think were not written
by the real Paul, the Paul of Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans.For an overview, and my personal conclusion, see
the Special Note below on “Letters from the Paul Movement.”
reading we have a thanksgiving (verses 3-8) and a report of prayer on
behalf of the Colossian community (verses 9-14).
thinks easily in terms of the Pauline faith-love-hope trilogy. Thanks are given for “your faith in Christ
Jesus,” for “the love that you have for all the saints,” and for “the hope laid
up for you in heaven” (verses 4-5).The hearers
are given a sense of being a part of a vast world movement.“Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and
growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from
the day you heard it” (verse 6).
prayed for in the present:
·That you may be filled with the
knowledge of God’s will (verse 9);
·That you may lead lives worthy of
the Lord (Jesus), fully pleasing to him (verse 10);
·That you may endure everything
with patience (verse 11).
thanks for your (past) salvation:
·To the Father, “who has enabled
you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (verse 12);
·who “rescued us from the power of
·“and transferred us into the
kingdom of his beloved Son,”
·“in whom we have redemption, the
forgiveness of sins” (verses 12-14).
The letter is addressed to an
apocalyptic community, who know they have been separated by an act of God to
live as followers of Jesus.As such
followers, they will be included in the divine kingdom
of Jesus when all the rest of the
evil world goes down in the judgment.Their challenge in the present is to maintain their loyalty to Jesus’
teachings and to “endure” what goes along with that. (If the letter was sent in the period 70-90 CE, the Lycus valley assemblies would have been in their second generations. The initial enthusiasm may have been cooling some and they may have been more open to new novelties of faith, as things later in the letter suggest.)
reading continues Jesus’ “journey” toward fulfilling the Reign of God.
here an incident that other Gospels put in Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem:It is the lawyer who asks the question about the
greatest commandment.In Luke’s
adaptation, Jesus and the lawyer reach a common mind about the two great
commandments, but then Luke adds the lawyer’s question, Who is the
neighbor?This addition gives us the
parable of the Good Samaritan.
is too well known to go over here.Let
us focus on two phrases.The Samaritan
comes down the road and sees the victim of the mugging, and “he was moved with
or “he was moved with compassion” (New Jerusalem Bible).And after the parable is complete, the lawyer
says that the neighbor was “the one who showed him mercy” (NRSV).The God whose reign Jesus is preparing for in
his journey to Jerusalem is a God
of compassion and mercy.
Armstrong has characterized the Axial Age in human history as turning
decisively on a heightened sense of compassion in the development of the
great religious and wisdom traditions.Here is one of her summary statements of that theme.
In the cities
and empires of the Axial Age, citizens were acquiring a wider perspective and
broader horizons, which made the old local cults seem limited and
parochial.Instead of seeing the divine
as embodied in a number of different deities, people increasingly began to
worship a single, universal transcendence and source of sacredness….[As social injustice became more obvious to
sensitive leaders], prophets and reformers arose who insisted that the
virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual life...[Emphasis added.]
In this way,
during the Axial Age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to
guide human beings sprang up in the civilized world:Buddhism and Hinduism in India, Confucianism
and Taoism in the Far East; monotheism in the Middle East; and rationalism in
Europe [Greece].Despite their major
differences, these Axial Age religions had much in common:they all built on the old traditions to
evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an
internalized spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical
is from The Battle for God, 2000, p. xii [p. xiv in paperback ed.].Ms. Armstrong has elaborated this “Axial Age”
perspective at greater length in The Great Transformation, 2006.)
Samaritan – the neighbor – was a person who practiced practical compassion.
from the Paul Movement.
following John the Baptist, initiated a Kingdom movement in Galilee
(with some covert allies in Judea).The climax of that movement carried him to Jerusalem
and death, though the Kingdom movement itself was barely shaped by that
time.The disciples evolved the Kingdom
movement into the Jesus Movement, transformed by experiences of the
risen Jesus. The coming of the Kingdom was no longer the whole thing; they were
now expecting the return of the Risen Jesus as the Son of Man.The Jesus Movement went forward in different
directions, some in Semitic speaking environments, some in Greek speaking
gave shape to one of the directions in which the Jesus Movement developed.In his early years as an apostle he worked
and southeastern Asia Minor (Galatians ), but after breaking with Peter,
Barnabas, and the Antioch church (Galatians
-14) Paul gathered new
co-workers and founded assemblies, mostly of non-Judean believers, in western Asia,
Macedonia, and Greece.(This work is described by Luke in Acts
16-20).These churches, founded between
49 and 58 CE, became the foundation of a Paul Movement.
