Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for forty days receiving from the mouth of the Lord the covenant promises, teachings and practices intended to shape Israel’s life as God’s covenant people. But before the stone tablets of the law have had a chance to cool, God informs Moses that the people of Israel have already built an idol for themselves. How could this possibly have happened? After the Exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic rescue of Israel from Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea, how could Israel so soon turn away from her God?
Let’s try to be a little sympathetic toward Israel here. Forty days is a long time when you are stuck in the midst of a wilderness that cannot long sustain you. It is unnerving when you have no idea where you are and there is no visionary leader in the camp to give you guidance or inspire you with a stirring description of your destination. It is under anxious circumstances like these that the temptation to idolatry so frequently raises its ugly head. When you are lost, vulnerable and directionless you are likely to fall for anyone or anything that promises to make sense out of your chaotic life and lead you out of your predicament.
I often feel as though I am living in the wilderness myself. The cultural landscape that was friendly and supportive of the church has evaporated within my very lifetime. The new cultural environment often seems hostile and forbidding to the life of the church. In the face of alarming membership decline and loss of financial support, it is difficult to be patient, to wait faithfully for God’s guidance and to do the hard work of prayer and discernment. All of that requires confidence we lack and time we think we don’t have. We want something tangible that we can do right now; something we can see and touch; something that will yield measureable results. That is exactly what idols promise to give us. Whether it is a golden calf, a “mission strategy,” a new stewardship program with a catchy name or a top dollar church growth consultant, an idol gives us something we can get a handle on. It gives us a sense of control. But God will not be controlled and God will not be rushed. God will act in God’s own good time. By trying to hurry God, we only hinder our own progress. “Forty days in the wilderness too long for you?” Well then, says the Lord, “How about forty years?” One way or the other, God will teach us patience and trust.
Perhaps, like the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, we have arrived at a point in our journey where faith requires that we simply wait. That is a tall order for a “can do” people like us who pride ourselves on setting goals, working hard and getting things done. Waiting is not in our cultural DNA. But if you follow the biblical story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, you will discover that there was a lot of waiting around. Israel could not move until the pillar of cloud did. It was nearly impossible to plan for the journey because Israel never knew which way God would lead her. The way from Egypt to Canaan was anything but direct. It must have been frustrating, but when you are lost, you have little choice other than to follow one who knows the way.
Waiting does not mean “doing nothing.” It involves listening, prayer, discerning conversation and a willingness to confess that we are lost. That takes a great deal of courage. We read in Chapter 32 of Exodus that the people came to Aaron, Moses’ brother, with the demand: “make for us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1. Aaron caved and made a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Again, I can sympathize. While Moses was up in the stratosphere conversing with the Almighty, Aaron was down in the trenches face to face with an anxious congregation and no synodical support in sight. That is a hard place to be. Every week it seems I get some missive from the larger church telling me about some initiative I should be supporting, some program I should be implementing or some ministry that my congregation should be doing. Each month my denominational periodical has inspiring stories about the wonderful things that “growing” congregations are doing-as if saying to me, “and what are you doing to be a ‘missional’ pastor?” Of course, my own congregation is also eager for me to come up with a “plan” a “strategy” for growth. Understandably, they want some answers. Like Aaron, I don’t have any. But I am sorely tempted to fake it, to cobble together some program or strategy in response. I may not believe that it will grow our church anymore than Aaron believed a golden calf could get the people to the Promised Land. But at least it will convince everyone that I am “doing something” about our challenges and get the church off my back long enough for me to figure out which rabbit to pull out of my hat next.
