October 16, 2016 – Proper 24 (Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost)

September 9, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Jeremiah 31:27-34 Psalm 119:97-104 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Luke 18:1-8 Genesis 32:22-31 Psalm 121

Today’s readings explore novelty in God’s acts of righteous justice, and the delicate balance between confidence in one’s ability to be faithful to God’s righteousness and relying on God’s help. [This commentary is an improved (corrected!) version of my 2013 online P&F lectionary commentary.]

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

Jeremiah 31:27-34

I recommend Jorge V. Pixley’s commentary on Jeremiah in the Chalice Commentaries for Today series (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004). For these verses, see pp. 100-103. A resource that will expand your “conversation partners” is the Global Bible Commentary, edited by Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004). To pique your interest, here is an excerpt from Renita Weems’s comments on Jeremiah (p. 225):

The book of Jeremiah says much about the working of God in human history. When in Jeremiah 30-33 he envisions a new beginning and a new covenant initiated by God, he did not imagine God as just touching up the canvas. He imagined God painting a different picture of life with a completely new canvas. Hope was the brightest color applied to the canvas (Jer 31:31-34). The goal of the covenant was the formation of a new completely different world order, one that starts with a new humanity where “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” God is one who so empathizes with the world as to identify with broken societies, exiled communities, tortured victims and lands laid waste. We must return again and again to the book of Jeremiah because he reminds us of what is so unimaginable at times—that out of ruin can come resurrection and out of an evil heart can come compassion and empathy for the Other.

Verses 27-30 are the third saying in the section comprising vv. 15-30. The theme is the restoration of Israel and Judah. The mood has changed from despair to hope.

Details in these verses take our thoughts in intriguing directions. For example, in v. 27, God plants seeds that will repopulate Israel and Judah with humans and animals. In v. 32, God is the “husband” of Israel and Judah. In v. 34, the “young” and the “old” (or “the least and the greatest”) will “know” God. The Hebrew verb translated “know” in v. 34a is the same verb for knowing someone “biblically”—i.e., sexually, in intercourse. Notice, in v. 32, the metaphor of the husband/wife relationship between God and Israel-Judah, and, in v. 27, the metaphor of sexual fertility for God’s repopulation of Israel and Judah. Sexual connotations of these metaphors are hard to miss! What’s up with that?

In v. 28, God had been Israel and Judah’s stern God, handing them over to defeat, exile, and dispersion, but now God will rebuild and repopulate them. The language echoes Jeremiah’s calling in 1.10.

In vv. 29-30, during the time of exile and dispersion, later generations of Israel and Judah paid the price of the earlier generations’ sins, but that time has ended. Exile and dispersion have purged their ancestors’ guilt. Everyone will now suffer only the consequences of their own sins.

Verses 31-32 refer to the Mosaic covenant (see Exodus 19-24 and Deuteronomy). Josiah, after the discovery of the book of the law, called for its reading in public and the renewal of commitment to it (2 Kings 23.1-3; Deut 31.9-13). Israel and Judah failed to uphold their commitment, in spite of Jeremiah’s warnings. As punishment, God exiled and dispersed them. Jeremiah 30-31 “look forward to a time when both Israel and Judah will be regathered, reunited, and under a new covenant which includes the same stipulations but with a different relationship” (NET note 70sn on 31.32).

In v. 33, “Israel” refers to the reunion of the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah, into a single nation. God would make the new covenant with Israelites and Judeans who returned from exile.

Christians have traditionally contrasted the “old” covenant, which is about Torah and the people of Israel, and the “new” covenant, which is about Jesus and the Christian people. Hence: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Furthermore, a common Christian belief is that the new replaced the old: The new is improved; the old is obsolete.

Nothing can be further from the truth! In Jeremiah, the “new” covenant, clearly and unambiguously, restores God’s relationship with the people of Israel and Judah. God had not given up on them. God’s fidelity to God’s promise to them is steadfast. God remains faithful to them in spite of their infidelity, so that God can demonstrate God’s grace and mercy by renewing the covenant with them, which God did not rescind, although they broke it. The Apostle Paul, a Jewish believer in Jesus Christ, agrees (see Romans 9-11)!

What is new, first (v. 33), is that the law is internal (written on the heart), not external (written on stone tablets). Second, what is new is that God makes this covenant after Israel and Judah had broken the Mosaic covenant by ignoring and rejecting the Torah. God enables the human heart and mind to fulfill the covenantal obligations (Torah).

Third (v. 34a), what is new is the return to the old, before the building of the temple, the introduction of priests, and the rise of false prophets: namely, that God will write the law on their hearts, so that they will no longer need to depend on intermediaries. All, from the least to the greatest, will “know the LORD”—i.e., be in intimate relationship with God—without dependence on priests and prophets (and, you are probably rightly adding, professors). What is new is that the old covenant will now be egalitarian.

Verse 34b offers an explanation/reason for all of vv. 27-34a. What is new, fourth, is that God will change. God will no longer “remember their sin.” It is not that forgiveness and mercy were not formerly part of the repertoire of God’s righteous justice. God’s forgiveness and mercy were always a possibility. However, God responds to every new circumstance with “particular providence for particular occasions” (A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality [1929], 351). Here is another example that classical theism’s impassive, unchanging God is not biblical. The biblical God is a God who has a relative side, responsive to new realities and, therefore, unsurpassably and intimately relational.

Psalm 119:97-104

Psalm 119 is an ode to the Torah, which brings joy, hope, and a close relationship with God. The Torah is not a burden! Israel’s God is not all about wrath! Judaism is not about self- or works-righteousness! As Toni Craven and Walter Harrelson say in their comments on this psalm:

The thought and feeling of the poem move back and forth between utter delight and confidence in God’s Torah and God’s presence, on the one hand, and the repeated plea for God’s help in holding fast to God’s Law, on the other. This tension within the psalm is one of its greatest strengths, for it makes it impossible to interpret the poem as arising from religious complacency and self-satisfaction. One who pleads for God’s help with such earnestness and who asserts that it is time, indeed, for God to act (v. 126) is by no means satisfied with the existing state of affairs. [The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 864.]

Self- or works-righteousness and “legalism,” however, are problems that Christians face today. Many Christians today think that faithfulness to Jesus Christ means observing certain moral absolutes—especially, in the areas of human sexuality and reproduction. Others participate in “outreach” to the poor out of a sense of obligation—obedience to a commandment. Both forms of Christian legalism arise from a need for external, rigid, and absolute structures. Psalm 119 has within it hints of an alternative: namely, forming the love of God and God’s word at the center of one’s being, so that obedience flows from the love of God and is a joy and delight.

For Christians, the love of God and God’s word is incarnate in a person, Jesus Christ. Taking the lead from the Gospel of John, which proclaims Jesus Christ is God’s Word, as Marti Steussy proposes, substituting the Word, Jesus, Christ, etc. transforms Psalm 119.105-12 from an ode to the Law into a meditation on the joy and delight that comes from the indwelling of Christ [who is, I would add, the “end of the Law,” according to Rom 10.4] at the center of one’s life:

Your Son is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path.
I have sworn an oath and confirmed it,
to be faithful to your righteous Word.
I am severely afflicted;
give me life, O LORD, for the sake of Jesus.
Accept my offerings of praise, O LORD,
and teach me about your Christ.
I hold my life in my hand continually,
but I do not forget my Savior.
The wicked have laid a snare for me,
but I do not stray from the shepherd you sent.
Your Son is my heritage forever;
he is the joy of my heart.
I incline my heart to be faithful to Christ
forever, to the end.
[Steussy, Psalms, Chalice Commentaries for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004, 11]

2 Timothy 3:14-4.5

For an understanding of 3.14-17, we have to read 3.1-13. The call in v. 14 to continue being faithful to Paul’s legacy has a social, historical context, laid out in vv. 1-13: impending “dangerous times” (καιροὶ χαλεποί, kairoi chalepoi) “in the last days” (v. 1). Paul’s legacy consists of Pauline teaching about the wisdom in Jewish “holy scriptures” concerning “salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (vv. 10-15; but see the translation issues in v. 15 discussed below) and Paul’s “faith, patience, love, steadfastness” in the midst of “persecutions and suffering” (vv. 10-11). This is a living tradition, because it is adaptable to new circumstances—in this case, actions of “wicked people and impostors” (v. 13). This situation calls for a faithful adaptation of the tradition with “sound doctrine” to counter “myths” (4.3-4), even if it means enduring persecution and suffering, which is the task of the preacher of the gospel (εὐαγγελιστής, euangelistēs, 4.5), for “indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3.12).

