The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, 15 September 2019

Track One:
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-18
Psalm 14

Track Two:
Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-11

I Timothy 1:12-17
Saint Luke 15:1-10

Background: Publicans

Publicans (Latin) or Telones (Greek) worked in the ancient world as public contractors, and their duties were many. They did everything from supplying the Roman military, worked at the ports collecting duty, supervised public works projects, or, as we know them in the Gospels, served as collectors of taxes both in the Republic and then later in the Empire. This later use was not until later, around the first century BCE. They were in the class of equites.They were public servants, similar to those who serve as civil servants in our municipalities and states today. They, as tax collectors, served the Roman tax farming system. Rights for a region would be auctioned off and the publicans would bid on the collections in that region. They would actually advance the amount of taxes to the Roman government, which was seen as a loan. The publicani would receive interest on the monies lent to the government. It was a very lucrative vocation. Their reputation as collaborators in Judea was not their only fault. They were accused of fraud during the Punic wars, seemed to be especially difficult with slave labor working in mines, and duping others into taking on unprofitable regions.

Track One:

First Reading: 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.

The hot wind of judgment blows in Jeremiah’s oracle against Judah. It is a common desert wind that does not allow for either growth or harvest. What follows, after the elision of several verses, is a vision of the hot wind’s effect. What we see is an extreme description of God’s judgment, almost apocalyptic in its effect. What he is really portraying here is the end result of foreign invasion. It is as if creation itself was being reversed and set aside. “I looked on the earth, and low, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light.” Even man and woman are going, “lo, there was no one at all.” This is what Jeremiah sees as happening, with foreign powers as the agents of God’s judgment. It is final, “I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.       What hot wind of judgment blows in your life?
2.       How do you mitigate its effects?
3.       What is the hot wind of judgment that you have against others?

Psalm 14 Dixit insipiens

1      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.
2      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.
3      Every one has proved faithless;
all alike have turned bad; *
there is none who does good; no, not one.
4      Have they no knowledge, all those evildoers *
who eat up my people like bread
and do not call upon the Lord?
5      See how they tremble with fear, *
because God is in the company of the righteous.
6      Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, *
but the Lord is their refuge.
7      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 psalm for this morning seems to ask the question as to why the judgment of God so clearly outlined in the first reading. The attitudes that the psalmist exhibits, “The scoundrel has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’“But this is more than God denial, it is a denial of human responsibility toward the other. What he is in denial of is the judgment that Jeremiah outlined in his reading. The psalmist speaks as an observer of human behavior, and see the consequences of the “scoundrel’s” actions. What is striking is the divine vision as God looks down from the heavens. “Everyone has proved faithless.” There is no redeeming or righteous character here – all have failed to meet was God has required. There are remarkable images: evildoers eating up their victims like bread, their shame being their confounding the plans of the poor and the afflicted. Here God is not only a judge, but a refuge as well – a deliverance coming out of Zion.

Breaking open Psalm 14:

1.           Where do you see God in your life?
2.           What questions do you have about God in your life?
3.           What are your doubts?


Track Two:

First Reading: 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.

Once again, we are met with God’s wrath and judgment (see the Track One first reading and psalm), but also here we see in Moses and advocate speaking on behalf of the people and asking God to change his mind. Here Moses is like Abraham at Sodom. That the people had sinned was apparent. They had crafted a golden bull and seemed to worship it. The rationale behind this behavior may be twofold. First, it may have been attempt to deal with Moses’ absence (see 32:1). Their leader was gone, and the people were dismayed at realizing that he was gone from them. The second reason might be the image itself. In the ancient near east gods were often depicted as standing on a bull or other animal. Perhaps the attempt here was to depict an enthronement for YHWH. God would have none of it, however. There was that prohibition against images – even if it were only a throne. 

Moses argues with God, and the points of his argument are classic salvation history. He reminds God of his relationship and covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. He reminds God of his own speech to Abraham, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of the heavens.” The most interesting, however, is the one that reminds God that God’s reputation in Egypt might suffer. The One who brought them out of Egypt is the One who destroys them? God relents, but Moses will demand a difficult resolution with the people. To be continued.

