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.]
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.
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).
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.
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.
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