Pentecost, Proper 19, Year C

Sermon notes and thoughts and commentary on the Lectionary readings for September 15, 2013
Stan G. Duncan

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 or Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 14 or Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

n last week’s lection, there seemed to have been some hope remaining for Judah. It apparently had been written during the early years of Jeremiah’s ministry, perhaps during the relatively hopeful years of the reign of King Josiah. Today’s passage, on the other hand, appears to have been written later in his ministry, perhaps during the tenuous last days of Zedekiah, and the prophet is disgusted and impatient. What he produces then are a series of visions and oracles, collected in the section from 4:5-10:25, which are relentless and devastating in their scope. God has given up on them. Punishment is the only recourse. Near total despair permeates the entire section.
On a political level, the doom is caused by “the foe from the north,” probably Babylonia, who having beaten off Egypt and crushed Assyria, is poised to subdue Judah once more. Internally, King Zedekiah has attempted to align the nation’s interests with Egypt, but that country’s power had been severely weakened at the battle of Carchemish. But though Jeremiah is apparently aware of all of these diplomatic and geo-political events, they are of no interest to him. For Jeremiah, the real cause of the misery of the people of Jerusalem and Judah is their evil deeds and their disregard of Yahweh.
Vss. 11-12: The catastrophe that is descending upon them will be a military defeat, but it is described in terms of a Sirocco, a hot desert wind (not made by Volkswagen), that sweeps destructively across arid lands. Siroccos were often used for winnowing or cleansing. Farmers would throw grain up into the wind and it would separate the wheat from the chaff. But here, Jeremiah (Yahweh) says that this wind brings neither winnowing nor cleansing. It is “a wind too strong for that” (4:12a). It brings only destruction.
19-22: In the vss. not included in the lection (13-18), Jeremiah makes public prophesies of judgment (ex. “your ways and your doings have brought this upon you. This is your doom; how bitter it is!” etc.). In this section he makes his own private response to those pronouncements. He feels it in his very “bowels” or “womb” (me'ah, NRSV translates as “anguish” v. 19). It destroys his tent and his curtains.
In Vs. 22 (included in our lection as its introduction, but only loosely related to it) Jeremiah notes that it is the lack of knowledge of Yahweh that has driven people to commit the acts of evil, which has caused the impending punishment. “My people are foolish, they do not know me...They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” This is a recurring theme in Jeremiah—that people who “know” God do acts of justice and mercy, while people who are ignorant of God do evil—and is a possible theme for preaching. See 22:16, where Jeremiah praises the reign of Josiah: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord.” For Jeremiah, the breaking of the covenant with Yahweh is the origin of all evil. From there idolatry and all forms of oppression arise.
The pinnacle of this reading is vss. 22-26, a four-fold “I Look” that reads like a litany, a crescendo of ever greater horrors. It’s a “staggering study in creation run amok” (Brueggemann, Commentary on Jeremiah [1998], p. 59). Going backwards—following Hebrew poetry—it describes the dismantling of the entire creation, first the earth, and the heavens, then mountains, then birds, and then the land and cities. Notice that vs. 23 sounds suspiciously like Genesis 1:2, the earth will be “without form or void.” It’s not an accident. The destruction of creation is so complete that it is taken back to a pre-Genesis state. The theological point is that creation was formed out of covenantal love (though the people were technically not created yet). If there is to be no covenant, then there will be no creation. disobedience created the destruction which surrounds them. Destroy the covenant and you have destroyed the entirety of creation.

