Proper 20, Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 22, 2013
|Reading 1:||Reading 2:||Reading 3:||Reading 4:|
|Jeremiah 8:18-9:1||Psalm 79:1-9||1 Timothy 2:1-7||Luke 16:1-13|
By David Lull
Jeremiah 8.18–9.1: Speak the truth clearly and boldly!
First, a word about the NRSV translation “my poor people”: the term “poor” is a term of endearment (“dear,” “precious,” or “beloved”), not an economic term. The NRSV translation implies that Jeremiah, who speaks for God, pitied “his” people, because they were suffering; or that they were disheartened; or that they were morally impoverished. Which of these implications you choose—or you could choose all of them—depends on how you interpret Jeremiah 18.
At first, it seems that Jeremiah leaves no doubt that God suffers with those who suffer. He gives voice to God’s broken heart at their plight (8.18). The dialogue in 8.19-20, however, is confusing.
On the one hand, God’s beloved people ask questions—the same question, actually, in different words—that sound rhetorical. The implied affirmative answers (“Yes, God is in Zion! Yes, the Sovereign Ruler is there!”) support their complaint that one season after another has come and gone, and still God has not rescued them from their plight! (Note the passive voice.) Their complaint is legitimate. God, their Sovereign Ruler, should have rescued them by now!
On the other hand, in the parenthesis at the end of 8.19, Jeremiah’s complaint, speaking for God, suggests that the people’s questions imply entirely opposite answers: “God is not in Zion. God is not our Ruler. We have turned to other gods.” That would explain the accusation of idolatry, which provokes Jeremiah and God’s anger.
In 8.21, however, God is not angry; rather, God is the Great Companion who suffers with those who suffer! God’s anger in 8.19b is in tension with God’s sympathy and deep pain in 8.18, 21, and 9.1. The rich poetic description of God’s elephant tears that pour out as if from a spring or a fountain (9.1) contrasts with the mere mention of God’s anger (8.19b). Either way, a God who grieves and gets angry is not impassive, as classical theists would have us think!
In 8.22, the implication is that means of healing, ointment and healers, exist in Gilead (land east of the Jordan River in what is Jordan today), so that someone should have healed these beloved people. Who should have been their healers, and from what did they need healing? Earlier I suggested that the passive voice in 8.20 implied that God should have been their Rescuer; but 8.20 does not tell us from what they needed to be rescued. However, now it seems that healers existed among God’s beloved people; and 8.19b suggests that they needed to be healed from idolatry.
Although 8.1-17 do not solve all these difficulties, they do shed light on the situation. Judah, with Jerusalem taking the lead, had turned away from God and refused to repent. They were denying that they had done anything wrong. Their leaders were deceiving them and telling them lies, saying that they were wise in all matters of God’s commandments, and that there was peace when there was no peace. They were shamelessly doing all kinds of immoral things. Consequently, God was fiercely punishing them. Instead of peace, they were experiencing only terror. Conquering armies were descending on them from the north, like a swarm of poisonous snakes!
Jeremiah and God’s grief is in response to the people’s apostasy and the terrible events in Judah. Jeremiah viewed these events as the expression of God’s anger. We might say that they were consequences of their moral failures. Perhaps we should read the people’s complaints (8.19-20) as expressions of their self-deception, which Jeremiah described earlier.
What do you think? Does God cause bad things to happen as punishment for human moral failures? Or do human moral failures cause bad things to happen? Whenever moral agents choose to act in ways that conflict with God’s purposes, bad things can happen, and they often do. You could call that God’s punishment. You could also say that bad things are simply consequences of the chosen course of actions.
In what ways, if any, do you see parallels between Judah’s situation and today’s situation in your country? What of Jeremiah’s words are pertinent today? Who is deceiving people today, telling them all is well, or will be well, when a terrible crisis is at their doorsteps?
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that race relations in certain southern states had improved so much that a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was no longer necessary, even though the Justice Department is challenging changes in voting laws in Texas. Private and public sector economists tell us that the U.S. economy is moving in the right direction, even though the income gap is widening, with the rich are reaping most, if not all, the benefits of the “recession recovery.” Pro-industry advocates are telling us that climate change does not exist or does not pose a serious threat to the health of the planet, even as glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Expanding, invasive surveillance measures promise peace and security, while these measures erode privacy rights guaranteed by the 4th Amendment. Advocates of U.S. military presence and action in the Middle East to secure access to oil reserves and to protect Israel, in Africa and the Pacific Rim to limit China’s pursuit of its national interests, and on the western borders of Russia promise to make the world safe for U.S. national interests, even as American efforts to dominate the global economy drive the poorest nations further into poverty and make enemies of nations who might have been possible friends and allies.
