The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20, 18 September 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9

Track Two:
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113

I Timothy 2:1-7
Saint Luke 16:1-13

Background: Poverty in the Ancient Near East

The theology and worldview that stands behind the reading from Amos (see Track Two first reading), was not unique to Israel, or to the followers of YHWH. Rather, there is a general social view that permeates the entire ancient near east, from the wisdom of Egypt to the legal codes of Mesopotamia.  In Egypt, the status of the poor, and the noblesse oblige that demanded some attention on the part of the rich was mediated by the wisdom literature of that culture. A typical example would be, “I gave bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and a passage to those who had no ship.” The Mesopotamians had a more theological point of view, with the commentaries framing their legal code forming an understanding of the treatment of the poor. Oddly enough, the fine sentiments do not find their way into the actual codified law – only remaining on the periphery of moral understanding.

It is Israel that actually incorporates both theological and legal statement into one body. There are two primary examples of this, the Covenant Code framed by the Deuteronomist (Exodus 20:19 – 23:33), and the Holiness Code of Leviticus (17 – 26). They differ, however, in terms of their definitions and applications of the law. The Deuteronomical understanding centers around the notion of those who do not have the benefit of owning land, namely the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. There are two historical aspects of this understanding. The first is that this theological notion is rooted in the Exodus story, where Israel was “the stranger.” The second is that this system may have been codified when peoples were leaving the Northern Kingdom during the onslaught of the Assyrian Empire and settling in the south as landless immigrants. It is important to note that in this understanding, the widow, orphan, and stranger still enjoy the status of being a part of society, especially the liturgical and cultic community that celebrates the feasts and festivals. The other distinction is the system of remissions of debt on a seven-year cycle. Here Israel is distinct as well from its Mesopotamian neighbors, where it was by royal remission that such debts were forgiven. In Israel it is the responsibility of individuals in the society to provide such forgiveness to neighbors. One commentator called this understanding as basically “utopian”, and not easily followed.

The Holiness Code represents a different point of view. Gone is the seven-year cycle, replaced by a fifty-year cycle – an unattainable goal given the realities of a shorter lifespan at the time. Also gone is the notion of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, which is replaced by a word or words indicating “the poor.” The gleanings left in the field are left for “the poor and the stranger.” The change of status is not only one of now being seen only as “poor”, but also of being not a part of the community that celebrates the festivals which are restricted to “every citizen in Israel.”

Which does Jesus follow? His meals are filled with sinners, widows, orphans, and strangers – indeed his entire ministry is focused in that direction.  And it is not just the theology of Jesus that seems rooted in the Exodus/Deuteronomist understanding, but Pauline ideas as well, where in Acts of the Apostles we see concern for widows, and the distribution of necessities to the widows. The promise of Exodus was that there were to be no poor at all in this land flowing with milk and honey, and Jesus’ eschatological borrowings from the prophets show a similar understanding. The poor we may have with us always, but that may not be the point. It is how the community, especially the individuals in the community respond to that that forms the point.

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
"Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?"
("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?")
"The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved."
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

If we have an understanding of poverty and status in Israel (see Background, above) then this poem of sorrow has a meaning more easily discernable. The fate of the poor, and the fact that they are hurt and cry is not a comment on God’s negligence, but on a people who have not understood the Exodus Covenant. Their role against their neighbors who are sorely pressed has been abrogated, and thus they display their faithlessness over against God. The identification of God with the poor is complete, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt.” All of this is evidence that leads to only one conclusion, that the people are looking elsewhere than to the God who brought them out of Egypt. One can understand that the forgetfulness of the people (of both God and of the poor) now leads to abandonment on God’s part – a separation from those who have forgotten. All of this is lamentable – and indeed the very words seem formed in a lament around the broken relationship.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     What kind of promises does God make to the poor?
2.     How are these promises kept and made real?
3.    What role do you play in that?

Psalm 79:1-9 Deus, venerunt

     O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance;
they have profaned your holy temple; *
they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble.
2      They have given the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, *
and the flesh of your faithful ones to the beasts of the field.
3      They have shed their blood like water on every side of Jerusalem, *
and there was no one to bury them.
4      We have become a reproach to our neighbors, *
an object of scorn and derision to those around us.
5      How long will you be angry, O Lord? *
will your fury blaze like fire for ever?
6      Pour out your wrath upon the heathen who have not known you *
and upon the kingdoms that have not called upon your Name.
7      For they have devoured Jacob *
and made his dwelling a ruin.
8      Remember not our past sins;
let your compassion be swift to meet us; *
for we have been brought very low.
9      Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name; *
deliver us and forgive us our sins, for your Name's sake.

