Proper 21C

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


Contents

Lectionary

  • Jeremiah 1:4-10 & Psalm 71:1-6
  • Hebrews 12:18-29
  • Luke 13:10-17




First Reading: Jeremiah

This week we begin a series of several Sundays when the first reading is drawn from Jeremiah. The scroll of the prophet Jeremiah is the second of four large scrolls that comprise the Latter Prophets in the Jewish Bible; commonly known as the Tanakh, an acronym for Torah (Law), Nebi'im (Prophets), and the Kethubim (Writings). The following extract from The Once and Future Bible provides a brief introduction to the book of Jeremiah.

The second prophetic book preserves traditions associated with Jeremiah. Jeremiah is described as coming from a rural priestly family, from the village of Anathoth in the tribal territories of Benjamin, to the north of Jerusalem. Despite their negative impact on the priestly functions of his own family, Jeremiah seems to have supported the reforms under Josiah that required the closure of the village high places as worship was centralized in the Jerusalem temple. However, Jeremiah did not think that the presence of the temple would guarantee the inviolability of Zion nor protect it from divine wrath.

In this respect Jeremiah differed from Isaiah, but around one hundred years separated them and much had changed in the meantime. For Isaiah, it was an article of faith that YHWH would not allow Zion to fall into the hands of its enemies. This confidence seemed to have been validated by the collapse of the Syro-Ephraimite coalition (735–734 BCE) and, even more so, by the seemingly miraculous escape from the siege by the Assyrian forces in 701 BCE. As Jeremiah saw it, neither city nor temple guaranteed safety to a city that did not act with justice and did not remain loyal to YHWH. Jeremiah stands at the gates of the temple and proclaims:
Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, says the LORD, and when I spoke to you persistently, you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your ancestors, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight, just as I cast out all your kinsfolk, all the offspring of Ephraim.

These were inconvenient truths that challenged the misplaced confidence of the establishment. They find an echo in the perspective of Jesus when he sets himself against the temple establishment some 600 years later. The ancient conflict between prophet and priest is in plain view, and Jeremiah would soon find himself in peril for his bold words. He survives to see his dire predictions fulfilled, before being forcibly taken to Egypt by a group of Judean refugees after the murder of the Babylonian governor, Gedaliah.

It is possible that Jeremiah parted company with the Deuteronomistic reformers who had come to power during the reign of Josiah. He seems to have lost confidence in the capacity of a book of the law to bring about holiness. Perhaps it was the experience of having his own prophetic texts cut to shreds and dropped in the fire that moved him to imagine a different kind of covenant. This covenant would be inscribed on the human heart, rather than on tablets of stone. It would need no religious authorities to instruct people on how to observe its requirements.

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. (Jer 31:31–34)




Second Reading: Hebrews 12:18-29

This week we are almost at the end of a long series of Sundays where the second reading has been drawn from the Letter to the Hebrews.

In the passage this week the author is reflecting on the ancient traditions of the theophany at Mt Sinai, when the Ten Commandments were first given to the tribes of Israel gathered at the foot of the mountain. Rather than focus on the content of the theophany (the Decalogue), the writer reflects on the sanctity of God expressed in the "special effects" that are part of the story in Exodus:

On the third day in the morning there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud on the mountain, and the sound of a very loud horn; all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their place at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely covered with smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire, and its smoke went up like the smoke of a great furnace, and the whole mountain shook violently. When the sound of the horn grew louder and louder, Moses was speaking and God was answering him with a voice. (Exodus 19:16–19 NET)

The point of this comparison by the unknown author of this early Christian text was to highlight the sacred mystery at the heart of the Christian faith, and to call for a deep respect for the radical otherness of God. Some popular current expressions of Christianity emphasise intimacy with God and seem almost to domesticate God so that our personal needs for protection and success take center stage. This kind of religion sells well. It packs the pews with eager, hand-waving enthusiasts. Yet religion deals with a deeper reality; something awesome, at times even scary. As this writer himself said a little earlier in the letter, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31 NET)


Gospel: Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath

It is probably safe to assume that Luke's purpose when including this story in his gospel was something other than to preserve the memory of a healing miracle by Jesus. There must have been something about this story that offered Luke some additional reason for using it. Two of the distinctive features of this piece of tradition are, first of all, that the healing occurs on the Sabbath, and secondly, that the person healed is a woman. Given the point of the pronouncement made by Jesus at the end of the story, it seems that the decisive element for Luke was the breaking of the conventions around the Sabbath. When compassion requires us to act, not even the holiness of the Sabbath should stop us from acting.

