August 29, 2010
Ancestors are sued for abandoning their God, while others journey on to share the blessed banquet of God.
The first prophetic reading from Jeremiah, after his call, is an indictment of Israelites for abandoning their God. The oracle in 2:4-13 is a self-contained unit, addressed to the house of Jacob, which is the house (= kingdom) of Israel (verse 4). It is a different form of address from the short oracle before it, which is addressed to Jerusalem and speaks of God’s bride in the early days (2:2-3). Here, the divine speech reviews the past of the ancestors and the present of a senseless people.
The rhetorical question, “What wrong did your ancestors find in me…?” (verse 5, NRSV) is a challenge to give reasons why the ancestors might be justified in abandoning God (and going after the Hebel, Hebrew for “vanity,” “nothing,” and becoming nothings themselves). Why did not the ancestors use the proper prayer, asking where is Yahweh who had led them through such humanly impossible conditions to the promised land? (verse 6). This part of the reproach speech uses old traditions about the Israelites repeatedly turning against God during the trials of exodus, wilderness, and even in the promised land (see the long treatment of this theme in Psalm 78).
But if the past had no reasons to abandon Yahweh, what of the present?
The speech next says “you” (no longer the ancestors)—you are the ones who received the abundant land, ate its fruits, but who also contaminated it with your unfaithfulness to the Lord. The ancestors were spoken of as a single group, but the present generations are organized into a complex society, with offices and institutions. Four groups are indicted (verse 8). The priests did not pray properly, the law instructors paid no attention to Yahweh’s requirements, the political leaders (shepherds) violated God’s boundaries, and the prophets spoke in the name of the Baal.
Given this conduct, the Lord now sues the straying people for breach of faith. (NRSV “accuse,” verse 9, is the Hebrew verb rīb, “contend with,” “bring charges against” the other party for violating a treaty.) For a people to abandon its God, who gathered it and established it, is unprecedented—just go ask everybody between the Cypriots in the west and the Arabs of Kedar in the east. Even when their gods are “no gods,” folks stay with them! But here is an incredible case—let the heavens themselves, witnesses to great covenants on earth, be overwhelmed! God’s people have done two evils; they have abandoned the true source of fresh, living water and gone to dig out cisterns (which hold only still water) instead—cisterns which they have learned to their pain have cracks and keep no water for the time of need.
This is a powerful speech, preparing the ground for some call to action. What God wants now is not specified, but in Jeremiah’s early situation, the action called for was unqualified support of the great revival and reform of Israel under the auspices of King Josiah (reigned from 640 to 609 BCE). This speech fits an appeal to the people of the old northern kingdom (Jacob/Israel) with its strong traditions of the ancestors. Israel should be reunited, and reunited by the only great power in its past and present, the true Lord who appoints and empowers prophets to the nations.
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
The Psalm reading is a precise parallel to the divine speech through the prophet. After a summons to praise the God of Jacob, the psalm presents God lamenting over Israel’s unfaithfulness. “My people did not listen to my voice; / Israel would not submit to me” (verse 11). As is also heard in some Jeremiah passages, God yearns and longs for Israel to pay attention. “O that my people would listen to me, / that Israel would walk in my ways!” (verse 13).
In a more liturgical setting, this prophetic psalm also gives expression to the divine disappointment and sorrow at disobedience.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
The Epistle reading gives detailed guidelines for the conduct of Jesus pilgrims on earth.
- As is appropriate for travelers, hospitality is the first requirement mentioned. Take in the sojourner in the land, whether his visa papers are correct or not—you never know when you may be entertaining angels unawares. (The writer might have in mind stories about Abraham, Genesis 18:2-15, or Samson’s mother, Judges 13:3-23.)
- Besides travelers, act responsibly toward prisoners—put yourself in their place and do for them what you would want done for you! (verse 3).
- Pilgrims are also to honor and observe marriage vows (verse 4).
- In addition, greed is out of court for pilgrims—no capitalists on this journey (verse 5).
- Finally, this pilgrimage is not just a mass movement; there are leaders who bring the word of God and serve as models for pilgrim behavior. Remember to support them (verse 7).
The persistent feature of this journey—the pillar of cloud and fire that leads it in the wilderness—is Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and forever” (verse 8). Through him a chorus of praise should be “continually” offered up (verse 15)—a reference to the “continual” burnt offering that was made twice a day in the old sanctuary, here to be replaced by prayer in the name of Jesus.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Gospel reading is about banquets.
The opening verse says that Jesus, invited to a dinner party by a leading Pharisee on the Sabbath, was being watched very carefully—lest he violate their rules again, presumably. We skip a passage about healing on the Sabbath (last week’s topic) and come to proper seating at a banquet.
Jesus’ advice about proper seating is called a “parable” (verse 7). This means the talk is really about the heavenly reign, though it appears to be about earthly things.
On its earthly level, Jesus’ advice repeats the wisdom of Proverbs 25:6-7—take the lower seat so you don’t get demoted. But when this is applied to the banquet that inaugurates the reign of God, it leads to the next paragraph, verses 12-14. Not only the guests should take the humble places at the table, but the host should prepare the guest list with God’s view in mind, not the chic of the current well-to-do.
You should imitate God by inviting the poor, the disabled, the handicapped, and the visually challenged. To do so is to bring blessing to these lost sheep of the Lord and thereby to gain true blessing for yourself—“for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (verse 14, NRSV).
Jesus, like the Pharisees, believed in the resurrection, but it is the resurrection of the righteous (in God’s sight) he anticipates, not the resurrection of the proud and the proper!