INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Proper 19
JEREMIAH 4:11-12, 22-28. The threat of invasion by both Egypt and Babylon continued throughout the last 40 years of the nation's independence until Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians first in 598 BCE and then was destroyed in 587 BCE. Few of the prophet's many oracles express this threat more vividly than this one. His metaphors describing the defeat and desolation in this passage would strike with brutal force at the false security of the people in their sacred fortress city. Jeremiah saw all this as God's doing, not the happenstance of history.
PSALM 14. The psalmist who composed this poem at a time of atheism and depravity sought to draw the people back to their religious roots in the midst of accentuated foreign influences. This also followed the prophetic tradition of condemning the ungodly and defending the righteous and the poor.
EXODUS 32:7-14. (Alternate) In fury at the apostasy of the Israelites for worshipping a golden calf, God sends Moses down from Mount Sinai vowing to punish them for their sin. Moses pleads for the people asking God to remember the promises made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And God changed his mind.
PSALM 51:1-10. (Alternate) The superscript to this classic psalm of penitence is misleading. It really was not from King David, but was added much later to the original text. Nor does it have anything to do with original sin. Yet it remains one of the most sincere prayers of repentance seeking God's forgiveness.
1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17. While this letter as a whole or in part may not be from the apostle Paul, this passage speaks of Paul's persecution of the early church and his supreme gratitude for the grace of forgiveness and new life extended to him through Jesus Christ. It certainly reads like a very personal confession. It also expressed the deep experiential and theological truth that God's grace, repentantly received, motivates the believer to thank and praise God.
LUKE 15:1-10. These two vignettes from the daily life of a Palestinian peasant are often overlooked. They tell the story of God's love for the lost and the wholly undeserved grace that offers full and free forgiveness to all who seek it. Both parables emphasize the joyful celebration when the lost is found. To God, everyone is important and graciously loved. No one is excluded, not even those who do not want to be found.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
JEREMIAH 4:11-12, 22-28. By Jeremiah’s time in the last quarter of 7th century BCE, only the Southern Kingdom - Judah - remained of the once great kingdom of David. The threat of invasion from Babylon to the east and Egypt to the west was real and almost constant during Jeremiah’s ministry. This threat continued over the last 40 years of the nation’s independence until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians first in 598 BCE and finally with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 BCE. Few of the prophet’s many oracles express this threat more vividly. His metaphors of destruction and desolation in this passage would have struck with brutal force at the false security of the people in their sacred fortress city. In the intervening verses excluded from the reading, anyone could easily identify from whence the threat came.
In vss. 11-12, the sirocco or *khasmin,* a blistering east wind from the Arabian desert, symbolizes the ominous threat. This suffocating, dry wind still frequently sweeps in across the Jordan valley and the Dead Sea carrying clouds of stinging sand with it. When it comes, everyone must retreat into whatever shelter they can find. Hence the reference that no winnowing of grain or cleansing of garments hung out to dry. The reference to the “bare heights” calls to mind the high cliffs on either side of the Jordan valley which cuts a deep trench between Israel and its eastern neighbours.
Vs. 22 explains the meaning of the metaphor: Yahweh’s judgement upon Israel for its lack of faithfulness to Yahweh’s covenant with them. Given the opportunity for spiritual growth, they had acted like children being silly at play as children so frequently do. Morally underdeveloped because of their apostasy, they were far more skilled at doing evil than good.
Vss. 23-26 may be from a different oracle. Some scholars doubt that it was from Jeremiah at all because it contains eschatological references which are rare in the prophet’s other oracles. In vs. 23, the vision of the earth “waste and void” recalls Genesis 1:2 and, in fact, the Hebrew words are the same in that context. This whole segment elicits the chaotic pre-creation scene.
Vs. 27 is similarly controversial to many scholars who follow Peake’s Commentary in calling it “an unmitigated gloss” influenced by 5:10 and 18, which also promise that “a full end” is not Yahweh’s intention. This is immediately contradicted by vs. 28 promising a desolation imposed unsparingly by Yahweh’s command. However this segment may have been included, it gives the passage a vision of the desolation of the land resulting from the apostasy of the people. There is also the possibility that this segment of the passage could have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem when the disaster was still fresh in memory.
