November 13, 2016- Proper 28 (Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost)

October 12, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Isaiah 65:17-25 Isaiah 12 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19 Malachi 4:1-2a Psalm 98

In Isaiah, God promises “new heavens and a new earth,” where life will flourish and where peace will cover the earth. The writer of 2 Thessalonians calls elites to a way of life that embodies love for everyone. Several decades after Jesus’ death, the Gospel of Luke challenged and comforted Jesus’ followers, whose world was coming apart.

(Unless otherwise noted, biblical quotations are adapted from the NRSV.)

Isaiah 65:17-25 and Isaiah 12

Isaiah reminds us what our deepest hopes and desires are. If you have forgotten them, or replaced them with hopes and desires that are too small, too narrow, or too selfish, Isaiah reminds us that our deepest hopes and desires come from God, and not ourselves, because they are God’s hopes and desires. Isaiah also shows us how intertwined the theological and political are in God’s hopes and desires!

The prophet of Third Isaiah, writing to Judeans liberated from Babylonian Captivity (587–538 BCE) by Cyrus, Persian monarch 538–424 BCE, reassures them that God has not abandoned them and promises “new heavens and a new earth” (65.17). The new prosperous social and world order will be a reversal of the curse, “You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruit” (Deut 28.30). Resettlement raised up both a righteous remnant and apostates (Isa 63.1-65.16), but Isaiah 65.17-25 focuses on a hopeful vision of the future. God’s response to the “first” creation was “It is very good” (Gen 1.31). God’s response to the “new heavens and new earth” is “joy” and “delight” (65.18-19)!

God, through the prophet, says that God will no longer hear “the sound of weeping” in the renewed Jerusalem (65.19b); and God promises Judean women “shall not … bear children for calamity; for they and their descendants shall be offspring blessed by the LORD” (65.23). This promise is a great comfort and source of hope for many for whom the present world is a world of horror. In the “new heavens and new earth,” people will “be glad and rejoice” (65.18), for women will no longer “bear children to be kidnapped into militias, or to take up swords, or to be shattered by invasion, war, conquest, or deportation. Male children will not have their arms chopped off if they do not sign up as boy soldiers, nor will female children be gang raped or sold into slavery.” [O. Benjamin Sparks, “Pastoral Perspective” for Easter Day, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 2, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 354.] Parents are invited to hope that their infants will not die of hunger and malaria and that, with abundant food and healthcare for everyone, all will live long lives (65.20). Black children in America will no longer be gunned down in gang warfare or by police. LGBTQI children will no longer be driven to suicide by words of terror from peers, parents, and churches.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the “calamity” that will not be part of the new world is like the calamities that God brought upon the people of Israel in the past, as punishment for their unfaithfulness.

  •  “I will bring terror on you; consumption and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. You shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it” (Lev 26.16).

  • Their widows became more numerous than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of youths a destroyer at noonday; I have made anguish and terror fall upon her suddenly” (Jer 15.8).

  •  “So God made their days vanish like a breath, and their years in terror” (Psa 78.33).

God, according to Third Isaiah, repents of past calamities, including the Babylonian Captivity and promises to stop subjecting Judeans to terrifying horrors (compare Isa 12.1, which is part of First Isaiah, written during the Babylonian Captivity). May that also be so for people of today and for generations to come!

Third Isaiah’s vision concludes with a surprise. In the new world, people will be vegetarians (65.21-22), but so also all animals (65.25). A meatless diet is in store for all creatures in the new world! That means that none will be predators and none will be prey.

First Isaiah introduces another image with surprising relevance today: “Joyfully you will draw water from the springs of deliverance” (12.3 NET). Water is necessary for all life. Most Americans take water sources for granted—until calamity strikes. Anyone living in a region plagued by years of drought, as I do, will long for water to restore life on parched land. Polluted waterways are harmful for all living things. Recently, the people of Flint Michigan joined many poor people around the world who lack healthy water!

Environmental justice is the right of every person to live, work, and play in a safe, healthy, and sustainable environment. Water justice will only be achieved when inclusive, community-based forms of water management are developed and we address the health and environmental burdens that low-income communities and communities of color bear. [L. Susan Bond, “Proper 28,” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, edited by Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 478.]

