INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C – Proper 13
HOSEA 11:1-11. The image of God behind this dramatic appeal to Israel is that of a loving, compassionate parent. Indeed, here God is described as the Mother of Israel. Just discipline is also the parent’s role toward her children; and God does this too.
Hosea was one of that elite company of prophets who from the middle of the 8th century cried out against the abandonment of Israel’s special covenant relationship with the only true God. The imminent threat from both Egypt and Assyria as the dominant powers of the period vying for supremacy is lifted up in vss.5-7 as the judgment of God against apostasy. This emphasizes how the divine purpose is worked out in historical events of every age.
PSALM 107:1-9, 43. This selection forms the first two antiphons of a litany of thanksgiving most likely created as a hymn for community worship at a relatively late date, no more than four or five centuries BCE. Its antiphon chorus (vss. 8, 15, 21, 31) celebrates God’s enduring love on which all Israel’s history depended.
ECCLESIASTES 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23. (Alternate) In some respects Ecclesiastes is the most irreligious book in the Bible. Nowhere is this assessment clearer than in these selected passages that seems full of disheartening despair about life and faith. But take a deeper look. Perhaps there is something worthwhile in the setting the author creates for what follows in chapter 3 that everything has it time in God’s ordering of creation.
PSALM 49:1-12. (Alternate) Like Ecclesiastes, this psalm is the product of the Wisdom school of poets who sought to create a religious environment in a difficult age after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. There is a sense of fatalism about life and death in these verses. Yet there is both hope and faith underlying the pessimism this psalmist expressed.
COLOSSIANS 3:1-11. Paul’s letters follow a usual pattern of first stating what Christians believe, then declaring the ethical implications of those beliefs. Here he states what it means to live out one’s baptism which symbolizes the death and resurrection of Christ. He emphasizes not only the way the Christians at Colossae were to use their bodies, but also the tense relationships which may well have existed between Jews and
LUKE 12:13-21. According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus always seemed to look for a teaching moment thrust at him by someone in his audience. Here a man having a quarrel with his brother asked him to be a judge between them about a family inheritance. Instead of doing what he was asked, Jesus told the parable of the farmer so satisfied with his wealth that he forgot how brief life can be. The point of the story is that God sees life from a totally different perspective. Do we share God’s point of view?
HOSEA 11:1-11. The image of God behind this dramatic appeal to Israel is that of a loving, compassionate parent, the “Our Father” of the Gospels and the forgiving father of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Better still, because child rearing has always been and still is for many predominately a mother’s role in most cultures, we can see here “the Mother of Israel.” This is the Mary we meet in Luke 2:41-52.
Vs. 2 recalls the Baal-worship and other forms of idolatry which so corrupted the worship of the Israelites following their settlement in Canaan, especially during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Hosea was one of that elite company of prophets who from the middle of the 8th century cried out against this abandonment of Israel’s special covenant relationship with the only true God. Vss.5-7 lift up the imminent threat from both Egypt and Assyria as the dominant powers of the period vying for supremacy as the judgment of Yahweh against this apostasy. Squeezed as it was between the two superpowers of that time, the prophet could see the hand of God in Israel’s situation.
The compassion of Yahweh exceeds the severity of this judgment, however, as vss. 9-11 assert. Because Yahweh is one who is merciful and loving as well as just, the anger of Yahweh, like the frightening roar of the lion, (or an angry father who only exercises authoritarian discipline?) brings Yahweh’s children to their senses and sends them home trembling like birds (vss.10-11). There could not be a more colourful prophetic image.
The promise of Israel’s return from exile has caused some scholars to hypothesize that this is a post-exilic addition to the original text of Hosea. The issue is ultimately unsolvable because no pre-exilic or other early texts exist. Furthermore, there is a vagueness and lack of specificity about the details of the promise and no mention whatsoever about the pre-eminence of Jerusalem and the temple which characterizes so much post-exilic writing. The passage really tells us more about Hosea’s concept of Yahweh’s true nature as a God of mercy and enduring love than about the events of those dangerous times.
