Saturday, July 23, 2022

August 7, 2022 - 9th Sunday after Pentecost

                    Biblical Words          [784]

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40.

What does God really want? Justice, mercy, and pilgrims who live by faith.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20.

Justice and Mercy – The eighth-century prophets declared these more important to God than sacrifice and religious ceremonies. Especially in three famous passages in Amos, Micah, and this Sunday’s reading in Isaiah.

Amos voiced God’s outburst, “I hate, I despise your festivals… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV).

Micah of Moresheth gave instruction concerning proper service of God: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:7-8).

In our Isaiah passage, the prophet proclaims the “teaching [torah] of our God” to the notorious sinners of Jerusalem and Judah (verse 10).

A “torah” is an instruction by priests about what God requires of those seeking access to the holy place. We hear the original life-situation of such a torah in the Micah passage referred to above.

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? (Micah 6:6)
People need instruction about how to approach a God who is holy and powerful enough to bring better crops, to provide healthy offspring, and to keep away – or bring in judgment – the armies of a mighty Assyria. “What must I do …?” The business of the priest’s torah was to tell you what to do to be saved at this place at this time.
The answer in this Isaiah passage, as in the Amos and Micah passages, is that God does not require abundant sacrifices and awesome religious ceremonials – God even hates such things. At least, God hates them when they are the doings of a deceitful people.
“I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13).
The finest religious action, even personal prayer before God, becomes intolerable when the hands spread out in prayer have blood on them (verse 15)!  Whether visible to everyone or not, God sees the blood, and the presence of such a person is a desecration.  
However, there is more to God’s word:  God also says, it is not too late. No matter how scarlet or crimson your hands are (verse 18), a complete renewal is possible.  
It is possible on the condition that you radically change.
What must I do?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
… cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (verses 16-17).
With such a conversion of your habitual ways, you may still be able to “eat the good of the land” (verse 19).
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23.
The Psalm reading presents the coming of God to assemble the covenant partners for judgment.
An awesome and glorious power out of Zion is this Lord with devouring fire and tempest (verses 1-2). The “faithful ones” who made covenant with God by sacrifices are gathered to hear the righteous judgment of God witnessed by the heavens – that is, by infallible witnesses to all human deeds (verses 4-6).
The divine declaration to those under judgment is that their sacrifices have been duly noted; these things “are continually before” God (verse 8). 
 Our reading skips over one declaration of God that prepares for the psalm’s conclusion. Instead of the flesh of bulls and blood of goats, what God wants is “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (verse 14). Then, the conclusion.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way
I will show the salvation of God (verse 23).
The psalm, too, delivers the torah concerning true religious service to God.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

