INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - PROPER 25
JOEL 2:23-32. This promise by one of Israel's minor prophets became the focus of the earliest Christian gospel when Peter quoted it as the only possible interpretation of what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles on Pentecost. Based on what God had done in providing for Israel in the past, the prophet assured his fellow citizens that God was with them now and that God would be with them come what may.
PSALM 65. The psalmist first celebrates the grace of God in forgiving sin and the expresses the joy of once again being permitted to worship in the temple. Then he witnesses to evidence of God’s power in rescuing Israel in creation. In a land where drought was common, this he offers thanksgiving for plentiful spring rain that promises a bountiful harvest. It is a song of assurance and hope.
JEREMIAH 14:7-10, 19-22. (Alternate) These brief passages appear to combine both a lament to and a prophetic challenge from God for the nation to be faithful despite frequent wandering from God’s way. Acknowledging the sins of the nation, the prophetic poet wonders why God appears to have deserted God’s people.
SIRACH 35:12-17. This brief passage from a book in the Protestant Aprocrypha, known also to Roman Catholics as Ecclesiasticus, moralizes about the prayers of a humble person being particularly effective as opposed to insincere sacrifices. Rather, the prayers of the devout may depend on the absolute justice of God “who is no respecter of persons.”
84:1-7. (Alternate) This psalm expresses deep
gratitude of a faithful Israelite for the sense of peace and providence to be
found in the temple.
2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18. There is good reason to believe that this latter part of the so-called “Pastoral Letters” to Timothy and Titus may be a brief note from Paul himself. It speaks of Paul's own struggle to keep the faith. It also identifies several friends who knew and worked with him. Paul may have been in prison, but his faith had broken through its walls. Following this example, the letter says, faith is the only positive way to face unknown crises and dangers that may lie ahead.
LUKE 18:9-14. This parable would have had a varied response from those who first heard it. The Pharisees were devoutly religious, meticulous in keeping ritual laws, increasingly politically powerful and unsympathetic toward those less committed. Even less popular were the tax-collectors. Jesus revealed a delightful and devastating sense of irony in comparing the two at worship.
The parable catches everyone. It holds a mirror up before us describing and judging what we are like - sometimes one, sometimes the other.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS
JOEL 2:23-32. Joel has been called "the Temple prophet" because he attributes such importance to temple worship. The Second Temple had been reconstructed by Zerubbabel following the return from exile in Babylon in 539 BCE. For several generations afterward, the leadership of the nation had devolved to the temple priesthood. A few other political and religious clues point to a relative calm period prior to the disruption of the ancient world by Alexander the Great's conquests beginning in 333 BCE. A generation or two before that (ca. 400 BCE) is the general range scholars give to Joel's prophecies. Many of Joel’s images and metaphors, however, were drawn from earlier prophets, Amos in particular.
The book consists of two distinct parts, one a prophecy of judgment (1:2-2:27); the other a promise of salvation (2:28-3:21). Closer examination reveals that 2:18-27 is a transitional passage which binds the two together.
Joel saw the judgment of Yahweh in a plague of locusts (1:4) and a drought (1:9-12) that devastated the land. There also appears to be references to an invasion from the north (1:6, 2:20) though this may be a metaphor for the plague of locusts as distinct from an actual invasion (2:7-9). Returning productivity and prosperity described in 2:21-27 offer hope, but it is unclear whether this too is promise or reality. Joel attributes it to Yahweh's action, however, so that Israel may know that "I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other." (vs. 27)
Searching the Hebrew scriptures for the meaning of the Christ-event, Luke found in Joel 2:28-29 a prophecy fulfilled by the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:16-19). Writing five centuries before that event, however, Joel described a typical apocalyptic vision of the Day of the Lord. The pouring out of God's spirit and the portents of blood, fire, smoke and darkness (vss. 30-31) were traditional signs of the end of one period or the whole of history and the beginning of a new age. Based on what Yahweh had done in providing for Israel in the past, the prophet assured his fellow citizens that Yahweh was with them now and would be with them come what may.
