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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 17 - Proper 12 - Year C
Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19); Luke 11:1-13
alt - Genesis 18:20-32; Psalm 138


The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Ordinary 17 - Proper 12 - Year C


HOSEA 1:2-10             Does God really want Hosea to marry a prostitute?
But that isn't the real story of this passage.  The essence of this
prophetic act lies in the meaning of the names Hosea gave to the children
born of his marriage to this profligate wife.  Their bizarre names
symbolized Israel's degraded moral status and conveyed the message of
judgment Hosea had received from God.  The names restore the moral
credibility of the prophet and proclaims God's will that the people of God
live faithfully in all respects.


PSALM 85                 With this beautiful lament the psalmist pleads for
God's mercy and justice.  In curious juxtaposition to the foregoing
prophecy, it presents a very hopeful attitude.  It voices sincere humility
and asks for salvation on the basis of God's past beneficence.


COLOSSIANS 2:6-15,(16-19)  The noted Scottish Bible scholar, William
Barclay, called this one of the most difficult passages that Paul ever
wrote.  Many metaphors and images stack one upon the other in these two
paragraphs written primarily for Gentiles.  Yet the message can be summed
up in one sentence: Christians grounded in their faith in Jesus Christ have
been forgiven all their sins through his death and resurrection, and so
freed from all demands of the Jewish ritual laws.


LUKE 11:1-13             Most of us feel rather inferior about how we pray;
and so did Jesus' disciples.  Their time with Jesus, however, had shown
them how much prayer meant to him and how effortless it was for him to
pray.  They wanted to learn from him.  Would that it was so for all of us!
     
The brief homily that follows what we call "The Lord's Prayer" explains the
willingness of God to match our requests with a grace and kindness we can
never measure.  But God's answer may not be exactly what we ask for or
expect.  What is important that God's will be the determining factor in our
lives and in all the world.


     NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the OT and Psalms. 
     The summaries and analysis of these passages follow those of the
     regular RCL lessons


GENESIS 18:20-32         In recent years some Christians have grossly
misused the sorry tale of Sodom and Gomorrah in the struggle with
homosexuality.  This introduction to the story relates how Abraham pleaded
with God to save a few citizens of the two cities despite their apparent
wickedness.  Though the story does not say so, these cities were believed
to have been located in the valley of the Dead Sea before their
disappearance attributed to a violent earthquake.  


PSALM 138                In this personal hymn of thanksgiving the psalmist
offers praise to God for preserving him against unnamed enemies.  He trusts
God to fulfill God's purpose for him as an individual, but also has a
vision of God bringing all nations to offer praise.  

************

HOSEA 1:2-10   The prophet marries a prostitute to teach the Hebrews a
lesson about deserting the path of faithful living and God continuing to
love.  Now isn't that a switch? How could God do such a thing as direct to
the prophet Hosea to commit sin like that? Doesn't that give our libertine
generation just about all the licence we need to do just about anything
that is contrary to good morals and a stable, family-oriented society? As
if we needed God's permission anyway!

Well, that may be the headline news story.  It certainly makes us open our
eyes and prick up our ears.  But that isn't the real story of this passage. 
The essence of this prophetic act lies in the meaning of the names Hosea
gave to the children born of his marriage to this profligate wife: Jezreel,
Lo-ruhammah and Lo-ammi.  These bizarre names symbolized their degraded
status and conveyed the message Hosea had received from God.  
     
A footnote in the NRSV translates Jezreel as "God sows." Another possible
translation is "may God make fruitful."  There was a very fertile valley in
northern Israel of the same name.  It was in this valley that a bloody
battle occurred in which, according to the Deuteronomic version in 2 Kings
9-10, Jehu overthrew the idolatrous dynasty of Ahab and Jezebel.  Jehu then
proceeded to murder all their descendants and obliterated the worship of
Baal which Jezebel had introduced into Israel, the Northern Kingdom.  He
also killed Ahaziah, king of Judah, the southern kingdom, and slaughtered
forty-two of his family.  Jehu's reward, according to this version, was to
have five generations of his dynasty rule over the Northern Kingdom of 
Israel.  In contrast, Hosea 1:4-5 tells a very different story.  Because of
the blood he had shed against the descendants of Ahab,  Jehu's dynasty was
to be Israel's last.  This proved to be so when the Northern Kingdom fell
to the Assyrian invasion of 722 BCE.

The names of Hosea's other two children began with the negative "Lo-" which
in Hebrew means "No." It is not repeated in 2:1.  *Ruhammah* meant
"pitied;" and *Ammi* meant "my people." Uttered as negatives, the
daughter's name expressed Yahweh's disfavor which was about to be visited
on Israel, but not on Judah (vss.6-7).  The younger son's name meant that
God had totally rejected Israel as the chosen people. (vss.9-10)  Thus the
parable of the children's names restores the moral credibility of the
prophet and proclaims God's will that the people of God live faithfully in
all respects.