One of the most famous passages about faith in all of scripture is from the Letter to the Hebrews, the opening of our reading.  
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (verse 1, NRSV).
The rest of this chapter identifies and celebrates certain heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew scriptures, though our reading is confined to Abraham and his immediate family – after a brief comment on faith in the creation of the world by the word of God (verse 3).
In our reading, the showcase example of faith is Abraham.  Abraham is the archetype of those who live in the world as pilgrims. They live “in tents,” trusting in the promise that ultimately they will reach “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10).
There is a recognition that fulfillment of hope may be distant. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country…” (verses 13-16).
This model of Christian life as a pilgrimage from a past degenerate world toward a future of God’s making in God’s time is steadily reinforced in the rest of this Letter. This model also played a long role in later Christian life, particularly famous in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
Luke 12:32-40.
The requirement of justice and mercy was what led ultimately to the pronouncement of God’s coming judgment.  Jesus, following the older prophets and his mentor John the Baptist, repeated that announcement.
All Jesus’ preaching assumed that his hearers stand immediately before that judgment.  For some – the poor, the oppressed, the meek – the coming of God’s judgment was good news:  Relief at last! For others (the many?), it was threatening news. Their whole past was about to catch up with them.
Our Gospel reading is about how people are supposed to live as they wait for the imminent judgment of God.
First, they are told to give their goods to charity. “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (verse 33, NRSV; see also Luke 14:33). 
 This instruction is straightforward and unqualified. It is addressed, of course, to people who have just been told that theirs is the Kingdom of God: Where one’s treasure is (verse 34) is the acid test for the faith of a disciple. 
Put in the cruder language of later times, “Follow the money,” and you will know the secrets of the hearts, not only of the pilgrims following their Lord but of the land-owners and merchants of the settled land (see the parable in 12:16-21).  
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (verse 32).  
The rest of the passage is not directly about possessions but about watchfulness for the Son of Man’s coming. The transition is not strange, “for detachment from possessions and worries is an important part of preparation for the Lord’s coming” (Robert Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon, 1996, p. 210).  
The one who lives by faith is called (verses 35-40) not only to give up personal possessions, but also to live on the edge, with no long-range planning, no commitments that involve a long future. (No life insurance payments for the disciple.) 
 Your Lord may return tonight. That is the stance of the Jesus follower.  Live today as if it is your last day on earth. No homeowner knows when the burglar has scheduled a break-in (verse 39); no disciple knows when the Lord’s return will be sounded by a knock on the door.  
[In a discussion of Luke 12 in my other blog, I explain that the passage assumes that Jesus followers live in apocalyptic communes.]  
On Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, these instructions seem to be for the committed band that has known for a while that Jesus is the Anointed One – and perhaps also known that the journey leads to death. However, as part of the Gospel known to the churches of the second generation, they are also instructions for the band of witnesses who will eventually infiltrate lands far beyond Judea.  
Those churches had gradually evolved a new way of life, a life lived day by day in expectation of being visited by their heavenly Lord.  As more time passed, they realized that that Way of Life was, in fact, the “kingdom,” which was being given to God’s “little flock”!    

Friday, July 22, 2022

July 31, 2022 - 8th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words 

Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21.

God’s love may temper even God’s justice, but the new life excludes the idolatry of greed.
Hosea 11:1-11.
The second reading from the prophet Hosea is one of the most remarkable passages in scripture. It interprets God in terms of human emotions carried to their most extreme.
Most of Hosea 4-14 (quite separate from chapters 1-3) are words of denunciation and predicted destruction for the people and places of the northern kingdom. But after that barrage of judgment has gone on some time (through chapter 10), our passage gives it a climax, and then a violent reversal.
A comment on Hosea’s language and text. The book of Hosea is only partly legible. The historical Hosea spoke his poetry in a dialect of the northern kingdom, though his words have been preserved in Judean dialects. The text also is one of the oldest in the Israelite scriptures, being recited and re-copied many times before becoming standardized. These uncertainties affect the translations, and this is a particularly good place to compare other translations with the NRSV, such as the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Jewish Publication Society, and the Revised English Bible versions. These others are translations of the same Hebrew text, but are independent of the English tradition continued by the NRSV. Some rather different renderings, given by the ancient Greek translators, can be seen in the translation in The Orthodox Study Bible (Nelson, 2008).
The human emotions by which God is interpreted are especially those of a father for his children, or for his one special son. Favorite sons have been loved since birth.
When Israel was a child, I loved him…
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms;…
I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love; …
(Verses 1-4, NRSV.)
But throughout this love the sons were ungrateful and disobedient.
The more I called them, the more they went from me…
… they did not know [did not acknowledge] that I healed them…
I seemed to them as one who imposed a yoke on their jaws, though I was offering them food [this line follows NJPS trans.].  

The punishment for such continued disloyalty is a reversal of the salvation.  If Israel was brought out of Egypt to be given good things, they will be sent back into slavery, not only in Egypt but under the new great power, Assyria (verses 5-6, especially in the NRSV).
So far this is the expected word of God’s judgment through a prophet.
Now however we get a personal outburst by God. (Fortunately, the text and language are relatively clear here.)
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel? …
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.

I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim; …” (verses 8-9a, NRSV)
And now the encompassing declaration that shapes the cosmos:
…for I am God [’El] and no mortal [’īsh],
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath (verse 9b, NRSV).
The personal emotion of loss over the beloved son(s) becomes the dominant motive of the Almighty. 
What is not possible for humans will nevertheless be done by God. A way will be found to both execute judgment and to continue in caring love for the disobedient and judged beloved children.  (This eventually leads to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.)
Psalm 107:1-9, 43.
The Psalm reading is an excerpt from a long psalm that calls on many groups of people to give thanks and praise to God for deliverance. It is “the redeemed of the Lord” who are called on to join the praise, and their various experiences will be held up as examples in the course of the full psalm.
The first group whose experience is described are those who were lost, wandering and in danger of thirst and hunger, in the wilderness (verses 4-9). This is a fitting response to the Hosea passage because it can be applied to Israel’s experience when brought out of Egypt.  
The wilderness generation qualified supremely as the “redeemed of the Lord”; from day one, they were journeying from a place of deliverance toward the place of God’s rest.
Colossians 3:1-11.  
The writer of Colossians also speaks of a great reversal – one that has already happened. It is the believer’s death: “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (verse 3, NRSV).
Those baptized into Jesus have died to the destructive and enslaving forces of the world and are freed to live empowered from above, in Christequal across all social and religious barriers. 
The image of the heavenly Christ exercising rule over the earth, an image known to the baptized, defines the believer’s way of life. That is the image that discredits the superstitions and demonic powers that surround the Lycus valley people in their daily lives.
In our passage it is the things to avoid, the things that are excluded by the heavenly image of the Christ, that are mainly listed. We have two lists of negative traits: (1) sexual immorality, etc., ending with greed, in verse 5, and (2) anger, malice, etc. in verse 8.
It is recognized that avoiding these things requires some effort. “Put to death whatever in you is earthly” (verse 5).
The new life requires rigorous honesty with fellow believers in caring mutuality. “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices, and have clothed yourselves with the new self” (verses 9-10).
Baptism was the stripping off; one now lives in the new garments – those of the reborn (which are described more fully in 3:12-14, following our passage).
Luke 12:13-21.
The Epistle reading contained an incidental identification of greed with idolatry – “Put to death…greed (which is idolatry),” Colossians 3:5. The Gospel concentrates even more on greed, suggesting also that love of possessions becomes idolatrous.
The episode begins with a request from someone in the crowd asking Jesus to serve as arbiter in a dispute over an inheritance.  Jesus’ response is to decline becoming an arbitrator of the Mosaic law. He declines getting into the business of the Pharisees, which would in later times produce such compilations of rabbinic law as the Mishnah and Tosefta. Instead, Jesus tells a parable putting all devotion to material goods under an intense eschatological critique.
The parable describes a man wealthy from his agri-business enterprises. He is determined to keep investing and expanding, no doubt absorbing many smaller and marginal farm operations along the way. 
 At a critical juncture, he has a dialogue with his soul and decides to make the great break, to tear down the old infrastructure and replace it with new super-capacity facilities. How very modern and progressive! Think of the new jobs created for the displaced farmers!  
Jesus’ entire “journey” in Luke, however, is about living in a time of urgent judgment, when priorities must be radically altered. This man’s preoccupation with capitalist expansion leads him into hubris, into forgetting that he stands on a daily basis as a humble mortal before the instant judgment of God.
In today’s world he would have an excessive cholesterol count, be over-weight, and have high blood pressure. We know what form the judgment of God takes in such cases. Greed may make a capitalist economy heat up, but it leaves the barns of the soul empty before God.
The journey to judgment that Jesus leads makes poverty the way to wealth-that-really-matters. 

July 24, 2022 - 7th Sunday after Pentecost

Biblical Words 

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13.

Fathers and children may symbolize God’s disciplining and love, with prayers freeing the children from fears and want.

