|Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
|Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
|1 Timothy 6:6-19
By David Lull
This week’s texts continue to explore the inseparability of religion and politics, the contrast between faithfulness and idolatry, the grave danger of the love of wealth, and the relationship between divine judgment and hope.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
The lectionary committee did not think it was necessary to read verses 3.6-5. Read them anyway! They explain why the king put Jeremiah in jail: The king did not want the people to hear Jeremiah’s opposition to the king’s military response to Babylon’s aggression. His forecast of Babylonian victory, and the resulting capture and exile of the king and the Judean people, was tantamount to a pronouncement of God’s judgment and punishment for Judah and their king’s infidelity to God. (For a summary of Jeremiah’s historical situation, see Patrick D. Miller’s commentary on Jeremiah in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, volume 6, 555-60. For the following, also see Jorge Pixley, Jeremiah, Chalice Commentaries for Today, 103-06.)
Three things come to mind as I reflect on this situation. All are immediately relevant to what is going in on the U.S. as I write this. They also have timeless relevance.
The first is that, in spite of Jeremiah’s incarceration, God’s word comes to him. God’s word came to Jesus in his incarceration. God’s word came to Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Birmingham jail. God’s word came to Madiba—Nelson Mandela’s African tribal name—in apartheid South African prisons. No government police action can silence God’s word!
Second, one sure sign that government policies are illegitimate is that attempts to silence critics accompany them. I will comment only on part of U.S. history during my lifetime. In the Vietnam War, the White House and U.S. military tried to control information about its conduct of war until news reporters and Daniel Ellsberg disclosed the truth about the U.S. military’s use of Napalm, Agent Orange, U.S. soldiers’ massacres of whole villages, and the truth about U.S. troop losses. The White House and U.S. military also unsuccessfully sought to suppress news coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. In the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and throughout the War in Iraq, and in the continuation of the war in Afghanistan to the present, the White House and U.S. military unsuccessfully sought to control news coverage by “embedded” reporters. The risky action of a young whistle-blower brought to light recent U.S. federal secret intelligence surveillance of phone and email communications by and between U.S. citizens for “national security.” The line that runs from Judah’s king Zedekiah to U.S. presidents could just as well be drawn to the modern State of Israel, Iran, Russia, China, Japan, England, and Germany. Has any country not tried to silence its critics at one time or another? (For a brief, provocative essay on “Imperialism in Jeremiah and Today,” see Pixley, Jeremiah, 5-6.)
Third, God’s word at times of crisis is both a word of judgment and a word of hope. Jeremiah is best known for pronouncing God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. In this lectionary reading, God’s judgment is only implied in the king’s report of Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom (verses 3b-5). The word of God that comes to Jeremiah in verses 6-15 is a word of hope. God instructs Jeremiah to purchase land from his uncle in his hometown. In a time of war, the land would be dirt cheap, but buying it would still be foolhardy—that is, unless the buyer trusted God’s promise to restore Judah in the future, which would change the real estate market into a seller’s market! That reminds me of last week’s Gospel lesson: Make prudent, wise plans for the future in the midst of a crisis. The difference is that here “Plan B” is based on God’s promise, not on human intelligence and wisdom. Judgment is never God’s last word. For Jeremiah, God’s promise of creative transformation follows God’s judgment. May it be so, not only for ancient Israel and Judah, but also for the U.S., Israelis and Palestinians, people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Syria.
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
Reading this psalm in the KJV alongside the NRSV opens up two interpretations, as Marti Steussy points out (Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today, 163-64). The KJV correctly translates the Hebrew pronouns in verses 1 and 14-16 with third person singular masculine pronouns (also see the RSV and NIV). These pronouns seem to refer to a king engaged in battle, perhaps David, as in the Septuagint, where the psalm’s title is “a praise song to or by David.” Matthew, who applies verses 11 and 12 to the Devil’s (mis)understanding of “the son of God” (Mt 4.6), also thought that this psalm spoke of an individual. As a “royal psalm,” it expresses confidence and trust that God will keep God’s promise to protect and preserve the Davidic monarchy “forever.”
