The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 25, 27 October 2013
Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
St. Luke 18:9-14
The publicani were an ancient institution by the time they make their way into the Gospels. In the New Testament they are always in the guise of tax collectors, which was one of the roles that they enjoyed in the Roman Empire. As such, they were really imperial contractors, who would bid on the collection of taxes within a region. Whatever was actually owed was paid to the empire and whatever was left over was realized profit for them. On the other hand, if they collected to little, they were liable for the remainder. They served both the republic (from about the 2nd Century BCE on) and the empire as well. Tax collection was not the only opportunity for these entrepreneurs, however. They could also collect port duties, and have oversight of public works projects. In the later years of the empire, their role diminished as the imperial bureaucracy began to take on more and more of these responsibilities. In Palestine, their role as agents of the occupation condemned them to a low social status. I suspect, that their profiteering, at the expense of the people, didn’t help them either.
O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the LORD your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the LORD your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
The prophet Joel writes at a peaceful time in Judean history. The destruction of the Temple and the Exile to Babylon are in the past; indeed a new temple stands in Jerusalem, the city surrounded again by defensive walls. There is no king mentioned in the book, for the land is guided by elders and priests. The region is but a tiny cog in the great wheel of the Persian Empire. Despite this notion of calm and peace, Joel reaches back to emphasize themes that would have been familiar to Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah. He uses his writings to continually remind Israel that God is still watching over them, in judgment. The verses in our reading this morning leap from that understanding to a new point of view – a view of redemption and salvation. The images that Joel uses to promote this point of view are rural and natural – the produce of the land, the well being of the wild animals, the plentiful rain and subsequent harvest. These are signs that God still is in a covenantal relationship with the people. The first section of this reading (23-27) is in the form of a poem (which actually begins at verse 21). If there is a general theme it is of no longer being afraid or anxious.
The second section (verses 28-32) speaks about the gift of the Spirit. We will remember these verses from their quotation by Peter at Pentecost. Another theme that reappears in Joel and that Jeremiah and Isaiah expounded upon is the notion of the Day of the Lord. This becomes a primary theme for Joel along with the notions of judgment and forgiveness. Joel wants to warn his hearers about what is to come before the Great Day of the Lord. Some of the signs were those that were all too evident in the past, “blood and fire and columns of smoke.” Such was the evidence of war and the despoiling of cities in the past. These signs are accompanied by supernatural signs, “the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.” These are the warnings if the impending judgment. This is accompanied, however, by a very promising sign; the promise that God would “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” which is promised in the poem that precedes the section on the portents. The gifts are intended to move the hearers beyond the impending judgment so that they might dream dreams and see visions. The recipients are the whole stripe of the population included all ages and genders. Elizabeth Achtemeier, in her commentary on Joel sees the promise of all flesh limited by the possessives in your sons and your daughters, etc. However, the fact that the Spirit is promised to even to male and female slaves seems to indicate to me that Joel falls into the category of prophets that had a more universal viewpoint that defines the growing theology immediately preceding and following the fall of Jerusalem. The gift, in particular, to Judah is one of continual promise of the future – a future guarded and guaranteed by God. Jesus, Peter, Luke, and Paul will take this promise in new directions in the New Testament. For this reading, however, it is a plenteous gift to Israel.
Breaking open Joel:
- What signs from God do you see around you?
- What signs of the Spirit are evident?
- How do you understand the term “all flesh”? How might it change your worldview?
Psalm 65, Te decet hymnus
You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.
You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.
You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.
The translation in the Book of Common Prayer (also shared by Evangelical Lutheran Worship) is unfortunate in that it misses a wonderful image of the majesty of God, which the psalm will go on to develop. We know this image in other passages: Elijah’s visit to Mount Sinai, Isaiah’s lamb led to the slaughter, and the Great Silence in Revelation. Robert Alter’s translation of this initial verse of the psalm is stunning: “To you silence is praise, God, in Zion, and to you a vow will be paid.” It reminds me of Paul’s advice about prayer when he says that the Spirit will supply the words when we cannot – that silence sometimes is the only means capable of describing the majesty of God. Indeed the rules about not speaking the divine name come to mind here as well. The remainder of the psalm reminds us of Joel’s comments on the gifts that God bestows upon the Israel once judged. There is fecundity, produce, and wonder at nature that is at the heart of God’s gifts. Like the Canaanite gods, this God of Israel also quiets the chaos of the sea (see verse 7). Following admission that silence is the root of our praise, the psalmist seems to find several words to sing that praise as well.
Breaking open Psalm 65:
- How do you use silence in your prayer life?
- What images and thoughts come to mind when you meditate silently?
- How has God answered your prayers?
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The central theme to this reading is justice, and impartial justice meted out by a righteous God. There are several clues that undergird this theme: “Do not offer him a bribe, he will not accept it,” “Do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice”, and “He will not show partiality to the poor.” God stands in the midst of all of our pieties and mores and looks away from them to the true righteousness of justice.
Breaking open Sirach:
- Does religion have anything to say about justice?
- Where do you find justice in our society?
- How does your faith enable justice?
Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O LORD, for your name's sake;
our apostasies indeed are many,
and we have sinned against you.
O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!
Thus says the LORD concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander,
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the LORD does not accept them,
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.
Have you completely rejected Judah?
Does your heart loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down
so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O LORD,
the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O LORD our God?
We set our hope on you,
for it is you who do all this.
