Biblical Words 
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.
(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! )
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.
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.)
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.