PSALM 14. This same psalm reappears slightly modified as Psalm 53, probably owing to its inclusion in two originally independent collections. Comparing the two psalms, especially 14:5-6 and 53:5 reveals something of the difficulties in the transmission of a particular text. Using the Greek Septuagint and other translations, scholars debate what the original behind both versions might have been.
But does this really affect the interpretation of the psalm, as some have suggested? Is there not some reference to the Wisdom period in such contrasts as “the fool” in vs.1 and “the wise” in vs.2? That the psalmist composed the poem at a time of atheism and depravity suggests the Greek period when the authors of Israel’s Wisdom literature sought to draw the people back to their religious roots in the midst of extreme foreign influences. This also followed the prophetic tradition evidenced in the vehemence of the psalmist’s condemnation of the ungodly and the defence of the righteous and the poor (vss.5-6).
The condemnation in vss. 3-4 includes the whole of society, presumably the priesthood too. An alternate reading of vs. 4b might be: “who eat up my people; they eat the bread of Yahweh, but call not on him.” Provision of food for the priesthood actually was one of the functions of the sacrificial system in the temple. A portion of every sacrifice was reserved for the use of the priests. Indeed, the poem has elements of biting sarcasm against the priests as conveyed in vs. 7.
While emphasizing the doom that awaits the faithless when Yahweh intervenes on behalf of the faithful, the psalm ends with a hopeful prayer. This points toward an eschatological conclusion, further indicating that the psalm comes from the transitional Greek period of Israel’s religious history after Alexander the Great captured Jerusalem in 333 BCE. With spiritual leadership at low ebb and deliverance not imminent, hope of salvation had been pushed into the far future.
EXODUS 32:7-14. (Alternate) It is a pity that this brief excerpt from a great story of the Israelites worshipping a golden calf is all that we are given here. The whole story is worth setting aside all else in the Revised Common Lectionary for this week and giving it sound interpretation.
The golden calf, of course, was the kind of totem found in many early Middle Eastern and numerous other religious traditions. It symbolized the fertility of nature and the flocks of pastoral peoples. Cecil B. DeMilles’ movie *Exodus* graphically displayed the sexual promiscuity associated with these religious rites. In effect, the Israelites were returning to a familiar, but more primitive religious system than the moral monotheism to which Moses was leading them under Yahweh’s direction.
In this excerpt Yahweh shows a fury reminiscent of any human potentate frustrated by the misbehaviour of wayward subjects. In response to the apostasy of the Israelites for worshipping a golden calf instead of their deity revealed in the Decalogue, Yahweh sent Moses down from Mount Sinai vowing to avenge his injured pride. Moses pleads for the people asking Yahweh to remember the promises made long before to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Indeed, Moses’ plea sounds more like a rebuke. Convinced by Moses’ argument Yahweh changed his mind.
That in itself is a revelatory moment. Yahweh does indeed change, becoming one who forgives, if only relenting from punishing the Israelites for a time and giving them an opportunity to repent.
PSALM 51:1-10. (Alternate) The superscript to this classic psalm of penitence is misleading. It was added much later to the original text. It really was not from King David, nor had it anything to do with his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Contrary to later Christian interpretation of vs. 5, it does it have anything to do with original sin. Yet it remains one of the most sincere prayers of repentance seeking God's forgiveness.
Very much aware of his sinful nature, however, (vs. 3) the psalmist accepts God’s judgment as completely justified (vs. 4). He pleads for cleansing, especially from those hidden iniquities of which a sensitive conscience is all to
aware. In the depths of contrition, he acknowledges his true character.
He also acknowledges the kind of person whom the Lord desires him to be - truthful, wise in the ways of God and purged of all his self-deceiving tendencies. He longs to rejoice in righteous living springing from a clean heart and a renewed spiritual integrity (vss. 8-10).
