October 2, 2016 – Proper 22 (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

September 1, 2016 | by David J. Lull

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Lamentations 1:1-6 Lamentations 3:19-26 or Psalm 137 2 Timothy 1.1-14 Luke 17.5-10 Habakkuk 1:1-4 & 2:1-4 Psalm 37: 1-9

Where is God in human suffering? If you encounter God in the midst of suffering, who is that God? Is it the wrathful God who causes suffering to punish transgressors? Or is it the God whose love is steadfast? Why can’t God be both the wrathful cause of suffering and the Perfect Lover?

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

Lamentations 1:1-6

The first reading from Lamentations includes the following explanation of Babylon’s destruction of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE: Jerusalem’s (and Judah’s) “foes have become her masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe” (1.5).

A common biblical theme is that God causes bad things to happen to a whole people, in this case Judah, because of their “transgressions.” It reflects belief in an omnipotent (“Almighty”) God who is the cause of everything and whose punishment, as justice for transgressors, is an expression of God’s goodness. If God were to allow transgressors to go unpunished, God could not be called just and good. Without consequences, transgressors would have no incentive to stop transgressing. To prove that God is just and good, God must cause transgressors to suffer.

If this view is true, we would have to conclude that everyone who suffers must be a transgressor, and that God must cause every transgressor to suffer. Whereas it is difficult to prove a negative—that some transgressors go unpunished—a common suspicion is that some criminals do get away with their crimes. Some might be satisfied with the belief that their suffering will come after they die (in “hell”), but Lamentations focuses on the suffering of Judeans in their life on earth. All were captives of Babylon.

What about the idea that everyone who suffers must be a transgressor? Are babies who die in miscarriages transgressors? Are babies who die a few days after birth? Are infants who die of hunger? Are the poorest of the poor of the earth transgressors? Is everyone who dies “too young” a transgressor? Was my dear friend who died of ovarian cancer? Were children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School and countless others who died at the hands of someone with a gun or rifle? Just recently, some Christians announced that God punished LGBTQI people partying at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

I find this view morally depraved and a slander against the justice and goodness of God. Its underlying view of God is fundamentally unbiblical on two levels. First, although the Bible has ample stories about unilateral, coercive, omnipotent (“almighty”) acts of God, a contrasting view throughout the Bible is that human beings and other creatures have power of their own and are agents with whom God must contend. In the case of the Babylonian conquest of Judah, God was not the only actor—if, indeed God was in play at all. Both Babylonians and Judeans were real actors and not mere puppets.

Second, if God were to be omnipotent, God would have to be the source and cause of all evil in the world. Both Testaments of the Bible are clear: God’s love is steadfast; nothing in all creation can separate anyone from God’s love; and, indeed, God is love! Because evil exists, God’s love is incompatible with omnipotence. If God could be both all-loving and all-powerful, evil would not—could not—exist. But evil does exist, so God must be one or the other: all-loving or all-powerful, but not both. Israel’s covenantal faith (“God’s love is steadfast, forever!”) and the Gospel of Jesus Christ (“God is love!”) should not—and cannot—be compromised. Omnipotence is a philosophical mistake; and it is unbiblical.

Love is the key to understanding God’s power, not the other way around. The only love we know for sure, imperfect as it is, is the relational love among people. We know that the love we experience from other people does not coerce and does not do harm; it embraces the interests and values of others in their own mind, heart, and soul. We can even see this same relational love in the rest of the animal world. We also see this love in the very fabric of the universe, which seems to be fine-tuned to give birth to life itself, as well as to a rich variety of living things.

God is not an exception to this love. Rather, God is its perfection. If that were not so, God would not be worthy of our faith and emulation. A tragic accident of the history of western thought about God is that Christian (as well as some Jewish and Muslim) theologians have opted for an all-powerful God whose love is at least as imperfect as human and animal love, if not more so, to the extent that it has allowed so much unjustifiable suffering (contrary to logic and the core witnesses of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim foundational traditions). The time is overdue to seize a more biblical and philosophically sound alternative: an all-loving God whose power is love!