Up to now, I have restrained my instinct to discuss Greek translation issues. I can’t hold it back any longer! If you bear with me, I hope you will find that this attention to detail will have been worth it.

The NRSV of 3.16 reads, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.…” Its note offers the alternative, “Every scripture inspired by God is also….” Greek geeks will have spotted the following translation issues:

(1) The normal translation of the Greek adjective with a singular noun is “every scripture.”

(2) The Greek conjunction καὶ (kai) could mean “and” or “also.”

(3) The Greek text has no verb, although verbless sentences often imply the verb “is”; however, the verb “is” could go either before the two adjectives (“Every scripture is God-inspired and useful…”) or after the first adjective (“Every God-inspired scripture is also useful…”).

(4) The Greek participle “God-inspired” or “God-breathed” (θεόπνευστος, theopneustos) could be either attributive (“Every God-inspired scripture is also…”) or predicative (“Every scripture is God-inspired and…”).

Of the two translations (“Every God-inspired scripture is also useful…” and “Every scripture is God-inspired and useful…”), the NET defends the latter, on the ground that the former “violates the parallelism of the two adjectives” (note 23sn). At issue, however, is whether the two adjectives must necessarily be parallel. The parallelism is possible but not necessary; therefore, the first translation is just as linguistically defensible as the second is.

The difference between the two translations is enormous! The traditional translation (“Every scripture is God-inspired and useful…”) makes two claims about “every scripture”: they are God-inspired, and they are useful for various functions. Let’s test this principle. Ask your mother, wife, sister, and female friends how “useful” they think Gen 3.16 (“…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”) is! Or how “useful” 1 Cor 14.34 (“women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says”), and 1 Tim 2.11-12 (“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”) are! Ask them if they think Gen 19.8 (which says that Lot tried to protect the strangers in his house and placate the terrorist mob in Sodom by offering them his virgin daughters, to do with them as they pleased) is “God-inspired”! Ask anyone whose ancestors were slaves which version of 1 Cor 7.21 is “God-inspired,” the RSV (“Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.”), or the NRSV (“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.”)!

Moreover, the Greek words γράμμα (gramma, v. 15) and γραφή (graphē, v. 16) can refer to any “writing”—unless they are qualified, as the former is with the attributive adjective “holy” or “sacred” (ἱερὰ, hiera, v. 15). In v. 16, if θεόπνευστος is predicative, it would say “every writing is God-inspired,” which is possible but is far from what the author of 2 Timothy and Bible translators had in mind!

Of course, “every writing” in v. 16 refers to the only writings that the early Pauline communities considered their holy scriptures (v. 15): namely, the Jewish scriptures, “the law and the prophets,” which comprise what Christians today call the Old Testament. According to v. 15, these writings are “holy scriptures [or writings],” meaning that they contained or manifested divine power and purity, and that they were suitable for the knowledge and worship of God. From “Timothy’s” infancy to the present, these Jewish “holy scriptures” had formed his wisdom about “salvation through the faith [or faithfulness] that was [or is] in Christ Jesus.” (The phrase “in Christ Jesus” could be an expression of either the object of faith or the faith/faithfulness manifest in Christ Jesus.)

One of the earliest indications that any part of the New Testament had gained the status of “scripture” is 2 Pet 3.16, which includes the Pauline letters among “the other scriptures” [or “the other writings,” or simply “other writings”]. Most scholars date 2 Peter in the early second century C.E. The criteria in the canonization process that selected writings to be added to Jewish scriptures in what became the Christian Bible were primarily (1) majority popular use among early Christian churches, and (2) coherence with “Apostolic the rule of faith” (i.e., the Apostles’ Creed, and subsequent creeds of the ecumenical councils in the first six centuries C.E.). These criteria determined whether a writing was “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3.17). That God “inspired” the selected writings was inferred from testing them by these criteria. Doctrines of “inspiration” came later (in the 19th century).