This is a world we could live with and work for! Is it a pipe dream? Or can we seize it as an alternative to dominant planet-destroying policies? I found “The Confession of 1967” helpful:

Already God’s reign is present as a ferment in the world, stirring hope in men [and women] and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption. With an urgency born of this hope the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God. [The Book of Confessions (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A, 2002), 262, quoted by O. Benjamin Sparks, “Pastoral Perspective” for Easter Day, 357-58.]

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Last Sunday’s Epistle reading (2 Thess 2.1-5, 13-17), which addresses the false belief that “the day of the Lord is already here,” might seem to be a better conversation partner with today’s Gospel reading, which warns of the appearance of would-be messiahs and messengers proclaiming “The time is near!” But today’s Epistle reading does have a similar theme. An apocalyptic scheme (2 Thess 2.1-12 and Lk 21.5-18) is the context for instructions about how to deal with present realities (2 Thess 3.6-15 and Lk 21.19).

One difference between the Epistle and Gospel readings is worth noting, because the former is easily misunderstood and often abused in today’s social and political climate. The writer of 2 Thess 3.6-13 was admonishing elites, whereas Lk 21.5-19 was written as consolation for the poor (e.g., see vv. 1-4!) and other non-elites, especially those who were being persecuted by elites who controlled the judicial system. In certain circles of American society, 2 Thess 3.6-13 has been used to support the false belief that the “idle” unemployed and the poor are lazy freeloaders. No! The writer of this text characterizes elites as freeloaders who chose not to work (v. 10)!

The instructions in 2 Thess 3.10-12 are rooted in past instructions and the example of Paul and his co-workers (1 Thess 2.8-9; and 2 Thess 2.15; 3.4, 6-10; compare 1 Cor 4.16 and 11.1; Phil 3.17), standards shared by Greco-Roman moral philosophers about the ideals of working “quietly,” self-sufficiency, and friendship [See the comments on 1 Thess 2.8-9; 3.12; 4.9-12; and 5.14 by Abraham J. Malherbe, in The Letters to the Thessalonians, Anchor Bible 32B (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 146-49, 241-60, and 316-17.], and the example of Jesus (2 Thess 1.12; 3.5-6; 3.12; also see Rom 5.5, 8; 8.35, 39; 2 Cor 5.14; Gal 2.20; and Phil 2.5-11; compare Rom 12.9-10; 13.8-10; 1 Corinthians 13; 16.14; Gal 5.6, 13-14).

Let’s examine the imperatives in 2 Thess 3.12, two of which are explicit and one is implied. When the NRSV and other traditional translations begin with an imperative (the first), they obscure the Greek of v. 12. For the Greek begins with a participial phrase that expresses the manner in which the second imperative (in traditional translations) is to be carried out: “by working quietly, let them eat their own bread” or “earn their own living.” The Greek word translated “quietly” refers to a way of life lacking in “fanfare”—that is, one that is not driven by a desire for fame and reputation, which is characteristic of those who aspire to and engage in public affairs (BDAG ἡσυχία, hēsychia 1). In Greco-Roman societies, these people would be elites—public office holders, or moral philosophers who are seeking positions of political influence or who “are disregarding social conventions by doing no work and instead are meddling in others’ lives,” that is, as “busybodies” (v. 11 KJV, RSV, NIV, NRSV; see BDAG ἀτάκτως [ataktōs] and περιεργάζομαι [periergazomai]). A positive description of the alternative is “to mind their own business” (1 Thess 4.11).

The more general description of these elites is that they are ἀτάκτως (ataktōs), “disorderly.” That means not living according to approved rules, “unruly” or “undisciplined” (see 1 Thess 5.14 and 2 Thess 3.6-7, 11 in the NET and CEB). Paul instructed his communities what these rules were (1 Thess 4.9-12) and lived by them himself (1 Thess 2.9-10), so that they had an example to imitate (1 Thess 1.6; 1 Cor 4.16-17; 11.1; Phil 3.17). The RSV and NRSV chose a more specific term, “idlers,” which is a little misleading. Nevertheless, it is consistent with the two qualifying phrases in 2 Thess 3.11: “doing no work” and “meddling in others’ lives.”