This list is just a beginning! What would you add to it? What Jeremiah-like prophetic word does God call you to voice? Jeremiah does not let us off easy. Speak God’s justice boldly!
Psalm 79.1-9: God, have mercy on us, and on our enemies!
I encourage you to compare the NET translation (https://bible.org/netbible/) with the NRSV.
As always, Marti Steussy’s comments are spot on! See her Psalms, in the Chalice Commentaries for Today series (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 153-54. She point out that this psalmist lays blame for God’s wrath on the people’s wrongdoings and, at the same time, complains that God’s punishment has gone on too long and is too severe. Furthermore, the psalmist argues that God’s reputation is at stake, if God does not punish the nations that slaughtered the people of Judah, laid waste its land, and defiled God’s temple. The psalmist gives permission to pray for vengeance, but does not give the people permission to take vengeance into their own hands. They should leave vengeance up to God (compare Rom 12.19, quoting Deut 32.25).
The lectionary reading ends with a plea for God’s forgiveness. But that’s not the end of the psalmist’s view of the matter. As the psalm continues, the psalmist seems to imply that God’s forgiveness of the people’s sins should take the form of severe vengeance against the nations that were inflicting violence and destruction on them (verses 10-12). The psalmist complains that God’s wrath toward Judah was too severe. Why shouldn’t the nations complain that the psalmist has prayed for vengeance that is also too severe?
1 Timothy 2.1-7: All means all, without exception!
I will readily offer prayers and thanksgivings for everyone—up to a point. Do I really have to offer thanksgiving for “kings and all who are in high positions”? Yes, for, as my colleague Duane Priebe, at Wartburg Theological Seminary, often reminded us, whenever we draw a circle around the “chosen,” Jesus stands outside the circle with those whom we have excluded. “God desires everyone to be saved…” means everyone, without exception. That includes “kings and all in authority.”
The writer of this letter says that prayers for rulers and all those in authority should lead to a “quiet and peaceful” life (verse 2). You might think that means that such prayers ask God to fill rulers and leaders with divine wisdom and justice. That is certainly part of what verse 4 implies, and that ought to be the content of prayers for “our President” and other world leaders.
Parallels in 1 Thess 4.11 and 2 Thess 3.12, however, suggest that the emphasis might be on engaging in what we might call civic prayers (or “civil religion”), in order to avoid causing disturbances with one’s neighbors. In the Roman Empire, failure to participate in the offering of honors to the emperor and other civic authorities might give the impression that Christ-followers were unsociable, unpatriotic, or even subversive. Avoiding that impression often was a matter of life and death.
Can you think of parallels today? The most prevalent forms of Christian spirituality are so inward and individualistic that they are irrelevant to public life! Genuinely subversive forms of spirituality offer visions of inclusive, sustainable, ecological communities that care about economic justice for the poor and protection of the environment. Christ-followers, let’s learn from those emerging spiritualties and push the “all” in 1 Tim 2.2 and 2.4 to include all creatures and their ecosystems!
The author of this letter also implies that rulers and other civic authorities are not gods, but human beings accountable to God! Some of the forms of “divine honors” for the Roman emperor led some people to think of the emperor as divine—and even as a deity. The intellectuals, however, did not. Seneca, for example, wrote a satire in which he spoofed the “deification” of the Emperor Claudius. Roman propaganda proclaimed the favor of the gods on the emperor as long as the empire was victorious, prosperous, and secure. When things were not going the way the emperor’s opponents thought they should, they didn’t pray for the emperor. They plotted to overthrow the emperor, in order to make a regime change! Praying for God’s wisdom to transform rulers’ policies and actions, and working diligently today within democratic processes for wanted changes are preferred to assassinations! May prayers in churches around the world lift up and join with God’s subversive, transforming wisdom and love of justice and life for all—all without exception. (In the RSV and NIV, following the KJV, “all men” obscures the inclusivity of the Greek here and in verse 4; also see my comments on verses 5 and 6 below.)
According to the author, the reason for these prayers, and for God’s desire that “everyone be saved,” is that “there is one God” (verse 5a). The danger is that today Christians might think that their God is the only God. Of course, the author of this letter—like the authors of the rest of the biblical books—thinks that ancient Israel’s God, the God of Christ Jesus, is the only real/true God. Whether ancient Israelites and Jews of late antiquity had any appreciation for the reality of God among “the nations” is a subject worth investigating. For example, an inscription in the Miletus theater (on Turkey’s western slope), marking the seating section for Jews, seems to describe Jews as those who “also worship God,” implying that they worshiped the same God non-Jews worshiped! (Others translate the inscription “the place of the Jews and the God-fearers,” the latter being gentiles who had not fully converted to Judaism.) On this topic, see Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).
