The 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
I Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

There is both human and divine pain—because of disasters humans bring upon themselves through the misguided shrewdness of this age.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Our reading from the prophetic books takes us to a passage showing why Jeremiah, down through the ages, has been called “a man of tears.” The prophet’s profound empathy for the suffering of the people under judgment, as well as for the rightness of God’s indictment, made him an agonized man. Being a powerful poet, he expressed that agony in passionate images and dialogues.

For this passage is a little drama, with dialogues. The changes in speaker from verse to verse are fairly clear but recognizing them is essential to getting the prophet’s message: the passion is divine as well as human.

The prophet’s agonized feelings of pity are the outer framework. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”—this cry at the beginning (verse 18) is linked at the end with the echoing cry, “O that my head were a spring of water, / and my eyes a fountain of tears” (9:1, NRSV).

Inside the prophet’s envelope of agonized lament is heard the astonished disappointment and despair of the people. From all over the land they cry, “Is the Lord not in Zion? / Is her King not in her?” When disaster seems to loom on the horizon, all the outlying people are accustomed to expect Zion to be a safe refuge and bulwark from threatening enemies. In Jeremiah’s time, however, Zion herself was pronounced to be doomed. (See the death agony of Zion in 4:30-31 and the sermon of doom on Jerusalem in 7:1-15.) The age of trust-in-Zion as the ultimate sanctuary, even for the unrighteous, is ending. Zion’s “King” will not be in her; she will not be saved from the foreign invaders coming in waves against her.

The last lament of the people is total despair: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, / and we are not saved” (verse 20).

But at the center of this dramatic dialogue a voice is heard separate and above the others. (NRSV puts it in parentheses, verse 19b, a comment inserted in the midst of the panicked cries of the people.) God speaks. While the rushing and overwhelming judgment brought by God’s own self is taking place, God also agonizes that it had to be this way, that the people have been so unfaithful, so disloyal to their loving divine parent. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, / with their foreign idols?”

And this unintelligible, this irrational surge of self-defeating behavior by a “chosen” people is the cause of agony and lament, human and divine. But most of all it is for the passionate prophet who cries out for the “balm of Gilead,” the healing for the soul wounded by all the transgressions of the people.

Psalm 79:1-9

The Psalm reading is a voice from the prophetic dialogue, heard at a later stage of the drama. It is the voice of the people around Jerusalem, heard after the disaster has been completed, after the judgment for sin has been delivered.

The early part of the psalm elaborates on the devastation, on the cruelty that ruthless enemies have executed upon the city and its population. Bodies have been strewn over the land as fodder for vultures and wild beasts; there is no one to bury them. Blood has been poured out so that it flows down gutters and sewers like the runoff of a storm. People from the vicinity who still care about the great city are tormented by the scorn and taunting of neighboring peoples.

And the psalmist asks, “How long, O Lord?”

For a moment the lament moves toward anger and resentment. Let these mocking peoples receive some of their own medicine! Let them be the recipients of God’s wrath, especially since they don’t even know this God who has acted in judgment on God’s own people. But after this moment of resentment, the speaker returns to the real problem. How to elicit God’s forgiveness, and let their great disaster testify to God’s own true character, the righteous God ruling all the nations.

“Deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake” (verse 9, NRSV, emphasis added).

I Timothy 2:1-7

The reading from the Epistle also speaks of peoples round about the community of faith. Basically, the Apostle urges the faithful to leave the management of the world to God and to pray for those who maintain order and stability among the peoples.

Timothy is told to have the Christian assemblies pray for all peoples around them, particularly for the rulers, from kings on down. These rulers are not to be looked to for salvation and deliverance; that is not their business in God’s economy. Rulers are to provide stability and order, so that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (verse 2, NRSV). God’s desire is for everyone to be saved, which they will be when they come to know the “truth.”

This truth is here expressed in a liturgical confession (verses 5-6a).

There is one God;
there is also one mediator
between God and humankind.

 

The good news is that there IS a “mediator” between God and humankind. There is one figure reconciling, working things out, between God and humans. (The Greek word translated “mediator” here is mesitēs, which is used in the Greek of Job 9:33, where NRSV has the courage to translate the Hebrew as “umpire”!)

This mediator is the human Christ Jesus, and this human has given himself as a “ransom” for—not “many,” as in Mark 10:45, but—“all.” Everyone in all the nations has been ransomed from the powers of alienation and evil that have driven them through the ages. Therefore, all are to be prayed for—lofty lords of the world as well as the humble and needy—prayed for as ones saved and entitled to participate in a life of godliness and dignity (verse 2).

The delegate of the Apostle and all the needy and humble in his churches are so to pray.

Luke 16:1-13

In an era of outrageous bonuses for executives who have led vast corporations into gallons of red ink—and received government stimulus packages as well!—the Gospel reading presents us with a real quandary! Talk about “hard” sayings from Jesus, the parable of the “dishonest manager” seems to exceed all bounds in our historical moment.

The CEO of a vast enterprise has been indicted before the Chair of the Board. Before the charges can be fully processed, the CEO cooks up deals with all the company’s creditors and gets himself a large golden parachute to keep his soft hands from hard labor in his later years! “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (verse 8, NRSV).

Jesus cannot be simply approving this conduct in general, nor would any group of later Jesus followers think so either. It is apparently the “shrewdness” of the dishonest manager that is being lifted up. Such shrewdness is to be admired in “the children of this age.” They know what they are about; they have their priorities very clear, and act, even in a drastic crisis (such as a Federal indictment), to follow those priorities. (Never mind that their highest priority is Greed!)

What is left implicit is that there is a different shrewdness for those who belong to the age to come. The shrewdness of the age to come (which is the reign or kingdom of God) usually looks very stupid to conventional wisdom. It involves giving away all you have to charity, abandoning family responsibilities to make hazardous trips to hostile cities, laughing when it seems appropriate to mourn, rejoicing when abused and discriminated against for one’s faith—in general, reversing the conventional values of current society, honest or dishonest. The shrewdness of the coming age is the exact opposite of the shrewdness that works so well in this age.

And the parable admires shrewdness wherever it is found. When money is useless, whether in legitimate pensions or Swiss bank accounts, everybody is reduced to radical equality (as when the holy city is in total ruins). When the chips are down, shrewdness for the kingdom followers will be figuring out how to give the most to the poor!

In the context of Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem, something like that is the meaning of the parable of the dishonest CEO.

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