How many conscience stricken souls have turned to this psalm as the antidote to a burden of guilt of which we long to be relieved? Despite unfortunate misinterpretations, it still rings true as the faithful expression of the penitent soul.
1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17. Bible scholars still debate whether the Letters to Timothy and Titus were from the apostle Paul or from another Christian leader of a later generation who knew the apostle's earlier correspondence very well. Since the middle of the 18th century they have been generally referred to as the Pastoral Letters. They were certainly composed as pastoral letters to churches at a time of transition when faithful discipleship is called for - just like today!
Arguments against original Pauline authorship include a distinctive vocabulary and style, theological concepts, church order, creedal tradition, and the problem of fitting their composition into a chronology of Paul’s ministry. Another theory argues for Pauline authorship on hypotheses that elicit even more difficulties such as the presumed release of the apostle from prison in Rome and a journey to Spain prior to a second imprisonment and execution. Or, as yet another theory contends, the letters are the work of a secretary to whom Paul gave almost total freedom of composition.
One popular theory proposes that the unknown author had before him fragments of authentic letters from Paul which he used to deal with issues in a different context at a later period. Yet a fifth hypothesis points to a composition as a literary artefact similar to others known from the late 1st century Roman literature to which personal references were added to create verisimilitude and to present Paul as an apostolic example to be followed. As yet, there is no final proof for any of these theories, and perhaps there never will be. Consensus appears to have settled on a non-Pauline author who had access to some original letters by Paul, but the date of their composition varies from 85 to 120 CE or even later.
This passage speaks of Paul's persecution of the early church and his supreme gratitude for the grace of forgiveness and change extended to him by Jesus Christ. It certainly reads like a personal confession. Yet it also expressed a deep experiential and theological truth: the efficacy of grace repentantly received for which the believer can only thank and praise God.
As William Barclay stated in his extended analysis of the passage, Paul gave thanks that he had been saved in order that he might serve Christ. His conversion came about because of the sheer mercy of Christ, not through any initiative of his own. Remembering his former life was at once a source of great shame and also of great inspiration. He did not brood over his sin in an unhealthily depression. Rather, he remembered it as the means God had used to awaken him to rejoice in the greatness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Hence the doxology with which the passage ends. (See Barclay, William. Daily Bible Readings: The Epistles to Timothy and Titus. Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1956.)
Trust and acceptance play a considerable role in “Paul’s” thinking at this point. He had been trusted with the task of bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Accepted by God for the man he was, he had accepted this heavy responsibility in the face of strong opposition by the Jerusalem apostles as well as his fellow Jews. Now he wanted nothing more than to have his hearers accept his message: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” In vs. 18, he urges Timothy to make this his mandate too.
LUKE 15:1-10. These two vignettes from the daily life of a Palestinian peasant are often overlooked because of their proximity to the much more familiar parable that follows. They tell the story of God's love for the lost and God’s wholly undeserved grace that offers full and free forgiveness. Note that both parables emphasize the joyful celebration when the lost article is found. The allusion is to God’s joy over a sinner who repents. To God, everyone is important - and loved with an indiscriminate love. No one is excluded. This crucially significant truth speaks to our time when doubt and disbelief often overwhelm faith and guilt causes some to separate from the Christian community. In each of these two parables, we have profound theology spoken with great simplicity.
But think of how these stories may have occurred to Jesus? His home in Nazareth was on the northern slope of a low range of rugged hills overlooking the rich agricultural region, the Plain of Esraeldon. The hills were too rocky only for anything but herding sheep. How many times has he seen or had helped his shepherd neighbours searching those hills long hours into the night for a single lost sheep. Then, having found it, celebrating with them when they had brought the wandering beast safely home to the sheepfold where the rest of the flock were securely enclosed. Perhaps he had often been included in just such a celebration in a neighbour’s home in Nazareth.
Was one sheep so valuable? To a poor shepherd, a single lamb would have been precious. His whole livelihood depended on maximizing the number of lambs his herd produced and brought to marketable size. Is it any wonder that the incident sprang into Jesus’ mind as he sought to show how much God loves even the most foolish and undeserving of sinners?
