The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 23 October 2016

Track One:
Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65

Track Two:
Sirach 35:12-17, or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
Psalm 84:1-6

II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Saint Luke 18:9-14

Background: Publicani
In the parable that is told in today’s Gospel we see the typical villain in the person of the tax collector, an effective contrast to the super righteous Pharisee. Who were these tax collectors, and why were they so vilified. Tax collectors were essential private contractors who were mandated to collect the various imperial taxes in a region or province. Tax collection was not the only area in which the empire used private contractors, with some military work being given over to contractors as well. These publicani were titled such because they were about the business of public works. In general, the system worked, with some examples of abuse and bad behaviors. The problem was, at least in the Roman experience, that there was no effective legislation or legal code that controlled this aspect of the government. During the reign of Augustus, the quiet of the pax Romana allowed for a population that didn’t question government practices and procedures. All was proceeding too well and too effectively. Those in power benefited from the private contractor system, so certain untoward practices were allowed to continue or overlooked.

The situation in Palestine was different, however. Here the tax collection represented not only the need of the empire to tax its various peoples for the benefit of public works within that province or region, but more to the point represented the Roman government as oppressor and illegal occupier. That was the base line thinking. In addition to these traitorous acts against the Jewish people was added to premium exacted by the collectors on the base tax requested by the empire. Thus they were seen as greedy and dishonest. The Roman historian Livy (ca. 34 BCE) agreed. He writes: “Where there was a private contractor, there was no effective public law and no freedom for the subjects.”[1] Thus a popular portrayal coupled with the politics of occupation and suppression results in a model of sinfulness that Jesus uses effectively in his parable.

Track One:

First Reading: Joel 2:23-32

O children of Zion, be glad
and rejoice in the Lord your God;
for he has given the early rain for your vindication,
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain, as before.
The threshing floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I, the Lord, am your God and there is no other.
And my people shall never again
be put to shame.

Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.

Joel writes to a people quite happily resettled in the land of their fathers and mothers. The period of exile has since long passed, and the enemies of the people are more concentrated in weather conditions and natural enemies, such as the locust. Thus in the initial verses, the prophet recalls the many blessings of prosperity and abundance that have accrued to the people. When the great Day of the Lord comes, the people will be “never again…put to shame.”

The second half begins with the promise of the spirit, a pericope made popular in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, quoted in Acts 2. Having assured the people not to fear the Day of the Lord, now the prophet asks them to anticipate its coming. The initial statement, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh” seems to indicate a universalism that mirrors developments in Jeremiah and Isaiah. Not all agree about this, however, seeing the limitations in the subsequent verse, your sons and your daughters.” Regardless it is its use in Acts that does expand the understanding to include peoples outside of the covenant peoples. A messianic stage has been set, first by abundance, and then by the gift of the spirit. There is an expansion of meaning in the inclusion of women in the promises of the spirit, and the inclusion of the aged and slaves as well. The final verses underscore the dreadful nature of the coming day. Any possible unfaithfulness needs to give way to a desire to “call upon the name of the Lord.” Finally we have an echo of Isaiah’s remnant theology. “And among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”

Breaking open Joel:
1.     What does the Day of the Lord mean to you?
2.     What does the prophet Joel hope for on such a day?
3.    What do you hope for on the last day?

Psalm 65 Te decet hymnus

     You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
2      To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3      Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
4      Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5      Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.
6      You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
7      You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
8      Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; *
you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy.
9      You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous; *
the river of God is full of water.
10    You prepare the grain, *
for so you provide for the earth.
11    You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
12    You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.
13    May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with joy.
14    May the meadows cover themselves with flocks,
and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and sing.

I like Robert Alter’s translation of the first line – enigmatic and somehow connected to Elijah’s experience at Horeb, “To you silence is praise, God, in Zion.”[2] What follows then is an expression of God’s greatness, and the ubiquity of God’s gifts. After words of trust, there is a rehearsal that is reminiscent of Joel’s description of God’s munificence and the abundance of Judah. The psalmist begins by reminding the reader of God’s control of these things – best seen in his victory over the waters at the moment of creation. From this point on water takes on a different role - the waters flow, drench, soften the ground, and bless the land’s increase. Suddenly the metaphor changes as the earth is clothed and draped in God’s blessings.

Breaking open Psalm 65

1.        How is silence both holy and beautiful for you?
2.        Where is there abundance in your life?
3.        What do you do with your abundance?


