The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13-C), 4 August 2019


August 4, 2019

Reading 1Reading 2Reading 3Reading 4Reading 1 AltReading 2 Alt
Hosea 11:1-11Psalm 107:1-9, 43Colossians 3:1-11Luke 12:13-21Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23Psalm 49:1-12

by Nichole Torbitzky

Hosea 11:1-11
This is an Old Testament text that preaches beautifully; full of God’s parental love and patience with a wayward and disobedient child. 

Setting:
Hosea was writing from the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  We have no other substantial details outside of this general location. 

Historical background:
Hosea was writing from Israel after the split between the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Assyrian empire was invading and much of Hosea’s prophecy revolved around the theological implications of the fall of the Northern Kingdom. The details of this time can be in 2 Kings 14-17. This period in Israel and Judah’s history was marked with a great deal of political intrigue and instability, at a time when stability was needed to defend Israel from Assyrian attack. Local Canaanite religious practices seemed to have made their way into Jewish practice, particularly of the god Baal. The Canaanite god, Baal, was the storm god and was associated with rain and fertility. It seemed that Israelites were turning to, or perhaps syncretisticly incorporating, Baal worship.

Another important historical piece to mention here helps explain the importance of the freedom from Egypt imagery. Our passage for this Sunday refers to Ephraim. Ephraim was one of the twelve tribes of Israel and one of the ten lost tribes. Here, Ephraim works as a metaphor for all of Israel, particularly since Ephraim (along with Manasseh) is one of the sons of Joseph. The tribe of Ephraim would have directly benefited from God’s faithfulness in bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

Human weakness and God’s compassion:
I have the good fortune to teach at a small mid-Western university. One of my favorite classes to teach is World Religions. One of the comments I hear regularly from my undergraduates is the unfortunate comparison between the ‘wrathful’ God of the Old Testament and the ‘loving’ God of the New Testament. I love it when one of my students offers this observation! It gives me the perfect teaching moment to correct this theological mistake. Implied in this observation is that two different gods are at work here. Almost always, the student will backtrack and clarify that what was really meant is that God is the same God in both testaments, just that God became more loving and forgiving in the New Testament. This is when I refer to our passage for this Sunday from Hosea.

The people of Israel had broken their end of the covenant with God by worshipping Baal and other Canaanite gods alluded to throughout the book of Hosea. Hosea sees this as a refusal to trust in God to protect them from the invading Assyrians. The Northern Kingdom’s lack of trust in God could also be seen in the many political intrigues that marked this period (see 2 Kings 14–17). 

In the midst of all of this unfaithfulness, Hosea used parental imagery to describe God’s faithfulness. God appeared as a parent-figure who calls, loves, teaches, heals, leads with kindness, embraces/hugs, bends, and feeds. Even in the face of the people’s disobedience and unfaithfulness, God’s heart cannot bear to punish, but grows warm and tender. This is not a picture of a wrathful God. Hosea depicted a loving and forgiving God, who invites reconciliation.

Today’s passage provides so much rich material. Not only does Hosea’s image of God reveal the constancy and loving compassion God has toward humanity throughout entire the Bible, but he also highlights that truth about the nature of God so important to the process view of the human-divine relationship. For Christianity and for process thinkers in particular, this passage from Hosea highlights the truth that God never promises individuals, groups, or nations, that they will never deal with adversity and hardship. The truth of our lives is that hardship is real. Adversity is unavoidable (especially when we are making foolish decisions). The other truth is that God loves us and will not abandon us even in our hardship and adversity, and poor decision-making. Even at our lowest, even when we are forgetful, fearful, and unfaithful, God is with us, calling and directing us to the right path.

If this sounds like the Gospel message of a loving God who refuses to abandon a sinful humanity even when they hang Christ on a cross, then, it is easy to see that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and God of the Greek Testament and God described by process thought really is the same, compassionate, loving God.

Luke 12:13-21
In the translation of the Bible that I use, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), this section of Luke has the heading, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” If I had the time or a graduate student, I would research when exactly that section heading came into use, what other headings it has had historically, and what other headings it has today. In this day and age of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel,’ I wonder if certain other translations resist calling the man in this story a fool.

Setting:
Back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visits Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. He goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon. No mention is made of the specific geographical location since Martha and Mary’s house. It is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday.