Luke 15:1-10

Parables of Lost and Found

his reading has three parts: (1) an introduction, possibly added by Luke (vv. 1-3), (2) the parable of the lost sheep (vv. 4-7), (3) and the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10). There is a third parable in the chapter, the parable of the loving father (vv. 11-32), but it is a very different “parable of the lost,” and is read at Lent 4 C.
The introduction (vv. 1-2) sets the themes of the three parables to follow. It was probably assigned to this place later by Luke, but it is historically accurate in its description of Jesus raising the ire of the religious authorities by eating with the outcasts and “sinners.” Note that in Palestine, to “welcome” meant more than being agreeable to someone’s presence. It usually meant to be the grand host and prepare the meal and put people up for the night. That Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was more radical then than it seems today. It was particularly galling to proper Israelites who routinely kept sinners and the observant separate.
For Luke (and probably for Jesus) “sinners” meant both those who have committed some socially evil act (roughly similar to our general usage of it today) and those who are called sinners by virtue of their place in the religious class system (very unlike our usage today). For example, tax collectors, and prostitutes were sinners for their deeds, while the poor and the sick were sinners for their conditions in life. The distinction is important, because the word is used in both senses in this passage, but only the deed-sinners are capable of repenting.
“The Lost Sheep” (vv. 4-7). This is the only parable of the three that has parallels elsewhere. It is found both in Matthew (18:12-14) and Thomas (107:1-3). In Matthew’s version, the sheep is not a sinner, but “one of these little ones,” presumably a new convert. It is not lost (apolesas), but has stumbled or “gone astray” planèthè, as also in Thomas’), and it does not “repent” (metanoeo) but is simply found. Otherwise the two versions are structurally the same. In Matthew (and perhaps Thomas) Jesus seems to be illustrating the extent of God’s love for those who have strayed from the path of righteousness. In Luke, the point is God’s joy (a major theme in Luke) over the recovery of a lost unclean outcast (“sinner”) who has repented (also a key theme in Luke [10:13, 11:32; 13:3, 5; 16:30; 17:3, 4]). Joseph Fitzmyer (Gospel According to Luke, p. 238) says that this is probably because of the strong ethical intent of this Gospel. In Luke, people don’t become Christians by receiving the Spirit, but by changing their behavior. For example, Zachaeus (19:1-10); the two debtors (7:40-43); the sons of Zebedee (who “left everything and followed him,” 5:11, 28); the rich ruler (who was told to “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” 18:18-25); the disciples (“no one who has left house[etc.] for the sake of the kingdom of Godwill not get backin the age to come, eternal life,” 18:28-30);, etc. for Luke, repentance (metanoia) means turning toward God, and turning toward God means turning (away from wealth, and) turning toward those for whom God had a special concern (the poor, the outcasts, the sinners, etc.). (Is it name-dropping to mention H. Richard Neibuhr’s definition of faith here? “Faith is trust and confidence in a value conferring center, and loyalty and fidelity to its cause” [Radical Monotheism And Western Culture]).
The common elements in both of the two parables of the lost are:
1.      the driving love of God for the lost. Neither the shepherd nor the woman hesitates before risking the search and never tires until the lost coin or sheep is found.
2.      The joy of God over the discovering and bringing home of the lost. The words “joy” or “rejoice” (chairo, sugchairo) occur almost more often in Luke than all of the other Gospels combined (four times in this reading alone).
It’s interesting to note that the section begins with the religious authorities grumbling over Jesus eating and drinking with the lost social outcasts, so he tells stories about people finding lost items and then celebrating by eating and drinking. It’s also interesting that to depict God in the parables, Jesus chooses a shepherd who is a filthy, unclean outcast, and a woman who is a second class citizen. The mere listing of the characters of the story would have been insulting to many of his listeners, totally separate from what the stories said. Much is made recently of the fact that he used a woman to portray God in the second parable.  To me that is only partially interesting. The thing that has always been interesting to me is not that Jesus portrays God as a woman, but that he does it with so little fanfare: no build up, no splashy adjectives to punch up the point. What is remarkable is the flatof course-ness” of it all. As though it never occurred to Jesus that the comparison was in some way unusual, when in fact it was even more radical then than now.

1 Timothy 1:12-17

God’s Mercy and the plan of Salvation in Jesus

irst and Second Timothy are among the so-called “pseudo-Paul” letters, meaning that they were probably written by one of his followers a generation after he died. The reading begins with “Paul” expressing gratitude that Christ appointed him to his service. Even though Paul was a blasphemer (parenthetically, there is no record in Paul’s authentic writings that Paul was actually a blasphemer, but that’s quibbling), because of Christ’s “grace,” “faith,” and “love,” and also because Paul was “ignorant” of in his unbelief.
Verse 15 is the Christological center of the passage: “Christ came into the world to save sinners.” He tracks them down and showers them with grace.
In vs. 16 we learn that Paul was the worst of sinners precisely so that he could be the primary exemplar of the grace (salvation) of Christ. “In me, as the foremost (sinner), Jesus Christ [did]display the utmost patience, making me an example” (v. 16). This is the reason for the exaggeration about Paul being a “blasphemer”: the worst that Paul is among sinners, the more blessed is the grace of Christ that rescued him. If Christ could show mercy on him, then Christ could show mercy on anyone. It’s interesting to note that the writer says that the very reason why Paul the sinner was saved was so that he would be an example for others. He was transformed by God so that he could be an agent of God’s ministry. “A central purpose in God’s transformation of sinners into those who experience grace is for the redirection of life in the work of ministry….Paul became a showcase of God’s mercy as he was altered from a life of grave opposition to God’s work, to a life of steadfast service to Christ Jesus” (Soards, Marion, et. al., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary [Abingdon, 1994], p. 36).