Tuesday, August 20, 2019

September 22, 2019 - 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [623]

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13.  

There is both human and divine pain – because of the misguided shrewdness of this age.  
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.  
This passage shows why Jeremiah, down through the ages, has been called “a man of tears.”  
The prophet’s profound empathy for both the suffering of the people under judgment and for the rightness of God’s side of the judgment, made him an agonized man.  Being a powerful poet, he expressed that agony in passionate images and dialogues.  
For example, this passage is a little drama, with dialogues.  The changes in speaker from verse to verse are fairly clear but recognizing them is essential to getting the prophet’s message:  the passion is divine as well as human. 
The prophet’s agonized feelings of pity are the outer framework.  
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, 
      my heart is sick” (verse 18). 
This cry at the beginning is linked at the end with the echoing cry:  
“O that my head were a spring of water, 
      and my eyes a fountain of tears…” (9:1, NRSV).  
Inside the prophet’s envelope of agonized lament is heard the astonished disappointment and despair of the people.  From all over the land they cry,  
“Is the Lord not in Zion
      Is her King not in her?” 
When disaster looms on the horizon, all the outlying people are accustomed to expect Zion to be a safe refuge and bulwark from threatening enemies.  In Jeremiah’s time, however, Zion herself was pronounced to be doomed.  (See the death agony of Zion in 4:30-31 and the sermon of doom on Jerusalem in 7:1-15.)  
The age of trust-in-Zion as the ultimate sanctuary, even for the unrighteous, is ending.  Zion’s “King” will not be in her; she will not be saved from the foreign invaders coming in waves against her. 
The last lament of the people is total despair:  
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
      and we are not saved” (verse 20).    
But at the center of this dramatic dialogue a voice is heard separate and above the others.  (NRSV puts it in parentheses, verse 19b, a comment inserted in the midst of the panicked cries of the people.) 
God speaks.  
While the rushing and overwhelming judgment from God is taking place, God also agonizes because it had to come to this terrible ending – that the people have been so unfaithful, so disloyal to their loving divine parent.  
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, 
       with their foreign idols?”  
And this unintelligible, this irrational surd of self-defeating behavior by a “chosen” people is the cause of agony and lament – both human and divine.  But most of all, the agony falls on the passionate prophet, who cries out, 
“Is there no balm in Gilead?”  
Jeremiah cries out for the healing of the soul wounded by all the transgressions of the people. 
Psalm 79:1-9. 
The Psalm reading is also a voice in prophetic dialogue.  
Here, however, we are at a later stage of the drama.  This is the voice of the people around Jerusalem, heard after the disaster has been completed, after the judgment for sin has been delivered (the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians). 
The early part of the psalm elaborates on the devastation, on the cruelty that ruthless enemies have executed upon the city and its population.  Bodies have been strewn over the land as fodder for vultures and wild beasts; there is no one to bury them.  Blood has been poured out so that it flows down gutters and sewers like the runoff of a storm.  People from the vicinity who still care about the great city are tormented by the scorn and taunting of neighboring peoples. 
And the psalmist asks, “How long, O Lord?”  
For a moment the lament moves toward anger and resentment.  Let these mocking peoples receive some of their own medicine!  Let them be the recipients of God’s wrath, especially since they don’t even know this God who has acted in judgment on God’s own people. 
But after this moment of resentment, the speaker returns to the real problem.  How to elicit God’s forgiveness, and let their great disaster testify to God’s own true character, the righteous God ruling all the nations.  
“Deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake” (verse 9, NRSV, emphasis added).  
I Timothy 2:1-7. 
(This reading is painfully relevant at this time of crises in urban law-enforcement in our nation.)   
The reading from the Epistle also speaks of peoples round about the community of faith.  Basically, the Apostle urges the faithful to leave the management of the world to God and to pray for those who maintain order and stability among the peoples.  
Timothy is told to have the Christian assemblies pray for all peoples around them, particularly for the rulers, from kings on down.  These rulers are not to be looked to for salvation and deliverance; that is not their business in God’s economy.  Rulers are to provide stability and order, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (verse 2, NRSV).  God’s desire is for everyone to be saved, which they will be when they come to know the “truth.”  
This truth is here expressed in a liturgical confession (verses 5-6a).  
There is one God; 
there is also one mediator 
between God and humankind.  
The good news is that there IS a “mediator” between God and humankind.  There is one figure reconciling, working things out, between God and humans.  (The Greek word translated “mediator” here is mesitēs, which is used in the Greek of Job 9:33, where NRSV has the insight to translate the Hebrew as “umpire”!) 
This mediator is the human Christ Jesus, and this human has given himself as a “ransom” for – not “many,” as in Mark 10:45, but – “all.”  
Everyone in all the nations has been ransomed from the powers of alienation and evil that have driven them through the ages.  Therefore, all are to be prayed for – lofty lords of the world as well as the humble and needy – prayed for as ones saved and entitled to participate in a life of godliness and dignity (verse 2).  
The delegate of the Apostle, and all the needy and humble in his churches – this is how they are to pray.  
Luke 16:1-13. 
In an era of outrageous bonuses for executives who have led vast corporations into gallons of red ink – and received government stimulus packages as well! –  the Gospel reading presents us with a real quandary!  Talk about “hard” sayings from Jesus!  The parable of the “dishonest manager” seems to exceed all bounds, given our time in history.  
The CEO of a vast enterprise has been indicted before the Chair of the Board.  Before the charges can be fully processed, the CEO cooks up deals with all the company’s creditors and gets himself a large golden parachute to keep his soft hands from hard labor in his later years!  

