The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25, 27 October 2019

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: Pharisees

With the exile of the Judean aristocracy and intellectuals at the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, several aspects of Jewish culture and life were subject to a great deal of change. With the loss of the Temple, other social and religious institutions needed to emerge, and did. The loss of the monarchy exaggerated the importance of the Temple, especially when Cyrus the Great repatriated great segments of the Jewish population in 537 BCE. The Synagogue soon rivaled the Temple in its importance as a social cohesive. All of this was exasperated in the forced Hellenization under the Seleucid kings.

Pharisees, who were really separatists – in that they saw themselves as removed from the Gentiles (Greek and Persian). In some sense they were conservative in their instance on the Jewish purity laws, a position called the “oral Torah”. On the other hand, however, they were innovators, introducing into Jewish theology certain Persian and other ideas such as life after death. But it is this insistence on individual purity and strictness of life that sets them aside in the first century CE, when they are confronted by the ideas of Jesus, and his followers. These aspects of their life and teaching add a sharpness to the Gospel for today.

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.

Be aware that the versification of chapters 2 and 3 differs in Roman Catholic translations and in Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from the versification in the Revised Standard Versions. We have in a way three different pericopes here, one dealing with themes of abundance, the second with the gift of the Spirit, and finally an apocalypse.

In the opening verses of our reading, God seems to repent of the difficulties of locust and grasshopper, promising a bountiful harvest and satisfaction. We met the locust, grub and grasshopper earlier in chapter 1, which sets the main theme of the book. What arouses our interest, however, given the various theories of when the book was written (ranging from the ninth century BCE to the sixth century BCE), is whether this is really only about the tragedy of a lost harvest and famine, but may also be an allusion to the threats from the eastern powers of Assyria and Babylon. Regardless, the text has God connecting the disaster with his relationship with the people. The closing verse of the first pericope, “And my people shall never again be put to shame,” would fit a post exilic date. 

With the second part of the reading we seem to be offered a corrective to the people in the outpouring of the Spirit upon, not just them, but upon all flesh. That too would fit a later date and the emerging universalism of the later prophets. What is also remarkable is the broad spectrum of humankind that is included in this outpouring, not limiting itself to males, or landed people.

Finally, we have an apocalyptic vision with contrasts of a darkened sun, and a blood-red moon. Comparisons have been made here to the great and terrible ending in the book of Daniel, what may be happening here is the translation of a local agricultural disaster into a much larger theological interpretation all centered in Israel (and the world’s) relationship with God. 

Breaking open Joel:
1.        Where have you seen the Spirit in others?
2.        How do you know it in yourself?
3.        Why do you need God’s Spirit?

Psalm 65 Te decet hymnus

     You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; *
to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem.
     To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
     Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.
     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.
     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.
     You make fast the mountains by your power; *
they are girded about with might.
     You still the roaring of the seas, *
the roaring of their waves,
and the clamor of the peoples.
     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.
     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.

Robert Alter translates the first line of this psalm as “To you, silence is praise.” The idea here is that to speak about God is to render one speechless. The psalmist will then begin a verbal adventure in attempting to speak of the God who is literally unspeakable. He begins by naming his sinfulness but just as quickly acknowledges God’s ability to forgive. This is the first of the “awesome things” that the psalmist will enumerate. Temple, creation, the sea and mountains, holiness itself, food and grain, these are the things that God gives us – a witness to the God who not only creates but provides for as well. This is the source of our silent praise.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
1.        Have you known God in silence?
2.        Have you praised God in silence?
3.        What are the awesome things in your life?


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 does it mean to worship God and how must one do it? This is the question that Sirach seeks to answer. It is the righteous who properly offer sacrifice and prayer to God, but the relationship is unlike that which humankind have with one another. There is no bribing or other machinations with God. Nor does one’s social status have any bearing, “He will not show partiality to the poor.” God is seen as the one who stands on the side of those who are wronged in any way. To these God gives and ear.

Breaking open Sirach:
1.      What in your life is righteous?
2.      What is not?
3.      How have you been wronged?


First Reading: 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.

It would be helpful for you to read the initial verses of chapter 14, for they provide a context of drought that provides a background for what the prophet will preach about in the verses of our reading – a land deprived of rain, of God’s blessing.

Jeremiah also begins with an acknowledgement of the people’s sinfulness. There is a sickness that has infected the relationship with God, so much so that the very land, the gift to Israel, and indeed God’s very home, seems estranged from God. In spite of the wanderings of Israel (a pun it seems on the wanderings in Sinai, the long journey to the promised land) God is still in their midst. God is there, however, in full remembrance of their sinfulness. 

The prophet then wonders – “Have you completely rejected Judah?” The prophet speaks for the people and acknowledges the iniquity and sinfulness of the present and of the past as well. Then there is the plea, “Do not spurn us for your name’s sake.” It is as if the argument is that in rejecting the people, God reject’s God’s very being and name. There is no other option, for “Can the idols of the nations bring rain?” It is the creating God who provides both rain and hope. 

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.      Where have you wandered in your religious life?
2.      Where has it taken you?
3.      Has God walked with you?

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.
     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.
     Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
     Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
     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.
     They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

This psalm is a perfect answer to the situation that is outlined in the Jeremiah reading, where drought becomes a sign of God’s judgment on Judah. Here we have the opposite. A people who have a “desire and longing” for God’s presence with them. All of creation desires it – even the sparrow. We are in the heart of a pilgrim psalm which expresses the desire to be in the Temple, in the place of God’s presence with the people. If you have ever progressed up from the Jordan River valley up to the heights of Jerusalem, you will recognize a waterless place. Here, however, the psalmist sees the pilgrims will find freshets of water, “a place of springs.” So God’s presence is seen in the refreshment of creation through water. 

Breaking open Psalm 84:
1.        What wilderness have you walked in?
2.        What refreshed you?
3.        What was the destination where you saw God?

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 has a sense of urgency in this reading, “I am already being poured out as a libation.” He recognizes that he will soon be gone, having finished the race. He wants to assure himself of Timothy’s ability to carry on his work and mission. He states it quite clearly, “so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.” The assumption here is that now Timothy will take on that responsibility.

Breaking open II Timothy:
  1. What are Paul’s anxieties?
  2. What are his joys?
  3. What are his hopes?

The Gospel: St. 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."

Early on in the readings we wrestled with the question of who is righteous, and here Jesus challenges those who have a false sense of security in their own righteousness. He tells a parable using opposites in contemporary society – the publican (a government contractor assigned to collect taxes and to perform other imperial Roman tasks) and a Pharisee. Both of the men are about to pray. One of them will see himself as a worthy participant in the liturgy, one will not. The self-awareness of both men is contrastive and to the point of Jesus’ lesson. This is a parable good for our time, when many Christians seem to differentiate themselves from the poor, the immigrant, the homeless, and those of a different skin color. Whose prayer will God hear? That is a question that we need to ask of ourselves in the midst of our pride and privilege. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        In what ways are you the pharisee?
2.        In what ways are you the publican?
3.        What is your daily prayer?

Central Idea:               Candidates for Righteousness

Example 1:                  The Spirit poured out on All Flesh (Track 1, First Reading)

                                      God makes a place in the midst of sinners (Track 2, First Reading)

Example 2:                  God in our midst even as we approach death (Second Reading)

Example 3:                  God with us as we a

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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