The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 11, 21 July 2013
St. Luke 10:38-42
When we think of biblical literature, the temptation is to have an image of unambiguous unity, perfected development, and the integrity of the text. Colossians, then, gives us pause as it relates to its author (Paul or not Paul) and to the developing theology of the congregation at Colossae. Founded by Epaphras (see 1:7 and 4:12) who, according to Philemon, seems to be a part of the mission of Paul, this congregation is being influenced by other Christian traditions, some of which will be challenged by the author. Christianity’s evolution in the melting pot of the Roman Empire came under the influence of several traditions, some of which survive in practice and theology. Here, however, if we follow the text, the church at Colossae may have adopted the notion of the “elemental spirits” and their role in daily life. The author condemns such influence lifting up Christ as the chief point of creation (see 2:16-21). The first half of the book is devoted to such doctrinal controversies, while the second half devotes itself to the daily life of Christians.
There has been a movement away from the opinion that Paul wrote this book, although supporters of that conviction often cite the book of Philemon as a counterpart to Colossians. Several elements suggest that Paul did not write this book. The use of baptism and the language about baptism moves beyond Paul’s baptismal theology, and the language and theology about sin are a remove from Paul’s as well. Paul sees Christian life suspended between the “already” and the “not yet”, while Colossians visions it as “here” (earth) and “there” (heaven). Finally, the author of Colossians does not exhibit Paul’s mutuality when it comes to men and women of faith. Rather the old Roman virtues are trotted out, and women are cast under the authority of their husbands. If Paul wrote the letter, it may have been written while in prison ca. 50 CE. If it was written by another, then it is probably dated around 80 CE.
This is what the Lord GOD showed me-- a basket of summer fruit. He said, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A basket of summer fruit." Then the LORD said to me,
"The end has come upon my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by.
The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,"
says the Lord GOD;
"the dead bodies shall be many,
cast out in every place. Be silent!"
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.
Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and everyone mourn who lives in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?
On that day, says the Lord GOD,
I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the LORD.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the LORD,
but they shall not find it.
In chapter seven of Amos, and the early part of eight, we have four visions, the traditional expression of Amos’ prophetic sight. There are two visions that are exactly that – scenes of what is about to happen. The third and fourth are visions based on word play, and our reading this morning is one of those.
Following the confrontation with Amaziah, the priest who opposes Amos, the vision restates what was shown in the third vision. All of this plays on the vision of the basket of ripe fruit. Our translation reads “summer fruit”, but the intention of the Hebrew is “late-summer fruit” – dead ripe. There is a pun in the Hebrew between the word for “summer fruit” and the word for “end.” What follows, then is a list worthy of Paul, in which YHWY implies Israel’s sin: “trampling upon the needy,” “ruining the poor”, “dishonoring the Sabbath for the sake of business:” “using dishonest weights and measures”, and selling the poor and needy short. The consequences are dire – death, lamentations, dead bodies that contribute to ritual impurity, and (this is important for a prophet, and a people dependent upon a prophet’s vision) silence! The final verse is a profound example of YHWH’s silence, “they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”
It is Jeroboam’s religious policy and syncretism that Amos calls into question. In threatening the king, Amos comes under fire. Amaziah, the priest at Beth-El, warns the king with Amos’ words. Amaziah requests that Amos return to his native Judah, and stop prophesying against the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos denies his prophetic office and argues that his only a farmer – but the prophecy stands. What follows is a line of poetry describing the fate of Israel.
Breaking open Amos:
- What images implied by “late summer fruit” are seen by you?
- What implications of decadence and unpleasantness are displayed in the later verses of the poem?
- Do you see such things in your own time?
Psalm 52, Quid gloriaris?
You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness *
against the godly all day long?
You plot ruin;
your tongue is like a sharpened razor, *
O worker of deception.
You love evil more than good *
and lying more than speaking the truth.
You love all words that hurt, *
O you deceitful tongue.
Oh, that God would demolish you utterly, *
topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,
and root you out of the land of the living!
The righteous shall see and tremble, *
and they shall laugh at him, saying,
"This is the one who did not take God for a refuge, *
but trusted in great wealth
and relied upon wickedness."
But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; *
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.
I will give you thanks for what you have done *
and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.
As usual, the superscription is not printed with the psalm proper, but it might be useful to our understanding of the intent of the psalmist.
For the lead player, a David maskil,
When Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said to him, David has come to the house of Achimelech.”
Translation: Robert Alter
You may wish to read an account of David’s fleeing Saul and his troops in I Samuel 21:8 and 22:6ff. The author of the psalm seems to be imputing the betrayal of David by Doeg to the subsequent verses of the Psalm, or perhaps it is a commentary on the murderous aspects of Saul.
The first half of the psalm characterizes the man of evil intentions, the “tyrant” and in the first verse of the psalm proper, the “tyrant” is contrasted with the godliness of others. It is the tongue that receives the psalmists greatest condemnation: “razor-sharp”, destructive words”, “tongue of deceit.” The psalmist understands that God’s justice will demand an end to these behaviors, and that those who perpetuate such injustice will be “rooted out” of the land of the living.
The final verses rejoice in the environment of justice that God provides. Such people are compared to olive trees (a symbol of wealth) planed in the peaceful environs of the temple. The final verse properly speaks of thanksgiving, since we are mentally in the temple. Now the tongue is not the source of deceptions, but rather the acclamations about the justice of the Living God.
Breaking open Psalm 52
- What images does the word “tyrant” suggest to you?
- Robert Alter uses the word “hero” in his translation. What’s the difference? Can a comparison be made?
- In what ways does your tongue spread deceit?
