Wednesday, September 28, 2022

October 2, 2022 -- 17th Sunday after Pentecost

                                                             Biblical Words                                              [792]

Lamentations 1:1-6Psalm 137; II Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10.  

The agony of God’s judgment is cruel, but the faithful learn humility in the Lord’s work.  
Lamentations 1:1-6. 
The prophecies we have heard in the last few weeks, announcing the doom of Judah and Jerusalem for their sins, were finally fulfilled. 
The city was destroyed and the leading population carried into exile to Babylon. 
Some people were left behind, however, some who cared desperately.  Their voice is heard in the reading from the Book of Lamentations.  Here are a couple of quotes about the religious significance of this book.  
Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering.  The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.  It is, in part, the rawness of the hurt expressed in the book that has gained Lamentations a secure, if marginal, place in the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity.  Its stinging cries for help, its voices begging God to see, its protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.  (Kathleen M. O’Connor, “The Book of Lamentations,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI [Abingdon Press, 2001], p. 1013.)  
Lamentations is the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future.  (Shaye J.D. Cohen, quoted in The Jewish Study Bible, 2004, p. 1587.)  
The Reading No matter how strongly emotional it is, Lamentations is carefully crafted poetry.  The first four chapters are alphabetic acrostics, the first word of each verse beginning with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, from ’aleph to taw (22 letters).  The rhythm also is distinctive.  In Hebrew it is a kind of drumbeat – three and two, three and two, three and two.  
Our reading has six stanzas, each consisting of three couplets (six lines in most modern translations).  Verse 1 illustrates the pattern:   
How deserted she sits, 
      the city once thronged with people! 
Once the greatest of nations, 
      she is now like a widow. 
Once the princess of states, 
      she is now [a slave].  
               (New Jerusalem Bible, which consistently gets English most like the 
                Hebrew poetry.  The bracket is my modification of the NJB.) 
The poet constantly employs personifications.  Zion” is the personified city.  She often plays a leading role in Jeremiah’s poetry (for example, Jeremiah 4:5-31).  She is the city; she does not move.  In her location she is prosperous or ravished, destroyed, without population.  Judah” (in verse 3) is the population of Zion.  Judah here is treated as a feminine, though elsewhere usually a male.  In any case, “Judah” is mobile and has now gone into exile, scattered “among the nations.”  
The tragic story of Zion is summarized in verse 5.  
Her foes now have the upper hand, 
      her enemies prosper, 
for Yahweh has made her suffer 
      for her many, many crimes; 
her children have gone away into captivity 
      driven in front of the oppressor.  (NJB.)
Psalm 137.  
(The Lectionary offers two readings here:  Lamentations 3:19-26 and Psalm 137.  I am held by the pathos of this memorable psalm.)  
The psalm is the tale of two cities:  Babylon and Jerusalem.  
Babylon is viewed here exclusively as the destroyer of Jerusalem, whether there was any divine justice in that destruction or not.  The psalm voices the pain and humiliation of those carried away to Babylon, including a burst of rage against their captors.  
Not many of the psalms are located as specifically in a time and place as is Psalm 137.  While Judeans were to continue to live in Babylon in large numbers for more than a thousand years, this psalm has overtones of a newly emergent situation.  Those who speak have just recently arrived; they and their new neighbors are still getting adjusted to the novel conditions.  
For there our captors asked us for songs, 
      and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, 
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (verse 3, NRSV).  
This is the voice of citizens of Jerusalem recently deported to Babylon – just after 586 BCE.  
Though now in Babylon, the central thought of this lament is for Jerusalem.  The songs of Zion belong to Jerusalem – “How could we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?” – and the singer’s passionate vow is that Jerusalem will never be forgotten.  
Here we see a historicization of the old Zion liturgical tradition.  In the old liturgies, visionaries saw times when the nations would come to esteem Zion as a great pilgrimage center for peoples who seek conflict-resolution and peace (Isaiah 2:2-4).  Now, by the wild irony of God’s judgment, citizens of Zion are taken to the nations.  
However, the world-wide importance of Zion continues!  As later prophets will proclaim, Jerusalem will no longer be only the capital of a small kingdom; it will be the chosen place of God’s name for those who dwell – and who will eventually prosper – in the Diaspora.  
In the conclusion of the psalm we have one of those readings in the Hebrew scriptures that is a mixture of profound pathos with savage revenge.  
After the touching lament, we hear the curse!  “Happy shall they be who take your little ones / and dash them against the rock!” (verse 9, NRSV).  This cannot be in our scriptures for us to emulate, for us to find an occasion when such a thing could be our prayer!  However, we do not have to look far in the current news to find evidence twenty-six hundred years later of just such genocidal hatred.  