The NRSV (also the NAB and NET), on the other hand, interprets the pronouns as representative of anyone who trusts in God for protection from harm. The Hebrew version lacks the connection with King David added by the Septuagint. Without that connection, this psalm expresses confidence and trust that God will keep God’s promise to be Israel’s God. As their God, God would protect the people from harm.
Such confidence and trust in God’s strong providence gave comfort and courage to many terrified soldiers in times of war, as well as to people facing harm of all kinds. Such faith is laudable. For those who survive, empirical reality confirms their faith.
What about those who do not escape harm’s way? Why doesn’t God protect some people who love God in times of trouble? Is God sometimes unable to keep some people safe from harm, or does God sometimes refuse to help those who love and trust in God? Soldiers hunkered down in their foxholes, trusting God with all their heart and strength, nevertheless die. Cancer strikes down those who love and trust in God with all their heart and strength just as much as those who curse or deny the reality of God. For such persons, empirical reality does not square with the psalmist’s confidence in divine providence. God’s angels didn’t even keep imperial powers from executing Jesus!
As Marti Steussy proposes, one solution to this problem is to deny that empirical reality is ultimate. For example, imperial powers executed Jesus, but that was not the last word. God had the last word by resurrecting Jesus from death to new life. God promises to do the same for all who love and trust God and are victims of evil.
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Verse 2b begins the conclusion of the letter, which has two parts. Verses 3-10 take up an issue underlying the earlier sections of the letter: namely, problems reflecting and arising from the love of money (see, especially, chapter 5). Children and grandchildren were not taking care of their parents in their old age. The community was not taking care of “real” widows. Young and wealthy widows were living for their own pleasure. Community leaders who were tempted to try to profit from their devoted service to God (eusebeia, “godliness”) should instead receive living wages and be thankful for that. Everyone, especially leaders, should strive to be “content” with bare necessities, instead of striving to be wealthy (6.6-10).
The desire for wealth is wrong for three reasons. First, it is the opposite of the self-sufficiency and independence that comes from being “content” (autarcheia) with adequate food and clothing. Second, it is the opposite of “faith” in God to provide what we need, since “we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world.” Third, love of wealth is “the root of all kinds of evil”!
In verses 11-21, the author addresses “Timothy” directly. “Timothy” is to avoid the love of wealth and its consequences.
In verse 11, the phrase “man of God” (the NRSV and most translations) raises a translation-interpretation issue. On the one hand, if this is a reference to “Timothy,” as the second person singular pronoun “you” implies, I suppose it would be okay to identify his maleness. On the other hand, it is a phrase that applies not only to Timothy but also to any “person of God.” I think the NRSV messed up here, on its own principles: Whenever anthrōpos refers to anyone, male or female, the NRSV translation was supposed to be gender-neutral/inclusive (“a person dedicated to God,” as in the NET).
In verse 12, the commandment to “fight the good fight of the faith” (the NRSV, RSV, NIV, and KJV) also raises translation-interpretation issues. First, the Greek word translated “good” refers to something helpful or beneficial, and noble or praiseworthy. Second, the Greek verb and noun translated “fight” refer to athletic contests. In Greek moral philosophy, they commonly refer to a moral struggle or contest. Third, the Greek phrase translated “of the faith” is most likely an objective genitive: the “contest” is “for or with respect to ‘the faith.’” This genitive also could be subjective, in which case the “contest” would be one in which “the faith” is the “fighter.” In that case, the commandment is to engage in “faith’s noble contest.”
The long and short of it is that there is more to this phrase than meets the eye. The athletic-like “contest” is between the love of wealth (verses 2b-10), on the one side, and “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (verse 11), on the other side. Either “the faith” competes against its moral opponent, the love of wealth. Or “the person devoted to God” competes against the love of wealth, with or for the sake of “the faith.”
So, what is “the faith”? It could be faith in God, as opposed to faith in wealth and its sources or means of production. The definite article (“the faith”), however, could also refer to “the faith mentioned earlier”: namely, “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1.14 and 3:13). A third possibility is that it refers to a body of teachings (for example, see 4.6: “the words of the faith”).
