For some peoples prophets have words of doom; for others the reign of Wisdom means an urgent altering of priorities.
Our second reading from the prophet Amos continues the prophet’s report of a series of brief visions he received from the Lord. There are five visions altogether:
7:1-3, the locust plague;
7:4-6, the fire storm;
7:7-9, the plumb line;
8:1-3, summer fruit; and
9:1, destruction of the temple.
Last week’s reading included the third of these. There was a definite strategy in the first three visions, all of which threatened disaster for poor, small Jacob. When God showed the prophet an explicit disaster, like a locust plague or the outbreak of great fire, the prophet jumped in and begged God to relent. “O Lord, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!” (7:2 and 5, NRSV). For the third vision, however, God changed strategy and showed the prophet something that wasn’t a disaster already in progress. It was only an ominous sign of some kind.
In that third vision God shows the prophet a “plumb line,” the device for determining when crooked walls have to be torn down. Then God said, “Amos, what do you see?” Now the prophet has to answer the question instead of pleading for pity for Jacob. When he reports what he sees, it is God’s turn to say what the sign means and to state the judgment and punishment represented by the sign. God has circumvented the prophet’s determination to intercede for poor little Jacob!
That was the divine strategy with the plumb line, and it is the strategy here in this Sunday’s reading with the vision of the basket of summer fruit (verses 1-3). As the translators’ footnotes in NRSV explain, there is a wordplay. You see a basket of summer fruit, a qaitz? That sounds like a qetz — an End. For Amos there is a message in this, for “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by [= exclude them from disaster].” The rest of the divine judgment elaborates on the dead bodies lying in the streets, and concludes with an awesome command for silence, in Hebrew hās! The total silence of complete desolation and emptiness.
And why is Israel coming to its End? The reasons are given in verses 4-6, once again selling the poor for silver, trampling the needy, and in general ruining the poor. The culmination of punishment will be the elimination of any hope for divine relief. There will be a famine of the words of the Lord; there will be no divine guidance that might reverse the disasters (verses 11-12). Israel is doomed.
We have the book of Amos, not because Israel survived the judgment, but because Judah did. After the northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria, Judah attempted to reform its own religious and social order, particularly under King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah. At that time the example of the northern kingdom was mulled over extensively, and the stories of Elijah-Elisha and the prophetic books of Amos and Hosea (in early versions) were preserved as parts of a new vision of Judah’s place in history. In this new vision Judah would continue to be the holy city God had chosen and would continue to have a king descended from David the great anointed king, but it would also adhere firmly to the lessons of Yahweh’s exclusiveness learned from the prophets and the disastrous history of the northern kingdom. This deliberate adoption of northern traditions about Yahweh’s work in history was the beginning of the prophetic books as part of a larger complex of God’s Word. These were prophesies that had been fulfilled; their messages had been established by God’s own actions. Israel had died because it was unfaithful to Yahweh and Yahweh’s justice. Perhaps Judah still had a chance!
The Psalm reading is probably one of the least familiar of the psalms. It doesn’t fit the usual categories for the psalms: hymn, lament, thanksgiving, etc. It is more like a reproach speech from a prophet, like Isaiah’s pronouncement against Shebna, the mayor of Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:15-25).
The heading of the psalm, added later, relates it to an incident in the time of David and Saul when Doeg the Edomite was a competitor and betrayer of David, an outlaw at the time (I Samuel 21:1-8; 22:6-19). In the post-Exilic period, the Judeans greatly resented the Edomites, who had taken advantage of Judah’s defeat and depopulation, and a prominent warrior (gibbor, the term translated “mighty one” in verse 1 of our psalm) of Edom was viewed as a tyrant epitomizing evil conduct. In the psalm the righteous ones will view with awe the punishment and destruction of this bully, who trusts in his wealth, his power to buy his way to whatever he wants.
