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.  

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

August 28, 2022 -- 12th Sunday after Pentecost

Biblical Words 

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

August 21, 2022 -- 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Biblical Words 

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17.

Prophets experience divine constraint, pilgrims pass through shaking times, and Jesus places compassion above divine law.

From now to mid-October the Lectionary readings from the Hebrew scriptures will come from Jeremiah (including Lamentations).

Jeremiah is the largest prophetic book in the Bible.  (It has 1340 verses; Isaiah has 1293 and Ezekiel 1273.)  The book covers a period of about forty years of the most decisive history at the end of the kingdom of Judah, and it has the most personal and biographical presentations of any of the prophetic books (only Ezekiel is comparable). Some recent hyper-critical scholarship has cast doubts on any knowledge of the “historical Jeremiah,” but the remarkable tradition is hard to explain without some remarkable figure as its origin.

[I have a long essay on “The Background to Jeremiah, which in previous years I included in this week’s Lectionary studies. I have now moved that essay to my Study Bible Blog JW on Jeremiah Go to year 2019, September). That essay is both long and specific to my own research on Jeremiah, which was first developed in 1961 to 1968.]

Jeremiah 1:4-10.

This week’s Prophetic reading is Jeremiah’s “Call,” or commission as a prophet.  
The prophet’s full commission is presented in the entire first chapter of the book, where the prophet is established as a main battle line in God’s warfare with God’s people.  Jeremiah the prophetic warrior is drafted (verses 4-10), given two signs that explain the current campaign (visions in verses 11-16), and garrisoned as an impregnable fortress against his own people (verses 17-19).
The narrative of God’s drafting Jeremiah is in the first person: “the word of the Lord came to me…” It is the prophet’s account of how he came to be such an ominous and stubborn figure. He has experienced a divine constraint so fundamental to his being that it must have been prenatal (verse 5). He portrays a dialogue with God in which resistance or excuses are useless. Youth and lack of education are beside the point. When God has drafted a person, one takes orders, goes where one is told, brings the messages one is commanded, and generally stands fearlessly on duty as assigned (verses 6-8).
The prophet’s induction into God’s service is not dialogue only. There is a ritual action, whether this is only in a Jeremianic vision or it is the standard action of an ordination service in the temple. God causes something (the object is unexpressed) to touch Jeremiah’s mouth (as Isaiah’s lips were touched with the live coal, Isaiah 6:7).
The words accompanying this action are God’s speech. “Now I have put my words in your mouth” (verse 9, NRSV). The prophet is fully recruited to God’s side, is burdened and authorized by the awesome and deeply disturbing power of speaking God’s pronouncements to other human beings.  
Psalm 71:1-6.
The Psalm reading is exactly what a newly recruited servant of the Lord should learn. It should be part of his equipment.
It is a prayer that God be a “refuge” and “strong fortress” in the speaker’s struggle with the wicked and the unjust. This speaker shares the Jeremiah experience of divine constraint since birth. “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; / it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (verse 6, NRSV). As would turn out to be the case for Jeremiah, this speaker foresees a long life of service (verse 9) filled with dangers and trials (verse 13), but the final word of this verbal equipment is, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6, and verse 23).
Hebrews 12:18-29.
The Epistle reading continues the instructions for those who pilgrimage toward the City of God as followers of Jesus.
The pilgrimage has similarities with the Israelites going through the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai. The goal of the Israelites’ journey was the mountain where God appeared in thunder, lightning, and fire, and where God spoke the divine commands directly to the people, terrifying them so that they made Moses the intermediary for any further such divine instruction (Exodus 19 and 20, referred to here in verses 18-19).
