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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 24 - Proper 19 - Year C
Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Psalm 14; I Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
alt - Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-10


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 24 - Proper 19 - Year C


JEREMIAH 4:11-12,22-28   The threat of invasion by both Egypt and Babylon
continued throughout the last 40 years of the nation's independence until
Jerusalem fell in 586 BC.  Few of the prophet's many oracles express this
threat more vividly.  His metaphors would strike with brutal force at the
false security of the people in their fortress city.  Jeremiah saw all this
as God's doing, not the happenstance of history.


PSALM 14                 The psalmist who composed this poem at a time of
atheism and depravity sought to draw the people back to their religious
roots in the midst of accentuated foreign influences.  This also followed
the prophetic tradition of condemning the ungodly and defending the
righteous and the poor. 


1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17        While this letter may or may not be from the
apostle Paul, this passage speaks of Paul's persecution of the early church
and his supreme gratitude for the grace of forgiveness and change extended
to him by Jesus Christ.  It certainly reads like a very personal
confession.  Yet it also expressed the deep experiential and theological
truth that God's grace, repentantly received, motivates the believer to
thank and praise God. 


LUKE 15:1-10             These two vignettes from the daily life of a
Palestinian peasant are often overlooked.  They tell the story of God's
love for the lost and the wholly undeserved grace that offers full and free
forgiveness.  Both parables emphasize the joyful celebration when the lost
is found.  To God, everyone is important and graciously loved.  No one is
excluded, not even those who do not want to be found.


     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. 


EXODUS 32:7-14           (Alternate) In fury at the apostasy of the
Israelites for worshipping a golden calf, God sends Moses down from Mount
Sinai vowing to punish them for their sin.  Moses pleads for the people
asking God to remember the promises made to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac
and Jacob. And God changed his mind.


PSALM 51:1-10.           (Alternate) The superscript to this classic psalm
of penitence, added much later to the original text, is misleading.  It
really was not from King David; nor does it have anything to do with
original sin.  Yet it remains one of the most sincere prayers seeking God's
forgiveness.

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

JEREMIAH 4:11-12,22-28   By Jeremiah's time in the last quarter of 7th
century BCE, only the Southern Kingdom - Judah - remained of the once great
kingdom of David.  The threat of invasion from Babylon to the east and
Egypt to the west was real and almost constant during Jeremiah's ministry.
This threat continued over the last 40 years of the nation's independence
until the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.  Few of the
prophet's many oracles express this threat more vividly.  His metaphors
would have struck with brutal force at the false security of the people in
their fortress city.  In the intervening verses excluded from the reading,
anyone could easily identify from whence the threat came.

In vss. 11-12, the sirocco or khasmin, a hot east wind from the Arabian
desert symbolizes the ominous threat.  This suffocating, dry wind still
frequently sweeps in across the Jordan valley carrying clouds of stinging
sand with it.  When it comes, everyone must retreat into whatever shelter
they can find.  Hence the reference that no winnowing of grain or cleansing
of garments hung out to dry.  The reference to the "bare heights" calls to
mind the high cliffs on either side of the Jordan valley which cuts a deep
trench between Israel and its eastern neighbours.  
     
Vs. 22 explains the meaning of the metaphor: Yahweh's judgement upon Israel
for its lack of faithfulness to Yahweh's covenant with them.  Given the
opportunity for spiritual maturity, they have acted like children acting
silly at play as children so frequently do.  Morally underdeveloped because
of their apostasy, they are far more skilled at doing evil than good.

Vss. 23-26 are from a different oracle.  Some scholars doubt that it was
from Jeremiah at all because it contains eschatological references which
are rare in the prophet's other oracles.  In vs. 23, the vision of the
earth "waste and void" recalls Genesis 1:2 and, in fact, the Hebrew words
are the same in that context.  The whole segment of this reading elicits
the chaotic pre-creation scene.

Vs. 27 is similarly controversial to many scholars who follow Peake's
Commentary in calling it "an unmitigated gloss" influenced by 5:10 and 18,
which also promise that "a full end" is not Yahweh's intention.  This is
immediately contradicted by vs.28 promising a desolation imposed
unsparingly by Yahweh's command.  However this segment may have been
included, it gives the passage a vision of the desolation of the land
resulting from the apostasy of the people.  There is also the possibility
that this segment of the passage could have been written after the
destruction of Jerusalem when the disaster was still fresh in memory.


PSALM 14   This same psalm reappears slightly modified as Psalm 53,
probably owing to its inclusion in two originally independent collections.
Comparing the two psalms, especially 14:5-6 and 53:5 reveals something of
the difficulties in the transmission of a particular text.  Using the Greek
Septuagint and other translations, scholars debate what the original behind
both versions may have been. 

