A reflection on the readings for Proper 19C: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
We are currently holding a weekday Bible study on Tuesdays on the Gospel of Luke. Michael Johnston in his book, “Engaging the Word” suggests that there are three ways we can engage scripture in a Bible study. These three are: the historical context, the literal context, and the prophetic context. The historical context refers to what was happening in the world at the time this scripture passage was written. The literal context is a reminder to us to pay attention to what the text actually says. By this he means that sometimes we have heard a story so often that we begin to fill in pieces of subtext. This is particularly relevant in the Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter narratives. For example the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus is found in two of the Gospels, but they tell a different part of the story. In Luke we hear of the story of the conception of Jesus, the travel to Bethlehem, and the birth in the manger. In Matthew we hear a long litany of family ancestors of Jesus, the baby was born and named Jesus, and then the magi come. When we think of the Christmas story we conflate these two Gospel readings into one, but in reality they are told in two different Gospels. Johnston reminds us to be attentive to the words as they appear on the page. Third, Johnston reminds us to hear scripture stories through a prophetic lens – what is the story saying to us today? Thus the readings come to a fuller understanding when we engage all three perspectives – the historical time, what the story really says versus what we want to fill in, and what the story is saying to us today.
Here is a tiny history lesson on the history behind each of our readings:
Jeremiah was a prophet who lived about three thousand years ago. He spoke to the Hebrew community which at that time was divided between the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. To the west was the Mediterranean Sea, to the south was Egypt, north was Syria, and east was Babylon – Saudi Arabia. The tiny countries of Judah and Israel were embattled between themselves over who practiced the Hebrew faith correctly. They were surrounded by these great nations who perpetually went to battle with them, won easily, and imposed their belief systems upon the Hebrew people. Jeremiah lived in a time of great threat and is warning the people of impending war and capture. Jeremiah sees this threat through the teachings of his religion – right practice of faith will lead to God’s protection from the powerful nations around them. [i]
The Letter to Timothy was probably written sometime around the year 63. While long considered a letter written by St. Paul to a person named Timothy, scholars over the last two hundred years doubt that Paul was the author. Nonetheless it is clearly a letter written by a pastor to another pastor. The letter is dealing with some troubling divisions in the Christian faith and community which dominated that time – what is the right practice of faith. The letter pushes back against some of the teachings that came to be known as Gnostic. Gnostic teachings diminished the role of the larger church and placed a greater emphasis on individual experience of God, which opened the way to a kind of “anything goes” understanding of Christian practice. [ii]
The Gospel of Luke was probably written sometime around the year 95. It reflects a kind of historical genre as if the author is recording the history of Jesus and the formation of the early church. It was written after the fall of the Jewish temple during the Jewish/Roman war and during a time of great reformation as the former followers of Judaism worked to understand their faith through the teachings of Jesus. Luke uses parables and story-telling to anchor the teachings of Jesus in the faith community. [iii]
Filtered through a prophetic lens our readings this morning raises three questions: What is foolishness? Who or what is lost? And, what is God’s role in all of this?[iv]
Take a moment and look through the readings and then share with us what these readings say about foolishness. (let people speak, then say)
Here are a couple I would add:
- The people’s inability to follow the rules is not the core problem, but a symptom of a deep and abiding spiritual stupidity and ignorance[v]
- The people refuse to change course because they fundamentally do not understand that they need to change[vi]
- the psalms, the “fool” is the individual who says in word or in deed, “There is no God [Pss. 14:1; 53:1]; I belong to myself; I am accountable only to myself for my behavior.”[vii]
“Fool” is these readings refers to moral and spiritual behavior. Behaving foolishly has negative consequences for the individual. The moral and spiritual foolishness in our readings is different, it is a kind of foolishness which impacts whole groups of people, even nations, in negative ways. This is the foolishness that Jeremiah refers too, the Psalmist, and to some degree the Gospel reading. Foolishness is state of being wherein people fail to see how their actions are causing harm or compromising the well-being of others. This foolishness is often exacerbated by people failing to recognize the need to change – or as we Christians call it, repent and turn to God. This foolishness is arrogant and filled with self-entitlement – I am only accountable to myself.
Now, what about the second question: Who, or what is lost?
- A sense of justice [viii]
- A sense of the wider community [ix]
- The presence of God is denied[x]
- Faith is lost [xi]
- “We” are the lost (as in lost to someone who relentlessly seeks us – God)[xii]
Last question: Where is God in all of this?
- God is the seeker, the one who searches relentlessly for the lost [xiii]
- God is the one who points the way toward justice for all [xiv]
- God loves all humanity, all creation, equally
Our readings today remind us that God is like a shepherd who cares equally for every sheep in the flock. God is like a woman who accounts for every coin in her purse. God values every person in creation, equally. When we are lost, for any reason, be it foolishness, grief, sorrow, loss of faith, ignorance, fatigue, anger, or obtuseness, God searches us out and never leaves our side. Whether we know God’s presence or not, God is with us. We are wise when we trust this reality and allow this truth to be our guide. God loves us unconditionally and will never let us go. [xv]
[i] The New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible; Laymon, Charles M., editor: Abingdon Press 1971
[iv] Various commentaries found in Feasting On The Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary for proper 19C