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Introduction To The Scripture For Ordinary 30 - Proper 25 - Year C
Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14
alt Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22; Psalm 84:1-7


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 30 - Proper 25 - Year C

  NOTE: Some may wish to mark this as World Peace Sunday.  The Old
  Testament Lesson, the Psalm and the Epistle all speak of faith
  that yields hope in times like these.  The Gospel offers a
  reality check for those who would condemn others who are not like
  us.  

JOEL 2:23-32             This promise by one of Israel's minor prophets
became the focus of the earliest Christian gospel when Peter quoted it as
the only possible interpretation of what happened when the Holy Spirit came
upon the apostles on Pentecost.  Based on what God had done in providing
for Israel in the past, the prophet assured his fellow citizens that God
was with them now and that God would be with them come what may.

  
PSALM 65                 In a land where drought was common, this psalm is
a hymn of thanksgiving for plentiful spring rain that promises a bountiful
harvest.  It is a song of assurance and hope.


2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8,16-18    There is good reason to believe that this latter
part of the so-called "Pastoral Letters" to Timothy and Titus may be from
Paul himself.  It speaks of Paul's own struggle to keep the faith.  It also
identifies several friends who knew and worked with him.  Paul may have
been in prison, but his faith had broken through its walls.  Following this
example, the letter says, faith is the only positive way to face unknown
crises and dangers that may lie ahead.


LUKE 18:9-14.            This parable would have had a varied response from
those who first heard it.  The Pharisees were devoutly religious,
meticulous in keeping of ritual laws, politically powerful and
unsympathetic toward those less committed.  Even less popular were the tax-
collectors.  Jesus revealed a delightful and devastating sense of irony in
comparing the two at worship.  The parable catches everyone.  It holds a
mirror up before us,  describing and judging what we are like - sometimes
one, sometimes the other.  

     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.  


JEREMIAH 14:7-10,19-22   (Alternate) These brief passages appear to combine
both a lament to and a prophetic challenge from God.  Acknowledging the
sins of the nation, the prophetic poet wonders why God appears to have
deserted God's people.


PSALM 84:1-7             (Alternate) This psalm expresses deep gratitude of
a faithful Israelite for the sense of peace and providence to be found in
the temple.


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

JOEL 2:23-32   Joel has been called "the Temple prophet" because he
attributes such importance to temple worship.  The Second Temple had been
reconstructed by Zerubbabel following the return from exile in Babylon in
539 BCE.  For several generations afterward, the leadership of the nation
had devolved to the temple priesthood.  A few other political and religious
clues point to a relative calm period prior to the disruption of the
ancient world by Alexander the Great's conquests beginning in 333 BCE..  A
generation or two before that (ca. 400 BCE) is the general range scholars
give to Joel's prophecies.  Many of Joel's images and metaphors, however,
were drawn from earlier prophets, Amos in particular.

The book consists of two distinct parts, one a prophecy of judgement
(1:2-2:27); the other a promise of salvation (2:28-3:21).  Closer
examination reveals that 2:18-27 is a transitional passage which binds the
two together.
  
Joel saw the judgement of Yahweh in a plague of locusts (1:4) and a drought
(1:9-12) that devastated the land.  There also appears to be references to
an invasion from the north (1:6, 2:20) though this may be a metaphor for
the plague of locusts as distinct from an actual invasion (2:7-9). 
Returning productivity and prosperity described in 2:21-27 offer hope, but
it is unclear whether this too is promise or reality.  Joel attributes it
to Yahweh's action, however, so that Israel may know that "I, the Lord, am
your God and there is no other." (vs.27)

Searching the Hebrew scriptures for the meaning of the Christ-event, Luke
found in Joel 2:28-29 a prophecy fulfilled by the gift of the Spirit at
Pentecost (cf.  Acts 2:16-19).  Writing five centuries before that event,
however, Joel described a typical apocalyptic vision of the Day of the
Lord.  The pouring out of God's spirit and the portents of blood, fire,
smoke and darkness (vss.30-31) were traditional signs of the end of one
period or the whole of history and the beginning of a new age.  Based on
what Yahweh  had done in providing for Israel in the past, the prophet
assured his fellow citizens that Yahweh  was with them now and would be
with them come what may.  