The writer explains that while there are similarities to the Israelites’ journey, the present pilgrimage is beyond Sinai. It goes on toward Mount Zion, the true Mount Zion, which is the heavenly city of God.
The pilgrimage toward Zion is visualized as a pilgrimage festival to Jerusalem. There is a large festival crowd – here “angels” in their festival suits. There is an assembly of “the firstborn,” meaning those faithful ones who died in earlier times and were recorded in the book of life. The festival assembly also includes “the spirits of the righteous made perfect,” who are probably those who died as martyrs, before as well as since Jesus’ death.
As the pilgrims approach the holy center they come to Jesus, “the mediator of a new covenant.” Moses was the mediator of the old covenant sealed at Sinai, but now at a new Zion that replaces Sinai there is a new covenant with its own mediator. This new covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood – here, as in most of Hebrews, the model is probably the Day of Atonement – a blood that forgives all human sin since the blood of Abel was shed by Cain (all this in verse 24).
The rest of our reading is an exhortation not to refuse “the one who is speaking” (verse 25). This one is the heavenly Jesus, who speaks now the new covenant as the voice of God formerly spoke the old covenant.
The warning is needed because it is still possible to fall away, to lose the heavenly “rest” (see 4:1-11) that Jesus made possible. God “shook” Sinai in the great appearance to Israel, but the prophet Haggai promised that there is yet a second “shaking” to come, and any of us can fall away in that second shaking (verses 26-27).  The writer exhorts the hearers to persist and be able “to offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe” as the completion of their earthly pilgrimage.  
Luke 13:10-17.
The Gospel reading is about binding and loosing.
A woman who was “bound by Satan” for eighteen years (verse 16) by being physically bent over is released (untied, loosened) by Jesus from her disability. This may have been a regular healing story, like the one about the woman cured of the hemorrhage (Luke 8:42-48), but this one took place on a Sabbath and in a synagogue while Jesus was leading the service, creating a little tempest for the elders. Thus we have in fact a combination of a healing story and a controversy story. The controversy, which comes up several times, is about what is permitted on the Sabbath.
The President of the Congregation is discrete about the problem. He does not address Jesus directly, but says to the crowd who are present, “There are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (verse 14, NRSV).
The fault lies with the needy, not with the healer! Don’t come on the wrong day! Jesus asserts that this is quite ridiculous, even hypocritical, and appeals to an example of what IS permitted on the sabbath. It is permitted to untie (literally “loose”) a work animal to take it to water (verse 15); therefore, how much more appropriate to release a suffering human, sabbath or no.
The early followers of Jesus labored with the issue of how much of Judean law and tradition applied to them (how much of the law was still “binding” on them, and how much had been “loosed” by Jesus’ authority). They understood most of the Ten Commandments to be required of them, but by the second century Christians (as they were then called) no longer observed the sabbath (the fourth Commandment) but observed “the Lord’s Day” (Sunday) instead.
For a couple of generations many decisions had to be made in detail about what law applied to Jesus followers and what did not. These decisions were made step by step by those who were understood to have received authority from Jesus. In Matthew Peter is given this authority. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). In time Christians too had to make decisions about what was permitted and what was not.
Our story, and others like it, stood as forceful reminders that, among Jesus' followers, compassion for human suffering must take precedent over all religious formalities. 


