Year C - Proper 20


JEREMIAH 8:18-9:1.  This lament expressed Jeremiah’s distress over some calamity which had befallen Israel. Widespread suffering afflicted the nation. The prophet mourned with the people, the poor in particular. He spoke for them by asking the unanswerable question: “Is the Lord not in Zion?” Feeling deserted by God was a natural reflection of their dire straits. It still may be so for many people, but does not mean they have lost faith.


PSALM 79:1-9.  Another lament for another disaster, but this time an invasion by a foreign power had caused national suffering. It not only depicts scene of great horror, but raises significant theological questions about God’s covenant with Israel: How long will the terror last? Will God’s anger persist?


AMOS 8:4-7.  (Alternate)  This outburst of prophetic wrath promised nothing but destruction for Israel caused by the grave injustices of the times. The scarce produce of the poor was being manipulated by wealthy merchants with false balances for the sake of making greater profit or selling the poverty stricken into slavery. But Amos promises that God will not forget any of these misdeeds.


PSALM 113. (Alternate) This psalm of praise also conveys a message of social justice in God’s concern for the poor and the homeless woman seeking shelter for her children.


1 TIMOTHY 2:1-7.  The theological and historical situation implicit in this passage point to a much later date that the 50s AD when Paul carried on his ministry to the Gentiles with Timothy as a co-worker.  The Jews had a well-developed liturgical system which Paul would have known intimately, but prayers for rulers as in vs. 2 would have been unlikely. When we reflect on the meaning of Christ’s death in relation to other religious traditions, the statement of universal salvation in vs. 3 and the “one mediator” in vs. 5 seem as contemporary today as then.


LUKE 16:1-13.    This parable tells of an incompetent steward who is told to hand over his accounts. Because he successfully collected part of what is owed him by placing his debtors in obligation to him, the master commends him for his shrewdness. But is there anything edifying about this steward’s

dishonesty? Kickbacks were as common in those times as now.


The point of the passage came in the following interpretation. Jesus made it clear that no one can serve two masters. Either we serve God faithfully and with honesty and compassion toward others or we look out for ourselves without regard for the moral issues involved.






JEREMIAH 8:18-9:1.   This lament expressed Jeremiah’s distress at some unidentified calamity which had befallen Israel. Widespread suffering afflicted the nation. The prophet mourned with the people, the poor in particular. He spoke for them by asking the unanswerable question: “Is the Lord not in Zion?” (vs.19b) Feeling deserted by Yahweh was a natural reflection of their dire straits.


The exact nature of the disaster Jeremiah experienced can only be conjectured. There are some clues, however, in the prophet’s words. Most scholars regard vs.19c accusing the people of idolatry as a later insertion, possibly by a Deuteronomic editor who collected Jeremiah’s oracles in the middle of the 6th century BCE. Vs. 20 tells us that the harvest had been gathered and the summer had ended. Vs. 22b speaks of the continuing ill-health of the people who are identified as “my poor people” in 18:19, 22 and 9:1. From these hints one can draw the reasonable conclusion that the harvest had failed, possibly the result of prolonged drought. The prophet’s vision of his head as a spring and his tears as a fountain in 19:1 also suggests this. The hopes of the common people, who often lived in the edge of starvation, had been dashed. Hunger had turned to famine. The most vulnerable poor were dying as if slain in warfare.


In the 19th and 20th centuries the words “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” became the symbolic inspiration for a moving Afro-American spiritual, especially for male and female vocalists with deep voices.  No clear botanical identification has yet been made of the source of this resinous natural medicine, although several have been suggested. Probably not even found in Gilead, east of the Jordan, it may have come through there in the trade caravans from Arabia or East Africa where such substances still grow in the wild. It is said to have had antiseptic, counter-irritant and general medicinal properties. As a commodity for trade, however, it may have become too expensive for the common people to afford. This hypothesis lends further support to the nature of the disaster about which Jeremiah grieves.


Jeremiah’s metaphor of something that will heal the spiritual malaise that had enveloped the nation strikes an emotional response in every sensitive heart. Although referring to people of Judea in the early 6th century BCE, it can also be very meaningful to a suffering individual. Here is a personal story: My mother-in-law was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in the summer of 1958. One Sunday in September, unable to join her husband at worship as she had done most of her life, she turned on the radio and heard a soloist singing the spiritual, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Afterward she said that while she listened a deep, abiding peace came over her and she knew that all would be well. She died in December of that same year, sooner and with much less pain than anticipated.