Hosea 1:2-10.
The Lectionary continues its selective survey of Israel’s prophetic books by turning to the book of Hosea.
The books of Amos and Hosea differ significantly in style and basic theme:  Amos gives us the Justice of God determining Israel’s life; Hosea gives us the Love of God determining Israel’s life.
Background. Hosea was a contemporary of Amos, but, uniquely among the Biblical prophets, Hosea was a native of the northern kingdom of Israel. His prophetic messages are passionate condemnations of Israel’s turning away from the Lord Yahweh. Israelites were attributing the cyclical works of nature to the baals, Hosea insists, instead of to the one God in Israel’s life, Yahweh. (Hosea 2:5, 8; 11:2; 13:1.)
What is going on here, and had been going on before Hosea’s time, is a great demythologizing of the millennia-long essence of Canaanite religion.
As we see Canaanite mythology in its Ugaritic epics (from the 14th century BCE), the cosmic world was shaped by the interplay of the gods Baal (lord or master), Yamm (cosmic Sea), Mot (Death), and Anath (virgin-sister-consort who avenges Baal’s death by slaughtering Mot). 
 In this mythic cycle Baal fights intensely against the lord of chaos, Yamm, and having defeated him establishes a great temple for himself with the consent of the high god ’El. The power of Death (Mot), however, overcomes Baal, who dies as the season of drought and barrenness prevails in the world. Anath pursues Mot, threshes him into small pieces (like grain) which are sown over the fields, and makes possible the gospel of the new season: Baal lives! 
 (See, among many discussions, John Day, “Baal (Deity),” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Doubleday 1992, Vol. I, pp. 545-49.)
The daring thing about Hosea is the way the language of Canaan has been taken into the Israelite tradition. The language of love and conflict between gods has become the language of love and betrayal between Yahweh and Yahweh’s people.
Our reading. In our passage, we have a report of Hosea being told by God to enact in the social life of his city a parable of God’s love and discipline. Go find a woman who has the qualities and perhaps the established practice of a professional whore. (See the details of such a life when Tamar temporarily adopts the life of a zōnāh in Genesis 38:12-23.) Such a woman, by the nature of her social status, does not maintain a single relationship in her sexual activities. She lives by the payments of many lovers. Hosea is to take such a woman, marry her – thus setting up a single relationship for her – and have children by her.
The real point of the enacted prophecy is not the woman; the point is the names given to the three children. The names announce progressive devastation for the northern kingdom. 
The first child, “Jezreel,” means defeat in war: “I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel” (verse 5, NRSV). The second child, “Lo-ruhamah” [not-compassioned], means lack of compassion in a time of distress (verse 6). And the third child, “Lo-ammi” [not-my-people], means a complete denial of the covenant relationship, “for you are not my people and I am not your God” (verse 9). 
 The parable demonstrates that up to this point the love of God is only disappointed and defeated. God’s partner is a whore, and the children’s names symbolize the alienation between them.
However, as in the old Canaanite ethos, death and alienation are not the last word. It is clear that some words of hope were inserted by later Judeans who preserved the Hosea tradition (so verse 7), but elsewhere in this book Hosea experiences God as disciplining, not totally destroying, Israel. We will see this especially in next week’s reading, but here (verse 10), the transmitters of Hosea’s words were compelled to look beyond total alienation between God and Israel. The reversal will come. “Not my people” will again be called “Children of the living God.”
Psalm 85.
The Psalm reading is a liturgy for those waiting for the great reversal – the reversal that Hosea’s followers added to his enacted prophecy (Hosea 1:10).
The first word of the liturgy recalls the past reversals from God’s anger to God’s graciousness, when God “restored the fortunes of Jacob” (verses 1-3). Thus there is precedent from the past for God’s gracious restoration of the people.
The second word is a prayer in the present calling upon God to “Restore us again! … Will you be angry with us forever?” (Verses 4-7).
Then we hear a speaker in the first person concentrating full attention on the divine word of salvation which is about to be uttered from the sanctuary (verses 8-9).
Finally, the liturgy culminates in the glowing prospect of what can be expected when God does speak the word of salvation (verses 10-13).
In this final exuberant dance, the covenant qualities are personified. “Steadfast love” (hesed), “faithfulness” (’emeth), and “righteousness” (sedeq) interact like independent powers, meeting, kissing, growing from the ground, descending from heaven. Their blessings are summarized, “the Lord will give what is good,” and all will know that God’s people are restored.
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19).
If Hosea shows the love of a supreme God who displaces all former local powers, the Epistle reading carries a similar message about the heavenly reign of the Risen Christ.
The second big scholarly discussion about Colossians (after the “Christ hymn” in Chapter 1) is the “heresy” or false teaching that seems to be referred to in our reading.  
There is no clear description of the teaching and practice, so scholars have had to “reconstruct” it from the hints in Colossians 2. This is a topic that has fascinated scholars, and there are many reconstructions, with similarities but differences in details. Broadly, they disagree about whether the Colossian teaching was mainly Greek cosmic and mystery religion lore or more heavily Judean-style doctrines and practices. 
Personally, I doubt that there was any “system” to the Colossian lore. I think the allusions in the letter are to many different ideas, theories, ritual practices, etc., that never added up to any single consistent body of doctrine or practice. (Some other scholars have recognized this.) Thus, the following points.
Colossians is not another letter to the Galatians. There is no panic, no great urgency that the Colossians are in dire crisis, as there is in Galatians about the issue of circumcision of non-Judeans.
The hints about the false teaching are a conglomeration: The hearers are warned against “philosophy” and “empty deceit; “elemental spirits of the universe; perhaps something about circumcision (verses 11-13); cosmic “rulers and authorities”; matters of food, drink, and festivals; self-abasement; worship of angels; visions (serially in verses 8-18, NRSV).
Most of us have observed that any community of faith that has been around for some time attracts a fringe of “religious hobbyists” (my term). These folks have some secret or little-known interpretation or ritual to share with those really “in the know.” While they will talk to you endlessly, if you allow, they have no real substance; only repetitions of old ideas newly offered and inside practices they’re prepared to share.
The Colossians were a settled Jesus community, probably in their second generation. The great fire of the early commitment had become too familiar, and the enticements of new and novel religious curiosities were attracting many, perhaps especially the educated and the young. (There is much emphasis on knowledge and understanding in this letter.)
These early Christians were tempted to include horoscopes, astrological readings, and various hallucinatory rituals in their religious life to enhance what Christ did for them. The writer insists that the Christ who was the fullness of divine reality (verse 9), who took on the flesh of circumcision and death, this Christ who died and rose again, now reigns over all such superstitious powers.
All the believer needs is the baptism that is a dying to the worldly powers and the rising to a new life in God’s power, free from all the demons and spirits of a misguided universe. “He [Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in [his triumphal procession]” (verse 15).
Luke 11:1-13.
The Gospel reading offers the life of prayer as the answer to the ongoing needs of the Lord’s disciples. The whole passage Luke 11:1-13 is about prayer, with the Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s version, at its head.
The whole is bracketed by expressions describing God’s fatherly character, the Father addressed in the model prayer (verse 2) and the human father who knows how to give good gifts to his children (verses 11-13; verse 11 reads literally, “what father among you…”).  Most of what is between the brackets is about persistence in asking the father for what is needed, especially bread or other food.  