Lectionary logic

As an aside, it is always fascinating to observe the choices made by the lectionary designers as they select certain passages and omit others from the list of texts to be read in the Sunday liturgy. This week we see the RCL and RC/ECUSA lectionaries diverging in their choices for the Gospel.

The table outlining Special Luke's narrative of the journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:28) shows that all three major Western lectionaries skip the difficult passage in Luke 13:1-9. However, this is because they each used that passage on the Third Sunday of Lent. Not surprisingly, then, all three skips those verses at this point in the year.

What is not so clear is why the RC and ECUSA lectionaries jump over the healing story in 13:10-17 and go instead to the series of sayings in 13:22-30.

Healing on the Sabbath

One of the hallmarks of Jesus' ministry seems to have been his activity as a healer. While Hal Taussig challenges this aspect of the Jesus tradition (on the grounds that healing would not be a core activity for Jesus the wisdom sage), others—such as Marcus Borg—point to the multiple attestation for this activity, and the historical parallels with other Spirit persons.

In Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (1998:160-62), Marcus Borg provides some insights into the healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath day:

The non-Markan sabbath conflict stories all follow a common pattern. Jesus, taking the initiative, healed a person in the presence of opponents and then legitimated his action with a rhetorical question that referred to common human behavior. Two are peculiar to Luke:
Luke 23:15-16: Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

Luke 14:5: Which of you having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?

... In each case, Jesus invited them to consider what they naturally did when they saw an animal in need (thirsty) or suffering (fallen into a pit) on the sabbath.

Interestingly, Jesus' argument was not halakhic, that is, not based on appeal to legal deduction or precedent. In all likelihood, there was no legal ruling on the matter within the mainstream of Judaism. In the absence of a legal ruling, commonsense compassion would naturally determine the course. Compassion -- the movement within humans (within the bowels or the womb in Hebrew thought) in the presence of creature-suffering -- would lead to attending to the animal's needs. Thus compassion in the presence of human suffering became the implicit criterion for exceptions to sabbath law. The movements of compassion took precedence over the requirements of holiness.

Luke's account of Jesus' response in the story of the crippled woman adds two further details. The explicit identification of the woman as a "daughter of Abraham" did not mean simply that she was Jewish, as if that needed underlining. Rather, it may point to the inclusiveness of Jesus' concern, just as the explicit identification of Zaccheus as a "son of Abraham" did. Describing the woman's healing as an untying from Satan's bondage (besides being parallel to untying an animal so that it might drink) links her healing to the plundering of Satan's kingdom, which elsewhere in the synoptics is associated with the power of holiness understood as a transforming energy, notably in the confrontations between the "holy one" and the unclean spirits. Though one must be careful not to press the detail, perhaps the sabbath is seen as an especially appropriate day for the holiness of God to be active.

In none of these cases did the healing seem to be a strategic suspension of sabbath law, as neither danger to life nor particular exigencies of the mission were involved. Instead, these violations of sabbath law as then understood seem to be programmatic, flowing out of the alternative paradigm which Jesus taught: the sabbath was a day for works of compassion. This change did not mean that the sabbath was abrogated, rather, it was subordinated to deeds of compassion rather than to the quest for holiness.

Quoting Q

The selection set for the RC/ECUSA lectionaries is basically drawn from the Sayings Gospel Q, as the list of data from the Jesus Database indicates.

The hypothesis of a lost written source (a "sayings gospel") that preserved sayings of Jesus from a period prior to the composition of our extant Gospels is widely -- but not uniformly -- accepted by critical scholarship. The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas confirmed that such a genre existed in early Christianity: a collection of sayings without any reference to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection.

One of the best online gateways to information about the Sayings Gospel Q is Peter Kirby's Early Christian Writings - Lost Sayings Gospel Q page:


Jesus Database




Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt's web site

Other recommended sites include:



Music Suggestions

Traditional hymn suggestions:

  • All people that on earth do dwell - AHB 10
  • From all who dwell below the skies - AHB 42
  • God whose farm is all creation - AHB 94
  • Disposer supreme and judge of the earth - AHB 355

See David MacGregor's Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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