But does this really affect the interpretation of the psalm, as some have
suggested?  Is there not some reference to the Wisdom period in such
contrasts as "the fool" in vs.1 and "the wise" in vs.2?  That the psalmist
composed the poem at a time of atheism and depravity suggests the Greek
period when the authors of Israel's Wisdom literature sought to draw the
people back to their religious roots in the midst of accentuated foreign
influences.  This also followed the prophetic tradition  evidenced in the
vehemence of the psalmist's condemnation of the ungodly and the defence of
the righteous and the poor (vss.5-6).
     
The condemnation in vss. 3-4 includes the whole of society, presumably the
priesthood too.  An alternate reading of vs. 4b might be: "who eat up my
people; they eat the bread of Yahweh, but call not on him."  Provision of
food for the priesthood actually was one of the functions of the
sacrificial system in the temple.  Indeed, the poem has elements of biting
sarcasm against the priests as conveyed in vs. 7. 

While emphasizing the doom that awaits the faithless when Yahweh intervenes
on behalf of the faithful, the psalm ends with a hopeful prayer.  This
tends toward an eschatological conclusion, further indicating that the
psalm comes from the transitional Greek period of Israel's religious
history.  With spiritual leadership at low ebb and deliverance not
imminent, hope of salvation had been pushed into the far future.


1 TIMOTHY 1:12-17   Bible scholars still debate whether the Letters to
Timothy and Titus were from the apostle Paul or from another Christian
leader of a later generation who knew the apostle's earlier correspondence
very well.  Since the middle of the 18th century they have been generally
referred to as the Pastoral Letters.  They were certainly composed as
pastoral letters to churches at a time of transition when faithful
discipleship is called for - just like today!

Arguments against original Pauline authorship include a distinctive
vocabulary and style, theological concepts, church order, creedal
tradition, and the problem of fitting their composition into a chronology
of Paul's ministry.  Another theory argues for Pauline authorship on
hypotheses that elicit even more difficulties such as the presumed release
of the apostle from prison in Rome and a journey to Spain prior to a second
imprisonment and execution.  Or, as yet another theory contends, the
letters are the work of a secretary to whom Paul gave almost total freedom
of composition.
     
One popular theory proposes that the unknown author had before him
fragments of authentic letters from Paul which he used to deal with issues
in a different context at a later date.  Yet a fifth hypothesis points to a
composition as a literary artifact similar to others known from the late
1st century Roman literature to which personal references were added to
create verisimilitude and to present Paul as an apostolic example to be
followed.  As yet, there is no proof for any of these theories, and perhaps
there never will be.  Consensus appears to have settled on a non-Pauline
author who had access to some original letters by Paul, but the date of
their composition varies from 85 to 120 CE or even later.
     
This passage speaks of Paul's persecution of the early church and his
supreme gratitude for the grace of forgiveness and change extended to him
by Jesus Christ.  It certainly reads like a personal confession.  Yet it
also expressed a deep experiential and theological truth: the efficacy of
grace repentantly received for which the believer can only thank and praise
God. 

As William Barclay stated in his extended analysis of the passage, Paul
gave thanks that he had been saved in order that he might serve Christ. 
His conversion came about because of the sheer mercy of Christ, not through
any initiative of his own.  Remembering his former life was at once a
source of great shame and of great inspiration.  He did not brood over his
sin in an unhealthily depression.  Rather, he remembered it as the means
God had used  to awaken him to rejoice in the greatness of God's grace in
Jesus Christ.  Hence the doxology with which the passage ends.  (See
Barclay, William. "Daily Bible Readings: The Epistles to Timothy and
Titus." Edinburgh: Church of Scotland, 1956.) 

Trust and acceptance play a considerable role in "Paul's" thinking at this
point.  He had been trusted with the task of bringing the gospel to the
Gentiles.  Accepted by God for the man he was, he had accepted this heavy
responsibility in the face of strong opposition by the Jerusalem apostles
as well as his fellow Jews.  Now he wanted nothing more than to have his
hearers accept his message: "Christ Jesus came into the world to save
sinners." In vs. 18, he urges Timothy to make this his mandate too.


LUKE 15:1-10   These two vignettes from the daily life of a Palestinian
peasant are often overlooked because of their proximity to the much more
familiar parable that follows.  They tell the story of God's love for the
lost and God's wholly undeserved grace that offers full and free
forgiveness.  Note that both parables emphasize the joyful celebration when
the lost article is found.  The allusion is to God's joy over a sinner who
repents.  To God, everyone is important - and loved with an indiscriminate
love.  No one is excluded.  This crucially significant truth speaks to our
time when doubt and disbelief often overwhelm faith.  In each of these two
parables, we have profound theology uttered with great simplicity.