PSALM 107:1-9, 43. This lection forms the first two antiphons of a liturgical psalm of thanksgiving, one of the true gems of the Psalter. The addition of the last verse of the psalm (vs.43) creates an exegetical problem no one has conclusively resolved: Are vss.1-32 the original thanksgiving hymn and vv.33-43 another psalm celebrating the providence of Yahweh and, in the prophetic tradition, the care of Yahweh for the needy?
Vss. 42-43 contain a wisdom saying comparable to those found in Proverbs and Job (cf. Job 22:19), but only once elsewhere in the Psalter (49:10). If this is a valid analysis, one may reasonably conjecture that it was an editor during the late post-exilic period who forged the unified psalm as it now appears. Wisdom and prophetic influences, especially those of Second Isaiah and Job, can be identified in many other phrases of the text.
The antiphonal refrain repeated throughout the first part (vss.8, 15, 21, 31), each with its own extension (vss.9, 16, 22, 32), emphasize the liturgical character of the psalm. Note especially how four distinct groups of worshippers and their particular reasons for thanksgiving have been identified in vss. 4-7, 10-14, 17-20 and 23-30. One wonders if these are descriptions of the many different groups of the Diaspora scattered abroad in various conditions after the disastrous fall of Samaria (722 BCE) or of Jerusalem (586 BCE). If so, then the psalm could have been composed for one or other of the great festivals after the exile when the Jewish Diaspora were required to return to the temple.
It has been speculated that vss. 22 and 32 give evidence of its use with the offering of the thanksgiving sacrifices. They still ring true in the praises of modern congregational worship for the universal and steadfast loving kindness of our God.
ECCLESIASTES 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23. (Alternate) Qoheleth, the teacher of Wisdom, known more by the Latin name of the book, Ecclesiastes, was the classical cynic of scripture. These selections from the beginning of his collection of wise sayings express that characterization very well. Purporting to be Solomon, the son of David, he used this pseudonym to conceal his identity as a 4th century observer of Israel’s moral and spiritual decline during the later par of the Persian period (539-333 BCE).
According to the late Prof. R.B.Y. Scott, he was not an atheist, but he did take a position “diametrically opposed to the doctrine that Yahweh (is) a personal God, had chosen Israel to be a people peculiar to himself and had made known to her his will.” (The Way of Wisdom. Macmillan, 1971; 170) At the same time, Qoheleth was agnostic and fatalistic, which fit well with his affirmation of the existence and power of Yahweh. This found expression in his oft repeated statement that “all is vanity and chasing after wind.” In this he seemed almost ahead of his time in the direction that the Prophet Mohammed would take more than a millennium later (7th century CE).
Qoheleth came to the conclusion that life did not have much meaning at all. As he said in 2:18-21, he despaired of his labours yielding anything from which he might benefit. Only others gained from what he had wrought. All one’s efforts yield only pain and vexation. As a result, he eschewed all but pleasure and felt that this too was the will of God (vss. 24-25 not in this reading). He must have suffered from a prolonged depression or his times must have been exceedingly oppressive.
PSALM 49:1-12. (Alternate) In a mood not dissimilar from that of Qoheleth, this psalmist’s style can only be classified as poems of wisdom. Several other psalms also adopted a like position. (See Psss. 1; 37; 73; 91; 112; 128) They sought to instruct and exhort their audience to be faithful in trying times. Death and Sheol seem perilously close to this particular poet.
In the first couplets, the psalmist addresses a wide audience. His real target, however, may have been the wealthy living pompously and extravagantly in sumptuous homes. He appears to be reading or uttering an oracle which he describes as “a proverb” (vs. 4). Some of his contemporaries obviously benefited greatly from adopting the ways their Persian overlords from 539-333 BCE, the period during which it likely was composed. Was it their ill gotten gain that so distressed this psalmist? He wanted people to take life as it came, especially with regard to riches.