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on-- since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son."
This is for me one of the most profound, mystical, and overwhelming passages in Genesis. It is the subject of Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity, as the three angels sit in communion with Abraham, and the hidden Sarah. The reader/hearer is immediately clued in to the nature of the visit and the identity of the strangers, “And the Lord appeared.” To emphasize the plight of the stranger, the scene takes place “in the heat of the day,” and Abraham responds with the usual hospitalities that desert life required. Robert Alter comments that a parallel tale can be found in the Ugaritic Tale of Aqhat. Water is fetched, bread is prepared and baked by Sarah, and a calf is slaughtered, dressed, and prepared. A preacher might want to spend some time on the secondary theme of hospitality.
Notice that initially Abraham uses singular forms of address, but later plural, and soon we see the intent of their/his/her visit. Where is Sarah? She is the key here, for even in the midst of the duties and hiddenness assigned to her sex, she will be the bearer of the promise and the wonder. In the final verse of the reading, one of them (are there two traditions here) indicates a return at some future time, and a promise of a future son. This announcement is made to the man, not the woman, and yet it is the woman who will share the culture and the traditions of her lineage with her child. All of it is out of kilter, underscoring the improbable promise.
Breaking open Genesis:
- How do you practice the law of hospitality? Where?
- What is Sarah’s role in this scene? Does it change?
- How is the promise a future for Abraham and Sarah?
Psalm 15 Domine, quis habitabit?
LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle? *
who may abide upon your holy hill?
Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, *
who speaks the truth from his heart.
There is no guile upon his tongue;
he does no evil to his friend; *
he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.
In his sight the wicked is rejected, *
but he honors those who fear the LORD.
He has sworn to do no wrong *
and does not take back his word.
He does not give his money in hope of gain, *
nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.
Whoever does these things *
shall never be overthrown.
The psalm begins with two phrases, each embracing a different time and thus embracing all the circumstances of Israel or the reader. The first verset states, “Lord, who may dwell (Hebrew – sojourn) in your tabernacle (tent)?” The second verset, “Who may abide (a more permanent state of dwelling) upon your holy hill (Zion)?” Thus Israel as nomad and Israel as city dweller is called to attention. Regardless of the circumstance or time certain standards are invoked: blameless life, right doing (justice), and honesty. Others follow without additional comment about Law or Covenant. It is painted as a community standard, simple and unadorned. The final verse is comment on the stability of such a life.
Breaking open Psalm 25
- Where do you go to seek God?
- How do you prepare yourself to be in communion with God?
- How is your life changed when you dwell with God?
Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him-- provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God's commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
The author wastes no time countering the difficulties that he has experienced in the congregation at Colossae (see the Background above). Almost on cue he quotes what is most likely a liturgical hymn used by the congregation, and he underscores its theme of the primacy of Christ over all creation. For a comparison see the hymn to Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31. In her commentary on Colossians, E. Elizabeth Johnson constructs a comparison of the two strophes of the hymn in which one can see several examples of parallelism:
18a He is the head of the body, the church
15a He is the image of the invisible God.
18b he is the beginning
15b the firstborn of all creation
18c the firstborn from the dead
16a for in him all things were created
19 For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell.
16b in heaven or on earth
20b whether on earth or in heaven
16c things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers –
16d all things have been created through him and for him.
20a and through him to reconcile to himself all things.
17a He himself is before all things,
18d so that he might come to have first place in everything.
17b and in him all things hold together
20c by making peace through the blood of his cross.
If this indeed were a hymn used by the church at Colossae, then its use here is a masterstroke on the part of the author, convincing them with their own liturgical language the primacy of Christ.
What follows then is an apology, if you will, about the teachings of Paul. The author comments on the sufferings of Paul, and then makes the surprising claim (one which Paul did not make) that “I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Very odd that this should follow the hymn so clearly presents Christ as the source. Perhaps the author, in honoring the sufferings of Paul, and seeking to authenticate Paul’s teaching through such suffering, overstates the situation. Paul would merely say that he “shared in the sufferings of Christ” (see II Corinthians 1:5). None-the-less, the author is clearly attempting to underscore Paul’s teaching authority so as to diminish what he saw as detours from Paul’s gospel. There is no mystery, no unseen thing, and no arcane knowledge. It is all Christ.
Breaking open Colossians:
- Is it important to know who really wrote Colossians? Why?
- What images come to you as you read the ancient hymn in Colossians?
- Does suffering authenticate one’s teaching?
As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
This pericope follows immediately upon last Sunday’s Gospel about the lawyer and the Good Samaritan, and follows the theme set: “Stories About Seeing and Not Seeing.” We meet Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John as well (11:1-12:8). It is not only those who come from a distance (the lawyer) who have difficulty seeing who and what Jesus is, but it is also those intimate with him, Mary and Martha, who may have the same difficulty. The first reading from Genesis, apart from its promise of a future for Abraham and Sarah, comments on the necessity of hospitality. Elsewhere in the New Testament there will be other witnesses to this foundational attitude. Here we see it in Martha’s actions, as she prepares to greet, and feed those who had come to her home. Given that point of view, we begin to understand Martha’s complaint. Something fundamental was not being looked after. And it is here, at this juncture, that we begin to see the radical nature of Jesus. Last Sunday in the first Lesson, Moses describes how close the Word of God is (in your mouth, in your heart). Jesus gets back to that other fundamental ideal – the intimacy with God and God’s word. Mary, it seems sees that connection, and Martha does not. The complete picture would seem to be a combination of the two, each complimenting the other.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How is Martha blind?
- In what way is Martha keeping the Law?
- In what ways does your life follow Mary’s?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.