This parable contrasts the lives of the wealthy and the poor, represented by Lazarus, and their destinies. It portrays God’s uncompromising judgment against the wealthy. The lifestyle of the wealthy does not please God. It is not just that the wealthy fail to use their wealth to care for the poor. The reason they don’t care for the poor is that their life’s purpose and desire is to enjoy luxuries: fine clothes and sumptuous feasts. In the end, the parable pronounces the wealthy as incorrigible and incapable of repentance. They are so stubbornly in love with wealth and luxury that they cannot learn from the law and prophets, and that they will not listen even to someone who reports from the realm of the dead what their fate will be after death.
This parable, on the other hand, portrays God’s preferential choice for the poor, represented by Lazarus. God’s reversal of their misfortunes is not a reward for their virtues. The parable does not romanticize Lazarus, for example, by portraying the poor as naturally philanthropic, as in popular tales like Acts 28.1-10. Instead, God’s preferential option for the poor is God’s response to their suffering. What they lacked in life, they enjoy in life after death. That is God’s pure, perfect love for the poor. How and why the poor are poor does not matter. Whether the poor are virtuous or morally flawed does not matter. God’s love for the poor is unconditional. It is, as Charles Wesley’s hymn so beautifully says, “love divine, all love’s excelling”!
Verses 19-21 graphically contrast the “income gap” between the wealthy and the poor. The wealthy person wears fine clothes; the poor person wears the effects of disease. The wealthy person enjoys luxuries daily; the poor person would be satisfied with crumbs of daily bread. The wealthy person is strong and healthy; the poor person suffers from disease.
Verses 22-31 graphically portray the fate of the wealthy and the poor in death as a reversal of their fortunes/misfortunes in life. In the first part (verses 22-26), the wealthy person continues to demand good things and freedom from pain—and treats the poor person as a slave. Abraham explains the reversal of fortunes, and points out the impossibility of transit from the comfort of the poor to the fate of the wealthy. The wealthy fix their fate by their life choices. God’s preferential option fixes the fate of the poor.
In the next part (verses 27-29), the wealthy person continues to demand that Abraham send the poor person as a slave to warn wealthy siblings about the fate that awaits them. That should scare the hell out of them, and make them repent! Repentance would require that they give up their love of wealth and the lifestyle built on it. Abraham refuses. They already have Moses and the prophets as their teachers. Whether the wealthy would listen to them is left up to the reader to decide.
In the last part (verses 30-31), the wealthy person asks Abraham to send “someone” (Lazarus) from the dead to report what lies ahead for the wealthy and the poor, so that the wealthy among the living might repent. The point of the parable comes in verse 31. Some interpreters see in this verse a reference to belief in Jesus’ resurrection. The logic of that interpretation seems to be that those who believe in Jesus’ resurrection somehow receive grace and forgiveness, even if they have lived their lives loving wealth. Or, perhaps, if lovers of wealth would come to true faith in the risen Jesus, they would repent and lead the rest of their lives in faithfulness to Jesus by participating in Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. Others see in it a reference to traditions about journeys to and from the realm of the dead, whose purpose is to report what fates await people after they die. The function of such stories is to inspire right living. Either way, this parable ends on a thoroughly pessimistic note: The wealthy will “not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced [to repent of their love of wealth] even if someone [like Lazarus] rises from the dead [after witnessing the fate that awaits lovers of wealth]”!
Who among us can say they have not been tempted to love wealth? The love of wealth has been pervasive from ancient cultures to the present. It is strongest in today’s economically “developed” countries. It has also invaded all “developing” economies, including those that are still “pre-industrial,” like “tribal” regions of Africa, Central and South America, and the Pacific Islands (e.g., Papua New Guinea).
How can we sound an alarm of the impending crisis today? How effective is this parable’s warning about our fate after death? Among progressive Christians, Jews, and Muslims, positive advocacy of alternative life values would be a more effective approach. In all three Abrahamic traditions, the love of God is central to the formation of life values. The love of God means loving God above all. It means loving the things God loves: love, peace, justice, life for all God’s creatures. It means participating in God’s preferential love for the poor—not sentimentally, but concretely. As A. N. Whitehead said, “Ideas won’t keep; something must be done about them.”
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.