In contrast to this Edomite gangland boss, the speaker compares himself to the evergreen, long-lived olive tree in the precincts of the Temple. Tyrants come and go; the strength of the Lord endures.
The Epistle reading presents a passage that scholars have long recognized contains an early Christian hymn in praise of Christ. The hymn is quoted by the letter writer as part of the thanksgiving section of the letter. Originally, the hymn was about the work of Wisdom as God’s agent in the cosmos. Where Wisdom was the original subject (feminine), some early Christian liturgists have read it as applying to Christ.
Andrew T. Lincoln gives a full discussion and description of the hymn and how it is used in the letter (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. XI, [Abingdon, 2000] pp. 597-607). He reconstructs the hymn as having three strophes. (The bracketed phrases were additions to the hymn by the letter writer.)
Strophe 1 (1:15-16a)
who is the image of the invisible God
the firstborn of all creation,
for in him were created all things
in heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible
[whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers]
Strophe 2 (1:16b-18a)
all things were created through him and for him
and he himself is before all things
and all things hold together in him
and he himself is the head of the body [the church]
Strophe 3 (1:18b-20)
who is the beginning
the firstborn from the dead
[so that he himself might have preeminence in all things]
for in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell
and through him to reconcile all things for him,
making peace through him
[through the blood of his cross]
whether things on earth or things in heaven.
Lincoln makes the following comments on the background and adaptation of the hymn.
It looks very much, then, as if the Hellenistic Jewish composer of the hymn has taken the various attributes of Wisdom or the Logos and applied them to Christ in his relation to the cosmos. The hymn in its original form presupposes some major disruption in cosmic harmony and, therefore, sees Christ not only, like Wisdom or the Logos, as the divine agent in creation but also now as the divine agent in reconciliation, restoring harmony to the cosmos (p. 605).
The adapted Christian hymn views the divine agent of creation as visiting the world in which humans were left after creation. There this Wisdom / Logos / Anointed One passed through death and assumed a supreme reign over all the counter-creation powers that had taken the cosmos captive. This Anointed One became the head of the assembly of the saved ones – known to the hearers of this letter as the ekklesia, the church, the “body” of this divine visitor.
Compared to the previous readings, the Gospel text is remarkably straightforward – though not necessarily easier to live with.
As Jesus’ “journey” continues, he is hosted by a householder named Martha. (The story is told mainly from her viewpoint.) Martha has a sister Mary who becomes absorbed in Jesus’ teaching and “sits at his feet” (a phrase used of disciples, see Luke 8:35) rather than helping with the hostessing. Martha resents this, and resents it enough to go into the seminar room and make a major case of it (verse 40)!
Jesus’ response seems to commiserate with Martha’s many worries and management tasks (verse 41), but as usual he recasts things by radically altering the priorities. Too many distractions are not good; “there is need of only one thing” (verse 42, NRSV; there are several variant readings in this verse.) And he adds, somewhat cruelly it seems to us, that Mary (rather than Martha) has chosen that one thing (verse 42).
We may note, also, that the one thing Mary has chosen was improbable for a Jewish woman. They didn’t normally sit as disciples, especially when hospitality was needed. Mary’s response to Jesus, her “lord” (verse 39), is probably another innovation among Jewish women who became followers of Jesus.
We seem to have a classic conflict between the doers and the dreamers! We are tempted to work at this text until we can get a more comfortable result, something other than Jesus siding unequivocally with the dreamers. But the background of apocalyptic urgency that informs Jesus’ requirements of those who would follow him (9:57-62) seems to shape the response to Martha also. The imminence of a whole new order for the world upsets routine agendas for ordinary household duties.
We want to say, “The world must also be managed on a day-to-day basis! Give us more Marthas!” Then there could be more hosting of traveling sages, and the members of the devotional seminar could have something to eat at their break times. And so it goes.
To us advocates of the Marthas of the world, the Reign of God seems too far off to allow its visiting representatives to seriously disrupt our management agendas.