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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 26 - Proper 21 - Year C
Jeremiah 32:1-3,6-15; Psalm 91:1-6,14-16; I Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
alt - Amos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146


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 26 - Proper 21 - Year C


JEREMIAH 32:1-3,6-15     At a time when disaster was about to fall on Judah
with the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah is given
instructions from God to buy a plot of land for sale in his home town.  He
does so as a symbol of his faith that God still intends for the people of
God to survive.


PSALM 91:1-6, 14-16      The psalmist expresses absolute trust in God and
promises security to those who love God.  Such faith in the midst of many
dangerous situations cited does not deal with the more complex problem of
why evil things happen to good people.  The concluding segment may have
been recited antiphonally by the priest when the psalm was used in worship.

 
1 TIMOTHY 6:6-19         To conclude this pastoral letter this church
leader (probably not Paul but someone using his name at a later date)
points out that security is to be found in godliness and contentment, not
in wealth.  The great example for Timothy as for us is Jesus Christ.  The
moral obligations cited here would have been part of early Christian
baptismal sermons.  In a final admonition, the writer urges his disciple to
practice his faith rigorously until Jesus Christ comes again.


LUKE 16:19-31            This parable has sparked some controversy due to
its forceful attitude toward wealth and poverty.  The futility of
dependence on wealth to the neglect of  the poor is as strongly stated here
as anywhere in scripture.  The story clarifies God's sense of economic
values as distinct from what we might call common sense.
     
The description of life after death is to be taken figuratively rather than
literally.  Hades, a Greek idea, represented the Hebrew  word Sheol, the
abode of the dead perceived a shadowy place full of misery and suffering
from which no one returned.  It was not like Purgatory, a place of moral
discipline and improvement.
     

     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.  


AMOS 6:1a,4-7            (Alternate)   One of the most stern of the
prophecies of Amos against the economic injustices of his time.  He
condemns those who live in ease while the rest of the people suffer great
privation.            

PSALM 146                (Alternate)  Another of the psalms declaring the
sovereignty of God in human affairs calls for trust in God as the only true
security.

************
 
JEREMIAH 32:1-3a,6-15   This passage comes from one of several biographical
sections of the book.  (See also chapters 26-29; 32; 34-44.) Scholars have
some problems with the specific details of these sections because they do
not appear in chronological sequence.  Most scholars generally agree that
they highlight certain key incidents in the prophet's life when Jeremiah
was in open conflict with the religious and political authorities of the
day.  This is certainly one of those incidents.  It also serves to
introduce Baruch, the scribe who takes a prominent role in the life of
Jeremiah from this point.
     
The story has a central theme of redemption, but also gives some insight
into the actual political events of the time and the civil process for the
transfer of property.  To his contemporaries, the buying and selling of
property, however motivated, must have appeared as nothing short of
madness.  Jeremiah had been imprisoned in the court of the palace guard-
house because he persisted in prophesying that Nebuchadrezzar, king of
Babylon, would capture the city and carry King Zedekiah into exile.  It may
well have been for his own good as well as for the public morale that
Jeremiah was confined in this manner.  

We can see a similarly dangerous situation existing today for Moslem and
other people of Asian origins.  This powerful expression of fear and hatred
seems to be all but inevitable during any international crisis.  During
World War II all people of German and Japanese origin were interned largely
out of fear rather than for any just cause.  For years after the war had
ended, many of these people were still treated with irrational prejudice. 
More recently, the arson of a Hindu temple in Hamilton, Ontario, shows how
irrational prejudice really is.  Acts of vandalism to Jewish synagogues and
cemeteries still define the anti-Semitism among some members of our
society.  The irrational and legally unjustified imprisonment of many
people of Arab background following the attack on New York and Washington
in September 2001 provides yet another indication of how national security
so frequently denies civil rights.  

"Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage," wrote Richard
Lovelace, the 17th century English poet.  Inspiration too knows no such
containment.  Even though confined to the court of the guard-house,
Jeremiah was able to carry out his purchase and have it witnessed by fellow
Judeans (vs.12).  Note too that long before the Dead Sea Scrolls were
hidden in the caves of Qumran, important documents were sealed in
earthenware jars for preservation over a long time.
     