Paul described himself as the ideal Cynic-Stoic moral philosopher who, in orderly fashion, presented lectures to the public in the marketplace gratis. Neither begging nor charging fees, he refused to accept gifts of food and other financial support. Instead, in contrast to elite social conventions, he worked for a living by plying a trade with his own hands. See, for example, 1 Cor 9.18, where Paul says he chose to waive his right to be free from having to work for a living (v. 6; also see 2 Cor 11.7; and 1 Thess 2.9; 4.11). The writer of 2 Thessalonians, whether Paul or, as I think, a second or third generation disciple, repeats that description:

we did not act in a disorderly way among you, nor did we eat food received free from anyone. On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you. Not that we do not have the right. Rather, we wanted to present ourselves as a model for you, so that you might imitate us. [3.7-9 NAB]

The ideal of self-sufficiency is expressed negatively in the proverbial saying in 3.10 (“If anyone is unwilling to work, they should not be given anything to eat.”) and positively in the imperative in 3.12 (“let them eat their own bread” or “earn their own living”). Compare 1 Thess 4.12, which concludes a series of imperatives designed so that their way of life would satisfy social conventions, especially the ideal of independence: “live a life that outsiders respect, namely, depend on no one.” Independence was an ideal in Greco-Roman society. In some respects, this ideal is similar to the American myth of “rugged individualism,” the self-made person.

The last moral principle, friendship, is implicit here, but earlier in this letter and in the first letter it is explicit. The way of life described here expresses one’s love for those within one’s circle of friends (2 Thess 1.3; 1 Thess 4.9), but also “for all” (1 Thess 3.12). Doing what love requires among friends and outsiders is two-sided. On the one hand, ideal love requires that no one burden another (1 Thess 2.9; 2 Thess 3.8; and in a sarcastic self-defense, see 2 Cor 11.9; 12.13-14, 16). On the other hand, ideal love requires one to be willing to bear another’s burdens (Gal 6.2). So, self-sufficiency ideally is altruistic, not selfish.

If we want to draw from this something relevant to us today, we have to remember that the context is the Greco-Roman society and its philosophical moral norms. We have to ask, in what way, if at all, that context is relevant to us today? If we generalize these moral norms for life today, we should keep in mind that they were originally intended to curb the ambitions of elites aspiring to public office and of “busybodies.” They should not suppose that they describe imagined faults of the poor!

Luke 21:5-19

Down through history, people have believed a new, ideal world had arrived with the founding of their country or current regime: for example, the union of the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, the world-dominance of the Roman Empire, the global expansion of the United Kingdom beyond the British Isles, the rise of the Third Reich, the founding of America; or, in the U.S., the election of the ideal, or idol, president! History is not kind to this kind of hubris and triumphalism!

Our text focuses on two historical contexts, which might be connected. One context is the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Judean revolt (70 CE). If Mark 13 was a speech, in the prophetic tradition, pronouncing judgment on the temple and its authorities prior to the temple’s destruction, Matthew 24 and Luke 21 are prophetic speeches pronouncing judgment on the temple and its authorities were written 10-15 years or more after the fact.

The other historical context is the persecution Jesus’ followers experienced after the Judean revolt. We do not know with any certainty the cause(s) of their persecution and the identity (or identities) of their persecutors. In general, we know that diaspora Judeans were granted exemptions from some Roman taxes, and that created resentment and persecution. The Judean revolt, even a decade or more later, might have escalated hostilities against them. In those days, Jesus’ followers included exiled native Judeans and those non-Judeans who, to outsiders, appeared to be converts to a Judean way of life (see Gal 2.14). They would have experienced the same hostilities as diaspora Judeans. Josephus, the Judean historian who fought in the Judean revolt and “turned coats” after being in Roman custody, blamed his former Pharisees for their role in the disastrous sacking of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of Judeans. In the same way, Judeans might also have blamed that disaster on followers of Jesus, whom the Romans executed as a leader of what appeared to be the beginnings of a revolt against the Romans.