PSALM 79:1-9.    Another lament for another disaster, this time an invasion by a foreign power had caused a national calamity.  In this psalm, possibly dating from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, the psalmist recalled scenes from the destruction of Jerusalem, seeing vultures and wild animals feeding on corpses, blood running in the streets, and unburied dead rotting in the sun. Neighboring peoples waiting to pounce on the spoils only taunt and mock those who have survived. With such a vivid word picture before us, who can claim that the scriptures provide dull reading? Has horror ever received a better description?


Then the lament begins in earnest (vs. 5) with two incisive theological questions: How long will the terror last? Will God’s anger persist? A third question reiterates the second in forceful parallelism. The psalmist’s answer to his own questions is to pray that Yahweh’s anger will be visited on those who do not worship Israel’s God (vss. 6-7). This bitter outburst has its origin in Israel’s long-established covenant with Yahweh. Do not our cries for revenge on the criminals of September 11, 2001 have a similarly religious source? Or is this just part of our myth of superiority?


Does this mean that the covenant tradition of the Jews and worship of Yahweh were their exclusive hope for security in a hostile world? That may be too narrow an interpretation of the covenant relationship. The psalmist does confess, however, that the covenant had been broken not by Yahweh’s rejection of Israel, but by the sins of their ancestors (vs. 8) and of themselves (vs. 9b). Thus the plea for help had a moral thrust despite its narrow theological viewpoint.


AMOS 8:4-7.  (Alternate) Of all the OT prophets, none is more passionate about social justice than Amos. This outburst of prophetic wrath promised nothing but destruction for Israel caused by the grave injustices of the times. It would appear that normal business operations were postponed during the festival celebrating the beginning of a new month (“the new moon” in vs. 5) and also for the weekly sabbaths. That prevented the merchants from making as much profit as they would have liked. The return for scarce produce of the poor was being manipulated by false balances, inaccurate measures and low prices (vss. 5b-6).


Amos promised that God will not forget any of these misdeeds. The phrase “by the pride of Jacob” may be a synonym for a similar phrase in 6:8 “The Lord God has sworn by himself” and in 4:2 “the Lord God has sworn by his holiness.” The meaning of the phrase relates to the nature of Yahweh whose righteousness is so vastly different from that of Israel whose pride leads to arrogant self-sufficiency.


Is that not often the attitude of many who achieved made great wealth through less than just means?



PSALM 113. (Alternate) This psalm of praise also conveys a message of social justice in God’s concern for the poor and the homeless woman seeking shelter for her children. It also conveys some of the fundamental theological concepts of the O.T. In Jewish practice this psalm and the five that follow (Pss. 113-118) are known as the Hallel or the Egyptian Hallel and are used to celebrate some of Judaism’ s great festivals.


The song opens with a solo voice summoning the assembled congregation to praise. The response on vss. 2-4 comes from the choir of Levitical priests. In a second response another group or the whole congregation picks the chorus. Vss. 5-9 expresses the majesty of Yahweh who concerns himself with the ordinary needs of humankind.


In vs. 7 Yahweh is described as “lifting the needy from the ash heap.” These unusual words contain a vignette of the way many poor people the world over still eke out a meager existence by rooting in the garbage discarded by the more affluent. Vs. 8 describes the revolutionary reversal of the social order also evident in Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:7-8 and again in Mary’s Song in Luke 1:69-71. For the psalmist, this social upheaval based on economic realities is a token of Yahweh’s absolute sovereignty over human affairs. 



I TIMOTHY 2:1-7.    The theological and historical situation implicit in this passage point to a much later date that the 50s C.E. when Paul carried on his ministry to the Gentiles with Timothy as a co-worker. The Jews had a well-developed liturgical system which Paul would have known intimately. But prayers for “kings” would seem to have been anathema. Fully 150 years later, Tertullian did urge Christians to pray for the emperor, but this seems hardly possible in Paul’s time when the emperor was Nero. A statement of universal salvation in vs. 3 appears similarly anachronistic.