Last month our ELCA elected a new bishop, Rev. Elizabeth Eton, over the incumbent, Rev. Mark Hanson. I was not at the national assembly and so I have no sense for what drove the election. But I suspect that the election of Rev. Eaton was, at least in part, a desire for leadership that will take us in a new direction. That is not a bad thing, but it does represent a potential danger. I don’t doubt that the new bishop will be under immense pressure to provide us with a new “vision,” new “missional strategies” and new “programming.” Like the Israelites, I expect that we will soon be clamoring for her to build us a “golden calf” to get us out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land with as little pain, toil and sacrifice as possible. I pray to God that she is made of sterner stuff than Aaron and that she resists the temptation to give us what we crave. I hope that she will resist the temptation to saturate us with stirring rhetoric and flurries of programmatic activity that are only thinly veiled idols designed to disguise our underlying anxiety. I hope she finds the courage to do what Aaron should have done, namely, tell us the truth. “Look folks, I don’t know which way to go from here and I don’t know when or from what direction God’s guidance will come. But come it will. In the mean time, we all need to wait with open, prayerful hearts and minds.” I think the kind of leadership we need is spelled out in a profound article written recently by L. Roger Owens and Anthony B. Robinson:
“In his 1990 Harvard Business Review article “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter described leadership this way: First, leaders set direction. They look to the future and say, “Here’s where we are going.” Then they set strategies for getting there and prepare people and systems to communicate the new “vision of an alternative future.” Then leaders motivate the people. But in a dark night of the soul, other leadership traits are required. A church may not need a leader who casts a vision, sets a direction and rallies everyone around it. A church that’s in a dark night of the soul needs a spiritual director. A good one. In the dark night the number one temptation is to get out. To flee. We want things back the way they were, and we want out. But if it’s a true dark night, that’s not what we need.”
“How countercultural it would be for a church in a narrative of decline, with a need for visionary leaders to lead it out of confusion, pain and decline, to have a leader who would be a friend for its soul. That leader would encourage the church to consider what [psychiatrist Gerald] May says might be impossible to believe-that what is really going on is a graceful process of liberation and that instead of fleeing our anxiety we should sit with it and let the process unfold. What kind of leader would that be?” Owens, L. Roger & Robinson, Anthony B., “Dark Night of the Church,” The Christian Century, December 26, 2012, p. 30.
I pray that our new bishop will be precisely the soul friend we need to see us through the night.
This story is strategically placed after the revelation of the Torah to Moses. It prefigures the religious and cultural struggle Israel will encounter in the land of Canaan. The religion of the “Ba’als” was imbedded in the agricultural practices Israel would need to adopt in order to thrive in the Fertile Crescent. In a world where the science of agriculture was inseparably bound up with the religion of fertility, it was not possible for Israel simply to pick up Canaanite techniques while leaving Canaanite religion behind. The struggle between Elijah and the wicked King Ahab reflects the prophetic argument that Israel’s God was as much Lord of agriculture as he clearly was Lord of Israel’s Exodus. See I Kings 17-18.
Indications are that this story reached its final written form in the later stages of the development of the Book of Exodus. The motif of sin and forgiveness runs throughout chapters 32-34 forming the compositional unit for which our lesson is the opening scene. See Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1964,Westminster Press) p. 557-558. Accordingly, this story speaks also in a powerful way to the circumstances of the exiled Jews in Babylon. They, too, found themselves in a wilderness of sorts. Like the Israelites journeying in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, the exiles living in Babylon following Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 B.C.E. were a vulnerable minority living in a hostile cultural environment as forbidding as the desert wilderness. The temptation to abandon the faith that seemed to have failed them was strong and the pressure to conform to Babylonian religion and culture considerable. The story of the golden calf served to illustrate for the exiles the nature of this temptation and to lay out for them the consequences of surrendering to it. Not one inch of God’s reign must be surrendered to the gods of Babylon. Like the Israelites of the wilderness wanderings, the exiles were in a posture of waiting upon their God to act. No doubt God’s faithful leading of Israel through the wilderness of Sinai to Canaan provided much of the inspiration for Second Isaiah’s poetic depiction of Israel’s way of return from Babylon to her homeland. See, e.g., Isaiah 43:16-21; Isaiah 48:20-21; Isaiah 49:8-13; Isaiah 51:9-11.
