September 15, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28||Psalm 14||1 Timothy 1:12-17||Luke 15:1-10||Exodus 32:7-14||Psalm 51:1-10|
by David J. Lull
For the month of September 2019, we are featuring one of our past Lectionary Commentary authors, David Lull. He wrote an excellent set of commentaries for this same series of readings in September of 2013. And, because we feel that his commentary then is equally timely in this year’s context, we are revisiting them this month with his permission. We hope that you find this set of commentaries to be helpful in preparing to preach this month.
~ Process and Faith
The lectionary committee seems to want us to read 1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10 as the “good news” response to the “bad news” of Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, and Psalm 14!
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
This reading belongs to a section of Jeremiah that Jorge Pixley calls “shock therapy” (Jeremiah, Chalice Commentaries for Today [Chalice Press: St. Louis, 2004] 21). The lectionary reading begins with a reference to a time and circumstance explained in verses 1-10: Israel had gone astray and turned to idols (“abominations”), and someone had been proclaiming that all would be well. To wake them up, Jeremiah told them that, on the contrary, they would soon feel the full force of God’s fierce anger: The Babylonian invasion (“evil from the north” in verse 6; “a lion” in verse 7; “a hot wind” in verse 11) was imminent.
Lest you fall into the same trap Israel fell into, don’t rush to take comfort that all is well, because “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (in today’s epistle reading). Save that until after you have felt the white-hot heat of Jeremiah’s (God’s) anger, if you are able. Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom is for ancient Israel, but also for other nations that turn to idols, things God finds “disgusting,” which lead to straying away from God’s standard of justice. You might want to think about what “idols” are leading your nation, or the world, to ecological and economic crises, racial injustice and ethnic conflict, or the widening gap between the wealthy and the poor. You might want to think about how you contribute, willingly and unwillingly, to these crises and conflict. After Jeremiah’s “shock treatment” fills you with fear and guilt, think about what changes in your life you can make, preferably with others, to help lessen or avert these crises and conflicts. That’s a tall order, but Jeremiah offers only one way out: Repent!
Today’s psalm delivers a harsh message: “No one does good!” Ouch! The psalmist does not say that everyone is completely depraved. Nor does the psalmist subscribe to the view in Paul’s revision of verses 1-3 (Rom 3:10-12). The “company of the righteous” (NRSV verse 5) are set apart from those who do no “good,” do “abominable deeds,” are “perverse,” and are “evildoers” (NRSV verses 1, 3, 4). That God is present with them (NRSV) implies that God defends them against evildoers (NET). You might say that the “good” that the righteous/just/godly do is God’s doing, not their own doing, or at least that it is not only their doing. With God’s help, people can do good things—I have read about and met people who, with God’s help, do “good.” Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God’s purposes and aims are not strong enough to affect human conduct—or, that sin is stronger than God’s Spirit.
You might have noticed that I skipped over verse 2! It could imply that verses 1-3 are a blanket indictment of all “humankind” (NRSV). If so, who are the “righteous” (“just” or “godly”)? Are they not exceptions to those in “humankind” whom verses 1-3 indict?
Perhaps the psalmist meant that those who say, “There is no God!” cannot do anything good. However, what people believe or don’t believe does not limit God. God can still work in and through people who deny the reality of God. Moreover, the god that they deny might lead people to do more harm than good, so that these so-called “atheists” might actually be more open to the true reality of God when they deny that false god. For example, the omniscient, impassive, omnipotent god of classical theism (see my earlier commentaries on this web site) tends to imply that everything is pre-determined, so that one might wonder why bother sacrificing to do good. It also tends to imply that apathy and tyranny are the most “divine” human virtues. A person might be more likely to do good if they denied the reality of classical theism’s god!