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (verse 8, NRSV).  

Jesus cannot be simply approving this conduct!  
Nor would any group of later Jesus followers approve such cheating.  It is apparently the “shrewdness” of the dishonest manager that is being lifted up.  Such shrewdness is to be admired in “the children of this age.”  They know what they are about, their priorities are very clear, and they act, even in a drastic crisis (such as a Federal indictment), to follow those priorities.  (Never mind that their highest priority is Greed!)  
What is left implicit is that there is a different shrewdness for those who belong to the age to come.  
The shrewdness of the age to come (which is the reign or kingdom of God) usually looks very stupid to conventional wisdom.  It involves giving away all you have to charity, abandoning family responsibilities to make hazardous trips to hostile cities, laughing when it seems appropriate to mourn, rejoicing when abused and discriminated against for one’s faith – in general, reversing the conventional values of current society, honest or dishonest.  Shrewdness for the coming age is the exact opposite of the shrewdness that works so well in this age.  
Perhaps when the chips are down, shrewdness for the kingdom followers will be figuring out how to give the most to the poor!  In the context of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem, something like that is the meaning of the parable of the dishonest CEO. 
[For more on the issue of wealth in Luke, and this parable in particular, go to  www.JWStudyBibles.com , and see "LUKE: A Gospel for Progressives?" posted in January 2019.] 

September 15, 2019 - 14th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                        Biblical Words                                                      [622]
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14;  I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10. 
Those skilled in doing evil bring chaos, while apostles and disciples are joyful because God finds those who are lost. 
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28. 
The prophetic reading is a couple of clips from a very dramatic chapter in Jeremiah’s poetic oracles. (The literary unit is Jeremiah 4:5-31.)  The whole dramatic chapter presents the indictment and demise of God’s people and their mother, the promiscuous wife who is the divine persona of the City.  
Zion and her children are threatened – and finally ravaged – by a terrifying force that sweeps down from the North.  
The prophet hears alarms, cries out warnings, and sees panic and horror all around.  All, of course, is about judgment for betraying God and being skilled only at doing evil (verse 22).  But the driving purpose of all the laser-light show that flashes from scene to scene and from voice to voice is to present the dread and horror of ruthless, inhuman invaders and destroyers. 
Generally speaking, the breezes over Judah come from the west and carry moisture from the Mediterranean Sea as far as the point of highest elevation, the mountain range separating the coastal plain from the Jordan Valley.  To the east things are drier, even desert, until you reach the high country of Ammon and Moab in the distance, far beyond the Jordan River. 
But sometimes conditions are such that east and southeast winds sweep over Judah.  They are dry, dusty, and may even be tornado-like winds called siroccos.  These winds, multiplied to the Nth degree, are the winds referred to in verses 11-12.  These are winds too violent to winnow the harvested grain – they simply blow everything away.  Such winds are God’s way of speaking in judgment against Judah and Jerusalem. 
Only one verse in our reading gives the reason for God’s judgment (verse 22).  The central issue is that the people’s education has been perverted.  They lack knowledge of God.  They are “foolish,” they are “stupid children,” and have “no understanding.”  They have lots of street smarts, but no proper education.  Consequently, they have earned advanced degrees in practicing evil, but are only pre-schoolers at doing good! 
The climax of the passage is the prophet’s vision of a land transformed wholly to chaos.  Without knowledge of God and skill at doing good, all things become “waste and void” (verse 23, NRSV).  The heavenly lights are gone, the mountains totter and tremble, and – most of all – no one is there. 
The land is empty, lonely, strewn with rubble, a surface wholly burnt over by the judgment of God. 
Such are the vast consequences of humanity’s lack of education, that is, lack of loyalty to God, lack of knowledge of justice, and lack of skill at doing good. 
Psalm 14. 
The one brief statement of indictment in the Jeremiah passage (4:22) is expanded in the Psalm reading. 
We hear of “fools” who say there is no God and who have gone astray and become perverse.  “There is no one who does good, no, not one” (verse 3, NRSV).  These evildoers, who have no knowledge, are not equated in this psalm with God’s people under judgment (as they are in the prophet).  Rather, they are more like the foe from the north, busy consuming God’s people (verse 4). 
However, such foolish but powerful consumers are doomed to the same terror as Jeremiah’s highly-trained evildoers.  “There” – at some undesignated place (read “Zion,” where the final judgment on the nations takes place) – “they shall be in great terror.” 
Why?  Because their victims have a champion, who will finally appear to rectify things.  
      … God is with the company of the righteous.  
You [evildoers] would confound the plans of the poor, 
      but the Lord [will prove to be] their refuge” (verse 6).  
I Timothy 1:12-17. 
The Epistle reading is the first of seven weeks of selections from the Pastoral Epistles, as scholars have called I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus since the eighteenth century. 
About these Letters.  The great fact about these letters in New Testament scholarship for the past 150 years is that they speak of different problems and use different language from the letters unquestionably written by Paul (Romans, both Corinthians, Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon).  So scholars commonly regard them as letters written in Paul’s name by later leaders in the churches he founded. 
The strongest thing in favor of Paul’s authorship is that the letters, taken by themselves, are convincing.  They SAY they are from Paul, they have compelling personal passages, and they are consistent and ring true through all three letters. 
Against Paul’s authorship is that Paul died around 62 to 67, and these letters reflect church conditions of the 80s to the 110s.  They are concerned with such things as qualifications for church offices, elders, deacons, and even a “bishop.”  Also, there is great concern to teach and preserve “correct doctrine” (read “orthodoxy”) and opposing people who do not follow that correct doctrine. We have in these letters a stage in the development of the Christian movement that is no longer holding its breath for the return of the glorified Christ but is settling in for a long stay in the Roman world. 
Looking over all the thirteen letters attributed to Paul, it is fair to say that they show us at least three Paul personas, each with its own challenges, thoughts, and writing style.  
·        Paul the First is the familiar battler for the gospel of justification by faith and love found in Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians.  
·        Paul the Second speaks the more mystical language of the Cosmic Christ in Colossians and Ephesians, and 
·        Paul the Third is the Apostolic doctor doing courses on leadership training, correct doctrine, and false teaching to be combated. 
Folks who read Paul for religious and devotional purposes (rejecting the concept of pseudepigraphy in the canon) prefer to think these are the same Paul at different periods.  Historians recognize we have three different stages in the Paul Movement (see the Special Note for the July 14, 2019 Biblical Words.)  
What we read in the two Timothy letters may be the Paul that faithful apostle-delegate Timothy needed to hear (and record for himself) as the challenges of church leadership grew and expanded in his later years.  
Our passage from I Timothy is the self-declaration of the Apostle.  
The Paul who speaks here holds himself up as the extreme example of a sinner delivered and given a new mission.  His personal story provides the most drastic change imaginable from an old life to a new, and thus his life is itself a powerful proclamation of the “mercy” and “patience” of Jesus Christ (verse 16).  
“Timothy,” and all those ministers-to-be who sooner or later heard this letter, are instructed in the essence of an apostle, one chosen and personally sent by the risen Jesus Christ.  It is from one with such credentials that the rest of the letter is to be heard.  
Luke 15:1-10.  
The Gospel reading is about divine discrimination.  
As usual, the discrimination is in favor of sinners and other social-political suspects (such as tax collectors and women).  The proper society people, represented by the Pharisees and scribes, grumble.  “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Once again, table fellowship is the make-or-break of religious (and therefore social) correctness.  In the realm of God, however, the focus is not on those who are in but on those still left out.  
One sheep is missing from the shepherd’s flock of 100.  That represents a 1% loss.  If that’s it for the season he has done very well!  The shepherd in the parable, however, is not satisfied.  He leaves the ninety-nine “in the wilderness” and goes after the one that is lost.  The story doesn’t invite us to evaluate the risk to the ninety-nine, but it implies that there was at least some risk – “in the wilderness” is not usually a safe environment for unattended sheep.  
And when the lost sheep is found, the shepherd makes a really big deal of it.  “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (verse 6, NRSV).  And then the really discriminating divine punch line:  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”  
Generally, I feel like one of the ninety-nine, and therefore somewhat devalued by this behavior of the “good” shepherd.  (Which,  of course, includes me in the class-action suit brought by the older brother in the long parable below, the Prodigal Son.)  
And a woman had ten valuable silver coins.  (Luke tends to group stories or episodes in pairs, one for a man and one for a woman.)  When one coin is lost she does the total-search routine – with success.  In her case there is probably no danger to the nine coins still resting in her cash box, but she too makes a really big deal of the recovery of the lost coin.  
Divine discrimination!  Even the angels in heaven engage in it (verse 10), so what chances do Pharisees have who are so finicky about the qualifications of their eating companions?  This shepherd and matron, Jesus says, have got the right message:  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  

Monday, August 19, 2019

September 8, 2019 - 13th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [621] 
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33.  

God keeps bringing up choices – for nations engaged in evil, slave owners living the faith, and disciples on the journey of their lives.
Jeremiah 18:1-11.  
In the prophetic reading, God continues to require Jeremiah to bring an unpopular message to his people in a turbulent time – this time at the workshop of a potter in the lower part of town.  
The potter’s wheel, where the potter does his work, is a clever device.  Two flat stones are fastened, one at the top and one at a lower place on a vertical axle.  The lower stone is used to spin the axle by hand or foot while the upper stone is the work space where the trained hand of the potter shapes the spinning mound of clay.  As the prophet watches, a bowl or a jar begins to take shape on the upper stone.  At some point, the intended vessel gets out of shape or is marred and the potter wads the clay together and throws it back on the spinning stone to start over and make a new vessel as it suits him.  
Interpreters who like to penetrate to the personal experience of a prophet suggest that Jeremiah just happened to be watching the potter work when the insight hit him that Israel is in God’s hand as the clay is in the potter’s hand.  At that moment, Jeremiah realized that he was not there by accident; God had meant him to be there to get that message, and in fact God was sending a message to Israel by this everyday moment in the prophet’s life.  Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord” (verse 6, NRSV).  
The first basic insight about God as potter leads to a broader generalization about God as judge of nations and kingdoms (verses 7-10).  Nations are always moving on their destined courses.  Some become corrupt and evil and are headed for disaster, a plucking up or breaking down (verse 7 – see Jeremiah 1:10), which is equivalent to the potter wadding up the clay to start over.  Other nations are humanitarian and just, and are destined to prosper, to be built up and planted (verse 9).  
However, the destiny of either nation may be reversed.  The rotten may actually reform (even the mighty tyrant Assyria, according to the Jonah story), and the benefactor may become a tyrant and an oppressor, in which case God will “repent” of his previous verdict and establish a new destiny for either nation.  
Jeremiah lived his entire life in a time when the destinies of many nations were rising and falling with dizzying speed.  The prophetic word made clear to him that this swirl of historical changes was still an arena in which God worked out ultimate justice for the peoples.  
But the final insight of the visit to the potter was a return to the present reality in Judah and Jerusalem.  Jeremiah realized that Judah’s present destiny was one of alienation and destruction.  The prophetic word is good news only if a great reversal can be made, a serious turning away from the present course.  God’s word to Judah, Jeremiah realized, is, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.  Turn now, all of you from your evil way …” (verse 11).  
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18.  [Read all of verses 1-18.] 
The Psalm reading [as the Lectionary gives it] is two sections from that profound meditation on God’s knowing, Psalm 139.  
Very appropriate to Jeremiah is the confession that God’s scrutiny is inescapable. 
Even before a word is on my tongue, 
      O Lord, you know it completely. 
You hem me in, behind and before, 
      and lay your hand upon me.  
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, 
      it is so high that I cannon attain it.  (Verses 4-6, NRSV.) 
[The first stanza, verses 1-6, is God’s knowing me.  The second stanza, verses 7-12, insists there is nowhere to go to escape God’s knowledge.] 
The third stanza (verses 13-18) is depth analysis.  It speculates in awe on the mysteries of embryology and human birth.  Such thoughts are appropriate to a Jeremiah who heard that he was called to be a prophet before he was conceived, or before he was delivered at birth (Jeremiah 1:5).  
This psalm’s wonderment at the miracle in the womb is very personal.  It is the speaker’s own growth as embryo that expresses God’s incomprehensible art and mysterious power.  
As the destinies of the nations are known to God, so is the utterly personal being of this one who is born – and now speaks.  
Philemon 1-21.  
This Sunday is the one chance in the three-year cycle of the Lectionary for hearers to benefit from the little Letter to Philemon.  This is an entirely personal letter from the apostle Paul, and scarcely anyone questions that it is really his writing.  
Paul is writing to a well-to-do householder in the city of Colossae, a medium-sized city in the Lycus River valley a hundred miles east of Ephesus in Asia Minor.  Paul apparently converted Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, commenting that Philemon owes Paul “even your own self” (verse 19), and speaking of himself as being in a position to give commands to Philemon, if such were needed (verse 8).  
