The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 19, 15 September 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11

I Timothy 1:12-17
St. Luke 15:1-10

Background:  Timothy

The two letters to Timothy and a third to Titus comprise a unit of Scripture that has been called from the eighteenth century on “The Pastoral Epistles”.  Originally attributed to St. Paul, the current scholarly consensus assigns them to an unknown author writing the latter part of the first century or the early part of the second century CE.  The books are largely devoted to administrative advice directed to church leaders in Asia Minor.  There are other concerns as well.  They seem to deal with a developing Gnosticism. (A religious world view that developed around the same time as Christianity, perhaps even before.  It held that the world was created by a demiurge and that the worldly was to be avoided and that the spiritual world should be the focus.  “Gnosis” is the Greek word for “wisdom”, a combination of philosophy, culture, metaphysics, and arcane knowledge from other civilizations.)  Although the author rails against “false teachers” he never describes the nature of their false teaching.  One can only imply from his comments in I Timothy 6:20, “Avoid profane babbling and the absurdities of so-called knowledge (gnosis)”, that the author was writing about the problems of Gnosticizing tendencies in the early Church.  Apparently the “crisis of the time” directed one of the leaders in the Church to write in Paul’s name to assure continuance in Paul’s teaching and theology.

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-- a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.

Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

In this section of Jeremiah, lasting until the end of the sixth chapter, the prophet warns against a threat from the north.  Such a warning would have struck a note with the people of Judah, having seen their related tribes decimated by the Assyrians in the past (eighth century BCE).  Jeremiah doesn’t name this threat immediately, but we know from later in this section that it is Nebuchadnezzar II, the King of Babylon, (605-562 BCE) who is threatening the southern kingdom and Jerusalem.  Jeremiah simply notes the geo-political wind and then theologizes upon it.  His personal rancor is against the politicians who look solely for political and military answers and ignore what G-d might want.

In this section we have a paragraph of warning – no more than a warning, but rather a judgment, as rendered in a court of law,  “A hot wind blows from the north”.  What follows is an appraisal of their knowledge of the situation.  G-d calls them “fools” and “stupid”.  In verse 23, G-d notes a virtual “uncreation” of the world: 

I looked at the earth—it was waste and void;
at the heavens—their light had gone out!” 
New American Bible

But it is not just creation itself that is threatened; it is also the particularity of their own existence.  The threat comes from their own ignorance, their “not knowing” G-d’s ways.  The promise is not of redemption (at least not yet) but rather of desolation and destruction.  Heaven and earth which are often called upon to witness (again as in a court of law) what G-d’s people have done, are here called upon to “mourn” and to “grow black”.  As in the creation story, when G-d speaks and all comes into being, here G-d speaks a new word, “for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.” 

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. There is an order to things in the relationships of your household.  Where does G-d stand in that order?
  2. How do you feel about reading of a threat from G-d?
  3. How would you respond to G-d’s accusations? 
Psalm 14 Dixit insipiens

The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." *
All are corrupt and commit abominable acts;
there is none who does any good.

The LORD looks down from heaven upon us all, *
to see if there is any who is wise,
if there is one who seeks after God.

Every one has proved faithless;
all alike have turned bad; *
there is none who does good; no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers *
who eat up my people like bread
and do not call upon the LORD?

See how they tremble with fear, *
because God is in the company of the righteous.

Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, *
but the LORD is their refuge.

Oh, that Israel's deliverance would come out of Zion! *
when the LORD restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice and Israel be glad.

The scoundrel, or fool who begins the speech in Psalm 14 might seem to be making the same speech as the Israelites that Jeremiah excoriates in the first reading.  “There is no G-d” would be the point against with G-d speaks in his legal case against Judah.  It is a prophetic psalm, taking the same line that Jeremiah takes.  G-d is the observer of all that goes on in creation, and the observations made betray a lack of good intentions on the part of humankind.  After all, why bother?  There is no G-d.  The wisdom that is common seems only to be turned not toward G-d but into itself.  It is not aware of G-d, nor is aware of the neighbor, the person in need.  It is to Zion that the nation ought to look, to see righteous policy and works demonstrated by those in power.  They ought to be the salvation of the poor.

Breaking open Psalm 14:
  1. Does G-d peek in on your life?  How?
  2. What does G-d see?
  3. What do you see?


Exodus 32:7-14

The LORD said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."

But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'" And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Moses, it seems, is able to go where neither Jeremiah nor Abraham had faith enough to go.  Faced with G-d’s wrath and determination to punish Israel, Moses pleads for the people, reminding G-d that it was G-d’s actions that brought them out of slavery into the wilderness.  Although Moses effectively ends the conversation with G-d’s repentance, he seems to be unable to answer to the evidence that G-d sets before him.  In an interesting statement, G-d seems to disown the people, instead implying that Moses is the true parent, “Your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt.” This indicates the touch point of both Moses’ and G-d’s argument.  The people were liberated from the slavery of Egypt, and the implicit question is, “now what”?  Like the people in Jeremiah, or in psalm 14 (above) the knowledge of G-d seems to have limits, and their intimacy with G-d bounds.  Moses uses Egypt in a unique way in his argument with G-d.  “What will the Egyptians think?”  And to this he adds significant names: Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).  To these G-d had made significant promises of continuity and a future.  Moses repeats the promises, and YHWH repents of the thoughts held against the people.