Echoing the strong social justice of the prophets, he wanted nothing of the self-centred life. He shared Qoheleth’s view that the pursuit of wealth held nothing but vanity. Only others would reap its benefits (vs. 9). Wisdom itself held no attraction because it too would perish like all flesh.
Some scholars see this psalm as a defence of divine providence in the face of much evil. That does not appear to be more than superficial. In fact the word “YHWH” occurs only twice in the whole psalm. More pessimistic fatalism than sincere faith stands out in this excerpt. Perhaps too, this is the meaning of the unusual reference in vs. 15 to redemption from Sheol, although the reading does not include this. Was this in the same vein as Job’s claim in Job 19:25 “I know that my redeemer lives”?
COLOSSIANS 3:1-11. Where does one begin to comment about this highly theological and yet very practical ethical passage? The theology comes in vss. 1-4; the ethics in vss.5-11. As might be expected, the latter is based on the former. The resurrection of Christ which we now share, symbolically through baptism, spiritually and psychologically through faith, is the source of the power to live the Christian life. This life of sacrificial love that fulfills God’s will and purpose for us is now available to all who believe. So also is the promise to share the life and the eternal glory of Christ with God beyond death. For many of the people to whom Paul (or one of his associates) wrote this letter, the implications of this counsel meant radical change in their customary behaviour. It may still do so for us.
Paul envisions the risen and ascended Christ “seated at the right hand of God,” and therefore exercises all divine power. The image of deity as an all-powerful oriental potentate on a magnificent throne is found in most ancient religious traditions as well as in children’s fairy tales. One is reminded of the immense tapestry of the Risen Christ towering over the altar in the magnificent Coventry Cathedral rebuilt of etched and coloured glass and stainless steel beside the ruins of the old cathedral destroyed in the World War II blitz. Standing at the glorified Christ’s feet is a life-size figure a man, his head reaching no higher than the Christ’s ankles. Effortlessly, one’s eyes are lifted upward and upward to the full height of the Christ whose head reaches almost to the vaulted roof. The memory of a visit to Coventry Cathedral or looking again at a photograph of it brings vss.2-4 fully alive. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/deano/384485426/ )
So what? When the cathedral was built in the 1950s it stood in the midst of an urban community serving as the parish church for a neighbourhood that was predominately Christian. Today the cathedral’s community includes people of all races and faith traditions, most of whom are not Christian. It is a microcosm of the world as it is now. How then is the church to serve such a setting anywhere in our present world? That too was Paul’s problem in the Gentile cities like Colossae, one of the few he had not actually visited in person.
Paul found the impetus for his ethical challenge in vss.5-8 in similar conditions. He focused on the negative aspects of this “earthly” life. It would appear that the Colossians had found a great many sexual diversions to undercut their new life in Christ. But were they so different from our own situation? Just pick up today’s newspaper or watch the latest television news or sitcoms for a contemporary view of what he meant.
The contrast with what the risen Christ empowers us to be is startling, as startling as stripping oneself of all one’s old clothes and donning new ones “according to the image of its creator” (vss.9-10) In fact, this is exactly what happened when new converts were baptized. They were stripped naked and re-clothed in new white garments to symbolize their rebirth to a totally new life.
This is where we get our tradition of dressing infants in a white dress for baptism.
In vs.11 Paul clarifies just how utterly new this life is to be. All the old barriers that divide people from one another are swept away and we all become one in Christ. Scholars have pointed out the similarity of this passage with Galatians 3:28-29. Others have noted the many parallels with the Letter to the Ephesians, particularly Paul’s conception of the unity of believers in the Christian fellowship as the Body of Christ. Such is the missional reality of the great Coventry Cathedral in its English urban setting. (See their website http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/). This mission also calls the church universal in a world longing to see the living Christ stand among us.
