|Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
By David Lull
This passage begins with a parable of a potter, who illustrates how God interacts with nations—more specifically, with Israel (verse 6). The (Roman Catholic) New America Bible translation of verse 4 best expresses the message of this parable: “Whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased.” (Jeremiah assumed the potter was male, but that does not mean he thought of God as a male.) The potter does not discard clay if it is defective (e.g., lumpy) or if the potter made a mistake (e.g., applying too much or not enough water); instead, the potter corrects the imperfection or changes the design.
The traditional interpretation of this parable is that God determines the actions and fate of individuals and nations. However, the potter’s actions show that the potter responds to the clay. To be sure, the potter determines what kind of change is possible and desirable; but the result is the potter’s response to the nature and behavior of the clay. Moreover, the potter’s mind changes (repents!) and creatively adapts to the clay’s reality.
God might threaten to destroy a nation, because of its disobedience to God’s purposes; but, if it repents, God will also repent (verses 7-8)! Similarly, God might promise to build up a nation; but, if it refuses to follow God’s ways and acts in evil ways, God will “repent” and not do as God had promised (verses 9-10).
This lectionary reading ends on a somewhat positive note, with a hint of hope: God’s threats serve God’s desire that nations, specifically Israel, would repent and stop their evil ways (verse 11). However, as Jeremiah continues, all hope dashes to the ground (18:12-17)! Israel’s stubbornness is like a clay object that the potter fired in a kiln, so that it was hardened. As a result, the potter can no longer creatively transform it. Lest you think that God caused the hardening, Jeremiah tweaks the parable by clearly stating that Israel’s stubbornness was their own doing (verse 12). The potter’s/God’s and the clay object’s/Israel’s opportunities for “repentance”—change, adaptation—have passed. God was unwilling to “repent” of God’s opposition to evil, and Israel was unwilling to repent of its evil ways. In the final section of this chapter, Israel plots against Jeremiah, so that he pleads with God to deal harshly with Israel (verses 18-23).
As you engage this chapter of Jeremiah, explore its alternative to the classical theistic mistakes of divine impassivity and omnipotence. The God of classical theists is impassive; that is, God is unaffected by anything that happens in the world and is, therefore, unchanging.
Such a God might seem to provide stability in a world of constant change, but it cannot love. Love is relational, interactive, and empathetic, even when the object of love is something inanimate. When I say, “I love chocolate!” what I mean is that I am deeply affected by chocolate, I eagerly desire the effects it has on my taste buds, and my taste buds trigger a strong desire at the mere sight of its color, especially if it is dark chocolate!
How much more relational, interactive, and empathetic is the love between persons! It would be a sad commentary on our marriage if the sight of my spouse triggered less feeling than the sight of dark chocolate! The love we share is also more complex than my love of dark chocolate. Desire to be intimately related is an important part of it, and that includes a willingness to deal creatively with differences and faults, as well as a readiness to celebrate gifts and achievements. Because of our love, we share sorrows, and together we envision a future and shared adventures. In short, to love is to be open to change in response to an other.
Jeremiah’s God can change God’s mind! Jeremiah’s God adapts God’s creativity in response to changing realities. Jeremiah’s God desires repentance and is creative and relentless in the attempt to persuade individuals and nations to repent.
The God of classical theists is also omnipotent; that is, God determines all that is and all that happens, because God has all power and is “all-powerful.” This mistake crept into classical theism in part because of an accident of the history of translation. The Hebrew El-Shaddai became omnipotens in Latin, and “Almighty” in English. The Hebrew Yahweh Sabaoth was sometimes transliterated in Greek as “the Lord of Sabaoth,” and translated “the Lord, God of hosts” in English; but sometimes it was translated in Greek as pantocrator, which in English became “Almighty.” Under the influence of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, classical theism developed this accident of translation into the doctrine of divine omnipotence.
We now know that the Hebrew El-Shaddai referred to the highest or greatest god, and that the Hebrew Yahweh Sabaoth referred to a god who commanded a great heavenly army. The Greeks paired term pantocrator with autocrator, which refers to someone who is self-ruled (which is one meaning of “autocratic”) and, therefore, is ruled over by no one; the former term refers to someone who rules over all (which is another meaning of “autocratic”). In short, these terms ought to suggest a god who has greater (unsurpassable) power than any other conceivable power. Because power, like love, is always relational and interactive, it is impossible for anyone, even God, to have all the power. That is why Jeremiah’s God, and the God in the rest of the Bible, has to struggle with Israel and the rest of the nations, and try to persuade them to repent. God’s anger is an unpleasant but intimately relational response to the power of Israel and other nations to resist God’s will!
The clay exerts influence on the potter, just as the potter affects the clay. The potter does so unsurpassably, but not omnipotently. A potter creatively transforms the clay, but only within the limits that the clay presents to the potter. As the potter desires, the potter also adapts designs, and even entirely changes the intended object, in response to the clay’s changes.
