The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 13, 4 August 2013

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:1-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
St. Luke 12:13-21

William Blake - "Job"

Background:  Wisdom Literature
Gerhard von Rad, a biblical scholar with a special interest in the Hebrew Scriptures, along with others is skeptical about this genre of literature in the Bible.  None-the-less, there are enough unique aspects of this literature for us to take time and see the manner of its use in the Old Testament.  The most expansive definition of Wisdom Literature is that it is not something that is uniquely of Israel, indeed where it is included in the canon (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) it is not uniquely Yahwistic.  This kind of writing could be found in all of the nations that surrounded Israel, including those from whence Israel came (both Mesopotamia and Egypt).  The influence of this literature is found not only in the three books, but continues to influence apocryphal texts as well, and the midrash that came from the mouths and pens of the Rabbis.  What Wisdom concerned itself with were the values of a culture (in a more international or universalistic sense – rather than having reference to the Torah), and the moral life of society in general.  In Job we have a dense conversation about the nature and meaning of what it means to be human.  In this sense, Wisdom literature approaches the themes and methods of Greek philosophy.  In the three books we see different approaches and themes.  Job is undergirded with a theological sense as the arguments about life are made.  Proverbs with its pithy sayings is commentary on daily life, and Ecclesiastes takes a radical approach, twisting standard thought and commentary on life.

Hosea 11:1-11

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the LORD,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD.

Tiglath-pileser, Assyrian Emperor 

In this reading from Hosea, the prophet seems to make us witnesses to an inner conversation of G-d.  Following all of the images of husband and wife that Hosea uses in the preceding chapters to depict the relationship of G-d and Israel, in these verses the image is one of a parent and child – “When Israel was a child, I loved him”.  What is rehearsed for us in the first four verses of this reading is the redemption of Israel from the slavery of Egypt.  It is one of two fulcra between which Israel hangs: Egypt and Assyria.  Both are places of displacement and exile, and both represent the reality and threat of G-d’s wrath.  Also rehearsed here are the reasons for G-d’s anger: in spite of G-d’s on-going love for Israel, there is the continued worship of the Ba’alim, and offerings of incense to other gods.  The words of verse five proclaim the reality of the situation, however.  “He shall return to the land of Egypt,
Assyria shall be his king, because they have refused to repent.”

It is G-d, however, who repents.  Almost reading like a love poem, the G-d of Israel realizes that he cannot take the course that his wrath desires.  G-d says:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.

It is G-d’s essential love that governs the situation – not the wrath.  Thus the concluding verses are ones of hope.  The fragility of Israel’s relationship with G-d is none-the-less described as trembling birds and doves.  Israel will yet suffer under the onslaughts of Tiglath-pileser III (727 BCE – II Kings 17) but the final words of hope are the words of return.

Breaking open Hosea:
  1. Is your relationship with G-d fragile?  How?
  2. How has G-d been present in your failures?
  3. Have you ever been returned home – in joy?

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Confitemini Domino

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.

Let all those whom the LORD has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.

He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.

They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.

Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.

He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.

Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.

For he satisfies the thirsty *
and fills the hungry with good things.

Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the LORD.

This psalm is a thanksgiving psalm, not of an individual, but of the community.  The second verse of the psalm makes this collective quite clear – the thanksgiving is for the redemption of the whole.  Let us be clear about the word “redemption” for this is not a theological but rather a political designation.  This community has been “bought back” from the “foe.”  What follows are verses that describe the return, the coming back from war and destruction, a description that matches the comments of G-d in Hosea (above).  The final verse is an invitation for us to ponder G-d’s leading us back from captivity.

Breaking open Psalm 107
  1. From what kind of political or secular doom have you been redeemed?
  2. From what kind of downfall have you been “brought back”?
  3. Of what are you still a captive?


Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me -- and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

The power of this verse is in its repeated phrases of “vanity.”  Robert Alter, in his book, The Wisdom Books, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes[1], provides a more profound translation with his use of the word, “breath”.  “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath.  All is mere breath.”  He argues that the Preacher’s images are quite tangible, and that the use of a concept, like “vanity” does not enrich the Preacher’s understanding of life.  Verses 12-14 refine the Preacher’s pursuit of the meaning of life, which he describes as “herding the wind” (a wonderful connection with the word breath.) 