Peter's sermon on Pentecost made just such a proclamation as the apostolic
church's interpretation of what they had seen and heard in the life, death
and resurrection of Jesus.  Writing about two decades after the destruction
of the temple, the author of Acts may also have seen the coming of the
Spirit of the Christ to the apostles as the replacement of the temple as
the central locus of Christian worship.  Henceforth, worship was to be 
spiritual rather than a purely ritual relationship with Yahweh.

Can we find in this prophecy some good news for our own nation at this
critical moment in our history?  A wave of uncertainty and fear has swept
across the world since September 11, 2001.  We are both appalled and
angered by the devastation terrorists have caused and doubtful that
retaliation by merciless bombing and all-out war will deal with the threat
that confronts us.  We are involved in a different kind of conflict than we
have previously experienced.  At the same time, many feel deeply convicted
that our own short-sighted policies - perhaps for two centuries or more,
and continuing in current preemptive aggression - may have contributed to
the terrible and tragic events in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Where
does hope for peace, justice and prosperity for all people lie? Or would we
do best to wait patiently and faithfully believing that God is with us -
and always on the side of justice - come what may?


PSALM 65   This hymn of praise presents many images of peace and prosperity
attributed to the gracious  interventions of Yahweh.  At its best Israel's
religious tradition included a firm belief in Yahweh's sovereignty over the
natural world and its productive capacities as well as over historical
events.  The recognition of this providential sovereignty formed the basis
for worshipful rejoicing in a number of psalms.  As vss.1-4 state, even the
privilege of worshiping Yahweh in the temple offers a sign of divine
sovereignty.  The rest of this liturgy of thanksgiving is commentary.  

Emphasis on the temple point to the late post-exilic period not unlike that
of Joel's prophecies.  The temple had become the centre of national life
(vs.4).  Worship had been formalized to the point where rituals included
the making of vows and confession of sin (vss.1-3).  There is also a sense
of universalism found in vss.2 & 5-8 reminiscent of Deutero-Isaiah. 
Yahweh's mighty deeds in bringing deliverance to Israel constituted a sign
to all nations that Yahweh does indeed govern all of creation.

This is essentially a song of thanksgiving for an abundant harvest.  Some
of the most graphic depictions of the geography of Israel are found in this
and similar psalms of thanksgiving.  In vss.9-13 we glimpse plentiful
rainfall, flowing streams, fertile grain fields and agricultural activity. 
It is not always so, of course.  Even today the observant tourist welcomes
the  surprise and rejoices to see the wilderness of Judea blossom the day
after a heavy rain.  Vss.12-13 describes just such a scene.  


2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8,16-18   The tradition remains that Paul died during Nero's
persecution of the mid-60s CE.  As a Roman citizen he would have been
beheaded rather than crucified, as tradition reported concerning Peter's
death about the same time.  There can be little doubt that this passage
comes either from Paul's own hand or from someone who knew exactly what had
happened to him.  
  
In his book, "One Jesus, Many Christ's," (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) Gregory
J. Riley showed how the writers of the NT used the motif of the hero in the
Greco-Romano literary culture to describe their understanding the life of
Jesus and the apostles, especially Peter and Paul.  That motif goes back to
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, but most literature of the period in which the
NT arose had similar motifs.  The NT authors cast Jesus in the role of the
divine-human hero, while the apostles played the roles of the human
hero-followers.  Riley further shows that the NT authors followed closely
the traditional  image of a military or athletic hero.  In this passage we
find a prime example of this heroic figure which the continuing church
under persecution is called to emulate.  We also find both of the
traditional heroes in Paul's own story.
  
The difference in the NT portrayal of the hero motif, however, lay in the
way the story ended.  Whereas in the Greco-Roman stories, the athletic hero
was crowned with laurel leaves and the military hero often died tragically
after an honorable struggle, the Christian hero, eschewing worldly honours, 
died not only bravely but willingly because he knew that his reward lay
beyond an ignominious death.  2 Timothy 4:8 says as much: "From now on
there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the
righteous judge will give me on that day." 