So it is with God. God’s “design” for each of us and for each nation is a work in progress. God’s desired path for us is not set in stone from time immemorial; God adapts and changes it as God responds to the ways we change. God’s judgment about us adapts and changes as God responds to our changing lives.
As you engage this chapter of Jeremiah, you might also lift up the Jeremiahs speaking truth to nations today. As I write this, I am hearing and reading remembrances and celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. My wife and I also just saw The Butler, a movie in which Forest Whitaker recounts the history of race in America from his youth as the son of a cotton picker in Macon, GA, to the U.S. presidential election of 2008. Let’s lift up the well-known prophetic leaders, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but let’s also lift up the thousands of people whose names we will never know but who risked their lives to bring about national repentance—and who continue to call America to repent.
As you engage this chapter of Jeremiah, you might also consider how you can prepare yourself, spiritually, to deal with real or imagined “opponents” who may try to silence prophetic voices in your churches, communities, and nations.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
We encounter some of these same themes in today’s psalm. For what follows, see Marti J. Steussy, Psalms, in the Chalice Commentaries for Today series (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), pp. 196-98.
God and this psalmist are intimately related. God knows the psalmist’s every move and thought. Such intimacy could be deeply comforting. It could also be oppressive and threatening! Verse 5 (NRSV: “You hem me in”) could mean that God lovingly and protectively surrounds the psalmist; but it could also mean that God confines the psalmist like a prisoner. Verses 7-12, which the lectionary omits, could also be comforting assurance that God is an ever-present companion. It could also be oppressive and threatening. There is nowhere to hide or escape from God’s watchful, judging eyes (NRSV verse 7: “Or where can I flee from your presence”)! The last section of the psalm (verses 19-24) might seem unexpected, except that they explain the negative connotations of the earlier sections. The psalm concludes with the psalmist’s self-defense against false accusations. The psalmist is confident that God, who knows the psalmist’s every move and thought, knows the psalmist’s innocence.
Divine omniscience, another classical theist mistake, might find support in this psalm. According to classical theism—by which I mean Platonic and Aristotelian theism—God’s knowledge of the future is just like God’s knowledge of the past and present. The past and present are snapshots of what exists—the actual world. If God knows what has been, is, and will be, then in God’s knowledge the future also already exists. Instead of being open-ended, full of options and possibilities, in the process of becoming, and thoroughly contingent, in God’s knowledge the future is closed, actual, and determined. Otherwise, God’s knowledge of the present and future as the unfolding of a contingent process of becoming would introduce passivity and change into God’s reality, as God awaits the outcome of the creative process. This doctrine of divine omniscience ensures the classical theist’s God remains impassive, unaffected by anything, and devoid of any change.
Psalm 139 seems to lend support to classical theists. Not only does God observe the psalmist’s every move, the psalmist is sure that, even before the psalmist speaks, God knows every word “completely” (verse 4 NRSV). However, God’s knowledge of the future is more like knowledge of a probability. Given God’s knowledge of the psalmist’s past thoughts and actions (verses 2-3), God knows the probability of what the psalmist might say in any instance. We are not automatons! And the future is not pre-determined!
Verse 16b (“In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed” NRSV) is more consistent with the classical theist doctrine of divine omniscience. As such, it stands in tension with the more open-ended and contingent view of divine knowledge in verses 2-4. It is difficult to see how both views could be true. Which view leads to a life filled with more truth, beauty, and goodness?
This letter is so enmeshed in the terrible, inhumane history of slavery that I wonder if it is worth find something socially redeeming in it! We could lift up the virtue of Paul’s approach to Philemon based on their mutual love instead of Paul’s authority and superior status. Or was that manipulative? Besides, beyond asking Philemon to accept Paul’s offer to settle any financial issues, what was Paul asking Philemon to do about Onesimus’ status as a slave? Was he supposed to accept Onesimus as a “beloved brother” and no longer as slave and, therefore, to make him a free man? Or was he supposed to receive Onesimus back as a slave but now as a “beloved brother”? And was Paul angling for Philemon’s permission to send Onesimus back to serve as Paul’s slave?
No matter what side of these issues you choose, the fact remains that this letter, together with 1 Cor 7.17-24 and, in the letters whose authorship is disputed, Eph 6.5-8, Col 3.22-25, 1 Tim 6.1-2, and Titus 2.9-10 gave aid and comfort to Christian slave traders and masters, even though abolitionists also used it. Especially on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we need to talk honestly about this letter.
In addition to noting its place in the history of slavery, we also need to uncover stereotypes of slaves that have crept into the interpretation of Paul’s letter to Philemon. One stereotype is firmly embedded in the traditional interpretation of Onesimus as a “pilfering runaway slave.” On the one hand, this interpretation led John Chrysostom to use this letter to illustrate the Christian imperative to be lenient toward one another, and to regard even the most reprobate as capable of repentance; and Martin Luther read it as an example of Christ’s love for all of us who, like Onesimus, are sinners. On the other hand, this interpretation maintained the stereotype of slaves as immoral and untrustworthy.