But think of how these stories may have occurred to Jesus?  His home in
Nazareth was on the northern slope of a low range of rugged hills
overlooking the rich agricultural region, the Plain of Esraeldon.  The 
hills were too rocky only for anything but herding sheep.  How many times
has he seen or had helped his shepherd neighbours searching those hills
long hours into the night for a single lost sheep.  Then, having found it,
celebrating with them when they had brought the wandering beast safely home
to the sheepfold where the rest of the flock were securely enclosed.
Perhaps he had often been included in just such a celebration in a
neighbour's home in Nazareth.

Was one sheep so valuable?  To a poor shepherd, a single lamb would have
been precious.  His whole livelihood depended on maximizing the number of
lambs his herd produced and brought to marketable size.  Is it any wonder
that the incident sprang into Jesus' mind as he sought to show how much God
loves even the most foolish and undeserving of sinners? 

As for the woman who had lost a coin, could she not be Jesus' own mother,
Mary, whose anxiety and joy he recalled so vividly?  How often had he come
into their humble home from his carpenter shop to find Mary happily
celebrating with her closest friends over a refreshing cup of diluted
vinegar-wine, a popular beverage among the poor.  They made it by pouring
water over the skins and stalks left over from the crushing of grapes for
wine, then allowing it to ferment. 

A single coin among ten would have been of great value to the struggling
family, perhaps now left fatherless by the death of Joseph as legend tells
it.  In his *Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography,* Bruce Chilton infers that
Jesus did not have very happy relationships with his family after Joseph
died.  Even a *mamzer* (an outcast because his birth had been suspicious),
would have retained such memories of home as he wandered far and wide
during his "hidden" years.  As a wandering rabbi, however, he knew that
memories such as these would connect directly with his audience who
presumably were peasant folk too for the most part.

************
                              
EXODUS 32:7-14   (Alternate) It is a pity that this brief excerpt from a
great story of the Israelites worshipping a golden calf is all that we are
given here.  The whole story is worth setting aside all else in the Revised
Common Lectionary for this week and giving it sound interpretation. 

The golden calf, of course, was the kind of totem found in many early
Middle Eastern religious traditions.  It symbolized the fertility of nature
and the flocks of pastoral peoples.  Cecil B. DeMilles' movie *Exodus*
graphically displayed the sexual promiscuity associated with these
religious rites.  In effect, the Israelites were returning to a familiar,
but more primitive religious system than the moral monotheism to which
Moses was leading them under Yahweh's direction.

In this excerpt Yahweh shows a fury reminiscent of any human potentate
frustrated by the misbehaviour of wayward subjects.  In response to the
apostasy of the Israelites for worshipping a golden calf instead of the
deity Yahweh had revealed himself in the Decalogue, Yahweh sent Moses down
from Mount Sinai vowing to avenge his injured pride.  Moses pleads for the
people asking Yahweh to remember the promises made long before to the
patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Indeed, Moses' plea sounds more like
a rebuke.  Convinced by Moses' argument Yahweh changed his mind. 

That in itself is a revelatory moment. Yahweh does indeed change, becoming
one who forgives, if only relenting from punishing the Israelites for a
time and giving them an opportunity to repent. 


PSALM 51:1-10   (Alternate) The superscript to this classic psalm of
penitence, added much later to the original text, is misleading.  It really
was not from King David; nor had it anything to do with his adulterous
relationship with Bathsheba.  Contrary to later Christian interpretation of
vs. 5, it does it have anything to do with original sin.  Yet it remains
one of the most sincere prayers seeking God's forgiveness.

Very much aware of his sinful nature, however, (vs. 3) the psalmist accepts
God's judgment as completely justified (vs. 4).  He pleads for cleansing,
especially from those hidden iniquities of which a sensitive conscience is
all to aware.  In the depths of contrition, he acknowledges his true
character.

He also acknowledges the kind of person whom the Lord desires him to be -
truthful, wise in the ways of God and purged of all his self-deceiving
tendencies.  He longs to rejoice in righteous living springing from a clean
heart and a renewed spiritual integrity (vss. 8-10).

How many conscience stricken souls have turned to this psalm as the
antidote to a burden of guilt of which we long to be relieved?  Despite
unfortunate misinterpretations, it still rings true as the faithful
expression of the penitent soul.

                         
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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