Furthermore, this psalm focuses on “evildoers” who “devour” God’s people “as they eat bread” (NRSV verse 4). This psalmist defines God’s people, “the righteous,” as “the poor,” and says that God is their “refuge” (verse 6). Those who do evil things sin against God, but here the psalmist seems to be more concerned with how they sin against the poor. Is this “spiritual,” or is it “political”? It is both! As John Wesley said, the only true holiness is social holiness—and social holiness is necessarily political. Praying the Lord’s Prayer—“give us our daily bread”—should be a political act that instills in us God’s desire that we provide bread for the hungry, not only through food pantries and soup kitchens, but also by working to form communities in which everyone has access to adequate food for the day.
O that God’s new creation with justice for the poor would come from the Lord’s-Prayer-people, and from people of other prayers! Then the poor will rejoice and be glad! (Psalm 14:7 paraphrased)
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Now, are you ready for good news? God does not (only) judge evildoers/sinners fiercely but (also) seeks their transformation. The author of this “disputed” letter presents “Paul” in terms that seem to echo Psalm 14: He used to be violent and “acted ignorantly in unbelief” (verse 13). This “Paul” is also proof that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (verse 15). Instead of suffering fierce punishment, he received mercy (verse 13, 16). “Our Lord’s grace overflowed with Christ Jesus’ faith and love” (my translation of verse 14).
This is not about Paul’s justification or forgiveness; neither is it about Paul’s faith. Rather, it is about the transformative power of Christ Jesus’ “faith and love.” According to this letter’s author, it was Christ Jesus’ faith and love, not “the law” (verses 8-11) and not Paul’s faith, that transformed Paul and strengthened him for service to Christ Jesus (verse 12).
If there were any support in this letter for a doctrine of “justification,” it would be in the second half of verse 12b-13a: “I am grateful to the one who has empowered me [for this], Christ Jesus our Lord, because he regarded me to be faithful when he appointed me to this service, although formerly I was a blasphemer…” (my translation). This sounds like a divine “nevertheless” or “regard as if….” If that is what it is, it effected a real transformation in Paul. Christ Jesus transformed Paul, the “foremost” sinner. This letter’s author is confident that, therefore, Christ Jesus’ faith and love will also transform all sinners.
My previous lectionary commentaries contrasted the impassive, non-relational God of classical theism with the more biblical view of God as unsurpassably relational. Here again we encounter a God who is intimately relational. “Joy in heaven” / “joy in the presence of God’s angels” implies that the divine is responsive to events in the world. The finding of “the lost” contributes to God’s “feeling” of well-being.
Spiritual practices patterned after an impassive, non-relational, “Unmoved Mover” might include forms of asceticism, isolation, or withdrawal, and the cultivation of indifference or the silencing of emotions and feelings. Someone might show me the virtues of these practices, but I cannot imagine the value of doing them in order to enter into the presence of the Holy One who would be indifferent toward my presence!
Spiritual practices patterned after an unsurpassably intimate Companion, on the other hand, might include cultivating an openness to the gifts and needs of others, practicing accompanying them in their moments of joy and sorrow, enjoying beauty, and seeking justice. How great would the joy be of entering into the presence of the Holy One who would rejoice at my presence, share my sorrows, grieve at my faults, long for my “progress and joy in faith” (Phil 1:25 NRSV), enjoy beauty, and dance at the sight of justice established!
Given the themes of the readings in Jeremiah, the psalms, and 1 Timothy, the lectionary committee seems to want us to focus our reading of the Gospel on how God relates to sinners. Joy fills the heavens more when a sinner repents than when a righteous person has no need to repent. That implies that some righteous persons could have no need to repent, and that a repentant sinner gives God more pleasure than a righteous person does. Is something wrong with this picture? How can any person be so righteous that they have no need to repent? Apparently, the author of these parables (Jesus?) did not learn Martin Luther’s doctrine that the righteous, or justified, is at the same time a sinner (simul justus et pecator)! In addition, the values of these parables are not those of the world. In the world, people celebrate those who correct their mistakes, but they give the highest honor to those who seem to be “perfect” or have it all together—whether they actually do, or not, does not matter, because it is all about the appearance of embodying what is most valued. The way Christians have resolved the contrast between these parables’ values and the world’s values is by agreeing with Luther against the parable: Even the righteous person is a sinner and needs to repent!