As Allen Dwight Callahan argues in his commentary, Embassy of Onesimus (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997), Paul nowhere says that Onesimus was “pilfering,” nor that he was a “runaway.” The conditional statement “Now if he has defrauded you of anything or owes you anything” (verse 18 NET) is a condition assumed to be true for the sake of argument: it is not a statement of fact. Furthermore, Paul had returned Onesimus to Philemon (verse 12), but Paul does not tell us under what circumstances Onesimus left Philemon’s household. From the time of the early church, interpreters filled in the gaps in Paul’s letter and labeled Onesimus a “pilfering runaway.” Callahan offers an alternative narrative about Paul’s effort to bring about reconciliation between two estranged brothers in Christ, Onesimus and Philemon, through “diplomacy, persuasion, forbearance, and reparations…. In other words, the letter speaks of the challenging implications of Christian love and the imperative of Christian justice” (p. x).
Oh my, who can stand to listen to these words, which demand hatred toward members of your family, carrying a cross for your own execution, and giving up, not a mere 10% tithe, but all your possessions? The literal meaning of these words are so terrifying, interpreters strain to make them more comfortable.
Someone once told me that tribal leaders of a Southeast Asian village challenged the translation of the opening verses with the word “hate,” and insisted that the Bible translators change them, in order to make them more consistent with their reverence for their family and ancestors. I often hear scholars and lay people alike try to rescue the word “hate” by pointing out how it really means “like less.” The word “hate” is so white-hot that we want to cool it down, so that we can handle it!
Carrying a cross has become a metaphor the anything but the real thing: chauvinistic men think it has to do with putting up with their mother-in-law! Various ailments—for example, back pain, deafness, blindness, cancer, and the decline that comes with aging—are our “crosses.” These popular attempts at bad humor, or serious complaints, not only totally ignore the literal meaning of “carry your cross,” they also presuppose or imply a bad theology. God does not expect us to bear life’s hardships with a stiff upper lip! If Jesus, in the Gospels, especially in Luke, does not carry his cross with a stiff upper lip, why should we? Furthermore, a cross was a means of execution the Romans used to put down rebellions and maintain imperial control. Rephrased in today’s language, “Carry the instruments of your water boarding and other means of extreme rendition!” Or “Carry your solitary confinement box!” Or “Carry your electric chair, gas chamber, or needle loaded with a lethal cocktail!” No one would think to make jewelry from such things. Jesus’ saying would lose its capacity for trivial domestication.
“Give up all your possessions”? No way! Jesus, would you settle for 10%? At times during our move from Dubuque, Iowa, to Pilgrim Place in Claremont, California, my wife and I thought Jesus had a good idea! But our reasons were not the same as Jesus’ reasons. Besides, we were, at times, ready to give away our many boxes with too much stuff, even after downsizing, but we were not at all ready to give away the retirement savings that would fund the rest of our lives. Jesus’ saying hits us where it really hurts.
Ok, now you get the point. There are no easy ways to evade the demand of these hard sayings. So, what can we do? First, as always, let’s look at the immediate context in the Gospel. These sayings come right after the parable about how the original invitees to a great dinner declined with a string of excuses that only the rich could offer: financial transactions involving large sums of money, including a marriage. Most interpreters prefer to focus on how the dinner’s host opened the invitation to the poor. That makes it a nice story about charity and “outreach.” Rich people can do that without hurting too much. It makes us feel good and virtuous. And we get tax credits. All is well. Never mind that the dinner’s host opened the invitation to the poor out of anger when his rich friends rebuffed the host’s invitation (14.21), not out of genuine compassion and solidarity with the poor!
Don’t get me wrong. The world can use all that philanthropists can give away! I am all in favor of charity and outreach. Our churches should do all they can to care for the world’s poor and to close the income gap between the rich and poor. God has created us in Christ Jesus for such good works (Eph 2.10)!
Today’s Gospel reading, however, calls for something more radical than such good works. The term “radical” refers, among other things to getting down to the roots of something. Being Jesus’ disciple means making Jesus and his words and deeds, not anything else one might otherwise love (family, possessions, life itself), the root and center of one’s life.
Perhaps not everyone is cut out to be a radical disciple of Jesus. Perhaps the best most of us can do is to approximate radical discipleship by moving in that direction. Families might come to share a commitment to serving the poor, fighting racism, and resisting our nation’s global economic and military imperialism. Families might come to share a commitment to living as simply as possible, in order to use their wealth to feed the hungry and advocate for a more fair distribution of resources and opportunities to enjoy the fullness of life. We each need to discern how far down the path of radical discipleship God in Christ Jesus calls us.
David J. Lull, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA), is the incoming director of the Process and Faith program of the Center for Process Studies (Claremont, CA). He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College (Mt. Pleasant, IA), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX), and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University (Claremont, CA). An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Lull taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School (New Haven, CT), and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, GA). As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (New York City), he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia, an interpretation of pneuma in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus. His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.