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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 29 - Proper 24 - Year C
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; II Timothy 3:`4 - 4:5; Luke 18:1-8
alt - Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121


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 29 - Proper 24 - Year C


JEREMIAH 31:27-34        Jeremiah utters God's promise that the Israel and
Judah (the northern and southern kingdoms separated following Solomon's
reign) will be restored.  This restoration will come about through
individuals taking responsibility for their own sins and the making of a
new covenant relationship with God set in each person's heart.


PSALM 119:97-104         This longest of the psalms is an acrostic with
each section beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
While artificial in its construction, the whole psalm celebrates the value
system of the divine covenant and law on which Israel's existence as a
special nation depended.  This section, perhaps a little sentimentally,
speaks of the sweetness of the law to the Israelite and its power to
provide wisdom.


2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:5       Debate continues whether or not the letters to
Timothy were written by Paul or by an early 2nd century church leader using
his name and familiar with his teaching and correspondence.  In this
passage an elder churchman urges a second or third generation Christian 
evangelist to maintain his enthusiasm and commitment when many opponents
are preaching false doctrines.  He also warns that the challenge will be
difficult and costly as many turn away from the true faith.


LUKE 18:1-8              The perversion of justice was a common theme in
the Hebrew scriptures.  The parable contrasts the judge who gave in to the
widow's pleading (vss.2-5) with God's sense of justice (vss.6-8).  The
point the passage makes the point that if persistence brings results in
human relationships, how much more so will God respond to persistent
prayer.  The issue of God's election of some but not others may puzzle us
today.  "How odd of God to choose the Jews," poet Ogden Nash's caustically
commented.  God's bias always favours those who suffer innocently under
persecution, a common experience of many people of faith then and now.


          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 32:22-31         (Alternate)  The story of Jacob's struggle with a
man he could not overcome, but who also wounded him, symbolizes his inner
spiritual struggle.  In the end, Jacob realized that his opponent had been
none other than God. 


PSALM 121                (Alternate)  This psalm is better known to us in
the hymn, *Unto the hill around do I lift up my longing eyes,* by John
Campbell, Duke of Argyll, (1845-1914) then Governor  General of Canada.  It
expresses a  most profound trust in God on  whose protection and providence
we can depend eternally. 

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

JEREMIAH 31:27-34   Three different prophetic oracles make up this brief
passage separated as follows: vss. 27-28; 29-30; 31-34.  These are part of
the longer "book of comfort" contained in chapters 30-31 featuring the
future restoration of Israel and Judah.  Scholarly debate questions the
authenticity of this whole segment of the Book of Jeremiah because of the
apparent influence of other prophetic works such as Second Isaiah (Isaiah
40-66).  One hypothesis considers it the work of an editor who lived at the
same time as that prophet, a generation or two after Jeremiah toward the
end of the Babylonian exile. Another suggests that it may have been even
later, during the era of Ezra and Nehemiah (mid-5th century BCE). 

Whatever its origin, these two chapters promise a dramatic reversal of
Israel's fortunes.  These were tragic and desperate times.  The nation
suffered grievously after the destruction of the city and its temple by the
Babylonians and the loss of the greater part of its leadership taken in
chains to exile in Babylon.  The prophet had a very different vision of
what was happening.  Like all prophets of Israel, he saw the hand of Yahweh
in the events of his time.  The first oracle (vss.27-28) predicted that the
land would be repopulated and again become productive.  This intensely
hopeful vision vividly contrasted with the devastation and privation caused
by the Babylonian invasion. 
     
The second oracle (vss. 29-30) expresses a popular proverb also quoted in
Ezekiel 18:2.  It reveals the ancient tradition of collective
responsibility and retribution which may have been widely accepted as the
explanation for the Babylonian invasion.  Ezekiel sought to dispel this
belief by setting forth a new doctrine of individual responsibility.
Generally speaking, Jeremiah believed in the older view.  Hence, scholars
doubt that this is one of his oracles.  Furthermore, it conflicts with the
hope expressed in the remainder of this selection.