This letter also is about an either / or, a choice between two ways.  Here, however, Paul addresses a rather delicate situation, and Paul speaks somewhat obliquely and indirectly, not saying everything he has in mind.  Instead, he prompts Philemon to catch the drift and make the decisions Paul is hoping for.  
The letter goes to Philemon accompanying the slave Onesimus (the Greek name means “Useful,” see the word-play in verse 11).  Apparently Onesimus ran away from the Philemon household, and may have stolen enough money to make good his escape to a larger city.  (Paul, in verse 18, is perhaps offering to repay what was stolen.)  In that city – possibly Rome, more likely Ephesus – the fugitive slave ran into Paul and his circle and ended up being converted to faith in Jesus also, which has changed his life and made Paul his father in the faith (verse 10).  
Now the time has come to reconcile old grievances, to send Onesimus back to his master in Colossae, and trust to Philemon to do the right thing in relation to this new brother in the faith.  Paul emphasizes that how Philemon receives Onesimus is Philemon’s choice, but Paul is confident Philemon will make good decisions (verses 14 and 21).  Paul does not come out and say, Why don’t you both forgive Onesimus and make him a free man, but what Paul expected is pretty clear.  
The fact that this minor personal letter survived, and was preserved in Christian circles for some decades before Paul’s letters were collected, suggests that Philemon did the right thing, and was well remembered for it – perhaps especially by Onesimus himself!  
The Letter to Philemon suggests a meditation on self-interest related to faith-based action.  (Faith-based organizations are constantly asking people to take actions that may not seem to be in their own self-interest but are for the sake of a greater justice.)  
Onesimus, a useful man who escaped from slavery, is being asked – expected – to go back to his master with every likelihood that he will serve as a slave again, perhaps for the rest of his life.  Why is he willing to do that?  Philemon, who was probably wronged, not only by the loss of his slave but also by the loss of money stolen, is being asked to ignore the past losses, indulge in no punishment, but accept the fugitive as a brother in the faith – and probably to emancipate him also.  
In Philemon’s case, it may be that the way of grace and faith was also the way of enlightened self-interest.  The quality of life in the larger household of faith far exceeded what either Philemon or Onesimus had before.  That is the perspective Paul has on it.  
Luke 14:25-33.  
If Jeremiah had to speak words people didn’t want to hear, the Gospel reading presents an even worse case for Jesus.  
The reading begins with a “hard” saying about the cost of discipleship.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (verse 26, NRSV).  
So much for “family values”!  
Whether the saying is thought to be from Jesus himself or from later embattled and persecuted followers who were sure he would have said this, it anticipates violent domestic friction caused by the call to follow Jesus.  In the first and second generations, followers of Jesus encountered intense hostility in some situations, hostility that divided Judean families into bitter opponents.  Following Jesus was taking a course that could lead to death, represented by the cross.  
An indication that this “hate” language was unacceptable to some early Christians is seen in the parallel saying in Matthew, where the language is toned down.  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me …” (Matthew 10:37).  Even in Matthew, however, this hard saying is linked with the saying, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27 // Matthew 10:38), which is not that much easier than the “hate” statement.  
The rest of the passage urges that one be very clear about the cost of this choice.  Making the choice to become a Jesus disciple should be a deliberate thing.  Jesus illustrates from worldly wisdom.  The construction contractor will “first sit down and estimate the cost” (verse 28).  The king contemplating aggressive war will “sit down first and consider whether he is able …” (verse 31).  
The final punch line is put in terms of money.  “So therefore if you do not give up all your possessions, you cannot become my disciple” (verse 33, modified here to fit Greek word order, which has verse 33 parallel to verse 27).  
This hard saying of Jesus is a sobering and painful word to contemplate in a prosperous and possession-filled land.  In times or places where Jesus followers are (currently) excluded from privileges, denied livelihoods, and even outlawed, the cost of discipleship is not only a choice between good and bad but between life and death.  
The Lord of Israel and of Jesus can present us with real “crises” (Greek for “decision,” “judgment”), whether the promised land seems near or far off.  