These singers, far from Jerusalem but desperately lamenting its loss, vent a hatred for the imperial power of the moment – before they begin the hard work of settling in and praying for a nation where they will reside for a millennium (see Jeremiah 29:7!).  
II Timothy 1:1-14.  
In the reading from the Epistle, the Apostle prays for and fondly reminds Timothy of the continuity of their faith with previous generations.  Of himself the Apostle says that he worships God “with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did” (verse 3, NRSV; the Greek is literally “progenitors,” not “fathers”).  The Apostle sees his faith in continuity with at least his own family and probably with all the Israelite ancestors.  
As Timothy’s heritage of faith comes to mind, we get some direct information about Timothy’s family.  
His was a faith “that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice …” (verse 5).  Theirs was a “sincere” faith (more literally, “non-hypocritical,” also used in I Timothy 1:5).  Although three generations of believers are represented by Timothy, his mother, and his grandmother Lois, we may not be dealing with a long period of time.  Acts 16:1-3 tells how Paul recruited Timothy to be his assistant in the work of the gospel.  
Eunice, Timothy’s mother, was a Judean woman married to a Greek man, that is, a non-Judean.  There is no reference to Eunice’s father, Lois’s husband, so Lois was apparently a Judean widow whose daughter had married outside the faith.  When Paul and Barnabas came to their city Lystra (around the year 49 CE), Lois and Eunice, and the young man Timothy along with them, accepted the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus.  A year or so later (continuing the Acts story), Paul came back through town.  Timothy had become a devoted and well-known Jesus-follower in the churches of that region, and Paul recruited him for a life of Christian service with Paul in the Greek-speaking churches of Asia and Greece.  
There was one dramatic moment in that recruitment, however (still following the Acts story).  Timothy was technically a Judean, having a Judean mother, but he had not been circumcised, perhaps because of his Greek father.  Since Paul always started his mission activity by approaching Judeans, it was helpful to have Timothy fully accepted in Judean circles.  Therefore, Paul had Timothy circumcised, qualifying him as an observant Judean.  We do not hear of any family dynamics this may have produced, and, for all practical purposes, from that time on Paul was Timothy’s father, probably with his mother’s and grandmother’s blessing.  
Part of the Judean heritage to which Paul and Timothy were born was the memory of suffering for their faith, perhaps through the recitation of laments like Psalm 137.  Accordingly, Paul urges Timothy to recognize and accept such suffering as part of the charisma (the “gift of God,” verse 6) that he has received with his ordination.  He summons Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling…” (verses 8-9). 
Thus the vocation of Christian ministry began to evolve from its Judean ancestry.  
Luke 17:5-10.  
The Apostle talked to Timothy about Christian service, but in the Gospel reading Jesus talks about slaves (also translated “servants”) and their lord.  
The passage opens with a saying about the miraculous power of faith.  “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’”  (Note the language of “apostles” rather than disciples, and “Lord” rather than Jesus.  We are in the ambiance of a structured worshipping community.)  The Lord’s reply is that real faith can perform magic, causing trees to transport themselves from land to sea. 
This seems like a pretty discouraging prospect, one not likely to be verified in the experience of most followers – especially if they are not apostles.  Does this not amount to saying that real faith is impossible?  (Perhaps that has a bearing on the rest of the passage!) 
To whom is the Lord speaking in verse 7?  “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field …”  
This does not sound like the modest Galileans who have abandoned most of their possessions and set out on a divine mission. 
The audience here are landowners and masters of slaves.  Jesus speaks about the kind of people for whom it would be ridiculous to think that they would invite field hands to sit down and be served before they have done their household chores.  These are masters who, it is understood, would never trouble themselves to say “Thank you!” to a serving person. 
The “you” of verses 7 through 9 are all the people whose bearing says to the world, “Don’t you know who I think I am?” 
But suddenly, the last verse (10) flips the pancake.  “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless [more literally, “useless”] slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  Who is this?  What “you” is this?  The focus has returned to the faithful band, those who have abandoned all and are following their Lord with their whole beings. 
What has happened?  How did we get from the arrogant plantation owners to the wholly submissive followers? 
Surely between verses 9 and 10 there has been a miracle. 
The miracle of faith is precisely that arrogant masters are “uprooted” from their stubborn land and planted in a sea of faith, where only humble and utterly devoted service is possible for them.  They have been transformed from the ways of the world into the upside down service in the reign of God – at whatever cost in suffering along with their people and in whatever humiliation before the worldly scoffers. 