The latest published data from Christianity Today magazine lists 38,000 separate Christian groups and denominations in the world. At the turn of the 21st century, Christians made up 33% of the world's population with approximately 2 billion adherents. Other main religious groupings were as follows in order of numerical adherents: Moslems: 19.6 % - 1 billion; Hindus : 13.4% - 800 million; Buddhists: 5.9% - 360 million; Sikhs: 0.4% - 23 million; Jews : 0.2% - 14 million.
Sadly, the data appears to reveal a decidedly Christian bias. Does not the behaviour of so many in our supposedly “Christian” society compare more closely to the death-dealing description of Colossae’s new converts in vs. 5?
LUKE 12:13-21. Many a farmer or business entrepreneur has been troubled by this parable. Jesus appears to say that making a good living and increasing one’s wealth is totally wrong. Not so. That isn’t the issue Jesus is dealing with in this family quarrel. The wrong lies in the greed, envy and lack of sharing which Jesus challenged as a result of someone’s demand for the division of a family inheritance. It does sound very familiar, doesn’t it?
That is an issue whether one thinks of it on a purely personal scale or on the wide spectrum of international affairs where the gap between the rich and poor nations is growing greater year by year. A similar gap exists within nations. It has just been reported in July 2010 that in India where more than one billion people live, there are more poor people than in all the continent of Africa.
Within the past two years ago, the whole world was stunned by bank failures and hasty amalgamations, and a worldwide recession of unprecedented proportions. Many families lost their homes to bankruptcy as well as their employment. Others found that the homes they were able to keep had larger mortgages than their homes were now worth. This brought about accusations that decisively countered the widely hailed myth as the ultimate success of capitalism. Some eminent economists predicted that there will yet be a depression like that of the 1930s. Few of even the wealthiest nations in Europe and the Americas are only beginning to recover.
The cause of this bitter recession has been traced to human greed in the selling and re-selling of unsecured mortgages and other financial instruments no one fully understood. Every blip in the stock market indices increased the anxieties of those who had invested their savings in widely held stocks, mutual funds or trusts. An article in the financial section of the newspaper told us that major banks and investment houses with all their expertise had suffered as significantly as the modest investor. Some financial institutions were allowed to sink into bankruptcy or have been taken over by other institutions.
That may not bring much comfort to the baby boom generation of the 1950s and 60s looking forward to a comfortable retirement. It is disturbing to see their investment portfolios dwindle by 20% or more in a few months. As with so much in the NT, here is the modern version of Jesus’ parable writ large and broadcast so that the whole world may see it happening day by day. “Guard against greed in all its forms....That’s the way it is with those who save up for themselves, but aren’t rich where God is concerned.” (Luke 12: 15, 21. The Complete Gospels. Edited by Robert J. Miller, Poleridge Press, 1991.)
SOME ADDITIONALL PREACHING POINTS.
HOSEA 11:1-11. For Israel, history was not a recitation of events, but *heilegeschichte* - a holy story. The reference to Israel Yahweh’s use of the historical events of Israel’s past to call this holy people to obedience also comes through very forcefully. Prominent in this passage are two important references to the religious tradition of Israel. In vs. 1, reference to Israel as a child being called out of Egypt relates to the Exodus, the formative event in the nation’s history and religious tradition. Extra-biblical evidence of that event has been extremely difficult for modern historians and archaeologists to discover. Whether factual or not, the Hebrew scriptures were created around this formative tradition.
The image of the Exodus is expressed in the very first words of the passage and again in vss. 3, 4 and 8. In vss. 5-7, however, mention of Israel being returned to Egypt sounds a note of judgment against the apostasy of Yahweh’s chosen people. The Gospel of Matthew makes another use of vs.1 in Matthew 2:15 in reference to the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. The authors of the NT read the Hebrew scriptures from a literalist standpoint and applied what they read to their convictions about Christ without regard to the historical context.
Another reference is the use of the name Ephraim as a synonym for Israel. This has a more reliable historical background. The judgment expressed in the passage limits the judgment of Yahweh to the Northern Kingdom created as a result of the civil war with Judah after the death of Solomon. In *The Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary, (vol. 2, 120) W. L. Reed, formerly Professor of Old Testament at the College of the Bible in Lexington, Kentucky, gave some of the background of this terminology.