Jeremiah's inspiration included predictions not only that Jerusalem would
fall and the king be exiled, but that redemption and a prosperous future
would also come in due time.  As it turned out, these predictions did come
true.  But we must not conclude that this will be so for all prophetic
predictions found in scripture.  Prophesies of this type are insights
inspired by the prophet's intense awareness of the moral and spiritual
values inherent in the actual historical events in which he lived.  To a
considerable extent, predictions by Israel's great prophets were
conditional: "If ...; then ...." On the other hand, there is no valid
reason for such prophetic oracles to be used to predict events of our own
time as some preachers have done.  Such wild misinterpretations are the
figments of the preacher's own lurid imagination, often motivated by fear
or greed - or both.

This passage offers both interesting opportunities for Bible study on the
nature of inspiration and prophecy as well as homilies on trust and hope
for the future.  At a time when the world struggles once again with a
dehumanizing form of global strife, we do well to recall in our preaching
and our prayers that Yahweh/Allah/God gave all of us humans free will to
make our choices, for good or ill.  But God is still sovereign over the
history of humanity and of all creation, however horrible we sinful humans
may choose to make that history.
     
 
PSALM 91:1-6,14-16   An abiding faith in Israel's covenant relationship
with Yahweh permeates the whole psalm.  The same spirit can be found in
Psalm 46 and Romans 8:31-39.  At the same time, it lacks an awareness of
the complexity and the persistence of evil in its myriad manifestations. 
For that reason, it might be seen as somewhat naive.  On the other hand, in
the extremities of some situations, such as the intense grief many feel for
the death of loved ones in the war in Iraq, in the massacre of women and
children in Issetia, Russia, and in Darfur, Sudan, where else can we turn.

It is possible that the historical background of this psalm was a raging
epidemic of some  pestilence or disease which was killing thousands (vss.6-
7).  Such an epidemic is thought to have been "the angel of the Lord" that
dealt a death-blow to Sennacherib's invasion of Judah and siege of
Jerusalem in 701 BCE.  (2 Kings 19:32-36; Isaiah 37:33-37) That would
account for the intensity of conviction with which the poet declares his
trust in Yahweh.  

The Babylonian Talmud refers to the psalm as a song against evil
occurrences.  In his *The Praises of Israel* (New York: Charles Scribner's
Sons, 1950) John Paterson, then professor of Old Testament Exegesis at Drew
University, New Jersey, wrote that there were laments associated with
national disasters and those associated with personal sickness and
suffering.  The oldest form of the latter group may have been linked with
incantations and exorcisms.  He asserts that there may be some elements of
this phenomenon in this psalm.  He does not point out exactly where these
are.  The spiritual depths of this psalm seems far removed from such
superficiality.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster in New York, a
journalist asked Mayor Rudy Guiliani why there should be an interfaith
prayer assembly of tens of thousands in Yankee Baseball Stadium.  "What's
the value of prayer?" he asked with the natural skepticism of a reporter. 
Caught off guard, the mayor at first said that he did not feel qualified to
answer the question.  Then he went on to say, "It's a chance for people of
all faiths to come together to support one another at a time like this."
Former President Bill Clinton stepped to the microphone and added, "Yes, we
want to gather to show that we are not alone in life and in death."

As we use this psalm in worship, we can empathize with the psalmist's mood. 
We live daily with the current reality of even more deadly terrorist
attacks on almost any vulnerable target anywhere in the world.  With the
possibly of terrorists acquiring biological or chemical weapons rather than
high explosive bombs or piloted missiles, we can relate to the absolute
trust of the psalmist.  His faith in "the Almighty, Most High" God has an
other worldly attitude about it that reaches beyond the trials and
tribulations of this life to the eternal life beyond death.  Job's vividly
expressed conviction, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (Job 13:15
KJV) comes to mind as the parallel to this psalm.


I TIMOTHY 6:6-19   The Pastoral Epistles  make much more sense if we
assume, as many scholars have for the past century, that these letters were
written pseudonymously in Paul's name by a senior church officer, or
metropolitan, possibly in Ephesus, to a number of bishops in the first half
of the 2nd century CE with specific guidance as to church order and
discipline.  The unknown author wrote to encourage and advise those charged
with local responsibility to maintain orthodoxy in congregations beset by
heresy which many conclude was fast developing Gnosticism.  Imbedded in the
text there may be a number of fragments of genuine Pauline documents.  This
is not likely one of those.
     