The prayer taught to the disciples, then, asks: 

  • that this family head be honored and esteemed at his true worth by all others (hallowed be his name), 
  • that his plan for everyone’s welfare may succeed (his kingdom come), 
  • that his children, who accompany him on his campaign (daily bread = daily rations), may have food as needed, 
  • that they be forgiven their misdemeanors, and 
  • that the trials they encounter not be excessive.  

The following teaching about asking and receiving builds on examples of common human expectations.  The “friend” asked for bread in the middle of the night cannot be expected to respond simply out of friendship, but will respond to a neighbor in need.  (The previous chapter just told about the Good Samarian.) 

Furthermore, doors were made not only to keep people out, but for knocking on.  Keep on knocking, is the wisdom here.  

And in the business of giving, trust the giver, perhaps a fatherly type, to know what to give.  It won’t be a snake instead of a fish.  This theme suggests that WE may not know what we most need, but can trust the fatherly giver to provide it, allowing us to then recognize what our need truly is.  

Finally, the supreme gift that the heavenly Father knows we need is the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 13).  That will be provided for those who continue the “journey” of the Christ right on to Jerusalem – and beyond.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

July 17, 2022 - 6th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words                         [614]

Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42.

For some people prophets have words of doom; for others a word of Wisdom that radically changes priorities.  

Amos 8:1-12.  
Our second reading from the prophet Amos is part of a series of brief visions he received from the Lord. There are five visions altogether:
7:1-3, the locust plague;
7:4-6, the fire storm;
7:7-9, the plumb line;
8:1-3, summer fruit; and
9:1, destruction of the temple.

(Last week’s reading included the third of these.)

