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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 23 - Proper 18 - Year C
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6,13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
alt - Deuteronomy 30:14-20; Psalm 1


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 23 - Proper 18 - Year C


JEREMIAH 18:1-11         The metaphor of God as the potter and humanity as
clay became the theme of a popular gospel hymn in the evangelical
tradition.  As a prophetic oracle, however, it referred to God's judgment
against Israel for forsaking their moral covenant with God that assured
their safety.  This was the prophetic interpretation of events at a time
when the Babylonians threatened to destroy them.


PSALM 139:1-6,13-18      This is not only one of the great treasures of the
Psalter but of all devotional literature in every religious tradition. 
Though it resonates with such theological concepts as the omniscience and
omnipresence of God, it is essentially a prayer of intense personal
devotion "in a stillness in which the soul and God are alone." 


PHILEMON 1-21            This brief letter has an the intensely personal
and practical touch.  It tells of a slave who came in contact with Paul and
how the apostle wrote to Onesimus' slave-master asking for his safe return. 
There was a bishop with the same name in Ephesus at the end of the 1st
century.  Could this be his story? 


LUKE 14:25-33            Think twice before you decide to follow Jesus.  Be
prepared to sacrifice everything.  Followers of Jesus are required to let
go of all they own possessions and attachments to focus their attention on
their call from God.  Are they really ready for what will certainly be
involved? Are  we?
     
In contrast, two brief parables appear to recommend a very practical
approach to one's commitment.  Both stories reinforce the message with
which Jesus confronted his disciples as they moved inexorably toward
Jerusalem and the cross.


     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.  


DEUTERONOMY 30:15-20     (Alternate) We have here the Deuteronomic formula
which became the motif for so much of the final rendition of the Old
Testament documents in the centuries following the return of the exiles
from Babylon.  God's covenant with Israel required absolute obedience to
the Torah as supposedly defined by the commandments given to Moses at Mount
Sinai.  Life, prosperity and the inheritance of the Promised Land depended
on this obedience.

PSALM 1                  (Alternate) Probably composed as an introduction
to the Psalter, this psalm clearly presents the implications of the
Deuteronomic formula.

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

JEREMIAH 18:1-11   This is one of the best known passages of the Book of
Jeremiah because the vivid metaphor of the potter and the clay offers an
exceptional homiletical opportunity.  Yet it is not without its
difficulties.  The problem created by the composite nature of the whole
book is reflected in this passage.

For the greater part of the 20th century, scholars have recognized that
several sources lie behind the Book of Jeremiah.  One of those sources in
the school of editors known as the Deuteronomists who may have lived in
Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE.  They
produced an edition of the prophecies of Jeremiah circa 550 BCE.  This
parable (vss.1-4) and its interpretation (vss.5-12) form one passage with
distinctive marks of Deuteronomic influence.  The extension of the threat
of destruction from Israel (vs.6) to all nations (vss.7-10) has the same
characteristics.  Scholars debate how much of the present passage
originated with Jeremiah.
     
The fundamental Deuteronomic concept of Yahweh as Lord of history certainly
lies at the heart of this passage.  As the potter shapes and reshapes the
clay so Yahweh remakes Israel and all nations.  Whether the original oracle
was more optimistic than the pending doom it appears to express can only be
the subject of speculation.  Vs.11 appears to suggest that Jeremiah uttered
it as a threat in hope of a positive response.  Vs.12 records what actually
happened.
     
The familiar figure of a potter working with clay is not original to
Jeremiah.  Isaiah had used it before him (Isaiah 29:16).  Others followed,
viz. Isaiah 45:9; 64:8; Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 33:13; Romans 9:20-21. 
Such frequent references would not have been unusual.  Every village and
town would have had potters to supply necessary household vessels.  In
archeological research, one would be lost without the recovered shards of
pottery with which the careful observer can date the various levels of the
site.

In Jeremiah 19:1-15 we find another passage with marked Deuteronomic
influence which identifies the location of a potters' community near the
"Potsherd Gate" to the Valley of Ben-hinnom.  It was there because of its
proximity to an abundant source of water in the Pool of Shiloam nearby and
a stream which ran through the valley in winter.  But as the passage
describes so vividly, this place has a very dubious notoriety in Israel's
faith traditions.  There were located the numerous sacrificial altars to
foreign idols, including the fearful fiery furnaces of Molech used for
child sacrifices.  It may have been this last reference which elicited the
condemnation of 19:4-6 regarding blood sacrifices of the innocent and burnt
offerings of Judean sons.  

Time and the tragic events wrought by history have transformed this hated
site.  Today, as one walks or drives through this beautifully landscaped
valley in southwest Jerusalem one would never imagine that this was the
site of such atrocities.  And yet, in the fear that grips Jerusalem every
hour of every day, is there not a strange link with these prophetic words. 
What idol motivates the murders that bloody the streets of the Holy City
now?  Are not the sons and daughters of Israel and Palestine being
sacrificed to strange gods once again?  Does Israel's Yahweh not ask
today's prophets to cry out, "Turn back, every one of you, from his evil
course; mend your ways and your doings" (18:11).


PSALM 139:1-6,13-18   This is not only one of the great treasures of the
Psalter but of all devotional literature in every religious tradition. 
Though it resonates with such theological concepts as the omniscience and
omnipresence of God, it is essentially a prayer of intense personal
devotion "in a stillness in which the soul and God are alone." (From
Schmidt, "Die Psalmen" quoted in *The Interpreter's Bible* vol. 4, 712.)

This excerpt has a very special reference to the experience of a deeply
spiritual person entering into the presence of God.  All facade of human
sophistication melts away as wax before a flame.  The whole person lies
open before God.  The slightest thought or utterance is already known
(vs.4).  There is no escape (vs.5).  The very thought of being in such
close proximity to the Most High God is awesome, even terrifying.  

The Hebrew word generally translated as "wonderful" (pƒlŒy) in vs.6 conveys
the sense of remarkable, secret or miraculous.  In the second occurrence of
the word in vs.14, (pƒlƒh) referring to humanity as part of God's work of
creation, there is a sense of uniqueness and distinction.  As such, the
searching eye of God knows the devotee thoroughly (vss.13-16).  There is no
other way to respond than to praise God for the marvels of God's creation
and of our humanity.  And yet, as geneticists have so recently discovered,
there is so little difference between ourselves and the ordinary fruit fly
buzzing around the over-ripe tomatoes in the kitchen.  

For those who have experienced it, intimate contact with God is almost
beyond words.  In fact, those who attempt to express their experience are
often regarded as slightly, if not significantly, abnormal.  The mystical
tradition in Protestantism has never been strong; but Roman Catholicism has
a rich heritage of this form of prayer.  Only recently with the opening of
wider ecumenical doors has this form of spirituality begun to penetrate
mainline Protestant churches.  One witness to this movement is the design
of labyrinths for meditative walking in church halls or gardens.  Another
is the increasing  number of participants in contemplative prayer through
such agencies as the World Community for Christian Meditation
(www.wccm.org).  


PHILEMON 1-21   The lectionary switches from the intensely devotional to
the intensely practical.  There was a bishop in Ephesus at the end of the
1st Christian century whose name was Onesimus.  William Barclay makes the
winsome argument that this letter was written by Paul to Philemon to
persuade the master of the escaped slave, Onesimus, to return this
"useless" fellow to him because, having been converted, he now was of great
value to the apostle.  Barclay also asks whether "this little slip of a
letter, this single sheet of papyrus ... half-personal, half-official ...
with no great doctrine" survived because the good bishop "insisted that
this letter must be included in the collection (of Pauline epistles) in
order that all might know what the grace of God had done for him."
(Barclay, William. "Daily Bible Readings: Philippians, Colossians and
Philemon." Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland, 1957.)  Others have suggested
that it was sent to Colossae and the neighboring communities with other
letters of more doctrinal significance conveyed by Tychicus (Ephesians, 
Colossians and 'the lost letter' to Laodicea as described in Col. 4:7, 16).

If this analysis in acceptable, it not only tells a touching story, but
illustrates how a great theological concept Paul had expounded so well had
an obviously personal and practical application.  Here is the doctrine
reconciliation making a remarkable difference to a very ordinary situation
in NT times.  It makes the doctrine live; it puts flesh and blood on what
Paul had written in Galatians 3:27-29 about the inclusivity of the
apostolic church.
 
In those days as now, slaves had only one goal: freedom.  They often
escaped their bondage by stealing whatever would assist them in their
flight.  By some happenstance, Onesimus had come into contact with Paul
imprisoned in Rome or possibly Ephesus.  Paul and his ministry for Christ
had made all the difference in this slave's life.  If the play on the man's
name, Onesimus, is to be believed, (onesimus = useful) the slave who had
been useless in Philemon's household had now proved of great service to
Paul.  Not only the Roman law, but Paul's own convictions about the
relationship between masters and slaves (see Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians
3:33-4:1) required that Onesimus be sent back to his master.  Onesimus was
going, however, not as a slave in chains and at great personal risk, but as
a free man in Christ and Paul's personal messenger.  This letter he carried
to Philemon contained the plea that the slave be freed in law and returned
to Paul as the apostle's personal aid and companion.

Whatever the true story behind the letter may have been, the letter does
give us a glimpse into the life of the apostolic church.  It also
identified some of Paul's fellow workers who were in Rome at this same time
(vs.23), probably in the early 60s CE.  Tradition did not record very much
about most of these other than what is in the NT.  Mark and Luke are well-
known, but not the others.   

Epaprhas was a fellow prisoner with Paul who had evangelized the cities of
Colossae, Loadicea and Hierapolis in the Lycus River valley in Phrygia
(Col. 4:12-13), probably when Paul worked in Ephesus for about two years. 
Ephesus lay near the Aegean seacoast about 100 miles to the northwest. 
Aristarchus, a Gentile Macedonian, also shared Paul's imprisonment.
Demas has sometimes been identified with Demetrius of 3 John 12 where he
enjoys a better reputation than given him in 2 Timothy 4:9.  

The presence of these fellow workers in the Gentile mission has caused
scholarly questioning as to the exact location from which the Letter to
Philemon was written.  It is entirely possible that Paul wrote it during an
imprisonment in Ephesus to which 2 Cor. 1:8-9 alludes.  Nor can we be sure
exactly who the slave-master was.  The letter was addressed to Philemon,
Apphia and  Archippus as well as "the church in your house."  It would
appear that Paul was laying the issue he addressed before the whole
community.  Such uncertainties do not in any way detract from the essential
message of the letter: Paul pleads that Onesimus be set free to engage in
ministry with him.


LUKE 14:25-33   Asked by a newly designated candidate for ministry what she
might expect as she pursued this goal, a long-experienced pastor replied,
"Don't go into it, if you can stay out."  Puzzled by that apparently
negative warning, the candidate requested a further explanation.  "Think
twice before you decide to follow Jesus," she was told.  "Be prepared to
sacrifice everything you may wish to gain or achieve in answering your
call." 

This passage agrees with those sentiments.  It states unequivocally that
followers of Jesus will be required to let go of all they own and focus
their attention on their call.  Are they really ready for what will
certainly be involved?  That forthright challenge still stands.  Faithful
ministry in this day and age is no sinecure.  It may have been so in the
heyday of Christendom; but no longer.  Nor was it so in the Apostolic Age
as this reading makes clear.  Two brief parables reinforce the message.

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas includes two separate sayings very similar
to vs. 26-27.  A parallel reading also appears in Matthew 10:37-39.  This
most likely indicates that these are actually words spoken by Jesus and
retained in the collective memory of the Apostolic Church.  The parables
too have an authentic ring to them as the kind of homely examples Jesus
would have given to help his audience remember what he had said.
     