The story of the golden calf is cited twice in the New Testament. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the golden calf story, along with several other wilderness wandering episodes, to make the point that many of the ancient Israelites proved unfaithful in spite of their participation in the baptism of the Exodus and the communal eating of the manna from the hand of God. So also, Paul warns, believers in Jesus, though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church likewise journeys through a hostile environment laden with temptations. Just as God’s judgment and discipline brought Israel back to repentance and faith, so the scriptural accounts of these acts serve as a salutary warning to disciples of Jesus to resist temptation and remain faithful. See I Corinthians 10:1-31.
The second citation occurs in Stephen’s speech before the high priest in Jerusalem. Stephen recounts the story of the golden calf (Acts 7:39-41) as yet another instance of Israel’s stubborn rejection of God’s word and Spirit culminating in the rejection of Jesus. On the whole, the speech is extremely harsh in its condemnation of Israel and it should be used cautiously in preaching for that reason. It is critical to remember, however, that Luke’s gospel and the Book of Acts which he also authored were written before the final break between Judaism and the church. Thus, Stephen is not speaking from outside Judaism at the Jews. He is speaking within Judaism as a Jew to fellow Jews. As such, Stephen stands in the shoes of Israel’s prophets whose criticisms of Israel’s faithlessness were no less severe than his. Moreover, Stephen’s ire is focused chiefly upon the Jerusalem temple establishment and not to the Jewish people as a whole. That said, his use of the golden calf story as illustrative of Israel’s (and the church’s) tendency to abandon faith in the true God for idols of one sort or another is quite in keeping with the rest of biblical tradition.
Perhaps most significant is the intercession motif. God declares his intention to destroy Israel and Moses intercedes. We have seen echoes of this motif in Genesis where Abraham intercedes with God for Sodom. Genesis 18:16-23. We see Stephen also interceding for his executioners. Acts 7:59-60. Of course, Jesus also prays that God will forgive his tormentors. Luke 23:33-34. Such prayer, like all prayer, is possible only because of God’s covenant with Israel. Moses does not appeal to high sounding moral principles or “human rights” when pleading for Israel. God is not defined or confined by any human conception of morality. Neither do humans have any rights against God. God, however, has made promises to Abraham to give his descendents the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendents and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. It is only because of the covenant with Israel-to which we gentiles can appeal only through our baptism into Jesus Christ-that prayer is not merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody is listening.
Why stop at verse 10? I don’t know. It is one of the many unfathomable decisions made in the smoke filled room where our common lectionary was born. The very idea of severing this psalm is akin to dividing the living child as proposed by King Solomon to the women disputing their right to it. I Kings 3:16-27. Unfortunately for the church, the makers of the lectionary lacked the sensitivity and compassion of the child’s mother and so we have inherited a mutilated psalm. Nonetheless, I shall consider it in its entirety. This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6; Psalm 32; Psalm 38; Psalm 102; Psalm 130; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It can be divided into four sections: 1) An invocation raising the theme of forgiveness (1-3); 2) confession of sin (4-6); 3) plea for forgiveness (7-9); and 4) the call for renewal (10-17). As we will see, 18-19 constitute a later addition.
The title associates the psalm with King David, identifying it as a prayer the king uttered after being confronted by the prophet Nathan over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. See II Samuel 11:1-12:24. It should be noted that the titles given to the individual psalms were affixed at a much later date, probably subsequent to the Babylonian Exile that ended around 530 B.C.E. Their purpose appears to have been to legitimate the psalms by tying them to pre-exilic scriptural figures and to officials and musicians in Solomon’s temple. In this way the returning exiles could establish the newly reconstructed temple in Jerusalem and its liturgies as true and genuine over against the rites and places of worship maintained by the Samaritans throughout the exile. Moreover, the Hebrew preposition preceding David’s name (le) can mean “by,” “for” or “to” David. Consequently, the title might say no more than that the psalm was written in honor of or in memory of David. Of course, none of this forecloses the possibility that the psalm might actually go back to David himself. The tradition that David was a musician is well attested. Skeptics point out that the psalm does not mention any of the characters involved with the Bathsheba affair or identify the psalmist’s offense, but that is hardly unusual. The psalms of lament (of which this is one) seldom identify with specificity the individual personal events giving rise to the psalmist’s prayer.