Tuesday, August 2, 2022

August 14, 2022 -- 10th Sunday after Pentecost

           Biblical Words                                                        [785]

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19;  Hebrews 11:29-12:2Luke 12:49-56.
God judges his own choice vineyard, and pilgrims struggle on their way to a better time. 
Isaiah 5:1-7.
The reading from the Prophets is the second passage from Isaiah of Jerusalem, a passage often called the Song of the Vineyard. 
The drama of this song should be appreciated:  it is an imitation of the complaint of a disappointed lover.  (In the lounges and inns of Jerusalem the “vineyard” would be understood as a sought-after woman.) 
It begins, “Let me tell you a love story.”  My friend planted his vineyard, a long-term investment with lots of infrastructure –  site selection, land-clearing, plantings that take years to yield well, a watchtower built in the center, and a wall and a hedge around the cultivated area.  My friend provided everything a first-rate vineyard needs.  But my friend was disappointed; the vineyard produced only sour grapes. 
The singer appeals to his audience, the people of Jerusalem and Judah, to judge the friend’s case.  He has done everything; why these sour grapes? 
The appeal is to the justice of his further action
It is only fair that he tear down the wall and the hedge and let the vineyard be overrun by animals and wanderers.  He will no longer cultivate and prune it; it will go to waste.  And he will – but here a new dimension is introduced – command the clouds that they no longer rain on this vineyard. 
This commanding the clouds breaks the convention of the song.  This is not an ordinary lover of vineyards; this is a God who shepherds the clouds of heaven. 
And with that the allegory is dropped and the indictment declared directly. 
The vineyard is the house of Israel, and the planting is the people of Judah.  
These should have produced the good grapes of Justice and Righteousness, but instead they produced Bloodshed and a Scream.  The word translated “Bloodshed” occurs only here and is vague in meaning, but the “scream” or “outcry” is used to describe oppressed people, crying out to God and evoking a strong act of deliverance for them – Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 3:7 and 9) or Israelites oppressed by Philistines (I Samuel 9:16).  Here it is God’s people, the “poor,” who scream because they are oppressed by their leaders. 
The Lord enters into judgment
      with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
      the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
      by grinding the face of the poor?
      says the Lord God of hosts.  (Isaiah 3:14-15, NRSV
This other indictment of the leaders is the plain prose meaning here embodied in the poetry of the Song of the Vineyard. 
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19. 
The Psalm reading sustains the image of the vine planted in a vineyard by God. 
Here the vine symbolizes Israel brought out of Egypt and planted in a good land.  However, in this song, the judgment that the Isaiah song viewed as still in the future has already been carried out.  The vineyard has been overrun, the walls broken down, wild animals ravage it, the vine has been burnt and cut off (verses 12-16). 
Given this judgment, the purpose of the psalm is to appeal for a restoration.  The climax is a direct appeal for a strong king – “the one at [God’s] right hand” (verse 17, NRSV).  Such an Anointed One will not turn back in defeat (verse 18). 
All through the psalm a refrain has run like a drum beat, which in its fullest form is the concluding word of the communal lament:  
“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;  let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verse 19).   
Hebrews 11:19-12:2
In the Epistle reading we continue to hear the names of the “cloud of witnesses” who lived by faith down through the ages of Israel’s prophets, kings, and martyrs. 
There are brief allusions to those who followed their faith through the Red Sea and then through all the ups and downs of Israel’s life in the promised land, down to the severe sufferings of the martyrs of the Maccabean times who were crushed by their opponents (the stories of II Maccabees 6-7 are alluded to in verses 36-37).  By faith Jericho fell and judges and kings conquered Israel’s enemies, but “Rahab the prostitute” is also remembered as a heroine of faith, as are the widows whose sons were raised from the dead by Elijah and Elisha (verse 35).  The pilgrimage of faith is peopled by many who were not native Israelites. 
The writer of the Letter sees present-day Christians in continuity with these past witnesses, except now the goal they all lived and died for has come into view. 
These past champions of faith did not receive their rewards in their own times, “since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (verse 40, NRSV).  It is the appearing of that Anointed One at God’s right hand that inaugurates the fulfillment of the promises to the past worthies.  Jesus became “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2). 
That does not mean the pilgrimage to the city of God is yet complete.  The trip continues, but now all know where they came from and where they are going.  The trials and challenges of the pilgrimage can be met with joy and renewed faith in the final rest, which is now promised to us as well as to all the worthy ancestors of yore. 
Luke 12:49-56
Hardship and opposition for the pilgrims who follow Jesus is reinforced by the Gospel reading. 
Here there are three statements by Jesus about his own mission, statements that implicate the disciples in the strife and violence that Jesus himself faces. 
  • I came to bring [literally “cast, hurl”] fire to the earth … 
  • I have a baptism [= violent death, in this case] with which to be baptized …
  • Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division [the Matthew version reads “a sword”]!  (Verses 49-51, NRSV.) 
The “division” to come is illustrated by divided families, father against son, etc. (Luke 12:52-53, a wordier version of the saying given in Matthew 10:35-36).  
This picture of the families torn by conflict most likely comes from meditating on Micah’s prophecy of the last days before God’s final judgment.  Micah 7:1-7 portrays a literally God-forsaken society in which everyone consumes those near them and no one can be trusted. 
Put no trust in a friend,
      have no confidence in a loved one;
guard the doors of your mouth
      from her who lies in your embrace;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
      the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
      your enemies are members of your own household.  (Micah 7:5-6) 
This is followed in Micah by Zion’s expression of confidence that her Lord will deliver her, and then by prophecies of return from exile and rehabilitation of the holy city. 
The social chaos is followed by the urban utopia. 
The great dissolution of society is the darkness before the dawn.  It is standard procedure in apocalyptic writings that things must get worse before they can get better.  In later traditions this time of severe trial was called “the birth-pangs of the Messiah.” 
Thus Jesus’ announcement of coming conflict and enmity, right down to the family level, is part of the announcement that things are going to get worse before they get better. 

Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, a journey toward rejection, abuse, and death.  In that view the pilgrim’s journey by faith threatens the security one feels “at home,” and is weighted with sadness for those who will be lost.  However, the end they labor toward will be a transformed life and a new family of faith in that city whose architect and builder is God.