A recent discussion of Paul’s true allegiance by a contrarian scholar, Robert Eisenman, in his *The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Early Christians,* (Castle Books, 2004) claims that internal evidence in the scrolls indicates that Paul may have been more of a Roman than a faithful Jew and even a relative of the Herods. Indeed, this scholar believes that Paul was part of the group of Pharisees who sided with the Romans and the Herodian family during the years leading up to the Jewish Rebellion of 68-70 CE. If there is any validity to this argument, a prayer for the king - i.e. Herod Agrippa I or II, or the Roman emperor - would be understandable.


Is there a creedal declaration in vss. 5-6 far beyond Paul’s theological position? Two words in particular represent a later analysis of the meaning of the Christ-event as Paul expressed it. The concept of Jesus as the sole mediator first appears in Hebrews written by an unknown author of at least one generation later than Paul. Furthermore, in Galatians 3:19, Paul wrote of Moses as a mediator (Greek = *mesités*).


Questions can also be raised about the use of the word “ransom” in vs. 6. Though the word appears extensively in the Greek Septuagint, it usually refers to the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. It also appears in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 with reference to Jesus’ death on the cross. William Barclay points out that the basic word *lutron* never had any other meaning than a payment releasing someone of an obligation which otherwise one would have to fulfill. (Barclay, William. *New Testament Words.* (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974) But the version of the Greek word here is the rare *antilutron* which in classical Greek meant an antidote for poison. The concept has more relevance for a time of struggle against the Gnostic heresy of the 2bd century CE. They believed in a salvation featuring many semi-divine mediators interspersed between God and humanity. Only those with the appropriate spiritual credentials could hope to rise above the mundane existence of most mortals.


Much subsequent theological debate has hung on the elusive meaning of the word “ransom” in this passage. The issue is still very much alive. Bishop John Spong recently re-ignited it by proposing a much more radical interpretation of the Christ-event in his book, *Christianity Must Change Or Die.* He believes that we must rid ourselves of the whole concept of Jesus as Rescuer which has dominated the theological and doctrinal attention of the church since Paul’s time.


The description of Paul in vs. 7 is that of a disciple very familiar with the apostle’s ministry and letters, but not of the man himself. The parenthetical reiteration, “I am telling the truth, I am not lying,” tends to affirm this conclusion. The whole passage thus presents many exegetical and theological problems for anyone choosing it as a sermon text. Nonetheless, as a famous preacher once said, “It isn’t always a mistake to misinterpret a text so long as one admits that one is doing so.”


LUKE 16:1-13.  Passing over the parable of the prodigal son, the third in the series of parables about those who were lost and then found, the lectionary moves on to a more puzzling story. An incompetent steward is told to hand in his accounts. When he had successfully collected part of what was owed his master, he placed these same debtors in obligation to him, the master commends him for his shrewdness. But is that the point of the parable? Is there anything edifying about this steward’s seeming dishonesty?


Whereas Matthew tends to clump sayings together in a “sermon” (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7), Luke sometimes used a parable to elaborate an isolated but very pithy saying. Matthew’s parallel to Luke 16:13 is such an instance found in Matthew 6:24. A more picaresque parallel to this saying has surfaced in the 2nd century CE Gnostic Gospel of Thomas 47:1-2. It sounds more like the village carpenter Jesus had been: “A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise he will honor one and offend the other.” Luke makes this the beginning of a series of three sayings enclosed as if in brackets by this parable and the one about the rich man and Lazarus in vss.19-31.


In telling this story, Luke is not encouraging the abuse of financial obligations as vs.9 seems to suggest. This may be an interpretation by Luke or even some other hand to make the parable more palatable. He goes on in vss.10-12 to contrast the morality of the old age with that of the new age Jesus had initiated. One of the criticisms of Jesus by the Pharisees had been that his proclamation of a new order had made sin easy by lowering the requirements for God’s reign in contrast to John the Baptist’s rigorous morality. “Cheap grace,” modern theologians call it. The Letter of James appears to follow a similarly rigid approach to the Law.


As Luke makes clear in his comments, Jesus raised the bar even higher. A little dishonesty or a little white lie always pays the wrong kind of dividends. On the other hand, faithfulness is small issues will result in more responsibility in greater ones. How we handle money can be a genuine test case. The use of money is important because it is a training ground for all of life and expressive of the true character of the user.




