The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 20, 22 September 2013
I Timothy 2:1-7
St. Luke 16:1-13
Amos, a wealthy farmer (sheep and sycamore figs) served as a servant to the word of G-d, and did most of his work for a limited period of time around 760 BCE not in his native Judea, but north, in the Kingdom of Israel. Unlike the prophets who came before him, his word (directed by the word of G-d) is spoken not to individuals (as was the case with Nathan) but rather to the entire nation. Earlier prophets were inspired by the Spirit, but Amos receives the word of God. Finally, he is not a professional. He belongs to no guild or school, nor is he a member of the royal court, called from his daily life to deliver G-d’s word to a specific time and place. He is also the first of the so-called classical prophets, those who wrote down their words directed to the nation. His words are also a departure from what had been spoken before. He announces total judgment to Israel. Although he speaks against social ills, he sees them as evidence of Israel’s loss of G-d and of the covenant with G-d. This covenantal message is the matter of some controversy amongst Amos scholars. Elizabeth Achtemeier, however, calls our attention to Amos 3, namely:
“Hear this word, Israelites, that the LORD speaks concerning you,
concerning the whole family I brought up from the land of Egypt:
You alone I have known,*
among all the families of the earth;
Therefore I will punish you
for all your iniquities.
Do two journey together
unless they have agreed?”
Amos 3:1-3, italics mine
Out of the basis of this covenant that was made between G-d and Israel, Amos proclaims a breech of contract on the part of the nation – and the judgment is soon coming. Behind the scrim of this harsh word stand other proclamations about the life of Israel over against the poor, the sick, and the orphan. They are sub points to the major word that needs to be spoken. The contrast or dialogue between these two points can make for good preaching and good reading.
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
"Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?"
("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?")
"The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved."
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
In the verses that precede this reading, Jeremiah pronounces doom upon Israel, and in harsh terms:
“Yes, I will send against you poisonous snakes. Against them no charm will work when they bite you—oracle of the LORD.”
Jeremiah’s allusion is to Numbers 21:6 where poisonous snakes inflict the Children of Israel as they make their way in the Sinai wilderness. In the verses for this morning, both the mood and action change. Now it is the prophet (and G-d) who grieves over the fate of the people. There is a pattern of dialogue and sotto voce asides to the reader (?), hearer (?), or to the witnesses (?) (heaven and earth). Here is the outline:
Pathos (verses 18-19) my joy is gone…
Question by the People: (verse 19b) Is the Lord not in Zion?
Question by G-d (verse 19c) why have they provoked
Question by the People (verse 20) the harvest is past…we are not saved.
Closing Pathos (verse 21) For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt.
Israel is waiting for something, but is indifferent to the reality of the situation with which it is surrounded. To understand the dialogue above and its cynicism (on the part of the people), and G-d’s grieving over a people that have forgotten G-d’s deeds, it will be important to read the two chapters that precede this reading. This poem is a brief interlude of introspection and questions that interrupt the divine drama and dialogue.
Breaking open Jeremiah:
- Who all are speaking in this text?
- How do their points of view differ, one from the other?
- Does G-d grieve over you? Why?
Psalm 79:1-9 Deus, venerunt
O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance;
they have profaned your holy temple; *
they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.
They have given the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, *
and the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the field.
They have shed their blood like water on every side of Jerusalem, *
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a reproach to our neighbors, *
an object of scorn and derision to those around us.
How long will you be angry, O LORD?*
will your fury blaze like fire for ever?
Pour out your wrath upon the heathen who have not known you *
and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your Name.
For they have devoured Jacob *
and made his dwelling a ruin.
Remember not our past sins;
let your compassion be swift to meet us; *
for we have been brought very low.
Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name; *
deliver us and forgive us our sins, for your Name's sake.
This psalm mirrors the anguish that Jeremiah spills as he reflects on the fate of Judah. In the psalm the focus is on the fate of Jerusalem. The psalm takes us in our minds to look upon the Temple and its destruction there. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The verse make living testimony to what this must have been like. The question that becomes the center of this poem is the one of “How long, O Lord?” Like the question of the people in the Jeremiah reading, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved,” the psalmist and indeed all of Judea are wondering how long it will take G-d to respond. The plaint of the psalm is somewhat of a challenge to G-d: “Pour out your wrath on the nations that did not know you.” And later “Do not call to mind against us our forebears’ crimes.” The need is for mercy and rescue. The psalmist’s people speak the prayer, I think, that Jeremiah hoped would come from his own people.
Breaking open Psalm 79:
- Have you had to wait for G-d to act in your life?
- From what did you need to be saved?
- What was prayer like for you during this time?