Breaking open Exodus:
  1. What has happened immediately prior to this reading?
  2. Why was G-d so miffed?
  3. Have you ever argued with G-d?

Psalm 51:1-11 Miserere mei, Deus

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.

Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.

Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.

And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.

Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.

For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.

Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

We should all recall this psalm from its place in the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, where it serves as a psalm underscoring the penitential nature of the day.  The introduction to the psalm serves as a poignant notice as well:

“For the lead player, a David psalm,
upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”

Robert Alter, in his commentary on the Psalms[1]notes that the verb used for Nathan coming to David, and David coming to Bathsheba may mean either “to come to – or to come into” thereby posing a pun that highlights the prophet’s entering the king’s presence, and David’s sexual violation of Bathsheba.  From that basis, the psalmist begs for mercy.  As such it is a penitential psalm that has universal adaptability rather than particular connection to this situation.  Christians and Jews both have seen the appropriate nature of this psalm to an individual’s meditation on sinfulness.  As mentioned above, Christians use it especially on Ash Wednesday, and Jews as a penitential prayer during the High Holy Days.  The verse “indeed I have been wicked from my birth, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” might lead us down an Augustinian path headed for “original sin”.  Both Christians and Jews have adopted this verse to bolster that argument.  The gentle verb “conceived” can actually be read as a verb associated with animal lust.  Rather than make a theological point, the psalmist is pressed more to realize the ubiquity of sinfulness.  It also speaks to the ubiquity of G-d’s knowledge of us – in the hidden knowledge within us.  In verse 9 we begin to feel relief.  “Purge me with hyssop” refers to the priest’s sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrifice, or as in Numbers 19:18-22, where it refers to cleansing with water.  The point is made with both images – the psalmist seeks redemption and forgiveness, and it is given so that it can be heard and be the cause of praise.  The verse regarding “the right spirit” might call us all back to creation again, where the Spirit reboots us into righteousness and holy living.

Breaking open Psalm 51:
  1. What is sinful in your life?
  2. From whence does that sin come?  How can you avoid it?
  3. What is your response to your own sin?

1 Timothy 1:12-17

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

The author of First Timothy faithfully reproduces Paul epistolary format, beginning with a thanksgiving.  This time, however, the gratitude is for what G-d has done for Paul, rather than that which was done for the church.  The author intends for the reader/hearer to understand what Paul stood for, and to see in his own story, the story of Christ’s grace intended for them as well.  The exaggerated list of vices that describe Paul’s former life (“blasphemer”, “persecutor”, and “man of violence”) is meant to highlight Paul’s message of grace, which is intended for the reader, ostensibly Timothy.  Thus Paul serves as the primary example of grace that will abound in those who follow the Gospel of Jesus.  Over the next several Sunday’s the instruction the author intends for the church will be displayed for us, expounding on the graces evident in Paul’s life and preaching.  The closing is very interesting and is perhaps the remains of an ancient doxology that was used in early Christian worship.

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. Have you ever described yourself in less than flattering terms?
  2. Why?
  3. How was G-d’s grace sufficient for you?

St. Luke 15:1-10

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

In this pericope, Jesus begins to outline the cost that accrues to discipleship, a cost that he introduced so effectively in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.  Here Jesus is gathered with both the ying and the yang, the sinners (tax collectors and their ilk) and the supposedly righteous (the Pharisees and the scribes).  What Jesus does and says will come under the close scrutiny of both camps.  Thus Jesus is characterized as the one who “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus responds with an answer to their complaint in the guise of parables.  The first is about a shepherd who goes after the lost sheep (the subject of countless stained glass windows), and later the story of a woman who has lost a coin.  Both speak to the implicit value of things.  In the first the value of all the sheep, and in the second the value of something in the context of an everyday household.  There is a fourth that is not included here, the so-called Prodigal Son story.  The stories place the hearer into the driver’s seat, “what would you do?”  Like Nathan, who convinces David of his sinfulness, by getting him to identify with the poor neighbor of his story (see Psalm 51, above), so Jesus seeks to have the hearer, whether sinner or scribe, to identify with the one who has lost either sheep, coin, or son.  What is interesting is that this appeal to everyday life, and not to the law, is so convincing, so human.  It outlines the extraordinary measures we take when life takes something from us and we seek its return.  So, what is lost to disciples that they should do the extraordinary?  What is the cost to them?  This is the interior journey that Jesus invites us to take. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why do the Scribes and Pharisees criticize Jesus for eating with sinners?
  2. What kind of sinners sit at your dinner table?
  3. What is valuable in your life that was lost that you took great pains to regain?

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

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller

[1]    Alter, Robert, The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton and Company, New York


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