Similarly, Christian martyrs of later persecutions went to horrible deaths
singing joyfully, thus confounding their amazed tormentors.  It may well be
these martyrs to whom the ending of vs.8 refers: "... and not only to me
but also to all who have longed for his appearing."  It is not impossible
that this could be a witness to those persecutions added by a later hand.

Another difference in NT hero stories comes to the fore in vss.16-18.  The
NT writers drew their models from the OT scriptures as well as from the
Greco-Roman tradition.  William Barclay made an interesting analysis of
these verses in his *Daily Bible Readings: The Epistles To Timothy and
Titus.* (Church of Scotland: Edinburgh, 1956).  Barclay traced parallels of
several phrases of vss.16-18 to Psalm 22 .  He claimed that the words of
this psalm were running in Paul's mind.  According to the gospels, this
psalm was on the mind of Jesus too when he hung upon the cross.  As Paul
himself faced death, he was comforted and encouraged with the same psalm as
his Lord in the similar circumstances.

Martyrdom and violent death are currently on everyone's mind.  One of the
more puzzling aspects of the recent terrorist assaults around the world is
that they have been described by the perpetrators as martyrdom in defense
of Islam.  This is couched in deeply held convictions of a twisted
fundamentalist view of Islam.  The terrorists claim to be fighting a holy
war for the preservation of Islam against secular western incursions into
Islamic countries.  Moderate Islamic scholars have hastened to explain that
this is a perversion of Islam which, when true to its founder's words in
the Quran, contains a tolerant, peaceful and non-aggressive tradition.  The
Arabic word *jihad* means struggle, and refers primarily to the
individual's own struggle to be true to his faith and a national struggle
to remain true to Islamic tradition. 

A document from the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, UK explains
further: "In its primary sense it is an inner thing, within self, to rid it
from debased actions or inclinations, and exercise constancy and
perseverance in achieving a higher moral standard.  Since Islam is not
confined to the boundaries of the individual but extends to the welfare of
society and humanity in general, an individual cannot keep improving
himself/herself in isolation from what happens in their community or in the
world at large, hence the Quranic injunction to the Islamic nation to take
as a duty 'to enjoin good and forbid evil.' (Quran 3:104 )  It is a duty
which is not exclusive to Muslims but applies to the whole human race who
are, according to the Quran, God's vicegerent on earth.  Muslims, however,
cannot shirk it even if others do.  

"The means to fulfil it are varied, and in our modern world encompass all
legal, diplomatic, arbitrative, economic, and political instruments.  But
Islam does not exclude the use of force to curb evil, if there is no other
workable alternative.  A forerunner of the collective security principle
and collective intervention to stop aggression, at least in theory, as
manifested in the United Nations Charter, is the Quranic reference "...make
peace between them (the two fighting groups), but if one of the two
persists in aggression against the other, fight the aggressors until they
revert to God's commandment." (Quran 49:9) 

"Military action is therefore a subgroup of the Jihad and not its totality. 
That was what prophet Mohammad emphasized to his companions when returning
from a military campaign, he told them: 'This day we have returned from the
minor jihad (war)to the major jihad of self-control and betterment.'
(http://www.unn.ac.uk/societies/islamic/jargon/jihad1.htm)    

One can imagine Paul in his prison cell awaiting death as having sympathy
with such a balanced view of the struggle he and his fellow Christian
experienced in the lst century CE.  
                                

LUKE 18:9-14   The point of this parable is made before the story is told. 
The issue is the sin of self-righteousness.  Or as Paul put it so often,
salvation by works instead of trusting in God's grace.

This was an important issue when Luke wrote circa 80-85 CE.  The Pharisees
had already been a force to contend with during Jesus' ministry half a
century earlier.  After the destruction of the temple, they took control of
the Jewish religious tradition among the Diaspora as well as in the Jewish
homeland.  It was they who finalized the canon of Hebrew scriptures and
began the long process of interpreting the Torah which ultimately became
known as the Mishnah and the Talmud.  Luke may well have been addressing
this later development among the Christian converts from Judaism with this
parable.  He would undoubtedly have known the ancient Jewish morning prayer
which thanked God for not making him a Gentile, a slave or a woman.
  
