INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - PROPER 22
LAMENTATIONS 1:1-6. This whole book is a collection of mournful poems grieving over the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. The victorious Babylonians had driven away into exile most of the civic and religious leadership of Israel.
With ethnic cleansing a political reality still, it seems a fitting time to read all five chapters to recognize how utterly despairing refugees must feel. But don’t miss the faint hope for God’s justice and mercy expressed in 3:19-33.
PSALM 137. Here are the words of the exiles themselves. Their despair reaches the depths of advocating the murder of Babylonian children in a terrifying outburst of vengeance.
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4. (Alternate) We have here a lament by a prophet of the final period prior to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Unlike earlier prophets, Habakkuk addresses himself directly to God, not to the people. In the second passage, he sets himself up on a watchtower on the city’s ramparts to hear God answer to wait for the impending disaster.
PSALM 37:1-9. (Alternate) This exceptional psalm encourages the faithful to put their trust entirely in God and, while waiting patiently for God’s purpose be accomplished, keep their commitment to God’s way.
2 TIMOTHY 1:1-14. This letter reflects a period of early church history when at least three generations were included in its membership. This could have been as late as 110-120 AD.
The writer's counsel to his disciple is to remain faithful to those spiritual values his mother and grandmother believed in. Not being ashamed of one's faith in the face of persistent opposition comes from holding to the standard of sound teaching with the help of the Holy Spirit.
LUKE 17:5-10. In response to his disciples’ request that he increase their faith, Jesus paints two quite different pictures from everyday life in ancient Palestine. Both carry striking spiritual truth, but neither is to be taken literally. Their underlying meaning gives some frank but essential lessons to be learned by anyone who would be a disciple of Jesus.
The transplanted mulberry tree emphasizes that implicit trust in God enables us to accomplish seemingly impossible things. The parable of the master and his servant points out that those who carry out God's commands have no reward other than knowing that they have done what was expected of them.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
LAMENTATIONS 1:1-6. The Book of Lamentations elicits as much interest for its form and its authorship as for its content. Put simply, this collection of five poems laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 587-586 BCE and the exile of its religious and political leaders. Variations of voice in the first two poems alternate between the view of an observer and that of the city personified. The third poem explores the causes of the city’s downfall and then moves on to hope for restoration. The tragic horrors of the siege and fall of the city fill up most of the fourth poem, while a liturgical conclusion in the fifth ends with an appeal for divine help.
Possibly more significant is the way in which these poems ascribe the terrors of the sacking of Jerusalem and the exile directly to Yahweh. Although the agent of divine wrath is the besieging army of Babylon, the instigator in this tragedy is Yahweh. This stark truth is reiterated again and again throughout the five poems: 1:8-9, 14; 2:1, 8, 17; 4:11, 16, 20.
These events created a critical theological dilemma which the poet voices in the plaintive question of 3:38. Can Yahweh be blamed for both good and evil? The answer is ambiguous. The blame lies with the misdeeds of the people. This comes to the fore immediately in 1:5 and again in 3:34-36; 4:13 and 5:7. The implication is that the historical events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile were Yahweh’s manifestly just interpreted as judgment against Judah for its apostasy. The closing lines of the last poem (5:19-22) plead for Yahweh to restore the sinful nation to Yahweh’s favor once again.
Two traditions exist regarding the authorship of Lamentations. One ascribes it to Jeremiah, probably from a preface in the Greek Septuagint of the Hebrew Bible which reads: “Jeremiah sat weeping and composed this lament over Jerusalem and said: ....” The only possible warrant for this obvious addition is found in 2 Chronicles 35:25 where Jeremiah is reported to have composed laments for King Josiah.
The other tradition finds its support in the placement of the book among the Writings, the third section of Hebrew canon, with no connection with the prophet. Considerable internal testimony of the poems themselves also point to significant differences from Jeremiah’s attitude about the fall of Jerusalem. For instance, 1:10 speaks of God forbidding Gentiles to enter into the temple whereas Jeremiah predicted that this would happen (Jer. 7:14). Similarly, Jeremiah stood firm against foreign alliances (Jer. 2:18; 37:5-10), but Lamentations expressed mournful frustration that these alliances had failed (4:17).