The miracle of faith transforms the vengeance of captives (with songs in Babylon) and the arrogance of slave-owning landlords into patient servants who find the kingdom in the diaspora and in a journey to Jerusalem!  

Friday, September 16, 2022

September 25, 2022 -- 16th Sunday after Pentecost

              Biblical Words                                                 [791]

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16I Timothy 6:6-19Luke 16:19-31.
And what of the future – land is bought during a siege, ungenerous wealth ends beyond a great abyss. 
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. 
Here Jeremiah’s mission begins the gradual turn from judgment to hope. 
“Gradual” is the word, because Jeremiah did not offer any favorable prospects to the stubborn rebels in Jerusalem.  Seventy years must pass before any prospects of recovery can be looked for in Judah’s devastated land (Jeremiah 25:11; 29:4-7, and especially 29:10).  
Unlike our recent readings from Jeremiah, this passage does not offer impassioned visions and laments over the judgment and suffering of a wicked people and city.  This is a very deliberate and reasoned presentation of a highly improbable message.  Like the potter incident of chapter 18, this is prophecy by symbolic action, which the prophet experiences as guidance by God’s word.  
The narrative dwells on the details of this symbolic transaction.  You hear what is going to happen, then you hear it happen.  You hear about both copies of the purchase deed, and you get details such as the earthen jar in which the deed copies are to be stored.  You get the names and once even the grandfather’s name of the principal players of the episode.  This is being drawn out in detail as if it were the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.  
All for a simple message:  “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (verse 15, NRSV).  
The importance of the message must be seen against the background of the occasion.  The city is under siege.  It has been in rebellion against the world’s main super-power for sometime, and will eventually hold out for a year and a half.  That was a very long time for a city to hold out – and very expensive in troops and resources tied up so long!  When the city does finally fall, how will the conqueror react?  
He will be ruthless, and everything will be devastated!  Every scrap of wealth will be taken away and all the people will die, be transported to distant lands, or left to wander in the land if they would have no commercial value as exiles.  
With this prospect obvious to every realistic observer, what is happening to real estate values, both here and in the suburbs?  What will the demand for land be in Anathoth (three miles north of Jerusalem) when Nebuchadnezzar has finished this campaign?  
That is the background of Jeremiah’s purchase of the family land in Anathoth.  When things look absolutely the worst for future prospects in this county, Jeremiah is directed by God to buy land.  
Land, however, for use in the distant future.  For the moment, the only hope lies with the Diaspora (see Chapter 29, which we will read in two weeks).  
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16. 
The Psalm reading is for those who survive the destruction of the city of refuge besieged by Nebuchadnezzar.  When there is no earthly city available for God’s faithful, they remain dependent on God.  Being without a holy sanctuary, they are not without God.  The Diaspora is where they now “live in the shelter of the Most High,” abide “in the shadow of the Almighty.”  
The first part of the psalm is assurance that there IS such shelter for the faithful one.  It is a promise, almost in spite of all odds.  The dangers of unprotected places in the world are drawn out.  Safety from the “fowler,” from epidemic in the land (pestilence); safety from terrors at night, from drive-by shootings in the daytime (verse 5), and from all the diseases that threaten by night or day.  
God’s protected one will be secure from these.  
These assurances are given to the individual.  Diaspora is a life condition imposed first on individuals – which makes their communing together so much more important than in their old civic society.  All the pronouns of Psalm 91 are singular.  “You (singular) who live… who abide (singular)…” (verse 1).  When the great city is gone, each soul is alone with God.  
As other testimonies will make clear, this will lead to community, a community of survivors, one that is defined and shaped by having passed through God’s judgment.  For such a community of souls who love and trust God, God speaks directly but individually the promises of saving and well-being given in verses 14-16.  
I Timothy 6:6-19.  