The issue of individual or collective moral responsibility has a
contemporary relevance.  In the intense shock of witnessing the attack on
the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.,
immediate blame was assigned to one person as the mastermind behind this
terrible assault on these symbols of America's economic and military power.
Gradually, the attribution of responsibility shifted away from that person
to a widespread collective of terrorists trained and harbored in one
country, but also present in several others.  As the weeks passed and
retaliation by intense bombing of Afghanistan began, analysis of this
globally significant disaster focussed not only on the perpetrators, but on
the root causes of their criminal behaviour.  What were the varied aspects
of civilized culture against which they were protesting by their
unconscionable actions?  In the media and other forums, discussion began to
consider whether each of us bears some personal responsibility for allowing
the unequal distribution of food and the world's resources to continue
unchecked while millions suffer. 

Who really is responsible for the dysfunctional economic and political
systems which foster injustice, terrorism and global conflict?  Is
individual responsibility as absolute as this biblical oracle seems to
suggest?  Or is there also a collective responsibility which all of us must
confront to reconstruct a disordered world in which all may share peace and
prosperity?  A few weeks after September 11, 2001, a vision of mutual
responsibility was celebrated in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for
2001 to the United Nations and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan.

Contrast between the old covenant and a new covenant in vss. 31-34
represents the most distinctive teaching of the Book of Jeremiah.  The
passage had special significance for the Christian tradition which still
regards them "one of the mountain peaks of the O.T."  It has been dubbed
"the gospel before the Gospel."  These four verses provided an important
theological rationale for the Letter to the Hebrews, which quotes it in
full in 8:8-12 and in part in 10:16-17.  It also informed part the Pauline
and Lukan versions of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as well as giving
a name to the collection of Christian scripture made in the 2nd century -
"the New Covenant." 

Divine forgiveness rather than human sinlessness underlies this oracle. 
The initiative comes from Yahweh, not from Israel.  Yahweh offers a new
relationship to replace the one that had been broken by transgressions
committed under the old covenant law.  It also predicts that all believers
will experience the same direct consciousness of Yahweh that the prophets
themselves had experienced. 

This constant awareness of the divine presence reached its fulfilment in
Jesus Christ and was given to the Christian fellowship after his
resurrection.  To quote Fr. John Main, founder of the World Community for
Christian Meditation: There are "entirely realistic possibilities for each
of us if only we are open to the experience of Jesus.  If only we are open
to the ontological change that took place in Jesus when he rose form the
dead and burst the bonds of mankind's slavery, making it possible for each
of us to participate in that bursting of bonds.  This is the place and
purpose of our prayer, to be fully open to the consciousness of Jesus, his
freedom, his liberty, his love for the Father." (*Community of Love,* 42)
Herein lies the true nature of spiritual contemplation, a quality of
religious life much needed in this frenetic age in which we live.


PSALM 119:97-104   This particular psalm has some very special
characteristics.  It is not only the longest in the Psalter, but its
divisions are based on an acrostic scheme.  In Hebrew, each strophe or
section consists of eight lines each and each line begins with the same
letter of the alphabet.  In this thirteenth strophe the lines begin with
the letter Mem.  The whole psalm consists of an extended litany to the
covenant law of Israel.  Yahweh is addressed in every one of the one
hundred and seventy-six verses.  As in no other psalm, love for Yahweh's
law forms the single, central theme.

Worth noting, too, are the different synonyms for the law repeated again
and again throughout this strophe: commandments, testimonies, precepts,
word, judgments, ordinances.  The most common of these synonyms is
precepts.  The Hebrew word *piqq–d* (pronounced "pik-kood") occurs twenty-
one times in Psalm 119 but in very few other OT passages, including the
rest of the Psalms.  It was defined as a mandate from Yahweh and was
closely related to a primary verb which meant "to visit."  The elements of
relationship and communication appears to be its significant aspects.
     
In this strophe the psalmist contemplates the wisdom that comes from study
of the law.  Consequently, it is safe to conclude that the psalm probably
dates from after the reconstruction of the temple in the 5th century BCE
when litanies had taken an important place in worship and wisdom was
becoming an important theme in post-exilic spirituality.  A liturgy on the
law had an important role to play in the moral instruction of the people
long isolated from their traditional religious practices as to the
appropriate ways to maintain their relationship with Yahweh who had brought
them home from exile in Babylon.