Peter's sermon on Pentecost made just such a proclamation as the apostolic church's interpretation of what they had seen and heard in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Writing about two decades after the destruction of the temple, the author of Acts may also have seen the coming of the Spirit of the Christ to the apostles as the replacement of the temple as the central locus of Christian worship. Henceforth, worship was to be spiritual rather than a purely ritual relationship with Yahweh.
Can we find in this prophecy some good news for our own nation at this critical moment in our history? A wave of uncertainty and fear has swept across the world since September 11, 2001. We are both appalled and angered by the devastation terrorists have caused and doubtful that retaliation by merciless bombing and all-out war will deal with the threat that confronts us. We are involved in a different kind of conflict than we have previously experienced. At the same time, many feel deeply convicted that our own short-sighted policies - perhaps for two centuries or more, and continuing in current pre-emptive aggression - may have contributed to the terrible and tragic events in the Middle East and elsewhere. Where does hope for peace, justice and prosperity for all people lie? Or would we do best to wait patiently and faithfully believing that God is with us - and always on the side of justice - come what may?
PSALM 65. This hymn of praise presents many images of peace and prosperity attributed to the gracious interventions of Yahweh. At its best Israel’s religious tradition included a firm belief in Yahweh’s sovereignty over the natural world and its productive capacities as well as over historical events. The recognition of this providential sovereignty formed the basis for worshipful rejoicing in a number of psalms. As vss. 1-4 state, even the privilege of worshiping Yahweh in the temple offers a sign of divine sovereignty. The rest of this liturgy of thanksgiving is commentary.
Emphasis on the temple point to the late post-exilic period not unlike that of Joel's prophecies. The temple had become the centre of national life (vs. 4). Worship had been formalized to the point where rituals included the making of vows and confession of sin (vss. 1-3). There is also a sense of universalism found in vss. 2 & 5-8 reminiscent of Deutero-Isaiah. Yahweh’s mighty deeds in bringing deliverance to Israel constituted a sign to all nations that Yahweh does indeed govern all of creation.
This is essentially a song of thanksgiving for an abundant harvest. Some of the most graphic depictions of the geography of Israel are found in this and similar psalms of thanksgiving. In vss.9-13 we glimpse plentiful rainfall, flowing streams, fertile grain fields and agricultural activity. It is not always so, of course. Even today the observant tourist welcomes the surprise and rejoices to see the wilderness of Judea blossom the day after a heavy rain. Vss.12-13 describes just such a scene.
JEREMIAH 14:7-10, 19-22. (Alternate) It is difficult to discern how much of the passage from which these excerpts are taken came from Jeremiah himself. The point of these excerpts, however, is the confession of sin and pleading for Yahweh’s help in disastrous times. They appear to combine both a lament to and a prophetic challenge from Yahweh. Acknowledging the sins of the nation, the prophet wonders why Yahweh appears to have deserted Yahweh’s people.
A retributional view of sin and punishment play a prominent part in the passage. Whatever the disaster may have been - and it may have been severe drought - (vss. 3-6 & 22 if these are related), the prophet/poet states its cause as Yahweh’s apparent departure from Israel. Through the prophet Yahweh immediately retorts that Israel has wandered away from Yahweh who no longer accepts them (vs. 10).
In vss. 19-22, such rejection does not sit well. The prophet utters a plaintive lament that this is not in character for Yahweh who forgives and heals. Repeating the people’s confession of sin, the prophetic spokesman pleads for Yahweh not to break the covenant with them (vs. 21). Three short rhetorical questions asking who can help if not Yahweh, and a declaration of hopeful trust, conclude the passage.
SIRACH 35:12-17. (Alternate) Most Protestant Bibles do not include this book, but place it in the Apocrypha. It is sometimes called by its Latin name, Ecclesiasticus, (Roman Catholic) or The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach (Greek). It was written in Hebrew by in the early 2nd century BCE by Jesus ben Sirach, and translated into Greek by Sirach’s grandson in 132 BCE. But it was not included in the Hebrew canon adopted in the synagogues of the rabbinical era.