There was a definite strategy in the first three visions, all of which threatened disaster for poor, small Jacob.  When God showed the prophet an explicit disaster, like a locust plague or the outbreak of great fire, the prophet jumped in and begged God to relent.  “O Lord, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand?  He is so small!” (7:2 and 5, NRSV).  For the third vision, however, God changed tactics and showed the prophet something that wasn’t a disaster already in progress.  It was only an ominous sign of some kind.

In that third vision God shows the prophet a plumb line, the device for determining when crooked walls have to be torn down. Then God said, “Amos, what do you see?” Now the prophet has to answer the question instead of immediately pleading for Jacob. When he reports what he sees, it is God’s turn to speak, and God then explains the judgment on Israel that the plumb line represents.

God has circumvented the prophet’s determination to intercede for poor little Jacob!

That was the divine strategy with the plumb line, and it is the strategy here in this Sunday’s reading with the vision of the basket of summer fruit (verses 1-3). As the translators’ footnotes in NRSV explain, there is a wordplay. You see a basket of summer fruit, a qaitz? That sounds like a qetz – an End.  For you Amos there is a message in this, for “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by [= exclude them from disaster].” The rest of the divine judgment elaborates on the dead bodies lying in the streets, and concludes with an awesome command for silence, in Hebrew hās! The total silence of complete desolation and emptiness.

And why is Israel coming to its End? The reasons are given in verses 4-6, once again selling the poor for silver, trampling the needy, and in general ruining the poor. The culmination of punishment will be the elimination of any hope for divine relief. There will be a famine of the words of the Lord; there will be no divine guidance that might reverse the disasters (verses 11-12).  Israel is doomed.  

We have the book of Amos, not because Israel survived the judgment, but because Judah did.  

After the northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria, Judah attempted to reform its own religious and social order, particularly under King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah.  At that time the example of the northern kingdom was mulled over extensively (see II Kings 17:7-23), and the stories of Elijah-Elisha and the prophetic scrolls of Amos and Hosea (in early versions) were preserved as parts of a new vision of Judah’s place in history.  In this new vision Judah would continue to be the holy city God had chosen and would continue to have a king descended from David, the great anointed king, but it would also adhere firmly to the lessons of Yahweh’s exclusiveness learned from the prophets and the disastrous history of the northern kingdom.  

This deliberate adoption of northern traditions about Yahweh’s work in history was the beginning of the prophetic books as part of a larger complex of God’s Word.  These were prophesies that had been fulfilled; their messages had been verified by God’s own actions.  Israel had died because it was unfaithful to Yahweh – and Yahweh’s justice.  

Perhaps Judah still had a chance!  )

Psalm 52.

The Psalm reading is probably one of the least familiar of the psalms. It doesn’t fit the usual categories for the psalms: hymn, lament, thanksgiving, etc. It is more like a reproach speech from a prophet, like Isaiah’s pronouncement against Shebna, the mayor of Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:15-25).

The heading of the psalm, added later, relates it to an incident in the time of David and Saul when Doeg the Edomite was a competitor and betrayer of David, an outlaw at the time (I Samuel 21:1-8; 22:6-19). In Judah’s re-colonized (“post-Exilic”) period, the Judeans greatly resented the Edomites, who had taken advantage of Judah’s defeat and depopulation. A prominent Edomite warrior (gibbor, the term translated “mighty one” in verse 1 of our psalm) was viewed as a tyrant epitomizing evil conduct. In the psalm, the righteous ones will view with awe the punishment and destruction of this bully, who trusts in his wealth, his power to buy his way to whatever he wants.

In contrast to this Edomite gangland boss, the speaker compares himself to the evergreen, long-lived olive tree in the precincts of the Temple. Tyrants come and go; the strength of the Lord endures.  

Colossians 1:15-28.  

Apart from the question of authorship – whether Paul wrote Colossians (see last week’s discussion) – modern scholars have occupied themselves mainly with two topics in this epistle: (1) the “Christ hymn” in 1:15-20, which is so unique in its presentation of the “Cosmic Christ,” and (2) the “heresy” or false teaching going on at Colossae. 