Breaking open Exodus::
1.       Is God absent in your life, or are religious leaders absent in your life?
2.       How do you deal with that?
3.       What substitutions have you made?

Psalm 51:1-11 Miserere mei, Deus

1      Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2      Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3      For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4      Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5      And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6      Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7      For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8      Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9      Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10    Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11    Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.

The superscription here is helpful, “For the leader. A psalm of David,when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone into Bathsheba.Nathan “comes into David” just as David had “come into Bathsheba.” The pun and sexual inuendo are both intended. The effect here is to see these words of confession, to see them as David’s words, although the psalm was probably written centuries later. There is a clue in verse 20: “Treat Zion kindly according to your good will; build up the walls of Jerusalem”, which would put its composition to sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It also sounds like the latter prophets in it sacrifice of a broken spirit, rather than an animal sacrifice (see verses 18-19). 

This is one of seven penitential psalms in the Christian liturgy. The image of a perfectly sinful individual is highlighted in verse 6, “Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” This should not lead us to original sin or Augustine. We are hearing the cry of an individual who realizes that he has not hit the mark. Verse seven has a hopeful stance, however. The psalmist hopes that in the hidden parts of his being wisdom might be found, and not just wickedness. None-the-less the author realizes that it is forgiveness that he needs. Blood flying off the priest’s branch of hyssop is the image of his desire for forgiveness. A re-creation is desired. 

Breaking open Psalm 51:
1.       What does sin mean to you?
2.       Where do you see it in your life?
3.       How do you put it behind you?

Second Reading: I 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.

Unusual in this reading is the delayed thanksgiving, usually given in the first verses of the book, here not given until verse twelve. What Paul gives thanks for here is not something on the part of the addressee, but rather his own conversion from a life lived under the law to one lived in grace. He is giving himself as an example of the power of what he preaches. This change of life is an enabling change, giving power to live out the Gospel in an authentic way. He contrasts the old ways of his life with the new, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” The focus here is on Jesus’ mission to sinners, and Paul calls himself the foremost. It reminds me of the hymn, “Chief of Sinners, Though I Be”. The pericope ends with an even more stunning thanksgiving to the King of the Ages. 

Breaking open I Timothy:
  1. When you became a Christian what did you leave behind?
  2. What do you yet need to leave behind?
  3. For what do you give thanks to God?

The Gospel: 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."

Jesus continues to defend his social behaviors because they are a commentary on the Kingdom of Heaven which he has come to announce. In this reading we have two parables, one on the lost sheep, and the other on the lost coin. There is also a third, about the behaviors of two different sons that is not used here. They are remarkable in their use of everyday situations which enunciate the Gospel that Jesus announces. Like Paul, in the second reading above, Jesus makes an example out of everyday life to answer the concerns of those who have difficulty in believing the good news. In the parables, Jesus invites the listeners to come into the situation themselves and see themselves as active in the problem. Jesus emphasizes their involvement with the phrase “which of you…”

This technique enables the listener to identify with the problem, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the behavior of the sons. It is the lostness that captures us. We have, all of us, lost something, or have valued the lost thing at the expense of other things, or have celebrated the finding. In the sheep story, we should not only be amazed at leaving behind the ninety and nine, but in the persistence of the search for the one. And in the finding, there is communal joy over the sheep and over the coin. So, who are the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus dines? They are the lost sheep, the lost coin. The work of the Gospel is in the search, the finding, and the celebration in heaven. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.       Who do you deem as “lost”?
2.       How might you rescue them?
3.       How have you been rescued?

General Idea               Reclaiming what was lost

Example 1:                  The Lost faith of Israel (First reading in both Tracks)

Example 2:                  The Conversion of Paul – losing his blasphemy and gaining his life (Second Reading)

Example 3:                  The Reclamation of Sinners – Jesus dining habits and the parables (Gospel)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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