The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 17, 1 September 2013

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Sirach 10:12-18 or Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm 112

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
St. Luke 14:1, 7-14

Background:  Sirach
One of the advantages of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is its increased inclusion of texts from the Apocrypha.  Although accepted as proper for reading and devotion by both Anglicans and Lutherans, the lectionary itself was devoid of such readings until the revisions of the RCL.  This morning’s optional Track 2 reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is from Sirach, also known as “The Wisdom of Sirach”, or more commonly as “Ecclesiasticus.”  It dates from around 190 BCE and was the work of Shimon ben Yeshua den Eliezer ben Sira, a Jewish scribe who lived and worked in Jerusalem.  It was originally written in Hebrew and was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson who also wrote a prologue to the book.  The Hebrew version was not accepted into the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures; however, the Greek translation appears in the Septuagint.  A text found in the Cairo Genizah (a repository of worn out scrolls of the Torah) represents the best Hebrew copy available.  It is in the canon of the Roman Catholic Church, but is viewed as an Apocryphal work amongst Lutherans and Anglicans.  The reasons that it was not included in the Canon by the Council of Jamnia (ca. 90 CE) may have been either due to its late authorship, or to the fact that the work was actually “signed” by the author.

It is well known amongst early Christian leaders: Clement of Alexandria, Origin, and Augustine all mention it.  It was influential in the writing of James, the Didache, and the Epistle of Barnabas.  It’s collection of ethical teachings places it as a type of Wisdom literature, and its general approach to life is in the style of the Wisdom that was written in the Ancient Near East during earlier periods.  It is often compared to Proverbs in both its intent and content.  The book is not a friend to either women nor to slaves, which makes it a difficult work for use in contemporary worship.

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, "Where is the LORD
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?"
I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?"
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD,
and I accuse your children's children.
Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

A cistern at Masada
Although we are met with poetry here, in these verses from Jeremiah, what really lies beneath the surface is a pattern that scholars have called the rib (pronounced reeve) pattern.  What it is a legal abstract in which G-d prosecutes G-d’s case against Israel.  Thus the opening words “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all families of the house of Israel.” are not so much an invitation to hear a prophetic utterance but rather an bidding to hear the accusation.  The defendants are called upon to be witnesses as well.  In a manner of thinking, these are the proceedings of a divorce hearing.  The question that YHWH asks is this, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me?”  What follows is a laundry list of G-d’s kindly acts toward Israel beginning with the liberation from Egypt.  The language is that of a marriage.  It is intimate and endearing.  YHWH contrasts G-d’s fidelity with Israel’s infidelity.  There is forgetfulness of speech and of mind not only on the part of the people but of the priests as well.  G-d is the husband that has been left behind for another.  The lips of Israel, the beloved, no longer tell the story of YHWH, nor sing of G-d’s love.  There are consequences to such actions that we see in verses 9-13, and G-d calls the heavens to witness them. We are, after all, in a court.  Perhaps there will still be reconciliation.  The final image is telling, and pronounces a great want.  G-d is the living water, and Israel (the cistern) can no longer hold such a precious draught.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. What roles does G-d play in this trial?
  2. What role might you play?
  3. Where do you hold G-d’s gracious acts?

Psalm 81:1, 10-16 Exultate Deo

Sing with joy to God our strength *
and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob.

I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt and said, *. 
"Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it."

And yet my people did not hear my voice, *
and Israel would not obey me.

So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their hearts, *
to follow their own devices.

Oh, that my people would listen to me! *
that Israel would walk in my ways!

I should soon subdue their enemies *
and turn my hand against their foes.

Those who hate the LORD would cringe before him, *
and their punishment would last for ever.

But Israel would I feed with the finest wheat *
and satisfy him with honey from the rock.

The words of the psalm mirror the poem of Jeremiah.  Israel has forsaken G-d – now what shall happen?  We are still in the realm of the covenant.  The structure of verse 10 recalls the beginning to the Ten Commandments – “I am the Lord your G-d”.  There are, however, deaf ears that cannot or will not receive G-d’s word, and the pattern of faithfulness and forgetfulness that walks through the wilderness with Israel is defined in a series of short phrases.  “Oh that my people would listen to me!” is the central complaint.  G-d then rehearses what G-d might do should the relationship thrive and continue: subdue their enemies, turn my hand against their foes.  In the final verse G-d speaks and refers to G-d’s self in the third person.  The promise there is one of retribution and punishment.  It is balanced out in the 16th verse with a promise of finest wheat and honey.  The implication being that G-d’s satisfaction is tied to the satisfaction of Israel.

Breaking open Psalm 81:
  1. G-d tries to get Israel to remember by reciting what G-d has done.  What has G-d done for you?
  2. Do you listen to G-d?  When?  How?
  3. How do you “walk in G-d’s ways”?


Sirach 10:12-18

The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord;
the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.
For the beginning of pride is sin,
and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.
Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities,
and destroys them completely.
The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.
He removes some of them and destroys them,
and erases the memory of them from the earth.
Pride was not created for human beings,
or violent anger for those born of women.