There are several translation issues in verses 5b and 6. First, the RSV and NIV, following the KJV, introduce gender specificity where the Greek (anthrōpos) is inclusive and gender-neutral: “between God and humankind” (NRSV), “the human race” (NAB), and “humanity” (NET), not “between God and men.” The latter translation implies a gender ideology lacking in the Greek.
In addition, the translation “the man Christ Jesus” (again, the KJV, RSV, and NIV) underscores male domination by implying that Jesus’ maleness was essential to his role as the “mediator,” “Messiah,” and “ransom.” Compare the Sethian Gnostic creation myth, which describes the male/female deity Barbelo as “thrice male,” from whom, according to the Gospel of Judas, Jesus came. If the author wanted to make that point, we would expect to see the gender-specific word anēr (“male”) instead of the inclusive, gender-neutral word anthrōpos (“human being”). The author’s point is that, just as a single deity is God, so also a single human being is the “mediator.” What was important about Jesus was that he was a human being, not that he was a man.
Just as the affirmation of “one God” is a rejection of a plurality of gods, the statement that there is only “one mediator” is a denial that there is a plurality of “mediators.” In his letter to the Galatians, Paul contrasts Abraham’s singular “offspring,” Jesus Christ, through whom God fulfilled the promise to Abraham, and the plurality of “angels” and a “mediator,” Moses, who introduced the Jewish law (3.19-20). So also 1 Tim 2.5 affirms that no one—neither angels, nor Moses, nor the Jewish law—was needed to assist the “one mediator,” Christ Jesus, between God and humanity. There was only one “mediator,” Christ Jesus, who was human like the rest of humanity.
Furthermore, Jesus’ humanity was more important than anything he said (although, see 6.3 and 13) or did, except for one thing: “he gave himself as a ransom for all.” That means, first, that Jesus was a mortal, not an immortal deity, because he died. Second, this phrase implies that Jesus’ death was a voluntary act: he was not compelled to die, whether by the force of others or by divine decree. Jesus might have tried to resist his arrest and execution, but he didn’t. He might have gone to the gallows kicking and screaming, but he didn’t. At least that is how the canonical and non-canonical Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death. The Pauline letters agree (also see Gal 1.4 and 2.20; Eph 5.2 and 25; and Titus 2.14).
The term “mediator” signifies an agent of arbitration: someone who brokers an agreement or the resolution of a conflict, in this case “between God and humans.” The term “ransom,” which comes from the ancient social world of slavery, signifies payment for the release of a slave, who as a result becomes a free person (also see Mk 10.45 and Mt 20.28). These two technical legal terms imply that the human condition was one of slavery. They also define how Jesus, as the “Messiah” (“Christ,” “anointed one”) transformed the human condition: Jesus freed humans from slavery to sin (see my comments on 1.15 for the September 15th epistle reading) and, as a result, brought reconciliation between them and God.
We should not over interpret the metaphor “ransom.” For example, to say that Jesus’ death was a ransom paid to God or the devil is to turn a metaphor into a myth for which there is no biblical evidence. The primary significance of the ransom metaphor is that Jesus’ act of giving up his life brought freedom for everyone enslaved to sin. The author provided few clues about how Jesus’ self-sacrificial act accomplished that. One clue is that Jesus’ “faith and love” revealed God’s “mercy” toward sinners (1.12-16; also see 3.13), embodied in Jesus’ act of giving himself for everyone.
The mention of “mercy” might bring to mind “justification”; however, “justification” has two limitations. The first is that it is easy to miss the connection between justification and real freedom from sin and for participation in God’s love for everyone. For Lutherans, faith is the reception of God’s merciful pronouncement of forgiveness. Rightly understood, that means that faith is participation in God’s merciful forgiveness—love—for everyone. In Roman Catholic theology, justifying grace effects real change. In Orthodox theology, “sanctification” is participation in God’s holiness. For John Wesley, justifying grace is, at the same time, sanctifying grace, the power to grow in God’s love and holiness—a holiness that is always “social.” Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Wesleyan traditions, in their own ways, understand God’s mercy to be a power of creative transformation. (Calvinists will need to teach me how they interpret these matters.) A “justification” that does not promise real change—freedom from something and for something—is no real justification.