Except for the fifth poem, all of Lamentations follows the same poetic form, that of an acrostic. Each new stanza begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Among modern English versions, only the Jerusalem Bible seeks to show this pattern. The fifth poem also has twenty-two stanzas and so can be said to follow the same stylistic form. Several of the Psalms also adopted this form for which no definite meaning has ever been discovered. In the original Hebrew scroll, however, the lines and stanzas were not written as we now print them in English, but like prose, the words following across the columns of the scroll from right to left without any breaks or punctuation whatsoever. Consequently, acrostics made it easier to distinguish where the lines began and ended. They also provided a helpful mnemonic device for easier memorization.
With international terrorism and ethnic cleansing still a political reality, it seems a fitting time to read all five chapters to recognize how utterly despairing refugees must feel. But don’t miss the faint hope for God’s justice and mercy expressed in 3:19-33. It may provide a more relevant homiletic text in the light of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington in 2001, followed by the tragically mistaken war in Iraq which continues.
PSALM 137. If one wishes to know how the Israelite felt about their misfortune following the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, this psalm presents the best evidence. A serious question underlies what one commentary called the charming, descriptive images in this lament. Relentlessly, the psalm asks: “Why has God let this happen to us, God’s chosen people?”
The poem appears to have originated in Jerusalem during the time of the exile when the greater part of Israel’s leadership had been forcibly transported to Babylon a thousand miles away. The poet’s memories of life in exile were still fresh so perhaps he had escaped and made his way home, or had been sent on an imperial errand. The despair of the exiles and jeering of their captors urging them to sing some of the songs of Zion ring through vss.1-3. The plaintive lament of vss.4-6 gives voice to the horror of such blasphemy. The two segments give the sense of an antiphonal versicle and response, a crescendo of antipathy rising as the utterance proceeds.
Vs. 7 includes a curse against Edom. That desert kingdom stretched across the southern reaches of the Negeb as far as the Gulf of Elath and eastward into what is now Jordan. The Israelites had passed through Edom during the Exodus on their way from Egypt to Canaan. The Edomites had frequently taken advantage of Israel’s weakness during the periods of the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions. It would appear that they had done so at the time of the exile. Throughout Israel’s faith-history, they were treated as intractably hostile. In later times, the Maccabeans conquered Edom and forced the whole population to accept Jewish religious traditions. Then in an ironic act of power politics, they named Antipater, great-grandfather of Herod the Great, as governor of Edom.
A vengeful curse ends the psalm. Its vehemence comes through vividly in the closing words of vs. 9. The purpose of this proposed act of vengeance was to wipe out the Babylonians forever. A similar effort was made by the Christian Serbs to destroy by raping Muslim women and massacring Muslim men in Bosnia in the mid 1990s. A similar horror has been visited upon the women and men of Darfur in Sudan during the current decade. Such human vengeance only sows the seeds of lasting hatred which no justice can diminish.
HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4. (Alternate) Very little is known about most of the twelve minor prophets, especially Habakkuk. Even the identity of the enemy threatening the violent destruction of Israel is uncertain. Probably the background of the book was certain events related to the Babylonian invasion of 609-598 BCE.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Habakkuk addressed his words not to his fellow citizens of Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom, but to Yahweh. Somewhat like Job, he demanded to know when Yahweh would fulfill his purpose to bring in a reign of justice, righteousness and peace on the earth. When would the kingdom of Yahweh come? In total, the book stands as a conversation between the prophet and Yahweh with a concluding psalm confirming what the prophet had come to believe as a result of this exchange.
This reading consists of two oracles. The first is Habakkuk’s initial lament as he witnessed only destruction and violence. This resulted in a breakdown of law and order in which evil and injustice triumph over established social values. Habakkuk’s complaint was that Yahweh appeared to ignore all the misery and wrongdoing.
Yahweh answered the prophet in 2:1-3. As he stood in a watch-tower, he had an epiphany. The reminder of the chapter (2:4-20) elaborated the prophet’s vision of the woes to come. Typically the message warned that the pending disaster was the result of national apostasy. But he proclaimed his hope just as clearly in 2:4 "The righteous man will live by his faithfulness." Centuries later, of course, this became the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In what sort of behaviour is faithfulness attained? To begin with, the prophet is instructed to be patient (vs. 3) for Yahweh’s purpose is accomplished according to Yahweh’s own timing and not by our need. That is a potent message for this very day.
