The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 12, 28 July 2013

Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
St. Luke 11:1-13

Background:  Sodom
This city, along with its sister community, Gomorrah, really serves as a fulcrum that stands between the texts regarding the Visitation at Mamre, and the Bargaining over Sodom, and its eventual Destruction.  There is no clear evidence that these cities even existed, although several candidates have been proposed, even in recent history.  One of the most engaging was Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub’s dig in 1973 at several sites along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea.  Some evidence was located under the surface of the sea, and there has been an on-going debate as to the possibility of seismic activity in the region.  Other proposals have been judged too distant from the Jordan/Dead Sea region, and have received no further consideration.  Rast and Schaub’s reports of their digs indicated traces of sulfur and burning in the sites they had visited.  In Robert Alter’s work, The Five Books of Moses[1], he argues for a more symbolic presence noting the parallel structures in the Mamre story and the Destruction story.  Whether real or not, these two cities have had an influence far beyond most other biblical sites. 

Hosea 1:2-10

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, "Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD." So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

And the LORD said to him, "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel."

She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the LORD said to him, "Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God; I will not save them by bow, or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen."

When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the LORD said, "Name him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God."

Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, "You are not my people," it shall be said to them, "Children of the living God."

In her commentary on Hosea[2] (ca. 750-723 BCE), Elizabeth Achtemeier describes Hosea’s message as having the character of a love story between G-d and Israel.  The examples that Hosea will use twist and distort this relationship as he endeavors to explain and describe the unfaithfulness of Israel, and God’s reaction.  Many of the examples are actually events in the life of Hosea in which he literally embodies his proclamations.  Today’s reading is such an example.

We become bystanders who listen in on a dialogue with G-d and Hosea.  The initial command to marry “a wife of harlotry” (Hosea’s wife, Gomer) and Hosea obeys, immediately. He is to be a vessel, a channel, through which G-d will give words to Israel.  In a fashion, Gomer becomes a symbol of what Israel has become, faithless and seeking after others (gods).  Two children are born of this union, and both bear symbolic names.  In addition they are characterized as “children of prostitution”.

Permit me quick note on prostitution.  Such a condition could have been the result of several things.  It may be that Gomer is a “symbolic whore” since Israel is depicted as a harlot, unfaithful to G-d.  Gomer is a daughter of Israel, and thus bears the shame.  Or, she may have been considered such by: being a common prostitute, being a sacred prostitute in one of the Canaanite cult centers, or having lost her virginity to a male prostitute in a Canaanite temple.  All are possible, but would miss the point.  The marriage and her condition is a “sign” that is mean to communicate G-d’s word to Israel.

Meanwhile, the children: The son is to be named Jezreel.  It would be helpful if you want to delve into this further to see II Kings 9-10.  The slaughter at Jezreel is “over-the-top” but its sin is that the renunciation of Ba’al is not genuine.  This careful walk with G-d is not continued, and Jehu and his actions at Jezreel become a sign of unfaithfulness. 

The daughter is named “not loved” (the verb indicates the kind of love a mother would have for her child).  What does this name mean?  Israel is the daughter that can no longer depend on the love of the mother (G-d).  There is, in the end, a third child, named “Not my people”.  The promises of Exodus, Leviticus, and Jeremiah (“I will be your G-d, and you shall be my people.”) is negated in the symbolism of this child’s name.  The covenant stands empty, and the remainder of Hosea will strive to reestablish it.

Breaking open Hosea:
  1. Is Hosea trying to shock his readers?  Why?
  2. How effective is his example?
  3. Have you ever known someone with a symbolic name?  Who?

Psalm 85, Benedixisti, Domine

You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

You have withdrawn all your fury *
and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation.

Restore us then, O God our Savior; *
let your anger depart from us.

Will you be displeased with us for ever? *
will you prolong your anger from age to age?

Will you not give us life again, *
that your people may rejoice in you?

Show us your mercy, O LORD, *
and grant us your salvation.

I will listen to what the LORD God is saying, *
for he is speaking peace to his faithful people
and to those who turn their hearts to him.

Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, *
that his glory may dwell in our land.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness shall go before him, *
and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.

Notice the tense of the first three verses – perfect, completed.  Now look at the verb in verse four – an imperative, hoping for a future action.  So is the argument of the psalmist in Psalm 85.  Perhaps the psalm is written with the full knowledge of what had happened with the capture of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the words of hope that all might return to a restored Jerusalem.  The concern of the poem is that G-d would not “turn back” to former punishments, and that the people would not “turn back” to the folly of ignoring God. In verse 10 we have one of the most charming of phrases designed to describe the beauty of this new relationship with God – “Mercy and truth have met together, Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”  If indeed this is an exile poem, then the last verse underscores the quality of the hoped-for return.  The return to and for Israel is led by “justice” (in our translation, “righteousness”) and by peace.  This psalm is an excellent accompaniment to the oracles of Hosea.

Breaking open Psalm 85
  1. What kind of past have you had with G-d?
  2. What future do you expect?
  3. What do you understand by the term “righteousness”?


Genesis 18:20-32

The LORD said to Abraham, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."

So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And the LORD said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it."