The final verses of the reading seem to reflect the curse that is given to Adam (the man) in the Fall account:

“Cursed be the soil for your sake, with pangs shall you eat from it all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17-18)

The toil that the Preacher talks about is the totality of life’s effort – the toil itself and that which is the product of our toil.  Is this cynicism, or is the reality of life – a life outside of considerations of G-d and other?  Like the women at the ending of Mark, we are left facing a conundrum, a mystery.  What comes next – fear? Or quiet resolve?

Breaking open Ecclesiastes:
  1. Is the Preacher of Ecclesiastes just a cynic, or is he wise?
  2. If this is wisdom, what can you apply to daily life?
  3. How do you feel about your daily work and life?
Psalm 49:1-11 Audite haec, omnes

Hear this, all you peoples;
hearken, all you who dwell in the world, *
you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.

My mouth shall speak of wisdom, *
and my heart shall meditate on understanding.

I will incline my ear to a proverb *
and set forth my riddle upon the harp.

Why should I be afraid in evil days, *
when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,

The wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods, *
and boast of their great riches?

We can never ransom ourselves, *
or deliver to God the price of our life;

For the ransom of our life is so great, *
that we should never have enough to pay it,

In order to live for ever and ever, *
and never see the grave.

For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.

Their graves shall be their homes for ever,
their dwelling places from generation to generation, *
though they call the lands after their own names.

Even though honored, they cannot live for ever; *
they are like the beasts that perish.

Die Totentanzbilder von Jakob von Wyl (1586-1619) in Luzern.
This, appropriately, is a wisdom psalm, following a wisdom reading (see above).  Its focus is not on Israel specifically, but rather on humankind generally.  The purpose of the psalm is that of instruction.  The psalmist proposes to enlighten us about our situation, our life, and our condition.  Again like the situation in Hosea (see the Track 1 First Reading, above), humanity hangs in the balance between a situation of wealth, which seems to condemn us to a life that cannot respond to the needs of others, and the situation of poverty that is unmet by the resources of the wealthy.  The poor person will perish as will the wealthy one.  What is common to both is mortality, and all are “fools” in the face of it.  This is a most appropriate text to follow the Ecclesiastes reading (above).

Breaking open Psalm 49
  1. Do you consider yourself wealthy?  Why?
  2. Do you consider yourself poor?  Why?
  3. How do you respond in life to both of these circumstances?
Colossians 3:1-11

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

The First Reading and Psalm both set the stage for this continuing reading from Colossians.  As Peggy Lee sang, “Is that all there is?” seems to be the conclusion of these readings, and yet the author of Colossians will argue for more.  We are clued into what is really going on in the third verse of the reading: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  The author is reminding his readers of their baptisms, the baptisms in which they “died with Christ” and are raised to something new.  In a very Pauline manner, the author then lists what is earthly and needs to be avoided (fornication, impurity, etc.).  These are to be left behind, below actually – for they are earthly things.  What is taken on is a new self, a renewed self, which renders us in fellowship with all of creation (there is no longer Greek and Jew, etc.).  I am reminded here of Luther’s Catechism and its explanation of baptism.

“What does such baptizing with water indicate?

It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Breaking open Colossians:
  1. How is baptism like dying?
  2. Why are such symbols and ideas associated with baptism?
  3. What do you try to die to each day?
St. Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Georg Groß "Toads of Property", 1920

The rules and regulations regarding inheritance can be found in Numbers 27:1-11.  The point here, however, is not the inheritance itself, but rather the attitude about the inheritance and the wealth that it implies.  If we were to follow the Preacher’s advice (see the First Reading) then this would be a not a matter worthy of consideration for it is all “mere breath.”  Jesus then speaks words of warning about greed (how timely a topic for preaching!).  To make certain that his words on greed are heard a parable is offered.  Some Bibles title this The Parable of the Rich Fool.  The strong word might prompt us or the hearer to understand the use of the pejorative (fool) and discover what the foolishness is.  The Preacher is helpful here, for he understands all endeavor to be foolish – toil and goods that will eventually be left to someone else who did not work to achieve them.  The farmer in the parable is wealthy, and product of both work and blessing.  The temptation is that these things are enough in and of themselves.  It is time for relaxation, a time to send anxiety away. What is forgotten, in Jesus’ telling of his story, is that G-d and Neighbor (the two focal points of the Law) are forgotten.  G-d is not deemed the provider, or the neighbor seen as a possible recipient of the blessing.  Such a life of self-congratulation does not have the Preacher’s perspective – the wealth is all “mere breath”. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Where do you see greed in our culture?
  2. How do you participate or not in such greed?
  3. Where are God and Neighbor in your wealth?

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

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

[1]    Alter, Robert, The Wisdom Books Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010.


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