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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 22 - Proper 17 - Year C
Jeremiah 2:4-14; Psalm 81:1,10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14
alt - Sirach 10:12-18; Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112


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 22 - Proper 17 - Year C


JEREMIAH 2:4-13          Jeremiah addressed a spiritual crisis in Israel in
the late 7th century BC.  After a long period of apostasy, the covenanted
people had very little contact with God.  Successful living in a productive
new homeland had alienated them.  Even the priests and the interpreters of
the law had no knowledge of how to relate to God. Prophets were more
familiar with Baal, the Canaanite god, and the rulers had done nothing but
transgress.  The nation had lost its sense of commitment because it had
changed its deity.
 

PSALM 81:1,10-16         This psalm begins in a joyful celebration which
may have belonged in a festival liturgy celebrating the Israelites'
deliverance from Egypt.  It may also have been used at the thanksgiving
Feast of Tabernacles.  The latter part, however, sounds  more like a
prophetic oracle similar to Jeremiah's complaint.


HEBREWS 13:1-8,15-16     For Christians, ethical behavior is always rooted
in faith.  The dietary rules omitted from this reading make obvious
reference to the strict Levitical Code, ostensibly given to Moses during
the Israelites' forty years in the wilderness.  The community to which this
"Letter" was written may well have been predominantly Jewish struggling
with the freedom of their new faith is Jesus of Nazareth, the true Messiah. 


LUKE 14:1,7-14           Jesus had been invited to the home of a leading
Pharisee for the sabbath meal.  Then he nearly broke up the party by
healing a man afflicted with dropsy (edema, excessive retention of fluids).
To add to that offence, he gave the other guests a scolding that certainly
must have shamed some if not all of them.  Then he turned on his host an
gave him a further lecture about whom he ought to have invited to dinner.


     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. 

     
SIRACH 10:12-18          (Alternate OT reading) Also known as
Ecclesiasticus, Sirach is in the Apocrypha of most Protestant Bibles.  Nor
was it included in the Jewish canon.  Although it was originally written in
Hebrew, Jerome did include it in his Latin Vulgate translated from the
Greek.  This excerpt contains a strong critique of human pride and how God
deals with those who are proud. 


PROVERBS 25:6-7          (A second alternate OT reading) Another brief
proverb about human pride which Jesus may have used in his better known
saying in Luke 14:7-11.


PSALM 112                (Alternate) This didactic psalm resonates with
both the Deuteronomist tradition with emphasis on the just rewards of the
righteous and the prophetic tradition of social justice. 


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

JEREMIAH 2:4-13   Jeremiah addressed a spiritual crisis in Israel in the
late 7th century BCE.  After a long period of apostasy, the covenanted
people had very little contact with Yahweh.  The intimacy of the wilderness
experience had vanished amid successful living in a plentiful, productive
new homeland (vss.6-7).  Even the priests and the interpreters of the law
had no knowledge of how to relate to Yahweh.  The false prophets were more
familiar with Baal, the ancient Canaanite fertility god, and the rulers had
done nothing but transgress (vs.8).  In short, the nation had lost its
sense of commitment because it had changed its faith tradition for vapid
fantasies without power to save or provide for the needs of Yahweh's chosen
people (vss.9-11).  
     
Against this calamitous situation Jeremiah cried out on Yahweh's behalf
(vs.12).  He charged the people with two great evils which he summed up in
a striking metaphor.  They have forsaken the fountain of living water for
cracked cisterns of their own invention. 

In Israel to this day, water is the most precious resource.  Water from the
Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan is pumped throughout the country as far
south as Beersheba in the Negev desert so that adequate food can be grown.
Even in the Palestinian communities of the Gaza, the Israelis dominate the
water supply to provide fertile fields and water for the homes of the few
thousand Israelis settlers who live there under the  guardianship of the
Israelis military.  It has been said that the political conflict with the
Palestinians could be resolved if water supply could be fairly shared.  In
Israel itself, it is against the law to use electricity generated by
imported oil to heat water for bathing.  Every home and apartment has a
black tank on its roof to supply water heated by the sun for this purpose.
Cisterns still preserve the often sparse winter rainfall for use during the
long dry summers.  Yet Israeli consumption of the limited water supply is
several times that of the Palestinians.

In Jeremiah's time (ca. 600 BCE) cisterns meant the difference between life
and death if the springs went dry.  This is the image that Jeremiah uses to
portray his people's spiritual crisis.  It would have been difficult for us
in a land of such plentiful water to imagine just how challenging this
metaphor would have been.  Yet within the past few years, Canadians have
been made aware of how valuable our water resources by two serious
development.  Several communities and regions in the country have suffered
dangerous bacterial levels in their water systems requiring the boiling of
all water for human consumption and expensive repairs or improvements to
the systems.  Walkerton, Ontario, a town of 5,000, suffered seven deaths
and more than 2,000 critical illnesses caused by contaminated water.  The
city of St. Johns, Newfoundland, had a "boil water" advisory which lasted
nearly a month.

