The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, 31 July 2016

Track One:
Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Track Two:
Ecclesiastes: 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11

Colossians 3:1-11
Saint Luke 12:13-21

Background: Difficult Prophets

I ran into an interesting conversation on Facebook this last week concerning Hosea. The poster wondered if others were abandoning the Track One reading from Hosea in favor of the Track Two reading because Hosea was just too difficult. One responder even commented that you couldn’t do just to Hosea in the average twelve-minute Episcopal sermon. I noted that I am missing the opportunity to preach on Hosea because he is out of the norm and the main stream. In Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, we have, I think, a fairly authentic representation of the ecstatic prophets – crazy making in their eccentricity. Perhaps that is the difficulty. If we scratch the surface of religion we find a substratum of the uncomfortable: sexual life, retribution, xenophobia, and exotic visions among others. That we not delve into these areas as preachers, or lectors, or just plan students of the Bible denies us the humanity of the Scriptures, and removes us from similar moments in our own lives. I find it heartening that Hosea takes the difficulties of his own life as the context against which he portrays his message. They seem to be hooks that any person can identify with, and then begin to understand the prophet’s concern. They dynamics of family life are used to provide examples of a nation’s relationship with God. It is the prophet’s hope, I think, that the individual could look at their own life and its quandaries and there begin to understand God’s message to Israel.

Track One:

First Reading: Hosea 11:1-11

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.

Between the parentheses of verses 1 and 11 in which God professes a great love for Israel, there is a rehearsal of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part and disappointment on God’s. What is contrasted here is Egypt and Assyria. The pericope begins with a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but later on there is a substitution for Egypt, “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king.” The deliverance is incomplete because the people are still in slavery to the Ba’alim. What God had meant as a return has been realized as a rejection, and thus the people shall return not to freedom and redemption, but rather to slavery.

The last part of the pericope sees some repentance. Not on the part of the people, but rather on God’s part, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” What should be noticed are the images of parent and child, and the behaviors of a loving family. “I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” Many a parent in our midst knows the pain of having to correct a child, and yet love them. The humanity that Hosea lifts up here, as he talks about God and God’s people should make for some good preaching and reading – experiences that remarkably touch our own lives with understanding.

Breaking open Hosea:
1.     What does it mean to call God “father” or “mother”?
2.     What are the difficult parts about being a parent?
3.     In what ways does this reading represent a psychological conflict?

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 Confitemini Domino

     Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2      Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3      He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4      Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
5      They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.
6      Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
7      He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
8      Let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy *
and the wonders he does for his children.
9      For he satisfies the thirsty *
and fills the hungry with good things.
43    Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.

The themes of this psalm resonate with the themes that we have just rehearsed in the Hosea reading. What might seem to be theological ideas and remembrance is actually a reading of what was going on politically. The redemption mentioned in verse two is political redemption, a relief from the oppression of Egypt (or anticipated in Assyria or Babylon). There are hopeful verses, however, that speak of return from all the points of the compass, so the psalmist may be taking the experience of Egypt or of later exiles and making for a generic or universal understanding of God’s grace. There is also a contrasting of the people’s cries and their acclaim. One translation of the first verse underscores the contrast, “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good.” Later, however, the people are crying in the desert wastes. The bulk of the psalm, most of which is not used here in the reading for this Sunday, then rehearses the graciousness of God in answering the cries of God’s people.  Although this is a psalm of thanksgiving, there is an appeal to the notion of Wisdom in the final verse, “whoever is wise will ponder these things.”

Breaking open Psalm 107:

1.        How is the story of Egypt different that the story of Assyria?
2.        What does “redemption” mean in this psalm?
3.        What is the wisdom (common sense) in this psalm?


Track Two:

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem, applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me -- and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

In some respects the structure of this selection, chosen by the lectionary editors, is quite disappointing. It attempts too much, and thus accomplishes little in allowing us, and the people we are either preaching to or reading to, to understand Qohelet’s message. So what we are left with are the enigmatic introduction, which opines that life and all that accompanies it is really quite ephemeral, a snippet of autobiographical material that repeats the themes from the first verses, and a longer section from chapter two which represents Qohelet’s odd perspective of and turn of Wisdom. Readers would be helped considerably by referring to Robert Alter’s excellent article in his book, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary.[1] He begins by tackling the concept of vanity, the word that begins the work proper and that was used by the King James translators. He contrasts the Hebrew vocable havel (merest breath, or vapor) which represents “the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing,”[2] with a much more familiar word, ru’ah (life breath) that is such an active component in Genesis. In our pericope it appears only as the wind, “all is vanity and a chasing after wind”, so complete is his cynicism.