Track Two:

First Reading: Sirach 35:12-17

Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint.

What is the etiquette of giving? This is what concerns Sirach in this reading. Some behaviors are shown to be out of bounds when offering a thanksgiving to God. One must not defraud the poor when making an offering, nor is it right to attempt to bribe God. The subtext here has been a theme of justice. It is a justice offered to the poor, to the widow, and to the orphan. Thus gifts to God are also the gifts we offer to others in the course of life.

Breaking open Sirach:
1.     What forms your giving to charity?
2.     To whom do you give offerings?
3.    Whom have your forgotten in your giving?


Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O Lord, for your name's sake;
our apostasies indeed are many,
and we have sinned against you.
O hope of Israel,
its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
like a traveler turning aside for the night?
Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us!
Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
Truly they have loved to wander,
they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them,
now he will remember their iniquity
and punish their sins.
Have you completely rejected Judah?
Does your heart loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down
so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Can any idols of the nations bring rain?
Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God?
We set our hope on you,
for it is you who do all this.

Jeremiah begins with a lament that is followed by a divine oracle. It might serve you best to read the entire pericope here in order to understand the context of what Jeremiah is offering – thus begin at verse 1, and its depiction of drought. The question is “why is there drought – why this judgment against us?” So our reading properly begins with an admission of guilt and a request for forgiveness. It is God who is the actor here, not Judah. They are not made holy in their request for forgiveness, but rather are made wise in recognizing God’s generosity.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     Where is there “drought” in your life?
2.     Is it because of something you have done or not done?
3.    How will it be relieved?

Psalm 84:1-6 Quam dilecta!

     How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
2      The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
3      Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
4      Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
5      Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6      They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

Here the psalmist longs in an almost erotic manner for the temple. The intensity of this language leads the reader to explore why such an emotional response? Even the smallest things of creation have access to the greatness of the temple, such as the small birds that nest in its stones. Thus humankind as well is made happy and is satisfied to be in the temple praising God. By doing such, everyone is a pilgrim making their way to the temple. It is ironic to invoke the pilgrim’s way (for we naturally think of the wilderness that leads up to Jerusalem) and then to make reference to a “place of springs.” The very nature of creation is seen differently when in the context of God’s house.

Breaking open Psalm 84:
1.     How do you really feel about going to church?
2.     How does the church afford you some level of comfort and satisfaction?
3.    In what ways are you a pilgrim?

Second Reading: II Timothy 4:6-8,16-18

I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul gives a reprise of his situation in describing life as a “libation,” an offering to God. He looks back at what he has done, and describes it to us in athletic terms, complete with the victor’s laurel wreath as a crown. And then he does not reserve all this to himself, but grants that all “who have longed for his appearing” will share in the victory and the reward. Paul also recognizes that he has, for the sake of the Gospel, stepped outside of his community and tradition. It is stated in the reverse, with the community having abandoned him. Thus he stands alone through his own decision or through that of others. He announces finally, however, that he is not alone – Christ stands with him as rescuer and savior.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. What does it mean to be poured out as a libation?
  2. What has Paul accomplished in his ministry?
  3. What are his expectations of Timothy?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, `God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, `God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Jesus continues to teach us about the nature and truthfulness of prayer. In this parable he compares two lives – that of the hyper-religious Pharisee and that of the publican. At various points in the Gospel Jesus points out that under the Kingdom of Heaven things will be made new, turned around, seen in a new light. Thus it is here, for the prayers, which could be not more different, are indeed the opposite one from the other. One is self-indulgent and bragging, while the other is self-aware and suppliant. Even the placement of the characters underlines their difference. The Pharisee stands alone, separated not only by space but also by his sense of his own righteousness and superiority. The publican stands at the perimeter of things, not even allowing himself to gaze up into heaven. Thus the tables are turned for one who thought him first is now last, and visa versa. Human status, and the opinion of others hold no suasion in God’s kingdom. The vantage point of the Holy One of Israel is a great leveler.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     How are you like the Pharisee?
2.     How are you like the publican?
3.    How is that reflected in your prayer life?

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

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; 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]    Livy, History of Rome, quoted by Cavanaugh, M (2004), “Private Tax Collectors: A Roman, Christian, and Jewish Perspective”,
[2]    Alter, R. (2009), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton& Company, New York, Kindle location 5173.


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