PSALM 37:1-9. (Alternate) This exceptional psalm encourages the faithful to put their trust entirely in God and, while waiting patiently for God’s purpose be accomplished, keep their commitment to God’s way.
That the form of the psalm is an acrostic shows that it is part of the literature of a late wisdom school, perhaps as late in the 3rd or 4th century BCE when Persian hegemony was in decline and Greek culture and power were in ascendance. Its purpose was to teach the principles of Israel’s religious tradition and to exhort the people to embrace and practice them.
At this time the previous balance of personal conduct and just recompense were being seriously questioned. This psalmist does not accept this doubting of the ancient tradition, but holds that Yahweh deals with humans only according to the unchanging law of retributive justice. Hence the reassurance of his opening words, “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers ....” The psalmist goes on to exhort patience in the face of difficult circumstances.
2 TIMOTHY 1:1-14. As in most of his letters, Paul (or more probably, the unknown person of a later generation writing in the apostle’s name) never failed to put Jesus and the gift of the Spirit at the heart of his message. Here, however, it was “Christ Jesus” whose name appears most no less than six times in this passage and three in the introductory salutation alone (vss.1-2). The reverse order of names appears only once in the whole letter (2:8) as opposed to twelve references to “Christ Jesus.” It would seem that the author chose this particular designation to emphasize Jesus’ messiahship above all else, possibly in contrast to the heresy he was attempting to counter.
Timothy was a third generation Christian who had received his faith tradition from his mother and grandmother. According to Acts 16:1-3, these women were Jewish, but Timothy had a Gentile father. Apparently Timothy had not been circumcised. Perhaps the family was so dysfunctional that Eunice felt powerless to implement the requirements of the covenant law. On the other hand, Paul’s circumcising of this young man to appease the Jews of Galatia was a strange initiative for the apostle who in Jerusalem had been so eloquent in his defense of the mission to the Gentiles. So radically does the report in Acts differ from the Letter to the Galatians that one has to wonder if in this instance Timothy is no more than a symbol of all third generation of Christians.
The passage emphasized the apostle’s encouragement of Timothy in his ministry. It threw a significant sidelight on misgivings about the younger companion’s competence which the Letter to the Corinthians elucidated (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11). Was the real Timothy a somewhat fragile disciple with a low self-image? Did the bishop who authored the Pastoral Letters using Paul’s name know of this facet of the apostle’s relationship with the young man and used it as the vehicle for encouraging his fellow bishops confronting a serious heretical situation?
Fear and a reticence to witness boldly appear to have had a significant place in the background of this passage.
So there is still a place in our day for faithful witness by Christians in even the most dangerous situations although not necessarily in the way some politicians make use of religious faith. Paul appealed to the gift of the Spirit which Timothy had received from Paul “through the laying on of my hands” (vs.6). The church had progressed to the point where ordination was a recognized facet of ministry. This helps in dating the letter in the 2nd century CE. The role of the Spirit, however, is to “guard the good treasure entrusted to you,” (vs.14) i.e. “to keep the apostolic doctrine unchanged,” as Eduard Schweizer states in his Church Order in the New Testament. (London: SCM Press, 1961). The apostolic faith remains the mainstay of our hope now as then.
LUKE 17:5-10. Faith like a mustard seed and commending servants for doing their job do not seem to fit well together in these two brief sayings of Jesus. So what is Luke driving at? Since he apparently drew from both Q, a source he shared with Matthew, and from his own source scholars usually designate as L, he may have been doing nothing more than giving examples of how Jesus taught his disciples. If there is a theological lesson in this brief excerpt, it is that faith and works are contrasted as clearly as in Paul’s letters, and notably essential to the life of discipleship.
The example of faith achieving unimaginable ends (vss.5-6) showed how Jesus used hyperbole for memorable effect. Those who take the saying literally will find no comfort in their failure to make any tree move except with appropriate manual or mechanical equipment. A conservative Christian American, Robert LeTourneau, developed heavy earth-moving equipment to build roads and airports during and after World War II. He adopted as his company motto: “We have what it takes to move mountains.”