[For the above, I recommend two recent books: David Ray Griffin, God Exists but Gawd Does Not: From Evil to New Atheism to Fine-Tuning (Anoka, MN: Process Century Press, 2016); and John B. Cobb, Jr., Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).]

Finally, I must subject texts like this to the claim of religious Zionists that God gave Israel land for themselves. Here I will focus on only one of the many complexities of this issue. The biblical tradition is consistent in affirming four dimensions of God’s role in Israel’s occupation of land. First, God’s promise of land was not of any particular land; only later did the particular land of the Canaanites became the “promised land.” Second, God’s promise of land was freely given; it was given without obligation or necessity, and certainly not as a deserved reward. Third, continued occupation of the land was attached to a condition. Israel and Judah could occupy the land only and as long as they kept their half of the covenant: namely, having no other gods and obeying all that God commanded them. Ancient critics of ancient Israel and Judah identified their numerous exiles and domination by imperial neighbors as signs of their failure to uphold their covenant with God. Just as God was free to give them a land, God was free to take it away as punishment for their transgressions! Fourth, and last (though it could be first), the land does not belong to the people—it belongs to God. Indeed, all the land of the world and everything on, in, under, and above it, belong to God.

Above, I raised problems with the assumed omnipotence of God’s power to send Israel and Judah into exile—to give their enemies military victory and to take away the land God had given them. Another way to look at the history of ancient Israel and Judah is to see in it their self-understanding as a people suffering the consequences of their own actions, which in every case involved chasing after false gods in pursuit of imperial goals.

Ancient Israel and Judah, who never enjoyed more than modest, and even insignificant, military power, were quite different from the modern state of Israel, with its “qualitative” military superiority over its neighbors, including a nuclear arsenal—all funded by United States tax dollars. Nevertheless—even more so—the prophetic warning to modern Israel’s ancient ancestors is a warning that rings down through the history of all imperial peoples. Occupation of the land through tyranny and oppression are contrary to the fabric of the universe, and God’s covenant with ancient Israel and Judah, at the heart of which is God’s all-encompassing love. (Of course, Palestinians also are accountable to God’s all-encompassing love and mercy, which is central to both Christian and Muslim beliefs about God.)

[For the above, I recommend Walter Brueggemann,Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).

Lamentations 3:19-26

For thematic reasons, the lectionary replaces the reading of a Psalm with a second reading from Lamentations. I begin with five notes on the text and translation.

First, English translations of 3.19 are divided between the infinitive “to recall” (JPS TANAKH), which is also rendered as “the thought of” (NRSV, NAB), “the memory of” (CEB), and “remembering” (KJV); the first person “I remember” (NIV); and the second person singular imperative “remember” (NAS, RSV, and NET), which would be addressed to God (compare the NET note 43tc). However, the next verse has “my soul,” that is, “I” (3.23), and first person singulars permeate the context. The chapter begins with “I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath” (3.1), after which follows a string of third person references to God’s wrathful acts against “me” (3.2-7). Then, in another string of God’s wrathful acts against “me” (3.9-18), we read “though I call and cry for help, God shuts out my prayer” (3.8), “I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long” (3.14), and “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD.’” (3.17-18).

Second, in 3.19, some translations have “mine affliction and my misery (KJV), “my affliction and my bitterness” (RSV), “my affliction and my homelessness” (NRSV), “my affliction and my wandering” (NIV), “my wretched homelessness” (NAB), “my suffering and homelessness” (CEB), and “my impoverished and homeless condition” (NET). Not much hangs on these different translations, other than the difference between a general condition (e.g., affliction, suffering, bitterness) and specific conditions (e.g., poverty and homelessness). Whereas the more general terms might suggest inner feelings scattered throughout verses 1-18, the more specific terms suggest material and physical wrathful acts of God against “me.”