Monday, August 12, 2019

September 1, 2019 - 12th Sunday after Pentecost

                 Biblical Words                         [620]

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16;  Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14.
Chosen people betray the heritage of their God, while others journey on toward the etiquette of God’s banquet.
Jeremiah 2:4-13. 
This reading is God’s argument that the Israelites have betrayed their privileged status and turned away from the living God. 
The rhetorical question, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me…?” (verse 5, NRSV) is a challenge to give reasons why the ancestors might be justified in abandoning God and going after the Hebel (Hebrew for “vanity,” “nothing,”) and becoming nothings themselves.  Why didn’t the ancestors pray as they should have, asking “where is Yahweh” who had led them through great trials to the promised land? (verse 6).  This reproach speech uses old traditions about how the Israelites repeatedly turned against God, in spite of great blessings received, during the trials of exodus, wilderness, and even in the promised land (see the long treatment of this theme in Psalm 78). 
But if the past had no reasons to abandon Yahweh, what of the present? 
The speech next says “you” (no longer the ancestors) – you are the ones who received the abundant land, ate its fruits, but who also contaminated it with your unfaithfulness to the Lord.  The ancestors were spoken of as a single group, but the present generations are organized into a complex society, with offices and institutions.  Four groups are indicted (verse 8).  The priests did not pray properly, the law instructors paid no attention to Yahweh’s requirements, the political leaders (shepherds) violated God’s boundaries (“trans-gressed”), and the prophets spoke in the name of the Ba‘al. 
Given this conduct, the Lord now sues the straying people for breach of faith. 
The word “accuse” in verse 9 is the Hebrew verb rīb, “contend with,” “bring charges against” someone for violating a treaty.  For a people to abandon its God, who gathered it and established it, is unprecedented – just go ask everybody between the Cypriots in the west and the Arabs of Kedar in the east (verse 10).  Even when their gods are “no gods,” folks stay with them! 
But here is an incredible case – let the heavens themselves, who witness to great covenants on earth, be overwhelmed!  God’s people have done two evils; they have abandoned the true source of fresh, living water, and gone to dig out cisterns (which hold only still water) – cisterns which they have learned to their pain have cracks and keep no water for the time of need. 
This is a powerful speech, preparing the ground for some call to action.  What God wants now is not specified in this speech, but is clear from the historical situation.  This speech is an appeal to the people of the old northern kingdom (Jacob/Israel) with its strong traditions of the ancestors.  The ancestors did indeed stray from the Lord, and the recent generations reinforced that betrayal in their institutions. 
But such “unnatural” behavior can be reversed; Israel can still repent and reunite under their true Lord (in Jerusalem) who gave them their favorable heritage.  That is the message of this remarkable speech. 
Psalm 81:1, 10-16. 
The Psalm reading is a precise parallel to what God says through the prophet. 
After a summons to praise the God of Jacob, the psalm presents God lamenting over Israel’s unfaithfulness.  “My people did not listen to my voice; / Israel would not submit to me” (verse 11).  As is also heard in some Jeremiah passages, God yearns and longs for Israel to pay attention.  “O that my people would listen to me, / that Israel would walk in my ways!” (verse 13). 
In a more liturgical setting, this prophetic psalm also gives expression to the divine disappointment and sorrow at disobedience. 
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
The Epistle reading gives detailed guidelines for the conduct of Jesus pilgrims on earth.  
  • As is appropriate for travelers, hospitality is the first requirement mentioned.  Take in the sojourner in the land, whether his visa papers are correct or not – you never know when you may be entertaining angels unawares.  (The writer might have in mind stories about Abraham, Genesis 18:2-15, or Samson’s mother, Judges 13:3-23.) 
  • Besides travelers, act responsibly toward prisoners – put yourself in their place and do for them what you would want done for you! (verse 3).  (This is addressed to people subject to intermittent persecution.)
  • Pilgrims are also to honor and observe marriage vows (verse 4). 
  • In addition, greed is out of court for pilgrims – no capitalists on this journey (verse 5). 
  • Finally, this pilgrimage is not just a mass movement; there are leaders who bring the word of God and serve as models for pilgrim behavior.  Remember to support them (verse 7).
The persistent feature of this journey – the pillar of cloud and fire that leads it in the wilderness – is Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (verse 8).  Through him a chorus of praise should be “continually” offered up (verse 15) – a reference to the “continual” burnt offering that was made twice a day in the old sanctuary, here to be replaced by prayer in the name of Jesus. 
Luke 14:1, 7-14. 
The Gospel reading is about banquets. 
The opening verse says that Jesus, invited to a dinner party by a leading Pharisee on the Sabbath, was being watched very carefully – presumably to see if he would violate their rules again.  We skip a passage about healing on the Sabbath (last week’s topic) and come to proper seating at a banquet. 
Jesus’ advice about proper seating is called a “parable” (verse 7).  This means the talk is really about the heavenly reign, though it appears to be about earthly things. 
On its earthly level, Jesus’ advice repeats the wisdom of Proverbs 25:6-7 – take the lower seat so you don’t get demoted.  But when this is applied to the banquet that inaugurates the reign of God, it leads to the next paragraph, verses 12-14.  Not only the guests should take the humble places at the table, but the host should prepare the guest list with God’s view in mind, not the chic of the current well-to-do. 
You should imitate God by inviting the poor, the disabled, and the visually challenged.  To do so is to bring blessing to these lost sheep of the Lord and thereby to gain true blessing for yourself – “for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (verse 14, NRSV). 
Jesus, like the Pharisees, believed in the resurrection.  There is decidedly a good time coming – and it will give the righteous (only they are included here) a chance for a completed life in God’s own way. 

