Lectionary Commentaries for October 24, 2010
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 18:9-14

David Lose

Paul Tillich, commenting on the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the gospel is a stumbling block, once said that the danger is stumbling over the wrong thing.

There is something similar occurring in today’s reading, so we’ll want to take our interpretive steps with care.

It’s difficult to avoid interpreting the parable in straightforward, even simplistic terms, in part because the dramatic action of this parable is so very predictable even to those with only limited knowledge of the story of Jesus’ life. Knowing that Pharisees are regularly cast in the gospels as Jesus’ opposition, we all too easily judge the Pharisee to be a self-righteous hypocrite and assume that the moral of this story is to be humble. There is good reason for this straightforward interpretation, as Luke seems to frame the parable in just these terms. The difficulty with such an interpretive tack, however, is that we might as well end up preaching, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: hypocrites, overly pious, self righteous, or even like that Pharisee. We come to church each week, listen attentively to Scripture, and we have learned that we should always be humble.”

In order to avoid the kind of self-congratulatory reading of the parable that the parable itself would seem to condemn, it may help to note that, in fact, everything the Pharisee says is true. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous (see Luke 15:7). So before we judge him too quickly, we might reframe his prayer slightly and wonder if we have uttered it ourselves. Maybe we haven’t said, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other people…”, but what about, on seeing someone down on his luck, “There but for the grace of God go I”? It isn’t that the Pharisee is speaking falsely, but rather that the Pharisee misses the true nature of his blessing. As Luke states in his introductory sentence, he has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he possesses no means by which to claim righteousness. He has done nothing of merit; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.

Here is the essential contrast. One makes a claim to righteousness based on his own accomplishments, while the other relies entirely upon the Lord’s benevolence. Rather than be grateful for his blessings, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. In his mind there are two kinds of people: the righteous and the immoral, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among the righteous. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his plight to take time to divide humanity into sides. All he recognizes as he stands near the Temple is his own great need. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

I don’t think it’s an accident that this exchange takes place at the Temple. On the grounds of the Temple, you were always intimately aware of who you were, of what status you had, of what you could expect from God. There were, at the Temple, “insiders” and “outsiders,” and according to these rules there was no question of where the Pharisee and tax collector stood. But when Jesus dies all this changes. As the gospels report, the curtain in the Temple is torn in two (Luke 23:45), symbolically erasing all divisions of humanity before God. That act is prefigured here, as God justifies not the one favored by Temple law, but rather the one standing outside the Temple gate, and aware only of his utter need.

This is what makes this parable so hard to preach. Indeed, what makes this parable a trap. For as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, we have aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. Whether our division is between righteous and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as with Luke, we are doomed. Anytime you draw a line between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” this parable asserts, you will find God on the other side. Read this way, the parable ultimately escapes even its narrative setting and reveals that it is not about self-righteousness and humility any more than it is about a pious Pharisee and desperate tax collector. Rather, this parable is about God: God who alone can judge the human heart; God who determines to justify the ungodly.

At the end of this story, the Pharisee will leave the Temple and return to his home righteous. This hasn’t changed; he was righteous when he came up and righteous as he goes back down. The tax collector, however, will leave the Temple and go back down to his home justified, that is, accounted righteous by the Holy One of Israel. How has this happened? The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution. On what basis, then, is he named as righteous? On the basis of God’s divine fiat and ordinance! This parable is therefore preached well only to the degree that each time we try to interpret it we find ourselves, yet again, with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy. When this happens and we forget if only for a moment our human-constructed divisions and stand before God aware only of our need, then we, too, are justified by the God of Jesus and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

Sara Koenig

In 2003, cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan published a cartoon in The New Yorker that depicts God standing on a cloud, saying to a man standing in front of him, “I am big. It’s the questions that got smaller.”

That single frame in many ways captures the book of Jeremiah as a whole and how it might relate to Christians today; the book of Jeremiah portrays a big God who cannot be minimized. God is the one who plants and plucks up, who exiles and restores, who wounds and heals. And Jeremiah himself does not hold back from asking big questions of God (cf. Jeremiah 12:1, 20:18).