The Epistle reading, like so many other readings this season, places the gospel in opposition to seeking riches.  First, there IS “gain” for the believer, who attains at least a godly life and “contentment” (sufficiency for life’s needs, see II Corinthians 9:8, where the same word is used).  
It is the nature of life that we brought nothing into the world with us and will take nothing out with us.  And yet – the temptation is before us of wanting to become rich.  Thus, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (verse 10, NRSV), and even leads some to abandon their faith.  
But the Apostle makes an urgent appeal, in what may be liturgical or hymnic language, to avoid such lures to destruction (verses 11-12).  The believer is to imitate Jesus in the “good confession” he made before Pontius Pilate.  (The only reference to Pilate outside the Gospels and Acts.)  The “commandment” – all the instructions for the faithful – is to be kept until Jesus’ manifestation at the end time, to whom a doxology is chanted in verses 15-16.  
But the Apostle seems to recognize that there are some of the faithful who will be rich – and will not immediately lose their possessions.  Guidance for them is given in verses 17-19, consisting mostly of urging them to seek the riches of righteousness and generosity rather than of the world.  By so doing, they may yet “take hold of the life that is really life” (verse 19).  
Luke 16:19-31.  
In the Gospel, the issue of wealth meets us in the classic story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  (The text does not call this a parable, but interpreters invariably classify it as such.)  
What matters during their lives is the great disparity between the wealthy and the poverty-stricken.  The rich man is extremely rich, one who dressed exquisitely and dined sumptuously every day.  Lazarus (the only figure given a name in Jesus’ parables), lying right outside the entrance to the mansion (through some lapse in local vagrancy laws) was extremely poor, hoping for only some table crumbs.  Both the poor man and the rich man died and went to their rewards – and here is where the real story begins.  
The rich man burns in hell while the poor man luxuriates in banquet companionship with old patriarch Abraham.  (This is one of the clearest Biblical descriptions of this folklore view of the afterlife.)  The center of the episode (parable) is the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. 
The rich man looks up and pleads with Abraham for a little relief from the fire of hell, but Abraham declares that there is an uncrossable abyss between heaven and hell.  (“You can’t get here from there!”)  The rich man had his rewards in the earthly life; now he pays the price.  
Abandoning hope for himself, the rich man has an altruistic urge and asks that Lazarus be sent to warn the rich man’s five brothers, who are still living it up in earthly plenty.  The reply is that they have Moses and the prophets, the law and the words of judgment and promise.  If living folks will not learn their responsibility from these, there is no hope for them – and even a dead man raised back to life will not convince them.  
(The Lazarus who is raised from the dead in the Gospel According to John, chapter 11, does not look like our poor man of Luke’s parable, but there also the scoffing opponents are not convinced by a resurrection from the dead.)  
The real abyss.  This story of the rich man and the poor man further confirms, in a more folksy way, the great abyss that this Gospel places between the rich and the saved (compare 6:20 and 24, the rich fool in 12:13-21, comments in 12:32-34, and “mammon” in 16:9-13).  This story insists that all have the scriptures to guide and warn them.  If you really heard the scriptures, you would find the extreme disparity between great wealth and great poverty unacceptable for the human community.  
The teaching here also insists that at some point it is too late.  The abyss, cutting off the chance to return to faithfulness to God, will come – leaving only the fires of hell in place of extreme wealth. 

So it was told, as Jesus continued his journey to Jerusalem.  

 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

September 18, 2022 -- 15th Sunday after Pentecost

                                              Biblical Words                                               [790]


Jeremiah 8:18-9:1Psalm 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 mesit─ôs, 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.  

Saturday, September 3, 2022

September 11, 2022 -- 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 10, 2022 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 29, 2022

September 4, 2022 -- 13th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words 

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 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.