Ephraim (aka as Samaria its capital city) along with his older brother Manasseh were the sons of Joseph but adopted by Jacob. (Gen. 48:5). These tribes were among the last to settle in the hill country of Canaan to the north of Jerusalem and Judea and later captured the northern plain of Jezreel. Their distinction as separate and pre-eminent tribes in the Books of Joshua and Judges may indicate that they had different ancestral blood lines. If modern reconstructions of maps of their territory can be accepted, they also had possession of considerable territory on the east side of the Jordan River.
During the lifetime of Hosea and Isaiah, a disastrous war was fought between Syria and Ephraim (734-732 BCE). The outcome of this war was to reduce the peripheral territories of the tribe to the central mountain area. Ten years later, the whole of the Northern Kingdom of which Ephraim and Manasseh were the major parts, was subjugated to Assyrian with the fall of Samaria. These wars provided the historical setting for the prophecies of Hosea.
COLOSSIANS 3:1-11. Surprisingly the name of Jesus occurs only four times in this letter. Three of these read ‘Christ Jesus’; (1:1, 4; 2:6) the other reads ‘Jesus Christ’ (1:4). All other references to his person are in theological terminology as “Christ.” Is this significant?
John Shelby Spong thought it is. In his monograph This Rabbi Lord (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) he wrote: “The key to this book, I believe, is our ability to distinguish between Jesus and Christ. They are not the same. Jesus was a person; Christ is a title, a theological principle. Jesus was of history; Christ is beyond history. Jesus was human, finite, limited; Christ is power that is divine, infinite, unlimited. Jesus had a mother and a father, an ancestry, a human heritage. He was born. He died. Christ is a principle beyond the capacity of the mind to embrace or human origins to explain. The name of our Lord was not Jesus Christ, as so many of us suppose. He was Jesus of Nazareth, about whom people made the startling and revolutionary claim: ‘You are the Christ.’”
Spong went on to explain: “The simplistic suggestion that Jesus is God is nowhere made in the biblical story. Nowhere! But time after time in historic episode after historic episode, the claim has been made that through Jesus, God was revealed – fully, completely, totally. …
“In Jesus of Nazareth, men and women saw the fullness of life being lived, the depth of love being shared, the courage to be being revealed. To them Jesus made known the full meaning of life, and love and being. He revealed God, and whenever God was seen in human life, that power is called Christ. ‘You are the Christ, Jesus’ – that was the claim. ‘You are the Christ, for in your life, we have seen the meaning of all life. In your love we have seen the source of all love. In your being we have seen the ground of all being.’”
As I reported in an earlier commentary a few weeks ago, I challenged Bishop Spong after he made a similar statement in a sermon in a local Anglican church. I stated that he replaced the Holy Trinity with a new triad of God as the source of life, the source of love, and the ground of being.” He agreed then added quickly, “But I would never call it the Holy Trinity.”
On the previous evening, he had stated that he felt This Rabbi Lord was one his two best books. It certainly has guided much of his thinking and writing for the intervening years.
In a somewhat lighter vein, Rev. Bill Wall, a colleague in the United Church of Canada from Regina, Saskatchewan, responded to an article published in The United Church Observer, “What makes Christians distinct?” (April 2010) He wrote in his letter to the editor (July/August 2010): “One word: Jesus. … But that answer is just the start of the debate. A friend told me recently, ‘My Jesus and my sister’s Jesus aren’t even distant cousins.’”
Wall explained, “On the one side are those for whom Jesus is the divine Son of God and the one and only saviour. On the other are those who see him as a mystic, teacher, healer, prophet or perhaps as an archetypal human, but in any case, as a human we are expected to follow, rather than a divine being we are meant to worship. It seems to me that the second option allows Christians to claim our distinctiveness without needing to exalt ourselves above people of other faiths.”