This lectionary text also depicts a big God, and people who are not afraid of asking big questions of God. In fact, by removing some of the verses in the middle of the chapter, the lectionary has turned it into a dialogue that moves back and forth between the people and God. Part one belongs to the people: they start with a lament (verses 7-9). Their words include a confession of sin, a complaint, and a plea for help, all three categories which are typically found in a lament. In the second part of this dialogue, God responds to their plea not with the expected word of deliverance, however, but with a strong statement of more judgment (verse 10). Third, the people respond to God’s judgment with another lament (verses 19-22). The final lament ends abruptly, with a plaintive plea and no definite response from God. Still, their words are filled with a grand hope which is linked to a grand theology. And though the people of Judah in the book of Jeremiah are hardly exemplars of faithfulness, their prayers to God can, in fact, provide today’s listeners and readers with a model for powerful ways of relating to God.

The people’s acknowledgment of their sins, which begins their dialogue in 14:7, seems perfunctory at first because it moves so quickly into the petition to God to act. Yet, following the request that the Lord will “act according to his name’s sake” the confession gets picked up again; “for our acts of faithlessness are many, against you we have sinned.” Thus, they are not just rushing through a token confession before the request can be made: they return to confess yet again. Additionally, the motivation they give for the Lord to act is precisely because the faithlessness is so abundant, something that is missed in the NRSV of 14:7 when it does not translate the Hebrew participle, kiy, or “for.”

In verses 8-9, the people lodge their complaint in the form of rhetorical questions to which the expected answer should be resoundingly in the negative. Why should God be like a stranger in the land (14:8)? God should not! Why should God be like a traveler turning aside for the night (14:8)? God should not! Why should God be like someone bewildered, or like a mighty warrior who is not able to save (14:9)? God should not!

After these questions are asked, it is asserted that God is in the midst of his people, who are called by his name, but even in the questions assertions are being made: God is not a stranger. God is not simply a passing traveler. God is not one bewildered, and because God is a mighty warrior, God is able to save. The first part of the people’s dialogue ends with a plea: “Do not forsake us!” (14:9)

God responds briefly, but powerfully. God gives an overall description of the people’s instability: “they love to wander and have not restrained their feet” (14:10). The specifics of their wandering have been spelled out in detail in the previous chapters of Jeremiah. The dire consequence of what they have done is that God will punish their sins rather than forgive them. In fact, God declares that now God will remember those sins – the very sins that the people acknowledged in verse 7. (Of course in Jeremiah 31:34, when God describes the New Covenant God promises the opposite, “I will forgive their iniquity, and will remember their sin no more.” Cf. Isaiah 43:25, Hebrews 8:12, and 10:17.)

The gravity and starkness of God’s judgment does not silence the people, and the lectionary’s movement to verse 19 makes their response swift. They begin with questions, “Have you completely rejected Judah? Does your heart loathe Zion?” The expected response to these questions is, once again, negative.

They continue, “Why have you struck us so that there is no healing?” Then, the people move from questions to statements of three types. First, they make a statement of complaint, “We hope for peace, but there is no good; for a time of healing, but there is only terror” (verse 19). Second, they make a statement of confession in verse 20, once again acknowledging their wickedness and sins. Third, they make a statement of request in verse 21: “Do not despise us for the sake of your name, do not dishonor your glorious throne, remember and do not break your covenant with us.” Their language circles back to what was said before, illustrating the integrity of this dialogue. God spoke about remembering their sins (verse 10), but they call God to remember the covenant. Indeed, the mention once again of God’s name (verse 21) is an appeal to God’s reputation (verse 7) and is tied to their own identity as covenant people who bear God’s name (verse 9).

After these statements in 14:21-22, they move back to questioning in verse 22, asking, “Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers? Is it not you, O LORD our God?” The NIV turns this final question into a definite assertion when it translates, “No, it is you, O LORD our God.”