You may want to go back and refresh yourself on last Sunday’s first reading, for this reading follows immediately after the Visitation at Mamre.  We return to the scene almost in mid sentence, with G-d reflecting on the situation in Sodom.  The “outcry” may reflect the prayer of those oppressed by the sin of Sodom.  Now, exactly what was that sin?  The traditional view is that the sin was “homosexual rape”.  Not all commentators, both Jewish and Christian, see that as the totality or even as descriptive of the situation in Sodom (see Background above.)  Other conditions merit our consideration as well: economic oppression, treatment of the poor and of the stranger, or the lack of hospitality on the part of Sodom (which serves as a negative to the example of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality in the introductory story).  Each seems to provoke G-d’s wrath. 

G-d “comes down” to deal with Sodom.  Alter thinks that this seems to reflect the Babel text, but I think it reflects the geographic realities of leaving the plain of the central ridge of the Levant and “going down” into the Dead Sea valley where the towns may have been located (again, see the Background).  Abraham “comes near” as an advocate approaches a judge, and begins his argument.  The obsequious Abraham at Mamre now becomes more strident and assertive as he argues for justice for any who might be righteous.  With all deference, Abraham begins his bargaining session with G-d.  Abraham’s requests are met with a terse “I will not.”  Abraham ends with a communal “ten,” and does not mention his family (Lot’s family) as innocents.  Abraham returns to his home – a nomad’s tent, and we leave Lot in the midst of a teeming and complicated urban environment.  I would say, “come back next week” but the Lectionary does not allow for that.  We are left on tenterhooks.

Breaking open Genesis:
  1. Do you pray out of need or out of thanksgiving?
  2. How would you characterize Abraham’s “prayer”?
  3. Does Abraham go far enough?

Psalm 138 Confitebor tibi

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.

I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;

For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.

When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.

All the kings of the earth will praise you, O LORD, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.

They will sing of the ways of the LORD, *
that great is the glory of the LORD.

Though the LORD be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.

The LORD will make good his purpose for me; *
O LORD, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

In this thanksgiving psalm, we see G-d receiving the praise and thanksgiving of the psalmist despite the presence of the other gods.  The following verses recite the reasons for such faithfulness on the part of the psalmist.  The most profound of these recitations (especially in light of the first reading, and Abraham’s advocacy) is “When I called, you answered me.”  That is the strength and the relationship that the psalmist’s faith is based on.  There is an attempted universality in the psalm that sits on a spectrum that ranges from the individual thanksgivings of the psalmist to the “All the kings of the earth” who have heard the words of G-d.  There is a similar dimensionality in the following verse in which G-d “on high” still cares for the lowly, an arc of comfort and of justice.  The final line “do not abandon (Hebrew – “release, or let go of gently”) the work of your hands” gives us the image of a potter (see Genesis 2:7) setting down that which she has created at the wheel.

Breaking open Psalm 138
  1. How does God answer your prayers?
  2. How do you give thanks for these answers?
  3. What is your conversation with God like?

Colossians 2:6-19)

As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

[Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God. ]
The Eleusian Mysteries
The key terms that capture our imaginations here, for they are the reasons for this letter to the people of Colossae, are the terms “philosophy” and “empty deceit”.  In his argument Paul seeks to contrast the Gospel that was revealed to him with “human tradition”.  The clue here is his reference to “the elemental spirits of the universe”.  What Paul is arguing against is the ritual excess of not just Judaism, but also that of the mystery religions, and also, apparently, those of Christians who have adopted strict practices in contravention to the Gospel of Jesus.  He alludes to some of the requirements in an argument which he begins with “you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision” and then placing Christ at the center of the concept.  In the manner of Paul, the author positions to elements in distinction from the one another – the fleshly circumcision, and that of the spirit.  “The substance belongs to Christ”, he declares, acknowledging that Christ is the head of the Body.

Breaking open Colossians:
  1. What modern concepts, cultures, or philosophies distract you from God?
  2. What is the difference between flesh and the spirit?
  3. How is Christ the head of the body, as the author of Colossians describes it?

St. Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

This lesson on prayer was urged upon Jesus by his disciples who apparently had experienced the disciples of John the Baptist at prayer.  In this episode, Jesus discusses three aspects of prayer: the discipline and form of prayer, the need for persistence, and the effectiveness of prayer.  Luke’s forms are spare and simple, perhaps reflecting an earlier form than that in Matthew, which is offered at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:9-15).  The terse phrases (Your kingdom come) give us a sense of urgency.  This lesson is also offered in the context of Jesus own life of prayer.  Indeed, Luke depicts Jesus at prayer often: baptism, choosing of the Twelve, Peter’s confession, the Transfiguration, at the Last Supper, on the Mt. of Olives, and at the Crucifixion. 

The “Our Father” was seen as a template for prayer (“When you pray say…”) but has come down to us as a set prayer rather than as a listing of topics for which we ought to make prayer.  In one version, the prayer seems to have been altered for use at Holy Baptism. In place of “your kingdom come”, some early Fathers replace it with “May your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse”, a clear example of how to extemporize on the prayers themes. 

Persistence is taught in the lesson about the persistent neighbor with the reminder that if lessor obtains, how much more then with the greater.  If you can give good things, then how much more can G-d give.  This lesson is amplified in the verses on searching, finding, and knocking.  The lessons of prayer can be amplified by the Track 2 first reading and the insistence of Abraham at Sodom.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Where do you pray?
  2. How do you construct your prayers?
  3. Are you persistent in your praying?

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

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; 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 Five Books of Moses – A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. 2004
[2]    Achtemeier, Elizabeth, Minor Prophets I, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996


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