Third, in 3.19, “a bitter poison” (NET) is better for today’s readers than “wormwood and gall” (KJV, RSV, NRSV).

Fourth, in 3.22, “the steadfast love of the LORD” refers to God’s loyalty or faithfulness to the covenant (compare “loyal kindness” in the NET and its note 52tn; and “faithful love” in the CEB).

Fifth, and lastly, in 3.22, the manuscript evidence and the parallelism with the next clause (“God’s mercies never come to an end”) favors “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases” over “because of the LORD’s steadfast love, we are not cut off” (NRSV alt.; see the NET note 53tc).

Turning to theological commentary, this lament holds in uneasy tension the wrathful acts of an omnipotent God and the source of “hope”: namely, “the steadfast love of the LORD [that] never ceases, God’s mercies [that] never come to an end [3.22] . . . It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (3.26). Lutherans might, if you are up to the task, resolve this uneasy tension by talking about “Law and Gospel.” Whereas that might make sense as a distinction between God’s judgment and mercy, Lamentations is talking here about God’s (wrathful) judgment as the cause of a whole people’s suffering, including babies and infants. If God is all-loving (Islam prefers “all-merciful”), God’s judgment cannot conflict with God’s mercy. In other words, the God of “the Law” cannot conflict with the God of “the Gospel.” One and the same God is God of both Law and Gospel! And the God of the Gospel does not cause suffering; rather, the all-loving God (of both biblical Testaments) suffers, feels, absorbs, and heals all the suffering that creatures cause and experience. This is the God who is present in the Law and in the midst of suffering.

2 Timothy 1:1-14

First, some brief textual comments:

In v. 7, “the spirit” (NRSV, CEB, and NAB) is the divine Spirit (NET and NIV): See 1.8 (“… relying on the power of God” (NRSV), and 1.14 (“Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (NRSV).

In v. 11, the majority and best manuscripts have “of the gentiles” after “teacher.” The shorter reading has fewer and weaker ancient witnesses, but it is preferred because “of the gentiles” is probably an addition by scribes copying 1 Tim 2.7, and because it is too difficult to explain why “of the gentiles” might have been omitted.

In v. 12, the Greek phrase τὴν παραθήκην μου (tēn parathēkēn mou), “my entrustment,” means either (1) “what I have entrusted to him [God]” (NRSV and NIV), namely, “my” life, destiny, etc.; or (2) “what has been entrusted to me” (NET and NAB) or “what he [God] has placed in my trust” (CEB), namely, the truth of the gospel. The parallel with v. 14 and use of similar words in the pastorals (1 Tim 6.20; 2 Tim 2.2) argue in favor of the latter sense (as in the NET, CEB, and NAB).

Also in v. 12, “that day” is a reference to “the day when Paul would stand before Christ to give account for his service (cf. 2 Tim 1.18 …)” (NET 23sn).

Finally, I agree with the consensus that the Pastoral Letters are written for third generation Pauline leaders and their communities. I won’t take the time to rehearse the arguments about their authorship. They are available in the best study Bibles and commentaries.

The theological themes of the two Lamentation readings are also relevant here. The “problem of evil” (theodicy) is removed by an uncompromising focus on divine goodness: “Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord” (1.2). God’s “Grace, mercy, and peace” do not, and cannot, do harm; they can only do good. When the letter’s author writes to “Timothy” to suffer together with the author “for the gospel” by “relying on the power of God” (1.8), “the power of God” refers to God’s “grace, mercy, and peace.”

In addition, “relying on the power of God” is not a passive act, in which God’s (alleged coercive) power has all the power. Rather, it is an active response to the persuasive power of God’s “grace, mercy, and peace.” In the next verse, God’s power is “a holy calling” (1.9): a “calling” is not coercive, for it requires an active response. The same relationship between power and love exists in the understanding of Christian existence, where the divine Spirit is the source of “power” and “love,” which enable one’s “self-control” (1.7).

