The spirit of the Lord crosses boundaries of age, class, and gender, humbling the proud and pronouncing the humble righteous.
After the age of Jeremiah, prophecy became a less focused force in the life of Israel’s descendants in both the Diaspora and the resettled homeland. There was one towering exception: the exilic prophet (Second Isaiah) who proclaimed God’s world sovereignty and new saving intervention for Israel. For the rest, the mixture of moods and messages in Isaiah 56-66, for example, shows a mélange of prophetic themes and impulses, but no sustained vision or consistent thrust. Among the diverse prophetic flights that appeared in the three hundred years after Jeremiah was the collection of exclamations over domestic crises in the book of Joel.
The early part of this book is occupied with understanding a near-cosmic plague of locusts as the awesome appearance of the Day of the Lord. The moods of this section are visionary, but also liturgical, with attention to fasting and rituals.
In its latter sections, from which our reading comes, the book is hopeful. It is hopeful first because God is sending abundant rains to replenish the land that was devastated in the plagues (verses 23-27), and then the hope soars into charismatic and even apocalyptic proclamations (verses 28-32 [3:1-5 in Hebrew]).
The charisma is the outpouring of God’s spirit upon all sorts of folks. We hear an astonishing proclamation: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…” (verse 28) – upon ALL flesh.
[Y]our sons and your daughters shall prophecy,
your old men shall dream dreams [the same as prophesying],
and your young men shall see visions (NRSV).
Social differences based on gender will be eliminated, and slaves as well as masters will be anointed by the spirit:
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit (verse 29).
The perspective is universal. There is nothing said of any special status of Israel or Judah. The spirit of the Lord is a blessing dispersed over humans in a radically leveling manner.
This was visionary indeed! It is a long stretch from the exclusionary policies of Ezra in the small province of Judah around this same general period. In time, Ezra’s program acquired fixed institutional embodiment; Jewish people separated themselves from foreigners in their own neighborhood—especially separated themselves from foreign wives (see Ezra 9-10). The Joel vision, on the other hand, was ethereal and idealistic in its own time, as far as we can see.
Much later, however, a handful of Jerusalem pilgrims broke into charismatic activity and found the Joel prophecy fulfilled in their experience—and realized, in fact, that the prophecy was intended for all the nations of the earth (Acts 2:1-21).
While the Joel passage has its visionary, almost other-worldly, aspects, part of it stays close to the land, rejoicing over the rains and the abundance of the watered fields. Both aspects are sustained in the Psalm reading.
The psalm begins with a liturgical prelude. God is praised as a God who answers prayer and “brings near” God’s favored ones to the holy courts (verses 1-4). Then there is an acclamation of God’s great cosmic works in the seas and “at the earth’s furthest bounds.” In these sections the perspective remains universal. “To you all flesh shall come” (verse 2). “…[Y]ou are the hope of all the ends of the earth” (verse 5, NRSV).
The psalm then moves to a celebration of the blessings of water upon the land – God’s gift for a forgiven and delivered people. The vision even gets quite earthy: “your wagon tracks overflow with richness,” and the conclusion personifies the landscape so that the hills “gird themselves with joy,” the meadows “clothe themselves with flocks,” and the valleys “deck themselves with grain” (verses 12-13).
An exuberant and abundant agrarian world flourishes for God as God’s gift to many expectant peoples.
II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
These moods of celebrating abundance and expecting startling divine outpourings are partly in contrast and partly in harmony with the Epistle reading.
This passage from the Apostle to Timothy is perhaps the most poignant section in the Pastoral epistles, if not in all of the Pauline letters. A weary, exhausted, and perhaps lonely Apostle knows he has reached the end of his assigned course. His service has been a drink offering presented to the Lord, and now the pouring out of the libation is completed: “…the time of my departure has come.” From a ritual metaphor he turns to athletic ones: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (verse 7, NRSV).
The mood is not only that of termination, however. There is a grandeur ahead also. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day.” And having focused for a bit on his own coming acceptance as a faithful servant, his thought passes on to the communion of the many who share the same consummation: “…and not only to me [will the Lord give the crown], but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (verse 8).
For a little while—in the section not included in our reading—the Apostle goes into details about his companions, who have mostly left him, and other minor personal interests. Then he returns to his trials and speaks of his end with some equanimity. At the time of his “first” trial, “all deserted me. May it not be counted against them” (verse 16). Nevertheless, “I was rescued from the lion’s mouth”—perhaps quite literally, if Paul actually escaped death at his first trial. And his last word about his own fate is one of confidence and faith: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom” (verse 18).
The previous readings have spoken of contrasting conditions, of abundance and of disturbance—often a divine disturbance that may portend coming deliverance. In the Gospel reading Jesus tells a parable about two who pray—and their sharply contrasting attitudes. He presents the well-established Pharisee on one side, who has status, abundance, religious prominence, and—not a little pride and arrogance. On the other side is a tax collector, a man who might or might not have substantial wealth, but who was viewed as a social outcast and a hopeless sinner.
The parable gets a little heavy-handed in its treatment of the Pharisee. He is quoted as informing God that he fasts twice a week and is careful to tithe his income correctly. (Other standard acts of piety, such as Sabbath observance, can be taken for granted.) What we are really hearing from the Pharisee is not so much a prayer as a recitation of what he wants all people to know about him. He is, indeed, getting his reward as he speaks. He will not get it later—in the form he hopes for.
The tax collector accepts much of the world’s opprobrium toward him. He feels profoundly the burden of “sinner” that others attach to him, but the big difference between him and the Pharisee is—that the tax collector brings his lowliness before God. He laments his miserable condition, confesses his sin, and dares not even to look upward toward God as he begs for mercy. Rather than lowliness, the Pharisee brings his worthiness before God, and—as the name “Pharisee” denotes—separates himself from other humans who indeed occupy lowly places in their world.
Jesus’ concluding word is that the humble sinner goes down to his home as the righteous man (“justified,” verse 14). The Pharisee has declared himself before people in the sanctuary—the forgiven tax collector has been declared “just” before God, the Lord tells the apostles.
The scene in the parable is a far cry from the leveling spirit of the prophecy in Joel. That humbling spirit is soon to transform the humble followers of Jesus (at Pentecost) and make them exult in God’s abundance for their lives.