The closing paragraph of our selection is almost oddly appropriate to our time, given our current political situation, and the frustration that seems to flow at every point in our society. Yet, the “cries of the people” (see the Track One psalm) are not that their efforts are futile, but rather that they have not resulted in the luxuries and material goods that are supposedly deserved. In wondering how to preach this text, I would be tempted to challenge the values that seem to drive us, even in the church. I am reminded of an off-hand comment by the Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, “Perhaps we need to lose some of the bling.”

Breaking open Ecclesiastes:
1.     In what ways do you agree with the Teacher?
2.     What do you find disturbing?
3.     What is the “bling” in your life?

Psalm 49:1-11 Audite haec, omnes

     Hear this, all you peoples;
hearken, all you who dwell in the world, *
you of high degree and low, rich and poor together.
2      My mouth shall speak of wisdom, *
and my heart shall meditate on understanding.
3      I will incline my ear to a proverb *
and set forth my riddle upon the harp.
4      Why should I be afraid in evil days, *
when the wickedness of those at my heels surrounds me,
5      The wickedness of those who put their trust in their goods, *
and boast of their great riches?
6      We can never ransom ourselves, *
or deliver to God the price of our life;
7      For the ransom of our life is so great, *
that we should never have enough to pay it,
8      In order to live for ever and ever, *
and never see the grave.
9      For we see that the wise die also;
like the dull and stupid they perish *
and leave their wealth to those who come after them.
10    Their graves shall be their homes for ever,
their dwelling places from generation to generation, *
though they call the lands after their own names.
11    Even though honored, they cannot live for ever; *
they are like the beasts that perish.

The psalmist here does not abandon his worldview to the complete cynicism of the Teacher (see First Reading) but rather gives a harsh assay of what is valuable in the world. That is the wisdom that he wishes to impart – a song sung sweetly upon a lyre, but bitter to hear. The words are not directed exclusively to Israel, but to a more general and universal audience, for this is a wisdom psalm. There is almost a graduated understanding of the vanities of this world, for the poor will dissolve into death before the rich. And yet the fate of the rich is just the same – death and the Pit. The fate of death is the destiny of both the wise and the dull. The phraseology and vocabulary of this psalmist bears an uncanny resemblance to the Teacher.

Breaking open Psalm 49
1.     How do you think about death?
2.     Do you talk to your friends about death?
3.    Are you too young to talk about death?

The Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11

If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things-- anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Paul continues his teaching to the Colossians about what it means to live in Christ. Oddly enough, this reading, a part of lectio continua, actually fits in with the themes of the Gospel and first reading. Paul doesn’t teach us the vanity of life, but he does insist on the vanity of earthly things when compared to what Christ offers. His appeal is replete with his usual lists: a list of that which is earthly (fornication, impurity, etc.), things to get rid of (anger, wrath, etc.), and a list of human values that are no longer of value (Greek, Jew, etc.). There is a phrase here that indicates the mystery of this new existence that Paul calls the Colossians to, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” All else must be given up.

Breaking open Colossians:
  1. What does it mean to you to be “hidden with Christ in God?”
  2. What are earthly things that are of no value to you?
  3. What is your true human status?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Here we see Jesus as rabbi, when a man from the crowd asks him a question of casuistry, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus refuses his request by oddly reversing a situation that involved Moses. Then, the people objected to Moses leadership, “Who appointed you ruler and judge? (Exodus 2:14)”. Here Jesus refuses the role, and it is he who turns the question around, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” Luke doesn’t leave us in suspense, but announces the meaning of Jesus’ parable in advance of reporting it to us. The themes are familiar today, “ones life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” The parable explores the vapid (see comments in the First Reading about the translation of the Hebrew vocable havel) nature of what the rich man finds of value. He is sort of an anti-Job, for God does not allow his wealth to be taken away, but rather he is given more. Yet, in spite of that, he will still die, and all that he has achieved will belong to another. We need to think back to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, specifically to the woes that follow the blessings. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation,” (Saint Luke 6:24). The question must be asked, “What does it mean to be rich toward God?” It is a proposal that is not even considered by the Teacher of the first reading, nor is it seen as a value. Jesus paints a different picture. There is something of value and worth, and it is in our relationship with God.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How is Jesus your Rabbi?
2.     What of your possessions would you find it difficult to part with?
3.    What does that mean to you?

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

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Alter, R. (2010), The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 6467 to 6586.
[2]Alter, Location 6518


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