In short, God’s power is not omnipotent. That means that God’s power is not the cause of evil in any form. It always works for the good (Rom 8.28).

Another theme in today’s selection from 2 Timothy has a direct connection with the second selection from Lamentations. Both of these readings proclaim that God’s “steadfast love” (Lam 3.22-26) or “purpose and grace” (2 Tim 1.9) is the source of salvation. The author of this letter writes that salvation by God’s grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (1.9). In other words, the first Testament in our Bible bears witness to God’s original—primordial or eternal—purpose. But “it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (1.10). Because this gospel was proclaimed already in Lamentation—in fact, it is a thread running throughout the first Testament—the good news “revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” is the re-presentation of God’s eternal “grace, mercy, and peace.”

Luke 17:5-10

At first, it might seem there is no connection between this Gospel reading and the rest of the readings for today. Part of the blame rests with the lectionary, which excludes verses 1-4. However, these sayings—or at least the first saying (17.5-6)—appear to be in response to verses 3-4. In v. 5, most translations do not translate the opening Καὶ (kai); and those that do translate it, use the bland connector “and” (KJV and NAB). With or without “and,” these sayings would seem to be mere “pearls on a string.” Even if 17.1-10 consist of four originally independent sayings, we should try to make sense of the narrative flow. Otherwise, the request in v. 5 would have no context. A logical connector, like “and so,” would tie v. 5 to the context laid out in verses 3-4.

In v. 5, “faith” seems to refer to faith that God will enable the apostles to perform an extraordinary deed (compare 1 Cor 12.9). The command to forgive someone who “sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’” (v. 4) is the extraordinarily difficult task that prompts the apostles’ request.

The Greek verb in v. 5 could mean “increase” the “faith” that the apostles already have, or “grant” a “faith” that the apostles do not yet have (compare the NET note 12sn). Jesus’ reply in v. 6 implies that they already have sufficient “faith” for the task, and that the “size” or “amount” of their “faith” does not matter. Even “little” faith can perform an impossible and absurd task. The idea of this metaphor is that “faith” would be able to cause a huge tree (a black mulberry or sycamore) to be uprooted and replanted (compare a “faith” that could move mountains or a fig tree in 1 Cor 13.2; Mt 17.20 and 21.21). Never mind that a tree might “obey” human commands and “uproot” and “plant” itself—in the sea no less! This saying is not meant to be a true botanical picture of how nature works or how faith can suspend the “laws of nature.” Rather, it is a metaphor about the power of faith in God’s ability to enable the apostles (or us) to forgive someone who sins against them (or us) “seven times a day,” which is really huge.

Jesus wants the apostles (and us) to forgive others, instead of seeking revenge or executing punishment, because God is a God of “grace, mercy, and peace,” as the author of 2 Timothy reminds us.

As we turn to the next saying (17.7-10), note the following: The answer to the question in v. 7, according to the elite social order of the day, is “No one, of course!” In verses 8 and 9, the NAS, RSV, NIV, NAB, and NET reflect the shift in Greek from the plural “you” in v. 7, referring to the disciples, to “he,” referring to the implied master of the household. The NRSV and CEB, which have the second person plural, continue to refer to the disciples. The Greek

form of verse 8 (“would not he”) implies an affirmative answer: “Yes, in the elite social order of the day, that’s what the master would say.” The form of verse 9 (“He wouldn’t thank … would he?”) implies a negative answer: “No, in the elite social order of the day, the master would never thank the slave!”

This saying upholds the elite social order. In a Gospel known for its “preferential option for the poor,” that’s a bit unsettling! On the other hand, the author of this Gospel upholds the elite social order when the point is to put elites “in their place” by making them equal to non-elites (e.g., 14.15-24, by replacing the wealthy with “the poor, crippled, blind, and lame” makes everyone equal up and down the social order; Mt 20.1-16 does the same thing, by making all day laborers equal).

