The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 24, 20 October 2013
II Timothy 3:14-4:5
St. Luke 18:1-8
Background: Polygamy and Concubinage
The Track 2 first reading gives us opportunity to look at the institution of marriage in the Patriarchal Period (and actually well beyond) in its acceptance of polygamy and concubinage. As to whether this was a wide-spread practice, one commentator and historian warns us that this was really a practice reserved to the wealthy only, given the cost of keeping several wives or “half wives” (pilegesh) i.e. mistresses that were also a part of the household. The Legal Codes protected these women, and we have several examples in the Hebrew Scriptures – Sarah and Hagar, Leah and Zilpah, and Rachel and Bilhah. The penultimate value in this society was the production of an heir, and this allowed for any means possible to this end. Therefore both wives and “half wives” enjoyed the same rights in the household. The only significant difference was the presence of a dowry (and thus a marriage contract) for the wife.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say:
"The parents have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge."
But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
This reading begins with a recounting of what God has already done for (or perhaps to) Israel and Judah. Israel received her punishment at the hands of the Assyrians in the eighth century BCE, and Judah received hers at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian King, in 586 BCE. The verbs that predicted this punishment are repeated by the prophet – “to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and (an additional verb is added to the originals in Jeremiah 1:10) to bring evil”. God has monitored the situation, and now all is complete. It is time for something new. God promises to continue his “watching over” and initiates new actions – “to build and to plant”. This is a different situation than that which we read about in last Sunday’s reading, where God encourages the Judeans to be fruitful in the situation in which they found themselves. God would be active there as well as in the land from which they were exiled. Here Jeremiah anticipates a homecoming from there (Babylon) to here (Palestine).
Jeremiah quotes a proverb (the parents have eaten sour grapes…) that his opponents have used to complain that God was punishing Judah for the sins of the fathers, and not for their own wickedness. Jeremiah will have none of it, and holds them accountable for their sins. Jeremiah refuses to see that the present generation is in some kind of legal bind – that a new situation cannot unfold because of their past.
What follows is a wonderful piece of writing and promise – the new covenant. There are dangers here, however. Christians need to read this promise with a more complete understanding, and it is Jeremiah who provides the appropriate background. There was an existing covenant between God and the People, and it is modeled on the marriage contract – God being the husband. Covenants that would have struck an air of familiarity are recalled – namely the rescue from Egypt. What follows then is a covenant with Israel that will be more than cold words written on stone, but rather a living covenant written on the heart. The contrasting covenants are not the Old and the New, but rather the covenant that existed before the punishment, and that which was “written on the heart” after. The closing line says it all, “and I…shall remember their sin no more.”
Breaking open Jeremiah:
- Have you ever suffered from the sins of those who came before you? How?
- In what ways are you responsible for your own wrongdoing?
- Do you feel forgiven?
Psalm 119:97-104, Quomodo dilexi!
Oh, how I love your law! *
all the day long it is in my mind.
Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, *
and it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, *
for your decrees are my study.
I am wiser than the elders, *
because I observe your commandments.
I restrain my feet from every evil way, *
that I may keep your word.
I do not shrink from your judgments, *
because you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste! *
they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
Through your commandments I gain understanding; *
therefore I hate every lying way.
Psalm 119 is a long acrostic, based on the alphabet, and this section is the Mem section. The entirety of the psalm is dedicated to the word and law of God. In this pericope the author rejoices in the wisdom that is proffered in the Law, and the advantage given to those who read and keep it, unlike those who suffer because they do not follow God’s word. What are given are understanding and insight, and “sweetness” to those who take in the precepts. Curiously, this psalm, which is devoted to the law, does not mention either the Temple or the events at Sinai. It is conceived of as an individual transaction, the giving of wisdom, by God, to the individual who choses to relish it.
Breaking open Psalm 119:
- What comes to mind when you think of the Law of God?
- As a Christian, what responsibility do you have before the Law?
- How is Law wisdom?
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
This marvelous story serves as a nexus of Jacob’s life. Its theme of “wrestling” or “striving” is at one with a similar thread of events in Jacob’s life that explore his striving with life itself. The events that underscore this theme are his birth – grabbing at Esau’s heel, the double-dealing with the birthright that was truly Esau’s, his struggle with the stone at the well, and his negotiations with Laban. He is on his way south to meet his estranged brother Esau, who is traveling north. What happens as the sun sets is perhaps a psychological study of Jacob’s anxiety as he anticipates this meeting.