The translation, “Every God-inspired scripture is also useful…,” is a functional statement. We could reverse this functional statement to make the ontological statement that “every scripture” that is “useful” is God-inspired. However, the focus of the alternative translation is on their usefulness in “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.”

This is the translation C. H. Dodd proposed (in The Authority of the Bible [London: Collins, 1978], 25). The New English Bible (1961) and the Revised English Bible (1989) adopted it. “Every scripture divinely inspired is useful for teaching…” is also a possible translation of the Latin Vulgate (Omnis Scriptura divinitus inspirata utilis est ad docendum…).

Verse 17 tells us the result or purpose of their usefulness: “so that every person dedicated to God might be well equipped for every good work.” In 3.17, the Greek word anthrōpos could be gender-specific (the man) or not (the person). Verses 16-17 might continue to address “Timothy,” as a historical man, instead of a fictive representative evangelist or minister in the Pauline tradition, who could be a man or woman (think, for example, of Thecla, the fictive co-evangelist of the fictive “Paul”). Even so, vv. 16-17 express general truths, applicable to anyone who aspires to be a preacher of the gospel and minister in the Pauline tradition, so that the NRSV (“everyone who belongs to God”), NAB (“one who belongs to God”), and NET (“the person dedicated to God”) are better than the RSV and NIV (“the man of God”).

Verse 17 in the NRSV and NAB translates the Greek phrase “of God” as a possessive genitive (“everyone who belongs to God”). The NET, on the other hand, translates it “the person dedicated to God.” That’s what every “person of God/who belongs to God” does: They dedicate themselves to God!

In v. 17, the Greek word that the NRSV translates as “proficient” pertains “to being well fitted for some function” (e.g., “capable,” as in the NET). The predicate adjective participle in the next clause ἐξηρτισμένος (exērtismenos)—“equipped for every good work”—explains the required “proficiency.”

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer is the somewhat superficial theme of 18.1-14. However, when we read these parables in the context of teachings about the coming age in 17.22-37, we see that the more substantive theme is the certainty and promise of God’s justice for the weak and powerless, and forgiveness for repentant sinners. Jesus’ followers had been praying the prayer that Jesus taught the first disciples—“your kingdom come” and “lead us not into temptation” (or “do not bring us to the time of trial”; some ancient manuscripts add “but deliver us from evil [or the evil one]” to Lk 11.4). With the passing of time, however, they no longer experienced God’s rule as a present reality. Persecution and suffering were their reality. Their longing was for the justice that would come with the arrival of the “Son of Man,” who would mete out God’s judgment. That day was a hoped-for distant future. Jesus’ dispirited followers were to be persistent in their plea to God for justice (vv. 1-8a). They must also take care to keep the faith (v. 8b), and to ask God for forgiveness for their sins (vv. 9-14), before the Day of Judgment comes, which it will, suddenly and without warning signs.

The first parable (vv. 2-5) deals with the certainty of God’s justice. The widow is powerless and has no advocate. The parable contrasts the “unjust” human judge’s character and action and God’s character and action. On the one hand, it is an argument from the lesser to the greater: God is greater than a human judge, and justice for God’s “chosen ones” is greater than justice for a widow. On the other hand, it is an argument from the more difficult to the easier: it is more difficult for an unjust human judge to grant justice to a widow, for whom the judge had no respect, than for God, whose love and justice are steadfast, to grant justice to those whom God has chosen.

Verses 1 and 6-8 are the evangelist’s answers to questions that the previous chapter implies. Don’t let the “delay,” the slowness with which justice comes, discourage you. If society treats you as a nobody, or persecutes you, cry out day and night to God, for God will grant you justice! Do not give up hope! Keep the faith!

The widow models the kind of prayer that is a persistent voice in the midst of injustice and society’s treatment of anyone as a nobody. In addition, she models the act of praying to give persistent voice in the midst of protesting against society’s sins against anyone. This parable is also about God’s preferential option for “the widow, orphan, and alien,” which is a recurring theme in Jewish scriptures. For example:

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. [Deut 24.19-22] For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. [Jer 7.5-7]

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. [Mal 3.5]


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).