As for the woman who had lost a coin, could she not be Jesus’ own mother, Mary, whose anxiety and joy he recalled so vividly? How often had he come into their humble home from his carpenter shop to find Mary happily celebrating with her closest friends over a refreshing cup of diluted vinegar-wine, a popular beverage among the poor. They made it by pouring water over the skins and stalks left over from the crushing of grapes for wine, then allowing it to ferment.
A single coin among ten would have been of great value to the struggling family, perhaps now left fatherless by the death of Joseph as legend tells it. In his Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Bruce Chilton infers that Jesus did not have very happy relationships with his family after Joseph died. Even a mamzer (an outcast because his birth had been suspicious), would have retained such memories of home as he wandered far and wide during his “hidden” years. As a wandering rabbi, however, he knew that memories such as these would connect directly with his audience who presumably were peasant folk too for the most part.
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING NOTES.
JEREMIAH 4:11-12, 22-28. A quick scanning of Middle Eastern history will reveal that this part of the globe has been a cockpit of violent history since time immemorial. In many ways it still is. Archaeologists believe that human civilization began here when wandering hunter-gathering tribes turned to agriculture as they learned to plant wild grains and domesticated wild animals for staple foods. The rich lands of the Fertile Crescent that sweeps westward from the Persian Gulf up the Tigris-Euphrates River valleys across to the Mediterranean Sea and south to the Nile River valley were the basic land resource for growing populations searching for more dependable food supplies. For millennia the city states and great empires of this region sought security through armed conflicts and invasions that crossed and re-crossed this rich territory.
The region was also the birthplace of the three living monotheist religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the anthropological point of view, all of these traditions have been rooted in the human desire and search for peace and security. On the other hand, their religious and political institutions have also had serious problems with violent conflict as the means of self-defence or aggressive hostility toward perceived enemies that were often each other. This tragedy still defeats their highest aims that there may true peace, freedom, security and plentiful resources for abundant life. In a global society such as we now have, this is a grave danger for all humanity.
Jeremiah’s insight that this is fundamentally a religious and moral problem is succinctly expressed in vs. 22 of this passage. The inevitable end of these brutal conflicts is devastatingly portrayed in the concluding vss. 23-28 unless we change our ways.
1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17. How important is it to encumber a sermon, as some preachers protest, with details about varying exegetical? One of the failures of the mainline churches has been to keep such complexities from congregations except in intimate bible study groups with few members. The result has been the proliferation of biblical literalism so common in the many highly publicized radio and television preachers to say nothing of journalists who often misquote scripture. Even a brief sentence or paragraph saying that there have been serious debates about the origins of several letters attributed to Paul, chief among them the Pastoral Letters, in surely enough to raise the level of understanding in a congregation.
LUKE 15:1-10. Is it ever wise to use one’s imagination in portraying the homely situation that may well have been the background for some of Jesus’ parables and teaching? At times such background narrative may well create helpful connections in the minds of those who hear. Dramatic presentations and dialogues of such passages can be very useful if well done. People remember stories much better than sound counsel delivered in carefully constructed paragraphs. Such narratives or dramas help people relate the gospel message to their own lives.
A former colleague of mine, now deceased, grew up and was a candidate for ordered ministry from St. James United Church, Montreal, Canada in the late 1930s. He told of listening with rapt attention to the preaching of Rev. Dr. Lloyd C. Douglas, noted fiction writer of Magnificent Obsession, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, and The Big Fisherman. It was Douglas’ flair for imaginative narrative preaching that drew large congregations to that great downtown church even on Sunday evenings. His ability to create imaginative scenarios for the scripture lessons was the gift that many so greatly admired. Like his preaching, his novels often sprang from questions members of his congregation asked him about the background of a single biblical incident or story. The story may be apochryphal true that a woman once approached him after a service and asked, “Whatever became of the robe that the soldiers gambled for when Jesus’ was crucified?” The result of his imaginative ruminating on that question produced what may have been Douglas’ greatest work, The Robe.