The story itself has a ring of immediacy about it.  This makes it seem as
if everyone who may have heard Jesus utter it may well have witnessed this
very incident many times as they went to offer their own prayers in the
temple.  Note that the Pharisee stood off by himself to avoid contamination
from anyone who might be in the temple courts in a ritually impure state. 
The tax collector, on the other hand, afraid perhaps of even daring to
enter the sacred precincts, is "standing far off."  In fact, this may refer
to the fact that tax-collectors were regarded as unfit to enter the temple,
and required to stay in the exterior Court of the Gentiles.  Yet in Jesus'
estimation the sincerity of his prayer far exceeded that of the Pharisee. 
He responded in repentance to the grace he hoped to find by acknowledging
his own unworthiness.  
  
One other detail of the story is significant: We are not told if the tax
collector even knew he was forgiven.  "Justified" is a typical Pauline word
with which Luke states this man's new relationship with God.  Of the two
men, he was the only one who had really prayed.  For doing that he had been
declared righteous, but not because he was good and the Pharisee bad, nor
because he felt better for it.  Rather he had the humility to do the one
thing God requires: he had faced the truth about himself and cast himself
on God's mercy and compassion.  

One of the continuing discussions taking place in the Canadian media
attempts to present the so-called "war on terrorism" in a more balanced
light than occurred immediately after the first terrorist attack of
September 11, 2001.  This debate tries to discover the roots of the assault
by fundamentalist Moslem against modern western civilization.  There are
some who are enraged that political leaders refuse to consider the
aggressive, imperialist materialism of western society as one of the causes
of this murderous reaction.  Others argue that all the fault lies within
fundamentalist Islamic societies.  Still others have been humble enough to
express less passionately a centrist point of view which recognizes than
this is not an either/or situation, but a matter of both/and.  

Such a position embodies a tolerance which this parable describes.  Despite
his spurning of his neighbor, the proud Pharisee was a deeply religious man
who worshiped as best he knew how.  The tax collector in his simple prayer
tapped into the infinite grace of our ever merciful God.  His prayer might
well be the more appropriate for us in our current historical moment as we
try to discover a way out of the present crisis.


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

JEREMIAH 14:7-10,19-22   (Alternate) It is difficult to discern how much of
the passage from which these excerpts are taken came from Jeremiah himself. 
The point of these excerpts, however, is the confession of sin and pleading
for Yahweh's help in disastrous times.  They appear to combine both a
lament to and a prophetic challenge from Yahweh.  Acknowledging the sins of
the nation, the prophet wonders why Yahweh appears to have deserted
Yahweh's people.

A retributional view of sin and punishment play a prominent prat in the
passage.  Whatever the disaster may have been - and it may have been severe
drought - (vss.3-6 & 22 if these are related), the prophet/poet states its
cause as Yahweh's apparent departure from Israel.  Through the prophet
Yahweh immediately retorts that Israel has wandered away from Yahweh who no
longer accepts them (vs.10).  

In vss.19-22, such rejection does not sit well.  The prophet utters a
plaintive lament that this is not in character for Yahweh who forgives and
heals.  Repeating the people's confession of sin, the prophetic spokesman
pleads for Yahweh not to break the covenant with them (vs.21).  Three short
rhetorical questions asking  who can help if not Yahweh, and a declaration
of hopeful trust, conclude the passage 
  

PSALM 84:1-7   (Alternate) This psalm expresses the deep gratitude of a
faithful Israelite for the sense of peace and providence to be found in the
temple.  Some scholars believe that the psalmist was not actually in the
temple at the time, but remembering how it felt to be there.  Others
believe that it comes closer in spirit to the pilgrim psalms (Pss.120-134)
sung as a group of pilgrims actually ascended into the temple precincts
after a long and hazardous journey.  It may be significant that no
reference is made to any of the many temple rituals or sacrifices, but
there does seem to be an indirect reference to the hazards of pilgrimage in
vss.5-6.

A personal note may be appropriate: I read this psalm at the memorial
services for both my grandfather and my father.  They had served all their
lives as faithful lay leaders in their respective congregations.  Despite
many hardships encountered through nine decades and more, both sought "the
courts of the Lord" and acted as "doorkeepers" for others as often as they
possibly could.  If faith and ministry are inherited as much as culturally
acquired, my own ministry owes much to them.

                         
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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