However one might resolve the authorship question, it is clear that the last two verses, 18-19, constitute a post-exilic addition to the psalm. Whereas in verse 16 the psalmist declares that God “has no delight in sacrifice,” verse 19 declares that when the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt, “then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings…” This seeming contradiction is resolved if in the earlier passage the psalmist is understood not to be disparaging sacrifice generally, but merely stating that ritual sacrifice cannot take the place of heartfelt repentance from sin. Nevertheless, these verses shift away from the personal prayer of the psalmist for individual forgiveness to a corporate prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem. In so doing, they make this personal plea for forgiveness and restoration suitable as a prayer for national forgiveness and restoration. Whatever its origins and despite its various contextual settings, the psalm has a timeless appeal for all who experience genuine guilt and regret over sin. That accounts for its frequent use in our prayers, hymns and liturgy.
The two Letters of Paul to Timothy, along with his letter to Titus, constitute the “pastoral epistles.” They are so called because they are addressed by the Apostle Paul to leaders with pastoral oversight. In the last issue of the Voice of Trinity I stated that the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars is that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of his in his name. This conclusion is based largely on theological differences between the pastorals and those letters indisputably attributed to Paul. (Romans, I &II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians and Philemon) Additionally, it is thought that the high degree of church organization reflected in the pastorals could not have developed during Paul’s life time and ministry. The false teaching against which the pastoral epistles argue is believed to be post-Pauline. Finally, there are substantial differences in style and vocabulary between the pastorals and the letters of uncontested Pauline authorship. As pseudomonas authorship was commonplace in antiquity, it would not have been unusual nor would it have been deemed dishonest or deceptive for a disciple of Paul to write a letter under the name of his master.
While these arguments are formidable, it appears that scholarly consensus against Pauline authorship is not quite as uniform as I thought. My remarks in the Voice were based on the majority view at the time I was in seminary. (For the record, the dinosaurs were long gone by then-though there might have been a wooly mammoth or two still trundling about.) Since then two very prominent scholars have taken issue with that majority view advancing some formidable arguments favoring Pauline authorship for all three of the pastorals. Gordon D. Fee, professor of New Testament at Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia recently published a commentary on the pastorals arguing forcefully for Pauline authorship. Similarly, Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor of New Testament at Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia has published a commentary reaching many of the same conclusions. Without digesting their arguments in detail, they maintain that in arguing against newer heretical movements toward the end of his ministry, Paul invoked quotations from other apostolic and doctrinal sources to bolster his positions. That would account for the supposed theological differences between the pastorals and his other works. The advanced state of church hierarchy reflected in the pastorals appears only when one imbues terms such as “bishop,” “elder” and “deacon” with attributes of these offices as they existed much later in the development of the church. From the context of the pastorals alone, one cannot make a convincing case for the existence of any “advanced hierarchy.” It is evident that Paul utilized a recording secretary for his letters, even those unequivocally attributed to him. Perhaps in his later years Paul used a different secretary or gave his secretary more freedom in conveying his message. If so, that could account for the differences in language and vocabulary. In sum, the arguments against Pauline authorship are not as formidable as they appear at first blush.
