The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, 20 October 2019

Track One:
Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104

Track Two:
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121

II Timothy 3:14-4:5
Saint Luke 18:1-8

Background: Biblical Covenants (Hebrew Scriptures)

Covenants, an agreement between God and humankind, are of several kinds and types in the Bible. Some are listed below:
1.     The Covenant at Eden: Genesis 1:28-30
2.     The Covenant with Noah: Genesis 9:8-17
3.     The Covenant with Abraham (circumcision): Genesis 12-17
4.     The Covenant with Abraham (lands): Genesis 15:18-21
5.     The Mosaic Covenant: Exodus 19-24
6.     The Priestly Covenant: Numbers 18:19
7.     The Davidic Covenant, II Samuel 7

Some covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures or in verses referring to them take on the form of the Hittite Treaty and its concluding “Blessings and Curses”. (See Luke’s version of the Beatitudes for a version of this form.)

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:27-34

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.

The center of this oracle against the people of Judah is the covenant that God made with them, and Jeremiah begins with the worst-case scenario to get at the promise. He seems to quote an ancient proverb about eating unripe (not sour) grapes – grapes that are still hard and blunt the teeth. The prophet promises a new covenant between YHWH and the people (The houses of Israel and Judah). It is going to be of a different nature, not written but internalized. God says, “I will write it on their hearts.” What Jeremiah sees is a coming era in which the Covenant with God will be a common knowledge of every person. The final note is one of salvation, God forgetting the sin that caused the forgetting of God’s will in the covenant. 

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.        What has God written on your heart?
2.        How were you taught God’s will and commandments?
3.        How do you teach others?

Psalm 119:97-104 Quomodo dilexi!

97    Oh, how I love your law! *
all the day long it is in my mind.
98    Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, *
and it is always with me.
99    I have more understanding than all my teachers, *
for your decrees are my study.
100 I am wiser than the elders, *
because I observe your commandments.
101 I restrain my feet from every evil way, *
that I may keep your word.
102 I do not shrink from your judgments, *
because you yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are your words to my taste! *
they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
104 Through your commandments I gain understanding; *
therefore I hate every lying way.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic composed of 22 stanzas, each of which comprise 8 lines. The psalm is about the Torah, or better yet, God’s Law, God’s instruction. Thus, it is a fine reflection on the reading from Jeremiah, above. In it we hear in a repetitive manner praise or comment on God’s law, using these terms: law, decrees, ways, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances, word, and promise. God’s law is meditated on and sung about. It is a means to understanding.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.        What does “God’ Law” mean to you?
2.        How is it difficult?
3.        How is it sweet?


Track Two:

First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31

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.

Where to begin in this multi-layered story – folk tale, really. The situation is this, Jacob is traveling south to meet up with his brother Esau. It might be a good thing, in wrestling (pun intended) with this text to review the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob’s life will be one of struggle and conflict, with Esau, with Leban, with his father and now with this unknown man. The question to ponder is, who is this unnamed person who wrestles in the night with Jacob. There is a homo-erotic element to the story, common in the ancient near east. Still what is the entity that wrestles with him? The suggestions over time have been God, an angel, the psychological presence of Esau (the anxiety that floods Jacob’s mind as he looks forward to meeting a brother with whom he has had so much animus). Other suggestions are a night spirit (note in the verse, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” Other clues are in the light touch of Jacob’s hip which results in a crippling of Jacob. Magic? That he must leave the light would suggest that the foe is not God, nor an Angel. Perhaps, he is a demon, who represents the struggle of Jacob’s “bent[1]” and difficult life. There is a renaming from Jacob to Israel, although as the story continues, the name Jacob continues to be used. It’s as if the name were changed from “Crook” to “Blessed by God”. 