However, the final statement in the Hebrew text is the most important. Verse 22 ends with the people pronouncing, “Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.” The Hebrew also uses the emphatic second person independent pronoun to underscore their grand theology: the LORD, referred to as “you“, is the one who does all these things. God brings rain and showers, God strikes down and punishes, God makes covenants and remembers them. Again, the people in Jeremiah overall are more examples of what not to do than examples to imitate, but they get this point absolutely correct: hope cannot be separated from the one in whom the people hope. And their hope – and ours – is in a big God.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Joel 2:23-32

Wil Gafney

The prophet Joel writes in response to an ecological disaster, a plague of locusts that exceeded their regular breeding and feeding cycles.

His words are difficult to break into individual sermons. The internal markers in the Hebrew text dating from the time the Masoretic scholars added vowels and cantillation (musical marks), about 1008 CE, delineate a unit beginning in 2:15-27. Then a new chapter begins, whereas in (most) Christian English Bibles the next several verses are added onto the second chapter; 2:28-32 in the NRSV (and others) are 3:1-5 in Hebrew and in Jewish English bibles (such as the JPS Tanakh).

The larger unit, beginning in 2:15, is the prophet’s call for a community liturgical response to the catastrophe. The opening words, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly” are familiar to some from Ash Wednesday liturgies (in the Episcopal and other churches). The prophet calls everyone: all the people in general, then specifically the elderly, children, breast-feeding babies (and their nursing mothers carrying them), bride, bridegroom, and all the clergy.

The plague of locusts adversely affected the agricultural and economic well-being of God’s people; but they were not the only ones affected. The earth was denuded of vegetation and the animals were starving. Joel 1:11-12 describes the failure of grapevines, wheat, barley and palm, fig, apple and pomegranate trees. In verse 17, the community loses all of the seed for the next harvest. In verse 18, the starving animals wander about desperately seeking pasture that no longer exists.

All the people are called to fast and weep and beg God to reconsider their plight – and God’s reputation among the nations who worship other gods. Their intercession is transformative; in verses 18-20 God promised to evict the locusts and reseed the ground with olives for oil, grain for bread, and grapes for wine. That will show the other nations! They will no longer mock Israel or her God.

The prophet’s speech is far-reaching in its scope, but God reaches further still. The inclusivity of the prophet’s call is surpassed by God’s next words through him to the earth and her creatures: “Fear not!” These words are usually addressed to people, frequently people who have encountered God or God’s messengers.

Then come the opening words of our lesson:

Children of Zion, sing-and-dance-for-joy and rejoice in the HOLY ONE your God…(Gafney translation)

God has already begun to restore the earth, and with her the agricultural, economic, and nutritional being of God’s people. The promise of rain, bringing with it sprouts of new grain, grapes, and olives in abundance is most meaningful in the context of the locust infestation and subsequent agricultural and economic collapse.

And it is in response to the healing of the earth the words many associate with Pentecost are proclaimed:

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. (NRSV)

While these verses are marked as the beginning of a new unit in Hebrew, they are connected to the text about the locusts and restoration through the word “afterward.” After the natural disaster, and after the restoration, God will pour out God’s spirit on all people – just as all people were affected by the catastrophe.

In Acts 2, Peter uses these verses to describe pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the men and women (see Mary, the mother of Jesus and the “certain women” of Acts 1:14) who speak in all of the languages of the Jewish diaspora represented among the Shavuoth pilgrims. Peter is separating these verses from their ecological and agricultural context to account for the phenomena accompanying the birth of the Church.

As I write these words, we are just fifty days past the explosion of a deep drilling oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. This “pentecost” – pentecost means “fifty days” – invites a return to the original ecological of Joel’s prophecy. While the ecological disaster in Joel is a naturally occurring one and the oil spill in the Gulf is a human-fabricated disaster, the God of Joel (and of the earth and the animals) is limited by neither. In 3:1 (English; 4:1 in Hebrew) Joel proclaims God’s response to the fall of Jerusalem – restoration.

In both cases – the locust plague and the fall of Jerusalem – whether or natural or human engineered disasters, God restores and provides for God’s people and their animals. Can we ask the same when we have polluted the oceans? Will God hear and heal our waters, coasts, and their wildlife if we all – child and adult, strong and weak, male and female, clergy and lay, fast and pray?

The alternate reading for the Episcopal Church (Sirach 35:12-17) affirms that God hears prayer and does justice for those who cry out. The prayer of petition in Jeremiah (the alternate, alternate reading) includes a corporate confession of sin. The Gospel, Luke 18:9-14, emphasizes that God hears prayer, and is particularly responsive to the prayers of those who confess sin.