A second issue has arisen as a result of excessive use and abuse of water
in parts of the United States, and the prolonged heat wave and drought
there.  Canada's abundant water resources are suddenly in demand as a
commercially profitable bulk commodity rather than a public resource for
the use of all at reasonable cost.  Other countries view Canada's water
with similar desire.  It has been estimated that 15-20% of all the world's
fresh water resources lie within Canadian boundaries.  To whom do these
resources belong?  What does God require of us in the near future regarding
their use?  How are they to be made available to those in need?

Is this not a moral and spiritual crisis for us?  Are there not remarkable
similarities between the spiritual crises in Jeremiah's time and now?


PSALM 81:1,10-16  It is thought that this psalm may have belonged in a
festival liturgy celebrating the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt.  The
rabbinical Mishnah cites it as the psalm for the fifth day of the week.  It
may also have been used at the feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major
"pilgrim festivals" (vs.3).  Certainly it begins in a joyful celebration
(vss.1-5).  The latter part, however, sounds  more like a prophetic oracle
similar to Jeremiah's complaint.  God longs for the people's faithfulness,
but they follow their own devices. 

The moon figured largely in the religious traditions of most Semitic
peoples and was the basis for their calendars.  The Jews were no exception.
The reference to blowing the trumpet to signal the new moon may reflect an
ancient superstition that evil spirits were rampant during the dark of the
moon.  The sounding of the ram's horn announced the autumn festival of in-
gathering which was later celebrated by the building of booths recalling
the tabernacle of the Israelites' wilderness years.  In later Judaism, the
new moon of the seventh month, Tishri, became Ro'sh ha-Shanah, the
beginning of the new year.

Vs.6 actually belongs with the next segment of the psalm rather than the
opening praise.  The load and the builder's basket refer to the tradition
that the Israelites spent their later years in Egypt as slaves conscripted
to build the temple of Pharaoh Ramses II.  The NEB transposes vs.16 to
follow vs.7 where it does seem to fit the context better.  It makes yet
another reference to divine providence which supplied the Israelites with
sustenance during their trek to the Promised Land.

The psalm contains distinct undertones of the challenge of the two ways of
life and death, the blessing and the curse, Yahweh set before Israel
according to the farewell address of Moses in Deut. 29-20.  This is the
Deuteronomic tradition which so influenced the reconstruction period of
post-exilic times.
     
In his excellent paraphrase of the Psalms in the language and images of
today, Jim Taylor sets this one as a parent celebrating a child's
graduation day, then asking some difficult questions: "In you celebration,
where is there room for me?  In your joy, what credit do you give to me?  I
am the one who sustained you through the tough times."  The modern metaphor
transforms the psalm into a spiritual challenge as powerful as Jeremiah's
in the previous reading.  Taylor's small but helpful book gives a
refreshing new slant to these old hymns.  (Taylor, James. "Everyday
Psalms." Wood Lake Press, 1994)


HEBREWS 13:1-8,15-16   The brief summary of this lesson in "Gathering"
edited by Marilyn Leuty and Fred Graham, and published on the United Church
of Canada's website, says, tongue in cheek perhaps, "the lectionary has
edited out the admonitions about avoiding dietary dogma. (These could be
useful for those who are less than politically correct on diet.)"  That
appears to be a misreading of the omitted segment (vss.9-14) of the
concluding chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Rather, the dietary
constraints seem more like the author's warning against an ascetic heresy
or the efforts of the Judaizers which was confusing the community to which
he/she is writing.  More details of this heresy, which some scholars
believe to have been an early form of Gnosticism and others regard as more
Jewish in origin, can be found in commentaries on the Letter to the
Colossians. 
     
The dietary rules of vss.9-14 make obvious reference to the strict
Levitical code ostensibly given by Yahweh to Moses in the tent of meeting
during the Israelites' forty years in the wilderness.  The community to
which the "Letter" was written may well have been predominantly Jewish
struggling with the freedom of their new faith in Jesus of Nazareth, the
true Messiah.  Certainly an extended struggle between the Jerusalem
apostolate led by James, the Brother of Jesus, and the Pauline Gentile
apostolate occurred within many nascent Christian communities of the lst
century CE. 

A contrarian view of this struggle has been extensively discussed in
relation to the Qumran Community and James, in Robert Eisenman's *The Dead
Sea Scrolls and the First Christians.* (Castle Books, 1996).  Eisenman
believes that some of the Scrolls, especially the Community Rule, the
Damscus Document and the Habakkuk *Pesher,*  were products, not of the
Essenes, but of "Zaddokite" successors to the Macabbees who espoused a
traditional messianic and apocalyptic view of Hebrew scripture during the
under the leadership of James.  Prior to the Jewish War, these
traditionalists were driven out of Jerusalem by establishment Sadducees and
Pharisees and the Pauline faction of the early Christian community who
favoured Paul's Gentile mission while also supporting the Herodian monarchy
and the Romans.

It is clear that for Christians then and now ethical behavior is rooted in
faith.  Our relationship with Christ helps us to behave as we should toward
one another.  The moral counsel of vss.1-5 spring from the faith summed up
in vss.6-8.  Because we believe in the unchangeable Christ, we behave in
certain disciplined ways that others may not share.  We do so confidently
with the help of God and following the example of those who shared this
faith with us.  Such a life may involve sacrifice, but we may think of such
sacrifice as an act of worship offered to God. 