Jacob at the renaming is described as one who has “striven with God and with humans.” The name for God there is Elohim, literally “gods”. The term does not usually refer to an angel or messenger, but it can indicate a divine entity. There is also usage of the term to indicate princes or judges. Perhaps it is a striving over the term of a life, rather than this particular instance. Israel, properly translated (by Robert Alter) as “God will prevail.” In spite of his “grabbing at Esau’s heal” and the other machinations that Jacob has made in his life – in this scene and story, it is God who sets the agenda.

Breaking open Genesis:
1.      With what in life do you wrestle?
2.      How do you hope to prevail?
3.      Where does prayer fit in?

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.

The standard understanding about these psalms of ascent (120 – 134) is that they are pilgrim songs, sung as one moved up to Jerusalem either from the Mediterranean basin, or on the other side, the Jordan River valley. This particular psalm is quite general, however. It may be seeking aid, and looking to the horizon, to the mountains and wondering from where aid and succor might come. The psalmist acknowledges God’s aid in whatever circumstances might challenge people. The “Maker of heaven and earth” would seem to have such powers available, and thus the mountains are a sign of God’s ability and supremacy. It is from the heights of Zion, perhaps, that God watches over God’s people, and the rest of creation (sun and moon) is kept at abeyance. The psalm is so general that it is any journey, any “going out and () coming in” that are protected – forever.

Breaking open Psalm 121:
1.        Where do you look for help in life?
2.        What symbolizes that search for you?
3.        Where is God in this search?

Second Reading: II 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.

Our reading for this morning is comprised of two pericopes. The first (3:14-17) which describes Timothy’s instruction in the Scriptures and their usefulness to him and to the church in general, and the second (4:1-5) which urges Timothy to become a proclaimer of the scriptures with which he was instructed and brought to the faith. Paul gives us one of his usual lists – the use of scripture: for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. One might want to ask oneself how this is being done in your congregation or parish. Is it just the priest’s responsibility, or are others involved in engaging in the scriptures, and then in proclaiming them. What follows that basic instruction is the instruction by the one who was instructed. What if our Bible classes were followed by a conversation about evangelism and sharing? Paul urges Timothy to a sobriety that focuses on his being fulfilled by the scripture. Then there can be evangelism and a ministry that is full in its content and mandate.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. Who instructed you in the Scriptures?
  2. What was most memorable from that instruction?
  3. Whom do you instruct?

The Gospel: 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?"

In this parable, Jesus tells of a mix-up between dishonesty and justice – certainly a lesson for our time. The characters are a dishonorable judge and a poor but persistent widow, in other words, one who is at the top of the social ladder in spite of his wayward ways, and one who is at the bottom of the social ladder but who aspires to justice and righteousness. Here is the possibility to preach a sermon or lead a Bible class that explores the silence of God (which is met by the persistence of prayer). The judge does not honor the traditions and does not hear the plea of the prophets for the widow and the orphan. What moves him is inconvenience – the woman having made such a clamor about her situation that for practicality’s sake he must rule in her favor. 

What would our society be like if Christians were persistent in their demands for social justice, and for care and honoring the poor and the homeless. What role do we really take over against the needs of our time? If God seems silent when we speak about the needs of the world and city is it because we ourselves are silent and inactive? Luke would have us pray for God’s reign among us – but we must allow for ourselves to be the answer to such prayers – to be God’s agent in our times. Will Jesus find faith among us, faith that risks and acts? What’s your answer?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        Where do you see injustice in our society?
2.        What do you do about it? How might you be like the widow?
3.        How persistent is your prayer life?

General Idea:              Wrestling for Justice

Example 1:                  Wrestling with what God has written on our hearts (Track One – First Reading)

                                      Wrestling with the anxieties that keep us from seeing both God and neighbor (Track Two – First Reading)

Example 2:                  Wrestling with the Scriptures as we proclaim them. (Second Reading)

Example 3:                  Being persistent in living out our prayers. (Gospel)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Jacob’s name can mean “one who does crooked things”. We see this in the story of how he cheats Esau out of his patriarchal blessing. 


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