The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 15, 18 August 2013

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Psalm 8s

Hebrews 11:29- 12:2
St. Luke 12:49-56

Background: Jeremiah’s time
Jeremiah was active during the reign of Josiah (626 BCE) and continued until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.  His work was supposedly given to his secretary Baruch ben Neriah, who then published Jeremiah’s oracles and sayings.  Other kings ruled during Jeremiah’s work: Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah.  Josiah’s work was especially important, and served as a cultural point of focus for Jeremiah.  The reforms proposed by Josiah resulted in the restoration of several aspects of the religious life of Judah, and were more than likely to have included the editing and redaction of several pieces of Hebrew Scriptures.  Assyria, the threat to the North was paling, and Josiah was able to assert himself and the Kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah became a supporter of the reforms of Josiah.  What followed, however, was a period of weakness during which the waning strength of Assyria was replace by a resurgent Egypt.  All that Josiah gained was lost under the Egyptian puppet king, Jehoiakim.  At the Battle of Carcamesh, the Egyptians were out maneuvered by the Babylonians, who became the new threat to Judah.  The real politic of playing the west (Egypt) off against the east (Babylonian) was for Jeremiah a “false god”, and he railed against it. 

Isaiah 5:1-7

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

The vineyard as an important economic unit in the life of Israel often became a symbol of religious truths both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures.  Here the first Isaiah composes a “Song of the Vineyard” in order to discuss the faithlessness of Judah and Jerusalem.  The “song” begins with a parable about a vineyard owner who plants a vineyard and expects a wonderful vintage, but that is not to be had.  The entire song stands as a metaphor of the religious life of Judah, which is not yielding the expected results.  At verse 7, those who have been described in the initial verses of the song, are invited to serve as judges and to listen to the accusations of the prosecution.  This pattern of courtroom dramas is a consistent pattern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  It is called the “rib” (pronounced “rive”) pattern, and it is common amongst the prophets.  A similar self-judgment is seen when Nathan confronts David over the sin with Bathsheba, and David, hearing the parable, condemns himself.  The final verse reveals the mystery and the pattern (“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.”) and expresses the judgment in a series of comparisons (justice – bloodshed, righteousness – a cry).  Isaiah will use this pattern and these elements frequently in his work.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Does your life have the aspect of a trial at times?
  2. Of what are you accused?
  3. How are you redeemed?

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 Qui regis Israel

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.

You have brought a vine out of Egypt; *
you cast out the nations and planted it.

You prepared the ground for it; *
it took root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered by its shadow *
and the towering cedar trees by its boughs.

You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea *
and its branches to the River.

Why have you broken down its wall, *
so that all who pass by pluck off its grapes?

The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, *
and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.

Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven;
behold and tend this vine; *
preserve what your right hand has planted.

They burn it with fire like rubbish; *
at the rebuke of your countenance let them perish.

Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.

And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The psalmist uses a similar image with grapes and the image of the vine appearing frequently in the poem.  It is one of several compelling images that the author uses to good advantage – the enthroned Lord, and G-d as shepherd.  With these images it serves as a good commentary on the Isaiah text (see the First Reading).  The reference to Joseph, in the first verse, and later to Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh serves as a signal that these verses are devoted to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  In the Septuagint, this psalm has a superscription, “concerning the Assyrians”, the empire that conquered the North and deported the majority of its population.  The “vine” that the psalmist mentions refers to the nation of Israel.  Similar identifications are found also in Jeremiah and Hosea.  The reasoning that serves as the centerpiece to the psalm is clear.  A vine is transplanted from one region (Israel) to another (Egypt).  For what purpose, when in the end and in spite of its promise it is destroyed.  Robert Alter translates “the beasts of the field” as “the swarm” indicating the likely destruction of the vine by locusts or other insects common to this area.  It also serves as a good description of the Assyrian army, which will sweep over the land of Israel.  “The man of your right hand” shifts the metaphor from the vine to the people of Israel as God’s heir, and represents the continuing promise of G-d’s faithfulness to his chosen ones, in spite of their lack of faithfulness. 

Breaking open Psalm 80:
  1. Have you ever been transplanted from one place to another?
  2. What dangers did you face in your new location?
  3. What saved you?


Jeremiah 23:23-29

Am I a God near by, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back-- those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?