Often it is mentioned that this is a wrestling match with God, but that may not be so. The “man” with whom Jacob wrestles seems limited to the night, for when dawn begins to break the man pleads with Jacob to let him go. One commentator suggests that the “man” is a projection of Esau, and the wrestling match an anticipation of their meeting. The man, however, does have a touch of magic – touching Jacob’s hip-socket and causing damage. When asked his name, the man does not reply – he is beyond identification. Jacob (he who acts crookedly) now is lamed by the man, and his physical reality is a mirror of his track in life.
The naming story is not like that of Abraham, where Abraham really does take on the new name. Here Jacob continues to be Jacob – but with the understanding that something fundamental has changed within him. Whoever it was that strove with Jacob/Israel fought him to a tie. The important point, however, is that Jacob survives, moves on, and comments on the experience, “I have seen God (here Elohim, which can have a variety of meanings) face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” A new day dawns, and a Jacob touched by the experience moves on to meet with his brother.
Breaking open Genesis:
- With what spirits do you wrestle?
- Recite to your self, or read the story of the relationship between Jacob and Esau.
- Have you had relationships like this? How did you deal with it?
Psalm 121, Levavi oculos
I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
The LORD himself watches over you; *
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.
Traditionally, this psalm and its immediate neighbors have been designated as pilgrim songs, sung as the pilgrim made his or her way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Now that view is beginning to be disputed, and these psalms are being seen in a more general way as psalm prayers during travel. The initial verse poses a question that is answered in the following verses. The central theme of these verses is confidence in the face of threatening circumstances. The word for “guard” (shomer) appears some six times during the course of the psalm. God is seen as the one who protects and guides. Verse six deals with both the metaphorical and the real. Protection from the sun would have been an important consideration in Palestine. Protection from the moon, however, gives voice to the fear of being moonstruck or crazy. The final verse seems to be a lovely connection to the idea of entering the Temple precincts with God’s protection. It can, however, be used in all of life. I remember it being used as a blessing at baptisms.
Breaking open Psalm 121:
- How is your life like a journey?
- From whom do you seek help during your life travels?
- How is God like a “guard” for you?
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Here Timothy is urged to remain faithful to what Paul had taught him. Indeed, the text indicates that there are more than Paul’s efforts cited here – “whom” is plural in the Greek. Also, “Paul” or the author does not indicate exactly what it is that Timothy was taught. It is not the texts business to prove anything to Timothy, but rather to ground him in what he has known since his childhood, the sacred writings that instructed him in the faith. Such grounding is followed with attributes “teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness.” The result is a wisdom, which equips Christians with the tools for “every good work”.
Thus equipped Timothy is now charged to “proclaim, to be persistent, convince, rebuke, encourage, and teach.” We need to remember that the author is writing in a background of new teachings, and of a nescient Gnosticism that is threatening Paul’s work. The author is anxious about the “itching ears” that seem to delight in hearing teachings that suit the hearer’s own purposes. The final encouragement is to shadow Paul’s experience, “endure suffering, do the work of evangelist, and minister.”
Breaking open II Timothy:
- How did you learn your faith?
- Who was the source of your faith?
- How have you used those teachings?
St. Luke 18:1-8
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, `Grant me justice against my opponent.' For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, `Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"
The subtext to Jesus’ teaching here is that of waiting and persistence. The preceding chapter ends with predictions about the coming of the Kingdom of God (17:20-21) and the Day of the Son of Man (17:22-37), thus this encouragement to wait with patience and persistence makes sense. The example is of a widow who endures the whims of an evil judge. What happens during this period of patience and waiting? Given our own culture, the time would be filled with anger and anxiety, and not a little acting out. How would the widow have spent her time? Luke hopes that it was a period of prayer and expectation. The judge’s motives are not so high. He does not dispense justice because the Law demands it of him, but rather to be rid of a human annoyance. The widow’s persistence is not a sole example in the Gospels. Another woman, Anna, the prophet, “continually prayed and fasted in the Temple” (2:37) and waits with Simeon for the revelation of Jesus. Given the difficult times in which Luke records this parable the question becomes even more poignant – can you endure the suffering of the present time so that you can witness the end time? There might be an interesting discussion about the necessity of providing for social justice even while waiting for a greater good. I am reminded of what God says to Israel in Jeremiah, while awaiting justice in Babylon (see last Sunday’s first reading). Here, now, in this place build your home and plant your garden. So the widow does. She will not settle for injustice.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What are you waiting for with patience?
- How do you enable patience in your life?
- Have you ever been persistent about something? What?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations: Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.