Just as with last week’s lection from Luke 4, good news is bad news is good news.
This week, however, the focus is much more pronounced on the bad news side. The designers of the lectionary split apart a story that, to my mind, runs rightly from Luke 4:14-30. The artificial split at 4:21/22 seems to give two very different impressions: one favorable, one unfavorable. Luke, however, is a much more interesting theologian than people give him credit. There is a tragic element to his way of telling the story of Jesus. This Jesus is the sign, says wise old Simeon, who will be spoken against (Luke 2:34). There is, even in this gracious, good news sermon, a split reaction that includes both “rising and falling.”
Gracious? Yes, though the word is not mine, but comes from Luke’s own narration of the synagogue hearers in Nazareth: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Some scholars argue that the word gracious here is really understood more from the perspective of eloquent wisdom, hence “from his mouth.” Others note, as I do, that we see in Luke 4:14-30 a broader, preceding announcement that rings with the words of the prophet Isaiah, a strange grace1 perhaps even in the sense of divine favor. It may sound strange, but Luke has Jesus preach his first sermon in the mode of prophetic grace.
The problem is when that grace, that divine favor, meets up with privilege. For another thing that prophets do is to see into people’s hearts. And Jesus here in 4:23ff. seems to recognize in his hearers how they will react even before they realize it. The home town hearers go from amazement to consternation with great rapidity. No doubt, the hearers are helped along by Jesus’ use of a proverb about physicians which he pairs with another about the fate of prophets in their own hometowns. Jesus, perhaps even before his hearers have realized it, knows his words of prophetic grace will meet with rejection — even right here in his home town synagogue.
The danger here for preachers, especially Gentile ones today, is a breezy over-generalization about Jews. It is far too easy to turn Luke’s tragic Gospel, where a Jewish Jesus meets with both acceptance and rejection, into a modern anti-Semitic one. Preachers need to remember how Christianity emerges as a group within Judaism. That’s why Jewish roots and stories matter (think of Simeon and Anna or Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke 1-2). Jesus is Jewish through and through. A telling of the story that overgeneralizes the first-century struggle and pain described here does not preach gospel, but simply obscures and erases the other. This would add injury to insult by passing over the prophetic grace that is summoned from the great prophets of Israel, too.
Even then, Jesus is indeed pushing his home-town hearers hard. He notes the outsider message that his own Jewish tradition embraces about Elijah and Elisha, both of whom did miracles far away from home towns and among people who had no right to presume upon prophetic words either. You see, the struggle here is that the words of prophetic grace meet up in the synagogue with an entitlement that fails to appreciate “today’s” announcement in Jesus. The questions preachers should ask is how that prophetic grace, offered in the person of Jesus, sounds in terms of our own sense of privilege and entitlement today. Good news is bad news is good news.
So where exactly is the good news? There does not seem to be too much of it in the second half of this text from Luke 4, but it is there. The one who is decisively rejected for his announcement of prophetic grace in his person, is led out of the synagogue, thrown out of town, and all but tossed over the cliff in judgment. Except, he isn’t, ultimately. Here, the text speaks in terms reminiscent of resurrection mystery. Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).
The good news of the gospel in Luke is tied to the person of Jesus, who is still both crucified and risen. We are not promised any easier fate than is our Lord, who preached prophetic grace, dealt with rejection, and still managed to be on his way. You’ve probably heard that the great preacher and activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was frequently fond of paraphrasing Reverend Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”2 The way King uses it, of course, is not for the sake of resignation, as if we could sit back and let historical determinism have its way. It is, however, from King’s prophetic mouth a balm to those in the struggle. For all the difficulties of preaching prophetic grace, it bespeaks a purpose larger than our own, one capable of passing through rejection and still being on its way.
“I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9).1
God sends forth God’s hand and “touches” Jeremiah’s mouth (see Isaiah 6:7; Daniel 10:16). Perhaps it sounds intimate, but we should not imagine that it was a gentle or comforting touch. The same verb, ng’, can also mean “strike” (e.g., Job 19:21) or harm (e.g., Psalm 105:15).
The one other biblical verse that uses these same words to envision God’s “sending forth [God’s] hand and touching” is found in the prologue to the book of Job, where the Satan challenges God to test Job’s faithfulness by taking away everything Job has (Job 1:11). There is nothing gentle about the wind that subsequently “touches” the house where Job’s children are feasting, leaving every one of them dead beneath its roof (Job 1:19).