The reading for this morning is a little homily on human pride.  From the ostensibly theological premise that begins this discourse, Ben Sira quickly moves into the world of wisdom and commonplace practicality.  He sees pride in the rulers of the world, a pride that G-d quickly undermines and brings to naught.  Ben Sira had ample fodder for his mill.  Living in the period of the Seleucid kings, the author saw ample examples of pride in the face of G-d.  Perhaps some reading in the Maccabees might help flesh out these insights for you.  History had left the old concerns about the Davidic kingship behind.  In spite of the success of the Maccabean Period (164-63 BCE) the Levant was already engulfed by far mightier powers whose secular and religious life was at odds with what Israel had long known.  Faithfulness to G-d, rather than national or personal pride, during such a period is what Ben Sira hopes to receive.

Breaking open Sirach:
  1. Look up the word “hubris”.  Where do you see hubris in our world.
  2. What would Ben Sira have us do to guard against pride?
  3. How do you deal with pride – your own, or other’s?

Another first reading is provided as an option:

Proverbs 25:6-7

Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, "Come up here,"
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

For those bothered by reading the apocryphal text, the lectionary provides this snippet from Proverbs.  As such it deftly serves as an inspiration point for Jesus’ saying in the Gospel.  The reading from Proverbs has more of a personal scope while the reading from Sirach has a more global feel.

Use the questions above to explore this reading.

Psalm 112 Beatus vir

Happy are they who fear the Lord *
and have great delight in his commandments!

Their descendants will be mighty in the land; *
the generation of the upright will be blessed.

Wealth and riches will be in their house, *
and their righteousness will last for ever.

Light shines in the darkness for the upright; *
the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

It is good for them to be generous in lending *
and to manage their affairs with justice.

For they will never be shaken; *
the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

They will not be afraid of any evil rumors; *
their heart is right;
they put their trust in the Lord.

Their heart is established and will not shrink, *
until they see their desire upon their enemies.

They have given freely to the poor, *
and their righteousness stands fast for ever;
they will hold up their head with honor.

The wicked will see it and be angry;
they will gnash their teeth and pine away; *
the desires of the wicked will perish.

This psalm is in happy company with both Sirach and with Proverbs, for all three of them are examples of Wisdom literature.  Here the idea person is held up for us to emulate and to exploit.  The proper noun indicates a warrior or a hero, but it is really anyone who has to deal with the issues of this world.  Prophetic issues are raised up here: righteousness, mercy, generosity, truthfulness, and such.  The psalm closes with a neat comparison – The ideal person stands in sharp contrast to the one who is wicked.  They are in sorrow at the comparison, and unlike the reputation of the righteous one (which, according to the psalmist, is eternal) the desires and story of the wicked will soon be gone.

Breaking open Psalm 112:
  1. Where is your happiness to be found?
  2. Where is the happiness of your neighbor to be found?
  3. How about the poor person on the street?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence,

"The Lord is my helper; 
I will not be afraid. 
What can anyone do to me?" 

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Sometimes the randomness of the Second Lesson falls into synch with the general tenor of the other readings.  Here, in this reading, the author gives the reader some final recommendations on how to live a worthy life.  We are given advice on loving service and then in a later section on true worship.  In the list of godly acts, one might want to refer to Psalm 118:6, which describes the Lord as the psalmist’s (and here, the reader’s) helper.  Reflections of Jesus’ remarks at the end of Matthew 25, and in a broader sense the Decalogue, underscore the author’s godly acts.

The final section has to o with proper worship.  He lifts his reader’s eyes to Jesus, the Christ, and to the death that should have been an embarrassment, but proved to be a support for the believer’s own alienation in a society that had yet to understand the message of Jesus.  In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the reader is bidden to “do good” and to share.  Like the cross, such acts are a sacrifice pleasing to G-d

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. How well have you accomplished the author’s list of virtues?
  2. What can you do to make it better/
  3. What do you see in Jesus on the cross?

St. Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

As in last Sunday’s gospel we are again placed in the midst of the Sabbath, and again Jesus will confound the common wisdom of the day.  The scene is a dinner and the conversation is circling around the Sabbath and what is proper to honoring such a day.  Here we see Jesus as an observer of social behavior and from his study of the crowd he is able to shed some light on their discussions about the Sabbath.  There are two teachings.  The first is about humility.  In a quality that will be required for future Christians, Jesus recommends waiting, or taking a lower place.  There honor is either preserved or increased should one be invited to “come up higher.”

The second observation is about the virtue of hospitality and how it is lived out in the actual lives of people.  Who should be invited to our banquets?  Jesus makes comments to the host.  The comments would cause fury and disagreement among those in our own time.  The guests should be, according to Jesus: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  In other words, all those who are mentioned by both Isaiah and Jesus as the recipients of the messianic kingdom should be invited to this earthly feast.  There is no reciprocity here, only the promise of the kingdom.  Thus, this simple human dinner party becomes a sign of what is to come in the heavenly realm.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How do you deal with your own pride in a social situation?
  2. How do you deal with the pride of others?
  3. What do you think of Jesus’ guest list?  How would you do it?

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

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.


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