Although I usually like to read the Apocryphal reading when it is offered, this text from Jeremiah has much more grist for the preacher’s mill. The reading is preceded by six verses that describe a horrible drought that affects both rich and poor alike. In verse 7, we begin what looks to be a confession of sin. Israel is aware that she has done something wrong in light of the on-going drought. The petition is interesting. God is not asked to look at Israel’s repentance, but rather at God’s own reputation, “act O Lord, for your own name’s sake”! What follows are a series of questions to God, suggesting that God has been absent, or even silent. God is described as a stranger, a visitor, someone who is confused. This unusual psychological approach is interrupted by an ejaculation of praise, “You, O Lord, are in our midst.” Now there is balance. God is acknowledged, and the people can make their petitions about rain (salvation). And yet God is still cajoled, “Can any idols of the nations bring rain.” Israel confesses to a dependency upon God. How can God ignore them. This might make for an interesting sermon on prayer.
Psalm 84:1-6 Quam dilecta!
How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
I always smile when I say or sing this psalm. It brings back a memory of my time at Concordia Senior College in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. In the stunning chapel there, designed by Eero Saarinen, the height of the A-frame chapel was a delight to birds. One day I noticed a sign in the chancel, lying on a stone ledge with a pile of seed upon it. It read, “Poisoned seed for the birds, do not eat.” The next day someone had written on the sign, “The sparrow has found her a house… by your altars, O Lord of Hosts.” The seed disappeared.
What has been translated as “lovely” or in the KJV as “amiable” is only a hint of the intensity of emotion that the psalmist wishes to call forth. The root verbs have to do with lovemaking. That is the intensity of emotion that is called for here – this love of the temple. All find a home in the temple, even the humble bird, and all who make pilgrimage to come there. They are happy. The image is of the pilgrim making a journey to the temple, the pilgrim’s every thought being of the Temple. They journey across mountains, but it is Mt. Zion where they will find a home and see God.
Breaking open Psalm 84:
- Do you worship in a beautiful church?
- What makes for its beauty?
- How is that beauty reflected in your life?
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The author of II Timothy sets an emotional tone in our reading this day, and uses a passage from Philippians 2:17 to underscore the theme. There Paul talks about being poured out as a libation. Indeed the musings on the passing of Paul remind the readers that what the author has been saying to them is time limited. It is dependent upon the time that they still have remaining in this life. Paul’s example is held up as a testament to church leaders who are following him, and this moody remembrance of his passing sets the right tone.
What follows in the second set of verses is the utter confidence that Paul (and the author of II Timothy) have in the God who equips them for all the trials of life. It fits with the logic of Joel (see the first reading, Track 1), who sees even in the midst of utter calm and peace, the necessity of a God who watches and guards. So it is here. Paul is pictured as the prophet who is protected by God for one purpose, and that is that the message might be fully proclaimed. The author goes on to mention its necessity for the Gentiles, and again we are reminded of Joel’s image of the Spirit being poured out upon all flesh. Not only is Paul, or the author to be saved, but also all who follow Jesus – saved for his heavenly kingdom. The Final Greetings (vs.19-22) could not have ended so eloquently as happens here, where God is seen as the cause and the reward, filled with glory.
Breaking open II Timothy:
- What things do you have yet to accomplish in life?
- Is there an urgency about them?
- Are any related to your faith?
Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In last Sunday’s sharp divide between a pompous and unrighteous judge and a persistent widow (two aspects of the social spectrum) we again begin to see Luke’s agenda of lifting up the poor and the lowly. In his editing of Jesus’ sayings he continues to build in these distinctions as he offers commentary on prayer – prayer that comes from both ends of the spectrum. This is done through a parable of two men at prayer in the temple. The purpose of the parable is succinctly stated, “(he) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous yet showed disdain for everyone else.” Is this not a parable for our time, when so many laugh at the difficulties and trials of others, seeing themselves as above reproach? We have two characters, a Pharisee and a Tax Collector.
For the Tax Collector see the background material above. Pharisees, on the other hand, represented something else. Born out of the conflicts of the enforced Hellenization of Judaism during the Seleucid kings, the Pharisees saw the Sadducees as a corrupt evolution of an inauthentic priesthood that flowed from the Maccabean period. Ironically, they were cheered on by the common people who were largely non-sectarian, and who saw the Sadducees and their ilk as aristocratic and aloof. Sadducees were literal and rule-bound. Pharisees were more democratic and trusted in an “oral Torah”. I think that’s just enough to spice up the distinction and to add a different aspect to Jesus’ parable. Perhaps the Pharisee and the Publican are not that far apart.
Jesus’ description of the two men, one standing alone, the other standing at a distance, underscores their separateness. The prayers themselves are distinctive with the one emphasizing the innate righteousness of his situation, and the other recognizing his sinfulness. The Pharisee’s biddings all begin with “I am”, while the Publican simply acknowledges that he is a sinner. The Pharisee’s behavior is typical, attempting to outdo what the Mosaic Law required.
Although Luke’s audience would have been buoyed up by the prayerful petitions of the publican, they would have been unmoved by the Pharisee, and would have seen his stance as more political than genuine. I like it that this parable is not black and white, with sharp distinctions. Jesus came into a time with a strained worldview, and a difficult public discourse about what it meant to be Jewish, and what it meant to be religious. We have to remember Jesus’ intended audience – those who thought that they were better than others. It might have been that a similar parable could have been cast with a Pharisee and a Sadducee as the characters. The situation gives us pause and we think about how to apply this text in our time. The parable ends by setting up two really different characters, the humble and the exalted. Who might that be for us in our day and age?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. What are you waiting for with patience?
2. How do you enable patience in your life?
3. Have you ever been persistent about something? What?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller
 Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Minor Prophets I, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI.