INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Proper 21
JEREMIAH 32:1-3, 6-15. At a time when disaster was about to fall on Judah with the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah was given instructions from God to buy a plot of land for sale in his home town. He did so as a symbol of his faith that God still intended for the people of God to survive.
PSALM 91:1-6, 14-16. The psalmist expressed absolute trust in God and promised security to those who love God. Such faith in the midst of many dangerous situations cited did not deal with the more complex problem of why evil things happen to good people. The concluding segment may have been recited antiphonally by the priest when the psalm was used in worship.
AMOS 6:1a, 4-7. (Alternate) This passage contains one of the sternest of the prophecies of Amos against the economic injustices of his time. He condemned those who live in ease while the rest of the people suffer great privation.
PSALM 146. (Alternate) Another of the psalms declaring the sovereignty of God in human affairs called for trust in God as the only true security.
1 TIMOTHY 6:6-19. To conclude this pastoral letter this church leader (probably not Paul but someone using his name at a later date) pointed out that security could be found in godliness and contentment, not in wealth. The great example for Timothy as for us was Jesus Christ. The moral obligations cited here could have been part of early Christian baptismal sermons. In a final admonition, the writer urged his disciple to practice his faith rigorously until Jesus Christ comes again.
LUKE 16:19-31. This parable has sparked some controversy due to its forceful attitude toward wealth and poverty. The futility of dependence on wealth to the neglect of the poor is as strongly stated here as anywhere in scripture. The story clarifies God's sense of economic values as distinct from what we might call common sense.
The description of life after death is to be taken figuratively rather than literally. Hades, a Greek idea, represented the Hebrew word Sheol, the abode of the dead perceived a shadowy place full of misery and suffering from which no one returned. It was not like Purgatory, a place of moral discipline and improvement.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
JEREMIAH 32:1-3a, 6-15. This passage comes from one of several biographical sections of the book. (See also chapters 26-29; 32; 34-44.) Scholars have some problems with the specific details of these sections because they do not appear in chronological sequence. Most scholars generally agree that they highlight certain key incidents in the prophet’s life when Jeremiah was in open conflict with the religious and political authorities of the day. This was certainly one of those incidents. It also served to introduce Baruch, the scribe who took a prominent role in the life of Jeremiah from this point.
The story had a central theme of redemption, but also gave some insight into the actual political events of the time and the civil process for the transfer of property. To his contemporaries, the buying and selling of property, however motivated, must have appeared as nothing short of madness. Jeremiah had been imprisoned in the court of the palace guard-house because he persisted in prophesying that Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, would capture the city and carry King Zedekiah into exile. It may well have been for his own good as well as for the public morale that Jeremiah was confined in this manner.
“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage,” wrote Richard Lovelace, the 17th century English poet. Inspiration too knows no such containment. Even though confined to the court of the guard-house, Jeremiah was able to carry out his purchase and have it witnessed by fellow Judeans (vs.12). Note too that long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden in the caves of Qumran, important documents were sealed in earthenware jars for preservation over a long time.
Jeremiah’s inspiration included predictions not only that Jerusalem would fall and the king be exiled, but that redemption and a prosperous future would also come in due time. As it turned out, these predictions did come true. But we must not conclude that this would or will be so for all prophetic predictions found in scripture. Prophesies of this type are insights inspired by the prophet’s intense awareness of the moral and spiritual values inherent in the actual times in which he lived. To a considerable extent, predictions by Israel’s great prophets were conditional: “If ...; then ....” On the other hand, there is no valid reason for such prophetic oracles to be used to predict events of our own time as some preachers have done. Such wild misinterpretations are the figments of the preacher’s own lurid imagination, often motivated by fear or greed - or both.
This passage offers both interesting opportunities for Bible study on the nature of inspiration and prophecy as well as homilies on trust and hope for the future. At a time when the world struggles once again with dehumanizing forms of global strife, we do well to recall in our preaching and our prayers that Yahweh/Allah/God gave all of us humans free will to make our choices for good or ill. But God is still sovereign over the history of humanity and of all creation, however horrible we sinful and destructive humans may choose to make that history.
PSALM 91:1-6, 14-16. An abiding faith in Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh permeates the whole psalm. The same spirit can be found in Psalm 46 and Romans 8:31-39. At the same time, it lacks an awareness of the complexity and the persistence of evil in its myriad manifestations. For that reason, it might be seen as somewhat naďve. On the other hand, in the extremities of some situations, such as the intense grief many feel for the death of loved ones in natural disasters, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or in the massacre of women and children in Darfur, Sudan, where else can we turn.
It is possible that the historical background of this psalm was a raging epidemic of some pestilence or disease which was killing thousands (vss.6-7). Such an epidemic is thought to have been “the angel of the Lord” that dealt a death-blow to Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE. (2 Kings 19:32-36; Isaiah 37:33-37) That would account for the intensity of conviction with which the poet declares his trust in Yahweh.
The Babylonian Talmud refers to the psalm as a song against evil occurrences. In his The Praises of Israel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950) John Paterson, then professor of Old Testament Exegesis at Drew University, New Jersey, wrote that there were laments associated with national disasters and those associated with personal sickness and suffering. The oldest form of the latter group may have been linked with incantations and exorcisms. Paterson asserted that there may have been some elements of this phenomenon in this psalm. He did not point out exactly where these were. The spiritual depths of the psalm seemed far removed from such superficiality.
As we use this psalm in worship, we can empathize with the psalmist’s mood. We live daily with the current reality of even more deadly terrorist attacks on almost any vulnerable target anywhere in the world. With the possibly of terrorists acquiring biological or chemical weapons rather than high explosive bombs or piloted missiles, we can relate to the absolute trust of the psalmist. His faith in “the Almighty, Most High” God has an other worldly attitude about it that reaches beyond the trials and tribulations of this life to the eternal life beyond death. Job’s vividly expressed conviction, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” (Job 13:15 KJV) comes to mind as the parallel to this psalm.
AMOS 6:1a, 4-7. (Alternate) One of the sternest of the prophecies of Amos against the economic injustices of his time. “Blind pride and self-indulgence of the leaders,” one scholar entitled this section. (Hewell E. W. Fosbroke, The Interpreter’s Bible, VI, 822) The prophet condemned those who live in ease while the rest of the people suffer dire privation.
The reference to both Zion and Samaria in vs. 1 had some significance. While Amos was from Tekoa, not far from Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the major focus of his ministry was the Northern Kingdom of Samaria prior to its destruction by invading Assyrians in 722 BCE. As vs. 2 indicated, his condemnation knew no boundaries, extending northward to include the leaders Syria and southwestward to those in Gaza of the Philistines.
No biblical prophet described ostentatious wealth spent on extravagant living more vividly than does Amos in vss. 4-6. One cannot but help recall
the frequently publicized lists of the wealthiest nations and people in world today. We tend to shield ourselves from the obvious parallel with Amos’ blunt condemnation with such euphemisms as “leading developed nations” and “the best place to live in the world.”
In vs. 6, Amos uttered a contrasting word about the injustice of the situation in somewhat veiled terms. The wealthy leaders and their sycophants “are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” In other words, rather than indulging in their pursuit of pleasure in every possible manner, they did not feel sick at heart for the plight of the poor whose meagre living conditions they had both ignored and made worse.
PSALM 146. (Alternate) Like the rest of the final five psalms in the Psalter, this is a joyful hymn of praise begins with “Hallelujah!” Unlike the other four, this one arose from an individual’s reflection on the goodness of Yahweh. It declared the sovereignty of God in human affairs and called for trust in God as the only true security. Thus it dealt with fundamental issues confronting every truly religious person in every time and place.
This seems particularly appropriate to our time when there is so much apprehension as what those opponents of our modern secular society will do next by their terrorist attacks against our way of life. We also wonder who will lead the nations in finding next a solution to the terrifying insecurity recent events and failed military adventures have created.
The psalmist has no doubt. In vs. 3, he dispels the propaganda of politicians (in his case, “princes”) that they have a solution to the problems ordinary people face. Like us, they to shall perish, as do their most exactingly drafted plans (vs. 4). Those who survive are those who place their trust in the provident Creator of the universe who alone keeps faith, executes justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry, especially the most vulnerable (vss. 5-9). Sovereignty belongs to God alone (vs. 10).
I TIMOTHY 6:6-19. The Pastoral Epistles make much more sense if we assume, as many scholars have for the past century, that these letters were written pseudonymously in Paul’s name by a senior church officer, or metropolitan, possibly in Ephesus, to a number of bishops in the first half of the 2nd century CE with specific guidance as to church order and discipline. The unknown author wrote to encourage and advise those charged with local responsibility to maintain orthodoxy in congregations beset by heresy which many conclude was fast developing Gnosticism. Imbedded in the text there may be a number of fragments of genuine Pauline documents. This is not likely one of those.
In such a context, the current passage takes on a different significance than if we impose upon it an entirely Pauline authorship. It is the concluding part of a pious homily (chapters 4-6) instructing local bishops and presbyters how to conduct themselves as leaders of their Christian communities in very uncertain and difficult circumstances. This passage would read more effectively if begun at vs. 2b, “Teach and urge these duties,” rather than at vs. 6.
Vss. 7 and10 contain texts for popular topical preaching. With the latter one especially one might well draw on the symbol of American capitalism which the terrorists so hated in destroying the World Trade Center in September 2001. In the summer of 2007, the decline of the stock market with loss of billions of investment dollars and the loss by ordinary citizens of their excessively mortgaged homes provided a disturbing poignancy to the text. Yet it is surely cruel irony that the wasteful consumption of oil in Europe, North America and the Far East has provided the main funds for the training of a still strong terrorist movement in the Middle East.
Several problems crop up in this segment of the pastoral letter, but one seems dominant: the struggle for enough money to live on and prosper in the work of ministry rather than in worldly wealth. Thus, this pastoral advisor urges contentment with a simple standard of living and warns against the temptation to make oneself rich. To do so these church leaders must pursue spiritual riches (vs.11) and fight the good fight of faith as did Jesus Christ himself (vss.12-13). The phrase “a good confession” may in fact be a reference to the baptismal creed of the 2nd century church, either the simple declaration that “Jesus is Lord” or an elaboration of it. Making such a confession might well bring these church leaders and all Christians into open confrontation with imperial Roman authorities as well as their heretical opponents.
Vss.14-16 introduce an eschatological element. The duty of these ministers of whom “Timothy” is the example is to maintain orthodox teaching and transmit it unaltered to their congregations “until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The second coming was still a significant part of the church’s doctrine, but a modifying clause temporizes its imminence: “which he will bring about at the right time” (vs.15a). The urgency had gone; the church had finally accepted that the return of Christ will not soon take place, but will be at a time of God’s choosing. Now they must learn how to live in the world with all its dangers and temptations. The doxology (vss.15b-16) encourages patient faithfulness as they wait for immortality and eternity to break into history.
Yet living in the world does have economic implications as vss.17-19 reiterates. The providence of God rather than the uncertainty of riches will be their security. Good works, generosity and sharing shape the economy of the church. That will lay “the foundation for the future” when life “really is life,” i.e. eternal life.
LUKE 16:19-31. Last week’s lesson formed the opening parenthesis for this chapter which stands alone in dealing with the subject of wealth. This passage closes the parenthesis. In his commentary on Luke, Professor George Caird wrote that the chapter deals with three instances which he entitles “the use of opportunities.” (Pelican New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel of St. Luke. London:1963) Tempting as it may be to consider this a parable about social justice, it has relatively little to do with economic differences or moral retribution for misspent wealth. It has a great deal to do, however, with the gospel of the resurrection and its implications for a global society based on love.
We have here a Jewish folk tale adapted to a new purpose. Whether the story was one Jesus himself told or Luke found in circulation in the church circa 85 CE, Luke used it to convey his conviction that the Christian faith in Jesus the Christ had superseded the Torah of Israel. Still, it does appear to contradict what he had already said in vs.17 while elaborating the brief sayings about taking pride in wealth addressed to the Pharisees in vss.14-15. It also serves as a rebuke to those who “try to enter the kingdom by force” in vs.16b. On the other hand, some scholars suggest that it has no relation whatsoever to what has gone before.
The story is unique in the Gospels in that it gives some details about the Jewish view of life after death. This should not be taken literally, but regarded as giving us some insight into how the whole conceptual framework of such ideas had developed by the last quarter of the 1st century of the Christian era. Some scholars also believe vss.27-31 to be an allegorical extension of the story rather than its conclusion. It is also possible that this is Luke’s own commentary on the historical fact that the great majority of Jews had not only rejected Jesus as the Messiah but also belief in his resurrection. As such, it drew a fitting conclusion to the comment in vs.16a about the distinction between the law, the prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus.
Again, one is reminded of the current historical circumstances in which we shall hear this passage read and preached. The difference between the rich and the poor of the world we live had been starkly portrayed in the destruction of a symbol of America’s vast wealth and the flight of a million of refugees. Are we witnessing the judgment of God on our worldly systems which allow such economic chasms to widen year after year? Is that chasm eternally fixed? Do we see the reign of God’s love with preference for the poor of the world envisioned in this parable?
An article in the New York Times on September 23, 2001 pointed out that the crucial issue underlying the present confrontation between Western democracies and fundamentalist Islamic terrorists. The secular nature of Western culture in all its aspects is anathema to those Moslems despite the great gulf of economic standards between rich and poor within their own countries. The article read in part: “Oddly enough, what most inflames anti-American passion among fundamentalist Muslims may be the American government's lack of religious zeal. By separating church and state, the West —— and America in particular —— has effectively privatized belief, making religion a matter of individual faith. This is an affront to the certainty of fundamentalist Muslims, who are confident that they possess the infallible truth. For them, this truth is not a private revelation but a public imperative, and (nation) states, like people, are either Muslim or infidel.”
What has this to do with a gospel of the resurrection? Is it not that the risen Christ is living in us who call ourselves by his name? It is not his Spirit that which gives us the strength of will and the power of freedom to do what needs to be done to create a new world order in which peace, justice and compassionate sharing replace the violent clashes of present systems?