This particular tree called the mulberry was the sycamine, but in the Septuagint the Greek word also meant the sycamore. The two were not identical. If this tree was the latter, it had very deep roots and would have been impossible to transplant anywhere, least of all into the sea, with the simple technology then available. About this hyperbole Professor George Caird wrote that faith in God “is a power that takes impossibilities in stride.” (Pelican New Testament Commentaries: St. Luke. London: Penguin Books, 1963).
The example of the slaves who should not be invited to be seated at the master’s table (vss.7-10) warned against the possibility of achieving the spiritual goal meeting God’s demands through human effort. Spirituality does not operate with a bookkeeping mentality, as Professor Caird so eloquently pointed out. Merit has to be abandoned in our approach to God. Thus the two brief pericopes do point to the same conclusion: have faith above all. An increase of faith does not come from our Saviour’s fiat or from our many good works. In some situations we may indeed be helpless to change the circumstances in which faith is the only possible attitude to take.
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING NOTES.
LAMENTATIONS 1:1-6; PSALM 137; HABAKKUK 1:1-4, 2:1-4.
We live in times as troubled as those in which Jeremiah and Habakkuk lived. Without blaming God for what happened, it is all but impossible to see God’s purpose in the horrifying events of September 11, 2001 and the devastating assaults on terrorist havens in Iraq and Afghanistan which followed. Despite continual warning that the struggle against terrorism will be long and costly, we clamour for at least an end to violence and death. Once again, we need to be reminded by this prophetic scripture that God is Lord of History. Great empires, military alliances and political negotiations may become agents of divine purpose, but they do not determine the ultimate outcome. Justice, righteousness and peace remain forever in God’s control. Our response is to work toward the ultimate goals of peace, justice and good will for all people as best we can in contemporary circumstances.
It is even more distressing to many that vengeance against both terrorists and the vast majority of Muslims who have no quarrel with us is given voice in some public media and in numerous demonstrations. It is well to remember that all religious groups have besmirched their respective traditions with hostility and violence toward those with whom they differed. Christians are no exception. The effects of religious wars in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century have echoed through the centuries to this day. Anti-Semitism toward Jews as Christ Killers viciously uttered by Martin Luther still exists despite the Holocaust of the 20th century. Sunni, Shi’a and other sects of Islam fight each other for dominance in different Middle East countries. The Tamil-speaking and predominantly Hindu people fought and lost a bloody civil war against the largely Buddhist people of Sri Lanka. Tamil refugees are now seeking a safer place to live in Canada while our government actively seeks ways to prevent their migration. Shall we who believe that we live in God’s world remain silent under these circumstances?
2 TIMOTHY 1:1-14. To openly acknowledge one’s faith in our day can be a cause for derision in some situations and grave danger in others. Martyrdom is not unknown. Recent reports from Pakistan have revealed that in that predominately Muslim country now embroiled in an international crisis, Christians once more live in fear. In Sudan, as similar antipathy between the Arab and Muslim north and the African Christian south brought on a civil war that lasted through the 1990s and still smoulders despite a negotiated but fragile peace settlement.
To fundamentalist Muslims the great blasphemy of Western civilization is its secular nature. In an article, "Faith and the Secular State," by Lammen Sanneh in the New York Times on September 24, 2001 stated: "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 states, like people, are either Muslim or infidel. America's government is not anti-Muslim, but it is among the most secular. For Muslim Wahabi fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden, that amounts to more or less the same thing."
may not have been true when President George Bush was in office. He openly
declared a bias toward conservative Christian values to the point of calling
the fate-filled pre-emptive war in Iraq “a crusade for freedom.”
LUKE 17:5-10. The request by the disciples that Jesus increase their faith has significance for the ominous crises of our day. Some might say that current events are sufficient evidence that we are in the end times before the Lord’s imminent return. Others might wonder if God has abandoned modern civilization to its fate at the hands of more fervent believers in Allah whose sovereignty has been besmirched but not overthrown. We need to hold fast to the faith in our one God as sovereign creator and redeemer of all humanity. The crisis thrust upon us by the current terrorist menace, unconscionable wars and economic injustice can be seen as a vivid demonstration of God’s judgment. It could also be evidence that God’s mercy will be extended once again to those who will discern what God is saying to us at this time and carry forward God’s compassionate justice to suffering millions. We must never forget that there is more mercy in God’s love than sin in us.