When we picture the hand of God “touching” Jeremiah’s mouth, we might do better to imagine a jolt or a shock. We would be justified in asking whether it hurt, whether it left a wound or a scar (see Genesis 32:26), whether having God’s words placed in his mouth changed Jeremiah forever.
Flash back six hundred years (give or take): Terrified by the sight of God’s fiery presence at Sinai and afraid they cannot survive the sound of God’s voice, the Israelites ask for prophets who will protect them and speak God’s word to them (Deuteronomy 18:16). Moses is such a prophet, and God promises to raise up another after him, saying “I will put my words in his mouth” (Deuteronomy 18:18). The prophet will speak in God’s name, and God will demand a reckoning from those who do not listen to the prophet’s voice (Deuteronomy 18:19). There is a reckoning for the prophet as well: if she attributes her own words to God or speaks on behalf of other gods, she pays with her own life (Deuteronomy 18:20). I do not envy the prophet like Moses. I do not envy Jeremiah.
Charged with such a task — to stand between a vulnerable and cowardly people and the dangerous presence of God, to surrender one’s life to the challenge of speaking the truth only God bids — it would be natural to protest. When God says, “I have made you a prophet” (Jeremiah 1:5), Jeremiah says, “But look, I don’t know how to speak — I am just a boy” (1:6). In Hebrew, the last word of this sentence is the emphatic personal pronoun “I.”
First-person pronouns appear repeatedly throughout this short passage, both in their more common suffixed forms (six times) and in their emphatic independent forms (three times). We meet the person of Jeremiah in dialogue with the person of God, and it is in this dialogue that the prophet’s own self-understanding is challenged and revised. God insists that Jeremiah’s self-perception as “just a boy” — immature, inadequate, or simply not ready — is either wrong or irrelevant, and forbids Jeremiah to repeat it (1:7). Instead, God answers with another emphatic “I” statement, the one that trumps and reshapes the prophet’s self-understanding: “I am with you to deliver you” (1:8). This assurance is so vital God repeats it to Jeremiah in 1:19 and 15:20.
God does not keep Jeremiah safe for Jeremiah’s own sake. The assurance is always proclaimed in the context of Jeremiah’s mission. God makes Jeremiah a prophet “for” or “to” the nations (Jeremiah 1:5). Though God “gives” Jeremiah (Hebrew ntn) for this purpose, God does not abandon him: God’s fortifying and saving presence with Jeremiah enables the prophet to carry out his mission to the nations.
The detail “to the nations” calls our attention to the international scope of Jeremiah’s mission. Although Jeremiah is the only prophet described with these words, many of Israel’s prophets were concerned with international affairs. Jeremiah’s predecessors, Amos and Isaiah, delivered oracles against the nations. Jonah is commissioned to travel to Assyria to pronounce judgment on the Ninevites, leading to their repentance. God’s prophets speak to and for the nations because the God whose words the prophet speaks is the God of all creation and all peoples and because no nation lives in isolation. The economic practices and well-being, wars and peace of one nation spell for others prosperity or poverty, destruction or subjugation or freedom. No prophet can ignore these relationships. No prophet speaks into a world so narrow that she does not also speak to and for the nations.
The international political dimension of Jeremiah’s charge is further emphasized in the final verse of the passage: “See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pull up and pull down; to destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10). These verbs image political powers in terms both organic and architectural.
The organic imagery, whether the positive image of planting or the harsher image of pulling vegetation up by its roots, calls to mind the dynamism of soil and sun and water, processes of growth and photosynthesis and the movement of sap, flowering, pollination, the ripening and rotting of fruit, the human labor of tilling, sowing, pruning, and harvesting, the dangers of disease, and the natural cycles of life and death. The architectural imagery calls attention to structures of power that give the appearance of fixity and permanence but in fact have their origin in time, through human effort. They give the appearance of protection but cannot defend against God’s just judgment (see Ezekiel 13:10-16). As surely as they are built up from the ground, they can be torn down by God’s word.
God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth are powerful, dangerous, and life-giving. They destroy what must be destroyed, dealing death to death. They plant the seeds and build up the structures of life.