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING NOTES.
JEREMIAH 32:1-3a, 6-15. We can see a similarly dangerous situation existing today for Moslem and other people of Asian origins. This powerful expression of fear and hatred seems to be all but inevitable during any international crisis. During World War II people of German and Japanese origin were interned largely out of fear rather than for any just cause. For years after the war had ended, many of these people were still treated with irrational prejudice. More recently, the arson of Moslem mosques or the building of new mosques in some communities shows how powerful such prejudice really is. Acts of vandalism to Jewish synagogues and cemeteries still define the anti-Semitism among some members of society. The irrational and legally unjustified imprisonment of many people of Arab background following the attack on New York and Washington in September 2001 provided yet another indication of how national security so frequently denies civil rights.
PSALM 91:1-6, 14-16. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster in New York, a journalist asked Mayor Rudy Guiliani why there should be an interfaith prayer assembly of tens of thousands in Yankee Baseball Stadium. “What’s the value of prayer?” he asked with the natural skepticism of a reporter. Caught off guard, the mayor at first said that he did not feel qualified to answer the question. Then he went on to say, “It’s a chance for people of all faiths to come together to support one another at a time like this.” Former President Bill Clinton stepped to the microphone and added, “Yes, we want to gather to show that we are not alone in life and in death.”
AMOS 6:1a, 4-7. (Alternate) Amos could have been speaking in our own time and place. Do we similarly hide from the truth and are similarly condemned by the daily pictures of deadly refugee camps in Gaza, Palestine, and Darfur, Sudan. Then there is the plight of millions suffering as a result of natural disasters in Haiti and Pakistan. Our political leaders and we ourselves stand before the same bar of divine judgment as that voiced by Amos nearly 2800 years ago.
What does the future have in store? Exile for the leaders of Israel, Amos said. For us? God knows, but we cannot rest easy while the greater part of the world’s people suffer privation and premature death beyond our imagining.
One Sunday while preaching on this text and making reference to a contemporary situation, I received a phone call from an elderly and quite wealthy parishioner. She asked me to stop by her home to pick up a cheque she had written for a special fund the church had for disaster assistance abroad. When I went to her home she handed me a cheque for $1,000. “Please don’t tell any of my family,” she said. “They don’t like me doing this; but I must.” I have no doubt that most of her heirs have since inherited much more of what was left after this and other gifts she had made in secret.
I TIMOTHY 6:6-19. The economic issues raised in this passage strike to the heart of many pastoral problems in 2010. Not only is there the continuing concern of pastors and their families for the financial struggles while trying to serve faithfully. The churches also the lack of younger candidates for the pastorate that most mainline churches are experiencing. One of the many possible reasons for this is the standard of living required of those who enter the ordered ministry. Fewer congregations than ever can afford a full time ordained pastor. So-called “tent ministries” are becoming more common. Most clergy spouses are employed professionally out of necessity for sustaining and educating their children or paying off their debts. Of course, this should not be the subject of a sermon, but certainly can be a topic of discussion within the stewardship program of both the clergy family and the congregation.
During my college days in the late 1940s, one of the professors at our seminary was called to one of the city’s larger and wealthier congregations. There were some sharp criticisms among the student body that he had been wooed away from his teaching
by a much more lucrative salary. Few of us knew at the time that he was still paying off his debts from a period of post-doctoral studies in Germany ten years earlier from which he had been forced to flee by the gathering storm of World War II. He, his wife and two children has been on their way home aboard the steamer Athenia when it was sunk by a German u-boat off the Irish coast on the first day of the war. They had lost everything they owned, but had been picked up by four different rescuing vessels. None of them knew that the others had survived until they were reunited in Halifax nearly a week later. My own pastor’s wife had also been aboard the same vessel and also survived, but the ordeal shortened her life and deeply affected our pastor for the remaining years of his ministry.
LUKE 16:19-31. Arianna Huffington, author and owner of the daily Internet blog, Huffington Post, introduced her new book, Third World America, in this way: “Growing up in Greece, everyone knew someone who'd left to find a better life in America. That was the phrase everyone associated with America: "a better life." When I came to live here in 1980, I knew there was no other place I'd rather live. Thirty years later, I still feel that way. But something went wrong -- terribly wrong -- and put our country on a very dangerous path that threatens to transform us into Third World America. It's a jarring phrase, I know, but I decided to make that the title of my new book, which is being released today, as a warning -- to make it clear that if we don't change course that could very well be our future. But the book is not just a critique of the many ways things are broken -- it's a practical guide for how to fix them.”
At a time in both Europe, North America and everywhere in the developed world when the political winds seem to blowing in favour of more conservative points of view, have we in the Christian community something to offer as straightforward as that?