This brief passage moralizes about the prayers of a humble person being particularly effective as opposed to insincere sacrifices. Rather, the prayers of the devout may depend on the absolute justice of God “who is no respecter of persons.” It would appear that Luke was familiar with this passage, as Jesus would have been, in recounting the parables of the unjust judge and the Pharisee and the tax collector.
PSALM 84:1-7. (Alternate) This psalm expresses the deep gratitude of a faithful Israelite for the sense of peace and providence to be found in the temple. Some scholars believe that the psalmist was not actually in the temple at the time, but remembering how it felt to be there. Others believe that it comes closer in spirit to the pilgrim psalms (Pss. 120-134) sung as a group of pilgrims actually ascended into the temple precincts after a long and hazardous journey. It may be significant that no reference is made to any of the many temple rituals or sacrifices, but there does seem to be an indirect reference to the hazards of pilgrimage in vss. 5-6.
A personal note may be appropriate: I read this psalm at the memorial services for both my grandfather and my father. They had served all their lives as faithful lay leaders in their respective congregations. Despite many hardships encountered through nine decades and more, both sought “the courts of the Lord” and acted as “doorkeepers” for others as often as they possibly could. If faith and ministry are inherited as much as culturally acquired, my own ministry owes much to them.
2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18. The tradition remains that Paul died during Nero's persecution of the mid-60s CE. As a Roman citizen he would have been beheaded rather than crucified, as tradition reported concerning Peter's death about the same time. There can be little doubt that this passage comes either from Paul's own hand or from someone who knew exactly what had happened to him.
In his book, "One Jesus, Many Christ's," (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) Gregory J. Riley showed how the writers of the NT used the motif of the hero in the Greco-Romano literary culture to describe their understanding the life of Jesus and the apostles, especially Peter and Paul. That motif goes back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but most literature of the period in which the NT arose had similar motifs. The NT authors cast Jesus in the role of the divine-human hero, while the apostles played the roles of the human hero-followers. Riley further shows that the NT authors followed closely the traditional image of a military or athletic hero. In this passage we find a prime example of this heroic figure which the continuing church under persecution is called to emulate. We also find both of the traditional heroes in Paul's own story.
The difference in the NT portrayal of the hero motif, however, lay in the way the story ended. Whereas in the Greco-Roman stories, the athletic hero was crowned with laurel leaves and the military hero often died tragically after an honorable struggle, the Christian hero, eschewing worldly honours, died not only bravely but willingly because he knew that his reward lay beyond an ignominious death. 2 Timothy 4:8 says as much: "From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will give me on that day."
Similarly, Christian martyrs of later persecutions went to horrible deaths singing joyfully, thus confounding their amazed tormentors. It may well be these martyrs to whom the ending of vs.8 refers: "... and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing." It is not impossible that this could be from a witness to those persecutions added by a later hand.
Another difference in NT hero stories comes to the fore in vss. 16-18. The NT writers drew their models from the OT scriptures as well as from the Greco-Roman tradition. William Barclay made an interesting analysis of these verses in his Daily Bible Readings: The Epistles To Timothy and Titus. (Church of Scotland: Edinburgh, 1956). Barclay traced parallels of several phrases of vss.16-18 to Psalm 22. He claimed that the words of this psalm were running in Paul's mind. According to the gospels, this psalm was on the mind of Jesus too when he hung upon the cross. As Paul himself faced death, he was comforted and encouraged with the same psalm as his Lord in the similar circumstances.
Martyrdom and violent death are currently on everyone’s mind. One of the more puzzling aspects of the recent terrorist assaults around the world is that they have been described by the perpetrators as martyrdom in defense of Islam. This is couched in deeply held convictions of a twisted fundamentalist view of Islam. The terrorists claim to be fighting a holy war for the preservation of Islam against secular western incursions into Islamic countries. Moderate Islamic scholars have hastened to explain that this is a perversion of Islam which, when true to its founder’s words in the Quran, contains a tolerant, peaceful and non-aggressive tradition. The Arabic word jihad means struggle, and refers primarily to the individual’s own struggle to be true to his faith and a national struggle to remain true to Islamic tradition.