There is good reason to question whether vs. 11 was part of the original
prophecy.  The problem cannot be solved because no original manuscript of
Hosea has ever been found.  The verse reads as if it had been added at a
later date after the return from exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE
when there were high hopes of a restoration of the united kingdom of David
and a period of great prosperity.


PSALM 85   In curious juxtaposition to the foregoing prophecy, this psalm
presents a very hopeful attitude.  As a lament of the community, it voices
sincere humility and pleads for salvation on the basis of Yahweh's past
beneficence.  Some unknown historic circumstance lies behind it, but there
are no clues to what that event may have been other than that some imminent
danger threatened the whole community.

We have no way of knowing when that was, but it seems likely that the psalm
is post-exilic.  Some scholars believe that it reflects the conditions in
Judah similar to that described by Haggai (ca. 520 BCE) when Judah
experienced a severe economic depression and a failure of spiritual
enthusiasm (cf. Haggai 1:6-11; 2:15-19).

An eschatological element some detect in the closing vss. 8-13 has given
the psalm a wider relevance.  A prophetic note similar to that of Second
Isaiah sounds through these lines.  An earnest desire for peace and
fidelity to Yahweh which will yield prosperity and social justice.  

The psalmist looks forward to a time of faithfulness and well-being
throughout the land in his own time period.  The Anglican Book of Common
Prayer made this the "proper psalm" for Christmas Day.  Since the author
had in mind an immediate demonstration of Yahweh's saving power, it seems
most appropriate for that Christian celebration.


COLOSSIANS 2:6-15 (16-19)   A cursory analysis of this passage cannot begin
to discover all that it has to offer to the careful reader or preacher. 
One could spend many days making sense of what William Barclay called of
the most difficult passages that Paul ever wrote.  One metaphor and image
upon another crowds into these two paragraphs.  Yet is it sufficient to sum
up in one sentence all that Paul is saying, as in the following attempt to
do so?: "We are rooted in Jesus Christ, forgiven through him and freed from
all cultic demands." (UCC Online Resource "Gathering." Edited by Marilyn
Leuty and Fred Graham.)

Paul's metaphors centered on both the human and the risen Christ.  He saw
Jesus as the one human being in whom the Spirit of God had fully dwelt (vs.
9).  He also saw Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord.  To these images he
added the image of the Christian community as the body of the risen Christ
of which Jesus Christ himself was the head.  Baptism by immersion in water
had become for him a symbolic sharing in the death and resurrection of
Christ.  The effect of baptism was to erase all record of sin and the
demand for legal justification before God.  God's forgiveness through Jesus
Christ also removed all necessity for the ritual laws symbolized by Jewish
circumcision.  In other words, every other religious tradition and all
their multiplicity of ritual, dietary and physical practices  no longer had
any spiritual validity or moral implications.  The only thing Christians
needed was the spiritual gift of forgiving grace made available to all
freely and unconditionally  through Christ symbolized by baptism.  This
alone assured the spiritual growth that results in life with and for God.

In dealing with this passage it is important to remember that the Colossian
Christians were being assailed by a rival philosophy which its proponents
claimed was necessary in addition to the Christian faith in order to be
saved.  Scholars have identified this philosophy by different names and
definitions, but without reaching any final consensus.  In his commentary
Edouard Schweizer dedicated more than eight pages of an excursus to
analyzing it.  He called it a syncretistic Jewish Pythagorean rite about
which Philo of Alexandria had complained and which had infiltrated into
Jewish families.  William Barclay saw it more as a mix of ascetic beliefs
and practices drawn from both Gnosticism and Judaism.  The Gnostics
espoused intellectual knowledge and astrology.  Asceticism with its rules
and regulations come direct from Judaism.  F.W.Beare described the
Colossian heresy as having roots in Hellenistic religious syncretism, but
also including some Jewish elements.  

One wonders if our increased understanding of the influential Essene sect
based in Qumran would cause each of these eminent scholars of the past
generation to consider them as the likely candidates for Paul's
denunciation.  In his masterful study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Geza Vermes
describes this literature as a collection of rule books, biblical
interpretations, poetry, wisdom, sectarian calendars, liturgical texts,
astrological horoscopes and descriptions of human features related to the
dates of a person's birth.  This would appear to fit Paul's protest
remarkably well.

It is possible that there were two different, conflicting groups, one
Hellenistic Greek and one Diaspora Jewish, striving to capture those who
had begun to live as Christian disciples following the initial instruction
they had received from Epaphras.  Perhaps Barclay came closest to the truth
when he said simply: "We do not know precisely and in detail what that
teaching was." All we can say is that this letter was written to a
congregation in the midst of a very intensive moral and spiritual struggle. 
That places this reading as one which has extremely helpful counsel for any
congregation struggling in the context of our crisis-ridden Western
civilization.

In the final analysis, what Paul was saying to the Colossians and to us is
that faith in Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead is all we
really need for a healthy moral and spiritual life.  There are behavioral
implications enough to keep us all well occupied as we seek to advance
God's reign of love on earth.
     