It is significant that this speech comes in the Gospel shortly before Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. In the Passion Narrative, Jesus exemplifies the principles in this speech: According to the story, at least one of his disciples (Judas) handed him over to the Temple police. After a trial (of sorts), the temple authorities handed him over to be crucified under the authority of the Roman governor. Jesus persevered throughout and, in the end, “gained” his life (Luke 24).

The Gospel challenged and comforted Jesus’ followers several decades after Jesus’ death. Jesus had already “persevered” under similar circumstances and promised the same power of God that was given to him would also be given to them through the Holy Spirit (24.49 and Acts 1.4-8). So, keep the faith no matter what happens!

Today, we also need to listen to these words of challenge and comfort. Every generation experiences events that shake the very foundations of its familiar and safe world. It’s comforting to be reassured that “the end of the world” is not “near at hand”! However, if the shaking of the foundations is leading toward endless wars, endless social and economic injustice, and/or endless natural disasters, beware of would-be prophets and saviors promising false comfort! Social and economic justice, protection of the environment, and peacemaking require perseverance. Listen to the Spirit of God calling us to create God’s beloved communities “on earth as in heaven.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus delivers a three-part speech to “some people” (v. 5). Jesus had just delivered a two-part speech (20.45-21.4) to his disciples “as all the people were listening” (20.45). In this way, everyone is in the audience, including disciples and those who “were listening in.” That makes it applicable specifically to disciples and others at a particular time in the early Jesus movement, but also to anyone “listening in” down to the present.

Jesus’ speech is divided into three parts. The first two answer questions posed by the audience (vv. 5 and 7). The third part shifts the focus from an indefinite future to the audience’s present (vv. 10-19).

The first part of Jesus’ speech concerns the temple (vv. 5-6) in the traditions of Israel’s ancient prophets. According to that tradition, the second temple’s destruction by the Romans in 66-70 CE, like the first temple’s destruction by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, was a sign of God’s judgment on the temple authorities. That tradition also believed that rebuilding the temple was a sign of God’s faithfulness. Luke 21 is consistent with both sides of this prophetic tradition. In vv. 5-6, we hear about the destruction of the temple, but we need to read these verses in the context of the most pro-temple and pro-Israel Gospel and its second volume, the book of Acts.

  • The first stories about Jesus, following his birth, take place in the temple (Luke 2.22-38, 41-52).

  • The devil’s final temptation is at the temple (4.9-12), when the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (4.13)—namely, after Jesus’ speeches in chapter 21 in 22.3, 31!

  • The temple is a place for both Pharisees and tax collectors (18.9-14).

  • As he taught and proclaimed the “good news” in the temple every day (20.47; 21.1, 37-38; 22.53), Jesus’ deeds matched his words about the temple’s proper function as a place of prayer (19.45-46).

  • After Jesus “was taken up into heaven” (24.51), the disciples “were continually in the temple praising God” (24.53).

  • The number of Jesus’ followers grew “day by day” as the apostles met together in the temple (Acts 2.46).

  • Every day, in the temple and in homes, the apostles taught and preached “Jesus is the Messiah” (5.20-21, 25, 42).

  • Judeans found Paul “in the temple, ritually pure” (24.18; compare 21.26).

  • Paul defends himself against the charge that he “committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor” (Acts 25.8; 21.28).

The second part of Jesus’ speech (Lk 21.8-9) is a reply to the audience’s questions about when the destruction of the temple will happen and what sign will signal it is about to take place (v. 7). Jesus’ reply to the first question is a warning against false prophets and their false timetables (v. 8). In his reply to the second question about a “sign,” Jesus refers to the actual historical event in which the temple was destroyed—namely, “wars and insurrections” (v. 9a). Nevertheless, the audience is not to be “alarmed” when these things happen for two reasons (v. 9b). First, “it is necessary for these things to come first.” Although, these events might seem to indicate that the world is out of control or in the control of the wicked, the “divine necessity” of these events implies that they reveal God is in complete control of world events. The Gospel’s writer believed these events happened by God’s design (compare 21.22, 24). This “divine necessity” also belongs to the prophetic tradition’s belief that historical events reveal God’s judgment. In that sense, the audience should not be “surprised” when these things happen. However, another interpretation is that, by God’s design, “wars and insurrections” are “necessary” consequences when people disregard God’s justice and wisdom. Do not be surprised when that happens!