Jeremiah’s pathos is replaced in the psalm with God’s wrath and anger. There is something of the pathetic here, however, as the author laments the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, perhaps by the Babylonians (586 BCE). Such suffering and anguish is not quickly diminished, but seems to last more than a lifetime, “How long will you be angry, O Lord?” There are requests to God to 1) spare the wrath to Israel and to pour it out “upon the heathen who have not known you,” and 2) to “remember not our past sins.” Not all in the psalm is altruistic, however. God might want to pay attention to God’s own reputation and standing – “help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name.”

Breaking open Psalm 79:1-9:

1.        Has God put difficulties in your life?
2.        How did you deal with them?
3.        How is your relationship with God different?


Track Two:

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, "When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

In the preceding verse (8:2b - And the LORD said to me: The end has come for my people Israel; I will forgive them no longer.), the prophet announces God’s intent for Israel. In our reading for this morning, he begins to itemize the reasons for God’s decision. The enumeration is not of a generalized nature, either, but rather quite detailed in its description. So the instance in our reading today, “you trample on the needy” is made more complete and applicable with the provision of concrete examples: 1) not honoring the fasts and Sabbath, 2) making dishonest weights, 3) making slaves of the poor who were debtors, and 4) selling the leavings (chaff and dust) of the granary floor as food. YHWH, who was seen as “the pride of Jacob”, now is effectively forgotten by Israel’s behavior – and thus God’s judgment.

Breaking open Amos:
1.     Do you see behaviors in the world that are like the ones described by Amos?
2.     Where do you see this?
3.    What can you do about it?

Psalm 113 Laudate, pueri

Give praise, you servants of the Lord; *
praise the Name of the Lord.
2      Let the Name of the Lord be blessed, *
from this time forth for evermore.
3      From the rising of the sun to its going down *
let the Name of the Lord be praised.
4      The Lord is high above all nations, *
and his glory above the heavens.
5      Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high *
but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth?
6      He takes up the weak out of the dust *
and lifts up the poor from the ashes.
7      He sets them with the princes, *
with the princes of his people.
8      He makes the woman of a childless house *
to be a joyful mother of children.

The image of God that prevails in this psalm is cosmic in nature, encompassing both time (“from this time forth for evermore”) and space (“his glory above the heavens.”) The praise of God is like a background radiation permeating all existence and experience. From this vantage point, seeing God in such a vast perspective, we are then taken the opposite direction so that this same God of all glories can encounter humanity and its problems, “but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth.” It is here that God metes out what Amos sees as forgotten by Israel. The poor are raised up; they and the weak are seated with the powerful. That which was not fruitful is made fruitful. This is a psalm of opposites that embraces all the beauties of God.

Breaking open Psalm 113:
1.     Do you have conflicting or opposite concepts of God?
2.     Describe them.
3.    Which do you prefer the most?

The Second Reading: I Timothy 2:1-7

First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For

there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
who gave himself a ransom for all

-- this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Paul makes certain that his readers understand that it is God who rules above, who is the sovereign of the world. None-the-less, he admits to a duty on the part of Christians to pray for those who serve as leaders in the world “so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.” The theological and liturgical language which Paul uses to describe the Christian situation is also sufficient to describe the “godliness and dignity” to which societies and peoples aspire. Thus all of life is the subject of our prayers.

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. Who in government do you pray for?
  2. Why?
  3. Who have you forgotten?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 16:1-13

Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, `What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

The prophet Amos (see Track Two first reading) despairs of how God’s faithful people are using their resources of wealth. Now Jesus provides parables to further describe what must be done and to teach a lesson to his disciples. It is good for us to remember what precedes this difficult lesson, and that is the “prodigal son” parable. In a sense, these two offer a parallel view. In the first, the quick dissolution of property is for no good purpose, other than pleasure. In the second, it is the means for preserving life and position. How do we chart a course of understanding between the two? First of all, Jesus wants his hearers to understand that while they Kingdom is at hand, they yet live in the world. The prodigal son understands that, for that is the existence that he seeks. The cunning manager also understands the world, and what he must do to live within it. This is the base line, and there is a great deal of detail that is omitted, frustrating us in a more complete understanding of his behavior (was he discounting usurious interest, or providing relief to debt-ridden farmers?) What is the value that the manager brings to the situation – a righteous act? No. Cunning in a world-wise manner? Yes. Or is Jesus actually teaching us about what lasts. In the parable of the rich fool, (Luke 12:16-21) Jesus teaches the same lesson about the same values, “Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.” The children of light do live and operate with “this generation,” but their values must be drastically different.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What do you understand in this parable?
2.     What does it call you to do?
3.    What does it call you to leave behind?

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

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; 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


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