See also: Barclay, William. *Daily Bible Readings: Philippians, Colossians
     and Philemon.*        Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland, 1957.
        
        Beare, F.W. *The Interpreter's Bible.* Vol. 11. Nashville:
Abingdon, 1955.
        
        Schweizer, Eduard. *The Letter to The Colossians: A Commentary.*
     Minneapolis:        Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.
        
        Vermes, Geza. *The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English.* Allen
     Lane, The Penquin Press, 1997.


LUKE 11:1-13   So what is it with prayer? Most of us feel rather inferior
about how we pray; and so did Jesus' disciples.  Their time with Jesus,
however, had shown them how much prayer meant to him and perhaps how
effortless it was for him to pray.  Quite naturally, they wanted to learn
from him.  Would that it was so for all of us!

In a little daily devotional book, *The Meaning of Prayer,* published by
Associaton Press of the YMCA in 1915, Harry Emerson Fosdick described
prayer in one simple phrase: "friendship with God." But is that what the
formal words of the Lord's Prayer in vss. 2-4 convey? Certainly the story
and admonitions that follow seem to concentrate more on what we may ask of
God rather than enjoying the experience of being with God as friend with
friend.  In some respects, Fosdick pointed out, this is an immature or
childish way to pray: "Childishness in prayer is chiefly evidenced in an
overweening desire to beg things from God, and a corresponding failure to
desire above all else friendship with God himself." 

Fosdick then quoted this prayer of Thomas … Kempis: "Grant me, O most
loving Lord, to rest in thee above all creatures, ...above all riches and
art, above all fame and praise, above all sweetness and comfort, above all
hope and promise, above all favors and gifts that thou canst give and
impart to us, ...above all things visible and invisible, and above all that
thou art not, O my God.  It is too small and unsatisfying, whatsoever thou
bestowest, whilst thou art not seen and not fully obtained.  For surely my
heart cannot truly rest, nor be entirely contented, unless it rest in
thee."  
         
Yet this lesson seems to suggest the very opposite of what Thomas … Kempis
and Fosdick were saying.  Jesus encouraged his disciples to be persistent
in asking.  In the Lord's Prayer, there are three specific requests: for
daily bread; for forgiveness and the freedom to forgive others; and for
deliverance from life's inevitable trials.  The exact meaning of the word
'epiousios'= 'daily' is obscure since the word has never been found
anywhere else in biblical or other Greek texts.  Furthermore, the story of
the persistent friend and its exposition in the light of God's gracious,
loving nature as "the heavenly Father"do suggest that we are expected to do
as Paul states in Philippians 4:6  "In everything by prayer and
thanksgiving let (our) requests be made known to God."

In the end, we must realize that the disciples' practice of faithful prayer
in any time or place may take one of two forms: the prayer of quiet
contemplation or the prayer of thanksgiving and petition.  Neither one is
better than the other.  If Luke 4:42-44, John 17, and the Gethsemane
experience are any indication, it is likely that Jesus himself adopted both
means of seeking God's presence, God's guidance and God's provision for
both body and spirit.  His prayer life fully exemplified the life of
friendship with God.

************

GENESIS 18:20-32   In recent years some Christians have grossly misused the
sorry tale of Sodom and Gomorrah in the struggle with homosexuality.  This
introduction to the story relates how Abraham pleaded with God to save a
few citizens of the two cities despite their apparent wickedness.  Though
the story does not say so, they were believed to have been located in the
valley of the Dead Sea and their disappearance attributed to a violent
earthquake.  

The heart of this passage has to do with a preliminary decision by God not
to tell Abraham, God's chosen servant, what would happen because of the
grave sin of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Then God does just that because God 
intends to reward Abraham's faithfulness in teaching his children to be
faithful and righteous (vss. 17-19). 

While two of Abrahams' visitors go on their way, God remains with Abraham
who petitions him to save the citizens of those toward fated cities.  More
of a negotiation than a prayer, Abraham beseeches God to spare Sodom and
Gomorrah for the sake of a diminishing number of persons, especially
Abraham's nephew Lot.


PSALM 138    Less common than laments, which most often ended with a
hopeful note of thanksgiving, this pure thanksgiving hymn is only one of
twenty in the Psalter.  It would appear that the psalmist has come to the
temple to offer thanks for Yahweh's steadfast love and faithfulness (vs.
2).  His praise has to do with God preserving him against unnamed enemies
in some desperate circumstances.  Indeed, he seems a little astonished at
the almost miraculous nature of his experience.  

The psalmist trusts God to fulfill God's purpose for him as an individual,
(vs. 8), but also has a vision of God bringing all nations to offer praise
(vss. 4-6).  More than that he has been spiritually strengthened so that he
is assured of Yahweh's continued help (vs. 7).

Scholars have suggested that, despite its individualistic style, it was
composed at the time the temple was being rebuilt after the return form
exile in Babylon.

Some versions of the Septuagint attributed it to the prophet Zechariah
although it is included in a small collection of Davidic psalms (Pss. 138-
145).  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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