The second is that, for many victims of unjust infirmities, economic and political systems, physical and emotional violence, and an unhealthy ecosystem, the “ransom” they want, need, and deserve goes beyond forgiveness for those who are sinning against them. They need healing, dignified and dignifying work, living wages, and freedom from political oppression. They need an end to violence and the destruction of the planet. They deserve palpable signs that God’s forgiveness of sinners against God, God’s beloved people, and God’s creation will bring them real freedom from those things that prevent everyone from enjoying life.
1 Tim 2.6a again emphasizes that God’s saving action in, with, and through Christ Jesus is “for all.” It leaves no room for exclusive qualifications—for example, only for all “believers” (however, see 4.10) or all the “righteous.” This ancient author seems to have one clear limitation: God is the Savior only for humans (1.1; 2.3; and 4.10). In Rom 8.18-23, on the other hand, Paul envisioned a salvation that encompassed the entire creation. (See John B. Cobb, Jr., and David J. Lull, Romans, Chalice Commentaries for Today [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005], 120-27.) All means all creation, without exception!
Luke 16.1-13: Wake up and respond wisely to the impending crisis!
This Gospel has more to say about wealth than about any other topic. And it concentrates most of Jesus’ teachings on wealth in the section where Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9.51-19.27). There is a connection between what he says about wealth and what happens to him in Jerusalem!
I wish I had a better understanding of this parable and the comments that come after it! Its point is not very clear. The comments that come after it seem to fish for an elusive, uplifting message. Giving up is not an option for those of us who are committed to making sense even, or especially, of difficult texts.
The first step toward making sense of this passage is to distinguish between the literary form of the parable and the string of moralizing comments in the extended epilogue. The parable ends with verse 8a, because verse 8b offers an explanation for verse 8a. Verses 8b-13 consist of commentary on verses 1-8a in the form of proverbial advice.
The next step is to face squarely the dishonesty of the financial manager. Efforts to clean up the manager’s actions—for example, by claiming that the reduction of the debts skimmed off the manager’s commission and master’s excessive profits—erase the clear accusations of dishonesty.
Why would anyone commend such a scoundrel? As Fred Craddock proposes in his excellent Interpretation commentary on Luke (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), the parable-teller (Jesus?) commends the shrewdness, not the dishonesty, of the manager’s actions. The Greek term here refers to sensible, thoughtful, prudent, and wise actions. What made the manager’s actions prudent and wise was not the dishonesty, but the thoughtful response to a crisis.
The advice in verse 8b is not that “children of the light” should learn to be dishonest; rather, they should wake up and respond wisely to the impending crisis. The crisis in the larger narrative is the mounting hostility toward Jesus, leading to his execution in Jerusalem at the hands of imperial authorities. The crisis in the parable is financial but no less life-threatening. The manager was about to be fired. Without any other way to earn a living (verse 3), that would lead to abject poverty, social isolation, and death.
Verse 9 seems to emphasize making friends, not gaining “dishonest wealth.” Its advice is to be prepared with “plan B” for when ill-gotten gains run out!
Verses 10-12 consist of proverbial, common sense wisdom.
Verse 13, which breaks away from the form of argument “from the lesser to the greater” in verses 10-12, circulated independently of this context (see Mt 6.24). Part of “Q,” it belongs to the earliest collections of Jesus’ sayings. It combines Jewish wisdom traditions about two opposite ways of life that require an either/or decision with teaching in Hellenistic moral philosophy about the conflict between serving wealth and God.
A slave can loyally serve only one master. A slave to wealth and its creation can loyally serve only wealth. God’s slave is obligated to render loyal service only to God. A divided loyalty is not an option. Whenever loyalty is split between God and wealth, wealth always wins. That’s the way the economy works: Loyalty to the creation of wealth leads to the amassing of wealth among the wealthy. In a conflict between wealth creation and the rights of laborers to fair wages, wealth creators keep jobs and wages at a bare minimum. Whenever environmental concerns run up against economic growth, wealth creators win.
The parable in next week’s lectionary readings (Lk 16.19-31) is an uncompromising denunciation of the wealthy. Today’s Gospel reading, however, is kinder and gentler on the wealthy, in spite of its uncompromising forced decision: Serve God or serve wealth. The wealthy can still serve God, as long as they don’t try to serve wealth at the same time. Their task is to use their wealth, even if it is ill-gotten, to respond thoughtfully, prudently, and wisely to the impending crisis.
In our day, the crisis is the threat to peace and prosperity due to the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the threat to the sustainability of life on this planet due to the careless treatment of fragile ecosystems in the pursuit of wealth creation. The fate of the wealthy, just as much as the fate of the poor, depends on how the wealthy use their wealth. Today’s Gospel lesson has a note of optimism, or at least hope, that the wealthy can step up to their task. Next week’s Gospel lesson is far more pessimistic!
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.