A document from the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, UK explains further: “In its primary sense it is an inner thing, within self, to rid it from debased actions or inclinations, and exercise constancy and perseverance in achieving a higher moral standard. Since Islam is not confined to the boundaries of the individual but extends to the welfare of society and humanity in general, an individual cannot keep improving himself/herself in isolation from what happens in their community or in the world at large, hence the Quranic injunction to the Islamic nation to take as a duty ‘to enjoin good and forbid evil.’ (Quran 3:104 ) It is a duty which is not exclusive to Muslims but applies to the whole human race which is, according to the Quran, God's vicegerent on earth. Muslims, however, cannot shirk it even if others do.
“The means to fulfil it are varied, and in our modern world encompass all legal, diplomatic, arbitrative, economic, and political instruments. But Islam does not exclude the use of force to curb evil, if there is no other workable alternative. A forerunner of the collective security principle and collective intervention to stop aggression, at least in theory, as manifested in the United Nations Charter, is the Quranic reference "… make peace between them (the two fighting groups), but if one of the two persists in aggression against the other, fight the aggressors until they revert to God's commandment." (Quran 49:9)
“Military action is therefore a subgroup of the Jihad and not its totality. That was what prophet Mohammad emphasized to his companions when returning from a military campaign, he told them: ‘This day we have returned from the minor jihad (war) to the major jihad of self-control and betterment.’
One can imagine Paul in his prison cell awaiting death as having sympathy with such a balanced view of the struggle he and his fellow Christian experienced in the lst century CE.
LUKE 18:9-14. The point of this parable is made before the story is told. The issue is the sin of self-righteousness. Or as Paul put it so often, salvation by works instead of trusting in God's grace.
This was an important issue when Luke wrote circa 80-85 CE. The Pharisees had already been a force to contend with during Jesus' ministry half a century earlier. After the destruction of the temple, they took control of the Jewish religious tradition among the Diaspora as well as in the Jewish homeland. It was they who finalized the canon of Hebrew scriptures and began the long process of interpreting the Torah which ultimately became known as the Mishnah and the Talmud. Luke may well have been addressing this later development among the Christian converts from Judaism with this parable. He would undoubtedly have known the ancient Jewish man’s morning prayer which thanked God for not making him a Gentile, a slave or a woman.
The story itself has a ring of immediacy about it. This makes it seem as if everyone who may have heard Jesus utter it may well have witnessed this very incident many times as they went to offer their own prayers in the temple. Note that the Pharisee stood off by himself to avoid contamination from anyone who might be in the temple courts in a ritually impure state. The tax collector, on the other hand, afraid perhaps of even daring to enter the sacred precincts, is "standing far off." In fact, this may refer to the fact that tax-collectors were regarded as unfit to enter the temple, and required to stay in the exterior Court of the Gentiles. Yet in Jesus’ estimation the sincerity of his prayer far exceeded that of the Pharisee. He responded in repentance to the grace he hoped to find by acknowledging his own unworthiness.
One other detail of the story is significant: We are not told if the tax collector even knew he was forgiven. "Justified" is a typical Pauline word with which Luke states this man’s new relationship with God. Of the two men, he was the only one who had really prayed. For doing that he had been declared righteous, but not because he was good and the Pharisee bad, nor because he felt better for it. Rather he had the humility to do the one thing God requires: he had faced the truth about himself and cast himself on God's mercy and compassion.
One of the continuing discussions taking place in the Canadian media attempted to present the so-called “war on terrorism” in a more balanced light than occurred immediately after the first terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. This debate tried to discover the roots of the assault by fundamentalist Moslem against modern western civilization. There were some who were enraged that political leaders refuse to consider the aggressive, imperialist materialism of western society as one of the causes of this murderous reaction. Others argued that all the fault lay within fundamentalist Islamic societies. Still others have been humble enough to express less passionately a centrist point of view which recognizes than this is not an either/or situation, but a matter of both/and.
Such a position embodies a tolerance which this parable describes. Despite his spurning of his neighbor, the proud Pharisee was a deeply religious man who worshiped as best he knew how. The tax collector in his simple prayer tapped into the infinite grace of our ever merciful God. His prayer might well be the more appropriate for us in our current historical moment as we try to discover a way out of the present tragic and costly crisis.