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.
“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him.” Luke 15:1.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “sinner” as “a person who transgresses against divine law by committing an immoral act or acts.” The Greek word “hamartolos” used in the New Testament is somewhat broader. It means simply “to miss the mark.” Hamartolos does not necessarily carry the inference of immorality that is central to the meaning of the English word “sin.” As employed in Jesus’ day, a sinner is someone cut off from Israel’s covenant with God. To sin is to break the covenant, to fail in living up to the terms under which Israel is called to order her existence. Thus, gentiles were considered sinners by definition simply because they are outside the covenant. Galatians 2:15. We also need to understand that the designation “sinner” was a judgment passed by the community upon certain individuals and groups. Tax collectors, prostitutes, people whose professions necessitated their coming into contact with unclean animals or dead bodies and women married to gentiles were all lumped into that broad category “sinner.”
The problem Jesus addresses here is communal hypocrisy. In any community of people, the dominant majority usually decides what is “sinful” and that is inherently dangerous. We are all far better at spotting the sins of others than our own and we have a remarkable ability to excuse, justify or explain away behavior on our own behalf that does not comport with Jesus’ teachings. Thus, we can easily vilify terrorists, pedophiles and death row inmates. After all, their sins are transgressions most of us would never imagine committing. But just last Sunday Jesus told us, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke 14:33. It seems to me that all of us with houses, cars, bank accounts and IRAs have some explaining to do. Is our attachment to wealth and our ambition to increase it somehow not quite as sinful as the sins of those sinners we love to hate? Perhaps so from the standpoint of American middle class morality, but God uses a different measuring stick. By God’s measure all are sinners, all are cut off, all are lost. But that is only half the story and not even the better half. God loves sinners-all of them. Both sinners who know they are sinners and those who imagine that they are not. They are all precious in God’s sight. The question, then, is what sort of sinner are you?
To be sure, the scriptures speak of the last judgment, a time when sin will be judged, a time when the wheat will be separated from the tares. But we misunderstand all of that if we imagine that judgment consists in separating sinners from non-sinners, the theologically correct from the theologically heretical, the not-so-terrible sinners like us from the Hitlers, Osama Bin ladens and the Dylann Roofs. The removal of evil from the world is much more like removing a malignant tumor from the brain stem than it is amputating an infected limb. That is why God alone can be trusted with performing such delicate surgery. Our efforts to judge between good and evil inevitably destroy healthy tissue and leave behind the seeds of greater evil to come. There is a reason why God warned Adam and Eve to stay clear of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Disciples of Jesus do not worship a god bent on purifying creation by beating it into submission, ripping out those persons who reject his reign and imposing his will by way of coercion. Instead, we worship the God whose painstakingly slow way of reconciliation draws each rebellious particle of the universe into the fabric of a new heaven and a new earth. The kingdom cannot come until the last missing coin is found and last lost sheep is gathered into the fold. There can be no new creation until every hardened heart is softened and every last murdered, ignored, bullied, rejected, imprisoned, executed, excoriated and anonymous person ever born is redeemed and returned to his or her Creator. That’s a long, slow process. But thankfully, God has all eternity to work with. Here’s a poem by Richard Michelson that I think captures the magnitude of God’s mission to find and redeem the lost.
Counting to Six Million
Sleep faster, my son says. He’s poking
at my eyelids, pulling at the pillows, the helicopter
hum of anticipation rising in his throat as I reach out
and spin him onto the bed. I want to set my heels
once more in the soft underbelly of his childhood,
airlift him from danger, from disease, from all his fears,
which are maybe not even his fears at all, but only mine.
Yet now as he hovers above me, my body splayed out
like my father’s before me, my every breath is less a prayer
than a love letter torn open in desperation.
Remember, I say, when we counted to six million,
a visualization of tragedy, one half hour a day
for two years, and that, for the tribe only; it would take
another whole year for the gypsies, the Catholics, the gays,
the foreigners, the Negroes, the artists, the philosophers, etc.
You were barely six at the time, your mother wondering
what the hell I was thinking, and even now I can’t fathom
why I didn’t just hold you close—
It would have taken only a moment—
And say whatever it was that I really wanted to say.