Historical background:
Laws of inheritance: In our story, a man in the crowd asks Jesus to intervene on his behalf in a question of inheritance. The man requests, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Here are some of the assumptions that we usually make around this passage

  1. This is a younger brother making the request.
  2. The younger brother is getting no inheritance at all and is asking for ‘his’ half.
  3. There are no other brothers.
  4. There are no sisters.
  5. There is no mother.
  6. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son.
  7. All of an inheritance passes without question or division to the oldest son as a matter of ‘birthright.’

I believe I made all of these assumptions upon my first reading of this text; maybe you did too. Perhaps these assumptions are not accurate. For example, it appears that ‘birthright’ inheritance is not set in stone in Jewish law and certainly not in Roman law.[1] Jesus, it seems, is quick to see past the assumptions to the possible complications and mitigating factors in inheritance squabbles. Jesus does not ask if the man has a right to half of the inheritance, or try to get to the bottom of if it is fair that he should get half of the inheritance.

I wonder if the man is asking Jesus to choose laws of Israel over the laws of Rome or vice versa. This would not be the only place in the gospels where someone tried to trick Jesus into making a declaration that could be used as evidence of sedition. Perhaps that is what is going on here. But, perhaps not. It was not unusual in Jesus’ day (and still today) to seek the opinion of a learned and respected Rabbi on matters such as this. The Talmud (the book of Jewish legal interpretations) is full of questions and opinions to help settle matters just like this. Perhaps the man in the story is simply looking for this popular, young, charismatic rabbi to shake things up regarding inheritance law. Jesus has, after all, just been denouncing the Pharisees (see Luke 11:37-12:3). He did have a way of upending conventional wisdom. Just a few sentences back he exhorted his listeners to “not fear those who kill the body” (Luke 12:4). Considering all of this, perhaps the man in the crowd is not crazy or hiding ulterior motives when he asks this question.

Maybe the man is not completely crazy, but he certainly does not get the truth Jesus is there to speak. Jesus’ response is quick and delicious  He responds to this question with a question, “Who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you” (Luke 14)? Jesus is clearly not interested in getting involved in these kinds of squabbles. The question I come to is “why not?” Why does he not have anything to say about inheritance rules? Jesus has had a lot to say about the treatment of the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast, and the marginalized. Why would he not have something to say about ensuring that inheritance is used for those same ends? Why would he not take this opportunity to upend the inheritance rules of both Roman and Jewish societies that tended to favor the oldest son? Why not proclaim that inheritance should be split equitably between all of the children, including the daughters? Why not proclaim that an inheritance should not be claimed until the mother passes away too, to protect widows? Frankly, I would not have been surprised if Jesus had made these kinds of prescriptions for life in the coming Kingdom.

Foolishness:
Rather than answer the man’s question directly, as he so often does, Jesus tells a story as an answer. The story is commonly called the “Parable of the Rich Fool.” In this parable, a rich man, who just got richer, decides he needs to build bigger barns to store his grain and riches. The Rich Fool tells himself, ‘then I will be happy, and relax.’ To be honest, this does not seem all that foolish. I do not have much wealth (by American standards). The wealth I do have, I want to protect. Would it not be foolish of me to fail to protect that which I have worked so hard to gain and save, in hopes of one day retiring and enjoying the fruits of my labor and maybe passing a little onto my kids (or at least not being a financial burden to them at the end)? To my mind, that is an important part of the American dream. So far, the man in the parable seems pretty level headed to me. So, what is the problem?

Just as the Rich Fool was settling down with his plans and his dreams of retirement, God intervenes and upends these well-laid plans (as God is wont to do). God’s words for this man are not what I would have expected. God does not tell him, ‘Well done, wise and faithful servant! You sowed and reaped, managed and saved, and even though tonight is the night your life is demanded of you, you have left a worthy legacy!” Instead, he is reprimanded for his greed and foolishness. God demands, ‘who will gain from all of this stuff you have stored up!?” In the context of this passage, the answer naturally is his heir, probably his oldest son, for the most part.