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
In the final chapters of his book, Amos tallies the end of Israel, by commenting on the details of daily life. And it is here that we can see the commentary on social practice that pierces the scrim of total destruction. In this morning’s readings it is the merchant class that takes in on the ear. They do not honor the holy days, or even if they do, they cannot wait until they are over so that they can return to their unjust business practices. Of special concern are the needy (read peasants who live on the land). They become the focus of the prophet’s concern and the dishonest merchants’ greed. The issues are dishonest weights and measures, buying people as slaves when they cannot pay their debts, and selling adulterated products. What a sermon for Wall Street?! There will be an end to such practices, but it will be accompanied by an end to the nation as well. The prophet notes the title “The Pride of Jacob”, namely YHWH who is the pride of Jacob. In a reverse to the phrase “I will not forget…deeds” we see a turnaround. Usually it is G-d who pleads with Israel not to forget the deeds – the freedom from Egypt, the Promised Land. But now it is the reverse. It is G-d who will not forget, and the deeds are Israel’s unjust ways.
Breaking open Amos:
- What do our financial practices of today say about our world?
- What would Amos say to us?
- What will you do?
Psalm 113 Laudate, pueri
Give praise, you servants of the LORD; *
praise the Name of the LORD.
Let the Name of the LORD be blessed, *
from this time forth for evermore.
From the rising of the sun to its going down *
let the Name of the LORD be praised.
The LORD is high above all nations, *
and his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the LORD our God, who sits enthroned on high *
but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
He takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.
He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.
Here we are treated in the initial verses of the psalm to a setting of magnificence. We are invited, as servants of YHWH to give praise to G-d, and we are invited to do so in the context of all time and space (May the Lord’s name be blessed now and forever more. From the place the sun rises to where it sets). The G-d worthy of this praise is pictured as looking down over all nations and over the heavens as well. Seated there G-d sees humanity and acts, and his actions seem to be in direct response to Amos’ criticism of Israel. G-d raises up the poor from the dust and then seats the poor. Just as G-d is enthroned in the heavens so are the poor raised up an enthroned. A similar action is accorded the “childless woman” who is enthroned in her home as a mother. We see the inequity of the Ancient Near Eastern society however. The man (poor) is seated among the princes, and the woman (the barren one) is seated with her sons.
Breaking open Psalm 113:
- How have you been raised up?
- When G-d looks down on you what does G-d see?
- How do you praise G-d?
1 Timothy 2:1-7
First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all - this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.
And so the lectionary continues with a semi-continuous reading from I Timothy. The author, writing for Paul, or in Paul’s name begins with a set of instructions for the church, and it begins with prayer. There is a theological assumption here that prayer from the people is to G-d, and in G-d’s intentions as well are intended “for everyone.” The prayers themselves can ask and give thanks, speak for the well being of others and give a good word for the stranger. There is a universalism here that is quite attractive. The language is unambiguous, “G-d…who desires everyone to be saved.” Then the author makes an assertion, describing the monotheistic nature of the religion that he is sharing with the reader. “For there is one G-d” precedes the mention of Christ Jesus as the one “mediator.” It is to these things that the author attaches himself as servant, witness, and apostle.
Breaking open I Timothy:
- How do you pray?
- When do you pray?
- How do you include others?
St. Luke 16:1-13
Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."
Last Sunday we read of lost things and found value. In a trilogy of parables (The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Prodigal Son) in chapter 15, in an address to the critical Pharisees and Scribes Jesus wants us to examine our value of things, so that we might begin to value G-d and neighbor as well, and not look at their “lack of value.” Thus in the sixteenth chapter, Luke continues with two other parables on Value, however this time the teaching is directed at the disciples. The first is our reading for this morning, and concerns an unscrupulous manger who yet wins his boss’ praise.
This parable is really a spin on the Prodigal story. Commentator John T. Carol in his commentary on Luke’s Gospel suggests a comparison:
1 Both dispose of property, which is criticized.
2 Both decide within their own minds what action is needed next.
3 Both take action on what they have decided to do
4 Both rely on the mercy of (a father, a master)
However, there are differences. The world of the prodigal son and the equally prodigal father are self-contained. Their actions only impact the household, although the other son objects and is taught a lesson by the father. For the unjust manager many more are affected. In addition to the master, each of the debtors is affected as well, their debt having been reduced. The master indeed enjoys a renewed social presence as a result of the manger’s “solution.”
What are we to make of this? As we read of financial transactions that seem to define our own age, we are reluctant to praise these actions. Nor do we really know the real cost of what the manager does. Was interest reduced, or factored into the renewed and reduced debt? Did the manager get rid of his own commission? Luke leaves a lot of questions about the true nature of the transaction.
The remaining verses (8b – 13) attempt to lead us to some point of view regarding the actions of the parable. There are several reactions from the viewpoint of Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven. Using those values, neither the manager nor the master are “righteous” but merely exemplify “this age.” The question for the Christian is asked in the concluding verse, albeit obliquely, in the comments about two masters. Who will the Christian’s master be, wealth, or godly service? Does that mean that Christians should eschew wealth? It does have value in making friends (temporal) and accomplishing good (eternal). There are other values that are held up as well, “trustworthiness” in all things (both worldly and eternal) and doing things “for the benefit of others.” Hung on the horns of that dilemma Jesus then turns to poor Lazarus lying at the door of the rich man. The stories about value continue next Sunday with this parable.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What do you think of the manager’s tactic?
- Have you ever done anything like it?
- What point is Jesus trying to make.
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller
 Carroll, John T., Luke: A Commentary, New Testatment Library, John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky