God’s servants agonize over the pain of God’s judgment, but also learn to be humble in the Lord’s work.
The prophecies we have heard in the last few weeks, announcing the doom of Judah and Jerusalem for their sins, were finally fulfilled. The city was destroyed and the leading population carried into exile to Babylon. Some were left behind, however, who cared desperately, and their voice is heard in the reading from the Book of Lamentations. Let our comment be a couple of quotes about the religious significance of this book.
Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point. It is, in part, the rawness of the hurt expressed in the book that has gained Lamentations a secure, if marginal, place in the liturgies of Judaism and Christianity. Its stinging cries for help, its voices begging God to see, its protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed. Although the book of Lamentations is short, containing only five poems, it is a literary jewel and a rich resource for theological reflection and worship. Indeed, its recovery in our communal lives could lead to a greater flourishing of life amid our own wounds and the woundedness of the world.
(Kathleen M. O’Connor, “The Book of Lamentations,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VI [Abingdon Press, 2001], p. 1013.)
[Lamentations] is the Bible’s primary literature of destruction and became the paradigm for later Jewish literature of destruction. Lamentations is a form of mourning for a destruction that was to become a linchpin in Jewish history and Jewish religious thought. More than that, Lamentations eternalizes the destruction, thereby helping to make it a central event in the Jewish memory. In summarizing rabbinic interpretations of Lamentations … Shaye J. D. Cohen wrote … that Lamentations is “the eternal lament for all Jewish catastrophes, past, present, and future.”
(Daniel Grossberg, “Lamentations,” The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 1587.)
(The Lectionary offers two readings here: Lamentations 3:19-26 and Psalm 137. I am held by the pathos of this memorable psalm.)
The psalm is the tale of two cities: Babylon and Jerusalem. Babylon is viewed here exclusively as the destroyer of Jerusalem, whether there was any divine justice in that destruction or not. The psalm voices the pain and humiliation of those carried away to Babylon, including a burst of rage against their captors.
Not many of the psalms are located as specifically in a time and place as is Psalm 137. While Jews were to continue to live in Babylon in large numbers for more than a thousand years, this psalm has overtones of a newly emergent situation. Those who speak have just recently arrived; they and their new neighbors are still getting adjusted to the novel conditions. “For there our captors asked us for songs, / and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, / ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” (verse 3, NRSV). This is the voice of citizens of Jerusalem recently deported to Babylon—just after 587 BCE.
Though now in Babylon, the central thought of this lament is for Jerusalem. The songs of Zion belong to Jerusalem—“How could we sing the Lord’s song / in a foreign land?”—and the singer’s passionate vow is that Jerusalem will never be forgotten. Here we see the earliest stages of Jerusalem becoming a worldwide religious center, transcending its older political role. It is no longer only, or even, the capital of a small kingdom. It is the chosen place of God’s name for those who dwell—and who will eventually prosper—in the Diaspora.
In the conclusion of the psalm we have one of those readings in the Hebrew scriptures that is a mixture of profound pathos with savage revenge. After the touching lament, we hear the curse! “Happy shall they be who take your little ones / and dash them against the rock!” (verse 9, NRSV). This cannot be in our scriptures for us to emulate, for us to find an occasion when such a thing could be our prayer! However, we do not have to look far in the current news to find evidence twenty-six hundred years later of just such genocidal hatred.
These singers, far from Jerusalem but desperately lamenting its loss, vent a hatred for the imperial power of the moment—before they begin the hard work of settling in and praying for a nation where they will reside for a millennium (see Jeremiah 29:7!).
II Timothy 1:1-14
In the reading from the Epistle, the Apostle prays for and fondly reminds Timothy of the continuity of their faith with previous generations. Of himself Paul says that he worships God “with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did” (verse 3, NRSV; the Greek is literally “progenitors,” not “fathers”). The Apostle sees his faith in continuity with at least his own family and probably with all the Israelite ancestors. As he remembers Timothy’s heritage of faith, we get some direct information about Timothy’s family. His was a faith “that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice…” (verse 5). Theirs was a “sincere” faith (more literally, “non-hypocritical,” also used in I Timothy 1:5).
Although three generations of believers are represented by Timothy, his mother, and his grandmother Lois, we may not be dealing with a long period of time. Acts 16:1-3 tells how Paul recruited Timothy to be his assistant in the work of the gospel. Eunice, Timothy’s mother, was a Jewish woman married to a Greek man, that is, a non-Jew. There is no reference anywhere to Eunice’s father, Lois’s husband, so Lois was apparently a Jewish widow whose daughter had married outside the faith. When Paul and Barnabas came to their city Lystra (around the year 49 CE), Lois and Eunice, and the young man Timothy along with them, accepted the good news of God’s salvation through Jesus. A year or so later (continuing the Acts story), Paul came back through town. Timothy had become a devoted and well-known Jesus-follower in the churches of that region, and Paul recruited him for a life of Christian service with Paul in the Greek-speaking churches of Asia and Greece.
There was one dramatic moment in that recruitment, however (still following the Acts story). Timothy was technically a Jew, having a Jewish mother, but he had not been circumcised, perhaps because of his Greek father. Since Paul always started his mission activity by approaching Jews, it was helpful to have Timothy fully accepted in Jewish circles. Therefore, Paul had Timothy circumcised, qualifying him as an observant Jew. We do not hear of any family dynamics this may have produced, and, for all practical purposes, from that time on Paul was Timothy’s father, probably with his mother’s and grandmother’s blessing.
Part of the Jewish heritage to which Paul and Timothy were born was the memory of suffering for their faith, perhaps through the recitation of laments like Psalm 137. Accordingly, Paul urges Timothy to recognize and accept such suffering as part of the charisma (the “gift of God,” verse 6) that he has received with his ordination. He summons Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling…” (verses 8-9).
Thus the vocation of Christian ministry began to be shaped from (evolved from) its Jewish ancestry.
As the Apostle spoke to Timothy about Christian service, so in the Gospel reading Jesus talks about expectations of those who have become slaves (the word is also translated “servants”) of their lord. The passage opens with a saying about the miraculous power of faith. “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” (Note the language of “apostles” rather than disciples, and “Lord” rather than Jesus. We are in the ambiance of a structured worshipping community.) The Lord’s reply is that real faith can perform magic, causing trees to transport themselves from land to sea.
This seems like a pretty discouraging prospect, one not likely to be verified in the experience of most followers—especially if they are not apostles. Does this not amount to saying that real faith is impossible? Perhaps that has a bearing on the rest of the passage.
To whom is the Lord speaking in verse 7? “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field…” This does not sound like the modest Galileans who have abandoned most of their possessions and set out on a divine mission.
The audience here is landowners and masters of slaves. Jesus speaks of the kind of people for whom it would be ridiculous to think that they would invite field hands to sit down and be served before they have done their household chores. These are masters who it is understood would never trouble themselves to say “Thank you!” to a serving person. The “you” of verses 7 through 9 are all the people whose bearing in the world says, “Don’t you know who I think I am?”
But suddenly, the last verse (10) flips the pancake. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless [more literally, “useless”] slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Who is this “you”? The focus has returned to the faithful band who have abandoned all and are following their Lord with their whole beings. What has happened? How did we get from the arrogant plantation owners to the wholly submissive followers?
Surely between verses 9 and 10 there has been a miracle.
The miracle of faith is that arrogant masters are “uprooted” from their stubborn land and planted in a sea of faith where only humble and utterly devoted service is possible for them. They have been transformed from the ways of the world into the upside down service in the reign of God—at whatever cost in suffering with their people and in whatever humiliation before the worldly scoffers.
The miracle of faith transforms the vengeance of captives (with songs in Babylon) into patient servants who find the kingdom in the diaspora.