As is so often the case in Hebrews, the whole passage expresses the
prophetic spirit that continually recalled Israel to its covenantal
relationship as the true form of liturgy.  Yet it does justice also to the
liturgical traditions which shaped the Jewish identity and culture in the
post-exilic period when the reconstructed Second Temple became the focal
point of national life and historical events.  The Letter to the Hebrews
tried to identify for Hebrew Christians the moral and spiritual reality
they had both continuity and discontinuity with their ancient traditions.


LUKE 14:1,7-14   Party time! Jesus had been invited to the home of a
leading Pharisee for the sabbath meal.  Then he nearly broke up the party
by healing a man afflicted with dropsy (edema or excessive retention of
fluids).  To add to that offence, he put the other guests on the spot and
gave them a scolding that certainly must have shamed some if not all of
them.  After all, it was their silence which provoked his rebuke.  Then he
recalled how they had been vying for the places of honor, presumably
closest to the host or guest of honor.  Luke does not tell us if Jesus was
that honored guest.  One can imagine some of the guests trying to win his
favor by sitting close to him so they could engage him in a more intimate
conversation.  As the parable he told them indicates, his scorned their
obsequious behavior (vss.8-11).

Then he turned on his host an gave him a further lecture about whom he
ought to have invited to dinner.  Some party! Some guest!  How embarrassed
- or how angry - everyone must have felt when that dinner ended.  Think of
the disgruntled conversations as they made their way home. 
     
Did it really happen that way?  Or is Luke just putting these teachings
about honor, pride, prestige and caring for people who are marginalized in
a dramatic context which still strikes home in our own hypocritical
society?  Isn't Jesus portrayed here as being someone a little beyond an
annoying radical who liked to ridicule the Pharisees at every turn?  Isn't
this revolutionary talk?
     
On the other hand, think of the way we package public policy so as to
deceive ourselves and everyone else that we do indeed care for "the poor,
the crippled, the lame and the blind."  We mask our demands for extensive
tax reductions as necessary for the good of the new global economy and the
future of our grandchildren, but also mandates the reduction of the social
safety net so necessary for the less advantaged.  Do we really have the
kind of free, just  and caring society won by bloody sacrifice which the
war memorials in every church, every city, town and village are intended to
honor?  How much are we willing to do to lift the barriers that prohibit
the poor of our communities and of the world from sharing all the benefits
we want for ourselves?  How will our congregations go home from this
sabbath's banquet if such words were to be uttered from our pulpits? 

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

SIRACH 10:12-18   (Alternate OT reading) Also known as Ecclesiasticus,
Sirach is in the Apocrypha of most Protestant Bibles.  Nor was it included
in the Jewish canon.  It was originally composed from notes in Hebrew by a
famed teacher of Wisdom in the years just prior to the Maccabean Revolt in
168 BCE.  A Greek translation appeared in 132 BCE by the grandson of Jesus
ben Sirach.  Jerome included it in his Latin Vulgate translated from the
Greek.  Hence its appearance in the Roman Catholic canon following another
apocryphal Book of Wisdom and placed between the Song of Songs and Isaiah. 

Maintaining a traditional Deuternomic attitude toward covenant theology and
retributional morality, Sirach has many of the characteristics of Proverbs
with aphorisms and acrostic poetry teaching practical wisdom to students of
Sirach's 'academy.'

This excerpt contains a strong critique of human pride and how God deals
with those who are proud.  Sirach's traditional style and ethics find full
expression in these few verses.  The vivid images of vss.10-11 reveal a
bold realism about death.  This moves quickly to an exhortation about the
source and folly of human pride.  Alienation from God inevitably results in
the pain and sorrow of human afflictions. 

The fall of rulers from their prestigious thrones may well reflect the
disturbed era in which Sirach lived.  In 171 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes, the
Seleucid inheritor of Alexander the Great's empire, deposed the the last
legitimate high priest of Zadokite decent, and appointed a Benjaminite in
his stead.  Since the Maccabean Revolt occurred shortly after this act of
treachery that, the poem has a prophetic note to it.  One also hears the
cry for social justice in Mary's song, the Magnificat, in the words of
Sirach. 


PROVERBS 25:6-7   (A second alternate OT reading)  Another brief proverb
about human pride which Jesus may have used in his better known saying in
Luke 14:7-11.  Unlike the passage from Sirach, this proverb elicits an
image of commoner in the presence of royalty or nobility. 


PSALM 112   (Alternate) This didactic psalm resonates with both the
Deuteronomist tradition with emphasis on the just rewards of the righteous
and the prophetic tradition of social justice.  Due to their acrostic style
and several common terms, scholars hypothesize that it comes from the same
hand as Psalm 111.  It also resembles some aspects of Psalm 1, especially
in vs.1. 

The generosity of the rich toward the more vulnerable of society reiterates
the righteousness and reward motif that has motivated much Jewish and
Christian philanthropy through the ages.  All too easily, one can slip into
the reverse attitude that because one is rich, one may consider oneself
righteous.

                         
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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