Friday, August 9, 2019

August 25, 2019 - 11th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                            Biblical Words                                               [619]
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17. 

Prophets experience divine constraint, pilgrims pass through shaking times, and Jesus places compassion above divine law. 
From now to mid-October the Lectionary readings from the Hebrew scriptures will come from Jeremiah (including Lamentations). 
Jeremiah is the largest prophetic book in the Bible, covers a period of about forty years of the most decisive history at the end of the kingdom of Judah, and has the most personal and biographical presentations of any of the prophetic books.  (Only Ezekiel is comparable.)  Some recent hyper-critical scholarship has cast doubts on any knowledge of the “historical Jeremiah,” but the remarkable tradition is hard to explain without some remarkable figure as its origin. 
[I have a long essay on “The Background to Jeremiah,” which in previous years I have added to this week’s Lectionary studies.  I am in the process of moving that essay to my Study Bible Blog (www.JWStudyBibles.com).  The essay is both very long and specific to my own research on Jeremiah, which was first developed in 1961 to 1968.  It is thus less appropriate here than on the other blog.] 
Jeremiah 1:4-10. 
This week’s Prophetic reading is Jeremiah’s “Call,” or commission as a prophet. 
The prophet’s full commission is presented in the entire first chapter of the book, where the prophet is established as a main battle line in God’s warfare with God’s people.  Jeremiah the prophetic warrior is drafted (verses 4-10), given two signs that explain the current campaign (visions in verses 11-16), and garrisoned as an impregnable fortress against his own people (verses 17-19). 
The narrative of God’s drafting Jeremiah is in the first person:  “the word of the Lord came to me…”  It is the prophet’s account of how he came to be such an ominous and stubborn figure.  He has experienced a divine constraint so fundamental to his being that it must have been prenatal (verse 5).  He portrays a dialogue with God in which resistance or excuses are useless.  Youth and lack of education are beside the point.  When God has drafted a person, one takes orders, goes where one is told, brings the messages one is commanded, and generally stands fearlessly on duty as assigned (verses 6-8). 
The prophet’s induction into God’s service is not dialogue only.  There is a ritual action, whether this is only in a Jeremianic vision or it is the standard action of an ordination service in the temple.  God causes something (the object is unexpressed) to touch Jeremiah’s mouth (as Isaiah’s lips were touched with the live coal, Isaiah 6:7). 
The words accompanying this action are God’s speech.  “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (verse 9, NRSV).  The prophet is fully recruited to God’s side, is burdened and authorized by the awesome and deeply disturbing power of speaking God’s pronouncements to other humans. 
The continuation of the divine speech says such speaking will involve pronouncing the fates of nations and kingdoms, mainly for judgment and destruction, but perhaps also, between the cracks, for saving and rebuilding (verse 10). 
Psalm 71:1-6. 
The Psalm reading is exactly what a newly recruited servant of the Lord should learn.  It should be part of his equipment. 
It is a prayer that God be a “refuge” and “strong fortress” in the speaker’s struggle with the wicked and the unjust.  This speaker shares the Jeremiah experience of divine constraint since birth.  “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; / it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (verse 6, NRSV).  

