September 12, 2004
Those skilled in doing evil bring chaos, while apostles and disciples experience the joy of sinners “found” for a new life.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
The prophetic reading is a couple of clips from a very dramatic chapter in Jeremiah’s poetry (Jeremiah 4:5-31). The whole dramatic chapter presents the indictment and demise of God’s people and their mother, the promiscuous wife who is the divine persona of the City.
Zion and her children are threatened—and finally ravaged—by a terrifying force that sweeps down from the North. The prophet hears alarms, cries out warnings, and sees panic and horror all around. All, of course, is about judgment for betraying God and being skilled only at doing evil (verse 22), but the driving purpose of all the laser-light show that flashes from scene to scene and from voice to voice is to present the dread and horror of ruthless, inhuman invaders and destroyers.
Generally speaking, the breezes over Judah come from the west and carry moisture from the Mediterranean Sea as far as the point of highest elevation, the mountain range separating the coastal plain from the Jordan Valley. To the east things are drier, even desert, until you reach the high country of Ammon and Moab in the distance, far beyond the Jordan River.
But sometimes conditions are such that east and southeast winds sweep over Judah. They are dry, dusty, and may even be tornado-like winds called siroccos. These winds, multiplied to the Nth degree, are the winds referred to in verses 11-12. These are winds too violent to winnow the harvested grain – they simply blow everything away. Such winds are God’s way of speaking in judgment against Judah and Jerusalem.
Only one verse in our reading gives the reason for God’s judgment (verse 22). The central issue is that the people’s education has been perverted. They lack knowledge of God. They are “foolish,” they are “stupid children,” and have “no understanding.” They have lots of street smarts, but no proper education. Consequently, they have earned advanced degrees in practicing evil, but are only preschoolers at doing good!
The passage climaxes with the prophet’s vision of a land transformed wholly to chaos. Without knowledge of God and skill at doing good, all things become “waste and void” (verse 23, NRSV). The heavenly lights are gone, the mountains totter and tremble, and—most of all—there is no one. The land is empty, lonely, strewn with rubble, a surface wholly burnt over by the judgment of God.
Such are the vast consequences of humanity’s lack of education, that is, lack of loyalty to God, lack of knowledge of justice, and lack of skill at doing good.
The one brief statement of indictment in the Jeremiah passage (4:22) is expanded in the Psalm reading. It is about “fools” who say there is no God and who have gone astray and become perverse. “There is no one who does good, no, not one” (verse 3, NRSV). These evildoers, who have no knowledge, are not equated in this psalm with God’s people under judgment. Rather, they are more like the foe from the north, busy consuming God’s people (verse 4).
However, such foolish but powerful consumers are doomed to the same terror as Jeremiah’s highly-trained evildoers. “There”—at some undesignated place (read “Zion,” where the final judgment on the nations takes place)—“they shall be in great terror.”
Why? Because their victims have a champion, who will finally appear to rectify things.
…God is with the company of the righteous.
You [evildoers] would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord [will prove to be] their refuge” (verse 6).
I Timothy 1:12-17
The Epistle reading is the first of seven weeks of selections from the Pastoral Epistles, as scholars have called I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus since the eighteenth century.
These three letters are addressed to two of Paul’s long-time assistants in missionary and pastoral work in the churches of Asia Minor and Greece. The letters indicate that Timothy was Paul’s pastoral delegate to the church(es) in Ephesus, and that Titus was missionary and pastoral delegate to the churches in Crete. The great fact about these letters in New Testament scholarship for the past 150 years is that they speak of different problems and use different language from the letters unquestionably written by Paul (Romans, both Corinthians, Galatians, I Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon). So scholars commonly regard them as letters written in Paul’s name by later leaders in the churches he founded.
The strongest thing in favor of Paul’s authorship is that the letters, taken by themselves, are convincing. They SAY they are from Paul, they have compelling personal passages, and they are consistent and ring true through all three letters. Against Paul’s authorship is that Paul died around 62 to 67, and these letters reflect church conditions of the 80s to the 110s. These letters are concerned with church offices, especially the qualifications for elders and deacons, and even speak of a “bishop,” or overseer, though this is not a very clear office yet. Also, there is great concern in these letters to teach and preserve “correct doctrine.” We have in these letters a stage in the development of the Christian movement that is no longer holding its breath for the return of the glorified Christ but is settling in for a long stay in the Roman world.
When the letters are read as written by Paul (for example by J.N.D. Kelly, The Pastoral Epistles, Black’s New Testament Commentary, 1960), it is admitted that this is a late Paul, a Paul who was released from prison in Rome (where the Book of Acts leaves him waiting for his trial) and who had several more years of active ministry, at least in Greece and Crete, but perhaps even further a field as in Spain, where he planned to go at the time he wrote Romans (Romans 15:28). This later Paul has entered into the new conditions of the churches and has accommodated his language somewhat to those conditions—thus the letters we now read. (There is no evidence of such later activity of Paul except the Pastoral Epistles themselves.)
It is fair to say that there are at least three Paul personas in the thirteen letters that bear his name. Paul the First is the familiar battler for the gospel of justification by faith and love found in Galatians, Romans, and Corinthians, etc. Paul the Second speaks the more mystical language of the Cosmic Christ in Colossians and Ephesians, and Paul the Third is the Apostolic doctor doing courses on leadership training, correct doctrine, and false teaching to be combated. What we read in the two Timothy letters may be the Paul that faithful apostle-delegate Timothy needed to hear (and record for himself) as the challenges of church leadership grew and expanded in his later years.
Our passage from I Timothy is the self-declaration of the Apostle. The Paul who speaks here holds himself up as the extreme example of a sinner delivered and given a new mission. His personal story provides the most drastic change imaginable from an old life to a new, and thus his life is itself a powerful proclamation of the “mercy” and “patience” of Jesus Christ (verse 16). Timothy, and all those who sooner or later heard this letter, are instructed in the essence of an apostle, one chosen and personally sent by the risen Jesus Christ. It is from one with such credentials that the rest of the letter is to be heard.
The Gospel reading is about divine discrimination.
As usual, the discrimination is in favor of sinners and other social-political suspects (such as tax collectors). The proper society people, represented by the Pharisees and scribes, grumble. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Once again, table fellowship is the make-or-break of religious (and therefore social) correctness. In the realm of God, however, the focus is not on those who are in but on those still left out.
One sheep is missing from the shepherd’s flock of 100. That represents a 1% loss. If that’s it for the season he has done very well! The shepherd in the parable, however, is not satisfied. He leaves the ninety-nine “in the wilderness” and goes after the one that is lost. The story doesn’t invite us to evaluate the risk to the ninety-nine, but it implies that there was at least some risk – “in the wilderness” is not usually a safe environment for unattended sheep.
And when the lost sheep is found, the shepherd makes a really big deal of it. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” (verse 6, NRSV). And then the really discriminating divine punch line: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Generally, I feel like one of the ninety-nine, and therefore somewhat devalued by this behavior of the “good” shepherd. (Which, of course, includes me in the class-action suit brought by the older brother in the long parable below, the Prodigal Son.)
And a woman had ten valuable silver coins. (Luke tends to group stories or episodes in pairs, one for a man and one for a woman.) When one is lost she does the total-search routine – with success. In her case there is probably no danger to the nine coins still resting in her cash box, but she too makes a really big deal of the recovery of the lost coin.
Divine discrimination! Even the angels in heaven engage in it (verse 10), so what chances do Pharisees have who are so finicky about the qualifications of their eating companions? This shepherd and matron, Jesus says, have got the right message: Rejoice! Rejoice!