lifetime it seems clear that he expected Jesus’ imminent return in power at any
time (seen early in I Thessalonians 4:17, around the year 50; still expressed
in Romans 13:11-12, around the year 58).The “churches” were charismatic apocalyptic sects during their first
three decades or so.
passed, more enduring arrangements for the leadership of the assemblies became
imperative.When Paul was gone, there
were still those who had labored with him and knew his views and his spirit
intimately.These associates continued
with the churches for the next several decades – as they passed through the
destruction of the churches in Judea, the increased
separation from Judaism, the growing influence of the Roman church, and the
sporadic persecution of the churches by imperial Rome.
the Gospels contain collections of traditions from the Jesus movements made
well after the time of Jesus, so the whole collection of Paul’s letters
contains several items written in Paul’s name but actually coming from Timothy,
Titus, Phoebe, Tychicus, Epaphras, or others – with Mark and Luke somewhere in
the mix (Colossians 4:10 and 14).
Names in the Movement.The end of
the letter to the Colossians gives us an unusual glimpse into the people of
this “Paul Movement.”The long section
sends greetings to some and names others who have been around Paul (4:7-17).The list starts with evangelists and
leaders:Tychicus, who is delivering
this letter; Onesimus, the slave spoken of in the letter to Philemon;
Aristarchus, a fellow prisoner of Paul; Mark, identified as “the cousin of
Barnabas”; and Jesus Justus – all of these were Judean-Christians,
Judeans by birth serving the risen Messiah in spreading the gospel to the
are also sent from some non-Judean colleagues:Epaphras, who originally brought the gospel
to the cities of the Lycus valley (see below); Luke, “the beloved physician”;
and Demas, who later gets a bad press in II Timothy 4:10.
of this letter also sends greetings to the other churches of the Lycus valley, Laodicea
and Hieropolis, besides Colossae.(These three cities were near each other, about
a hundred miles east of Ephesus,
the capital of the province of Asia.)He instructs these churches to read each
other’s letters from him (,
16).A cryptic message is sent to
“Archippus”:“See that you complete the
task that you have received in the Lord” ()
– and we have no idea what that “task” was.
Movement was certainly a historical fact, starting with Paul himself but
extending several decades after his death.Eventually it produced the collection of Paul’s letters – all of them.The first collection did not happen much
before 100 CE, with the letters to Timothy and Titus being added later, perhaps
as late as 140 CE.By the middle of the
second century, Paul’s letters were being read in the churches along side the
four Gospels.This was no longer Paul’s
Movement; it was the Christian movement!
My Take on Colossians and Ephesians.
My personal experience is this:several sections of Colossians are
unusual (if not strange) compared to the main letters, but looking at this
letter only I could see it as a letter by Paul.
The problem is the great similarity of Colossians to
Ephesians.The thick, lugubrious
language of Ephesians 1-3 is so different from the main letters that I cannot
conceive them as coming from the person who wrote Romans, even at a later time
in Paul’s life.And it is exactly that
kind of Ephesian language that appears in several sections of Colossians.
is the very different style.If you can
tolerate the long circular unending sentences [which the English translations
break up into several readable sentences], it has a brilliance and excellence
of its own.It’s thought is very
powerful for the Pauline churches in the 90’s of the Christian era.)
As Ephesians goes, so goes Colossians.One of Paul’s followers with special interest
in the three churches of the Lycus valley (a hundred miles east of Ephesus)
wrote it, probably between 70 and 90 CE.The author of this letter was confident that he/she could speak in the
voice of “Paul,” could dictate to the scribe the spirit of Paul as Paul would
have faced very new circumstances among the churches.He/she understood the Colossian community in
the second generation of its life and spoke with the fervor that he knew well
from his/her long work with Paul.
Colossians is an impressive piece in its own right, but, as
we have it, it was not dictated by Paul.