As would turn out to be the case for Jeremiah, this speaker foresees a long life of service (verse 9) filled with dangers and trials (verse 13), but the final word of this verbal equipment is, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6, and verse 23). 
Hebrews 12:18-29.
The Epistle reading continues the instructions for those who pilgrimage toward the City of God as followers of Jesus. 
The pilgrimage has similarities with the Israelites going through the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai.  The goal of the Israelites’ journey was the mountain where God appeared in thunder, lightning, and fire, and where God spoke the divine commands directly to the people, terrifying them so that they made Moses the intermediary for any further such divine instruction (Exodus 19 and 20, referred to here in verses 18-19). 
The writer explains that while there are similarities to the Israelites’ journey, the present pilgrimage goes beyond Sinai.  It goes on toward Mount Zion, the true Mount Zion, which is the heavenly city of God. 
The pilgrimage toward Zion is visualized as a pilgrimage festival to Jerusalem.  There is a large festival crowd – here “angels” in their festival suits.  There is an assembly of “the firstborn,” meaning those faithful ones who died in earlier times and were recorded in the book of life.  The festival assembly also includes “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” who are probably those who died as martyrs, before as well as since Jesus’ death. 
As the pilgrims approach the holy center they come to Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant.”  Moses was the mediator of the old covenant sealed at Sinai, but now at a new Zion that replaces Sinai there is a new covenant with its own mediator.  This new covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood – here, as in most of Hebrews, the model is probably the Day of Atonement – a blood that forgives all human sin since the blood of Abel was shed by Cain (all this in verse 24). 
The rest of our reading is an exhortation not to refuse “the one who is speaking” (verse 25).  This one is the heavenly Jesus, who speaks now the new covenant as the voice of God formerly spoke the old covenant. 
The warning is needed because it is still possible to fall away, to lose the heavenly “rest” (see 4:1-11) that Jesus made possible.  God “shook” Sinai in the great appearance to Israel, but the prophet Haggai promised that there is yet a second “shaking” to come, and any of us can fall away in that second shaking (verses 26-27).  

The writer exhorts the hearers to persist and be able “to offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” as the completion of their earthly pilgrimage. 
Luke 13:10-17. 
The Gospel reading is about binding and loosing. 
A woman who was “bound by Satan” for eighteen years (verse 16) by being physically bent over is released (untied, loosened) by Jesus from her disability.  This may have been a regular healing story, like the one about the woman cured of the hemorrhage (Luke 8:42-48), but this one took place on a Sabbath and in a synagogue while Jesus was leading the service, creating a little tempest for the elders.  

Thus we have in fact a combination of a healing story and a controversy story.  The controversy, which comes up several times in the Gospels, is about what is permitted on the Sabbath. 
The President of the Congregation is discrete about the problem.  He does not address Jesus directly, but says to the crowd who are present, “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (verse 14, NRSV). 
The fault lies with the needy, not with the healer!  Don’t come on the wrong day!  

Jesus asserts that this is quite ridiculous, even hypocritical, and appeals to an example of what IS permitted on the sabbath.  It is permitted to untie (literally “loose”) a work animal to take it to water (verse 15); therefore, how much more appropriate to release a suffering human, sabbath or no. 
The early followers of Jesus labored with the issue of how much of Judean law and tradition applied to them (how much of the law was still “binding” on them, and how much had been “loosed” by Jesus’ authority).  They understood most of the Ten Commandments to be required of them, but by the second century Christians (as they were then called) no longer observed the sabbath (the fourth Commandment) but observed “the Lord’s Day” (Sunday) instead. 
For a couple of generations many decisions had to be made in detail about what law applied to Jesus followers and what did not.  These decisions were made step by step by those who were understood to have received authority from Jesus.  In Matthew Peter is given this authority.  “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).  In time Christians too had to make decisions about what was permitted and what was not. 
Our story, and others like it, stood as forceful reminders that compassion for human suffering must take precedent over all religious formalities among Jesus’ followers.