The second reason why the audience should not be “alarmed” is that “the end will not follow immediately” (v. 9b). These events are not “the end” but are part of a bigger and longer process (see 21.32). The “wars and insurrections” are nothing in contrast to what will follow (vv. 10-17 and 20-25)! Those terrible events are much worse. Be “alarmed” about those terrors!

The last section of Jesus’ speech (vv. 10-19) has three parts. The first adds to the “signs” and increases their level of terror. Nations and kingdoms will take up arms against one another (v. 10). If that isn’t enough, nature and heaven will join in the terror (v. 11).

Today we know that some “natural disasters” have human causes. All but a small handful of scientists now agree that human behavior is the most significant cause of global climate change, and that the increasing frequency and numbers of severe weather events, and their increasing severity, are due to climate change. These are portents of an “end” that will come if people do not make significant course changes. The “end” that these events portend are not by God’s design. Rather, with wisdom and justice for all living things, and for our planet, God is doing all God can to persuade people to make the necessary course changes.

The second part of the final section of Jesus’ speech reverses direction, temporally, to talk about the audience’s present reality (vv. 12-19). See the earlier discussion of the persecution of Jesus’ followers.

At the end of Jesus’ speech, he promises his followers deliverance and continued life (vv. 18-19; compare vv. 28, 31, 34-36). There is a tension between v. 18 (“But not a hair of your head will perish”) and v. 16b (“they will put some of you to death”). If v. 18 is to be taken as a literal statement that no harm would come to Jesus’ followers, this promise of divine protection (compare 12.7 and Acts 27.34) would be in direct conflict with the warning that some will die (v. 16).

I’m not one to gloss over conflicts in the Bible, but such a stark and seemingly irreconcilable conflict within two verses challenges the assumption that we are supposed to take literally the Greek verb ἀπόληται (apolētai) in v. 18, translated “perish.” The perishing of “a hair of your head” is a metaphor for a small part of the body that can fall out or be pulled out with little effort. The argument goes something like this: If God protects such a small thing, how much more will God protect the whole person.

But, from what will God protect Jesus’ followers? God did not save Jesus from death. He died on a cross and was buried in a tomb. He was dead, but then God made him alive again! The writer of Luke and Acts believed God made sure that, though Jesus experienced death, he did not experience the “corruption” of his body (Acts 2.31; 13.34-37). The Greek verb translated “perish” is a metaphor for the banishment of the dead to Sheol forever (see, e.g., Psa 16.10), where God would not be their God, for “God is not God of the dead” (Lk 20.38).

In Lk 21.18, the Greek verb translated “perish” is metaphorical. Jesus promises that, though some of Jesus’ followers will be put to death, they shall not be banished to Sheol, forever separated from God. The earlier parallel in Lk 12.4-12 supports the interpretation that “not a hair on your head will perish” refers to God’s protection of Jesus’ followers from someone who has “the power” to throw them into hell after their death. [Compare François Bovon, Luke 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 113.]

In a similar way, v. 19 seems to promise that those who “persevere” will survive persecutions—i.e., not be put to death—or will gain their true self in this life (see 9.21-27), or will gain new life after their death. Because the first option would conflict with v. 16, the last two interpretations are better. The Greek verb, κτάομαι (ktaomai), which in v. 19 is translated “gain,” is also used in 1 Thess 4.4, where it seems to have the sense of “take control.” That suggests Lk 21.19 (and 9.21-27) could mean “by your perseverance, take control of your life!” That would mean that Jesus’ followers, instead of letting their persecutors control their lives, they should control their own lives by relying on the Holy Spirit.

David J. Lull, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He also taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, and was the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. His publications include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock); and, with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others, Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). In 2010, he published a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” (Religious Studies Review 36/4: 251-62).