Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Last week the long-standing tradition of electing a homecoming King and Queen at Rumson-Fair Haven High School was cancelled. The reason? The tradition was being used by the student body for “mass bullying.” It appears that that the students were planning to elect a couple of their classmates whose selection would be so unlikely that it would elicit mocking when they were announced. This is bullying on a grand scale! I have never seen anything like it and I have seen a lot of bullying. As a matter of fact, I was on the receiving end of it throughout my childhood and during my middle school years.
Most of the bullies I encountered were not the popular kids-athletes, cheerleaders, etc. They were usually pretty far down on the food chain of that carnivorous jungle called middle school. Bullying was the means these kids used to lift themselves a shade above the bottom. If they couldn’t win respect, they would settle for fear. If they couldn’t make it into the circle of popularity, they could win some attention and recognition from that coveted inner circle by providing a little entertainment. And what is more entertaining than mocking and humiliating someone else? Most kids in my school would never force a kid to push a penny across the floor with his nose or play catch with another unfortunate using a balloon filled with urine. But they were delighted to watch someone else do the dirty work.
Our teachers and administrators were not blind to the problem of bullying. They tried to help. I was part of a counseling group, a small class made up of kids who were bullied. Mr. Carlson, the boy’s adviser, tried to build self-esteem in us, tried to help us think of ways to stand up for ourselves. Though well meaning, this counseling only reinforced our belief that there was something wrong with us, that there was something that made kids want to pick on us, that our being bullied was in some way our own fault. In reality, of course, it was not our fault. Being over-weight, having acne, wearing braces, or lacking athletic skill should not be looked upon as an invitation to aggression putting one on the defensive. Victims of bullying do not need coping skills. What we needed-what everyone needed to be a healthy community-was an overhaul of our school culture, a culture that tolerated and even applauded aggression against the vulnerable.
Jesus understood the need for such a cultural overhaul. Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus proclaims a “great reversal.” John spoke of the mountains being leveled and the valleys lifted up. Mary sang of a day when the mighty would be brought low and the poor exalted. At the conclusion of his parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus repeats that refrain, warning us that all who exalt themselves will be humbled while those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Pharisee in this parable is a kind of spiritual bully. He lifted himself up at the expense of the hated tax collector. He felt he was righteous because he was “not like other people,” particularly, “this tax collector.” Nobody wants to be at the bottom of the social/political/religious ladder. And the one sure fire way to prove you are not at the bottom is to demonstrate that there is someone beneath you.
Racism is the ultimate and most ugly expression of bullying. The few hardcore racists I have met in life (thankfully, few) are generally folks for whom life has not gone particularly well. They have gone through bitter divorces, lost their jobs, and watched as the America they once knew disintegrated in front of them. Their “whiteness” was their only claim to superiority-the one fact they could point to in order to show that they were not at the absolute bottom. At least that’s how it was until African Americans began to appear in jobs that paid even higher than the ones they lost, started showing up on TV more frequently in lead roles and then, of all things, occupied the White House! These folks feel cheated, as though their last shred of dignity has been stripped away. They shout the “N” word without much provocation, blame African Americans for ruining America and find them somehow responsible for all their personal woes and unhappiness.
Don’t think that these miserable creatures are harmless. As I said, they are few, but unfortunately, those of us who tolerate them, encourage them and exploit their dissatisfaction for political gain are far, far too many. Left unchecked, racist bullying by fringe individuals infects larger populations. When it suddenly becomes OK to propagate racist propaganda, use racial epitaphs and to subtly employ mass media to reinforce racial stereotypes, you can be sure that racist violence will not be far behind. Like a weed, it only takes a little neglect for bullying to thrive and take over an entire culture. Rumson High School is living proof of that and, sadly, so is the spike in racist rhetoric spurred on by the current state of our political discourse.
Jesus knows that bullying-all kinds of bullying-is a systemic disease inherent in our hierarchical culture. For as long as we need to derive our sense of self and self-worth by the level assigned to us based on our earning potential, body type, race, gender, sexual orientation or identity, we will always be looking down with contempt at those we deem below us and up with envy at those we think superior. Nothing short of the great reversal Jesus proclaims can free us from the hierarchical culture in which we have imprisoned ourselves and the systemic oppression infecting it.
On this link you will find a poem written by a teenager that will break your heart.
For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, see my post of Sunday, August 14th. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Terence E. Fretheim, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota posted on enterthebible.org.
The lectionary has wisely omitted verses 11-18 as this section of prose seems to have been interpolated from another set of writings that pertain more to current political and military conditions than to the drought prompting Jeremiah’s message reflected in the balance of the lesson. Less than wisely, it has omitted verses 1-14 providing us with the lesson’s context.
The occasion for these words of the prophet Jeremiah appears to have been a catastrophic drought. Jeremiah 14:1. In verses 2-6, the prophet describes the effects of the drought on everyone from wealthy nobles down to the wild animals in the wilderness. Our lesson begins with a lament of the people in response to the calamity. The people confess their guilt, yet call upon God to act “for thy name’s sake.” Vs. 7. They argue that, sinful as Israel might be, Israel’s God is nevertheless faithful. That is the basis of their plea for help. God’s role as Israel’s savior is God’s very essence-at least insofar as God has ever made himself known. Vs. 8. It is therefore unseemly for God to act as a “stranger” toward Israel and as one unable or unwilling to save. Vss. 8-9.
God responds in verse 10. God has not abandoned Israel. To the contrary, God is visiting Israel with punishment for its inclination to “wander” from the terms of the covenant. While this response is probably not the one for which the people were hoping, it nevertheless makes clear that God has not given up or abandoned Israel. God’s judgment is given in hope of turning Israel from its wandering ways and back to covenant faithfulness. You wouldn’t bother disciplining a child upon whom you had given up. Thus, the proclamation of judgment is actually good news, though here as in many other instances, the good news has to be experienced as bad news before it can be heard as good.
In verses 19-22 the people offer a re-joinder lament assailing God with rhetorical questions: Has God utterly rejected Judah? Does God loath Zion? The failure of God to supply relief seems to indicate that this might well be so. Again, the people confess their wickedness and appeal to God’s faithfulness which, in their view, should not be diminished by their sin.
Verse 22 suggests an echo of the rivalry between YAHWEH the God of Israel and the Canaanite deity, Ba’al in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ba’al was a nature deity credited with bringing the spring rains. As Israel transitioned from a nomadic existence into an agricultural society, the temptation to worship Ba’al was strong. After all, religious ritual was inextricable from agricultural techniques in the ancient world. It was difficult to download the Canaanite agricultural app without infecting the covenant people with a lot of religious malware. Here the people confess that the God of Israel and not that of any other nation is the bringer of rain and the only God capable of ending the drought, a lesson learned two centuries under the ministry of Elijah at Mt. Carmel. I Kings 18:17-46.
Interestingly, the people get the last word in this dialogical prayer. We are left with a God who has said in no uncertain terms that judgment has been entered and the appropriate sentence passed. There is no avenue of appeal. Nevertheless, the people do appeal the judgment and continue to cry out for God’s mercy-not because they believe the verdict to be unfair or the punishment too harsh-but because they know that God is merciful. A death sentence for Israel would mean that God has given up on the ancient covenant with Israel. It is precisely because they know God is incapable of breaking faith with them that the people of Israel continue to believe that God will even now be merciful and bring them the relief they seek.
This psalm is likely a song composed by or for Jews making pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem on high feast days similar to the “songs of ascent” found at Psalms 120-134. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, (c. 1962 b S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 565-566. The vivid description of the pilgrims’ travels through the wilderness on their approach to Mt. Zion suggests to me a post-exhilic time when many Jews continued to live in lands far removed from Palestine. Vs. 5-7. Though separated from the holy city by miles, foreign borders and dangerous terrain, still “the highways to Zion” are indelibly etched into the hearts of these Jews from distant lands. Vs. 5.
Particularly moving is the physicality of the psalmist’s expression of longing for the temple. S/he “faints,” his/her “heart and flesh sing for joy.” Vs. 1. The psalmist expresses envy for the lowly sparrow privileged to nest within the sanctuary and raise her young within sight of the very holy of holies. Vs. 3. How much more blessed are the priests, singers and temple officials whose lives are dedicated to temple worship and who dwell perpetually within the temple courts! Vs. 4.
The location of the valley of Baca referenced in verse 6 is unknown. Earlier versions render it “the valley of weeping” based on the Latin Vulgate. It has been argued in favor of this translation that the name is associated with the Hebrew word “bakah,” meaning “to weep.” Other commentators suggest that the word Baca is derived from a word meaning “balsam tree.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 171. Evidently, the balsam tree grows in arid places where rain is infrequent or seasonal. In addition to the speculative nature of the grammatical connection, it does not appear that these trees were found in the geographical area of Palestine. Ibid. Nevertheless, the context tells us that the Baca Valley is obviously a place through which pilgrims passed on their way to Jerusalem. The rainy season frequently filled natural crevices in the Palestinian wilderness with water and gave life to otherwise dry stream beds. Such “pools” were a godsend for travelers and their animals.
“They go from strength to strength” (vs. 7) or, as the New English Bible translates it, “from the outer wall to inner.” If this latter translation is given credence, then the reference might be to the pilgrim’s passage through the fortifications of Jerusalem or through the successive courts of the temple. If the NRSV version is accepted, the reference might be to the strength drawn by the pilgrims from the refreshing pools of water referenced in verse 6 or merely from the growing anticipation of worship at the temple increasing with each step toward Jerusalem.
Sadly, the lectionary amputates the concluding strophes of this wonderful hymn that declares the blessedness of being in God’s presence at the temple for worship and living one’s life with a profound sense of that presence wherever one might be. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 84 in its entirety.
For disciples of Jesus, the temple is Jesus himself. What, then, are the highways to our Zion? I would suggest that the scriptures are the means of approaching Jesus. We read them, we preach on them, but have the scriptures become engraved in our hearts? Do we long for the Lord’s Table and the communion of saints in the same way those ancient pilgrims longed for the temple of the Lord and braved difficult and dangerous journeys to get there?
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 11th.
Probably in an effort to abbreviate the reading, the lectionary omits verses 9-15. That is unfortunate because we learn in verse 9 the chief reason for Paul’s writing this letter. Paul is urging Timothy to come to him. All his companions have left him during his time of imprisonment except Luke. Even commentators convinced that II Timothy was not in the main authored by Paul concede that these intensely personal verses with all of their vivid details have the ring of Pauline authenticity. Interestingly, Paul requests that Timothy bring with him a disciple named “Mark.” Was this the same person as “John Mark” mentioned in Acts 15:36-41? According to the Book of Acts, the mission partnership between Paul and Barnabas broke up due to a dispute over whether John Mark should accompany them on their next mission trip. Paul was adamantly opposed to bringing John Mark as he appears to have abandoned them during the prior journey. Did Paul have a change of heart toward Mark? Or did Mark distinguish himself in some way that caused Paul to see him in a different light? Or is the Mark of II Timothy an altogether different person? Paul also asks Timothy to bring with him “the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas” along with “the books and above all the parchments.” Again, it is difficult to believe that such mundane details are the product of any literary design.
“At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me.” Vs. 16. It is hard to know when this “defense” took place. Was it when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem? Acts 21:17-40. Or does this refer to a hearing in Rome at which Paul was condemned to death? It is difficult to determine the author’s chronology here, but Paul’s generous response to those who abandoned him reflects the same attitude expressed in Philippians toward those who exploited Paul’s imprisonment to further their own agendas. Philippians 1:15-18.