Was Jesus just being cautious and giving fair warning to those wishing to
follow him as he approached the crucial event of his ministry?  Vs.25 notes
that "large crowds were traveling with him."  The moment was at hand for
everyone to decide whether to go with him to Jerusalem or remain relatively
secure in Galilee.  John 7:66-71 records another element of this same
tradition.  Even without omniscience that John attributes to him, Jesus
certainly would have known of the dangers that lay ahead.  The parables
reveal that he was making mental and spiritual preparations for any
eventuality.  He wanted his disciples - not necessarily the twelve alone -
to be similarly prepared.  
     
In telling this part of the story, Luke had the perspective of both the
crucifixion and resurrection as well as half a century of reflection by the
Christian community.  But would Jesus have included crucifixion in his
calculations?  He would have known that this was the preferred form of
capital punishment to the Romans.  It was designed to maintain public order
by creating a paralyzing fear in the general populace.  Apparently Pilate
used it liberally.  We may thus conclude that Jesus would have been fully
aware of the possibility should he fall into the hands of the Roman
authorities.  It was the measure of his concern for those who had rallied
to his cause that they too be made fully aware of the dangers they would
face if their enthusiasm and loyalty carried them further in his company. 
Hence the ominous note of unfinished business in both the parables.  

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

DEUTERONOMY 30:15-20   (Alternate) We have here the Deuteronomic formula
which became the motif for so much of the final rendition of the Old
Testament documents in the centuries following the return of the exiles
from Babylon.  God's covenant with Israel required absolute obedience to
the Torah as supposedly defined by the commandments given to Moses at Mount
Sinai.  Life, prosperity and the inheritance of the Promised Land depended
on this obedience.

The challenge of this passage remains with us today whether we are faithful
Jews or Christians.  Being human, we shall always face the temptation to
water down our commitment to "doing our best." All religious traditions
have their absolutes.  For Jews to live according to these high standards
means to live Torah - not so much the Law as the Way.  In his collection of
essays, *The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians,* Robert Eisenman
cites examples in the Qumran *Community Rule* of Torah being "the Way" for
both Jews and early Christians.  If this usage was common in Judaism att he
time, Jesus would also have been familiar with the term.  

This passage states for everyone the path in which God desires all
believers to walk.  The alternative, as vs. 19 makes clear, is the way of
death.  When we fail, as we all do, we can only throw ourselves on the
mercy of God, accept forgiveness and renew our relationship with God and
God's Way.  That is how we may live with a clear conscience in this life. 
Attaining perfection is an act of grace ultimately to be fulfilled in the
life beyond death.  Worth noting in particular, the words of vs. 20 assure
us that obedience does not supercede love in our spiritual relationship
with God.


PSALM 1   (Alternate) Probably composed as an introduction to the Psalter,
this psalm clearly presents the implications of the Deuteronomic formula.
Internal evidence suggests a late date belonging to the era of Ezra or
later when Israel was regarded as a religious community and the study of
Torah was the mark of a religious person.  It also recalls the age when
Wisdom equated Torah, especially in the circle of those teachers of Wisdom
of the late OT and inter-testamental period.  A reference from Sirach
(Eccleasiaticus) 24:23-27 dating from ca. 190 BCE expressed similar views.

One can visualize the scene depicted in the psalm.  The teacher of wisdom
gathered his students in a small circle under the shade of a tree.  The
students spend hours concentrating on Torah, as many extreme orthodox
Israeli men, exempt from military service, still do in their yeshivas
today.  Less devoted young men scoff at such a time wasting pursuit.  The
attitudes of both groups clash, often noisily.  

The image in vs. 4 of trees growing fruitfully when well irrigated also
recalls productive plantations of fig palms I saw growing in the rich soil
within a few hundred metres of the Dead Sea.  They were irrigated from
streams plunging down deep wadis from the wilderness of Judea. 
Archeologists conclude that the Qumran community, the epitome of the
righteous life spent  studying Torah even during the time of Jesus,
obtained its water supply in a like manner.  The reference in Sirach 24:23-
27 also draws on the same image of plentiful water as the benefit yielded
by the pursuit of wisdom, i.e. Torah.

True to the character of Deuteronomic and  Wisdom literature, the psalm
ends with the moral that God reckons our human ways and grants the rewards
or punishments we deserve.

                         
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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