In a sermon on Jeremiah’s call, you have the opportunity to highlight the shock of God’s touch and God’s words, the burden of speaking truth to and for nations in God’s name, and the saving presence of God that renders every perceived inadequacy irrelevant. It’s a word for the preacher as well.
1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 31, 2010.
Despite the limited number of verses included from this psalm in the lectionary, Psalm 71 nevertheless provides us with a unique opportunity to learn from the faith and life experiences of an elder psalmist.1
Many commentators note that elements of this psalm are strongly reminiscent of the known use of the temple precincts as a place of temporary refuge for an accused individual to flee from his accusers.2 For example, there are close parallels between this text and Psalms 18 and 31. While the motif of the temple as protective sanctuary is certainly present, we do not seem to be dealing here with the memoirs of an alleged felon. Instead, we are more likely hearing from an aged psalmist looking back over his life and faith experiences, perhaps from the context of a current situation of distress (see verses 9, 17, 18).
From his advanced location in the course of life, this psalmist is able to impart several key lessons for the life of faith.3 First, a strong faith in and devotion to God is no fail-safe insurance against problems and complications in life. From the context of the complete psalm text, it seems this individual is one who has devoted his life to God, perhaps at the temple as a musician. Yet the very first verse of the psalm identifies God as a place of refuge for the psalmist. A place of refuge implies that there is someone or something from which refuge is desired, and thus indicative of a life that is not free from trouble.
Further, practices of faith and devotion to God may actually, at times, invite problems into one’s life. In addition to the highlighted needs for refuge, deliverance, and rescue in the first two verses of the psalm, verse 4 references “the grasp of the unjust and cruel.” While we do not have all the details of the writer’s life, it would seem that he is not merely speaking hypothetically, but instead has some concrete situation and/or persecutors pertaining to himself in mind.
Perhaps a psalmist does not seem as likely to provoke open, even threatening ridicule as a prophet, such as Jeremiah, or as Jesus himself in his hometown of Nazareth in the accompanying Gospel for this day. Yet, herein may lie the core of this lesson — any expression of faith brings with it the possibility of ridicule by the unfaithful.
Second, the psalmist affirms that it is God’s very nature to provide refuge, deliverance, and rescue to those whom he calls his own and to service in his name. In verse 2, for example, the psalmist appeals to the righteousness of God. This is not an attribute nervously hoped for in the divine, as if it may or may not be found, but one that is fully and confidently expected. Similarly in verse 3, the psalmist urges God to be his “rock of refuge.”
However, the role of “rock of refuge” is not something the psalmist hopes to be able to impress upon God and in some way create. Instead, the psalmist already knows God to be such a rock: “For you are my rock and my fortress” (verse 3). In verse 5 the psalmist goes on to confess trust and hope in the Lord since the days of his youth. This is a statement of experience from one who knows these things to be perpetually true of the God of Israel.
Third, we learn from the psalmist that we are wholly dependent on God. God is the only source of hope or support either mentioned or suggested in our text. Not only has the psalmist leaned upon God from birth, he even confesses that it is God who took him from his mother’s womb (verse 6). This realization of complete dependence on God is no doubt one that grew with the psalmist’s experience and age.
Generally speaking, the younger we are, the less we tend to be mindful of the interdependent nature of life. Furthermore, modern society has managed, in various ways, to continue reducing God’s necessity or even involvement in human life. Therefore, the significance of the psalmist’s witness to our dependence on God is difficult to overstate.
Finally, a significant aspect of our lives should be the praise of God. The psalmist declares, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6). This is the only possible response to God’s steadfastness and grace. Even though the psalmist may still experience trouble and even persecution as a result of his faith, he will nonetheless maintain trust and hope in the same God we know to be our rock and fortress, and who is therefore worthy of our continual praise.
1 Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 3, 2013.
2 See especially Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 71-72.
3 The writer of Ecclesiastes similarly offers sage advice from a later-in-life perspective.
1 Corinthians 13 is considered one of the most frequently-cited chapters.
Even those who do not like Paul, for whatever reason, still love this chapter because love is good. But we need to put this chapter in the Corinthian context. In 1 Corinthians 12:31 Paul says: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Readers feel perplexed a bit about this verse because earlier in 12:1-26 he told the Corinthians that all gifts are different yet important. However, now he insinuates that there are superior gifts, asking them to “strive for the greater gifts.”