2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:5   In studying the Pastoral Epistles, we have contended
that these are early 2nd century documents addressing the needs of that era
when heterodox beliefs challenged the apostolic tradition.  Apologists of
the period and later church historians universally branded these challenges
as heresies.  Many of them still exist in different forms, if also without
recognition or admission even in the mainline denominations 

In this selection we have a specific example of how this senior church
leader, using the names of Paul and his co-worker, Timothy, endeavoured to
maintain the orthodox tradition as he had received it.  He knew intimately
of Paul's missionary career and the opposition he had confronted at every
turn.  He would also seem to have had before him some fragments of Paul's
own communications and possibly also other "scriptures" such as Luke's
Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. 

Of course, he probably also had the Hebrew scriptures, most likely in their
Greek translation, the Septuagint.  It is unlikely, however, that these
would have been so highly regarded at a time when the church faced imminent
threats from heretical aberrations.  William Barclay, on the other hand,
contends that it was exclusively the Hebrew scriptures referred to in this
instance.  However, he translates the crucial phrase in vs. 16 as "all God-
inspired scripture."  This leaves room for qualification as to which
scriptures the author had in mind.  Barclay notes that even the Gnostics
had their scriptures, as fantastic and esoteric as they may have been.

It seems more helpful to treat this passage as referring to the apostolic
tradition which was becoming the hallmark to guide the church into the
unknown future.  By the middle of the 2nd century, this tradition was
placed under great stress by Marcion, an ardent Pauline Christian too
easily dismissed as "another Gnostic and arch-heretic."  A brilliant
scholar who adopted critical methods similar to those of modern
scholarship, Marcion identified only seven of the epistles attributed to
Paul as genuinely Pauline.  He also accepted only part of Luke's Gospel and
Acts.  His main difference with the apostolic tradition lay in his total
rejection of the Old Testament and its representation of God as cruel,
violent and evil-creating.  He favoured a total breach with Judaism and the
purging of all Judaizing tendencies and compromises.  It is not impossible
that the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus were part of the church's
response to the Marcionite controversy.

Whatever documents this author may have been referring to in  vss. 15-16,
he regarded them as authentic, inspired and definitive of the true faith.
The appeal to orthodox authority comes through in almost every phrase.
Literalists have appealed to this passage as their authority for plenary
inspiration of the whole biblical text.  The author appeals beyond the
written texts, however, to the anticipated return of Christ in judgment
(4:1).  As he urges his fellow ministers to maintain the orthodox
tradition, he expects them to face uncompromising opposition and unsound
doctrine (vss.3-4).  Their role is to be unfailingly persistent in their
preaching, patient in their approach, and consistent in their teaching. 
     
Gregory J. Riley, of the Claremont School of Theology, in California, has 
recently published a study of the development of orthodoxy during the first
few centuries of the Christian era. ("One Jesus, Many Christs: How Jesus
Inspired Not One True Christianity, But Many." HarperSanFranciso, 1997)  He
drew on many contemporary Jewish, Christian and Greco-Romano texts which he
believes influenced the writers of the NT and the early interpreters of the
faith and theologians of the church in their perceptions of who Jesus was
and of his significance for believers and unbelievers alike.  The struggle
to define a limited canon of scripture as well as an orthodox tradition
went on relentlessly for several centuries.  In this selection, we have a
specific example of how this conflict occurred long before the proponents
of the trinitarian creeds declared victory in the 4th and 5th centuries and
had the political power to enforce their views on the western church, but
not the fragmented eastern church.


LUKE 18:1-8   This story of the persistent woman seeking justice reflects a
much more primitive legal system than the one to which we are accustomed.
Because she appears to have had direct access to the judge on several
occasions, one presumes that the circumstances were quite unlike those with
which Jesus himself had to deal.  More likely we have here a situation
where village elders met in some public place such as the market square or
the village gate to hear and judge the complaints of neighbour against
neighbour.  The woman, too poor to afford a bribe and without influential
friends, had only her indomitable persistence to gain a satisfactory
decision.  Such perversion of the law would appear to have been common.
     