The point about repentance, however, is only one of the possible main points of these parables. The introduction (verses 1-2) suggests that these parables (including verses 11-32) are a defense of Jesus’ practice of “welcoming” and eating with tax collectors and “sinners.” The preceding chapter suggests that Jesus’ “open table” had no requirements. He simply invited “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14.13) to dine with him. Whether they should be included among “sinners” is unclear. The term “sinner” referred to an out-group, the “other,” them/not us, who observed different standards of conduct. From the perspective of the in-group, “us,” they were “unrighteous.” Being poor, crippled, lame, and blind often implied that they or their parents had “sinned” (see, e.g., Jn 9.2). By dining with them, Jesus demonstrates that they are not “sinners” but upright members of God’s community (basileia / “kingdom”). The Gospel portrays Jesus’ relationship to “tax collectors and sinners” in a similar way. He befriends them as they are, before they “repent.” Their “repentance” is a response to his friendship and “open table” practice (Lk 5:27-32; 7:34; 19:1-10). So we might conclude that the main point of the parables in Luke 15 is to highlight Jesus’ (and God’s) welcome, friendship, and “open table,” in response to which people “repent.”
The latter theme of “repentance” becomes the main point of these parables only because of verses 7 and 10. They were not part of the original parables, because parables were short stories, to which later “preachers/teachers” would add their own brief “homilies.” Furthermore, the theme of repentance does not fit stories about sheep and coins. Even if literary license might allow sheep and coins to repent, in these stories the one sheep and one coin become lost, not due to their own actions, but due to the actions of others: A shepherd lost the sheep, and a woman lost the coin. (Contrast Mt 18.12!) In the same vein, the shepherd went out and found the sheep he lost, and the woman swept the house and found the coin. The shepherd and woman, not the sheep and coin, “repented” of their mistakes. In these stories, the shepherd and woman “sinned” against the sheep and coin, in the sense that the latter became victims of the former’s actions. (Compare the acid condemnation of Israel’s wicked shepherds in Ezekiel 34!)
You might think the parable of the father and his two sons in Lk 15:11-32 illustrate the required repentance. However, is the “prodigal” son’s “repentance” any more than expedient pragmatism in the face of his dire straits? The elder son’s actions do not make him an example of “a righteous person who has no need to repent”! On the contrary, the father unsuccessfully pleads with him to repent. Actually, this parable is more about the father’s longing for the restoration of his family. However imperfect the younger son’s “repentance” is, it, together with the father’s homecoming welcome, moves toward the restoration of the family. Tragically, the elder son refuses to join in the restoration of the family.
That suggests that the earlier two parables might also share this theme of restoration. The celebration at the end of the parable—before the secondary “homiletical” addition—focuses on the restoration of the shepherd’s one hundred sheep and the woman’s ten coins (verses 6 and 9). The shepherd and woman gather their friends to join in the celebration of this restoration.
As you engage today’s Gospel reading, you may one of these themes speaks more directly to your situation. I want to focus on the last one, which has not received much, if any, attention in the history of interpretation. How many different groups of people have church, community, and national leaders allowed, and even caused, to “go missing” from our churches, communities, and nations? How have they—we!—excluded persons of ethnic origins different from the so-called “mainstream”? How have they—we!—excluded persons of different sexual orientations different from the so-called “mainstream”? How have they—we!—excluded economic classes of persons from full citizenship by denying them access to education, employment, and healthcare? How can we become part of the process of restoring our churches, communities, and nations to their wholeness?
(For part of the above, I am indebted to Vicki Pedersen’s 2012 Wartburg Theological Seminary STM thesis, “Restoration and Celebration: Luke 15:1-10; A Call for Inclusion.”)
David J. Lull is Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, (Dubuque, IA). 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. Dr. Lull presently lives in Claremont, CA.