This verse must be understood not in terms of kinds of spiritual gifts, as in 12:6-10, but in terms of a different focus of work in the church: “Works of love,” which is “a more excellent way.” In this sense, “greater gifts” (charisma means a gift or grace) refer to all love-related works, which is the topic of 1Corinthians 13.
In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul speaks in the first-person-singular and explains why love is foremost. Speaking in tongues may be regarded as one of the superior gifts by the Corinthian community. But if there is no love, it is nothing, as he says: “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” that would hinder community work. Likewise, he goes on to say in 13:2-3: “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul describes what love must do or not do rather than what love is. He does not romanticize it with abstract language. Rather, love is a concrete action that comes with all action verbs, as in 13:4-7: makrothymeo (“to be patient”), chresteuomai (“to act kindly”), zeloo (“to be jealous”), perpereuomai (“to brag”), physiomai (“to be proud”), aschemoneo (“to behave indecently”), zeteo (“to desire”), paroxynomai (“to be upset”), logizomai (“to reckon”), chairo (“to rejoice”), synkairo (“to rejoice with”), stego (“to bear”), pisteuo (“to believe”), elpizo (“to hope”), hypomeno (“to endure”).
As we see above, seven out of the fifteen action-verbs have to do with what love must do: “To be patient,” “to be kind,” “to rejoice in the truth,” “to bear all things,” “to believe all things,” “to hope all things,” and “to endure all things.” Then, the rest (eight of them) has to do with what love should not do: “Not to envy,” “not to boast,” “not to be arrogant,” “not to be rude,” “not to seek its own way,” “not to be irritable,” “not to be resentful,” and “not to rejoice in wrongdoing.”
If the Corinthians are led by the Spirit and informed by the Lord, they can follow examples of love as shown by Christ and participate in his work, rejoicing in the truth. Furthermore, the Spirit helps them to bear all things, to believe all things, to hope in all things, and to endure all things.
At the same time, love means that they should not envy, not boast, not be arrogant or rude, not seek their own way, not be irritable, not be resentful, and not rejoice in wrongdoing.
In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul draws to a close. On the one hand, he emphasizes the primacy of love, and on the other, he talks about the apocalyptic time when the complete comes. First, he says “love never ends,” while prophecies, speaking in tongues, and knowledge will come to an end. Love is the reason for the Corinthian church. From beginning to end, love is a constant mover to the Corinthians. Love comes from God who chose the weak and the foolish (1 Corinthians 1:26-29); Jesus loved the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), and therefore, the Corinthians follow the example of Christly love.
Second, in 1 Corinthians 13:9-12, Paul talks about the apocalyptic time and vision when eventually the complete comes. He says in the first person plural: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” This partial knowledge and prophecy must be a good reminder to the strong people in the Corinthian community who think that they are wise in Christ and that they were saved already. Until the end, no one can see fully. Therefore no one can claim to have full knowledge or prophecy. They must be humble before God and others. Their job is to love more as much as they can, and as long as they are led by the Spirit.
In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul continues to talk about this issue of time, but now in the first person singular: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” We do not know details about Paul’s metaphor of a child. But one thing seems clear: there was a time that he was thinking and acting like a child.
We get the impression that Paul underwent a process of transformation toward maturity. It is important to read his candid confession that he was a child (“speaking like a child, thinking like a child, and reasoning like a child”). Perhaps he refers to his former time as a Pharisee before receiving a call from God, or, he may refer to the former times during his early career of Christian ministry. Whichever is the case, his point is that he grew mature if not fully, and that he put an end to childish ways.
Then in 1 Corinthians 13:12, he switches from the first-person-plural and back to the first-person-singular: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In an ancient mirror, things are not seen clearly since it is not made from glass. Thus “now we see in a mirror, dimly,” which means all have partial knowledge or prophecy. But when the complete comes, all will see all things clearly. Interestingly, Paul says that in such a time of completion: “Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The implication is one cannot know fully himself/herself until the Parousia. Each person needs to continue to grow with a humble attitude toward God and others.
Lastly, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul uses the triadic formula of faith, hope, and love. He does not say that love is the only important thing; rather, he says that “now faith, hope, and love abide.” This means that the Corinthians must have all these three. But they should remember that love is the basis for and the goal of their works and life. That is why he says: “And the greatest of these is love.” Indeed, this last verse refers to the beginning verses of 13:1-3 where Paul says: “I gain nothing if there is no love.”