The narrative flow from vv. 5-6 to vv. 7-10 is a puzzle. Perhaps, after teaching the disciples that their faith can perform the miracle of forgiveness, Jesus, or the author of this Gospel, saw the need to remind them not to think too highly of themselves. (Compare the proposal of Fred Craddock, the master preacher, in his Interpretation commentary on Luke, p. 198).

There is no indication that the audience has changed. This saying is still addressed to Jesus’ disciples/apostles (vv. 1 and 5). From what we know about Jesus and his original disciples—they were day-laborers—a metaphor about a landowner with slaves to do the plowing and shepherding seems misplaced. Perhaps we should imagine that someone could step out of their low social status and view things from the mindset of wealthy elites for the first part of this saying, which focuses on the slave-master (vv. 7-9), but then switch back to their normal mindset at the end, which focuses on the attitude of the slave (v. 10).

On the one hand, the metaphor undercuts any expectation that faithful obedience to God creates a demand on God to reward you (compare Rom 3.27 and 1 Cor 9.13-18). As such, it echoes the accent in the other readings on the freedom of God’s grace. On the other hand, to say that those who faithfully serve God are “worthless slaves” is overly harsh and misleading, because it is only half true. One meaning of the Greek word ἀχρεῖος (achreios) is “miserable,” in the sense of “unworthy of any praise” (BDAG ἀχρεῖος 2). As such, someone could use it in a self-deprecating way, to express genuine modesty and humility. In this context, slaves who have done what their master commanded should not think they deserve praise or thanks (v. 9). The text does not exclude the possibility that a slave-master might choose to thank or praise such faithful slaves. To say that such slaves are “worthless” (NRSV) or “unprofitable” (NAB), however, goes too far and is contrary to realism of the metaphor: Faithful slaves are worth something to their slave-owners and they do contribute to the landowners’ profit.

Someone might object that, though this might be true on a human level, God does not profit from our faithful service. That is the view of classical theism, according to which God is impassive and immutable. If God has no passions and feels nothing, nothing at all can contribute to or profit God in any way. Moreover, if anyone or anything can contribute to God, God would not only be subject to change, but God would also be incomplete. According to classical theism, God cannot change in any respect, and God cannot be incomplete in any respect.

This belief is unbiblical. Consider, for example, “… the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as the LORD delighted in prospering your ancestors” (Deut 30.9); “the LORD took delight in making me [Solomon] king over all Israel” (1 Chron 28.4; also see 2 Chron 9.8); “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1.11 and Lk 3.22; compare Mt 3.17; 17.5; and 2 Pet 1.17); “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased…” (Mt 12.18, quoting Isa 42.1). This is a sample of the more biblical belief that God can praise and take delight in God’s faithful servants. That is, God takes pleasure in their faithfulness. To take pleasure in someone or something is to be affected by them—that is, to be changed by them.

Furthermore, if nothing in all creation contributes any value to God—that is, if God does not experience the value of everyone and everything in the world—then nothing would have any permanent value. All would be “vanity” (empty, worthless), as the teacher/preacher of Ecclesiastes says (1.2). For, everything that exists must exist in something that exists. If value exists only in things that come into being and pass away, no value is permanent. Enduring values must exist, therefore, in God. The values that are created in the world contribute to God’s experiences of the world. That is why faithful servants, and everything that creates value, are worth something to God and profit or contribute to God’s experience of the actual world.

God also calls us to serve God’s purposes faithfully. Because we serve God at God’s calling, and because God calls us to serve only God, and no other gods (wealth, fame, or any other idol), we are God’s “slaves” (a prominent concept in the Pauline letters). However, God’s “call” is not coercive, but persuasive. In faith, we trust in God to call us to what is true to ourselves and our world. In faith, we also rely on God to empower us to serve God’s call faithfully.

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).