Why would storing up all of this stuff for one’s heir be a problem? That seems only right. Right? And, here is the part where I fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus is talking to a guy who is griping about inheritance inequities as he sees them. Jesus implies that inheritance laws are a problem. They are problematic because they cause enmity in households, because they leave out the vulnerable, because they are a testimony to the greed that causes one to think only of himself, but are not “rich toward God.” (I’m sure I need not supply a sermon illustration here. Chances are, you know a family that has had big trouble over what is ‘fair’ when Mom and Dad pass.) Implied in this condemnation is that being rich toward God is both a spiritual and a very real material and financial commitment to the Realm of God. Wealth hoarded, is foolish. Life is short, and one never knows when their day has come. Wealth shared, bellies filled, lives changed for the better, is wise. It is Christian. It is faithful to God.

Does God Want Us to be Wealthy?:
What I have just written is deeply unpopular with many good people in many good churches. I have to say that it makes my recent 401K statement feel sullied. I think I have to think very carefully about what it means to be rich toward God. I think that I have to be very careful not to let myself off of the hook too easily. An appropriate sermon illustration for today may come from a Bloomberg article about the super-wealthy who promised huge donations to the Notre Dame Cathedral rebuild. According to Bloomberg, so far, no actual funds have come from these mega-wealthy donors. Instead, all of the money so far has come from small donors, particularly donors from America and from the French government. The ethical questions around giving vast amounts of money to rebuild a building rather than feed the poor or house the homeless is worth spending some time on. [2]

In terms of process thought about God, I can see an easy argument for the idea that God wants us to be wealthy. It goes like this: 1. God wants the best possible for every occasion. 2. It is beneficial for me to be prosperous and wealthy. 3. Since it is beneficial for me to be prosperous and wealthy, it is the best possible. 4. Therefore, God wants me to be wealthy and prosperous.

Let us stop and take a moment to inspect these premises. As Marjorie Suchocki aptly pointed out in The Fall to Violence: Original Sin in Relational Theology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), sometimes the best possible for a situation is something we would deem morally bad. At this point, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole that justifies disproportionate wealth as making the best of a bad situation. Besides, the rationalization continues, how are we to judge what God deems ‘best’ . . . maybe it is best for a few people to control most of the wealth in the world while the rest suffer and struggle. Here is where we come to premises #2 and #3. Since I benefit from prosperity and wealth, surely it is the best possible for me to be wealthy and prosperous.

The parable for this week calls out this way of thinking and answers any questions about God’s judgment on wealth and prosperity. How do we judge what God thinks is best concerning wealth? This is no secret. God has already told us: do not store up treasures for yourself, be rich toward God (vs. 21). Jesus tells us that, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (vs. 15). God pretty clearly states that what we like to tell ourselves is beneficial, God calls greed. Because premises 2 and 3 are false, the conclusion that God wants us to be wealthy and prosperous cannot stand.

If God does not want us to be prosperous and wealthy, what does God want? Faithfulness and blessing are not reflected in our material security. God’s best possible for us does not consist of an abundance of possessions. Instead, Jesus directs us to be rich toward God. I wonder what that would look like? For the man in the crowd, perhaps that would look like dropping the squabble with his brother. For the wealthy would-be Notre Dame donors, perhaps it would look like using their money to truly tackle food, housing, and health care insecurities in their country. For me? *gulp* Here are a few ideas:

  1. Help your congregation think about working up to tithing. Over the course of several years, an individual or family can budget gradual increases so that giving at that level feels normal.
  2. Offer resources on how to write your church into a will or bequest. I do not know what the man in this story did, but a clear implication of Jesus’ teachings is that inheritance is a tricky thing. Maybe keeping the church in your will is a way to be rich toward God.
  3. Provide information on and promote giving to sound and effective ministries and organizations.
  4. Do not be afraid to talk about money. Jesus wasn’t.

 

Endnotes:

[1]  For more information about Jewish inheritance law, see this article by Richard H. Hiers,  https://scholarship.law.ufl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1753&context=facultypub. For more information about Roman inheritance law, see this article by William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D., http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Heres.html

[2]  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-06-14/us-donors-not-french-tycoons-foot-notre-dame-works-bills


Rev. Dr. Nichole Torbitzky earned her BA from Truman State University and her MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. Before joining the faculty in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Lindenwood University, Dr. Torbitzky worked as an adjunct professor at LaVerne University. 

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