The liturgical elements: lament, prayer, fasting, and confession are both the strands that tie the readings together and a witness to the faithful response to natural and unnatural disasters. The beloved community is called to respond to the needs of the earth, her peoples, and creatures by turning to our God.

Lastly, the restoration of the agriculture and economic base in Joel 2 was accomplished by more than an act of God. The people cleared, planted, and harvested the fields, vineyards, and orchards. This is an important reminder lest we think that all we are called to do is to close ourselves up in our temples and pray. We must also work with God in and on the earth.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 84:1-7

Bobby Morris

Throughout life, we humans sometimes identify certain places or times as special.

Often the result of interaction with one or more other persons, these places and times take on added meaning. The same is true of religion. Various times and places can come to be identified as sacred or holy for various reasons. Such designations are a way of saying these times and places are different or out of the ordinary in an important and meaningful way.

Psalm 84 is typically categorized as a “Song of Zion.” The Temple Mount in Jerusalem was in ancient times, and is to this day, one of the most religiously hallowed places in the world. Many consider Psalm 84 to be a poetic account of the experience of a pilgrim approaching the temple in Jerusalem for a religious festival. The sense of excitement and awe must have been almost overwhelming as the city on a hill with its exalted temple first came into view.

But what makes going here so “special” or so “different” from anything else a person might do? The difference is that this is the dwelling place of the “Lord of hosts” (verse 1). Referring to God in this way is reminiscent of stories surrounding the ark of the covenant in which God is invisibly enthroned upon the cherubim but nonetheless present in a real way among the people. The realization that God desires to dwell among mortals is as powerful for the psalmist and pilgrim as it would later be for John of Patmos (Revelation 21:3).

This “Lord of hosts” is also the “living God” (verse 2). Not only does all life come from this God, but living further characterizes the holy one who dwells in Zion as one who is dynamic, at work, and active among that which he has created. This God is not static and trapped in endless cycles of death and rebirth as some of the Canaanite deities. Only in Zion does the pilgrim find the one who can truly be called the “God of gods” (verse 7).

So the palpable excitement found in the psalm is not so much about going to the particular place, but more so about who and what may be found there – the very presence of God. It is because of God’s presence that the psalmist may say, “Happy are those who live in your house” (verse 4). Even the birds seek to be in the presence of God and thus find homes among God’s altars (verse 3).

There is no validity in accusing ancient Israel of viewing God as present only in Zion. While the temple was viewed as the focal point of God’s presence (where it was most “intense” so to speak), God was certainly present and could be experienced outside of Jerusalem. There are hints of this even here in this psalm whose focus is on Zion.
Verse six mentions travel through the valley of Baca. The location of this place is unknown, and it may be more a symbolic designation than a concrete place. Yet it would seem that Baca is known or should be understood as a notoriously dry place. Then, it becomes striking to hear that pilgrims might find springs there. In fact, the text says that they actually “make it a place of springs.”

What is special or different here? Again the answer is the presence of God. Those who experience God’s real presence are brought into a new reality where a dry valley can yield springs and be covered with rain. The living God uplifts and empowers through this new reality in a way just as real as the Lord of hosts led and sustained his chosen people through the wilderness and into the promised land.

Psalm 84 invites readers to a similar experience. There are those special places and times in the life of faith where God’s presence may be found particularly intense. Believers need these anchors amid the seas of life. Regular worship at one’s home church and experiencing the Sacraments are both ways of profoundly entering God’s presence and being uplifted and empowered by it.

God’s presence may also be found, however, in the dry valleys and journeys of life where one may not expect to find God. Even here the Lord of hosts, who is also the living God, brings springs, rain, and strength to those who seek the ever-abiding presence of the one whose home is among mortals.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Dirk G. Lange

What we have here recorded is Paul’s own farewell discourse.