These two topics are presented in the Lectionary Epistle readings for this Sunday and the next. On both these topics, I have gradually concluded that modern scholarship has seriously misplaced its emphasis(“The Christ hymn is the bulwark of the Letter,” J. Paul Sampley, HarperCollins Study Bible, 1st ed., p. 2211.)  

In past discussions of Colossians 1, I gave Andrew Lincoln’s reconstruction of the Christ hymn in 1:15-20 in some detail, along with his interpretation of its background in Judean wisdom tradition. Part of the argument that Paul is here quoting a preexisting hymn to divine wisdom is that is stands out in the letter; it does NOT fit its context. The theory is that Paul quoted it here because he needs it later in his argument that Christ is supreme over the other powers of the universe.

On one point I think the scholars are right: the “hymn” is an intrusion! The letter reads better if you OMIT the “hymn”!

The prayer-report of 1:9-14, just before the Christ hymn, has concluded by citing God’s work to include the believers in the “kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son, saving them from the dark doom hanging over the rest of the world (1:13). Verse 21 (immediately after the “Christ hymn”) continues to describe this saving action, “…you…he has now reconciled…so as to present you holy and blameless…before him. The letter is addressed to those who know they have already been included in the elect group of Jesus people.  

The only significant challenge faced by this community of faith is to keep on keeping on. You are in Jesus’ kingdom, “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard” (1:23).  

The writer is addressing a community that has been around for some time. They are being tempted (as we will hear next week) to accept some fads advocated by local religious hobbyists. But they have previously bet their lives on the apocalyptic message that Jesus was God’s Son, now exalted to heaven, who will soon return to judge the world. They have been assured of being on the right side of that judgment! What is required of them now is to hold that faith and continue to live the marvelous new life it requires.   

That’s what verses 21-23 are about. The “Cosmic Christ” of the Christ hymn (verses 15-20) has no particular bearing on that core message. The Christ hymn, with its much vaster perspective, is relevant to religious issues that arose in the second generation of the Jesus assemblies – perhaps especially in the Phrygian region of the Lycus valley (where the ancient Greek Great Mother had her home!).  

The main message of Colossians 1 is to Keep the Faith! You already have what is decisive. When people want to talk about the universe and its many “elemental spirits,” we also have a lore about the absolute supremacy of Christ, but the real challenge is to keep what we have and live a rigorous life acceptable to God (which is the subject of the final Lectionary reading from this letter).  

(I have ignored here the fact that Colossians 1:9-23 is one of the most convoluted and stream-of-consciousness passages in the entire New Testament, just as bad as Ephesians 1:3-14.  In most current editions of the Greek text, verses 9-20 are one sentence!  For intelligibility, the NRSV breaks it into seven sentences.)

Luke 10:38-42. 

 Compared to the previous readings, the Gospel text is remarkably straightforward – though not necessarily easier to live with.

As Jesus’ “journey” continues, he is hosted by a householder named Martha(The story is told mainly from her viewpoint.) Martha has a sister Mary who becomes absorbed in Jesus’ teaching and “sits at his feet” (a phrase used of disciples, see Luke 8:35) rather than helping with the hostessing. Martha resents this, and resents it enough to go into the seminar room and make a major case of it (verse 40)!  

Jesus’ response seems to commiserate with Martha’s many worries and management tasks (verse 41), but as usual he recasts things by radically altering the priorities. 

Too many distractions are not good; “there is need of only one thing (verse 42, NRSV; there are several variant readings in this verse.) And he adds, somewhat cruelly it seems to us, that Mary (rather than Martha) has chosen that one thing (verse 42).  

We seem to have a classic conflict between the doers and the dreamers! We are tempted to work at this text until we can get a more comfortable result, something other than Jesus siding unequivocally with the dreamers.  

But the background of apocalyptic urgency (“only one thing”) that informs Jesus’ requirements of those who would follow him (9:57-62) seems to shape the response to Martha also. The imminence of a whole new order for the world upsets routine agendas for ordinary household duties!  We want to say, “The world must also be managed on a day-to-day basis! Give us more Marthas! Then there could be more hosting of traveling sages, and the members of the devotional seminar could have something to eat at their break times. 

And so it goes.  

To us advocates of the Marthas of the world, the Reign of God seems too far off to allow its visiting representatives to seriously disrupt our management agendas.