JEREMIAH 8:18-9:1.  This passage was in the lectionary about the same time each cycle shortly as the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. That disaster can be seen can be seen as evocative of Jeremiah’s lament. This time the lesson comes again as President Obama has announced the end of American combat operations in the war in Iraq initiated by his predecessor, President George W. Bush, in 2002, and the war against Al Qaida’s terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan reaches a climax.


After the infamous attack of 9/11 as it is known many Americans were asking questions evocative of Jeremiah’s. For weeks afterward as they waited in vain for news about loved ones with diminishing hopes, they earnestly asked: “How could God allow such terrible things to happen?” “Why us?” And some may have asked: “Why did I survive and he or she did not? Was God looking after me more than all those others?”


Those are natural questions which the grieving ask after any disaster, personal or public. Sadly, nine years later, some ardent conservatives still seek to blame anyone they can and their president in particular for all the perceived consequences – a war costing trillions, severe disruption of the national economy, political gridlock, etc., etc. --   and the subsequent distress so many have experienced. On the other hand, there have been a few voices raised in objection to this blame-laden viewpoint. Notable are James Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, and David Coates, professor of politics at Wake Forest University. (


PSALM 79:1-9.    The first long-shot scenes of the temple defiled and Jerusalem in ruins recall the live television broadcasts and video replays from “ground zero” in New York on September 11, 2001. The narrator focused on horrific details of what happened and the search and rescue work still going on long after. Have contemporary television scenes from Pakistan or Afghanistan be any more traumatic?


Nine years later are we now engaged in a holy war between fundamentalist Christian and Islamic traditions? Some people have been advocating this in the aftermath of “this infamous date?” Was it a mere slip of the tongue that came from President Bush about being involved in “a crusade?” Is that still the frame of mind of those vociferously protesting the decision of a group of American Moslems to build a culture centre and mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center? In announcing the end to the active hostilities by American troops in Iraq on August 31, 2010, President Barak Obama, was careful to avoid such a facile argument and to express the nation’s gratitude to the military establishment. In his quiet assertion that “it is time to turn the page,” President Obama attempted to turn his nation’s attention from the anguished recriminations of the past to the urgent economic needs of the present.



I TIMOTHY 2:1-7.    What does Jesus Christ as the one mediator between God and humanity mean in the context of 21st century events? Surely it is also obvious that the “martyrs” who hijacked and crashed those fuel-laden airliners into crowded office buildings on 9/11/2001 may also have believed intensely that their actions were done for similarly sanctified religious motives. Ostensibly, they sought to rescue the religious tradition and culture of Islam as they perceived it from the corruption of Western Christian civilization. And yet ... and yet ... were they just deluded as to the real meaning of their Islamic traditions when cast against the clash of cultures happening now?



In one of her recent books, *Mohammad: A Prophet for Our Time,* (Eminent Lives Series. Atlas Books/HarperCollins, 2006) Karen Armstrong points out that the early biographers of the prophet’s life “tried to explain some of the passages of the Qu’ran by reproducing the historical context in which these particular revelations had come down to Muhammad. By understanding what had prompted a particular Qu’ranic teaching, they could relate it to their own situation by means of a discipline process of analogy. Historians and thinkers of the time believed that learning about the Prophet’s struggles to make the word of God audible in the seventh century would help them to preserve his spirit in their own.” How is that similar to or different from what we try to do in sermons each Sunday?


LUKE 16:1-13.  A young pastor just graduated from seminary was late in completing his thesis. As he worked feverishly to meet the imposed deadline, he decided to send his thesis to the examining professor by special delivery, even though this would be costly considering the rather meager stipend of his first pastorate. He addressed the envelope and just before sealing it, he hastily wrote on a brief note stuck to the front of the enclosed thesis: “Luke 16:6b KJV.” When the professor opened the envelope, he did not immediately recognize the text. Reaching for a Bible he read, “Sit down quickly and write fifty.” Years later when assigning the date for theses to be submitted for grading, this same professor recalled this incident with amused acceptance of the pressures newly ordained pastors experience.


In the region where I live in southern Ontario, farmers can be seen tilling their fields in midsummer from which hay or some other early crop has already been harvested. They are preparing the soil for the fall planting of wheat to be harvested the next summer. The new crop will start to grow before the winter snow covers it with an insulating blanket. This parable and its subsequent interpretation can form the basis of a sound stewardship sermon. Many preachers shy away from such themes except when the annual budgetary process is under way. It is never wrong to prepare the ground before the necessary deadline.