I’m watching Batman reruns when the telephone rings.
Holy Charoset, I yell at the kitchen wall, call back later.
Maybe I threw some raisins, I don’t remember.
We’re already married, your mother and I,
but at the time, don’t ask, I was living alone.
And so I’m laughing, mostly from boredom, but still, laughing,
while my father lay dying, gasping for breath in some dirty gutter,
gunned down for a half-empty briefcase, a gefilte fish sandwich,
and a New York Post which the next day would have
his picture on the twenty-eighth page; one more dead Jew.
You burst into the room, fifth grade facts burning your tongue
like Moses’ coal. 100 people die every minute, you tell me
as I turn down the TV; and then, gleefully: 50 since I’ve been
in this room, and now 75 and now . . . O my little census bureau,
my prince of darkness, my prophet of numbers, riddle me this:
how many grains of sand before you can call it a desert?
And where were you the day Kennedy was shot? CNN, interrupting,
asks. My grandmother clicks her tongue like she’s chopping onion
in the old country. Poor boy, she says, pointing.
And there’s John-John again, waving that little flag, still saluting.
And who will remember my father when I am gone? And
how many have died since his death? And what’s one more.
or one less. And what do I know of my father’s father?
I’m waiting outside, engine humming, as my son,
eighteen, registers. And now he’s shouting,
running towards me, arms pumping above his head.
He’s Moses the moment before spying the golden calf.
He’s his great grandfather crawling underground to freedom.
He’s my father flying medical supplies, surviving the crash.
My mother must have held him close. You’re home, she cries, safe.
Vietnam, I say, or Sarajevo. Afghanistan, my son answers, or Iraq.
My father would have said Germany. He could have said Japan.
Nobody says anonymously. Nobody says Gotham.
Korea, my cousin says, or Kosovo. My great grandfather
says South Africa. His great grandfather says Spain.
Somebody says Egypt now; somebody, Egypt then.
Nobody says suddenly. Nobody says Brooklyn. I’m counting
myself to sleep, when my wife hears a sound at the door. Careful,
she whispers. We’re alone, in an empty house; my every breath
reminding me I’m older than my father, on the day of his death.
There are more people breathing this very moment, my son insists,
than have ever died. He’s home from college, so I don’t double-check.
He’s driven a long way to surprise me on my birthday. Are you sure
you can’t stay, I ask, holding him close. He looks full of hope;
a woman I’ve never seen before at his side. Welcome home,
I tell my wife. She’s just turned twenty-four. I’m childless,
fatherless. It’s the day of the funeral; Nineteen years until
the twin towers. Three thousand since Moses murdered
the overseer. But that’s not what I’m thinking. One, two, three,
she says, guiding me inside. How could we not fall back in love?
Source: Battles & Lullabies. (c. 2006 by Richard Michelson, pub. by University of Illinois Press). Richard Michelson was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1953. His books of poetry include More Money than God, Battles & Lullabies and Tap Dancing for Relatives. His poetry has appeared in the Norton Introduction to Poetry and Beyond Lament: Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust. He was poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts and the recipient of a 2016 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship. You can read more about Richard Michelson and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
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, that though baptized and actively partaking in the Eucharist, they must not imagine that their unrighteous conduct is immune from God’s judgment. Like Israel in the wilderness, the church 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. Thus, 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 descendants the land of Canaan, to make of him a great nation and to bless his descendants and the whole world through them. So Moses holds God to God’s word. The covenant, prayer is merely a pious wish shot into utter darkness with the faint hope that somebody out there 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 byFlavius 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 (1-2); 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. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) pp 402-410. For a slightly different outline, see Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 95.
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. Back in the days when I attended seminary, it was the near unanimous opinion of New Testament Scholars that these letters were not written by Paul, but by a disciple or associate of Paul in his name years after the apostle’s death. This conclusion is based largely on significant linguistic and 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 today is not quite as uniform as I thought. Since my seminary days (over three decades ago) 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 us. 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, this controversy may well boil down 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 eaten 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. The category included 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 hundred 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.