Whether authentically recorded or invented really makes little difference. (For rhetorical clarity, I will refer to the author of these verses as “Paul” through this commentary.) What, however, is important is the function and the character of the verses. With these verses, the admonitions to faithful translation of the Gospel, new in every situation, are sealed by the very witness and pending martyrdom of Paul. The community to whom the letter is addressed, and finally our own community, is included, drawn into the same way, the same race, the same martyrdom, and Paul’s own journey of faith.

Of course, the usual questions about Paul’s self-esteem can be raised. From one standpoint, Paul seems pretty self-assured, surprisingly confident in his good work. We recognize passages from other known Pauline works, where again Paul seems to be over-confident (2 Corinthians 11:22ff for example). Would Paul be like the Pharisee in this week’s Gospel reading, concerned primarily with exalting himself and condemning the other, the penitent tax-collector? Is Paul really that proud of himself and his work?

There certainly can be a moral reading of these verses: we need to strive for perfection in the godly life, we need to run the race, stay on track, do our best to reach the desired goal. However, if that were all we found in these verses, they would be discouraging rather than encouraging; they would evoke regret rather than hope.

For who among us can stay on track all the time? No, what is true to Paul in other passages is true to Paul here as well. Paul is not praising his own gifts, his own abilities, his own good works. What he is, however, absolutely sure about is God’s work and God’s work to stay one track! God will always accomplish what God wants to accomplish, though God does God’s work always through human beings, through creation. Faith is not faith in one’s own abilities but God’s faith planted within us that turns us, despite the upheavals and setbacks and failures of life, into faithful workers in the vineyard.

Certainty it is not to be confused with a self-assured righteousness. The person certain in faith (that is, in God’s faith and work) as “Paul” is here in this passage, that person need not be, and seldom is, very self-conscious or “assured” (in the “I’ve-got-it-all-together” manner so common among us all!). Paul’s certainty is lived in the midst of distress and disappointment; it is lived in prison, in deprivation and suffering, all of which would push any human being to despair. Even some of the faithful have left (as we read in the verses 10-15, which are omitted in the strict parameters of this lectionary reading). Paul understands that God’s work does not depend on his success or failure but he also knows that his life is, at all times, in all manner of ways, a witness to God’s work. In this way, Paul avoids the Scylla of self-promotion and the Charybdis of self-denigration.

Here we recognize the Paul of Galatians 2 (not I but Christ lives in me). Since the beginning of a life in Christ (no matter how that beginning may be defined), the Holy Spirit has been at work conforming the believer to Jesus Christ (and not creating a perfect moral specimen of the human race – because “perfect” would always be subject to self-definition!). All aspects, all circumstances, of our life are in the Spirit’s hands.

This movement towards conformity to Christ is witnessed in these verses. Paul begins by describing his life as an offering, more specifically a “drink offering.” His blood is being poured out. The parallel to Christ is evident. Paul’s life has a different goal than that of perfection or success or a happy retirement. His life’s goal is given already in Christ, in Christ’s death and life, not as objective reality that exists outside of our lives but as Christ’s death and life witnessed again and again in our life.

These verses are filled with hope. Despite the description of a hopeless situation, Paul’s vision is directed to what is often called an eschatological hope. An eschatological hope, however, is not a hope directed towards some future justification (even if Paul refers to his final vindication before the Throne). Eschatological hope is a present hope. It is hope in the present moment that forms, that transforms the “now” in which we live. Eschatological hope is the knowledge that Christ is present today. It “sees” the world with different eyes, with eyes that are not confined by the restrictions of self-interest.

We can now understand more fully the nature of Paul’s certitude. How can Paul be so sure of his righteousness? How can he write these words that can be so easily interpreted as self-promotion? Paul’s certitude is hope. His certainty is the embodied eschatological hope. It is the certainty that God works through him at all times, for the community, in the community, with the community (in this regard, the omitted verses 10-15 are quite significant because they relate the groundedness of this hope in real persons on whom Paul is dependent).

Finally, this hope also gets expressed in words that remind us of the Lord’s Prayer. (What a great opportunity to preach on this final petition of the Lord’s Prayer!) “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.” This prayer is the prayer of one who relies only on God. Paul knows that it is not his work, not his running, not his effort but only God who will hold him, justify him, and bless him. There is no other help but that which God gives. In this promise, we all are invited to pray.