In such a context, the current passage takes on a different significance
than if we impose upon it an entirely Pauline authorship.  It is the
concluding part of a pious homily (chapters 4-6) instructing local bishops
and presbyters how to conduct themselves as leaders of their Christian
communities in very uncertain and difficult circumstances.  This passage
would read more effectively if begun at vs. 3 rather than vs. 6.   

Vss. 7 and 10 contain texts for popular topical preaching.  With the latter
one especially one might well draw on the symbol of American capitalism
which the terrorists so hated in destroying the World Trade Center.  The
decline of the stock market with loss of billions of investment dollars and
subsequent rise in the price of oil in the months following this disaster
provides a disturbing poignancy to the text.  Yet it is surely cruel irony
to say that the consumption of oil from the Middle East has provided the
main of funds for the training of this terrorist movement.  We also have to
consider that our wasteful consumption of oil has great prominence in
current geopolitical strategies such as the war in Iraq and the civil
conflict in the Caucuses region of Russia.   

Several problems crop up in this segment of the pastoral letter, but one
seems dominant: the struggle for enough money to live on and prosper in the
work of ministry rather than in worldly wealth.  Thus, this pastoral
advisor urges contentment with a simple standard of living and warns
against the temptation to make oneself rich.  To do so these church leaders
must pursue spiritual riches (vs.11) and fight the good fight of faith as
did Jesus Christ himself (vss.12-13).  The phrase "a good confession" may
in fact be a reference to the baptismal creed of the 2nd century church,
either the simple declaration that "Jesus is Lord" or an elaboration of it. 
Making such a confession might well bring these church leaders and all
Christians into open confrontation with imperial Roman authorities as well
as their heretical opponents.
     
Vss.14-16 introduce an eschatological element.  The duty of these ministers
of whom "Timothy" is the example is to maintain orthodox teaching and
transmit it unaltered to their congregations "until the manifestation of
our Lord Jesus Christ."  The second coming was still a significant part of
the church's doctrine, but a modifying clause temporizes its imminence:
"which he will bring about at the right time" (vs.15a).  The urgency had
gone; the church had finally accepted that the return of Christ will not
soon take place, but will be at a time of God's choosing.  Now they must
learn how to live in the world with all its dangers and temptations.  The
doxology (vss.15b-16) encourages patient faithfulness as they wait for
immortality and eternity to break into history.

Yet living in the world does has economic implications as vss.17-19
reiterates.  The providence of God rather than the uncertainty of riches
will be their security.  Good works, generosity and sharing shape the
economy of the church.  That will lay "the foundation for the future" when
life "really is life," i.e. eternal life.  


LUKE 16:19-31   Last week's lesson formed the opening parenthesis for this
chapter which stands alone in dealing with the subject of wealth.  This
passage closes the parenthesis.  In his commentary on Luke, Professor
George Caird wrote that the chapter deals with three instances which he
entitles "the use of opportunities." (Pelican New Testament Commentaries:
*The Gospel of St. Luke.* London:1963) Tempting as it may be to consider
this a parable about social justice, it has relatively little to do with
economic differences or moral retribution for misspent wealth.  It has a
great deal to do, however, with the gospel of the resurrection and its
implications for a global society based on love.
     
We have here a Jewish folk tale adapted to a new purpose.  Whether the
story was one Jesus himself told or Luke found in circulation in the church
circa 80 CE, Luke used it to convey his conviction that the Christian faith
in Jesus the Christ had superceded the Torah of Israel.  Still, it does
appear to contradict what he had already said in vs.17 while elaborating
the brief sayings about taking pride in wealth addressed to the Pharisees
in vss.14-15.  It also serves as a rebuke to those who "try to enter the
kingdom by force" in vs.16b.  On the other hand, some scholars suggest that
it has no relation whatsoever to what has gone before.  
     
The story is unique in the Gospels in that it gives some details about the
Jewish view of life after death.  This should not be taken literally, but
regarded as giving us some insight into how the whole conceptual framework
of such ideas had developed by the last quarter of the 1st century of the
Christian era..  Some scholars also believe vss.27-31 to be an allegorical
extension of the story rather than its conclusion.  It is also possible
that this is Luke's own commentary on the historical fact that the great
majority of Jews had not only rejected the messiahship of Jesus but also
belief in his resurrection.  As such, it draws a fitting conclusion to the
comment in vs.16a about the distinction between the law, the prophets, John
the Baptist and Jesus.
     