Paul concludes with a firm expression of his confident faith in God’s ability to rescue him from every evil and preserve him for God’s heavily kingdom. Vs. 18. This cannot be taken as assurance that Paul will come through his current imprisonment unscathed. To the contrary, Paul has already expressed his view that he was “on the point of being sacrificed” and that the time for his “departure” had come. Vs. 6. His hope of salvation lies in the resurrection, life that God will bestow upon him beyond his upcoming execution. This same life, says Paul, belongs to all “who have loved [Jesus’] appearing.” Vs. 8. Accordingly, life in Jesus is eternal not merely because it does not end with death, but because it is invested in those things which are eternal: Faith, hope and, the greatest of all, love. I Corinthians 13:13.
“God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers…” Thus far, the Pharisee’s prayer is not far different than what we find in the Psalms. For example, the psalmist prays in the 101st Psalm:
I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is base.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
it shall not cling to me.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
I will know nothing of evil.
One who secretly slanders a neighbour
I will destroy.
A haughty look and an arrogant heart
I will not tolerate.
It is good to live righteously and to be thankful for the opportunity to be righteous. I am thankful that I don’t have a criminal record. Nevertheless, I am mindful of the fact that my blameless reputation (relatively speaking!) is due in no small part to the fact that I have never been tempted to rob or steal to keep my family from starving to death. I have never been tempted to employ violence to save my life. All of this is the result of having lived a blessed life surrounded by caring family, friends and church. Frankly, I cannot say what sort of person I would have become had I not lived in such a blessed state.
There is something very wrong, however, with the Pharisee’s prayer. Jesus tells us right off the bat that the Pharisee “prayed with himself.” Vs. 11. Whether he knew it or not, this man was addressing not God, but his own need for self-affirmation. His prayer has no thankfulness in it. Instead, there is smugness and self-satisfaction. He does not leave the temple justified because he did not seek to be so in the eyes of God. Rather, he sought justification by comparison with others. The only way he could raise himself up, was by bringing the tax collector down.
Human communities tend toward hierarchy. It is important that we all know our place. The place society assigns to us is generally a measure of our worth. We can all probably recall the seating arrangements in the high school lunch room. Tables ranged from the “cool table,” athletes, cheerleaders and the generally good looking, down to the “nerd table” where yours truly sat with the other kids who had bad acne, braces on their teeth, fat rather than muscle and a lack of athletic prowess. And, as I indicated above, there were bullies. As I recall, bullies typically did not come from the “cool” table. They were much closer to us nerds on the social hierarchy. They just had a harder time accepting it. So by terrifying, intimidating and bullying the rest of us, they felt they were lifting themselves a bit closer to the top of the social ladder. It was all about self-justification. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable was a spiritual bully attempting to exalt himself by denigrating the tax collector.
The language Jesus uses in introducing this parable is reflected in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die.” Ezekiel 33:13. See Fitzmyer, J.A., The Gospel According to Luke, (c. 1985 by Doubleday) p. 1185 cited in Beale, G.K. and Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal & D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Publishing Group) p. 349. The point here is that good deeds today cannot be banked against iniquity the next. Each moment presents the choice between good and evil and true righteousness chooses the good consistently. So, too, fasting, prayer and tithing, commendable as these practices are, count for nothing when one neglects the great commandment to love God with all the heart and the neighbor as oneself.
The prayer posture of the tax collector, who would not even raise his head, echoes that of Ezra the scribe who, when he learned of the many mixed marriages between the returning Jewish exiles and foreign women, cried out, “O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to heaven.” Ezra 9:6. There is rich irony in that the notorious sinner prays in the manner of Ezra, second only to Moses in renown as a teacher and interpreter of the Torah!
The exaltation of the lowly and the humiliation of the proud and powerful is a recurring refrain throughout the gospel of Luke. It is sounded first in the song of Mary. Luke 1:51-53 and is repeated here to make clear the meaning of the parable. The great reversal is coming. Whether one welcomes this event as salvation or fears it as judgment depends on one’s posture toward Jesus and his proclamation of God’s impending reign. Of course, the same theme is repeated throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as well. See, e.g., Psalm 107:39-43.