Those details are not so important as the reason why Jesus told the story
and why Luke included it in his narrative at this point.  The story
contrasts God's merciful and speedy judgment with that of the weary judge
who just wanted to get the woman out of his hair.  Professor George Caird
pointed out that this and the subsequent parable both deal with prayer, a
favourite topic of Luke.  They also relate directly back to the preceding
passage of eschatological predictions.  Caird comments: "If persistence
prevails with one who cares only for his own peace and comfort, how much
more will it prevail with One who has compassion on his elect." ("The
Pelican New Testament Commentaries: St. Luke." London: Penguin Books, 1963)
     
But who may be regarded as the elect?  This is a significant question for
every Christian.  In our global village today, are Christians today more
elect than Moslems or Hindus or Buddhists; or even Jews?  According to
Caird the elect are called to serve God through suffering for their faith
at the hands of an ungodly world.  Loyalty to God causes them to pray
persistently for the deliverance only God can give.  Then, does election
mean that God favours the innocent victims of persecution?  Caird would
agree that this is so.

Some Americans feel victimized by the recent attacks on their commercial
and political heartland.  But their assailants also feel victimized by the
irresistible advance of a materialist, alien culture which threatens to
destroy every aspect of their religious heritage.  Who then are the
persecutors?  Who are the elect of God in the many violent instances of
injustice which the news media brings within our purview as daily fare?  A
Canadian philosopher, Michael Ignatieff, now teaching at Harvard
University, wrote about the terrorists in the London newspaper, *The
Guardian*:  "What we are up against is apocalyptic nihilism....  It is
absurd to believe they [the terrorists] are making political demands at
all.  They are seeking the violent transformation of an irremediably sinful
and unjust world."  In such a crisis, is it surprising that some are
willing to commit suicidal murder for their cause while others cling to a
hope of an eschatological redemption and see these terrifying events as
evidence of the imminent return of Christ?  Is there no middle ground
between these two extremes where true justice may be found?

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

GENESIS 32:22-31   (Alternate)  We have here an ancient tribal legend with
a deeply theological meaning.  The story of Jacob's struggle with a man he
could not overcome, but who also wounded him, symbolizes his inner
spiritual struggle.  It also relates the tradition of how the nation of
Israel got its name and how one of the peculiar dietary customs of the
Jewish people came about.

The struggle between Jacob and the man he met at the Jabbok emphasizes two
important points: Jacob's persistence and his ultimate blessing by Yahweh.
As the story was told up to this point in his life, Jacob had been anything
but a spiritually minded man.  Indeed, he had been a trickster and a
deceiver many times.  He himself had also been deceived twice by his uncle
and father-in-law into working for fourteen years before obtaining the wife
he desired. 

While his story is told without censure and reflects the tribal customs of
ancient times, Jacob was still regarded as one of the patriarchs of Israel
through whom Yahweh had brought the nation into being.  This extended
narrative implies that the struggle at the Jabbok, which he renamed Peniel,
represents a change in the character of the man.  Further, the story
reinforces the tradition that it was Yahweh's choice and grace that brought
Israel to its special status and developed its subsequent spiritual
heritage.  In other words, the story becomes a parable of how Jacob (and
Israel) had to reckon with God in order to be spiritually regenerated and
reconciled with his brother, Esau, whom he had so grievously deceived.

The restriction against eating the thigh muscle (vs.32) appears nowhere
else in the OT, but may have been a taboo in more ancient Semitic tribal
life.  Its mention may be a gratuitous addition to the original text.  It
has also been suggested that the thigh muscle represents the seat of life,
not unimaginable considering its proximity to the male sexual organs.


PSALM 121   (Alternate)  This psalm has become known as the most beautiful
in the pilgrim collection or Songs of Ascent (Pss. 120-134).  Written with
an antiphonal structure, it had a place in the temple liturgy as pilgrims
approached the sacred precincts at the end of a perilous journey.

The psalm may be better known to us in the hymn, *Unto the hill around do I
lift up my longing eyes,* by John Campbell, Marquis of Lorne, later Duke of
Argyll, (1845-1914) then Governor General of Canada (1878-83).  It is said
that he was inspired to write this poem standing in Rideau Hall, the
governor  general's residence in Ottawa, looking  across the Ottawa River
to the Gatineau Hills to the  north.  Another story insists that the Rocky
Mountains were its inspirational provenance.

The psalmist  may have been seeing the hills surrounding Jerusalem when he
composed the psalm.  The metaphor of the unchanging hills is well placed.
Compared to the brief span of human life, the stability and permanence of
Earth's geography does seem eternal. This comparison certainly expresses
what the psalmist tried to convey, a most profound trust in God on whose 
protection and providence we can depend eternally. 

                         
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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