Again, one is reminded of the current historical circumstances in which we
shall hear this passage read and preached.  The difference between the rich
and the poor of the world we live had been stark ly portrayed in the
destruction of a symbol of America's vast wealth and the flight of a
million of refugees.  Are we witnessing the judgment of God on our worldly
systems which allow such economic chasms to widen year after year?  Is that
chasm eternally fixed?  Do we see the reign of God's love with preference
for the poor of the world envisioned in this parable?  

An article in the New York Times on September 23, 2001 pointed out that the
crucial issue underlying the present confrontation between Western
democracies and fundamentalist Islamic terrorists is the secular nature of
Western culture in all its aspects.  The article read in part: "Oddly
enough, what most inflames anti-American passion among fundamentalist
Muslims may be the American government's lack of religious zeal.  By
separating church and state, the West    and America in particular    has
effectively privatized belief, making religion a matter of individual
faith.  This is an affront to the certainty of fundamentalist Muslims, who
are confident that they possess the infallible truth.  For them, this truth
is not a private revelation but a public imperative, and (nation) states,
like people, are either Muslim or infidel."

What has this to do with a gospel of the resurrection?  Is it not that the
risen Christ is living in us who call ourselves by his name?  It is not his
Spirit which gives us the strength of will and the power of freedom to do
what needs to be done to create a new world order in which peace, justice
and compassionate sharing replace the violent clashes of present systems?

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

AMOS 6:1a,4-7   (Alternate)  One of the most stern of the prophecies of
Amos against the economic injustices of his time.  "Blind pride and self-
indulgence of the leaders," one scholar entitled this section.  (Hewell. E.
W. Fosbroke, *The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 6, 822) The prophet condemns
those who live in ease while the rest of the people suffer dire privation.  

The reference to both Zion and Samaria in vs. 1 has some significance. 
While Amos was from Tekoa, not far from Jerusalem, in the Southern Kingdom
of Judah, the major focus of his ministry was the Northern Kingdom of
Samaria.  As vs. 2 indicates, his condemnation knew no boundaries,
extending northward to include the leaders Syria and southwestward to those
in Gaza of the Philistines.    

No biblical prophet describes ostentatious wealth spent on extravagant
living more vividly than does Amos in vss. 4-6.  One cannot but help recall
the frequently publicized lists of the wealthiest nations in world today. 
We tend to shield ourselves from the obvious parallel with Amos' blunt
condemnation with such euphemisms as "leading developed nations" and "the
best place to live in the world." 

In vs. 6, Amos utters a contrasting word about the injustice of the
situation in somewhat veiled terms.  The wealthy leaders and their
sycophants "are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!" In other words,
rather than indulging in their pursuit of pleasure in every possible
manner, they do not sick at heart for the plight of the poor whose meagre
living conditions they have both ignored and made worse.   

So also in our own time and place.  Our attempts to hide from the truth,
however, are similarly condemned by the daily pictures of deadly refugee
camps in Gaza, Palestine, and Darfur, Sudan.  Our political leaders and we
ourselves stand before the same bar of divine judgment as that voiced by
Amos nearly 2800 years ago.   

What does the future have in store?  Exile for the leaders of Israel, Amos
said.  For us?  God knows, but we cannot rest easy while the greater part
of the world's people suffer privation and premature death beyond our
imagining.  


PSALM 146   (Alternate)  Like the rest of the final five psalms in the
Psalter, this is a joyful hymn of praise begins with "Hallelujah!".  Unlike
the other four, it arises from an individual's reflection on the goodness
of Yahweh.  It declares the sovereignty of God in human affairs and calls
for trust in God as the only true security.  Thus it deals with fundamental
issues confronting every truly religious person in every time and place.  

This seems particularly appropriate to our time.  Right now the world is
watching with considerable apprehension what those opponents of our modern
secular society will do next by their terrorist attacks against our way of
life.  We also await with both fear and hope for the decision of the
American as to whom they will choose to lead the most powerful nation on
Earth through the next four years of terrifying insecurity.

The psalmist has no doubt.  In vs. 3, he dispels the propaganda of
politicians (in his case, "princes") that they have a solution to the
problems ordinary people face.  Like us, they to shall perish, as do their
most exactingly drafted plans (vs. 4).  Those who survive are those who
place their trust in the provident Creator of the universe who alone keeps
faith, executes justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry, especially
the most vulnerable (vss. 5-9).  Sovereignty belongs to God alone (vs. 10).

                         
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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