In support of Pauline authorship, Fee and Johnson point out that with only two exceptions, the early church leaders all assume that the pastorals were written by Paul. Though these folks lived one or two centuries after Paul’s death, they were nevertheless eighteen centuries closer to the New Testament church than we are. More significantly, for all of the differences between the uncontested Pauline letters and the pastorals, the similarities in thinking and expression are also substantial and cannot be dismissed. While I still lean toward pseudomonas authorship, I am definitely taking another look at the issue. In the end, it may well be an argument over degree. Pseudomonas authorship defenders readily admit that there are sections of the epistles that could well have come right from the mouth of Paul. Pauline authorship contenders recognize that, whether through the liberality of his secretary, quotation of other authorities or subsequent editing, there clearly is material in the pastorals that is linguistically, stylistically and theologically different from Paul. In either case, I believe that the pastorals are sufficiently stamped with Paul’s influence for me to refer to them as “Paul’s” without committing myself on the question of authorship.
This week’s brief lesson encapsulates Paul’s self understanding and the significance of his ministry. His appointment by Jesus to the ministry of the gospel is founded in grace. As foremost of sinners, Paul was a prime candidate for apostleship. If his fanatical opposition to Jesus and his church can be forgiven; if even Paul the persecutor can be transformed so as to serve the gospel of Jesus Christ, what limit can there be to God’s mercy and capacity for redeeming sinners?
The formula “the saying is sure,” is characteristic of all three pastorals. See vs. 15. See also, I Timothy 3:1; I Timothy 4:9; II Timothy 2:11; Titus 3.8. It may well be a stylistic preface for introducing creedal material-early statements of church doctrine that are (or should be) recognized as beyond dispute, e.g. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Vs. 15. If this is the case, we may be looking at the earliest strands of DNA for the Apostles Creed in these fragments from the pastorals.
Once again, the occasion for the parables Jesus speaks here is a meal. Unlike last week, the meal is not taking place in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In fact, we don’t really know where this meal is taking place. Obviously, it must be somewhere public because the Pharisees and the scribes can observe that “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Vs. 1. We know that Jesus must be at a meal because they complain that he not only receives such folks, “but eats with them.” Vs. 2. That was deeply offensive because meals in first century Judaism were not simply about “grabbing a bite” as so often is the case today. They had a deeply spiritual dimension making them acts of worship. The sacrificial rites in ancient Israel were meals for the most part in which reconciliation with God and among the people was effectuated. “Sinners” in this context are not necessarily those whose sinful acts were more notorious than others. They were people cut off from Israel because their profession put them in contact with gentiles, unclean animals, corpses or foreign money. Or they might be excluded for having had a disease rendering them unclean such as leprosy. Then too, they might well be people whose sins were deemed beyond forgiveness. Nonetheless, Jesus welcomes them to his table and that is what gets him into trouble.
The two parables are perplexing-at least the one about the sheep. Jesus asks his hearers, “What man of you, having a hundered sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?” vs. 4. Well, I for one. I may be a city kid, but I know that sheep don’t do well left alone in the wilderness. I expect that this shepherd’s joy at finding his lost sheep would evaporate pretty quickly if upon his return he discovered that the rest of his flock had been attacked and scattered by a pack of wolves. But perhaps that is the point. God will never be satisfied with 99%. Even if the rest of the flock is put in jeopardy, even if rescuing the lost sheep means that the shepherd must now go in search of 99 lost sheep, so be it. The shepherd will keep on searching, keep on gathering and go on herding until he has all 100 safe and accounted for.
By contrast, I think most sensible people would say that getting 99 out of 100 sheep safely through the wilderness is a pretty good day’s work. There is always loss when it comes to shipping goods from point A to point B. So consider it a cost of doing business and write it off on your income tax return. Jesus would have us know, however, that none of his sheep are expendable. What Jesus’ opponents do not understand is that the reign of God cannot come until all the sheep are brought into the fold. By hindering Jesus’ ministry to sinners, they are hindering the coming of the kingdom of God. By shutting sinners out of the community of Israel, they are shutting the door of kingdom in their own faces as well. Perhaps we err in assuming that the tax collectors and sinners are the lost sheep and the lost coin in Jesus’ parables. After all, the sinners are drawing near to Jesus and entering into table fellowship with him. They are not lost. It is only those who turn up their nose at this messianic banquet that are lost.