In these passages, Jeremiah ponders what it is that constitutes true prophetic work, and determines that it is proclaiming the word (of G-d) faithfully.  In contrast to this proclamation, he cites the work of the prophets who dream.  It is an interesting comparison, for there is a stream of dream connections both in the Hebrew Scriptures (Joseph and Daniel in particular) and in the Christian Scriptures as well (Peter, Paul, Joseph, the husband of Mary, and others).  In his commentary on Jeremiah, Thomas W. Overholt sees Jeremiah’s objections and characterization of other prophets as being an exilic hindsight upon the return of the exiles.  Jeremiah’s 23rd chapter is a compendium of commentary on the work of the prophets.  They are compared to evil shepherds, and liars.  Jeremiah stands by his work by means of historical verification.  “See”, he seems to say, “Look at what really happened.”  In spite of his prophecy, which saw the dark cloud of judgment brought down upon Israel, his word, nor the dreams of the other prophets, was able to save the people.  As in the last verse, the rock is still shattered by the hammer of G-d’s word.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What is your understanding of prophecy?
  2. How is Jeremiah’s idea the same or different?
  3. How is G-d’s word like a hammer?

Psalm 82 Deus stetit

God takes his stand in the council of heaven; *
he gives judgment in the midst of the gods:

"How long will you judge unjustly, *
and show favor to the wicked?

Save the weak and the orphan; *
defend the humble and needy;

Rescue the weak and the poor; *
deliver them from the power of the wicked.

They do not know, neither do they understand;
they go about in darkness; *
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

Now I say to you, 'You are gods, *
and all of you children of the Most High;

Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, *
and fall like any prince.'"

Arise, O God, and rule the earth, *
for you shall take all nations for your own.

This poem may serve as a transition piece from the mythology and polytheism of the prevailing culture that surrounded Israel, to the exclusive monotheism that was to govern later theological writing.  As in the verse that begins the Book of Job, we see G-d presiding over all the gods, holding court and rendering judgment.  What follows is a listing of complaints, “dishonest judgment, favoring the wicked, serving the poor and orphan with injustice.”  A verse from Exodus serves as a parallel expression of the darkness with which these judges view the world (Exodus 23:8).  The psalmist expresses it well – “in darkness they walk about” not seeing the realities with which the poor and destitute are forced to deal.  The psalmist goes deeper, seeing justice as being foundational.  It is justice that allows the earth “to be” – “all the foundations of the earth are shaken”, when justice is not allowed to have its way. Even G-d’s own realization is shaken.  “I thought that you were gods”.  Now there is a different understanding on G-d’s part.  “You shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”  The powers that were thought to rule life are found to be wanting.  It is G-d who will rise and judge the earth. 

Breaking open Psalm 82:
  1. How are we like gods?
  2. How have we been, serving as gods in our time?
  3. What have we forgotten?

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented-- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

So our author mining the treasures of the Hebrew Scriptures exalts examples of faith, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, and others.  One wonders in his panoply of examples of torture and difficulty if he weren’t pulling from his own memory of persecution in his time.  And that is his purpose, to steal up the Christians for their own time of trial and difficulty. 

The final verses of the reading are actually the beginning of a homily on Christ the perfect paradigm, and sets up the race, an appropriate Hellenistic model, as the metaphor for life.  That life might include difficulties is exactly the connection that the author wishes to make with the life of Christ.  Ancient witnesses (we are surrounded by so great a cloud of them) knew not the fulfillment of the promise.  The point is that the followers of Jesus do know the promise, and run the race with him in spite of all else.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. Who are examples of faith to you?
  2. Where did their faith get them?
  3. How is Christian life like a race?

St. Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

What we have here is an amalgam of apocalyptic sayings from Jesus with two central images guiding us into the difficult subject.  First is fire, which destroys but with also purifies.  Secondly is baptism in which water can be death or life.  All of these images are pointing to the passion, and this aspect will serve as a dividing point for many.  We see it amongst the disciples, especially Peter, when they object to Jesus’ “passion talk” and intent.  Here it is seen as dividing many, including families – units of sometime comfort and closeness.  What follows in the next verses is Jesus’ questioning the natural wisdom of those following him (which seems to be intuitive and helpful), who see everyday kinds of connections,

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why are the disciples put off by Jesus’ passion predictions?
  2. How is baptism a trial?
  3. What has been the fire in your life?  Did it destroy or purify?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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