September 5, 2010
God keeps bringing up choices—for nations engaged in evil, slave owners living the faith, and disciples on the journey of their lives.
The prophetic reading continues the experiences of Jeremiah living under God’s constraint to bring an unpopular message to his people in a turbulent time. Jeremiah is directed to go to the workshop of a potter in the lower part of town, where water was available to prepare the clay for molding.
The potter’s wheel, where the potter does his work, is a clever device. Two flat stones are fastened, one at the top and one at a lower place on a vertical axle. The lower stone is used to spin the axle by hand or foot while the upper stone is the work space where the trained hand of the potter shapes the spinning mound of clay. As the prophet watches, a bowl or a jar begins to take shape on the upper stone. At some point, the intended vessel gets out of shape or is marred and the potter wads the clay together and throws it back on the spinning stone to start over and make a new vessel as it suits him.
Interpreters who like to penetrate to the personal experience of a prophet suggest that Jeremiah just happened to be watching the potter work when the insight hit him that Israel is in God’s hand as the clay is in the potter’s hand. At that moment, Jeremiah realized that he was not there by accident; God had meant him to be there to get that message, and in fact God was sending a message to Israel by this everyday moment in the prophet’s life. “‛Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord” (verse 6, NRSV).
The first basic insight about God as potter leads to a broader generalization about God as judge of nations and kingdoms (verses 7-10). Nations are always moving on their destined courses. Some become corrupt and evil and are headed for disaster, a plucking up or breaking down (verse 7—see Jeremiah 1:10), which is equivalent to the potter wadding up the clay to start over. Other nations are humanitarian and just and are destined to prosper, to be built up and planted (verse 9).
However, the destiny of either nation may be reversed. The rotten may actually reform (even the mighty tyrant Assyria, according to the Jonah story), and the benefactor may become a tyrant and an oppressor, in which case God will “repent” of his previous verdict and establish a new destiny for either nation. Jeremiah lived his entire life in a time when the destinies of many nations were rising and falling with dizzying speed. The prophetic word made clear to him that this swirl of historical changes was still an arena in which God worked out ultimate justice for the peoples.
But the final insight of the visit to the potter was a return to the present reality in Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah realized that Judah’s present destiny was one of alienation and destruction. The prophetic word here is good only if a great reversal can be made, a serious turning away from the present course. God’s word to Judah, Jeremiah realized, is, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way…” (verse 11).
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
The Psalm reading is two of the sections from that profound meditation on God’s knowing, Psalm 139. Very appropriate to Jeremiah is the confession that God’s scrutiny is inescapable.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
it is so high that I cannon attain it. (verses 4-6, NRSV)
The third section of the psalm (verses 13-18) speculates in awe on the mysteries of embryology and human birth. Such thoughts are appropriate to a Jeremiah who heard that he was called to be a prophet before he was conceived, or before he was delivered at birth (Jeremiah 1:5).
This psalm’s wonderment at the miracle in the womb is very personal. It is the speaker’s own growth as embryo that expresses God’s incomprehensible art and mysterious power. As the destinies of the nations are known to God, so is the utterly personal being of this speaker.
This Sunday is the one chance in the three-year cycle of the Lectionary for hearers to benefit from the little Letter to Philemon. This is an entirely personal letter from the apostle Paul, and scarcely anyone questions that it is really his writing. Paul is writing to a well-to-do householder in the city of Colossae, a medium-sized city in the Lycus River valley a hundred miles east of Ephesus in Asia Minor. Paul apparently converted Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, commenting that Philemon owes Paul “even your own self” (verse 19), and speaking of himself as being in a position to give commands to Philemon, if such were needed (verse 8).
This letter also is about an either/or, a choice between two ways. Here, however, Paul addresses a rather delicate situation, and Paul speaks somewhat obliquely and indirectly, not saying everything he has in mind. Instead, he prompts Philemon to catch the drift and make the decisions Paul is hoping for.
The letter goes to Philemon accompanying the slave Onesimus (the Greek name means “Useful,” see the word-play in verse 11). Apparently Onesimus ran away from the Philemon household, and may have stolen enough money to make good his escape to a larger city. (Paul, in verse 18, is perhaps offering to repay what was stolen.) In that city—possibly Rome, more likely Ephesus—the fugitive slave ran into Paul and his circle and ended up being converted to faith in Jesus also, which has changed his life and made Paul his father in the faith (verse 10).
Now the time has come to reconcile old grievances, to send Onesimus back to his master in Colossae, and trust to Philemon to do the right thing in relation to this new brother in the faith. Paul emphasizes that how Philemon receives Onesimus is Philemon’s choice, but Paul is confident Philemon will make good decisions (verses 14 and 21). Paul does not come out and say, Why don’t you both forgive Onesimus and make him a free man, but what Paul expected is pretty clear. The fact that this minor personal letter survived, and was preserved in Christian circles for some decades before Paul’s letters were collected, suggests that Philemon did the right thing, and was well remembered for it—perhaps especially by Onesimus himself!
The Letter to Philemon may be suggested for a meditation on self-interest related to faith-based action. Onesimus, a useful man who escaped from slavery, is being asked—expected—to go back to his master with every likelihood that he will serve as a slave again, perhaps for the rest of his life. Why is he willing to do that? Philemon, who was probably wronged, not only by the loss of his slave but also by the loss of money stolen, is being asked to ignore the past losses, take no revenge, but accept the fugitive as a brother in the faith—and probably to emancipate him also.
In Philemon’s case, we may reflect, the way of grace and faith was probably also the way of enlightened self-interest. The quality of life in the larger household of faith far exceeded what either Philemon or Onesimus had before. That seems to be the perspective Paul has on it.
If Jeremiah had to speak words people didn’t want to hear, the Gospel reading presents an even worse case for Jesus. The reading begins with a “hard” saying about the cost of discipleship. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (verse 26, NRSV).
So much for “family values”! Whether the saying is thought to be from Jesus himself or from later embattled and persecuted followers who were sure he would have said this, it anticipates violent domestic friction caused by the call to follow Jesus. In the first and second generations, followers of Jesus encountered intense hostility in some situations, hostility that divided Jewish families into bitter opponents. Following Jesus was taking a course that could lead to death, represented by the cross.
An indication that this “hate” language was unacceptable to some early Christians is seen in the parallel saying in Matthew, where the language is toned down. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” (Matthew 10:37). Even in Matthew, however, this hard saying is linked with the saying, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27 // Matthew 10:38), which is not that much easier than the “hate” statement.
The rest of the passage urges that one be very clear about the cost of this choice. Making the choice to become a Jesus disciple should be a deliberate thing. Jesus illustrates from worldly wisdom. The construction contractor will “first sit down and estimate the cost” (verse 28). The king contemplating aggressive war will “sit down first and consider whether he is able…” (verse 31). The final punch line is put in terms of money. “So therefore if you do not give up all your possessions, you cannot become my disciple” (verse 33, modified to fit Greek word order, which has verse 33 parallel to verse 27).
This hard saying of Jesus is a sobering and painful word to contemplate in a prosperous and possession-filled land. In times or places where Jesus followers are excluded from privileges, denied livelihoods, and even outlawed, the cost of discipleship is not only a choice between good and bad but between life and death. The Lord of Israel and of Jesus can present us with real “crises” (Greek for “decision,” “judgment”), whether the promised land seems near or far off.